When America Can Say, “I’m Back!”

By James A. Forbes

This sermon was delivered on July 4, 2004, at Riverside Church, New York.

Today’s sermon is addressed to our nation. What better day to bring a message to America than on this day when we celebrate the founding of the spirit of our nation in the profound sentiments reflected in the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776? How fortunate for me, the preacher, that the gospel reading is from one of the most familiar stories in the Bible, the parable of the Prodigal son, from Luke, chapter 15.

Year after year after year, ministers will preach on the parable of the prodigal son. I have not usually thought of America when preaching from this text, but the spirit has led me right to this particular passage.

Of course, it’s a good sermon to preach on Independence Day. Didn’t the prodigal son express an impulse towards independence? “Give me, Daddy, a portion of goods that should fall to me. I want to be independent of your parental guidance, of your parental control.” Also, this story is really good for this day because it helps us to understand that whatever in the Bible helps us personally, also has meaning for societal dimensions. So here is a message that I’m hoping to give not only to those who gather here in this congregation, but to our whole nation: the wisdom and the insight from this story of the prodigal son will help America be a better country. So, may all of us who have ears to hear, hear what this text has to say to our nation.

But before I offer a message to the nation, I need to recognize that every Sunday when people come to church, they have personal needs, perhaps more pressing than their concern for the nation. So if anybody here is desperate to here a word from the parable of the prodigal son for your life, your struggle, your faith, your family, I’m going to take just a moment to tell the story again. Find in it a word of personal encouragement, and we will celebrate with you if this text brings comfort and strength. But I won’t tarry there for long. I will then turn to talk about our nation, to think of America in some aspects as the prodigal son, needing desperately to be called back home.

But first, for personal edification: you know the story. A man had two sons; the younger son said, “Give me the portion of goods which falls to me.” No complaint from the father, who, as we already know, symbolizes God Almighty. And so the father gives the younger son his portion. And not many days later, the young son takes off for a far-off country and there, separated from his family, from his parent’s care and oversight, wastes his substance in riotous living. We don’t know the details of what he did; usually when people try to describe what he did, they are engaging in a Rorschach test, because it usually reflects what they might have done if given the opportunity to go into a far-off country with loads of cash. So be careful what you blame him for!

And while he’s down there, in addition to his irresponsibility, adverse circumstances develop. A great famine arises in the land and there is little work, so he hires himself out to one of the countrymen there, and, despite the fact that he is a Jew for whom swine symbolized uncleanliness, he is put in charge of feeding swine. He is so destitute that he looks down and sees the hogs just gushing up the food, and he is so hungry he is almost inclined to get down there with them. And nobody gives him anything. So on one occasion when he looks into the slimy slops, he sees his own face, and something inside says to him, “This is not me. I am better than this face I see in the shimmering slime.” And he remembers the servants back home: “How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough to spare, and here I am just about to get down with the pigs!”

He came to himself and said, “I know what I am going to do. I am going to get up from here and go to my father and I am going to say, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight. I am no longer worthy to be called thy son. Just make me a hired servant.’” He got up and made his way back to his father’s house. But when the father saw him coming, he ran to meet him, threw his arms around him, kissed him, and turned to the servants, saying, “Go quickly! Get a robe for him, a ring for his finger, and shoes for his feet. And kill the fatted calf. My son, who has been away—dead actually—is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

This may be a story somebody needs here today. And if I were to summarize what I pick up in the story which could be applied to our hearts personally, it would be something like this: if and when we come to see ourselves for who we have become and see how far we have drifted from where we should have been, and we find the strength to rise, return, and repent, we will find God waiting with extended arms to receive us, refresh us, renew us, and arrange for a celebration of a new quality of life. So, if this is the word you need to hear, take it; run with it. God is waiting with extended arms. While we are praying the prayer of confession—”We have sinned and strayed from Thy ways like lost sheep. We have offended against Thy holy laws. We have done those things we ought not to have done and we have left undone the things we ought to have done and there is no health in us”—God is already halfway down the path to greet us.

Fine! The story says, Face it. Get up. Recognize that God is waiting, ready to restore you to the fullness of who you are. Perhaps there’s somebody who says, “Yes, yes, that’s what I need to know!” And if you’ll just claim it where you are, I’ll join with you. I’ll ask the congregation to join with us together to celebrate that you, having been away, can now, by the grace of God, say right here in Riverside Church today, “Thank God, I’m back!”

Congratulations. I’m glad you’re back. But today is the Fourth of July and I now must hasten to talk about the possibility that America might one day be able to say, “I’m back!”

These are beautiful words. I’m back. Some of you know about these words. Have you ever been through a season of not quite being yourself, either physically, emotionally, spiritually, even in your profession, your business or even your character? Anybody know anything about not being at home for a long time? Away from yourself, away from your best self? I know what it is like to have felt like an alien in my own skin, a stranger in my own body, an intruder in my own house. But sometimes the Grace of God comes and does something that changes things, and we may not even know what it is that turns things around, that brings us back to ourselves. I know what it is like to be able to say, Whew! I’m back. I’m back, I’m back! I’m me again! I am what I was meant to be from my very beginning. Yes, I recognize this me. The other me was not me, but the real me is back. I’m back. I’m back! Thank God!

Well, today, I come on this Fourth of July to talk about America. For some time now, I think, America—as reflected in her policies, in her practices, in the tone, in the mood of the nation—has not been at home. You’ve got to know the real America to know whether she’s been at home. America, a city set on a hill, a nation with the light of liberty in her heart, in her mind, and in her soul—that’s the America I’m talking about. I’m talking about America with a capital “A,” and a flag waving with pride and joy and hope for all humankind. A place, America, where liberty and justice are loved so deeply that one declares with heart and hands and life itself, “Give me liberty or give me death.”

This is America—”Give me liberty or give me death”—a land of high ideals, where everything is possible if it’s necessary for democracy to keep its promise. A land that dreams and boldly declares that we will be free and that we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I’m talking about America when America is at home. I’m talking about America when the Declaration of Independence talks about God the Creator, about Nature’s God. I’m talking about a nation where democracy is not only surviving, but is thriving. I’m describing the nation I first learned about in elementary school civics classes, a nation that believed in its creed and matched its rhetoric with deeds, ever aspiring to be more.

We recognize that there were flaws from the beginning. Not everybody was considered fully human; women did not have the vote; a black was considered three-fifths of a human being; Native Americans were called savages. But from the beginning we were a nation striving to be better, trying to be guided, as President Lincoln challenged us, “by the better angels of our nature.” That America could acknowledge its flaws and pray: “God mend our every flaw.” Citizens could wave the flag with a sense of patriotic pride because its greatest glory was its integrity and its power to inspire creativity, productivity, hope, and an unflagging zeal to be our best despite impediments. That’s the America I knew in the days of my youth.

Yet, some have not realized the blessings of the American dream. Many of our citizens have lost confidence in our founding principles. There are people in high places who no longer believe in the bold principles upon which this nation was built. America, hopelessly divided by race and by class and a growing gap between the haves and have-nots; a nation suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; a nation like King Saul of Old, who spent his time looking for David in the hills, a monarch looking for a flea, the Bible said. We have made the pursuit of terrorists our new national mission, and we’ve lost our sense of direction. We don’t seem to be able to keep the dream in our purview. We can’t keep our eyes on the prize.

As I’ve said before, many of those who call themselves “patriots” are engaged in pornographic patriotism, which is using the flag and the name and the nation for what they can get out of her, caring little about what her values are and what her integrity is supposed to be. Then there are those who use government for every regulation that profits them and then turn around and trash government when it would be challenged to serve the common good. Oh, I tell you, there is something about our nation that is not at home. Like the prodigal son, we’ve lost even our shame. Where is the shame about fellow citizens that we exclude on account of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, national origin, or previous conditions of servitude?

Oh, I tell you: I am trying very hard to be uncharacteristically restrained this morning. That’s why I am not shouting out right now as I normally would. I feel it too deeply. Our beloved nation, for all of its residual righteousness and justice, has such major flaws in high places that America is in exile. And brothers and sisters, we don’t need to call names about who has led her away from home. Let’s just make it like the prodigal son: something in America wanted to be freed up from the social contract and family ties and never truly believed or participated in the genuineness of that which was democracy with liberty and justice for all.

I don’t know what led her away. Was it the virus of hate? Was it pride? Was it greed? Was it fear? Was it something of an inflamed nationalistic impulse so that, when wounded, we circled the wagons to protect ourselves? Was it our rugged individualism? Was it our impulse to privatize? —”I only care about what is good for my kids and the quality of their education. I wish the other children in public school all the best, but they are not my responsibility.” Was it consumerism? Was it some strange unconscious combination of guilt and insecurity?

I don’t know. Don’t ask me what led her away. But I want to ask you: Wouldn’t you agree that we are not quite at home today? We have lost our appreciation for the spiritual things of life, and so here we are, this morning—the Fourth of July, on Sunday, at Riverside—and we CAN safely tell the truth in love, that the nation is not quite at home.

If you heard the lesson from Isaiah 59 read earlier in the service, you understand that this is not the first time a nation has been lost in a strange land. Let’s take the time here to underscore a few words from that passage. If God sent Isaiah today, who in our nation would God be talking to with these words?

“See, the Lord’s hand is not too short to save, nor his ears too dull to hear.” Could he be talking to America? But who else is God talking to here?

“Rather your iniquities have been barriers between you and your God.”

So many politicians these days are talking about God, God, God. But is there an iniquity that becomes a barrier between ourselves and God?

“Your sins have hidden God’s face from you.”

Who is God talking to? In New York, in the beltway? Who should hear these words?

“For your hands are defiled with blood.”

Who is this text talking to?

“And your fingers with iniquity.”

Who is God talking to?

“Your lips have spoken lies.”

Who is God talking to?

“Your tone mutters wickedness. Oh, your works of iniquity, deeds of violence in their hands. Therefore, justice is far from us and righteousness does not reach us.”

“We growl like bears. And then the other side mourning like doves. Why? Our transgressions are indeed with us and we know our iniquities. Transgression and denying the Lord and turning away from following our God. Therefore justice is turned back and righteousness stands at a distance.”

Tell the truth. Who is God talking to? Is God talking to the media as well as churches, as well as our national leaders? Listen again. It says:

“For truth stumbles in the public square and uprighteousness cannot enter. Truth is lacking and whoever turns from evil is despoiled or despised.”

On this Fourth of July, there are tears of sadness in my heart for America.

But God is so good that even now, even now, as we continue to receive pictures of abuses in the prisons in Iraq, God is calling. Our prisoners in our own country say, “It’s not just overseas, brother, it’s right here!” Even now, as tax checks are sent to the rich and benefits are cut off for the poor. Yet even now, as people are being stirred up around the country on wedge issues about encouraging the Supreme Court to introduce discrimination against people on account of their sexual orientation. Yes, even now, as folks talk about Head Start and kids can’t get basic subsistence and their teachers can’t get good supplies. Yet even now, while people who work all day long can’t make a living wage. Yet, even now, in this country, where people are still divided up in categories of race and class. Yet even now, when the youth are disadvantaged from the absence of health care and the elderly are forced to make choices between medicine and food.

Yet even now, even now, as the story of the prodigal son tells us, God is waiting. “America, I’m waiting. You have drifted away. You have detached yourself. It is not your independence from King George. It is your independence from and lack of accountability to the God who made you and called you to be a light on the hill. You have acquired an immature independence and it is not well. But, if you would return, I will be waiting for you.”

Members of the church, I have been traveling, and I guess I’m glad you sent me out across the nation because that’s what I’m doing: calling, “America! America! God’s calling you to come back home! Come back home to justice! To compassion! To mercy! And peace!” Calling, calling America.

Well, I guess somebody wants to know how America can find her way back. Just read the parable of the prodigal son. Wouldn’t it be interesting to send this story down to Washington and ask them to read it? Please don’t just send it to the White House, though that may be your first stop. Send it also to the Supreme Court. They might need to know that God is calling. Send it to Congress; send it to the Pentagon; send it to where the Federal Reserve makes its decisions. God’s calling! God is calling! And the story says, “When he came to himself …,” that’s what we need to do. It is the job of the progressive movement to help bring America back to herself. Progressives don’t have all the truth, and we should stop acting like the conservatives don’t have any truth. No, we’ve been just as silent as church mice with respect to the part of the truth that we must uphold if our nation is to be strong.

