With tears in her eyes and worries in her heart, she insisted she couldn’t do it. The thought of going to the Church, walking into the chapel, and sitting among the believers required more confidence and courage than she could muster. She was afraid of the averted gazes and quiet whispers of the people she assumed were so much better than herself. She was afraid of the judgment and avoidance that the supposedly-righteous sometimes inflict upon those who are perceived to be sinful. She was afraid she wouldn’t fit in. She was afraid she would be rejected by the Church.
Worse still, I suspect she was afraid of being rejected by God.
Behind her spoken words lay an unspoken fear – What if I’ve gone too far to ever return?
She isn’t the only one who ever felt this way. She’s not the first sweet soul to step away from the straight and narrow. And yet, for her – and for anyone who has ever felt this way – the experience is so painful, so personal and so very lonely. In shame, we retreat from God’s glorious light. The light fades into the distance and the darkness of despair embraces us, dragging us deeper and deeper into the depths of our own hopelessness as we put more and more distance between us and God’s grace.
And all the while God watches us go, His holy heart breaking. He reaches out to rescue us but, for many of us, our self-imposed shame refuses His embrace.
My sweet friends, God never tires. He never gives up on you. Whether it’s been a day or decades since you slipped from His embrace, His arms are wide open and reaching for you right now, in this very moment.
Too often, we hear Satan’s favorite lies whispered from the darkness – that God is mean, uncompassionate and unmerciful. We may begin to believe that He is unforgiving – or perhaps that He forgives everyone but can’t possibly forgive us. We become afraid to even think of approaching the throne of God. But these are lies.
Tucked in the truths of the Bible is a familiar parable about an overly-entitled young man (let’s call him Rob) who took everything his father had given him and wasted it. He wasted his time and his wealth, trading it all for “riotous living.” It wasn’t until he hit rock bottom that he began to think about returning to his father’s home.
Rob surely felt this deep heart shame we’ve been discussing.
“And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father…” –Luke 15:17-20
Rob’s sins were many. His father was a generous, loving man who had given Rob his entire inheritance. Given the father’s apparent wealth, this must have been a hefty sum. Instead of spending it wisely, Rob lavishly spent his wealth and his time – wealth that his father had toiled and labored to gain.
The thought of facing his father must’ve been terrifying for Rob. I imagine him walking down the long, lonely dirt road back to his father’s farmhouse with small, timid, terrified steps. With every footfall, he wonders if he’s doing the right thing. He wonders what his father’s reaction will be. Will his father accept his offer of servitude or toss him out on the streets? What if he travelled all this way for nothing? What if all he receives today is mockery and shame? Rob knows he deserves the worst his father could dish out. After all, his father worked hard his entire life to accumulate the wealth that Rob had wasted on sinful, riotous living. A lifetime’s work wasted in one short burst of irresponsibility. How would his father react?
Rob cringes and wonders if he should just turn around now… but the gnawing hunger in his belly keeps him pressing on. This is an act of desperation, an effort of last resort. Even if he turned around now, he has nowhere else to go.
With fields stretching far in all directions, he can hear the workers around him. He is keenly aware of the silence that falls as he approaches. He hangs his head to avoid their gaze but can feel the burning stares on the back of his neck. As he passes, he hears whispers and quiet laughter in his wake. Nobody speaks directly to him but he is certain that they are all speaking about him.
His apprehension grows as he draws nearer and nearer to the farmhouse he grew up in. Even from this distance, it’s beautifully familiar to him. It looks just like he left it. With every step, his heart pounds harder and harder and breathing becomes much more difficult. He isn’t sure if it’s hunger or horror that is welling up in his belly and making him feel so ill. His steps become smaller. Fear gnaws at him.
He sees a figure step outside of the farmhouse. He recognizes his father’s favorite robe and steels himself for the rejection he so heartily deserves. When his father starts to run toward him, he hesitates. He assumes he’ll be chased off the farm before he even has the chance to step inside the house. After all, he is acutely aware that this is the treatment he deserves.
But it’s not what he receives.
“And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.
But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.” –Luke 15:20-24
There is no shame in the father’s response – just pure, unconditional love and genuine relief. Not only does the father refuse Rob’s offer of servitude, he embraces Rob and celebrates him publicly. Even though he is keenly aware of the price of Rob’s mistakes, the father blesses Rob with the best things and rejoices over his return.
God, our Heavenly Father, is waiting to embrace you, bless you and rejoice over you, too!
No matter what you have done, no matter what you have wasted or what mistakes you’ve made, He is anxiously awaiting your return because He loves you unconditionally. No matter what.
Those among us who have not struggled so hard or fallen so far may recognize their feelings in the statement of the cautious, responsible, righteous older brother. We’ll call him Christian. Christian has been a responsible son. He has worked the fields, labored all of his days in the service of his father’s estate. He has always been there, night and day whenever his father has had need of him. He has served and labored and done everything that he was expected to do. And yet, he hasn’t cashed out on his inheritance or been rewarded as lavishly as Rob has.
I can picture Christian, toiling in the field, when he hears music and sees a servant rushing to tell him the news. He is shocked when the servant tells him that his brother has returned. He just has to see this for himself. He runs to the house but stops at the window, perplexed and angry. Looking through the window, he sees the extravagant celebration within. He sees on the table a delicious meal, featuring the fattest calf in the flock – a calf he probably fed and raised and looked after himself. He sees the robes and the ring and the shoes – part of his inheritance, no doubt, since Rob has already claimed and wasted his. Then, adding insult to certain financial injury, he sees his father standing beside Rob, one arm around his shoulders as they talk and laugh and dance and rejoice over Rob’s return.
As though Rob was a hero.
As though he’d done everything right.
As though he were the better son.
Can’t you just hear Christian’s thoughts? Why have I wasted all my time doing everything right? Rob went out and partied and sinned and did everything wrong, and look at him. He gets everything I’ve worked so hard for. He wasted his inheritance and now he’s come back for mine. What’s the point of being good, anyway? Rob doesn’t deserve these blessings – I do!
We can hear Christian’s bitter discouragement in the next few verses:
“And he [the elder brother] was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and entreated him.
And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.” –Luke 15:28-30
Christian can’t see past the feast and the rings, the fancy rewards that Rob has been given. He doesn’t see the big picture – he sees what’s happening here and now, and it all just seems so unfair.
Fortunately, Christian’s father is a wise man. He knows that this isn’t just about the meat, the music and the merriments. He can clearly see that soon, the music will stop and the food will be eaten and the friends will wander away. Soon enough, Rob will have to reconcile and face the consequences of his errant ways – in this case, the fact that he won’t have an inheritance when his father dies because everything that is left belongs to Christian. But the father understands that Rob’s soul is worth so much more than the price of the feast.
“And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”
In the end, a brother is worth so much more than any bounty. The father will make things right in the end, but for now it is ‘meet that we should be merry’ and rejoice together over Rob’s safe return.
So, my friends, those of us who are already sitting in the pews on Sunday – let us rejoice and be merry when we see new faces or the faces of those who have long been missing. Let us not reflect on their mistakes or envy their newfound blessings. Let us embrace them, celebrate them and welcome them back into the fold with open arms, open minds, and open hearts…