On grace

Imperfect Paradise.jpg
Sticker in Bushnell Park, Hartford, Connecticut, 2018 (digital) © Gabriela De Golia

The following recording and text comprise a sermon I preached at my church, the First Church of Middletown, Connecticut, on Sunday, March 31st, 2019, during the season of Lent. In this offering, I share my perspective on how, rather than needing to be perfect in order to receive God’s love and grace, we receive these divine gifts through our mistakes and imperfections.

While the text is slightly different from the actual sermon that was delivered, which you can listen to through the audio file below, the larger sentiments and themes remain the same.

The scripture passage that inspired this sermon is the parable of the Prodigal Son, from the Gospel according to Luke 15:11-32.

 

 

Sermon: “The Most Perfect Gospel”

May the words of my mouth,

And the meditations of all of our hearts,

Be aligned with you,

Our beloved God,

You who are our rock and our redeemer.

Amen.

Good morning, everyone. It’s such a joy to see all of your radiant faces here this morning. My name is Gabriela De Golia, and I am a deacon here at First Church of Christ in Middletown and a member of our Executive Committee.

It’s an honor to be offering the sermon today while our senior pastor, the Rev. Julia Burkey, is away on sabbatical. She will be back with us next week, and at this very moment, she is on retreat with one of the most incredible Christian teachers of our time, Father Richard Rohr, at his Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico. Fr. Rohr is a Franciscan father who fuses contemplative spirituality and social justice activism, and his teachings are centered on love, grace, and healing.

Today, I’d like to invite both Fr. Rohr and Julia into the space by sharing some of Fr. Rohr’s reflections on the scriptural story we heard earlier. My hope is that this will connect us to Rev. Julia and what she might be experiencing in Fr. Rohr’s presence. I also trust that by sharing the reflections of a prominent Christian teacher on today’s scripture, we will better understand what this story is trying to teach us about ourselves, God, and how God would have us move through the world. I hope the sermon nourishes you today.

First, a bit of contextualization. This story comes from the Gospel of Luke; in the words of Fr. Rohr, “[Luke’s] perspective might be called a theology of salvation”. Indeed, the Gospel of Luke is full of stories of salvation, including the one we heard this morning. This story is commonly known as that of the Prodigal Son — prodigal meaning “a person who spends money in a recklessly extravagant way.” Fr. Rohr goes so far as to call the story of the Prodigal Son “the most perfect Gospel […] the most perfect story Jesus ever told.” I find this to be a bold statement for someone as well-versed in the Bible as Fr. Rohr. He continues, “this is surely a gospel that needs no sermon. Nothing further needs to be shared than what you just heard [through scripture].”

When I heard Fr. Rohr say those words, I jokingly told myself, “this makes my job easy on my assigned preaching day!” But you didn’t come to here this morning to hear someone preach nothing to you. And furthermore, given that Fr. Rohr has preached sermons on this passage, I believe that he, too, trusts that we can benefit from communal discernment about this story. Not because it’s an overly-complicated story, but because it is so simply revolutionary. This passage shares an understanding of God and relationality that is so far beyond most of our wildest dreams, so contrary to our reward-and-punishment-oriented norms, that I think we need time and guidance in learning how to properly integrate the teachings of the Prodigal Son into our minds, hearts, and bodies.

As we heard, the Prodigal Son spends a lot of money on getting it on and having a good time. Now, spending money on extravagances isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the son doesn’t spend just anyone’s money; it’s his father’s inheritance for him, which the son asked for before his father was even dead! A bold and arguably selfish request. Yet, the father, who is meant to be a reflection of God in this particular story, gives his son the inheritance money, likely knowing it will get used for questionable purposes.

This action by the father might seem irresponsible; by many conventional parenting standards, it arguably is. Yet, if we look at the father’s decision a little differently, we realize he gives his son exactly that which will ultimately lead the boy towards grace and transformation. This inheritance money is what will cause his child to hit rock bottom — which, for better or worse, is often what we need in order to realize we need to change — thus jumpstarting the boy’s path towards salvation.

In this story, we have a son who has messed up pretty bad and whom many would deem undeserving of forgiveness. Yet the father rejoices at his son’s decision to return home and to turn towards change. The father’s actions — which, again, are meant to reflect how God loves us — literally upend our very common understandings of deservedness, worthiness, goodness, and such things. As the Bible so often does, this story turns almost everything we’ve been taught about these concepts on their heads. Fr. Rohr states,

“Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son [is a wonderful illustration] of how Jesus turns a spirituality of climbing, achieving, and perfection upside down [into a spirituality in which those] who have done it wrong and are humble about it […] are the ones who are forgiven, transformed, and rewarded. […] We thought we came to God by doing it right, and lo and behold, surprise of surprises, we come to God by doing it wrong—and growing because of it!”

Fr. Rohr continues,

“Worthiness is not the issue […] We’re all saved by grace. We’re all being loved in spite of ourselves. […] You’re absolutely worthy of love! Yet this has nothing to do with any earned worthiness on your part. God does not love you because you are good. God loves you because God is good!”

