Sermon for Year C, The Third Sunday of Lent
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
March 10, 2013
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Ever mess up like this younger brother?
Yeah, me too. Sometimes, just really bad.
So bad I broke everything. Far beyond my own ability to retrieve or to fix.
Boy, can I identify with this younger son:
Cocky, too big for his britches, ungrateful, unable to see past his own nose.
Get me out of this two-bit town! Do what you have to do!
… What’s that? No, I don’t care what you have to sell off to make it happen.
… What? Oh. No, I don’t care about your long-term situation.
Well. Wait. Okay, I didn’t say that right.
Look, Dad, it’s nothing against you, okay, it’s just …
I need to go live my life, you know?
There’s a litte place in each of us
That needs to to buck every bridle placed upon it in a quest to live. Get out and live.
“Faraway places,” “distant countries,” beckon to us from the other side of the globe.
We have to get out, go somewhere, get some distance between us and our pasts.
Hit the road like Jack Kerouack and Allen Ginsberg.
Grace is the last thing on our minds.
“Forgiveness”? For what? What’d I do? I’m just trying to live my life.
Some folks leave their house keys on the counter and are never heard from again.
Some enlist or go backpacking, and send home a few postcards of fantastic adventures.
Some head off to college and study hard so they don’t have to think about coming back.
Some find drugs appealing and suddenly everything has to be liquidated.
It’s all just that trip to Vegas we seem to somehow require in some way.
But it exacts a price, eh? It has a heavy toll.
“I have wandered far in a land that is waste,” we say in our rite of individual confession.
The pleasure is momentary; the realization of what we’ve done is painful.
We wake up suddenly, seeing we’ve been marked up with what Jimmy Buffet calls
A “permanent reminder of a temporary feeling.”
In the 1950s, one of my relatives, my stepfather’s brother, enlisted in the Army
And went off, I believe, to Korea, or at any rate left his homeland a while.
He was a good man, always was.
He came back with a tattoo.
Of course, I didn’t see that tattoo for several years after the fact,
'Til it had considerably faded,
But I’ll bet it was glorious and really meant something the day it was inked on his skin.
One could detect in it old hints of crimson and dodger blue and slate gray –
A startling prize in its day – quite a thing to tote back to base for the boys to see.
It was of a field of unfolding roses, their petals looking straight up at us,
The ones in the middle supporting a banner
On which rested four beautifully crafted letters: V-E-R-A.
I saw the tattoo and reeled at the possibilities,
But as to who Vera was or had ever been, this uncle of mine gravely swore –
And I believed him for a long time, and still do because why not? –
He swore that he honestly could not recall.
He had been married to Nadine, N-A-D-I-N-E,
Since before he’d ever left home.
For a while, it was probably a daily dose of humiliation
For him to look into the mirror each morning
And see the name of someone he couldn’t remember
Applied so richly to his body.
After ten or twenty years with Nadine, he might go weeks or even months
Without noticing Vera’s name.
And then he’d be shaving, and catch it in the light just so,
And the story in all its agonizing detail would collect itself again.
Oh, that’s right. Vera.
No one gets out of a period of poor judgment without some kind of token:
A tattoo or an ill-fitting wedding ring or a bill for treatment
Or maybe just a string of relationships we’d rather put behind us.
The point is, we all rebel in some way and we all mess up. Sometimes, royally so.
Many of us hit bottom, wake up, feel stupid, and wonder what our choices are.
Regret, panic, trying to figure out what to do next,
Wondering how we might get some of it back, get any of it back.
Making plans for how that could possibly happen,
But also realizing maybe it’s a longshot … maybe I burned my bridges too thoroughly.
That, finally, is how life works. I sure wish it was easier … But there you have it.
Have you ever been self-righteously indignant like this older brother?
Have things ever just not gone in your favor, or so you thought,
Even when you worked hard and tried to be upbeat
And said all the right things and did your best to get ahead?
Have you ever worked your fingers to the bone and not gotten any recognition for it?
