LUKE 15:11-21; MATTHEW 11:28-30
One of my favorite bookmarks has little flowers and curlicues surrounding the words “Grace is the Direction of the Soul.” What I love about these words is that they challenge me to contemplate in their meaning, to spend time exploring what they say about my life—
or rather, what they say about God’s intervention in my life. I invite you to ponder them, too.
To help with this, let us look at our favorite wayward boy, the Prodigal Son. This story is so familiar that it’s easy to give it the “been there, done that” brush off. We know through this story—and perhaps painfully through our own parallel experiences—that where our treasure lies, there our hearts lie, too. In my own life, as in his, there have been many times when I’ve turned to the world’s shiny objects when I should have turned to God. I have proven I can get wrapped up in the false gods of alcohol or drugs or working too much or spending too much or playing too many video games, etc. I even had a friend tell me over thirty years ago that I am not a social gum chewer—and I haven’t had a stick of gum since! So I’m not unlike the Prodigal Son in wanting my own heart’s desires.
When I look at his situation of starving among the pigs, I can’t help but ask myself, “When did he know that he had had enough?” What is it that nudges any of us to make necessary though painful changes in our lives? I believe it is the grace of God that allows us to change direction, to seek a better path. I love the saying, “If you don’t change direction, you’ll end up where your headed.” If grace is the direction of the soul, how do I change direction if—and when—I am off course? For me, as for the Prodigal Son, the following definition of surrender seems to fit: Surrender occurs when a sufficient amount of pain comes together with the grace of God at a moment in time, and we say “Yes.” We stop fighting, admit we need God’s help, and turn—
or rather, return—to God.
The young man spent time practicing what he would say when he got home. Repeatedly he says he has sinned and is not worthy to be called a son. This troubles me because of how I mentally beat myself up when I fall short of my goals. I learned years ago that I can’t beat myself and grow at the same time. That is why I chose today’s bulletin cover. It’s one version of the Serenity Prayer that gently reminds me that it is okay to be me, to be human, to be flawed. When I pray, “God, grant me the serenity to stop beating myself for not doing things perfectly, the courage to forgive myself because I’m working on doing better, and the wisdom to know that you already love me just the way I am,” I am reminded of the line in the Desiderata, “Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.” Yes, I cannot beat myself and grow at the same time. (PAUSE)
Getting back to the story from Luke’s Gospel, for me, the most hopeful thing about the story of the Prodigal Us, is this: “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved to pity. He ran to the boy, held him in his arms and kissed him tenderly.” God is waiting, is watching, and is running to meet us as we journey back to be the people God meant us to be. What a blessed thought that is!
That assurance brings us to today’s second reading—Christ’s invitation in Matthew’s Gospel to come and find rest for our souls. What a needed message that is in today’s busy, frantic world! The words of Christ’s invitation have for a long time fascinated me. When He says, “My yoke is easy,” I have to look at what that really means. A yoke is something that unites animals, or people, to make a load easier to carry. To me it speaks of community, of joining together, of Emmanuel. As the saying goes, “Many hands make light work.” When we join together as a faith community, we share our burdens and carry them not alone, but as a family. In that sense, His yoke is easy—our yoke is easy. We share our personal burdens and we heal each other by being loving witnesses to our journeys. We live out our message of welcome: “No matter where you are on your journey, you’re welcome here.” Terry and I heard that invitation eleven years ago, and you have all been true to its words. As you welcomed us then, you continue welcoming others. I believe Jesus is saying that community, in communion with Him, is easy. Going it alone is hard.
For me it is wonderfully obvious that a community seeking to know and live out God’s will, is life-sustaining—be it a cloistered monastery, a UCC congregation, or a 12-Step recovery group. I’ve heard it said that God gave the 12 Steps of AA to people for whom the Ten Commandments hadn’t worked too well. Yup. That’s true for me—and thank God it is! And thank God for ALL the gatherings that seek Him!
Let me share an example of an unlikely community where their coming together made life easier. At a conference years ago I heard a talk by a woman who was the warden of the prison where Velma Barfield was executed. Ms. Barfield was the first female executed in this country after the reinstatement of the death penalty. I had read and been moved by her book, Woman on Death Row, which she wrote with Billy Graham’s daughter. Ms. Barfield had murdered four family members during a drug episode. She had found redemption in prison and spent her years on death row working with and inspiring other inmates. When her life was eventually taken by the state, the warden was warned to place the prison on lock-down for the sake of security. Instead, she trusted her knowledge of the women and the community they had formed, and she allowed them to gather for a prayer service that night. There were no security incidents. Truly they were under the yoke of Christ’s protection and love. Again, community is easy. Isolation and loneliness are hard.
The last emphasis I wish to make is on Christ’s words that His burden is light. Here I believe the word burden is not meant to be understood using the traditionally oppressive and worrisome definition. To me it is saying that Christ’s message is light, illumination, the expulsion of the world’s darkness. We are called to—invited to—be that light in our own world. I suspect Christ would like us to say to each other and to the world, “Come to US, all you who labor and are overburdened, and WE will give you rest.”
Let me share a short poem by Warsan Shire that I find both sad and inspirational. It is untitled.
Late that night
I held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole word
where does it hurt?
Christ blesses us so we might be a blessing to others. And while we are yet a long way off, God runs to meet us, holds us in his arms and kisses us tenderly. As imperfectly human as we are, let us go and do the same for those whom we are called to serve.
In the name of the One who will never let any of us go, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Scripture for July 30, 2017 LUKE 15:11-21; MATTHEW 11:28-30
Jesus also said, “A man had two sons. The younger said to this father, ‘Father, let me have the share of the estate that would come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them. A few days later, the younger son got together everything he had and left for a distant country where he squandered his money on a life of debauchery.
“When he had spent it all, that country experienced a severe famine, and now he began to feel the pinch, so he hired himself out to one of the local inhabitants who put him on his farm to feed the pigs. And he would willingly have filled his belly with the husks the pigs were eating but no one offered him anything. Then he came to his senses and said, ‘How many of my father’s paid servants have more food than they want, and here am I dying of hunger! I will leave this place and go to my father and say: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your paid servants.’ So he left the place and went back to his father.
“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved to pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly.
“Come to me, all you who labor and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light.”
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.