The Sunday Sermon: Small turns, big grace

 “Blessed is the one … in whose spirit there is no guile.” (Psalm 32:2)

There is a piercing line in the parable of the prodigal son that seems to hold the key to the whole thing unfolding as beautifully as it does: we see a Jewish man, raised to steer clear of swine, tending to pigs and yearning after their food, he is so hungry. And then it happens, the big dramatic shift that we almost miss, it takes place so quickly: “He came to himself.” When he came to himself, Jesus says, he suddenly sees things differently. He is humbled; humble enough to head for home, expecting no more than bread and water, which is perfectly reasonable. But the Father’s response — that is, Christ’s response, and ideally our response to those who have wandered far —  is instead to give him the royal treatment, greet him with love “while he is still far off,” before he has even said he is sorry. He has not yet even apologized (!); yet all that matters to his father is that he is facing home and his feet are walking in the direction of the house. He runs out and lifts him up, kisses him and spins him around. The repentance seems so small: he came to himself. He realized that the life he had chosen was starving him. The gracious love in response to this small turn seems so big; it is almost dizzying.

There are so many fascinating questions about the nature of sin that arise from this story. If the prodigal son, the lost son, came to himself, where had his authentic self been? What does it mean to be lost to ourselves, or — perhaps more accurately, lost IN ourselves?

On the surface it seems that the prodigal son followed a very old and very common story that plays itself out in a million ways, in every age: I will make it on my own, my own way. He assumed he knew what would make him happy and cut himself off from the source of his life and love, because he didn’t need that whole scene anymore. This is the story, the great temptation and lie, pulsing beneath so many false choices in our lives. Choices to follow the same general path as the prodigal son, whether or not we spend too much money or recklessly spend an inheritance. The paths that quite effectively close the shutters to the love of God in our life: I have followed these lies, in various ways, and I’m betting I’m not the only one in the room. They often slip in as unspoken assumptions: things will be better if I do this whole “life” thing on my own; I’m not worthy or strong unless I get this right by myself; I will have more fun, more joy, more fulfillment, on my own, in my own ways.

We do not say these things aloud to ourselves, of course. But this is the seductive voice of pride, arguably the mightiest among sins because it subtly draws us away from the home where we are cherished children forever, our very relationship with God. We slip out of the house without so much as a goodbye, certain that we’ll find satisfaction.  And have you noticed?  We are actually never as good at producing our own flourishing as we imagine we might be; and we often hurt ourselves and others in the process.

Lutherans are pretty good at writing about sin, and one contemporary Lutheran pastor has written about sin as “the self curved in on the self.” She writes about a visit she made as a hospital chaplain to a woman who had lost a baby in utero, a woman who had also lost custody of four other children to the state and had a long string of arrests in recent months. Without any prompting, the mother explained that none of this was her fault, hurling her blame and anger at the social workers, the cops, the doctors. The pastor says, “methamphetamine does an unmistakable thing to human teeth. And so, through her damaged mouth, came a string of grief-stained words of blame, none of which landed on herself. After spending half my shift with her, I left that room so very sad. Sad for the loss of the baby. Sad for her childlessness despite a womb that had borne so many. But mostly I was saddened knowing that she won’t feel the release of speaking the truth of how we all participate in our own suffering.”

To speak the truth of how we participate in our own suffering: how humiliating! And yet, yes. Yes, that’s it. It is humility that so often turns the key on the door of grace, opening the shutters and again allowing God’s light into the stuffy and suffocating system where we’ve been living. This is the freedom of the forgiveness of sins; nothing less than new life itself.
This is the dynamic of the prodigal son, and it is attested to across the Christian tradition. But we receive a powerful witness to this experience in  today’s psalm, which almost reads like a first-person reflection on the prodigal son story. I imagine if the just-returned son were journaling the night after the welcome-party, it might read like psalm 32. I invite you to take your bulletin home and read the psalm on your own, contemplating this ancient witness to what happens when we stop trying to paper over ugly truths.

A man once told me a story of his marriage, falling apart when he was desperate to keep it together. Though they were separated, he would drive past his wife’s house, trying to figure out what she was up to, watching jealously for signs of anyone else. And one night he saw another car in the driveway, and he was filled with rage and indignation. He went into the house, and confronted the other man, standing in the kitchen. This is my wife! He said. Who do you think you are? And the police were called, and it was all handled very civilly, but this man was humiliated. He was not the sort of man to have run-ins with the police. When I went home that night, that man told me, to the house I’d rented, I laid in bed and saw for the first time the full picture of my own faults in this whole thing, and even my faults going back many years, all the mistakes I’d made. I stopped lying to myself about my own role in the mess. And just when I thought I was going to drown in the blackness, he said,  I came to grace. Or, really, grace came to me. It just poured down and I felt so light, like I was practically lifted up. I could breathe again. I can’t explain it. I’ve never felt anything quite like it before, he said.

We don’t have to come to ourselves in dramatic ways to experience this movement of grace, although I suspect most of us will get such a chance, at least once in our lifetimes. Whether we are more like the older brother, with smaller deceits and insecurities stealing our joy, or the younger brother, starving in a pigsty, the father’s hope is the same: a shared life of loving relationship.

We must turn back toward home again and again, whether we wander miles or just a few paces. Lent invites us in a special way to come home: Drop your pride. Open your mouth to confess, and your heart to receive whatever comes in return: And don’t worry, the prodigal son parable hasn’t ruined the end: no matter how many times you’ve heard the story of God’s wonderful grace, if we are deeply honest and our spirit is without guile, if we’re really not trying to fool ourselves or God anymore, God is gracious enough to keep providing the surge of wonderful surprise: the dizzying experience of an unexpected embrace.

Laurel Mathewson
March 6, 2016
St. Paul’s Cathedral
the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C

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