Sunday, November 14, 2010

James Weldon Johnson and the Prodigal Son


One of James Weldon Johnson’s biographers said he was was “an American author, politician, diplomat, critic, journalist, poet, anthologist, educator, lawyer, songwriter, and early civil rights activist.” Oh, is that all? He was one of the first African American professors at NYU, and later in his life he moved south and became professor of creative literature at Fisk University.

We are most interested in Professor Johnson today because of his poetry. He wrote his own poetry, of course, but he also edited, in 1922, The Book of American Negro Poetry, which was called a major contribution to the history of African American literature by the Academy of American Poets.

Since “Mammy” was my favorite character in “Gone with the Wind,” James Weldon Johnson’s poem, “The Black Mammy,” catches my eye:

O whitened head entwined in turban gay,

O kind black face, O crude, but tender hand,

O foster-mother in whose arms there lay

The race whose sons are masters of the land!

It was thine arms that sheltered in their fold,

It was thine eyes that followed through the length

Of infant days these sons. In times of old

It was thy breast that nourished them to strength.

So often hast thou to thy bosom pressed

The golden head, the face and brow of snow;

So often has it ‘gainst thy broad, dark breast

Lain, set off like a quickened cameo.

Thou simple soul, as cuddling down that babe

With thy sweet croon, so plaintive and so wild,

Came ne'er the thought to thee, swift like a stab,

That it some day might crush thine own black child?

Here’s another: “Prayer at Sunrise.”

O mighty, powerful, dark-dispelling sun,

Now thou art risen, and thy day begun.

How shrink the shrouding mists before thy face,

As up thou spring'st to thy diurnal race!

How darkness chases darkness to the west,

As shades of light on light rise radiant from thy crest!

For thee, great source of strength, emblem of might,

In hours of darkest gloom there is no night.

Thou shinest on though clouds hide thee from sight,

And through each break thou sendest down thy light.

O greater Maker of this Thy great sun,

Give me the strength this one day's race to run,

Fill me with light, fill me with sun-like strength,

Fill me with joy to rob the day its length.

Light from within, light that will outward shine,

Strength to make strong some weaker heart than mine,

Joy to make glad each soul that feels its touch;

Great Father of the sun, I ask this much.

Johnson penned the words to a poem set to music that came to be called “The Negro National Anthem.” It has the title, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a magnificent piece that must feel very different to a person of color singing it than to a caucasian.

Professor Johnson may be most remembered in the literary world for his composition, “God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse.” These poem/sermons are “patterned after traditional African-American religious oratory.” Johnson considered the voice of the black preacher to be a musical instrument. He is said to have described the black preacher’s voice not as a piano or a trumpet, but rather a trombone. Eventually, these amazing poems were set to music; the soloist portrayed a preacher singing her or his sermon. I believe the first effort to set Johnson’s poems to music was done by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson.

So, these seven folk sermons that comprise “God’s Trombones” originally were intended to be read. By and by, someone said, “Those ought to be sung.” Indeed, many preachers in the Black preaching tradition have sung parts of their sermons or have sung their sermons in full--though singing the whole sermon was more rare.

The Prodigal Son is one of the seven sermons that make up “God’s Trombones.” It has already been read beautifully for us, but now I want you to hear it sung--part of it, anyway. I’m not going to sing it, but we have a recording to share with you.


So most of you know the broad outline of the story. A son asks his father for his share of what he would normally have inherited from his father’s estate upon the death of the father. Broken hearted the father grants the wish. In the parable, this father represents God. The son, the younger of the two sons the man had, represents all who would take the good gifts of God and use them selfishly and thoughtlessly.

The young man goes to a far country. Jesus doesn’t name it, but James Weldon Johnson calls it Babylon, which had been one of widely known evil cities in the ancient world. The young man has a grand old time as long as the money holds out; when he runs out of money, he’s a nobody. The friends he thought he’d made were no where to be found; none of them answered their cell phones or responded to his texts.

To survive, this Jewish man had to take a job tending to a Gentile’s hogs on a hog farm. In order to do the job well, you can just live with the hogs and share their food too, his boss had told him. Mercy, mercy how lowly he had fallen, a financially comfortable Jewish man now broke and tending hogs, one of the high offenses in the Jewish mind.

Let’s recap using the poetic words of James Weldon Johnson:

And the young man went with his new-found friend,
And bought himself some brand-new clothes,
And he spent his days in the drinking-dens,
Swallowing the fires of hell.
And he spent his nights in the gambling-dens,
Throwing dice with the devil for his soul.
And he met up with the women of Babylon.
Oh, the women of Babylon!

Dressed in yellow and purple and scarlet,
Loaded with rings and earrings and bracelets,
Their lips like honeycomb dripping with honey,
Perfumed and sweet-smelling like a jasmine flower;
And the jasmine smell of the Babylon women
Got in his nostrils and went to his head,
And he wasted his substance in riotous living,
In the evening, in the black and dark of night,
With the sweet-sinning women of Babylon.
And they stripped him of his money,
And they stripped him of his clothes,
And they left him broke and ragged
In the streets of Babylon.

Then the young man joined another crowd—
The beggars and lepers of Babylon.
And he went to feeding swine,
And he was hungrier than the hogs;
He got down on his belly in the mire and mud
And ate the husks with the hogs.
And not a hog was too low to turn up his nose
At the man in the mire of Babylon.


The parable from Jesus, typically referred to as “The Prodigal Son,” but which should be called “The Lost Son” or “The Loving Father,” as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, is immensely stirring to me. The son is “lost” not in the sense that many fundamentalist interpreters insist on using the word--meaning, for them, LOST TO GOD. There’s no such thing as being lost to God. A person may choose to live as if God is not her or his life-force and as if divine love skipped over her or him when deciding where to reside, but that line of thinking doesn’t change reality. God is the life-force keeping all living beings and things alive in this world, and divine love is at the core of this life-force whether acknowledged or affirmed or not.

The son in this parable that has captivated the minds and hearts of “Jesus devotees” as well as “Jesus samplers” for centuries is lost for a while, but he is not lost to God; he is lost to himself, or--another way of saying that would be--he loses himself. No one in this world is lost to God; again, that’s an impossibility, but, my dear friends and fellow seekers, there are hoards of people who have lost themselves. Some of them know it; some of them don’t. Some of those who don’t know it, know something is wrong, but they are clueless about what it is. They are listless and forlorn, but they don’t know that they’ve lost themselves.

I’ve only known one person who mentally, cognitively didn’t know who she was--aside from a handful of Alzheimer’s patients who knew enough, as the disease progressed, to know that they no longer realized who they were. The person to whom I referred who didn’t know who she was for a reason other than Alzheimer’s Disease was an early middle-aged woman in my home church who was in a terrible car accident in which she sustained massive head injuries. As her body healed internally and externally and she, finally, regained consciousness she didn’t remember anything about her life before the accident--nothing. She didn’t know anyone she’d known before the accident--no one, and most poignantly to me as a teen-aged kid, she didn’t know who she was. In the accident, she lost herself.

Eventually, with medication and therapy and an amazingly patient and attentive husband, from what I understood, she re-learned who she was, but as far as I know she never did find the person she was before the wreck. The person she came to be after the accident was a combination of what her loved ones told her about who she had been as well as photographs, diplomas, her home, and her clothes closet. Coming back to church was especially difficult and frightening for her because all of us whom she had known for years were, initially, strangers. Not only did she have to be taught who she had been, but also she had to re-learn the history of each of her church friends along with her family members, neighbors, and professional associates. It was a years-long process, but Sharon finally learned to function like the self she’d lost.

There are many ways to analyze and interpret Jesus’ parable of the Lost Son. I want to try my hand today at doing that in a way I’ve never done before; nor have I seen anyone else try it this way, which is always my preference.

This would be a little more fun if you didn’t already know that the son finds himself and that, for him, the story has a happy ending. It would be a much better narrative experience if you felt the tension and doubt he felt about ever finding himself, but, alas, the wide familiarity of the story is a spoiler in that sense. I can only ask you to move along with me and not to jump ahead to the ending; live through the experience of the son to get the full impact of this oft retold tale from a man who spent his adult life telling people who had lost themselves that there was a way to get back, that there was a way to find and reclaim the lost self.

