Really? From Judgment to Grace

First Congregational Church of Berkeley, Calif.
Readings for Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday in Lent): 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

The fourth Sunday in Lent, Laetare Sunday, sometimes called Refreshment Sunday, is supposed to be a bright spot, a moment of relief in the otherwise reflective, penitential season of Lent.

Laetare means “rejoice.” Thus we have sung “Rejoice You Pure in Heart” to begin this morning’s worship. At first glance, rejoicing and refreshment are the important themes of our Gospel story of the Prodigal Son. The Gospel lesson concludes with the strong message of the words of the father to his elder son:

We rejoice and celebrate, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, he was lost and now is found.

For the father of this son, celebration and rejoicing were not optional. The father could do nothing less than celebrate and rejoice as his youngest son walked up the long road to the house.

This parable of Jesus’ functions for us on many levels. If you are at all like me, you’ve identified with just about every character in the story except the fatted calf! I have been the younger son, the rebel who leaves home to search the far-off and far-out countries of the world, leaving behind bewildered, frightened parents. I’ve also been the dutiful oldest child, being first in the birth order among my siblings. And I’ve even been the patient parent — waiting for someone to come home, hoping they will, storing up my love and blessings for the day they do.

This story functions in the liturgical calendar as a preparation story for Easter. Notice the resurrection motif in the homecoming celebration — the robe, the ring, new shoes, the fatted calf, the great welcome-home feast. Perhaps Luke’s readers hoped to hear in this death-and-return-to-life story a post-resurrection story about Jesus.

If we have any imagination at all, the story leaves us wide open. The parable doesn’t tell us about the older son’s response. We don’t know whether he joined in the banquet or remained outside, sullen and resentful, having a smoke outside the barn. We don’t know if the homecoming “took” with the younger son. What if he got bored up there in his father’s house? What if all that lavish partying reminded him of what he was really missing? What if he made some fast money and borrowed his dad’s car for the weekend and drove on up to Reno to play a few games of blackjack and have a fling with that sweet young thing he met at the truck stop? And what about that father? Didn’t he get awfully tired of the moody elder son and the manic activities of his youngest child? Wouldn’t he be tempted to throw up his arms in despair and kick them both off the farm, maybe marry a younger woman and start a family all over again?

Perhaps I’m carrying things a bit too far — but you get my point. This story is designed to leave us a bit bewildered, unresolved, and even alarmed. “Oh really?!” we say in our hearts as we hear of the love of that father for these two strange sons. “Really!” we exclaim as we hear of the lavish party given for the delinquent and wonder about the motive of the good son who stays outside, stockpiling resentments. “Really?” we find ourselves saying when we imagine Jesus telling this story to those who had gathered around him over lunch.

The 15th chapter of Luke, of which this parable is the centerpiece, actually begins with a complaint about Jesus eating with sinners. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” mutter the religious authorities; and everything that follows in this text is meant as a response to their grumbling pot shots. The story is aimed at the scribes and Pharisees who stand on the sidelines, arms tucked, teeth clenched, refusing to acknowledge the abundant grace of God, grumbling sideways about the class of people who have gathered about to listen, as they keep a skeptical eye on Jesus himself.

Jesus told this story so that those who thought they possessed the answers — those dutiful, law-abiding, religiously devout do-gooders — would know how radically different life would be if they opened themselves to the divine richness of radical grace. Jesus told this story as a response to religious leaders who were complaining that he received tax collectors and prostitutes and that he even ate with them. Seen in this light then, the target of the parable moves our focus from wayward sinners in need of forgiveness to self-righteous saints who begrudge God’s mercy and grace for others.

Much of American Christianity today is very much like this oldest son. In a book called Stealing Jesus, Bruce Bawer writes about how the fundamentalist right has stolen Jesus by making him an icon of religious piety, purity, and moral judgment. I fear that modern Christianity, as a religion, has had all the mystery and the wonder removed from it. In its place is a religion made up of simplistic values, a legalistic bias stressing sin and salvation, and an emphasis on the right kind of behavior providing entrance to eternal life.

This brand of Christianity has captured the media and established itself as the norm for Christianity in this country. Turn on the TV and begin surfing the channels, and you will see that every other program on the airwaves today is that of a faith healer or evangelist telling you that if you just behave the right way and have enough faith and send money today, Jesus will save you and give you a good place in heaven.

This kind of Christianity is born out of a deep self-righteous anger and fear, which asserts, ” I haven’t gotten what I deserved from this country or from a secular system; therefore I will assert my moral rights with Jesus as my warrior, savior, righteous God. Anyone who doesn’t fit into this scheme of things will be judged as unfit and undeserving.”

From my perspective, the real task of Christians today is to move our understanding of our faith from this brand of judgment to grace. If we are to reclaim Christianity and make it relevant to our culture and our society, we’ve got to recapture our own understanding of grace, which to me is God’s own wonderland of mystery.

