Year C, Lent 4 March 6, 2016 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“…this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
Last week we spoke of our “…observance of a Holy Lent through self-examination and repentance…” Repentance, remember, is not some penitential, sacrificial practice, though such practices may be helpful in seeking repentance, but repentance is maybe better thought of as what? Anyone remember? ____ Changing the direction we are looking for happiness. Looking for love in all the right places. Learning to love what’s good for you, and figuring out what’s good for you. Feeding the soil, not the plant. Feeding your soul, not the rest of the junk we lug around with us.
Deep, deep inside of each of us is our true self. This is that glowing orb of pure love, the part of us created by God in God’s own image. It is the Christ-nature pat of you. All of the right intentions, all of your right desires, right motivations all of you that is in perfect right relationship with God, that’s your true self. The heart of your being is one with, is in union with the ground of all being; God. But through all of the hardships we experience in our lives, all the needs we have that have been unmet, all the fear and loathing and self doubt that we all experience, our lack of faith, all of that spiritual and emotional crud builds up around that beautiful core, your true self. Layer upon layer of these false selves accumulate and soon enough, we can’t even see a glimmer of that center, a glimmer of that divinity you carry inside. Rather, all the sins of the world, the distance from God that we experience, that’s all we can see, a false self, obscuring who and what we really are.
That alone would be sad, terribly sad that we can’t, won’t, in any case don’t accept how blessedly close we are to God in Christ, how at hand the kingdom of God actually is, but the real tragedy is that in not knowing how connected we actually are to God, we live lives which reflect that. We live lives in all sorts of disarray. The needs we feel are real, we all need to feel acceptance, affection, appreciation, and that is just the A’s. We need many, many things, which is fine, we are utterly dependent not only on God, but on each other. The problem is that those layers of the false self distort how we try to satisfy those needs. Sin happens! Sin is distance from God. Sinful acts are the things we do because we are distant from God and tragically the sins that we commit act to further distance us from God. A terrible feedback loop.
You need to feel appreciated. Yes, we all do. But our false self convinces us that to feel appreciated we actually need to take the people around us down a notch, make them less appreciable. Or you want to feel connected, sure, we all need that, desperately. But your false self tells you to stay in that relationship, weather the belittling, the hostility, the violence even, because all that pain, we tell our self, is better than bearing the pain of loneliness. The feeling that that drink or that pipe or that pill brings is better than soldiering on in with own minds, so vulnerable, so tender, so sensitive as it is. Oh the lies we tell ourselves! Oh the terrible wrong turns we make seeking the wholeness, the life, the love of God that we all need, we all deserve, we all are freely, by grace, offered, but for the love of it all we cannot see through the quagmire of our false selves.
That’s the story of the younger son, the prodigal son. It sounds like he had a pretty good life, materially at least. There is a fatted calf, a spare fine robe and ring. His father had enough for an inheritance, and enough of that to give it to him in his youth. Certainly privilege does not mean that you were not raised in an emotional desert. Some of the most disaffected youth I have experienced in my life were the children of the rich, their upbringing devoid of parental affection, their rearing sub-contracted to nurses, nannies, tutors and schools. The prep school kids I knew often had the most drugs not only because they could afford them, but because they in ways needed them the most, or had the most needs unmet. Windy and I grew up in wealthy suburbs north of Boston. A lot of misery is hidden behind those manicured hedges. A lot of layers of false self build up among the privileged. I am rather expert when it comes to that reality.
So we don’t know what the younger son’s life was, but he wasn’t finding satisfaction with what was there, so he took the route of youthful excess. “He traveled to a distant country and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.” His trust fund matured and he went backpacking across Europe or Southeast Asia. He sought out satisfaction, fulfillment, very happiness in places categorically incapable to providing it. And it didn’t work out.
Have you sought happiness where it can’ be found? Have you sought life and love and light in places that turned out to be sources of death and hate and darkness? In my early twenties I sought such things in the ever-loving bosom of the United States Marine Corps, a Marine tank battalion, even. Such a warm and fuzzy place. Seemed like the thing to do at the time. Seemed like a place where I could get what I needed. I would be valued for what I had to offer, I would find a sense of belonging and camaraderie (brotherhood even) and a real sense of purpose with something much greater then myself. And it got in deep, even now I feel a sense of betrayal saying that I sought to find happiness, to fill my needs, my holy needs in a very unholy place and did very unholy things in pursuit of fulfilling those needs. That is what the prodigal son did. That is what we all do. Where have you sought happiness where it cannot be found?
Some of us seek it in the arms of a partner; or the complexities of a career; or in the thrill of achievement. Some of us seek it in the bottom of a bottle, in righteous anger, in helping others for our own purposes. Some of us loose ourselves in the life of the mind, forsaking all other ways of relating to the world while others of us ignore our minds, and live by the emotional seat of our pants. The list is endless. Where have you sought happiness where it cannot be found?
