March 14, 2010, the Fourth Sunday in Lent

March 14, 2010
The Rev. Natasha Brubaker Garrison
Joshua 5:9-12, Ps 32, 1 Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 15:1-3.11b-32
4th Sunday of Lent, Year C

In Alice Walker’s beautiful and painful book “The Color Purple”, one of the many characters we meet is Shug Avery, a traveling blues singer. Shug has been estranged from her pastor father for years because of her decision to sing secular music. One morning, while she’s visiting her hometown, she decides that she feels like singing. She opens the local juke joint and begins singing her signature song. As a crowd gathers around the singer, the scene shifts to her father’s church. As he is preaching, sounds from the juke joint drift in through the open windows. Someone in the congregation prompts the choir to begin singing “God Might be Trying to Tell you Something”. As the choir gets louder, Shug hears and begins singing along. As the song progresses, she leads everyone from the juke joint (band and all) to the church. She walks up to her father and puts her arms around, whispering, “See, Daddy, even sinners have souls.” He returns her embrace as tears fill her eyes.

Shug Avery’s world is a long way away from that of the younger son we hear about today. Some parallels are obvious. Both children take paths that the world judges to be morally suspect. Both are distanced from their fathers, though we do not ever know how the father in the story in Luke felt about his younger son’s decision. He may not have had the hardness of heart that Shug’s did. Both children find a way to come home through the interaction of life and the involvement of other people, though the choir in Shug’s story is a far kinder opening than the younger brother’s working as an exploited field laborer. And both, upon meeting their father again, confess.

And it is on this aspect that I would like us to focus a bit more. So often we hear sermons on God’s unconditional grace and acceptance as embodied by the father. Which is true. Or we hear sermons on the older brother and how often we may indentify more with him than the prodigal, being prompted to not let our narrowness cut out God’s incomprehensible grace and realizing grace for one doesn’t diminish it’s presence for the other. Which is also true. Or we hear the invitation to come home to God if we find our lives seem to be more like that of the prodigal son’s and trust that we will be received. Again, true. All are certainly ways into this story and pointing to the many meanings therein.

To confess. To acknowledge. To, as the story says, come to oneself, to face oneself honestly. This is not a popular topic. Oh, don’t get me wrong. We love to divulge in our culture. Why else are the antics of our stars and shows like Jerry Springer so popular? But such divulgence of our behaviors, our wrongdoings, our shocking mistreatment of others is not truly confession. It is self-indulgent revelation meant to garner attention, fame, money and a sense of importance. Confession is none of those things. It is about self-honesty and repair. It’s about seeing where we have not acted as we ought to have; it is about claiming where we have misused our lives at the expense of ourselves and others. We don’t look to blame; we look to own and to amend. It is an intimate act done without ulterior motives of gain, except perhaps that of the peace and calm that come with acceptance and owning what we have done without excuse or justification.

Some cynical types take the prodigal son’s words as a calculated ploy to win his father’s affection and get back into to the good life. He doesn’t really mean it, they say; he’s just once again being the selfish young git trying to protect his own skin. Perhaps such a jaded reading is a symptom of our times. I may be naïve, but I take the young man’s words at face value. He could have simply tried this ruse when the famine hit rather than trying to eek out a living as a laborer. He could have gone home with his tail between his legs. But he doesn’t. He chooses to work in a dirty, bottom of the barrel job because he realizes he has gotten lost, that he has misused his father’s trust and love, that he has been selfishly living, focusing on his own pleasure at the expense of others’ souls and his own. He has a moment of clarity into his own nature. And he realizes that no one owes him anything; he has to find his own path back to wholeness and dignity. He can’t do it alone, but he also can’t expect that there aren’t bridges to mend and accounts to be reckoned. He faces the emptiness and inner darkness and finds the courage to say this is where I am and it is from here that I start. May God send me people to help me find my way back.

