Einstein and the Prodigal

Who knew that Einsteinian Relativity had something to teach us about God’s constant love?

Luke 15:11-32 : The Story of the Prodigal Son

11 Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

At the turn of the century, the 20th century, that is, physicists had a problem, and Einstein was the man to work on it.

You see, in 1887 it was discovered that the speed of light is a constant. This may not sound like a big deal, but it is. You see, the speed of light is a constant no matter who is looking at it and no matter what you’re doing. You can run towards it, run away from it, or stand still, and the speed of light stays the same. And here’s where it gets weirder: you can run towards it while your best friend runs away from it, and both of you see light moving the same speed.

Perhaps I can make this even more confusing. Let’s try this on a playground. Let’s say you and your dog and your 4 year old niece head for the playground to play her favorite game – she loves to chase the dog, who loves to chase a tennis ball when you throw it. But this particular morning you didn’t realize that Einstein snuck into your tennis ball stash and traded your reliable every day variable speed tennis balls for special Einsteinian tennis balls. These tennis balls, like light, only go one constant speed. On today’s playground, these tennis balls only travel 5mph. Just like light, these tennis balls go 5mph no matter who is looking.

So, like every other morning, you toss a tennis ball and it goes flying off… well, not quite flying, since 5mph is just a slow jog… and the dog and your niece go running. But this morning something seems a bit odd. The tennis ball just keeps going at that constant speed, and your niece and dog look like they’re trying to run and run, but they don’t catch up to the ball.

You watch them run and run, for a long time, much longer than they usually play this game, and finally your niece gives up the chase and comes back to you. This is when things start to get even stranger.

Your niece comes back and says “I ran after the ball, but it kept getting away from me at the same speed.” (After all, your niece is a smart 4 year old who is good at noticing these things.) You think, how odd. Normally, when you run after a tennis ball, you catch up to it, meaning, it looks like it slows down. But that’s not what your niece saw.

A little confused, you say to your niece, “well, you must be tired after running after the ball for so long, let’s head home.” But adding to your confusion, she says “I only ran for a minute! I’m not tired yet!” You know that your niece is too smart to be wrong, but you’ve been watching her run for almost 10 minutes. She shows you her watch, which like a 4 year old with a watch, she sets every morning, and now it’s running 9 minutes slow.

You start to suspect something here when Einstein shows up laughing and explains the trick he’s played on you. “Those are my tennis balls,” he says. “They only go one speed, no matter who’s watching. No matter how fast your niece ran, that tennis ball got away from her at 5mph. And while you stood there, it moved away from you at 5mph. You would have expected the speed to look different to her because she was running after it, but it wasn’t. So something else had to change.”

All you can think is – what is this craziness? And yes, it gets stranger.

Einstein continues to explain. “The speed of these tennis balls is always 5mph, no matter who is watching. So, if that speed is constant, everything else has to change. Time, distance, even mass changes. What you noticed about your niece is that time changed for her: Time slowed down for her so that the ball would still look fast to her even as she ran after it.”

And then you remember: all those science fiction stories you read as a kid, or perhaps that science fiction movie you saw last week, where the twin brother goes off to outer space for 50 years but returns only 5 years older.

Yes, Einstein figured out that if the speed of light is a constant, everything else changes. When something speeds up, time slows down, distance changes, even weight changes.

A crazy world, you think? Couldn’t possibly be real? Just a weird science fiction story? And even if you’re tempted to believe in this constant speed of light thing, the speed of light is so fast that this couldn’t possibly matter in the real world, right?

But it does. You’ve used the GPS on your phone and in your car to get around town, right? I can’t get anywhere without mine. GPS works with satellites orbiting the earth to let you know where you are. The clocks on those satellites, though, are moving through space faster than you and I are, so their clocks are moving slower than our clocks are down here. If engineers hadn’t used Einstein’s equations to figure out that difference, your GPS wouldn’t work and you wouldn’t know where you were – every day, your GPS would be wrong by another 6 miles or more.

When you don’t understand that everything except the speed of light changes, you are lost and don’t know where you are.

— — —

A father had two sons. Here’s a scripture that many of us have heard, so it takes some work to hear it fresh. I love this story. I think it contains 80% of what Jesus has to teach us. (I think most of the rest is found in the Good Samaritan, but that’s a sermon for another day.)

A father had two sons. Hearing this with fresh ears, you think, “uh oh” – you know, sibling rivalry, turf wars, all the things kids get into. And these two sons are no different.

Most of the story focuses on the younger son. You know, the one who never feels that he’s getting a fair deal, the one who thinks mom and dad love the older one more. Of course, later in the story, we see how the older son thinks his younger brother is a spoiled brat.

