Racing to Meet Us

(Sermon for Sunday, March 10, 2013 || Lent 4C || Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32)

"Return of the Prodigal Son," Rembrandt
“Return of the Prodigal Son,” Rembrandt

After I finish this opening bit of the sermon, I’m going to ask for a show of hands, so please listen to see if you remember this illustration from your youth. You arrive at school one day – perhaps you are a month or two into, let’s say, the seventh grade. That morning before school, you looked in the mirror and grimaced at the half dozen new pimples, which had colonized your forehead during the night. You tried to comb your bangs over the spots, but your hair just wouldn’t stay, so you resigned yourself to the fate of being called “pizza-face” all day. So you walk into the school wishing your forehead were in a less conspicuous area of your body, but you know it’s not, so instead you concentrate on making your entire self less conspicuous.

Halfway through the day, everything is going fine – better than expected even. No one has mentioned your acne; you really haven’t talked to anyone all day, except your best friend at lunch. But then on the way back to class, the day takes a turn. You and your classmates are waiting outside your fourth period room when someone brings up the hot TV show that everyone’s watching. (In my day, it was Dawson’s Creek, but I’m sure you can come up with one.) The show was on last night and something terribly important and life altering happened to the main character. Everyone’s discussing the episode and you just smile and nod, hoping against hope that no one asks your opinion because your mom doesn’t let you watch that show, but your classmates don’t know that and if they did, they’d have another reason to make fun of you.

But, of course, someone does ask, and you stammer out something generic about the show, but it’s obvious you don’t watch. Your classmates start laughing, and you can feel your face getting flushed, which only makes the pimples redder. You will the teacher to open the classroom door, but she doesn’t, so you race off to the bathroom to be alone with your shame.

So don’t be ashamed to admit it – show of hands, how many of you remember a day similar to this one back when you were in that Lord of the Flies–esque jungle known as middle school? …Yeah, that’s what I thought.

You want to know the worst thing about that feeling of shame from long ago? The feeling of shame is still there; hidden perhaps, but there. The context may be different. The constellation of catalysts may be more grown-up. But the disease of shame has – from a tender age – infected each and every one of us.

You can blame Adam and Eve if you like. They are the “Patient Zero” of this disease. After they eat the fruit of the tree, they notice their nakedness, so they cover themselves up with primitive garments. When God comes to them in the cool of the evening, Adam says, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” Here we have the first documented case of the disease of shame. Adam and Eve hide from God because they are ashamed of their nakedness.

Shame, then, is the feeling that prompts us to want to hide – from God, from the world, and especially from ourselves. The disease of shame invades the secret places within us and then starts whispering incessantly: you aren’t good enough. You aren’t worthy. You are defective. How could you possibly think you measure up? And the worst of all:  You are a mess and a failure. How could you possibly think God or anyone else could ever love someone as shameful as you?

I’m sure these debilitating thoughts were running through the mind of the younger son as he fed the pigs. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells the famous and beloved story of the young man who squanders his inheritance in a far off land. He is destitute when a famine hits, so he hires himself to a pig farmer. On those days when the hollowness of hunger is worst, he longs to eat the pigs’ slop. Jesus chose his details well, for there isn’t a much more shameful position than for a good Jewish boy to be anywhere near such unclean animals. Jews were never to eat pork, let alone touch the pig. And here is the younger son, cut off from his family, wallowing in the mud, hungry, unclean, and ashamed.

You can hear his shame whispering to him, can’t you? How could you possibly think your father will take you back as his son, you worthless swine? His shame convinces him that all of his mistakes, all of his bad choices, all of his ruinous living amount to too much for his father to forgive. Another whisper: How could you possibly be reconciled with all this disastrous baggage?

The younger son agrees with his shame and decides that his father would never bring him back into the family, but that maybe his father’s generosity would extend to hiring him on as a laborer. So he sets off for home. And then something happens that the younger son doesn’t expect, something that his shame had convinced him was impossible. When he is still a speck on the horizon, his father sees him coming and races to meet him. His father runs flat out, as if he can’t bear one more minute estranged from his son. When they meet, the son begins his prepared speech, but his father isn’t listening. He’s already preparing a welcome feast because his son was lost and is now found.

How many of us have let the voice of shame drive us into hiding? How many of us still have the disease of shame eating away at our capacity to give and to receive love? How many of us have let our shame convince us that we are unworthy of God’s attention? I’d hazard to guess that we’ve all been there, feeling like the pimply kid in seventh grade or like the younger son among the pigs.

Perhaps your shame starts whispering when you look at all your bills and realize your salary will barely cover them. Or when you can’t bring yourself to acknowledge the presence of the homeless man on the street in Boston. Or when you say something hurtful to your spouse during an argument. Or when your colleagues don’t think to invite you to lunch. Or when your date stands you up. Or when you look in the mirror.

Whatever the source of your shame, please believe that God our Father is running flat out to meet you in the midst of it. Your shame might tell you to hide. Your shame might tell you that you aren’t worthy of God’s effort. But your shame is lying to you. There is no shame big enough to scare God away. You will never be so defective that God stops desiring to repair you. You will never be so lost that God can’t find you. And when God finds you, you can participate with God in beating your shame into submission. With your shame healed, you might find you are willing to ask for help when trying to make ends meet. Or you might find yourself serving the homeless man at the Long Island Shelter. Or you might look in the mirror and see beauty rather than shame looking back at you.

So the next time your shame threatens to engulf you with its incessant negative whispering, look to the horizon. See the dawn break. See the sunlight racing toward you. And know that God has already run out to meet you in the midst of your shame. God has already enfolded you in a compassionate embrace. And God has already welcomed you back into God’s family, as a beloved child who was lost and has been found.

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