The Prodigal in All of Us: Sermon for March 6, 2016

All through my 20’s, I was fortunate enough to have a mentor. From college to seminary to ordination and beyond, she was always there, carefully balancing gentle encouragement with the not-so-gentle directness of one who could see through excuses with x-ray vision. In other words, she was excellent at her job.

Throughout college, and throughout seminary, she was there for me, helping me to focus and to think about my future. And after seminary I took a chance and applied to a PhD program, in the exact same field as hers incidentally, and was accepted. When I drove off to school to start that doctoral program she told me how proud she was of me.

But there was just one problem: once I got there I hated it with every fiber of my being. Every day in graduate school made me feel like I was a square peg being pounded into a round hole. So, finally, I left.

Driving away I felt incredibly free. I also felt so worried that I had disappointed my mentor that I didn’t write or call to tell her. Embarrassed at what I thought she would see as my failure, I all but disappeared for the next few years.

This week’s Scripture tells us about a son who asked for his father’s inheritance early, went off to the big city, and promptly hit rock bottom. He was so afraid that his father would be ashamed of him that he took a job feeding pigs for a stranger. One day out in the fields, hungry and humiliated, he realized that even his father’s hired hands were treated better than this.

And so, he set off for home, expecting no welcome but hoping for just enough grace to be treated fairly as a servant, and not as a son. He was, after all, a disappointment.

I often worry that churches are too full of people who are not disappointments, and too full of people who can easily resonate with that older brother who feels cheated when the younger one comes home without any consequences.

Churches are often filled with people who pay the bills on time, call their parents regularly, and change the oil in the car long before the check engine light comes on. In short, people who have never been disappointments.

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“Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt
These are the sort of folks who can resonate with the angry brother who has stayed and worked on the farm while his younger brother wasted the family’s money in the city. The ones who are mad that now that same brother is home again, dad just can’t wait to give him another chance.

Except the reality is that even when we look like we have our lives together, even when we look to all the world like the loyal son or daughter, we have all been disappointments at one time or another. We have been prodigal sons who have hit some kid of rock bottom. Maybe no one has known it but us, but we have known it. And it has shaken us to our core.

In truth both brothers live inside of us, the responsible one and the prodigal one. It is an uneasy coexistence made worse by the reality that neither is perfect, and that both make real mistakes. The dutiful brother’s lack of compassion and grace when his brother returns is indeed worth our attention. But he’s not the only one.

Of all the places in our life, church should be the one place where we can all admit that we are sometimes the other brother too. Even when others admire the highlight reels of our lives, each of us knows that there is a lot sitting back there on the cutting room floor. We need a place where we can say that, and hear that from others too.

In Lent we get honest about the fact that we sometimes disappoint God. The good news is that we also get to hear this truth: God is waiting to come running down the road, and welcome us back. Dutiful son, prodigal son, or a little bit of both…God knows us already, and God can’t wait for us to come home.

I don’t know what the prodigal son was feeling when he walked up the road to his father’s house that day, but I do know what I felt when I opened my email and typed a message to my old mentor after so many years. I know what it is like to wait for a response I was not sure would come. I know what it is like to be prepared for the worst.

It is because I sent that message, though, that I also know what it’s like to find the one you have disappointed running down the road to you, embracing you, and welcoming you home.

The greatest gift I received from my mentor that day was her telling me she was not disappointed in me in the least for quitting my PhD program. As she put it, she would have only been disappointed had I stayed in a place where I was not being true to the person God had created me to be. The hard truth, though, was that she was disappointed in me for one thing: I hadn’t given her the chance to tell me that all those years ago.

The reality is that we have all disappointed people who have loved us. God included. That’s real. But so is grace, and the thing about grace is that those moments of disappointment do not define us. Unless, of course, we are so scared of our loved ones’ rejection that we choose to let them.

In Lent we are called home by a God who will come running down the road just to hold us once more. We turn away not from life, but from those places in life in which we are not true to whom God has created us to be. In this season we find that our failures are indeed real, but that God’s love is so much bigger and better than what we could have imagined.

Maybe the only way we could ever truly disappoint God is by believing that we have messed up too much to ever be loved by God again. But even then, even when we refuse to give God a chance, I’ll bet that God still will somehow still find us. And in that moment we will once again be welcomed back home. Amen?

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