"Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the wealth that will belong to me.’ So he divided his assets between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant region, and there he squandered his wealth in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that region, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that region, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to his senses he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate, 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate." (Luke 15:11-24)
Have you ever screwed up? Me too. Because we are a mess. You are a mess. In fact, you have always been a mess. You were actually born that way.
But it's okay. It’s not just you. It’s all of us. Our big theological word for this as Presbyterians is total depravity. It basically means right out of the gate, we acknowledge we are a complete and total mess. Some people don’t like this theology because they don’t think little humans, babies and toddlers, can do anything wrong. I’m not sure those people have spent a lot of time with toddlers. We’ve all screwed up, even when we were toddlers, and especially when we were kids. There was the time when I was a kid and I played in the forbidden room in my house (that really clean room with white furniture we weren’t allowed in) and broke my mom’s fancy vase. Then I got older and I snuck out at night to toilet paper houses. One time I skipped school and got busted by the pizza delivery man (that’s a story for another day). Kids make lots of mistakes, and we don’t outgrow it. As adults we keep messing up but in really big ways. We go around making mistakes that don’t just break things, they break people. We hurt other people. We mess up relationships and jobs. We take what isn’t ours. We don’t help when we should. We hold grudges for a really long time. We get angry way too quickly. We go from one mistake to the next and we kind of hope no one notices. On our best days we might own up to it and apologize. But even then that just feels inadequate. “I’m sorry” doesn’t feel even close to proportional to the ways we have messed up.
Want to know the truth? It’s not. It’s not enough. It’s a good start, but apologies are not enough to fix the wake of destruction we leave behind us. You are a mess, and you always have been.
But it’s okay, because God’s big and very real answer to our mess is grace.
Jesus tells us a story about a father with two sons. We’ll get to the story of the other son (the older brother) another week, but today we read the part about the younger son. The story goes that one day the younger son wakes up and decides he wants his share of the inheritance. Jesus doesn’t tell us why he wanted to leave, but he was clearly determined to do so. The big problem here is that his father is still alive which is not how inheritance works. He marches up to his father and asks for the money. His father would have been well within his right to kick him off the family property entirely, but he doesn’t. He gives his son the inheritance. This wasn’t as simple as writing a check. He would have had to sell off a piece of his property, his portion of the family estate, to give him the money. The younger brother takes this money and gets as far away from home as he can, then Jesus says he spends it all in what he calls “dissolute living.” (Those of you with kids who have gone off to college may know something about what he might mean). He spends all of his money making all kinds of bad choices and one day wakes up poor and alone and really hungry. The only job he can find is working in the fields with a bunch of pigs. It is here that he has his “aha moment.” As he sits in the mud, surrounded by pigs, he gets jealous of what the pigs have to eat, and he realizes just how good he had it back home. He doesn’t think he can just show back up on his father’s doorstep empty handed, so he comes up with a plan. He’ll go back and offer to work for his father’s employees, earning a little bit of money at a time, and eventually pay off the debt he owes to his father.
Now that he has a plan, he picks himself up out of the mud, and starts the long walk back home. (Don’t you remember that long trip back home after you really messed something up as a kid? When you would go as slowly as possible?) But just when the son gets in sight of his house, his father comes running out to him. Fathers in this time in history didn’t run, by the way. It was unheard of. But his father hikes up his robes, and runs out to him. The father scoops up his dirty, exhausted, broken son into his arms. Before the son can let his plans to try and repay the debt spill out of his mouth his father has put a robe on him with the family crest and is making dinner plans to celebrate that his child has come home. While this is all happening, his older brother, the good one, the one who had not demanded an inheritance and taken off, is skulking off in the shadows watching this father. As much sympathy as I have for his older brother, today we are going to stay with the younger brother. Because you and I, we all start as the younger brother.
We have all screwed up. We have all made mistakes.
When the Bible talks about the ways we mess up, it calls it sin. The word sin gets a bad rap because it’s been used as an instrument of shame, most often by the church and Christians who see sin as something other people do. But sin simply points to the things in our lives that have created distance between us and God. Sometimes sin is the things that you do. When you think you are bigger than you are. You think you don’t need anyone else, and you don’t even need God. Your ego gets all big and inflated. You begin to believe that you are more important than other people, that you deserve more than other people. So you lie or you cheat or you steal or hurt other people. It's sin. Sometimes sin is also the things you don’t do. When you think what you do or say doesn’t matter, so you don’t do the things you know you should. You think you are smaller than you are instead of believing what God has told you. You refuse to believe that you are made in the image of God. Sin happens when we don’t believe we are who God has told us we are. It creates distance, between us and the one we need, just like it did with the younger son in the story from Jesus. When the younger son left, there was a distance between he and his father. It took him a while to realize what he needed. He went looking for something when he left, and he was determined to find it outside of his father. But when he finally lost it all, and saw the wake of devastation behind him, all he wanted was to come home. He wanted a fresh start. He was forgiven for it all the moment the father pulled him into his arms.
You are the prodigal son, the prodigal daughter. This is you. This is where it starts in your relationship with God. You are sitting there one day, surrounded by pigs and covered in mud, looking at the mess of your life. For a while, maybe you thought you could do it on your own, that you didn’t need God. You went out there and made your own decisions and did things your way. But then you’re in the mud, and after the mess you have made in your life you aren’t sure if God would even want you back. Maybe you don’t think you can admit the things you’ve said or done. You start to wonder if hanging out with these pigs in the mud isn’t so bad. Then one day, it’s enough. You can’t carry the guilt around anymore. It’s eating you up. You lose everything, or you are at least so hungry for another option that you can’t stay in the mud anymore. Then you get up, and start the long, slow walk back home. You’re exhausted and broken and guilt ridden and covered in dirt. But God sees you coming, and before you can try to come up with some plan to repay your debt on your own, God scoops you up in a tight embrace. Then God gives you the one thing you couldn’t find on your own: Grace.
No matter what you have done, God forgives you.
No matter how big the mess you have made in your life, God’s grace covers you.
It's not just once. It's over and over again. Over and over again, you’ll find yourself running away from God, going out to do things your way. Then you find yourself back in the mud, and making the walk back to be embraced in grace again. We will always be screw ups. But God will always love us anyway.
That’s all Jesus tells us about the younger son. But I wonder how the son felt the next day, the day after he came home. When he had taken a shower and watched the mud and filth flow down in the water and off his skin. When he had a large meal and slept in a big, comfortable bed. When he woke up the next morning, and thought about all of the things he had done, all of the ways he screwed up, all the unspeakable choices he had made, the things he couldn’t even repeat he was so embarrassed - but they were all just - forgiven. He had a fresh start, with his past behind him. Even though it cost his father so much, his father loved him too much to lose him. Imagine waking up with that feeling.
In the message, which is a paraphrase of the Bible texts, it shares this from Ephesians chapter 2:
“You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live . . .We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it . . . It’s a wonder God didn’t lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us. Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it.”
That’s what God offers to you. You can wake up everyday, feeling relieved of the guilt you have been carrying. You can wake up and put your past behind you. You are embraced by the love of God, God who loves you too much to let the distance of your sin keep you away.