[Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, March 31, 2019]
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
We are more than 3/5 of the way through Lent. I don’t know about you, but my more ambitious offerings have given way to a more standard observance. I don’t mean that I’ve given up wearing hair shirts, fasting, or days of silent contemplation—largely because I didn’t even try them.
I know myself, you see, and I’m not up for Lent as a set of spiritual calisthenics. I take great comfort from the fact that St. Thomas Aquinas was so fat that they had to carve a deep groove into his pulpit so that he could fit into it.
Hope for me yet.
No, Lent isn’t about becoming a spiritual superstar, it’s about realizing that the fundamental truth of the universe is that we are loved. Now. Today. As we are, flawed, fallible, and fallen.
Lent is, it’s true, also about recognizing that we are flawed, fallible and fallen—without losing the sight of the fact that we are loved by our Creator with all our flaws, all the way to the foot of the Cross.
Lent is a time when we make a conscious effort to turn our eyes and our hearts to that Creator, and prise open out hearts a little bit so that we can return that love.
But you know that.
We just sang it:
There is no place where earth’s failings
have such kindly judgment given.
For the love of God is broader
than the measures of the mind.
And the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we would gladly trust God’s Word,
and our lives reflect thanksgiving
for the goodness of our Lord.
Now, before anyone says isn’t this just liberal theology, where sin doesn’t matter, and everything is all sunshine and unicorns and rainbows, let me point out that the lyrics of that St. Barts standard capture both parts of the equation. Our failings are real. Our sorrows too. And we are judged. But the judgment is kindly, informed and the product of a love that is broader than our minds can comprehend.
It’s like qualifying at an AA meeting. “Qualifying” is when the sober alcoholic tells his or her story–shares her or his experience strength and hope,” as we say—to the whole group. It’s when you tell the things you’ve been holding onto, the guilty, shameful things that make you suffer, as one friend of mine put it, from delusions of terminal uniqueness.
When you qualify, and you tell the part that you’re sure everyone will judge you harshly for, that’s when you’re most likely to be surrounded by friends rocking with laughter. Not laughter at you, a laughter of recognition that, change the details, almost everyone in the room has their version of that story.
It’s the laughter of identification, of total acceptance of you, as you are. It’s the moment when everyone recognizes your shame, identifies with that shame, and, instead of turning away from you, smiles at how foolish we all are, and still how very loved.
We are each of us the prodigal son or daughter. But what does that mean? According to St. Ambrose of Milan, the son was not wrong to ask for his share of the inheritance. And, St. Ambrose continues, the father was not wrong to give it to him. But Ambrose tells us that the younger son’s journey away from his family, and his riotous living, is a metaphor for leaving behind his best self. Not his pure sinless self—there’s no such thing—but his best self, the real man—or woman—he or she was created to be.
The younger son lost himself.
We do it all the time, though, in our busy, demanding, stress-filled world.
And that’s just how Jesus puts it, in telling the tale. As Jesus said, “When he came to himself”—that is, when he had that moment when he saw in a flash what his life had become, when that true self broke through the layers of fear, neediness, desperation—he saw the direction of his life, as if he were watching from the window of a subway car when a spark lights up the whole track, and the curves of the trip become clear. He saw himself as he truly was, and decided to do something about it.
Christina Rossetti projected herself into the mind of the son in that moment, and portrays his thoughts in an illuminating way:
DOES that lamp still burn in my Father’s house,
Which he kindled the night I went away?
I turned once beneath the cedar boughs,
And marked it gleam with a golden ray;
Did he think to light me home some day? 5
Hungry here with the crunching swine,
Hungry harvest have I to reap;
In a dream I count my Father’s kine,
I hear the tinkling bells of his sheep
I watch his lambs that browse and leap. 10
There is plenty of bread at home,
His servants have bread enough and to spare;
The purple wine-fat froths with foam,
Oil and spices make sweet the air,
While I perish hungry and bare. 15
Rich and blessed those servants, rather
Than I who see not my Father’s face!
I will arise and go to my Father,—
“Fallen from sonship, beggared of grace,
Grant me Father, a servant’s place.”
The starvation that brings the son home, that gives him the courage to face the family he deserted and disappointed is not just physical or economic; it’s the loss of the love of his father.
For father, read mother, sister, brother, grandmother, grandfather, uncle or aunt—whoever it is in your own life who first loved you unconditionally, just as you were.
And so he returns, hoping to be accepted, in a lesser station, only partially forgiven.
And so we come to the prodigal father.
Because the father surprises his younger son—and scandalizes the older son—by welcoming him home, and unconditionally restoring him to his place in the family.
More, he celebrates his return with a feast, a banquet—one of Jesus’s favorite images for the Kingdom of Heaven.
It isn’t fair, the older brother, the good brother complains. I’ve never been given such a feast, he grumbles, and yet I’ve been faithful and true.
And yes, by human standards, that’s true.
The father acknowledges the truth of that, and simply responds, but I’ve never been so close to losing you as we were to losing your brother.
As we sang just before I read the Gospel to you, “[t]here’s a kindness in God's justice, which is more than liberty.”
God isn’t fair, C.S. Lewis wrote; God doesn’t play by rules.
God isn’t fair—by our standards. God is so much better than fair. Like the father in the story, he has kept he light burning, he has hoped it to light us home, and, when we arrive, the judgment is this:
We have to accept forgiveness, and forgive ourselves. And, if we respond in love, we model ourselves on the forgiveness we have received, and try to extend it to those who have hurt us.
We are called to be prodigal of love, as the father in the parable was. To be constant in caring, in loving, and in greeting each guest as Christ. That is how “our lives reflect thanksgiving for the goodness of our Lord.”
Lent is three-fifths done, and we are beginning to approach Jerusalem, and the trauma of the Cross, the desolation of the Tomb. But through that same journey, we are also drawing near to the joy of the Resurrection, the reunion of Jesus with the disciples, when Jesus confronted Peter, who wept with shame at denying him, only to find that this betrayal was already forgiven.
There’s no depiction in the Gospels of Peter seeking forgiveness for his denial. It’s simply granted to him without even being mentioned. Just like the father in the parable of the prodigal son—or the prodigal father, take your pick—Jesus greets Peter, and the rest of the Eleven, as his beloved friend and disciple.
In these last weeks of Lent, be encouraged to persevere in whatever way you have chosen to open yourself to the Holy Spirit. If it isn’t working, find something that suits you better, and nourishes your soul. We have a long way to go, yet, and while the night may be dark and full of terrors, we know that we are journeying home, the long way round.
In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.