Joshua 5:9-12; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Fourth Sunday in Lent March 31, 2019
I. Elizabeth Acors, a junior, majoring in Neuroscience and minoring in Biochemistry
I’ve always been a very involved person my whole life, and I blame my mom and sister. They are so involved and its inspiring to see women excelling in their fields. I know that I want to be a doctor after school and have the chance to inspire others, so I work hard to make that dream come true. However, sometimes my childhood and young-adulthood feels like everything is goal-oriented and I’m always leaping to the next step. Always building my resume, starting as early as elementary school when I did a gifted and talented program for school, then getting involved with clubs in middle school, and taking the right classes in high school to get into W&M. Now I have to take the right classes to set myself up for medical school, and in medical school I’ll have to learn the right things to be assigned a residency and to pass the boards.
It’s important to set yourself up for progress, like the Israelites do in our first reading. They learned to plant seeds and grow their own harvest, providing for themselves and no longer needing the manna from God. But while this is important, it is vital to stop. Breathe. And know that you are God’s. You have to force myself to pause and realize that life is so much more than the next step. We can follow the Israelites example to make the most of what we have in the moment. God provided them with land, so they learned to farm and make productive decisions. Plus, while they were waiting on the crops to grow, God provided them with manna each day. This proves that when we are in need, God will provide. In the moments when we aren’t sure what our next step will be or how to get there, we can focus on the present and God will be right by our side. God will also show us how to carry knowledge forward and show us the path He has set for us. We are fully supported, even though sometimes life seems to be sweeping us off our feet. In these moments, it is helpful to make time to pause.
There’s a banner hanging on the Crim Dell bridge in the middle of William & Mary’s campus that says, “Take a minute to be here now.” Whoever made that banner understands that W&M students get caught up in school a lot since it’s a competitive school and everyone wants to do their best. But, to be able to do your best, you do have to take time for self-care and focusing on your faith. So, I invite everyone to take a minute right now to just be.
<A period of silence.>
Can you smell the roses? Can you feel God?
It’s weird right—taking this time to just be? I know it feels strange to me. Life is so fast-paced with modern technology and constantly moving to that next step that centering yourself with God is so refreshing. I know I could stand to do it more often. I appreciate how we do this at the start of worship each day with the gathering hymn.
Music is one example of how I center myself, and the other is dance. I feel like having these outlets for self-expression and stress-relief are so important. Through music or dance, I can take these breathers. I can take time away from life, to be one with myself, and consequently with God since He is always with each and every one of us all the time. However, I still admit that I get caught up in everything I have to do to be a successful student, club member, teammate, friend, sister, and daughter. But whenever it seems to be too much, God always proves to me that He is there. Even when I skip church to study for an exam (Sorry pastors!), I know that I always return back to His wide open arms. Always. Similarly to the Gospel, when the prodigal son returns home, God grants us grace no matter the circumstance, no matter if I’ve been distracted from my faith formation. He welcomes us as His own, just like the father welcomes back his son who returned. This is such an amazing thing to remember every day. He always proves that I am a child of God and that the community of God’s children around me is there. And we can all take the time to stop and smell the roses together.
II. Molly McCue, a junior, double majoring in History and Government.
I’ll admit it- when I first encountered the story of the prodigal son, it was easy to dismiss the older brother as entitled, whining about what reward he was going to get for all his hard work, talking about his superiority over his wasteful and wayward brother. Then, I thought about it some more and suddenly I was relating more to this brother than I previously thought was possible. Like me, he’s a perfectionist. He’s worried about how his family will perceive him and more than anything he wants to please his father.
I’ve felt the same way my entire life. As an only child, I’ve put so much pressure on myself to be everything in one person. Smart, artistic, and athletic. I want my parents to be proud of what I’ve accomplished in all facets of my life. Even in my faith, I’ve wondered, am I doing enough?
Sometimes I don’t make it to church, even if it’s as late as 11:00 AM. For the most part, I have a good excuse – I have many commitments across campus that also require my time on Sundays – bit still, I feel guilty. I try to faithfully go to my sorority’s small group meetings, but at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights, sometimes I just want to get into my pajamas and watch Netflix instead of walking the five minutes across campus to talk about my faith with friends.
Even when I go, I find myself making comparisons between myself and others. Emily had a much more insightful “God moment” of her week than I did. Or, Tori was more open about how difficult it can be to trust God. I realize that during my week, I’ve been too distracted by other things. I haven’t turned to god enough. In some ways, I failed to be my vision of the perfect Christian. As always, I’m seeking an unattainable perfection.
Behind this perfection is a doubt and a belief- a doubt about the worth of what I can bring to god’s table. And a belief, a false one, that what god is looking for in his creation, in me, is perfection. But what I see in the parable of the prodigal son directly refutes these two. God accepts our faults even when we don’t. He accepts that some days you just can’t make it to church, that we, like the younger son, will waste money on things we think will make us happier like that spending spree at Target, or that we fail to always show Christian love to those around us, and that sometimes we fail to give our faith the full attention it deserves. But he has already acknowledged these shortcomings and more. He has already given us unfathomable mercy and grace.
We are not failures or disappointments and our faith is not measured with respect to others.
Coming to terms with your own shortcomings, your imperfections is one of the hardest things in life. We’ve been taught to forgive those around us when they fail to meet expectations, but how often do we give ourselves that same grace and forgiveness?
Why is it easier to be kinder to others than to ourselves? Why do we hold ourselves to higher standards, especially when these standards cause us to be unbearably stressed? These are difficult questions that honestly, I don’t have any answers to. But in asking these things I have found a way to show myself that I am not accepting enough of the grace I have been given. Knowing my imperfections, it can hard to believe that to God these things don’t really matter. That the guilt I feel about missing church one Sunday is something I’ve imposed upon myself. God sees me trying. He sees all of us working hard to do our best. When we make mistakes, we can always come back to that right path and we will be forgiven. There is room for our shortcomings. There is room for us at God’s table.
Even if we are not the smartest person on campus or able to give the most insightful comments about God’s word- there is something for us to contribute. There is no need to worry that God will somehow suddenly decide that we are unworthy of his grace if we are to take a minute and step back from the way we work ourselves. This is the fear of that first son, that if anything less than his best would constitute crippling failure that would erase his father’s love for him. But we are told time and time again by God that this is not the case. His grace is as steadfast as his love for us.
The lesson is that when we are able to let go of this mentality that what is expected of us is 100% perfection, 100% of the time, then we can fully accept the grace that God has already given us. His grace and love have always been there waiting for us, regardless of the hours we spend on our faith and regardless of our inherent imperfections.
III. Leslie Weber, a junior, double majoring in Psychology and Gender Studies
I love going home. I consider myself very lucky to have grown up in a home that I love going back to. On all my breaks from school, I go home. I’m filled with a sense of happiness and peace when I pull into the driveway of my home. As some of you may know, last summer, I studied abroad in Cambridge, England. It was an incredible experience, and I loved every minute of it. My last day there was bittersweet. I felt sad because an amazing experience was coming to an end, but I was excited to go home. I remember rounding a corner in Dulles Airport and seeing my mom waiting for me. I was filled with peace, knowing that I was home.
Our Gospel reading today tells of a homecoming, but this one has some mixed reactions. The father in the parable is overjoyed that his younger son has returned, but the older son is bitter about the reception his brother receives. What is most important about this story is not the fact that the father welcomed his son home; it’s the fact that the father welcomed his son home, regardless of what the son did.
This is ultimately a story about unconditional love. God loves us, and nothing we can do will ever change that. God loves us in spite of the things we have or haven’t done. We are saved by God’s grace, a grace that God will always offer in unlimited amounts. I have a daily devotion, and the reading for March 13th is entitled “Blank-Check Love.” The author compares God’s love to a blank check from the bank of heaven that guarantees 24/7 access to unending resources. The memo line reads “For love—whatever amount you need, whenever you need it.” Everything that God does, God does because God loves us. That’s why we are preparing for Easter, and it’s why we have something to celebrate that Sunday and always. God sent Jesus to save us so that we can one day come home to God and join the eternal homecoming celebration. God will still dress us in a robe, kill the fatted calf, (and prepare a vegetarian option, in my case), even though we squandered our share of the property God gave us. That’s how much God loves us, and that’s how much grace God extends to us. And that’s how much God calls us to love others.
Of course, that is easier said than done. It’s difficult to love others, especially when we believe that they have wronged and mistreated us. But God calls us to the ministry of reconciliation, as Paul writes in Second Corinthians. God calls us to do our best to be ministers of reconciliation and to extend God’s blank-check love to others to the best of our ability. There are certainly moments when we feel like the older son in the parable. Someone slights us when we have done everything right, and we want to see them reprimanded. I know that I’ve been in that situation before. I was working with another student at William & Mary to collaborate on planning an event. It was an event that I had been wanting to do for a while, and I was looking forward to sharing ideas with another person. I met with this person fairly close to the date of the event, and they had taken my plan and completely changed it; they expected me to agree with the changes and implement them immediately. I felt disrespected because this person had disregarded my ideas and intention behind the event and made it something that I didn’t want to be a part of anymore. I felt a lot like I imagine the older son in the parable felt. In that meeting with my fellow student, I found it difficult to love them and to resist passing judgment on them. When I had a chance to reflect on the situation, I remembered that just because my feelings were hurt, it doesn’t mean that God loves that person less. I know that I’ve been called to love that person, even though they made me feel disrespected. I had to undertake the ministry of reconciliation. I had to talk with that person and work to make amends, even though I was convinced that I was completely in the right. I had to try to share God’s unconditional love with that person, even though there was a time when it was difficult for me to forgive them. That is the point of Jesus’s parable: everyone is worthy of love and is loved by God, even in the moments when we think they are unlovable.
This means that God still loves us when we are upset with ourselves. When we have sinned, and we know that we’ve messed up, God still loves us and waits for us to return to God. As you all know, this is the season of Lent, a time when we turn back to God in all our brokenness and sinfulness. We turn back to God, knowing that we will have to tell God that we have sinned against heaven and before God. We will have to tell God that we are no longer worthy to be called a child of God. Yet because of God’s love for us, when we turn back to God carrying our burdens and sins, God will celebrate our return. God will throw a party for us because we were dead, but we are alive again in Christ. We were lost but now we’re found. Jesus was sent to this earth to save us, so that we can come back to God. Through Christ, we are reconciled with God, and we can cash God’s blank check of love and grace and attend God’s party, even when we’ve made mistakes and lost our way. There will always be a place for us in God’s house. We can accept the task of trying our hardest to love others and show them grace because we know that God loves everyone and sent Jesus to save us all. When we are tired and worn down by our sins, we need to accept God’s love and grace in any amount that we need, whenever we need it. We need to turn back to God and remember that we are reconciled to God through Jesus. We need to listen to God calling to us. We need to hear God. God says, as I will sing for you shortly, “Come home. Come home. You who are weary, come home.” Where there is endless love and amazing grace.