As we read this text, if we choose justice and judgment, we choose to identify with the sons; and that places us in one camp together. But if we choose grace, then we enter a whole new realm, and we can begin to identify with the father.

The challenge of this parable, using a phrase from Paul, is “to regard no one any longer from a human point of view.” All the old things have indeed passed away and are becoming new. If the father had regarded either one of his sons from a human point of view, neither one would have received anything from their dad. Admit it, each one of these guys has serious character flaws — and that’s the point of the story. This dad says to both of his children, “Come home, and I will give each one of you what you don’t deserve.”

At the center of this story lies the heart of the Christian mystery. It is not about behaving in the right way — being dutiful or righteous or good. It is not even about being awful and letting down those who love you and seeking forgiveness. It is not purely about justice, or even the triumph of love over human weakness.

It is about acknowledging that if we had to make the journey to God under our own steam, it would be impossible.

We must see that the story is calling us to embrace and enter a profound level of mystery and faith. It calls not only for us to recognize the grace that is available to us, but to be the grace that God has placed in us.

Some years ago, James Fowler wrote a helpful book called Stages of Faith. His study shows that we invent God in our own image — or more precisely, in the image of our parents. If our parents were critical, abusive, or unreliable, we are likely to grow up with low self-esteem and an image of a God who is punitive and petty. If we had parents who were loving, we are more likely to grow up with a secure self-esteem and we imagine a God who is compassionate, loving, and present. As we mature through our life span, one of the real journeys is the healing of wounds to our sense of self, our idea of God, and our relationship to faith.

Fowler distinguishes six stages of psychospiritual growth in our faith development. The first stage is a literal one. Angels and demons, fairies and monsters live here, and we tend to imitate and take on the beliefs of those around us. The second stage, from about age seven to puberty, takes on a more literal categorization of life — black and white, good and evil, just and unjust. Stories, myths, and drama are interpreted literally, and the child demands reciprocity. Faith at this stage rests on a concept of fairness. You might imagine the elder son in this stage of his spiritual development.

At puberty, a third phase begins as we begin to think for ourselves and look beyond the beliefs of the family. Faith becomes an extension of interpersonal relationships, and the need to be acceptable and fit in takes prominence. According to Fowler, many people remain at this stage of faith, never stepping out of their assumptions to reflect on them.

As life progresses from spiritual adolescence to adulthood, or after we have survived a dark night of the soul, a fourth stage of faith unfolds. We develop a capacity to reflect on ourselves as individuals. We face the terrible tension between who we are and what other people want us to be, between what we believe and what others expect of us, between meeting our own needs and being of service to others. Scripture uses the line “and he came to himself” to describe the younger son; he might have been entering the fourth stage of his spiritual development as he walked up the hill to his father’s house!

In the fifth stage of faith, by midlife, we have known the sacrament of defeat, writes Fowler. We know that life is not easy and there are no simple prescriptions for happiness. Stories and myths teach us metaphorically, through the language of the Spirit.

The sixth stage is what Fowler calls universalizing faith, and he considers it relatively rare. It is the faith of the true mystic who perceives the larger Whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. People at this stage may act in strange and weird ways, like throwing a party for a delinquent son or opening their hearts up completely after trust has been tried and found wanting. Of course, the father is here. So are Jesus, Joan of Arc, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Dag Hammarskjold, Abraham Heschel, and some of you in this congregation!

The sixth stage is when you not only know grace and how the radical richness of it wraps around your life; you also know that you can be part of bringing that grace to another life and the life of the world.

Remember that marvelous line from Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved:

The only grace we can have is the grace we can imagine. If we cannot see it, we will not have it.

Grace comes from God and becomes real in our relationships with each other.

Grace is alive and moving through this story of the Prodigal Sons and their gracious father.

In recent years, the philosopher Sam Keen has begun to work out on a trapeze he has erected on his property. He has become quite taken with it and has even written a book on the trapeze as a metaphor for the art of living. Keen speaks of the relationship between falling and flying as a trapeze artist. He says there is a moment between the catchee and the catcher that is eternity. It is the moment between the inbreath and the outbreath, the moment of absolute calm, when you trust that you are going to be caught and the catcher will catch you.

This is the moment of grace. That moment between falling and flying, that split second of eternity when your heart is at the still point — and then the dance begins. For the person of any faith, but certainly the Christian faith, it is that eternal moment when we open our mind, body, and soul to God’s radical love and acceptance of us — and then the dance begins!

“The only grace we can have is the grace we can see.” This week I had lunch with the father of an eight-year-old boy, a member of this church. “How is your son?” I asked him, expecting to hear about his report card or a funny thing he said. This father got such a look on his face! “I love my son,” he said to me. “Each night when I put my arms around him as he is falling to sleep, I tell how much I love him. I cannot imagine that I could ever love him as much as I do! And I thank God for giving me such love.”

Let the dance begin. Amen.