Lent 4, Year B: Rembrandt, the Prodigal, and the Cup of Love

A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
One of the common misunderstandings that we often bump up against in the season of Lent is that we think all the various disciplines of the Church traditionally taken up by the people of God—prayer, fasting, almsgiving, reflection and meditation upon God’s word in Holy Scripture, acts of mercy, participation in the sacraments—are done in order that we might become more loveable, or help us get to somewhere we are not. In a culture addicted to self-help and self-improvement, we might think of Lent as a time when we double our efforts, lose that spare tire of vices, and make ourselves a little more loveable in God’s eyes. Presumably, when we’ve shed enough pounds, straightened ourselves out, and accumulated enough brownie points, God deigns (rather grudgingly, of course) to consent to love us.
            Years ago, I heard a sermon preached in Philadelphia about the Prodigal Son—one of my favorite passages in all of scripture. I remember, during a point in my life when everything seemed to fall apart and I found myself eating pods among the swine, this story restored me to a sense of my own loveableness. I “came to myself” and realized that God was always already hiking up his robes and running out to greet me, preparing the fatted calf, and polishing off the family ring to slip on my unworthy finger. Around that same time, I came across a print of Rembrandt’s painting of this same story. In it, we see the prodigal kneeling, collapsed in the father’s warm embrace. The father stoops down and gathers the son—whose shoes are tattered and torn, whose feet are dirty and bruised—into his flowing robes. I remember praying with that picture a lot. I’d gaze at the Prodigal’s feet and see in them my own lostness, woundedness, and need. And I’d let my eyes abide on the Father’s unconditional embrace of the son—the bearhug of welcome that met the son right where he was, just as he was.
            So imagine my surprise when the priest started preaching to us about how the father may have welcomed the son back and given him the family credit card, but this time there were limits, and conditions. The unconditional welcome of the father—not predicated on the son getting his act together once and for all—got turned into an all-too-human form of conditional love, something the son earned for good behavior and swearing off swine pods forever. That’s the same temptation Lent puts before us—the twofold illusion that we can save ourselves through our good works, and that there are conditions on God’s love for us.
            Our reading from Ephesians makes this point powerfully. We get a picture of the God of unconditional love and mercy, who reaches out to us in our brokenness, our lostness, our isolation, and our shame to draw us to Himself. God doesn’t wait around to love us tapping his foot and looking down his nose while we clean up our act. God loves us in our very trespasses, in all the ways that we fall short living from the abundance of the richness of his grace and being the Kingdom people whom we are called to be. In Christ, God raises us up to new life—the life where we know ourselves wrapped and held fast in his “great love.” That’s what the writer of Ephesians is getting at when talks about the love of God as gift. God’s love for us is without strings. It is sheer gift. God loves us because there is nothing in God that is not love. Lent is not some spiritual treadmill, but a practice of seeing how we often make a mess of things, and that it is only in calling off the struggle save ourselves that we can be saved, our life can be transfigured. “This is not your own doing”—is a call to open, receive, and welcome the welcoming love of God that is available at each moment—no matter who we are, where we are, or what we happen to have done. Stop the struggle, receive the gift, and be that gift for others.
            Our gospel for today challenges us to expand our notion of God’s love for us beyond our human framework of tit-for-tat as well. John, of course, talks a lot about “the world.” It appears eighty times in the fourth gospel—nearly four times all the other gospels combined. “The world” for John can mean a couple of different things. It can mean God’s good creation, the world that is created in and through Christ, the Living Word of God. The world is a sacrament of God’s presence that shines forth his glory in every moment. But “the world” also means the world of fallenness and sin. Jesus says to Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this world”—it’s the world we hear about on the radio and see on television—a steady diet of the slaughter of innocents, cruelty, and hate.
            The question logically arises, which of these worlds (the world in its original goodness and glory, or the world in brokenness and fallenness) does God love? Like a child who refuses to play with teddy bear once it’s got a chocolate milk stain on it, we might suppose that God loved the world before we made a mess of it. But that’s not what scripture says, and that’s not what the life of Jesus shows us. God loves the goodness of his creation, but He also loves the world that is dead in its trespasses, that’s gone astray, that’s feeding itself on the swine pods of greed, anger and ignorance.