This is how I think it happened, which I must tell you was a secondary concern for Jesus; Jesus was concerned with the process of resolution, but I think it’s fair to look at the secondary details since they were a part of how the carefully crafted parable came together. Had the son not lost himself, there would have been no story of how he found himself.

First, an overview of the process of how he came to lose himself and then a closer look at each part of that process. See if you can relate to or, at least, understand what was going on with the son. By the way, it’s important to remember that while most preachers who have preached on this parable have made the son a rebellious teen-ager, the fact is the story doesn’t give us any hint whatsoever about his age. If his father were old enough to have amassed enough money to leave his sons a financial inheritance (which most fathers to whom Jesus preached would not have been able to do because they were so poor), the father could have been on up there in years, and his sons (he had two) could easily have been middle-aged.

Teen-agers aren’t the only ones who rebel, as some of you know who once were married to a spouse who left you to try to live a second childhood. As a matter of fact, the son in this story might easily have been doing just that; no wife is mentioned, but he, just the same, might have had a wife who knew something was up when he started going out after work several nights a week, losing weight, and buying tailored, more tightly-fitting togas. Then, the tell-tale sign, he bought a young, fast-moving camel and outfitted him in red trim.

So, the process of losing oneself whether teen or middle-ager begins with a dissatisfaction with oneself and/or with one’s circumstances. Isolated from the rest of the process I’ll be describing, there’s nothing wrong with that. A hint that something needs to change can be a very good thing.

The next step along the way of losing oneself is when someone, and this is certainly not limited to men, decides that the best way to deal with this mounting dissatisfaction is not to try to change anything as it is, but, rather, to get away from it--for a while or for good.

These first two steps or levels may be entirely rational realizations; there is nothing necessarily irrational about feeling deep dissatisfaction with one’s present circumstances and a hunch that life could be better elsewhere with a fresh start, a new job, new friends, and a shedding of what in the present is making the person feel trapped in her or his dissatisfaction with life. At step three, however, the person on the way to losing herself or himself begins to lose touch with reality in some kind of way--mildly at first and then, most likely, dramatically. There are several ways this can happen. The person can convince herself or himself that she or he can be, will be a fundamentally different person in a different context; sometimes, that may be true, but most of the time we are who we are no matter where we are. Our fears may follow us wherever we live. Our irritating habits will almost certainly travel with us and bother the new people we meet as much as they did the people we are leaving behind. If you’re a nutcase where you presently are and manage to get yourself elected to public office, you’ll be a nutcase when you get to Washington--only, now, more people will know it and be disadvantaged or hurt by your shortcomings.

The next phase of losing oneself is a break with one’s present. It may or may not involve a physical move, but there is some kind of cutting off and getting away from life as you have known it with the thought that the break will bring the solution, will relieve you of your dissatisfaction, will cause you to love life as you’ve always dreamed you could if only you weren’t held back by what has been holding you back, as you perceive it. With this comes the illusion that a new set of life circumstances will fix everything. I have to say here that there are evil or destructive people and/or situations that we have to away from in order to be well; I’m thinking of someone who suffers physical abuse from a significant other, for example. The most sane thing you can do in that kind of situation is get out of there ASAP. I’m not addressing that kind of situation in this sermon.

Someone may cash in life savings to create the dreamed of new life. The money or something bought with the money is seen as the solution to all the person’s problems. Unless you were hungry and homeless in your situation of dissatisfaction, money and materialism will not solve your problems and will not bring you happiness. That’s part of the illusion, though, and that’s the major part of the process leading to losing oneself. Something else, someone else, some place else can make me happy, can give me the fulfillment I don’t have now; therefore, I will submerge myself in that “else” and let the old life go completely.

When that happens, you’ve lost yourself. I’ve lost myself. The longer we live in that place, in that illusion, the more difficult it will be ever to find ourselves when the illusion has run its course, and we find ourselves in what we just knew was our dream place or our dream circumstances as unhappy or significantly unhappier than we were before we lost ourselves. Yes, indeed, it’s possible to wake up one morning far, far away physically or psychically from where we began and have no idea who we really are or who we were.

