Let Go of Anger and Shame
Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston
March 31, 2019
Who are you? How would you answer that question?
It depends on who asks it and who we are with, right? We could say our name. Or who we are in relation to others. For example, as a child, I was known as one of the Giver girls--the middle one. When my children were young, I was Rebecca or Christian’s mom. At Shadyside Academy events, I am “Brian’s wife.” When I walk into the ICU, I am known as Pastor.
Who are you? You might say, “I am Don’s wife or I am Pat’s partner or I am Jack’s mother.”
Or you could say what you do. “I am a teacher or a contractor or a physical therapist.”
We define ourselves by our job, that is until we don’t have one. Then who are we?
Who are you? Sometimes this question hits the play button on the tapes in our heads that play back the messages we received as children:
“You’re the wild one.” Or “You’re the responsible one.”
“You’re so pretty and precious.” Or “You’re strong and smart.”
“You should be ashamed of yourself.” Or “You’re a disappointment.”
Who are you? That’s the question that confronts us when we hear our Gospel lesson for today. The parable of the prodigal son is one of the most beloved stories in all of Scripture...or out of it. Yes, we know it well. Almost too well. When we hear those first words, “There was a man who had two sons,” we know where this story is going...
The younger son asks his father for his share of his future inheritance. The son leaves home for a distant country and squanders his money in dissolute living.
When the son comes into difficulty, he becomes a servant. Working with pigs is bad enough as a Jew, but eating from their trough because he was starving is shameful.
The son “came to himself” and decided to go home again to ask for forgiveness and to work for his father.
The father sees the son coming, and he “runs” to meet him, embracing him even before the son can say he is sorry. The father throws a “welcome home party” for him.
The father leaves the party and goes to find his other son. He pleads with him to join the celebration, but the older son is angry that his reckless brother is treated royally.
But, like a treasured book or movie, we never get tired of hearing the ending.
Iconic last lines of books include:
Charles Dickens ends A Christmas Carol with “And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”
Maragaret Mitchell ends Gone With the Wind with “After all, tomorrow is another day.”
George Orwell ends Nineteen Eighty-Four with “He loved Big Brother.”
Jesus ends the Parable of the Prodigal Son with “Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
It’s a powerful story in which the father that Jesus portrays acts out the grace and love and compassion of God. That’s clear. And what is also clear is where we find ourselves in the story. We can relate to the older brother who stayed home and took responsibility for keeping up the farm, and is angry with his younger brother for wasting his inheritance and has come home expecting to be welcomed with open arms. He is angry with his father who is doing just that.
Who are we? This is a church, like the others I have served, filled with older brothers--and sisters. We are the responsible ones who hold down a job and pay our bills on time; we take care of our family and give to the church; we go to the doctor for our annual exam, return library books on time and change the oil in the car long before the light goes off. We are the responsible people who have never been disappointments.
Except, that's not exactly true. In an insightful article from the Christian Century, Emily Heath writes, “The reality is that even when we look like we have our lives together, even when we look to all the world like the loyal son or daughter, we have all been disappointments at one time or another. We have been prodigal sons who have hit some kind of rock bottom. Maybe no one knew it but us, but we knew it. And it shook us to our core.
“The reality is that both brothers live inside of us, the responsible one and the prodigal one. It is an uneasy coexistence made worse by the reality that neither is perfect, and that both make real mistakes. The dutiful brother's lack of compassion and grace when his brother returns is indeed worth our attention. But he's not the only one.
“Of all the places in our life, church should be the one place where we can all admit that we are sometimes the younger brother, too. Even when others admire the highlight reels of our lives, each of us knows that there is a lot sitting back there on the cutting room floor. We need a place where we can say that, and hear it from others too.”
In church, we can be honest about who we are. And who we are not.
We can admit that despite how hard we try to do good, still we hurt other people sometimes.
We can admit that despite how much we pray, ”have mercy, O God,” still we want justice for others.
We can admit that despite how hard we try to protect our public persona, still in private, we harbor unresolved anger and unrelenting shame.
In church, and especially in this season of Lent, we can get honest that we are both the angry older brother and the wayward younger brother, and that sometimes we disappoint God.
No matter how much anger or shame you are carrying, let it go, make room in your heart to hear the good news of the gospel story:
God is waiting to come running down the road and welcome us back. Dutiful child, prodigal child, or a little bit of both...God knows us already, and God can't wait for us to come home.
Today, we can admit that no matter how many times we hear the story of the Prodigal Son, still we find in it the truth we most need to hear: Then the father said, “we had to celebrate and rejoice, because you were dead and have come to life; you were lost and have been found.’”
Who are we? We are the ones who never get tired of this gracious, generous, glorious ending.
Thanks be to God! Amen.