Have you ever watched something completely unfair happen to you,
When you knew you had no choice in the matter,
No voice in the process,
And it was just going to happen anyway whether you wanted it to or not?
Have you ever had the experience of knowing
That someone was about to go and pour everything you’d worked
For right down the drain,
And you had no option but to sit and watch it happen?
Have you ever kicked the dust in anger and frustration
And said to yourself, You’re darn right I’m mad and I deserve to be!
Church-going folk –
Especially the ones who would come out in a snowstorm –
Are prone to this sort of older-brother thinking.
Church-going folk are the ones who keep the trains running on time.
Their shoes are shined like mirrors;
They know how to do things like balance budgets and unclog toilets;
They raise their own kids right,
And they help raise everyone else’s kids right in the process as well.
They bail out their friends when they get in a tight spot,
And they themselves try to stay out of trouble.
They care, they recycle, they read the paper, and they vote in all the small elections.
They make cookies for bake sales
And they come up with nonoffensive swear words to say
When they accidentally hit their thumbs with hammers.
You can set your watch by their haircuts.
To all outside appearances these elder-brothers are functional and happy.
And this is almost always actually the case.
For they have been schooled in how to say a prayer for inner stillness and peace,
And they have taught their children to Count to Ten.
They have sat at the knees of Sunday School teachers,
Who have said, without equivocation, that you must treat others
As you yourself would hope to be treated.
They understand that as Jesus said, the measure you give is the measure you receive.
But under it all, their secret sin is a creeping infestation of anger.
And although in the main they love their lives
And they say in all honesty they wouldn’t change a thing,
When they see the world going to waste and burning,
It makes them not so much sad as angry.
They just want to spit.
“Is there no end of all this poor judgment?”
And … Don’t I have a right to express my feelings of anger and embarassment?
Don’t I have the right – no, the moral obligation! –
To stand up and say this is wrong?
Don’t I? Don’t I matter, too?
I’ve worked hard and I should have a say; I deserve some kind of reward!
It’s not fair!
But more than anything else, this is just embarassing for all of us. So now what?
Have you ever had a moment like the father in this story?
Have you ever lost someone who meant the world to you,
Who you loved more than you loved yourself?
Someone, perhaps, who took and took and in the end just walked away,
Leaving a massive hole in your heart?
Have you ever walked the same five feet of floor over and over,
Wondering where your son or daughter had got off to?
Have you ever had a moment of terrible drama
When all the anger and frustration and money and time you lost
Were pushed to the margins
Just so you could wonder and pray and hope for the return of your precious one?
When all your options for searching had been exhausted
And your hands were red from wringing and your clothes were stained with tears
And your feet were weary from prayer
And nothing else mattered in all the world but just seeing him or her come home?
Knowing that anything else would have to wait?
And what joy! – what incomparable joy leaps up in our hearts
When at last the lights turn onto our drive or the bus stops in front of our house
Or the front porch step creaks at 2, 3, 4 in the morning after a weepy night,
Or after weeks, months, years.
Or the phone rings. Or an email appears out of the blue.
Everything else fades away.
The world recedes; a spotlight appears on your beloved one; the room spins a little.
Of course you forgive. Of course.
Of course there’s a hug and a “Welcome home”
And an “I love you” and a “We were worried sick”
And a “We’re not done talking about this but for now I’m just glad you’re alive.”
Of course you forgive. You can’t help it!
It’s your own flesh and blood, lost once, now returned to you.
And frankly it doesn’t matter whether others understand or what they think. Who cares?
Grace and forgiveness and reconciliation flow freely. Tears come easy.
There is a God. It’s not you.
There is a deep, deep longing for return and embrace and Welcome Back;
And nothing else will do.
Come to your senses and rise up and head for home.
Then, when you’ve been welcomed back,
Make room for the next refugee, and don’t be angry that he, too, was pardoned.
Just be glad everyone is coming home
To the arms of the father.