This is the first movement of grace, the whisper on the edges of our soul that reminds us we do not belong to ourselves, but to our family, our neighbors, our world and our God. We are part of something holy and beautiful and all too often we trample on it in search of self-centered gratification. But to step back and see our interdependence and our interconnection, our need for good relations with others and our own soul is the first step of the dynamic of grace. God implants this earning, this longing within us. We can muffle it well, but when we are ready for something new it sends forth a whisper of longing from deep within us.

The son prepares his speech. Note how he doesn’t cast blame or try to paint himself as a victim of circumstance. Rather, he comes clean and says basically, I messed up and I don’t expect you to take me back as before. I have to re-earn your trust; I have to grow and I have to make amends. And he goes through with this even when his father greets him with unconditional love and joy. The son could have not said his prepared speech; he could have chosen not to acknowledge his own realization and instead said, phew, dodged a bullet there, I don’t have to worry about saying sorry. Instead he still says the words, at least most of them, to his father even after this amazing reception. He does so, not to guarantee the continued good reaction of his father, but rather for the sake of his soul.

And this is the second dynamic of grace. It is always being held out for us, but we have to come to a place where we see our need for it. Only then can we truly receive it, experience it as grace. We have to acknowledge our utter dependence on God’s love and that even at our best we get lost. Our ability to experience God’s unconditional loving grace is directly related to our humility and willingness to always acknowledge that our lives and actions are always in need of scrutiny and the participation of God. This is the life of the soul, the soul that Shug speaks of, the soul given back to the son. For our souls to blossom, they need to bask in God’s grace, and God’s grace comes to us in direct proportion to our willingness to admit our dependence on God and each other. It comes as we keep our eyes always open with honest clarity on who we are and what we do, asking always for God to come in and make it truly good.

Even the older son needs to learn this. He has confused grace with reward for always doing the right thing. Grace is an earned thing. In his self-righteousness he is angry that grace is given to someone who hasn’t played by the rules. For him, it seems, grace is about fairness not love. He is the good guy, right, so why hasn’t he gotten special favors? In his own way, he is just as self-absorbed as his younger brother. In his own way, he too needs to recognize his need for grace, his need to confess his arrogance, his superiority, his feeling of entitlement, his belief in that it he himself who is the author his salvation.

God wants us back together with him and each other safe and sound. God wants us back together to celebrate, to move to a place beyond blame and retribution, into acknowledgement of our wrongs against each other that leads to healing not continued division. Confession is an act of profound liberation. It is freeing; it is a tonic to the soul. To confess is to strip away all that has accumulated on our souls and allow the light of God to shine in and continue to build us up. To confess is to remind ourselves of the deep truth that as long as we are human and part of this human enterprise, we will get out of alignment. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but rather something essential to know about ourselves so that we can keep turning to the center to find God. It is not to make us focus on our faults and shortcomings and feel guilty, dirty and rotten about ourselves; rather, confession is about reminding ourselves that at our core we are holy people called to live a life of fulfilling love for others and in so doing find our souls to be enriched and blessed.

Confession done from this place, I believe, is at the heart of our growth as people, our ability to forgive and the possibility to live in new ways. It is also the soil from which social justice sprouts forth and why such work is so hard. It is more than saying we are sorry as a collective; it is to take the next step to make amends and restructure our world from a radically new place. That is why it is easy for governments decades later to issue formal apologies, such as ours did only last year for slavery, but nearly impossible for them to make monetary reparations or work to change systems of power without tremendous pressure from the people.

This Lent we are invited to revisit the meaning and the sacred power of confession and its intrinsic link to grace. We are invited to see ourselves as all the characters in this story because we are all the characters in it, and to live out the dynamic of grace in within ourselves and towards others. It is about seeing that we have souls and to see that soul in all others—the Christ within, the holy spark inside, the connection to the unifying reality of God. It is about a season of reunification that can only come when we see the breaks to be healed, the division to overcome. It is about believing that grace is God’s first gift and purpose for us and being willing to let ourselves be wrapped in those arms of divine acceptance and joy.