When I was in the first grade I gathered my stuff and took off for the distant country. I ran away from home. Fortunately, it was a quick trip and I was back in time for supper. In the years since then my trips to the distant country haven’t been nearly as short or uneventful. There have been casualties and losses along the way. People were hurt. Sometimes it was me, sometimes it was others. The distant country always disappointed. It didn’t give me the life I was looking for. It didn’t make me the person I wanted to be. It left me feeling lonely, empty, and lost.
There are a thousand different routes to the distant country: sorrow and loss, sin and guilt, failure and regret, the sheer difficulty of life, to name just a few. More often than not our journey to the distant country is an attempt to run away from home, ourselves, and our lives. The distant country convinces us that the life we want and the person we want to become cannot be found within ourselves. It denies that the kingdom of God is within and creates the illusion that if we can just get to a new place, a new time, a new circumstance everything will be better.
Most of us, I suspect, will at some point in our lives buy in to that illusion. We will gather our stuff and travel to the distant country. The life we want and the person we want to become, however, are found not in the distant country but through repentance. The distant country, as the younger son experienced, offers nothing but starvation and death. That’s why last week Jesus was so intense and direct in his call for us to repent. He seems to know that it’s not a matter of whether we will go to the distant country. Chances are we will. The real question is whether we will repent.
Repentance, the journey home, requires an honest appraisal of our life. We must look at who we are and who we are not, what we have done and what we have left undone, as well as the circumstances that we allow to deny us the fullness of life. Repentance is about more than right behavior and being good. Yes, sometimes we do bad things that we just need to stop doing but often we need to repent and turn away from the failures, guilt, or regrets that bind us to the past, the sorrows and losses that keep us from being fully alive, or the fears that control our lives and keep our world small.
Repentance is the choice to no longer run away from ourselves or our lives. Yet, how can we ever go home knowing what we know about ourselves, having squandered the life given us, and having spent time in the pig pens of the distant country? Surely, that was the younger son’s question when he finally “came to himself.” It was also Bob’s question.
Bob was probably in his late 70s. He had been quiet and attentive throughout the evening as I taught about the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). When I finished speaking Bob was the first one out of his chair. I could tell, as he made his way to the front of the classroom, that he was upset. “What about the bath,” he demanded. “You didn’t say anything about the bath.” I told him I had no idea what he was talking about. That only upset him more. “You know where that kid had been!” “Yes,” I said, “in the pig pen.” “And you know what he would have smelled like and what was on him.” “Pig poop,” I said kiddingly. Bob did not think that was funny. Then he went on to explain. “The son was dirty and smelly. The father would never hug him, kiss him, or put a robe on him until the son first had a bath. Why didn’t you talk about the bath?”
I told him that a bath was not part of the story, that we can never get clean enough to go home. Instead, we go home to become clean. The father receives the son as he is. He hugs him, kisses him, robes him – all without a bath. The son is immersed and washed in the Father’s love.
Bob just could not believe that, so together we read the story again. When we got to the end of the story his eyes filled with tears and he said, “All my life I thought this story said the son had to take a bath before he could go home.” I said to him, “And all your life you’ve been trying to get clean enough to go home.” He simply nodded in silence, tears running down his face.
For all the years he spent in the distant country Bob never did get clean enough to go home. Instead, “he came to himself.” He started gathering the fragments of his life, the clean and the unclean, the acceptable and the unacceptable, things done and things left undone, all that he was and all that he had. He recognized that the unclean and unacceptable parts of his life were real, but they did not have to be his final reality. In the past those parts of his life kept him from going home and exiled him to the pig pens. Now those pieces of his life would become the way home. They would become places of healing, new life, wholeness, forgiveness, love, and grace.
I don’t know what took Bob to that distant country or what he so desperately tried to wash away but I know that his story is my story and your story. We too have been to the distant country. We too have lived with the pigs. We too have washed but cannot get clean. In coming to himself Bob would ultimately have to trust the Father’s love more than he trusted the pig stink. So must you and I. After all, the Father does.
This sermon is for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C. It is based on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15:11-32.