These words from Fr. Rohr, to me, are a holy proclamation. Rather than needing to be perfect in order to be saved or considered lovable, what Fr. Rohr and the story of the Prodigal Son are offering us is the idea that we are saved and loved simply because God is of the nature to love us no matter what. In this story, we see God running down the road to meet the Prodigal Son, loving him without reservation, even after he’s messed up pretty bad. The son doesn’t know how to process this grace; in this passage, he says twice that he doesn’t deserve to be his father’s son. What an accurate reflection of how many of us push away someone’s love simply because we can’t believe they could love us in all our imperfect fullness? I imagine most of us have, many times over.

Now, at the same time that the Prodigal Son is struggling to accept his father’s grace towards him — which, again, is meant to represent God’s grace — his brother, who I like to call the Perfect Son, is also struggling with his father’s love towards the Prodigal. Out of jealousy and a sense of unfairness, the Perfect Son literally refuses to go to the banquet his father organized. I’ll admit that I often feel and act like this Perfect Son: I regularly do things just the way I’m told to, and I get pissed as hell when those who don’t somehow make it through or, worse, are celebrated instead of me. Because where’s my special reward in that? Where’s the fairness there?

Luke’s vision of God’s love in this story is therefore not just a statement about love — it’s also a statement about justice. Again, in the words of Fr. Rohr,

“We often think that justice means getting what we deserve, but the Gospels point out that God’s justice always gives us more than we deserve. […][God] gives everyone all that they need in order to grow.”

He continues by saying,

“We have a hard time with this kind of justice. We are capitalists, even in the spiritual life. We’re more comfortable with an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We don’t know what to do with a God who breaks that rule! […] All through Luke’s Gospel people are receiving what they don’t deserve. […] God’s justice is on the loose!

That kind of relentless generosity is hard for us to comprehend, much less practice. That kind of unconditional justice is beyond our human power. Yet Luke is showing that it is possible to be fully human and divinely just.”

So a question I’ve been asking myself while reflecting on these words by Fr. Rohr and the story of the Prodigal Son is, “what would our lives and our society look like if we lived out this Gospel’s understanding of love and the justice it asks of us?” I obviously can’t say for sure, but I imagine that parts of it might look something like this:

I imagine that if we let go of our notions worthiness-through-perfection and trust instead in the concept of worthiness-through-God’s-grace, we would forgive ourselves for the choices we now wish we hadn’t made. We’d view where we’re at today as the perfect starting point for our growth and healing.

I imagine that when anger towards someone is justified, we’d still trust in the possibility that they, like the Prodigal Son, could someday begin the road towards their own transformation. And should they choose to do so, we would make way for that to happen.

I imagine that our prisons would be centered on rehabilitation and hopefully helping inmates re-enter society, rather than viewing them as eternally unworthy and stripping them of access to future jobs, contact with their families, and their right to vote.

I imagine that white people would never question their own belovedness during conversations about racism, and that we’d know that when people — especially people of color — critique the ways white supremacy manifests in ourselves and in our institutions, that we would view such critiques as invitations for us to reclaim the parts of our humanity that racism has tried to take away from us.

I can imagine so many other ways we’d embody a theology of love that pushes us towards justice, like the Prodigal Son invites us to do.

To be clear, this passage isn’t license for doing harm, nor is it suggesting that we can’t hold people accountable when they’ve done wrong. Rather, this passage is centered on trusting that if one humbles themself enough to admit their wrongs, then they can begin the journey towards grace. Notice that the Prodigal Son could only fully receive the grace that God was always so willing to give him once he himself chose to make a change, once he himself started taking active steps towards his own liberation. So this story isn’t a get-of-jail-free card for being a jerk; it’s a reminder that if we put in the work of orienting ourselves towards transformation, the debris of our lives can begin to clear away, making way for us to receive the grace that God gives us willingly. In a sermon he preached on this passage, Fr. Rohr stated,

“Very often, it’s people who’ve hit the bottom who love God […] when they realize that God is always and forever running down the road toward them.”

I don’t know if there’s a better definition of grace than that: God always and forever running down the road to meet us, always ready to love us.

As demonstrated through the story of the Prodigal Son, if we want to meet God and if we want to receive God’s grace, we better mess up. We make mistakes so we can then find the answers and learn from them; we better get it wrong so we can then get it right and be wiser for it; we better not be so perfect that we refuse the invitation to the holy banquet; we better get lost, precisely so we can be found, and then show other lost souls the way; we better screw things up bad so that instead of being able to save ourselves and becoming proud of ourselves, we can instead experience what it’s like to be saved by a power greater than ourselves. All of these experiences will yield a far deeper joy than we could ever achieve through our individual efforts at being perfect.

So to close, my wish for each of us is that we each mess up; that we each be humble about it; that we each make amends when needed; that we each trust that we are loved for no other reason than because God created us; and that we each receive this divine love with open arms and a grateful heart so we can offer such love to others in turn.

May all of this come to pass, and glory be to the God of Love. Amen.