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Human Guilt and the Grief of God: The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Sunday, March 27, 2022:
Joshua 5:9-12
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

I wonder about the father in the story; how he dealt with the parting of his younger child. Did the mother and father cry themselves to sleep? Did the father lash out at the other workers, his sense of honour having been offended? Did he pray that the child would be protected? Instead, until the end, the story focusses on the runaway.

I personally like a passage we had a few weeks ago, and I might use it to fill in the blanks: Jesus says “like a mother hen, I’ve been trying to bring you together under my wings, but you keep resisting.” I hear something of the agony of a hurt parent in that. But even there, it’s a pain for the sake of the children, and for the sake of the world. Jesus wants a better, more life-giving situation for us, and again and again we refuse. The emphasis isn’t on his hurt honour.

So today we have this story that says something to us about the mystery of a God that wants us to experience life in its fullness, wants the best for us, but when we turn away from that, wants us to confess and be forgiven. And God being big enough to handle us, even in our waywardness, the words and the experience of forgiveness are a blessing not primarily for God, but for ourselves, and for our world.

The first reading today gives us an image of the Hebrew people on the cusp of adulthood. They’ve gone through the long period of utter dependency on (and sometimes rebellion against) God in the desert. Constantly depending on God, waiting for the daily provision of manna that gets them through. But God brings them through that stage to a situation of greater freedom and agency, where grow roots, dig, and till the soil, and make lives for themselves. The relationship with God will change, and the life on the ground will evolve over time, but through their stories and their laws, the goal is that they remain under God’s roof. You do get a sense of God’s sometimes terrifying holiness, and their life is designed to honour this. But their laws are also, to a large extent, about loving neighbour, too. About moulding a world in which love of God and neighbour are possible. I think of the line of Herbert O’Driscoll’s hymn: “the love of Jesus calls us in swiftly changing days to be God’s co-creators in new and wondrous ways…” God wants us working alongside, co-creating, on the farm. But we run away from God’s vision and God’s plans. And it’s mostly bad news for us, and for our world. The parable leaves a blank on the Father’s reaction to this. (Until we get to the end, and we see there a reaction of relief, acceptance, and reconciliation.)

One of my favourite singers, Nick Cave, some time ago also realized that our parable left some gaps for us to fill in. And in his band’s earlier days, with a sort of brooding darkness and chip on his shoulder, he wrote a song focussing not on the wayward child, and not on the loving father, but on “the good son.” It’s a song about the good son’s bitterness. He’s out in the field under the hot son, cursing his brother, and mother, and father. Hatching plans to take revenge on them one day. And there’s a refrain throughout: “one more man gone…” You get the sense that over time, not just the son, but a lot of other workers have given up and taken off, because the work in the fields is tough. And with every person that leaves, things get tougher for the good son. (Maybe we sometimes feel that way, growing bitter at the selfish people that are only thinking for themselves, making everything harder for us, and even putting our lives, and the life of the world, in jeopardy.) It’s a good song.

But this same singer, I’ve mentioned, 25 years later, grew to become a little less brooding, more forthright, and less inclined toward reinterpreting biblical stories in new and sometimes profane ways. And it was in this time of more rooted stability and maturity that one of his teenage sons took hallucinogenic drugs and ended up falling off a cliff, to his death. And in that harsh realization of humanity’s folly, and life’s fragility, the spotlight for Cave, seems to move from the bitter ‘good son,’ to a mature understanding of the love between parent and child. When a fan wrote to him recently, asking about his experience of grief, he responded: “Grief and love are forever intertwined. Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love and, like love, grief is non-negotiable. There is a vastness to grief that overwhelms our minuscule selves. We are tiny, trembling clusters of atoms subsumed within grief’s awesome presence.”

So while we might wonder how the father in the parable may have been impacted upon the younger child’s departure, and we might subsequently wonder if our God whom this parental figure in the parable represents, is affected by pain, in a way that we can relate to, Nick Cave’s reflection on the loss of his son, and his description of being “subsumed within grief’s awesome presence” describe what could be a powerful if untraditional and, for some, unorthodox description of God, as “Loving Vulnerability, ” of “Grief’s Awesome Presence.”

And it’s a love and grief that are outwardly-directed, toward ourselves and our world. Because God would have us be co-creators, and partners in covenant with one another, but in all sorts of big and little ways, we say no — as individuals and as community and as society. Our lives ought to reflect the love and mercy and creativity of the God we know and proclaim, and yet often they don’t. And there’s something amazing about the love and strength of God, that God can absorb these blows and affronts. Think of the father in the parable, not bitter and self-occupied like the good son, but keeping his eyes on the road, for any sign of the return of the wayward one. Doesn’t say “I told you so.” Doesn’t even let the child finish the well-rehearsed explanation. But just celebrates that the lost one is back and restores the relationship, so that they can get on working together again.

In different ways we point to our trust and reliance in repentance, forgiveness, and mercy. We say we believe in it in the creed. We name it in the Lord’s prayer. It’s there in our baptism and communion services. And there’s the sacrament of reconciliation in itself. These aspects of our life need not be guilt trips, or the long, meandering speech of the returning son. But they’re there for us to recall that God creates opportunities again and again to bring us into the fold. Times to acknowledge that we’ve said “no” to God and to our neighbour, but immediately following that honesty, an assurance of pardon. So that we can get back to the good work of being God’s partners in co-creating a more loving and merciful world for which our God grieves.

“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

“‘For this [child] of mine was dead and is alive again; was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.”

© 2022 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter