Grief, Grace and Gratitude. I chose those words to describe this Service for selfish reasons: They describe how I feel as we have come to this moment. But I have the strong suspicion that the words capture much of what you are feeling also.
I said from the beginning that I wanted this to be a celebration and in the last newsletter I compared it to the joyful dance our Jewish sisters and brothers make on their feast of Simchat Torah. I want that celebratory spirit here this evening.
So why trouble the waters with the word grief? Because it is real. Because it is like unto the valley of the shadow of death of which the psalmist speaks, what we must walk through before we can grasp the other reality that our “cup runneth over.”
We grieve especially when we lose something and the loss is outside of our control. We feel like something unfair or even wrong is happening to us and we are not being given the chance to make it better. It is outside our control.
That feeling, noticed and accepted, prepares us for grace, the unmerited favor of God toward us that is also, like grief, outside of our control. We notice it when, again like the psalmist, we notice that our walk through the valley of the shadow of death is not alone. We are never alone. That is the promise of grace. God is with us, for us.
Then if we notice that presence and accept it, our response is gratitude, thanks. And that is all God really wants from us. But it is a very large thing. God wants gratitude to be our primary response to the world, day by day. It is so much at the center of our true spirituality that week by week we enact it, practice it, if you will, in what we call Eucharist.
Grief, grace, and gratitude. Unfortunately it is not a linear process. The truth is that we hold these things in tension all our days. It is what we call “the paschal mystery.” Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Paul instructs us to “rejoice always.” He does not mean never to mourn or experience sadness or anger or despair. But he does mean that we not allow ourselves to get stuck there. He says elsewhere, “Grieve, but do not grieve as if you have no hope.”
There we are. Grief, grace and gratitude. It is a package deal. On an occasion such as this we can both grieve and be grateful. We are not fooled that it is an either/or proposition, it is, as it almost always is, both/and.
Now, take a deep breath, and let me out of my own grief, grace and gratitude, tell you the Gospel, the good news, one more time.
It is why I chose the parable of the prodigal son, my favorite of all the parables, because I believe it is the Gospel in miniature.
It is a story we think we know. We call it “the prodigal son” because we believe the prodigal son is the main character and the parable’s primary purpose is to warn us not to make the choices the prodigal son made. But that would be a mistake, because the parable is not about us. Jesus’ parables are not the morality tales that we often think they are. They are primarily stories about God.
This story is not primarily about the son. It is primarily about the father. The son’s choices are important. They are the set-up. Here we have a son who exhibits many of our worst tendencies: impatience, self-centeredness, and an addiction to “loose living,” which is any attempt on our part to do life solely as we want it to be done, attempting to be in control of our own destiny.
But sooner or later we discover that it is all an illusion. It gets us somewhere for a while, but sooner or later the bottom drops out and we find ourselves in some equivalent of feeding the pigs. Perhaps that causes us, as it did the younger son, to “come to our senses.” That is good, but we have a tendency, like the son, to think that what we must do when we have bottomed out is to do something to haul ourselves out of the hole we have dug, to earn our way back into the good life.
But if that is what we think God wants from us, then we are quite wrong. Yes, God demands repentance, but all that word really means is to turn ourselves in a new direction with at least a little humility.
So the son returns home with a speech in his pocket. I want to come home, but I know I do not deserve to, so I offer to earn my way back into your good graces.
And what does the father do? He sees the son coming in his direction from “far off.” That says to me that he has been waiting. All the father knows is that the son has turned to walk toward home. And what does the father do? Well, perhaps it is important to see clearly what the father does not do.
He does not wait until the son comes crawling to him, so that he can point the finger of judgment and say, “Your sin against me was great. There is so much you have to make up for. Yes, be my slave and perhaps you can prove to me that you deserve to be my son again.” But the father does not do that.
Neither does the father turn his back on the boy, and with resentment that has built up during his absence, declare, “I do not recognize you. You treated me as if you wished I was dead. Well, you are dead to me.” Go. You are on your own. You are only getting what you asked for. But the father does not do that.
The father neither turns away in disgust nor points the finger in judgment. He does not even wait for the son to come to him, preserving his dignity as the wronged party. No, completely out of character for a middle eastern head of household, he hikes up his skirts and runs to meet the son. Dignity be damned, my son is home.
The son begins his speech, but the father is not even listening and the son never gets it all out. Welcome him back as if he has returned from some adventure in triumph, a son to be proud of, whose life deserves celebration. And that is what the father does.
My beloved sisters and brothers in Christ, I want to leave you with that image. God is always running toward us. God is always running toward us, and not so that he can announce his disgust or point the finger of judgment. God is always running toward us to welcome us home.
Most of the world believes that we worship the God of disgust and judgment. Tell them differently. Tell them this story, tell them of the God we know who is our companion on the journey, and, whenever we find ourselves feeding the pigs is eager to welcome us home.