Some people who lose themselves never find themselves again. Some make some effort to find themselves, and some of them will succeed; others won’t. Those who try to find themselves may well, on the way back, do something disgusting or distasteful for a while because finding a lost self isn’t an instantaneous process.

The road back may be tough, and there is absolutely no assurance that when we get back to where we began we will still have a place or will be able to experience life precisely as we experienced it before. We can find ourselves in spite of that, however. The thing is, there are absolutely no guarantees.


In Jesus’ parable, the son leaves, and the father has no reasonable choice, really, but to let him go. In the companion parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, God as the shepherd and God as the woman who lost one of her ten coins, all the money she had in the world, looks diligently for what is lost. In this parable of the Lost Son, however, the loving father can’t go out looking for his son. He knows that under these circumstances, all he can do, as heartbreaking as it is, is wait to see if his son will ever come back home or not. This is an insight into the God who loves without coercion. God will not force any of us to acknowledge God in us or receive the love God extends to all parts of the created order.

This parable has a happy ending for the Father and his lost son; the other son is as frustrated as he can be, but that’s another sermon. The son who had lost himself begins to have glimpses of the self he’d lost while he slops the hogs and sobers up enough to take in the fact that he is satisfying his hunger with the same cuisine thrown out to the hogs. He remembers the man he had been back then--a person of dignity and responsibility, even if his older brother didn’t think so.

James Weldon Johnson again:

Young man, come away from Babylon,
That hell-border city of Babylon.
Leave the dancing and gambling of Babylon,
The wine and whisky of Babylon,
The hot-mouthed women of Babylon;
Fall down on your knees,
And say in your heart:
I will arise and go to my Father.

The prodigal son has plenty of time to think there in the pig sty, and who he was, “the real him,” comes back to him completely. The self he lost is found. Many people aren’t nearly so fortunate. What he can’t control is how others whom he hurt in his determination to become someone else will feel about him, how understanding or forgiving they will be.

His big brother is entirely unforgiving, but he hit the jackpot with his father. Remember, in the parable, the father represents God, the God who couldn’t go out in search of someone who thought that he wanted to distance himself from God. Jesus tells the story of the reunion with such poignance that it’s hard to keep from feeling a tear in your eye. The father, probably an older man, as explained earlier, is sitting on the porch of his big old farm house--looking constantly down the road that the son would have to use to get back home if he were still alive and ever decided to come back.

We realize he has found himself when he decides that he can’t just prance back into his father’s house and pick up where he left off, as if all were well, and he had just taken a little vacation. In fact, the only way that he would give himself permission to dare to speak to the father whose heart he had broken in more ways than one was to ask for a job as a hired hand, living in shelters with them, and eating the food prepared for them, which were hardly delicacies from the big house, but a hell of a lot better than hog slop.

One day what he saw was too good to be true. He saw his son walking up the road toward home, the road some years ago he had hurried down to get away from who had been and those who had loved him as he was. Fathers, especially older men, didn’t run to meet their children, but this one did. He ran as best he could with creaky hips and arthritic knees to get to his baby boy whatever the son’s age. He threw his arms around his son and kissed him.

He told his indoor servants to put on a big bash, “...for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he lost himself, but found himself again. What greater thing is there to celebrate?”

Every Monday night a sizable number of people gather to use part of our facility; they are people who have lost themselves in alcohol, and the twelve steps in the Alcoholics’ Anonymous program are helping them find themselves again. Not all do, but many do. Their “Higher Power” is running to greet them when they do. They had begun using alcohol to help them deal with the people they were with whom they were dissatisfied; the alcohol changed them alright, but they had to keep it coming in order to be the new person they could be with the constant help of the alcohol. Eventually, they lost themselves in those bottles and tried living a full and meaningful life as the people they became with the help of alcohol. Didn’t work, not for a single one of them. The twelve step program helped them leave the false self behind and seek the old self, the real self.

There are hosts of reasons you might have lost the real you; sometimes bad theology tells you that you are fundamentally bad and must change in order to be right with God. The parable of the Lost Son helps us find out how we lost ourselves and how we may, nonetheless, find ourselves in the embrace of the God who loves and the God who waits patiently and expectantly while we look for the self we lost. We can never be lost to God.

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