Unconditional Grace – March 31, 2019
Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourth Sunday in Lent
Mild mannered high school chemistry teacher Walter White thinks his life can’t get much worse. His salary barely makes ends meet, a situation not likely to improve once his pregnant wife gives birth, and their teenage son is battling cerebral palsy.
After learning he has terminal cancer and realizing that his illness will probably bankrupt his family, Walter makes a desperate bid to make as much money as he can in the time he has left by turning an old RV into a meth lab on wheels and becomes a ruthless player in the local methamphetamine drug trade. Because of his drug-related activities, Walt eventually finds himself at odds with his family, the local gangs, and the Mexican drug cartels and their regional distributors, putting his life at risk. This is the story line of the popular TV series Breaking Bad. This morning, the Gospel of Luke offers us the story of another man who likewise made some bad life decisions.
Walter White acted out of utter desperation and I have to wonder if the younger son in this parable was so desperate, so needed to run away that he acted the way he did. Certainly we know that there are young people who try to escape from difficult even life-threatening circumstances by abandoning family and friends—sadly, too many by ending their lives.
This story of the Prodigal Son is probably one of the most familiar ones in the Bible. When we hear it told, it’s almost like getting an email with one of those well-known, old jokes that have been percolating around the internet for years. We still laugh but we’ve heard it a hundred times. Yet his parable reveals one of the most profound theological statements about God.
This is really not primarily a story about two sons. It is a story about a father who loved both of his children to distraction and who wanted them to love one another. In a sense, it’s really the father who is the “prodigal” since one definition of that term is “extravagant” and he certainly was in terms of his freely given up his inheritance and freely forgiving.
If we really want to understand what a punch this story packs, we need to read it in its context. It is one of three parables that Jesus tells in response to the mean-spirited grumblings of the Pharisees—the religious right of that time—because they caught him eating with people they considered to be sinners.
This misnomer of titling this parable as “The Prodigal Son” suggests that the whole point is to see what happens to the young man who “breaks bad.” It sets us up to delight in seeing that he gets what’s coming to him. “Serves him right,” we might think, “for leaving his father, demanding his share of the estate – actually wishing his father dead – and then squandering it all on reckless and extravagant living.”
But here we miss the point because it is really the story about a forgiving parent, a parent whose love is so strong that he forgets the past, forgets his child’s transgressions, and showers him with affection and mercy. It is a story told to assure us that God is willing to forgive us but even more than that – God welcomes us, embraces us, loves us “Just as I am—without one plea.” I’m not an advocate of repeating the whole Gospel story in a sermon. We all heard it once this morning and how many other times in our lives or at least know the gist of it. The real pearl in this parable that might be easily overlooked: Note that as soon as he caught sight of his son, the father ran—he didn’t stay put, he didn’t walk, he ran.
Running may be cool in our present culture, but in Jesus’ time men did not run. It was a sign that you had lost your dignity. And now the real clincher: the father never says one single word to the Prodigal Son—no “I told you so,” no name-calling, no angry tirade. There is an embrace and a kiss—but no words. And, even more striking is that this boy, who has wasted his share of the inheritance putting his father’s security in jeopardy by squandering it, this kid never gets one word of his declaration of guilt out of his mouth—until after the kiss, until after the embrace.
Remember when we hear this story that Jesus told it to his audience two thousand years ago. This is Jesus talkin’ and what this parable seems to say is that confession is not a prerequisite of forgiveness. Rather it is something you do after you are forgiven, because you know you are forgiven. It’s a celebration of the forgiveness you know you’ve already gotten as a free gift. This has been called “the scandal of unconditional grace.”
God does not scowl at us when we stray and fail to hit the mark, but rather searches the horizon, desperate for any sign of our coming down the road home. It is God who runs to us, throwing God’s arms around us and startling us by the grace we receive when we are welcomed with tender yet firm embrace: the scandal of unconditional grace.
Here it today straight from Jesus through the story he tells: If you have been hurt in the name of religion –if you have been told that you have little or no value, are not welcome at God’s table, because of who you are or whom you choose to love, that distorted message is not of God but of twisted human error and hypocrisy. That’s real fake news. Those who preach it are marketing counterfeit religion.
“The Late Show” host Stephen Colbert is known for weaving religion into his monologues, and sometimes calling out the immorality in Christians—pointing to the real meaning of what Jesus taught us. In a candid conversation on the talk show “Faith in Focus,” Colbert revealed that his religious convictions haven’t always been so strong. He struggled with doubt in his younger years.
“I had lost my faith in God, to my own great grief,” Colbert said. “I was sort of convinced that I had been wrong all this time, that I had been taught something that wasn’t true. Then there was a moment when all that changed.
He was walking through the streets of Chicago on a cold night, when a stranger handed him a little green pocket New Testament. Colbert remembered that the pages were frozen stiff, so he had to crack the book open. What appeared was an index listing what to read based on your emotions. Colbert was feeling anxious so he flipped to the suggested Bible verse.
It was this passage: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?…Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” The words spoke directly to him. “I was absolutely, immediately lightened,” he said. “And my life has never been the same.” That night was Stephen Colbert’s return: unconditional grace.
I’m reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s Holy Envy this Lent. It is a book about finding God in the faith of others. Barbara teaches a World Religions class and in one of the field trips she organizes for her students they visit a Buddhist Center. The Buddhist monk is giving a teaching on “Cultivating Happiness.”
“Have we ever noticed,” he asks, “how quickly our unhappiness with not being in a relationship turns into our unhappiness with our new relationship? Have we ever noticed how soon our unhappiness with not having a job turns into our unhappiness with the job we get?”
In no more than four sentences he has made the point: our unhappiness is not dependent on our circumstances, which are always changing. Our unhappiness is the product of our own minds, as we persist in locating the source of all our problems “out there” instead of “in here.” While we spin our wheels trying to control things beyond our control, we ignore the one thing that is within our power to change: our way of seeing things.
That for me seems to be the problem for the younger son in the parable Jesus told as it was for his elder brother as it was for Stephen Colbert and as it is, if I’m to completely honest, for me at times in my life. Each of our stories—yours and mine—has the potential to mirror God’s grace, to reflect back unique facets of this quality of unconditional acceptance that is exemplified in the parable of the lost son.
Preaching on the parable, Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor says it’s up to each one of us to finish the story, to decide “whether we will stand outside all alone being right, or give up our rights and go inside to take our place at a table full of reckless and righteous saints and scoundrels, sisters and brothers united only by our relationship to one loving father, who refuses to give us the love we deserve but cannot be prevented from giving us the love we need.”