September 11, 2016
Twenty-Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time
1 Letter to Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-32
I have this habit of sending emails I shouldn’t send. I get upset about something, and I have this momentary clarity, and I want to get it out of my system, and I end up being a little more direct than I should be.
I did this just recently, even though Barb told me explicitly not to, and I thought, I can’t believe it. I did this again? And then, about a week later, I did it again, with another person: wrote something with a little sting at the end, pressed send, and later realized how stinging it really was.
Why do I do this? Am I ever going to change?
Well, yes and no.
Change is the theme of the readings today, especially the gospel and the letter to Timothy. Paul was “a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant,” but then became a leader of the church, a saint. The prodigal son was prodigal and then was transformed, became grateful and open and much, much wiser.
But what strikes me in both these readings is that the changes happen at exactly the moment that Paul and the prodigal realize they can’t change on their own. “Beloved, I am grateful to him who has strengthened me,” Paul says. It’s not Paul who manages the change but Jesus working in him. It’s Christ who “came into the world to save sinners,” not Paul, and Paul is saved because he recognizes that he needs saving, just as the key to the transformation of the prodigal is his recognition that he’s prodigal. He “comes to his senses.” He returns to his father and says, “father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.” I’m in a bad way. I was rooting with the pigs, eating the husks, and the only thing I could do was come back and ask for forgiveness.
And that’s a big thing, a huge thing, to be able to admit your sinfulness, your piggishness, but it’s a big thing because it depends on the recognition that we’re incapable of big things ourselves, on the recognition that we “no longer deserve to be called” sons and daughters.
And I don’t think that the prodigal son ever stops needing the grace he finally realizes he needs. He comes home and he reconciles but I bet in a few months he’s making some of the same mistakes, not being wise with his money, not quite controlling himself, just as Paul in his letters often shows flashes of anger and impatience and often admits to the conflicts he sometimes has with others and to his own limitations as a speaker and a leader. It’s always up and down. Two steps forward, three steps back, stumbling along.
We don’t get better. We just get better at not getting better.
Which of course is what the elder son in the parable doesn’t understand or won’t admit. This is where his resentment comes from: his refusal to acknowledge his own limitations. “We are sometimes so busy being good angels,” says St. Francis de Sales, “that we neglect to be good men and women.” Neglect to be kind, neglect to be forgiving, neglect to be like the prodigal father—the father who is so extravagant and wasteful in his love that he embraces his wayward son and throws a big party.
The elder son is like Job. He’s a righteous man but not a very nice one. He does everything he’s supposed to do, by the book, and he measures everybody else by the book, but deep down he’s just like everyone else, and he can’t truly change until he admits this, until he admits, as de Sales puts it, that “our imperfections are going to accompany us to the grave,” that “we can’t go anywhere without having our feet on the ground.”
“Dear imperfections,” de Sales says: “they force us to acknowledge our misery, give us practice in humility, selflessness, patience, and watchfulness.”
I don’t mean that we shouldn’t strive to be better and strive to be holy, like our new Saint Teresa of Calcutta, as Father Ignacio was calling us to do last week, because we absolutely should. But Mother Teresa didn’t become Saint Teresa because she was perfect but because she knew she wasn’t. Her letters, like Paul’s, are full of humility, her awareness that she is weak and small and powerless.
A saint is someone who doesn’t think she’s a saint.
Yes, change happens, change is real. But we are changed.
By God. By our Lord Jesus.
You might remember that a few months ago I read the wrong Gospel at mass. I was rushed beforehand and I didn’t have a chance to check the book, and I was about three sentences in when I realized my mistake. I was just humiliated. I’ve been a deacon all these years and I read the wrong gospel?
Later, when I told Deacon Michael this, he said, “Did you thank Jesus?”
And he wasn’t kidding. He wasn’t being funny.
Our Calcutta is Corvallis, as Father Ignacio said. Our Calcutta is Philomath. Is Albany. There’s a special kind of hypocrisy in proclaiming our allegiance to the great, newsworthy causes and then snapping at our spouse at the breakfast table or a colleague at the copy machine. We have to have the humility to admit that most of the time we are given the small tasks and that even these are beyond us without grace. We have to try to do the next right thing, and to repair the damage when we’ve failed, one person at a time, one moment at a time, because this is where the change really happens, this is where the Spirit enters in.
The two people I sent the stinging emails to were as gracious and forgiving as could be. One of them laughed when she saw me and opened up her arms, and I felt a little like the prodigal as he walks down the road and looks up to see his father, waiting to welcome him home.
And the grace that flows into moments like that isn’t our grace and the love that flows in isn’t our love, it’s the love of the Father and it’s the love of the Son, and when we let it in, when we realize how very much we need it, how lost we are without it, it overwhelms us, it revitalizes us, it entirely transforms us.
Again, and again, and again.