March 10, 2013- 4 Lent C
Joshua 5:9-12; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
While we lived in Columbia, my niece from New Jersey attended the University of South Carolina and, one day, after a holiday break, I went to the airport to pick her up to take her to her dormitory. As I walked down one of the long corridors leading out to her gate, I looked up and saw in the distance a group of about a dozen people approaching me. Just out in front of the group, was a black man, short and stout. I could see that he had a big smile on his face and was wearing a clerical collar and a purple shirt, and he was leading this entourage right toward me. I looked behind me to see if he was looking at someone else but no one was there, and I realized he was focusing on my clerical collar.
As the man and the group behind him got a little closer where I could begin to make out his face, I thought: Surely not. It couldn’t be. Why in the world would he be in Columbia, South Carolina? But it was him. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was marching straight toward me! As we got closer to each other, his pace quickened, and his smile grew larger and larger. He kept walking right toward me until he got a few yards in front of me and then he spread open his arms and embraced me and said, Father, I am so glad to see you. I then realized the entourage was looking at me with some expectation. It hit me that Desmond Tutu and the entire group with him thought I was there to welcome him. I told him I was just there to meet my niece and asked what had brought him to town. He explained to me that he was there to give a talk at the University, about which time the President of the University approached with his entourage. As the President and someone in the Archbishop’s group were greeting each other, Desmond Tutu reached up and took hold of my shoulders and said, God bless you. I will be praying for you. And please pray for me, and for my country.
Today I hope to express to you that God himself is coming toward you. He has spotted your face, he is walking right toward you with his arms outstretched and he is going to embrace you and welcome you. He has not mistaken you for someone else. You are the one he seeks. You are the one he wishes to be with. You are the one he is smiling about. You are the one he wants to grab hold of and be with for all of eternity.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is obviously more about the forgiving father than it is either the prodigal or the responsible son. It is good for us to find an identification with either the prodigal or the elder son, or both of them, but the main point is clearly that the father gives freely to both sons and welcomes each of them into his household. It is his decision to be in relationship with them that is even more important than anything the sons do or fail to do. The forgiving father yearns for his son who has wandered away. He goes out to meet him even before he knows why his son has returned. He forgives him and celebrates his homecoming. The forgiving father also yearns for a relationship with his elder son which is deeper than the one his son has imagined possible. He doesn’t want to just reward him for his hard work. He wants to give him all he has and he wants his elder son to relate to him in response to generous love.
God graciously and generously created all that is and all of creation is good because God made it. Along with creation God also gave the gift of free will and the result of that gift has been a separation between God and his good creation. We have chosen less than what God imagined for us. In the Christ event God comes to his creation with the outstretched arms of forgiveness to welcome us back, to restore us, and to bring us into a brand new way of being with him. It is his initiative which makes this new life possible. It is his grace. It is his generosity. It is his effort, on our behalf, which restores us to his kingdom and gives cause for celebration. God made us. We strayed away. Something came between us. And now God seeks us out to restore the relationship and even to make it more than it ever has been.
Maybe you are like the son who demanded his inheritance and squandered it in loose living. Maybe you’re an alcoholic, or a drug addict, or an adulterer, or a thief. (I had a seminary classmate who once, when he read that long list of misdeeds from Paul, pointed his finger at various people in the congregation: fornication; impurity; licentiousness; idolatry; sorcery; enmity; jealousy; drunkenness, carousing….) Maybe you fit into one those categories and have wasted what has been so generously given to you. Maybe those choices and predicaments have landed you in place where you’re simply at the end of your rope. If so, look up: the Lord himself is walking right toward you. He has noticed you in the distance and he is coming to you to welcome you home, to restore you, to give to you all he has, to celebrate a new relationship with you. He doesn’t care why you’re here. You may be more aware of your own pain than you are of God. God sees you and he is coming to you with his arms of forgiveness outstretched. He just wants to put you back where you belong.
Or maybe you’re like the elder son who has his nose to the grindstone and doesn’t even notice the joys that life offers. Maybe you’re harsh and critical and judgmental. Maybe you’re a workaholic and self-righteous and always right no matter what the subject might be. Someone asked me about a month ago, following a time of intensity in the parish, Robert, don’t you ever get tired? I said, I don’t get tired. I get mean. When I’m working real hard, I just think about the work, but when it’s over, all of a sudden I start noticing how lazy everybody else seems to be. What’s wrong with them?, I wonder. Well, maybe you’re like that. If so, look up: the Lord himself is walking right toward you. He has noticed you in the distance and he is coming to you to welcome you home, to restore you, to give to you all he has, to celebrate a new relationship with you. He doesn’t care why you’re here. You may have shown up here because it’s one more right thing you think you’re supposed to do. Or maybe you’re tired of that burden and are thinking about laying it down. Whatever reason you’re here, God sees you and he is coming to you with his arms of forgiveness outstretched. He just wants to put you back where you belong. He wants to give you the place you are working so hard to make.
Or maybe life has just taken away all you hold dear. Maybe you’ve just lost all you had or are an inch away from disaster. Maybe you’re going through bankruptcy, or a divorce, or you’re grieving the death of a loved one. Maybe you’re confused or lost or frightened. Sometimes life, in a very impersonal way, just strips things away suddenly. Most of us, most of the time, are just a disaster or two away from having absolutely nothing. And sometimes those disasters happen. There’s not much accounting for them. Life just stomps on us sometimes and it appears there is nothing left to live for. If that’s where you are, look up: the Lord himself is walking right toward you. He has noticed you and your plight and he is coming to you to welcome you home, to restore you, to give you all he has, to celebrate a new relationship with you. He doesn’t care why you’re here either: you might hate God’s guts right now, or you might not even care about him one bit. But you’re here and that’s good enough for God. He’s coming to you to embrace you and heal you and put you back where you belong.
This is what Lent is meant to prepare us for: this forgiving, loving God who is coming to us. It’s not to prove who can make it. The whole Christian journey is to recognize this forgiving God who is coming toward us. Look up and watch the Christ come to you.