And tragically, for most of us, our false selves, our search for satisfaction of our false selves lead us down a slippery slope that is very hard to change course from. A lifetime of being the life of the party makes finding sobriety very hard. Twenty years into a successful career, tenure and everything, is very hard to leave. A relationship, as bad as it might be, to dissolve can have huge consequences for you, him or her, maybe the kids. Or simple shame of having been for so long on so wrong a path… Shame because you have squandered your inheritance and find yourself sharing seed pods with the swine you have been reduced to tending. (As an occasional pig farmer I take exception to that whole part of the story, but I get what St. Luke meant).
But here is the phenomenal, awesome, greatest news you have ever heard. Here is salvation offered freely by the grace of God: you can repent! You can, you, yes you, you can repent, you can change the direction that you look for happiness! Each of us has the capacity to learn to love what is good for us, that is great news AND, even better news, God (and most of us mortals) are right here waiting for you to return, waiting for you to come home. Waiting to see you on the horizon, “hosanna in the highest” in the air, saying “you were dead but now are alive; you were lost but now you are found.” No matter how far gone you are, there is a way home! Always.
When I look at this parable, I usually think, “I have been that prodigal son… for too long.” Or, “The love of that father… I wish I could have that kind of love and forgiveness.” Or “I so identify with the older brother. My good-for-nothing little brother did exactly that thing. They always loved him more. Grumble, grumble, grumble.” And each of those responses demand their own sermons, volumes upon volumes of treatment. Today, however, we are speaking of repentance. In this parable, the key line of repentance is, “But, when he came to himself…” That is the key. “…when he came to himself…” He saw how bad things had become, how wrong a direction he had gone and he set about making it right. “Father,” he practiced saying to himself, “I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am not worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”
Ever been there? Looking around and think, “Good Lord, this is my life! Where oh where did I go wrong,” and then realize, “Oh, I went wrong here and here and here, and I really need to go there and there and there.” That is what that boy did.
These five words sum up the first five of the twelve steps to recovery, and there are few things in the world harder to do then that. Admitting that a problem exists, knowing that there are forces greater then us that can help, and deciding to submit to the will of that power and then “making a searching and fearless moral inventory.” That is what happened “…when he came to himself…” And what is that but repentance? We repent when we come to ourselves.
The phenomenal, awesome, greatest news you have ever heard is that the call to repent and change the direction of your life and find the love and forgiveness of God is always freely offered. Just like that father, with open arms rejoicing that while you were dead, now you are alive! And it works. If you change direction, if you see that you need to change direction, if you commit yourself to doing it and then you do it, you will be restored, you will be welcomed back. You can be found. You can regain your life. Repent. Change the direction that you look for happiness, true, life-giving, sourced in our God of life and light and love kind of happiness.
Now that doesn’t mean that everything will go back to how it was. No… it will never be how it was. But then again, it didn’t work out for you how it was. Knowing what you know now, maybe it would have been different, but that is water under the bridge. It might be a long time before the older brother trusts him again, if ever. The prodigal son doesn’t have control over that. None of us do. In true repentance, some relationships won’t survive. It won’t always (or even usually) be comfortable. Much will change, it will be different, you don’t have control, but maybe seeking a sense of control, or acting as if you had any control is what got you off the right track to begin with.
Economists call it “escalation of commitment” or the “sunk cost fallacy”, the phenomenon that we keep going the same direction because we have already come this far, no matter how far from where you should be you are. It is a fallacy! No matter how far you have gone down the wrong path, no matter how many pigs you find yourself tending or for how long, you can repent. You can change the direction of your life. Well, as this is about the hardest thing we can begin to do, to change the direction of our lives, to begin to see that a true and beautiful and loving self exists under all the garbage we have been told and tell ourselves, we can change our lives, but we need God’s help. Repent.
That prodigal son, I can so see him sitting in the pig sty like Job in his ashes. Mourning. Crying a river of tears into his pity pot. But then I imagine him getting quiet, quiet on the inside. The people who teach about repentance as a change of direction are also people who take silence very seriously. Silence is the first language of God. So placing yourself in the path of silence you are slipping into conversation with God. And conversing with God, man oh man, all the illusions and delusions, all those layers of false selves, slowly, slowly, slowly like the sloth, those layers slough off, and glimmers of the true you begin to shine through. Come to contemplative prayer. Take those moments of silence here at Mass and dip your toe into the deep pool of silence. Sip your cup of tea in the morning and do nothing more than sip that cup of tea. Be right where you are when you are there and experience the sacrament of the present moment. Silence doesn’t just mean quiet. It means much, much more than that.
Or empty yourself into the loving arms of someone who loves you. Ask for forgiveness (it usually comes more readily than we fear). Search your memory for when you were whole and happy and what got you there, then go and do likewise, now. Or if that is not in your memory, imagine it. Your true self has quite an imagination.
Repentance, true repentance, actually changing the direction of not only your life, but the direction you seek meaning and fulfillment in your life is among the hardest things you can endeavor to do. And starting is the first hurdle. But remember, simply having the desire to repent is a first giant step in making it so. Repent, the kingdom of God has drawn near. AMEN