Lent 4

The Rev. Mary E. Davis

Sunday, March 31, 2019
Lent 4 Year C
Luke 15: 11-32
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer. Amen.

I wonder if you remember – either between you and your own child, or perhaps watching someone else’s child – that moment when your child first learned to walk. For me, it’s unforgettable: the baby, so unsteady and unsure, gathering enough courage to let go of whatever it is that anchors them, finding just enough balance to steady themselves, and then taking those very first tentative steps.

First one. Then the next. And the next. 

My role in all of that was simply kneeling down on their level, just far enough away, calling out with excitement and encouragement. Of course, a 1-year-old has no grasp of the meaning of those words, but they are very much in tune with being called forth. They begin with that jerky-start-and-stop with each step, until momentum takes over. That’s when the child, just an arms-length away, falls into a joyous celebratory hug.

These moments with each of my children were so visceral that I hope you’ll believe me when I say that, even as my children are now all young adults, I can still “feel” those hugs today. I can also still “feel” the power of their accomplishment, and “feel” those wobbly baby steps, and know the trust it took to make them.

Today’s parable from Luke explores this world of the baby step. The youngest son, who infamously takes his half of the father’s inheritance, ends us squandering it. He yearns to return home, and seems to have learned appreciation – the hard way – for his life there. But he is stuck. Both literally, in the muck and the mire of the pig sty, but he is also emotionally paralyzed by the shame, regret and fear that he feels.    

But the son, in spite of his failures, is not alone. His dad is there, miles away – an invisible presence – calling out for his return. Cheering him on. ‘Keep walking,’ you can hear him hope. ‘Take that next step, son.’ Dad is not discouraged by the unsteady and wobbling steps of his child. He is just there, holding out his arms, even before junior comes into sight.

His hope turns to euphoria when he recognizes that it is, indeed his son coming down the road. The father runs to him – fueled by nothing but compassion – to embrace and kiss his son. The son, I imagine, just like a baby figuring out how to take his first tentative steps, leans in to the father’s open arms, just as my kids fell into mine.

What a powerful moment, filled with energy, delight, and jubilation.

Even as we sit in these pews today, two thousand years after Jesus shared this parable story with the tax collectors and Pharisees, we are invited into the father’s compassionate hug. Into God’s open and eager arms.

I mean think about it.  Is there anything more the world needs now than to be tightly wrapped in compassion? So many people are hurting. Stuck in the muck of a pig sty. Whether emotionally or physically. I heard just yesterday about a young man’s death by suicide here in Chatham. And read the news coming out of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School and Sandy Hook in the past week. Despair seems rampant. And it’s not just ‘out there.’ It’s here too. Among my colleagues. Friends. Neighbors. So many people are hurting and suffering. From remorse or regret. Consumed by grief. Or isolation.

Today’s parable speaks to all of that. The father lets none of that separate him from his sons.

So it makes me wonder, do you – or does someone you know – long for that moment of compassionate embrace? The exchange of exuberant forgiveness? The power of perfect love? Well then invite them here. Help them take those first wobbly, insecure steps. Maybe someone you know has put in 28 different job applications. Help them complete #29. Or maybe someone you know is consumed by an addiction. Walk with them to a recovery meeting. Call out to them with encouragement and support. Or maybe someone you know is going through a difficult treatment from a stunning diagnosis. Listen to them. Listen to their fears. Lean in to their story. Meet them where they are. It’s one way to invite them to experience God leaning in toward them with a compassionate embrace.

The purpose of today’s parable – both then and now - is to help us see ourselves, to see our world, and to see God in a different way. To experience God in a visceral way!  There is nothing more visceral than those baby steps, one after another, which end in the faithful celebration of outstretched arms of the father. What we learn from this parable is that God loves us so much that God doesn’t wait for our confessions to forgive us. That God loves us so much that God doesn’t wait for us to come to our senses to love us. That God loves us so much that God doesn’t wait for us to be perfectly sincere to redeem us. That God loves us so much that he comes toward us, running toward us like a desperate, crazy-in-love, just-glad-we’re-home father.

How amazing would it be – if we all could viscerally feel that God calling us forth and wrapping us in compassion? Well, we can. Because Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem and to the cross to do just that.

Lean in, and feel God’s embrace.