Scripture: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Theme: For (from the book by Rob Bell, What Do We Talk About When We Talk About God?"
I’m wondering how many of us go through life with a little judger sitting on our shoulder. Maybe it’s the voice of an internalized mother whose concern for manners and rules overshadowed nearly all affection and care. Maybe it’s the voice of a father whose shrill screams when we were on the athletic field made us ashamed of our frequent mistakes and his harsh presence. Maybe it was a school system so oriented to correction and discipline that little genuine learning could take place. Maybe it’s a workplace whose relentless pushing and prodding leaves little but fear and resentment. “Come on, Joe—you’re not doing enough.” “Let’s go, Anna—you’re really disappointing me.” For some of us, the judger seldom rests. It’s the voice of the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz: “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too.”
Years ago, I read Calvin Trillin’s book Remembering Denny, one of those rare books that has stuck with me over these many years. Denny Hansen was a superstar. President of his high school class, varsity swimmer, possessed of a brilliant and arresting smile, he went to Yale, where he was a classmate of Trillin’s, graduated Phi Beta Kappa and became a Rhodes Scholar. The man had promise and accomplishment written all over him. His friends imagined he’d be president someday.
And what shocked them all was that Denny took his own life. Neither Trillin nor anyone else could fathom why. Clearly, though, Denny was haunted, with likely a deep sense that he couldn’t possibly live up to the massive expectations heaped on him. The judger had convinced him of his unworthiness. And it was evidently too painful to go on.
That’s the extreme, of course. Most of us aren’t that undone by such an ingrained sense of worthlessness. Yet, for most of us, too, that judger too often whispers its condemnations. And too often, we buy it: ‘you’re not living up to what you should be!’
A son demands what he thinks is his and leaves his family. He tries to start a new life and, frankly, it’s a total bomb. He knows it. Nothing has gone as he had hoped. He’s likely ashamed of his failure. And, with hat in hand, and certainly afraid of how he’ll be greeted, he heads home.
And what does he see as he comes around the corner and his house comes into view? He sees the father he has probably dreaded seeing, a father not sneering, not folding his arms in disgust, not telling the son what he needs to do to make things right, but running toward him, arms outstretched, elation bursting forth. There is nothing this father would rather see than his son coming back. He throws his arms around him and kisses him and tells his son how thrilled he is to have him home.
This is how God is with you and me. No matter what we’ve done, no matter how often or egregiously we’ve failed, no matter what laws and rules and expectations we’ve broken, God’s arms are flung wide—for you and me. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saves a wretch like me.” This is who God is.
“Gospel,” says Rob Bell in his book What We Talk About When We Talk About God, “is the shocking, provocative, revolutionary, subversive, counterintuitive good news that in your moments of greatest despair, failure, sin, weakness, losing, failing, frustration, inability, helplessness, wandering, and falling short, God meets you there—right there—right exactly there—in that place, and announces, I am on your side.
“Gospel insists that God doesn’t wait for us to get ourselves polished, shined, proper, and without blemish—God comes to us and meets us and blesses us while we are still in the middle of the mess we created.
“Gospel isn’t us getting it together so that we can have God’s favor; gospel is us finding God exactly in the moment of our greatest not-togetherness” (pp. 135-36).
When Father Gregory Boyle was a young priest, he served in an indigenous people’s community in Bolivia. In one of his first masses with the people, he celebrates in a field high up on a hill. Nothing goes right for him. He forgets the missalette with the mass in it. He doesn’t know the language and can’t ad lib. It’s a disaster. When mass is over, he is weary and totally discouraged. And just as he’s about to descend the hill back into town, feeling terrible about himself, an old, weathered man in sandals caked with mud appears and walks up to him and thanks him for coming.
“I [try to] think something to say, but nothing comes to me. Which is just as well, because before I can speak, the old campesino reaches into the pockets of his suit coat and retrieves two fistfuls of multicolored rose petals. [He gestures to me to lean my head forward.] And [then] he drops the petals over my head, and I’m without words. He digs into his pockets again and manages two more fistfuls of petals. He does this again and again, and the store of red, pink, and yellow rose petals seems infinite. I just stand there and let him do this, staring at my own [sandals], now moistened with my tears, covered with rose petals. Finally, he takes his leave and I’m left there, alone, with only the bright aroma of roses. . . .
“God, I guess, is more expansive than [anything we can possibly imagine]. How much greater is the God we have than the one we think we have. More than anything else, the truth of God seems to be about a joy that is a foreigner to disappointment and disapproval. This joy just doesn’t know what we’re talking about when we focus on the restriction of not measuring up. . . . The God, who is greater than God, has only one thing on Her mind, and that is to drop, endlessly, rose petals on our heads. . . .
“Marinate in the vastness of that” (Tattoos on the Heart, pp. 37-39).
Indeed. That is what we marinate in today: the vastness of a love that is undeterred by any failings of ours, a love that will not let us go. We’ve been lost and now we’re found! And so we feast!