“Prodigal Mercy”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

March 6, 2016 — Fourth Sunday in Lent

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32


You know that feeling, don’t you? When your face goes beet red and you can feel your cheeks getting hotter by the second… When your stomach seems to drop out through the soles of your feet… When your ears ring and your hands tingle… When your mouth goes dry and your throat goes hoarse and your pulse pounds in your temples… When it’s all you can do not to run away or hide behind anything in sight… When what you want most is to crawl into a hole and never come out again…

You know that feeling, don’t you? When you’ve done something foolish, or not done something important, or in some other way failed to live up to expectations, and your whole body, your whole mind, your whole spirit is filled with sickening regret and hot, burning shame…

You know that feeling, don’t you? When you tried to talk to the girl or boy you liked, and you said something incredibly stupid, and now you feel flatter than a slug that just got stepped on… When you lied to your parents, and they caught you, and they presented you with incontrovertible evidence, and they asked you to explain, and now the truth is like a splinter stuck in your throat… When you did something you weren’t proud of in front of your favorite teacher, or coach, or pastor, and they corrected you, and now you’re pretty sure they’ll think you’re a terrible person forever… When you realized at the end of an important conversation that your fly was down or you had toothpaste residue dribbled down your shirt, and now you wonder if they even heard anything you were saying since you looked like such an idiot…

You know that feeling, don’t you? When your credit card was declined because you were over your limit… When you admitted to your friend that you need help with your drinking… When you confessed to your spouse that you had feelings for someone else… When you made a bad decision, and someone got hurt, and now you have to live with the legacy of what you did for the rest of your life…

You know that feeling, don’t you? The way the younger son in today’s story felt when he came to his senses there in the pig fields—filthy, broke, hungry, destitute, miles from home and light years from who he used to be. Face burning, throat hoarse, head hanging, eyes downcast, he knelt there in the mud and the muck and the manure, and he ticked off a long list of his sins.

He had demanded his inheritance from his father while his father was still very much alive—basically the equivalent of telling his father that he couldn’t wait for him to die. He had squandered that ill-gotten wealth on luxury travel, on fast cars and fashionable clothes and epicurean food and beautiful women. He had taken a menial job feeding pigs, work that most people of Jewish heritage would not dream of doing, as it would render them ritually unclean. He had been tempted, and perhaps had yielded to the temptation, to eat the pigs’ food himself.

He had abandoned his homeland. He had rejected the love of his family. He had broken the rules of his faith. He had screwed up in most of the ways it’s possible to screw up, and he knew it.

Perhaps it would have been easier to stay there in the mud, paralyzed by regret and shame, rather than return to face what he had done and who he had become. Perhaps it would have been easier to crawl into a hole, to clamber into a trough in that pig field, and never come out again. Having wasted away his fortune, perhaps it would have been easier to waste away his life, his very self, too. But somehow, some way, that younger son didn’t. I don’t know why or how he did it. I don’t know what motivated him. Scholars argue about whether it was true repentance, or another round of manipulative behavior, or sheer desperation, or trust in the kindness of his father. But however, whyever, he did it, he got up off his knees and he turned his face toward home.

All the way home, the son repeated his grim recitations. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.” He expected to be met with judgment, with, “How could you?” and, “I can’t believe you,” and, “How dare you?” and, “What are you doing here?” His best case scenario was that his father would allow him to work as a hired hand, earning his keep by the strength of his back and the sweat of his brow.

But you know what happened next. The reception he expected is not the reception he found. What met him was pure, unadulterated, inexplicable, undeserved mercy. Not condemnation of his departure, but delight at his return. Not recrimination for his misdeeds, but joy at his restoration. He was received as a long-lost, much-missed, often-longed-for child, as loved that day as he ever had been before.

It almost offends our sensibilities, our sense of justice, our tit-for-tat tendency to keep a record of wrongs and exact the retribution required to balance the books and make things right. The extravagant mercy of this shamelessly-besotted father does not compute in our moral universe. But offensive or not, believable or not, this is the story the parable recounts. This is the story Jesus told to illustrate to his disciples the unimaginable contours of God’s love.

Friends, if you are like me, then you, too, have been there in the mud, whether your sins are major or relatively minor. And if you are like me, then you, too, have been inclined to stay there, paralyzed by regret and shame. It can seem like it would be easier to crawl into a hole, to clamber into a trough in that pig field and never come out again, than to return home to face what we have done. But the mercy of the father in our parable is as nothing to the grace with which God receives us whenever we return. When God looks at you, God sees past the filth and the grime, the burning-faced, hoarse-throated, mud-stained, down-and-defeated mess. God looks at you as a parent beholds a newborn child, eyes sparkling at the beauty and potential and hope and joy God sees in your life.

And so, as we continue our Lenten practice of letting go of the things we do not need, setting ourselves free from all that separates us from God’s love, I invite you now to take a slip of paper from the baskets the ushers will bring around. Write on that slip a regret you carry, a shame you can’t escape, a mistake for which you think you couldn’t possibly be forgiven. Then, when you are ready, come forward (up the side aisles) to the candles. This is flash paper, which means it will burn quickly and completely. All you need to do is put the end of your slip into the flame, lift it into the air, and let it go, and before it comes back down, it will be gone. As your shame is turned to light, let the brightness of that flame be for you a glimpse of the way God’s face shines with love, each and every time God beholds you.


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