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Luke 15:103, 11b-32
I would like to say it was sorrow for my sins that brought me home.
I wish I could tell you it was love for my parents, and how sorry I was for all the pain, shame, and financial hardship I had caused them. I would like to say that I had come to see the error of my ways, that I realized what a fool I had been to leave behind everyone and everything I knew, to run away with my inheritance and then to throw it all away on every little wild thing I wanted.
And I would love to tell you I had gotten myself right with God, that I had confessed my sins and resolved to turn my life around, that I had promised God I would keep the commandments, be a better son, a hard worker, and a less self-centered person.
Oh, I did feel all those things–eventually. Some time after I walked through my parents’ still-open door, I reconciled with God and my family. I finally opened the door to my heart, and was able to acknowledge and understand God’s forgiveness. I stopped resisting love—both God’s and my parents’—and was overwhelmed by a sense of belonging, wholeness and peace unlike anything I had ever known.
But I have to be honest with you:
All of that came later—after the most tenderhearted embrace I had ever known began to break down my hardhearted defenses, after the sweetest kiss I had ever received allowed me to begin to imagine a way out of my shame, after the robe, the ring, the sandals, the fatted calf, and the biggest party I had ever seen.
My true repentance came long after the party was over, after my brother had gotten over himself, after my parents’ reunion euphoria had worn off—and still their lovingkindness toward me did notfalter. Their welcome did not wear out. They asked me no questions, meted out no punishment, uttered no haughty “I told you so’s.” They just rejoiced that their lost one had been found.
Finally, I began to understand that there was no connection between my behavior and their love. They loved me simply because I was their child. They loved me despite all the pain I had caused them. I saw that there was nothing I had to do to earn this love and nothing I could do to lose it—and that blew my mind.
And then a funny thing happened: This love I hadn’t earned began to change me. This love I couldn’t earn helped me begin to love myself, and that helped me to begin thinking less of myself and more of others, and to want to love them the same why I had been loved. To open my heart to them the same way my parents had kept their door open for me.
You’re probably wondering why I’m telling you all this. And maybe you’re wondering what difference it makes—the story of one wayward child reconciled to one loving family in a great big world divided by so much greed and selfishness and suffering, in a country where so many doors are closed, where the government corrals our neighbors like so many animals behind fences and under bridges, where the president is obsessed with building walls and closing borders.
Well, I’ll tell you what: Maybe my story doesn’t make a big difference, but I’ve come to believe that the gracious love it represents does—or at least it would, if only we could receive it, if only we would let ourselves be transformed by it, if only we would share it. If even one person who hears my story stops thinking of people as deserving or undeserving and, instead, starts seeing all people as beloved children of God, that’s a seed of hope planted for the world. And if just one more person—maybe you—realizes that God calls us to be door-openers, not gate-keepers, that could be the beginning of a movement.
The truth is that Jesus’ version of my family’s story was much kinder to me than I deserved. Yes, even his way of telling the story was a grace extended to me.
But it has caused some confusion for some people who hear it.
You see, based on the way Jesus told the story about my father—the story that came to be told and taught as my story—a lot of people think my parents loved me because I came home. They think my parents forgave me because I came to my senses, confessed my sins and repented.
But you have to understand: It didn’t happen that way. I came home because I was starving, not because I was sorry.
Don’t get me wrong; I know that repentance—acknowledging our wrongs and then turning back to God’s way of doing things—is an important part of the Christian life, especially during Lent. But I also know that some of the most well-intentioned Christians forget this important, life-changing truth:
That we are saved—transformed and made new and whole—not by what we do, but by grace; not by our goodness, but by God’s.
For all of us who wear ourselves out knock-knock-knocking on heaven’s door, he wanted us to know that the door is already open. That the door is always open. And that our father-mother God is forever standing in it, watching for us, willing to run down the road like some lovesick fool and sweep us into their arms.
And so he told my story, which is really our story.
To try to help us understand something of God’s heart, something of how God sees us, something about a love that goes out of its way to find the lost, restore the rejected, heal the broken, lift up the downtrodden, and liberate the imprisoned.
To try to help us understand that we are not transformed and saved by our beliefs. We are not changed by our confessions or saved by repentance. We are not saved by doing good works, by being generous with what we have, or even by loving God, our neighbors and our enemies. All those things are products of our relationship with the God we know in Jesus; all those things will promote our healing and make us more Christ-like, but they are not the things that save us.
Grace is what does that. God is who does that.
I know because God’s grace saved me when I was yet a prodigal, when my heart was still cold. Grace saved me when I was still a disgrace to my family, before I knew the true meaning of love or had any real sense of who God is.
In the end it wasn’t my confession that triggered my parents’ love but their love that prompted my repentance, their grace that opened the door to my transformation.
In the end, it wasn’t his hard work that won my big brother a place in my parents’ heart. They had given him that place before he was even born. It was seeing their love for me that opened his eyes to see their love for him. It was standing on the other side of the door, hearing the music and rejoicing for me, that freed him from a lifetime of striving.
So that’s what I’ve come to tell you: Come in, beloveds. Come in to the house of the heart, come in to the heart of Love. Come anytime, and as often as you’d like. Come, and bring your friends. The door is always open—for you and for all.