            When we really start to understand, in our own experience, the difference between the conditional love we’ve experienced at work, or in our families, or in the culture at large and the unconditional love of God, a great freedom starts to bubble up through the hardpan of our soul. We are so used to hiding parts of ourselves from others and keeping them under lock and key. We are so used to hiding and denying parts of ourselves from ourselves as well—splitting them off and stuffing them in the junk drawer of the unconscious with all the other things we don’t want to face. Of course, in the beginning we can’t help approaching God the same way we do all our other relationships. We come to God in a rather formal way—our prayers are pious enough, but they sound like they’ve been copied and pasted from the Book of Common Prayer with its parallelisms, and triplet repetitions. But as our relationship with God deepens, as we learn to trust and to simply be in God’s presence, like an old dog on the porch in the sun, we slowly become more confident that grace abounds and that our weakness is not something to be ashamed of. We learn to let ourselves be loved, just as we are. We start to realize that God loves all parts of us—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
We realize that we don’t need to invest unnecessary energy in quarantining off the noxious bits of ourselves. God sees it all and loves it all. That’s why I’ve always loved the “Collect for Purity” with which we begin our service. We pray to God “from whom no secrets are hid and all desires known.” And we pray for the gift of the Holy Spirt to open our hearts that we might be vessels of God’s grace in the world. It’s a reminder, right at the start of the service before we’ve even really begun, that we can bring all of ourselves to God and that it is through the gift of the Spirit to us that we are made more like the people God calls us to be. It’s a reminder that worship isn’t about performing piety, but opening ourselves, just as we are, to the love of God. God created human beings—people with faults, and foibles, and free will—not robots marching along preprogrammed tracks. The Good News of salvation is that we can bring that messiness to worship and present ourselves without the mask of decorum to God. In the words of the Rite I Eucharistic Prayer—we offer our selves, our souls, and bodies to God that his love might transform us into the likeness of his Son in whose image we are made. Like the prodigal son in Rembrandt’s painting, we can allow ourselves to fall into the Father’s arms—tattered shoes, grubby clothes, disheveled hair and all—trusting that his arms are always there to hold us close.
When we gradually come to trust in God’s unconditional love for us, a funny thing starts to happen. We begin to accept that we are accepted, and that acceptance is totally transformative. Have you ever noticed that most of our efforts at being a “better person” or a “more loving and compassionate person,” like New year’s resolutions, only really last a couple weeks? No wonder Lent always seems like one dismal failure one year after the next! The trouble, of course, is that we often approach Lenten with that same “can do” attitude with which we approach everything else. Our efforts, our will, are at the center of it all. Our readings from today aren’t about “can do Christians” but “can’t do Christians”. Just accept that “this is not your own doing” and that our own doing is often what gets us into trouble in the first place. Realize that what’s often underneath those efforts often lurks fear—fear of condemnation, fear of not being enough, fear that we are lacking something that we have to earn. So our efforts to be “good, nice, Christians” are sometimes driven not by love, but fear. Accepting ourselves just as we are, however, has the opposite effect. We are less likely to visit our charity upon others in a way they makes them feel like they are being hunted. Having known ourselves to be accepted and loved just as we are, having received the gift of love, we start to accept and love others just as they are. We stop trying to fix, or fiddle with others, and simple learn to love them—not as we think they should be, but just as they are. Christ Jesus, not our little egos, becomes the source of good works. “This is not your own doing.”
Whoever you are, wherever you are on your journey, know that when you come to this table, it is Christ Himself who meets you here. Bring all of yourself and know that even with those old stories of shame of condemnation clattering around in your heart, even in the acknowledgement of the various ways we have erred in things done and left undone, Christ Himself is running to meet you and inviting you to party in already in full swing. Take and eat the bread of unconditional welcome. Drink from the cup of love, that sweet nectar of healing that comes without strings to each of us, just as we are.


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