There are conspiracy stories about our national leaders. Lord knows I would hope that the stories are not true about the relationship between the President and the Osama bin Laden family and about multinational corporations making shady deals. I hope it is not true. I hope it will be proven by thorough investigation that these stories about deceiving for gain, for oil, for power, for global domination, are not true. I hope it is not true that there were plans already and people just maneuvered to find a justification to make Americans submissive to their designs on the basis of a permitted disaster. Pray with me, brothers and sisters, that it is not true.

But, even now, as in the prodigal son story, God is waiting for the nation to come back. America could find its way back if we could remember those who inspired us to be our best: the founding mothers and fathers of our nation and religious leaders of all faiths. If we could go back and honor the founding documents and help our people see that in the founding documents, though not perfect, the DNA of our nation included justice and equality and peace, and not domination and imperialism and exploitation. It is only when you test our DNA that you know who the real Americans are. It’s possible that even elected officials can be un-American in the policies they promote, seemingly on behalf of the people.

If I were a national leader and used my energy to serve my own personal and economic agenda and hold a whole nation and the world hostage to my perceived interests, while neglecting the interests of the people of the nation I serve, it may be that a genetic mutation in my genes had taken place, and that I would have strayed in my understanding from true American values.

I have been saying over and over: we need canine theology. If we are going to see ourselves, those who first see it have to bark to wake up, wake up, wake up the nation! That’s how we’re going to get back. We’ve got to bark. The house is on fire! Bark! And if the house is on fire and they don’t hear the barking, then take your nose and rub it in their faces, and if that doesn’t do it, then grab the covers and pull the covers off. Somebody in America needs to wake up! Somebody needs to shout the truth aloud!

Oh, brothers and sisters, I think we could help America come back if we would send forth a truth squad across our nation. I guess that’s what my speaking tour is about. We get so much spin until we don’t know who to believe anymore. Let’s pray for our leaders. I’m serious about this. Let us pray. Even some of the folks who have been saved by God need to be sanctified in their spirit, so let’s pray. Let’s pray that they can get it right in their spirit.

And so, the parable of the prodigal son speaks clearly. If America would come back to God, come back to consciousness of the values made known in Jesus Christ, of justice, equality, mercy, and peace, of ecological sensitivity and humanitarian inclusiveness, I know that God would receive us back in welcoming arms and we could go on and become the nation God always intended us to be.

If our story ends as the parable ends, this is what we can expect: I see America coming back and when America comes back, there’s no need to reprimand. America will know that she was not herself, and God’s arms are around her and God kisses her. Or, if you prefer a different image, God receives us and says to this nation—tattered, torn and soiled in spirit—”Go, take a shower.” Then God would lead us in a way to purify the spirit of our nation. Let it rain to purify us. Clean us up, Lord. We’re dirty, Lord. There’s some contamination, Lord, something in our spirit not worthy of our destiny. I want to see the rain come. I don’t think they’re going to put the new robe on the boy without giving him a bath.

America needs a bath. Bathe off the racism, the classism, the homophobia. Bathe off all of this economic greed. Bathe us, Lord. Give us a good shower and then bring the flag back. Drape us with it, if you will, a new garment where the flag symbolizes freedom and justice for all. And then put a ring on our finger. Restore our economy with bread enough and to spare for all. Help us to have an appropriate share of the world’s resources.

And then, of course, we need to mention the celebration at the end of the parable. “Then they killed the fatted calf and began to make merry!” I think the reason the story is told is because Jesus understands that he is to give his life that all may experience abundant life.

As we come to the table now, we find love. At the table we find peace. At the table we find newness of life. And so let us prepare. That’s the way this story ends, with a great celebration—a celebration of restoration, a celebration of forgiveness, a celebration of a willingness to serve. As we receive the grace of loving acceptance and are restored to full sonship and daughterhood, we will hear ourselves saying, “I’m back.” Then we are empowered to go forth to work for peace, justice, and compassion so that our nation too can say, “I’m back, I’m back, I’m back!”

The Rev. Dr. James Alexander Forbes, Jr., serves as the fifth Senior Minister of the 2,400-member Riverside Church in New York City. Before being called to Riverside’s pulpit, Dr. Forbes served from 1976-1989 as Professor of Preaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In 1995, Newsweek recognized him as one of the 12 most effective preachers in the English-speaking world. In August 2004, Dr. Forbes addressed the Democratic National Convention. He is currently teaching a seminar titled “Preaching and the Next Great Awakening” at Yale Divinity School.