The Undeserving & Unearned

Preaching, Theology

“Then he became angry, and refused to go in, so his father came out and began to plead with him.” Luke 15:28

As Auntie Mame says, “Life’s a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.” The Gospel is full of banquets and starving people. Some people are starving because they don’t have time to go the banquet. Some people went to the banquet but they’re starving because they’re too busy complaining about who else is there with them to eat anything. And today we have a responsible young man who refuses to go into the banquet because of resentment, resentment over whether or not his younger brother deserves to be there too, resentment over not having gotten a banquet of his own for being good.

I’ve been trying to sympathize with the responsible son. If I can begin sympathizing with the responsible son I’m pretty sure that my life will be better and that I’ll be a better friend and colleague. My life is full of incredibly responsible people. They’re drawn to me, I think, much in the way firetrucks are drawn to a house on fire. I have often, in my life, played Ernie to someone else’s Bert, a chaos muppet for the order muppets all around me. When I finished my undergraduate student teaching in a Montessori classroom, as a parting gift my supervisory teacher gave me a watch. “Here, maybe you’ll use this in the future,” she said. At home, Nathan pays the bills and reminds me when it’s time to clean the house. Where does has he acquired this secret knowledge? Here on staff at St. Michael’s we’re blessed with people who do amazing detail work, people who are systematic thinkers, great organizers, and then there’s me, doing whatever it is I do. To be entirely serious for a moment, this place wouldn’t be what it is without responsible people. I am constantly amazed at how many of you there are who have been helping this place run for years, whether that’s by your financial assistance or your prayers or your visits with those in need or the time you spend in the kitchen or in the sacristy or cleaning up the grounds -we are able to open our doors and respond to God’s word in this place because of responsible people, unsung heroes, the kind of folks who simply do what needs to be done without even having to be asked. And here I get to swoop in and preach and pray and sit and listen to people for a while. And I’m one of the people who gets to park in the back?

I’ve been trying to sympathize with the responsible son because that’s the part of this story which is most mysterious to me. I hear a story about a son who stayed at home and worked his father’s land, probably because he was the only one left in the family to take care of business, and I think, “that sounds like a terrible idea.” So it’s probably no surprise that I’m the one who barely graduated High School and flunked out of college the first time through. You could use “starving after the pods which the servant must feed to the pigs,” as a euphemistic metaphor for my early twenties, as long as you don’t read into it too much. And so, in my life, I have necessarily been the recipient of massive emergency amounts of grace and charity. I hail from the lost and found department. One of the classes I flunked out of was the History of Christianity through the Reformation. A year or two after all of this massive flunking I finally found myself clear-headed enough to walk into the local Episcopal church, where much to my horror the professor of that class was a regular member. I felt so ashamed, like such a failure. So I developed a perfectly reasonable plan to avoid him and his partner at all costs. I must have also failed to properly communicate this plan, however, because they immediately sought me out. And then the amazing thing: they treated me like I wasn’t a total failure. They had me over for dinner. More than that, actually, they gave me cooking lessons in their home. They spoke to me as if I had some value, as if I wasn’t a drop-out. It was like they saw something in me which I myself could not see, and because they saw it and held it up for me to see, too, over time that part of me became more and more real, and after a while I didn’t feel like such a shameful failure anymore.

This is, by definition, charity. This is grace. This is what love looks like when it’s given not because of having earned it or deserved it or worked for it but simply for the sake of loving what’s in front of us because God is love and love is the surest path through the mess we’ve made to what is real and true and good. This is what makes love prodigal, this is what makes love reckless and luxuriant and extravagant, because it does not abide by the economy we mortals have established for ourselves in all due fairness, but rather it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love is only really love when it’s being spent, when it’s being given or received. This is the wisdom of the prodigal, the prodigal son but also the prodigal father, who spends lavishly, indiscriminately, to celebrate finding what was lost and welcoming the dead back to life.

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“Oops, I did it again…”

I’ve been painting myself as being like the prodigal son in this story, but there’s actually one really significant way in which I’m not like him at all. In the story, the prodigal son repents. He looks at his life, decides that he’s landed himself in a complete rut, and decides to turn around and go back to the place where he knows he can find some forgiveness and a second lease on life. You’ll remember that in my story, however, the plan was not repentance, the plan was, “let’s avoid these people for as long as we can and pretend this never happened.” If the story of the prodigal son were to actually reflect my life, it would be more like a story about how the prodigal son wallowed starving in the hog pits for years on end glorying in the extent to which he would be able to make a total martyr out of himself. If I were telling this story, the father would have had to finally show up at the hog pit gate himself with a full feast in tow and say, “surprise! we found you!” And even then, if I were telling this story, the prodigal son would refuse to eat. He would insist on not eating if he wasn’t able to pay, he would sulk, embarrassed that his father was making such a fuss. He would say, “Quit it, Dad! All my friends can see you.” If I were telling this story it would take the prodigal son years to realize how good he has it, years to accept the generosity of others, years to allow himself to stand with the support of all the people around him who have been more than willing to help all this time.

And then, finally, I get it. I get the responsible son. I get why he won’t go in to the party. I get the fact that there’s no difference between feeling like you can’t accept something which you don’t deserve and feeling like you haven’t gotten everything you’ve rightfully earned. Real love, real kind and real generous love, doesn’t care what you or anyone else has done to earn it. Real love only stands like a wide open door and leaves it up to us to choose whether we’ll join or not. And then, with a sigh of relief, I get the fact that I’m not the one telling this story. Jesus is. And he’s saying, “look at this amazing banquet. You’re starving. Come in and eat.”

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