And the younger son, thinking he’ll never get a fair deal at home, asks his father for his inheritance. Now, I’m sure when Jesus’ followers heard this for the first time they thought “That’s crazy! You don’t ask for your inheritance.” But this father gave the younger son his portion and let him go off on his own. There seems to be something about this father that’s different from most earthly fathers. This is starting to look like a crazy world.

Now, I’m confident that the parents hearing Jesus tell this story were not surprised to hear that this son squandered that wealth: loose living, a life of luxury, forgetting that money runs out someday, someday soon.

So the younger son returns home. Probably a good plan. I’m guessing the crowd expected Jesus to tell a story about a father who disciplined his son and sent him to work in the fields to learn a lesson about the value of money.

But then – is this turning into a weird science fiction story? – the father welcomes the son with open arms and immediately throws a feast in his honor!

I’m sure the crowd, hearing that the older son was, well, beyond angry,… I’m sure the crowd understood the older son’s anger and thought he was justified in every way.

True, a parent would understand why the father was glad the younger son had returned, but throw a party for this brat? I’m guessing that most of the crowd who first heard this story were more than a little confused by the father’s choices.

— — —

Confusing stories are great, aren’t they? When things are confusing, there’s a lot of thinking to be done. Just like when light won’t slow down or speed up like everything else, everything was confusing, and it took an Einstein to think it through.

Christian preachers come back to this story of the prodigal all the time. It is a magnificent example in the Gospels of Jesus’ teaching that God loves and accepts us all, as we are. The father loves the older son who stays home and works in the fields and serves as a shining example. He loves the younger son who squanders the wealth and embarrasses the family. It’s something like the speed of light, right? No matter what we do, the love of God doesn’t change.

… Even if you’re tempted to believe in this constant speed of light thing, the speed of light is so fast that this couldn’t possibly matter in the real world, right? …

Of course, when we’re tempted to believe in this constant love of God, we often brush it aside saying “God’s love is so far and above anything I can muster that this couldn’t possibly matter in the real world.” Right?

I have spent much of my life not believing in God’s constant love, trying to earn God’s love. Trying to be a good son, earning degrees and going to church and taking care of mom’s finances. But as a gay man the world has often looked at me as the prodigal, assuming that I live irresponsibly, squandering what resources I have, wasting them on profligate living.

Well, I doubt that either image of me is quite accurate – we’re all a bit prodigal and a bit responsible, aren’t we? But thanks be to God that I don’t have to worry about which image is accurate: God loves me either way, God loves both parts of me: this story doesn’t ask me to change – this story just invites me to the party and leaves the rest up to me.

But if we stop here, we stop where early 20th century physicists were with light. We have this consistently loving God but haven’t thought it through.

Let’s turn back to the story a bit more.

Look at these two sons: It seems that neither of them understood their father’s love. The prodigal thought he would never have it, that he couldn’t work hard enough to earn it, and after squandering his inheritance he returns not to be loved as a son but hoping only to be treated as a lowly servant. The older thought he had his father’s love all wrapped up. After all, he had been earning it day in and day out, working in the fields and caring for the family farm. If he worked so hard to earn his father’s love, certainly his spoiled brat of a younger brother didn’t deserve any of that love.

Looking closer at the story, Jesus doesn’t say that one of the sons is right and one is wrong. Jesus doesn’t even say that they make different mistakes. Looking closely, I see both of them making the same mistake: they both believe that they can earn their father’s love.

How much energy do we spend working to earn God’s love? Do you come to church because God approves of it? Do you go to work every day because you believe that good people hold steady jobs? – and of course, God approves of good people. Do you conform by dating the right people and dressing the right way because, of course, God wants us to go along to get along?

The Bible tells us over and over that God’s love cannot be earned. You’ve heard it in other scriptures: “The free gift of God is eternal life.” But when was the last time we really believed it? When was the last time we centered our lives on God’s unchanging love and allowed everything else to change?

When I was working as a psychologist, I often saw how, for many people, their problems stem from a lack of faith that they are loved. They worked so hard to earn the love of their parents or their friends or their boss or their God.

Working to earn love? We all fail in this. We can never please everyone all the time, certainly we won’t please a false God who expects us to earn love.

Believing we are loved only because we work for it leads to despair and hopelessness.

Yet some of us respond by working harder, trying ever so hard to be the older son, working to earn that love and ending up with anxiety disorders, heart attacks, or perhaps gaining the signs of affluence but never enjoying that success.

Some of us, noticing that we already live charmed affluent lives, come to believe that we’ve already earned God’s love. Believing the myth that God’s love can be earned, we believe that we must have earned the good life we experience and others must have done something to deserve the difficult lives they lead. Of course, this is how we justify the world we live in where some have so much less and some have so much more. We justify this world because we want to believe that somehow we deserve what we have.

Others of us, working so hard and yet not quite earning the love and respect we desire, respond by giving up, by deciding: why bother trying to earn something that is so difficult to earn, and we fall into substance abuse, depression, dysfunctional relationships, finally believing that we deserve unhappiness because we haven’t worked to earn anything else.

Many LGBT people have fallen into these traps, and it’s a long road to accept one’s self-worth regardless of social approval. It’s a long road to have faith in the love of God when so often the church that we see on TV is saying “God Hates Fags,” It’s a long road to self-respect when schools don’t protect young people from bullying, when families kick their young LGBT children out of their homes, when we leave LGBT children homeless and without support on the streets of our large cities.

Many straight people, uncomfortable with LGBT equality, hold on to their straight privilege, their status as, quote, ‘normal,’ to believe that this status gives them a few points of God’s favor, that somehow being straight is proof that they have done the right thing and earned more of God’s love.

— — —

None of this is what Jesus taught.

— — —

At the end of the story, the older son – wanting to believe that his upright status earned him the love of his father – he is angry and separated from his father. It is the younger son who is starting to learn a new lesson. He is learning that his father loves him consistently, constantly, but what a tale of woe and waste he has to tell in the learning of that lesson.

Einstein showed us that, because the speed of light is a constant, everything else had to change. As things move around in this world, time changes, weight changes, distance changes – everything but the speed of light changes. This sounds utterly crazy, but it is without a doubt the world that God created for us.

Jesus taught us that the love of God is a constant. As we move around in God’s world, the constancy of God’s love demands that we see everything in this world differently. Caring for our neighbor takes on new meaning. Our relationship to the Samaritan turns upside down. Our relationship to the woman at the well changes. What we value and what we can buy is, in God’s world of constant love, completely different from what the world values, invests in, and sells. This is without a doubt the world that God created for us.

The world teaches us that God’s love is earned — the world wants to believe that God’s love is earned. After all, if privilege is earned, then privilege is deserved. If poverty is due to a lack of effort, then the impoverished deserve poverty. If addiction is due to poor choices and poor self-control, then the addict deserves addiction. This list goes on and on: depression, hunger, racism, crime, cancer. As long as the lucky few continue to believe that their privileged lives are earned, they … I mean, we … can continue to believe that those who lack privilege must work harder or accept that they deserve to have nothing more.

It is so difficult to acknowledge the constant love of God in a world that teaches us that God’s love is earned, a world that teaches us that privilege is a sign of God’s love, a world where the privileged believe they are simply enjoying what has been earned and what is deserved.

Yet acknowledge the constant love of God we must.

When you don’t understand that everything except the speed of light changes, you are lost and don’t know where you are.

When you don’t understand that everything except the love of God changes, you are lost and don’t know where you are.

Jesus calls us to know the unchanging love of God. Jesus calls us to live in response to that love. Jesus calls us to create with him a world centered on God’s constant love.

Rather than blaming the poor for being poor, we are called to change the systems that keep people in poverty, systems that provide lower quality schools in low income communities, systems that create food deserts in low income neighborhoods, making it difficult and expensive to eat healthy meals, systems that make transportation difficult between low income communities and good jobs, … systems that create low income communities in the first place.

Rather than blaming the black adolescent for not being respectful enough, and thus blaming him for standing in the way of the police bullet, we are called to change the systems that disrespect black and brown skin, to change the systems that ensure that black and brown people don’t share in the prosperity of this country, to change the systems that lead to enraged and hopeless young people.

We are called to change the system that provides inappropriate school environments for low income minority youth. We are called to stop blaming these youth for the poor education they receive and then imprisoning them for acting on the only options they have left.

Rather than blaming the immigrant for being illegal, we are called to change the systems that see people as anything other than beloved children of God.

As a gay man, and in my former life as a psychologist, I have seen firsthand how these systems destroy lives. Young LGBT adolescents are tormented by bullies daily in our schools, leading to drop outs, addictions, and suicides. Transgender women are tormented and murdered at an alarming rate in our country. Because the world believes that the love of God is earned, the world blames the victim: ‘he should stand up to those bullies,’ ‘she shouldn’t dress that way.’

The constant love of God challenges us to build a different society. So, remembering that God’s love is not earned: How do you vote differently? How do you contribute money differently? How do you talk with your neighbor about politics differently? How do you work to build a society that honors all as beloved children of God?

Do we live in the world earning approval and love? Or do we live in the world as Jesus described it, knowing that we are beloved and living our lives in response to that love, loving God and caring for neighbor?

Do we know that we and all God’s children are valued, beloved – constant, unchanging, unearned love? and how do we respond to that certainty?

— — —

Without Einstein’s equations calibrating the clocks in our GPS, without understanding that the speed of light is a constant, we are lost.

Without calibrating our lives in view of the constant love of God, we are lost. Thanks be to God. Amen.