These three readings this evening go together very well.  

They all speak about humans who lost their way and found their way back to a way of life that was more genuinely life-giving than where they had wandered.  The Israelites in the first reading from Exodus get off the path; they thought it would be easier to relate to a god of their making; it was easier, but not as life-giving.  Paul in the second reading tells Timothy in the second reading about how he (Paul) has been lost in a life of violence (violating others including killing) and how he finally found the path.  Jesus, in tonight’s gospel passage, is accused of spending too much time with those who were “off the path.”  He explains that there is a special joy in finding what had been lost.

These readings invite us to reflect on our experience of this mystery, our experience of wandering from the path.  For some reason it is difficult for many of us to admit that we have lost our way.  That is certainly true for me; I get pretty defensive when someone suggests my behavior is not up to standard.  My ego wants to be viewed as perfect in every way.  I wonder if this aversion is what is behind a certain reticence to allow the vocabulary of “failure” or “being in the wrong” to enter into our contemporary religious conversations.  Most of us come from a tradition that used to make a big deal out of “confession.”  Today, not so much.  Some of us wince at the words from an ancient hymn, “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!”  A wretch?  Please, I’m not going to identify as a wretch!

A Wretch?

Well, let’s take a look at this.  John Newton, the author of that hymn, was the captain of a slave ship.  He was a violent man; he participated in the enslavement of human beings, robbing them of their freedom.  He had the insight to realize this and saw himself as a wretch.  That was a good thing, right?  Wouldn’t it have been better for thousands of people’s financial security if Bernie Maedoff had realized he was a wretch and done an about face?  Wouldn’t it have been better if Ariel Castro had realized he was a wretch and stopped this behavior after holding the first woman hostage?

So maybe my being so defensive and needing to be seen as perfect is not such a good thing—if it is stopping me from changing and growing where I need to.

A Wretch…to the Core?

Now, on the other hand, Ariel Castro took his own life in prison, perhaps because he saw himself as a wretch.  That’s different.  There is nothing about our understanding of God that I’m aware of that would cause us to see ourselves as worthless or somehow at our core despicable.  (I believe the opposite to be true!) What we are saying in these moments of insight is that our behavior was wretched, and that we own it as our behavior.  In that moment because of the intense feeling we may not be too careful about how we express ourselves; but we know there is something about ourselves that we want to change.  We are capable of getting off the path; we are capable of returning to the path when we wander.

I had a marvelous experience as a priest many years ago when a man came to confession.  He avoided the normal formalities and simply announced, “I’ve been a son-of-a-bitch.”  He hadn’t been to confession for a long time and confessed all the things he was aware of that he had done wrong.  He wanted to change.  I invited him “for his penance” to follow me into church and kneel down with me to pray for a few minutes.  I intuited that the body-memory of kneeling down might help him know he was “back on the path.”  He cried like a baby as soon as his knees hit the kneeler.  Calling himself a son-of-a-bitch was a good thing; it was an insight.  Knowing that he was on a much more profound level a different kind of son was a better thing altogether.

The Message for Us

The witness of thousands of years of Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism (to name three) tell us that we should not be surprised that we wander from the path of doing what is true (The Hebrew word for “sin” means “missing the mark.”).  Our Jewish friends just celebrated Yom Kippur.  Buddhists know all about how the “water buffalos they are raising” (namely their own selves) tend to wander from the path.  Christian around the world this evening are invited to “come to our senses” like the son in the gospel and go back home where we are able to enjoy the love that has been there looking for us all along.

This meal we are about to celebrate is meant to echo the feast that is pictured in the gospel.  God is putting a royal robe on us “wretches” and calling us sons and daughters and feeding us like we’ve never been fed before.  This experience of love is meant to penetrate our being.  There is a strange paradox at play here.  (Many of you are aware that Carl Jung talks about this in terms of the “shadow self.”)  The more we love the part of us that “gets off the path,” the less likely we are to wander from the path.  So we are really invited to love ourselves the same way God loves us—unconditionally.  And then the dynamic continues.  As we love ourselves unconditionally—despite our wanderings—we are more able to love others who are not perfect either.  Good thing, becauseno one is perfect.  So unless we want to be alone for the rest of our lives, this is a good way to go!

September 15, 2013
24th Sunday of the Year
Sts. Clare & Francis
Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-32
Homily by Frank Krebs

Photo by Michael B. on