4th Sunday in Lent

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Back when I was little, my brother and I had what you might call a love-hate relationship.  This probably stemmed from the fact that I was the second born son and arrived on the scene when my brother was three and at the height of his need for attention.  I guess he saw me as an interloper and decided that I had far too much love being shown my way, at least far more than he was willing for my parents to give me.  I can remember being picked on and hurt by him most of my very young life.  It finally got so bad that when I was about nine, my dad finally decided to do something about his constant picking on me and took my brother out into the garage beat the crap out of him (pardon my French).  My mom and I stayed in the house quite fearful that my dad might actually kill my brother.  Our garage was attached to the house, so we could hear just about every thump, every bump and scream.  This episode in my life so scarred me that, from that point on, I vowed to avoid conflict of any kind in my life (and still do to some extent).  This was for me a life lesson that has stayed with me throughout my years.

            We, all of us, have lessons to learn during this time we call life, but these lessons become far more acute during times of personal stress, illness or the death of a family member.  As you may know I have had my share of experiences with illness and death.  Back when I was 18 I had contracted hepatitis during which time I spent nearly a month at death’s door.  Sometimes I thought surely death would come at any moment.  Many times I remember waking up actually disappointed that it had not come, for I was (at least I thought) ready for it.  But I didn’t die then, and I didn’t die later when I came down with pneumonia.  I believe that I am still into learning the lessons of life, perhaps my final lessons.  These lessons, I believe, are sent from God and are the ultimate truths about our lives, in fact they are the secrets to life itself.

            The scriptures point to the fact that each of us has within ourselves the capacity for tremendous good as well as the capacity for the greatest of evils.  We each hold within us what could be described as a Hitler and as a Mother Theresa.  The Mother Theresa refers to the best in us, the most compassionate in us, while the Hitler refers to the worst in us, our negatives, our shallowness and faults.  The lessons in life should be on working on our smallness, getting rid of our negativity . . . but at the same time finding the best in ourselves and in each other.  These lessons usually are learned in the windstorms of our life.  They are the very things that make us who we are.  It is through our religion, that I am convinced that we are here to help heal one another spiritually, to bear one another’s burdens and to help ourselves by helping the least among us.

            When I speak of learning lessons, I’m speaking about getting rid of unfinished business.  Unfinished business is about anything in your life that stands between you and true happiness in life.  When you finally complete any part of this task, it is as if a burden is lifted off your shoulders and you can declare yourself free, it is this freedom that God desires for every single person and all of his creation, for it is the gift of God that passes all understanding . . . it is called wisdom . . . and it comes to us all as a free gift from on high.

            Today’s gospel story of the prodigal son shows for us, what many of us may need go through in order to gain this kind of perfect freedom.  Here was a son who decided to go his own way.  Armed with his father’s money, he goes out into the world to find happiness, all the while squandering what he has been given, as the bible says, on riotess living.  But in the end, he finally comes to his senses and goes home thinking that even his father’s servants have it far better than he. 

            Jesus was trying to explain to us in the parable that sometimes the answers to the greatest of life’s lessons are to be found in great pain and in suffering.  We may find many things on this long, sometimes strange journey we see as life, but mostly, like the son in the gospel story, in the end . . . we finally find ourselves and who we really are and what really matters most to us.  We learn from the peaks and valleys of life what love and relationships really are.  We find the courage to push through our anger, our tears and fears and ultimately our stubborn pride.  But in the mystery of all this, we discover that we have been given all we need to make life work . . . in order to find true happiness.  Maybe not perfect lives, maybe not storybook endings, but authentic lives that can make our hearts swell with meaning.

            But the story does not end there because the son, though he found himself, returns to the father to humbly offer himself for hire in his father’s service.  And the father who hopefully, like any good father would, runs out to greet his son proclaiming that his son, who was dead, is now alive.  The father forgives all and welcomes his son back into his loving embrace . . . one of the greatest stories in the bible.  Why? Because it mirrors for us how God thinks and acts each time one of his children repents of sin and error and returns to God’s great fellowship.  It demonstrates to us God’s infinite capacity to forgive and his great mercy in pardoning our offenses.

            Many of us may remember the prayer from Morning Prayer.  It is the prayer of the penitent and reads like this:

ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred,

and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have

followed too much the devices and desires of our own

hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have

left undone those things which we ought to have done; And

we have done those things which we ought not to have

done; And there is no health in us.

Those of us who profess a faith, and who engage in quiet confession on a weekly basis, ideally preceded by some degree of sincere internal reflection, are often considered by the world as unhealthily ‘weird’.  It is in fact why the world hates Christianity, as a religion, because Christianity compels us to not only acknowledge faults but also to beg forgiveness, something the world would never do.

Confession is always slightly uncomfortable, and a repulsion to accept responsibility for our actions adds to the cultural resistance to a religious practice that many unbelievers struggle to understand, much less accept.  The difference between religious confession, as opposed to public-media confession like we hear from those who publically proclaim their ‘mea culpa’ like Lance Armstrong or Oprah, is that within the framework of Christianity, you are actually supposed to mean it.

I think that most of us sitting in this room believe in the old adage that confession is good for the soul. Today I would like to relay to you why we confess our sins.

The first thing to say that may surprise non-believers; and that is it is for our benefit, not God’s.   God is not to be pictured smiling at us, watching us squirm while we confess.  The short of it is that God already knows our sins; He has numbered them as precisely as He has numbered the hairs on our heads.  Even more surprising is that within our understanding, Jesus has already paid the price for them. The deal has been closed, and all that is happening is that our Lord awaits our arrival, just like the prodigal son, to reclaim our inheritance.  Very often the only one seemingly not in on the secret is our own selves.

If we tell God what is on our account, and own our share of the sins of the world, gratefully claiming the gift of forgiveness that is offered for sincerity, then we can receive his forgiveness in the absolution that always and reliably follows true and unfeigned repentance.

It works for us, but it requires honesty, integrity, and, unlike its secular pale equivalent, there is an expectation that we shall follow that repentance through . . . not only with the intention of leading a ‘godly, righteous and sober life’, but also that God will ‘forgive us our trespasses – as we forgive those who trespass against us’. ‘Go and do thou likewise’ applies to forgiveness as well as to charitable action.

The problem, of course, is that many of us are as addicted to sin as any substance abuser: we know we shall be back again next week with a conscience laden with more guilt.  Even in the most ungodly of Church circles, few would dare suggest skipping confession.  It is that important to the life of the believer.

Yet it is also good if confession and the acceptance of absolution results in an encouragement to others to follow that path that leads towards the answers to life’s problems on the way to grace.

In his death Jesus did something quite final, absolute and decisive which enabled him to cry on the cross, ‘It is accomplished’; something which was described by Paul as ‘one sacrifice for sins forever’; something which turns Christianity from pious good advice into the glorious good news which we proclaim  and  transforms the characteristic mood of Christianity from the imperative (do) into the indicative (done); which makes evangelism not an invitation for men to do something, but truly a declaration of what God has already done it in Christ.

And we wonder how could God express simultaneously his holiness in judgment and his love in pardon?  Only by providing a divine substitute for the sinner, so that the substitute would receive the judgment and the sinner the pardon. 

Life shows us that we sinners still will have to suffer some of the personal, psychological and social consequences of our sins, but the penal consequence, the deserved penalty of alienation from God, has been borne by Jesus Christ in our place on the cross, so that we may be spared it . . . and that is why Christians can proclaim that indeed . . . Christians are not perfect . . . . only forgiven.  Amen

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