Scripture Lesson: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Apparently there is a syndrome on social media, especially Facebook, where people post cute pictures of themselves with their boyfriend or girlfriend and all their friends think they are in a happy relationship. The friends comment on how sweet the picture is, etc., but really, the relationship is awful. Maybe the woman is abusive or the guy is cheating but in the world of Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat, they look like happy lovers. And that’s what their friends think. So there is the false social media world of the relationship that looks pretty and fun, and then there is the real situation of suffering and pain. For those involved, the false social media relationship can make it harder to get out of the real relationship.
It’s not hard to see how this kind of dynamic develops. We want to look like we are having fun. We want to appear successful. We want to present an image of being happy and prosperous. Regardless of the truth. There are pressures in our society pushing us to cultivate such an image even when it is false. We live in a context that thrives on competition – in the economy, in sports, in games, in relationships, in so many ways. Advertising defines what we are to aspire to. There are winners and losers. We want to be winners or at least look like winners. So we create a facade, our face to the world, that shows our success and hides our pain and our shortcomings. We cringe at shame, humiliation, giving the wrong answer in front of the class, not be chosen for the promotion, not getting the medal. We are trained to make it look like we are on top. We perpetuate this by giving children awards and medals and trophies at every turn as they grow up. We’re saying, you’re a winner. It is important to be a winner. You have to be a winner. And all of this implies that it is not ok not to win. Not winning is bad. It’s not ok to come in second. It’s not ok to be last. It’s not ok to do it wrong. It’s not ok to not get picked. That’s bad. You have to be a winner.
Think of the president’s impression of John McCain. Why should McCain be celebrated for his military service and character. He was not a winner. He got caught and was a prisoner of war. That doesn’t go with being a winner.
So we post pictures on Facebook and Snapchat of a gorgeous girlfriend even if she poisons our spirit because we want to look good and successful at work and at play and maintain our precious image.
It takes a lot of energy to maintain these facades; to perpetuate these images of success and happiness that obscure the truth. But we maintain these images, like ramparts, like a fort around us, to protect us. It takes a lot of work to maintain these defenses.
But what happens is that these walls, these facades, that shield the truth also block out joy and grace from life. They deprive us of the abundance of love and mercy that enrich the human spirit. They cut us off from our truest selves, from others, and from the love, acceptance and understanding we desperately want in this life.
The line, “he came to himself,” from the story we heard this morning, the prodigal son or maybe more accurately the prodigal father, may very well be my favorite line in all of scripture. He came to himself. There in a foreign land, swilling pigs, abhorrent to him as a Jew forbidden to eat pork, lonely, hungry, spent, this young man “came to himself.” He acknowledged honestly the truth of his situation. He saw things for what they were. He admitted to his dissolute living and to how he had betrayed his father, his family, his heritage, his religion, and his culture. He admitted to himself that he had betrayed and dishonored himself.
And this young man decided it was time to make amends, to head home, to take responsibility for situation, to be honest not only with himself, but with those who had loved him. Did they still love him? Would he be accepted? Would they refuse him and drive him away after he had offended his father by asking for his inheritance – akin to wishing the man dead? Would his family receive him? The servants? The neighbors? In honesty and vulnerability, he heads home to face what he has to face because it can’t be worse than the mess he has gotten himself into.
We digress a moment here to the older brother. He doesn’t come to himself. He maintains his defenses. He stays in the reality of merit based transactional relationships. He sees himself as a hired hand. He sees his father as stingy. He insults his father by refusing to come to the party for the brother. He is filled with resentment for what he perceives as his maltreatment. And this defense, this false image he has created, meant to protect him, keeps out the love and joy and acceptance he so desperately wants.
The father, unashamedly, loves his two sons, goes out to his two sons, is generous to his two sons. He has no defenses up. His heart is on his sleeve. He is not protecting or maintaining any false image. He is open and authentic. He is filled with love which flows freely from him. He knows grace and joy as well as heartbreak.
When we are honest and act on that honesty, when we are willing to be vulnerable, when we let the defenses down, we open ourselves to grace and joy and love. We can have compassion on ourselves. We can also have compassion on others. When we open ourselves, rather than enclose ourselves within false images and narratives, when we are honest, we can say, Wow, I really screwed that up. Instead of, It’s his fault this happened. We can say, I’ve put you in a tight spot. I’m sorry. Instead of, You should have known better. We can say, How did I get myself into this? Instead of, How could she do this to me? We can learn and grow and become more fully ourselves. Creating a culture of authenticity, integrity and honesty facilitates the flow of love and grace and joy in our lives and in the world.
To cultivate this kind of honesty runs counter to our culture. We are all about images and impressions, Our daughter sent us a funny picture of a young man in the waiting room of a hospital dressed in a three piece suit. He is the uncle awaiting the birth of his niece or nephew. The caption indicates that he is dressed this way because “first impressions matter.”
It’s not just politicians and celebrities that are putting on a show. People, everywhere, every day are putting on a show, and social media gives the perfect staging opportunity.
This Lenten season, we are talking about All Things New. The story of the father and sons from Luke reminds us that for things to be made new, we must embrace honesty and vulnerability. This is what opens us to the grace, love, and acceptance that we are all seeking in this life. The journey to authentic living involves coming clean, admitting the truth of who we are. That may mean coming to terms with our power for good – our gifts and skills and assets. That may mean taking responsibility for the more untoward, problematic aspects of our character. Honesty embraces it all. Then, to be new, we learn to function from that place of honesty, with ourselves and others. We are willing to take the risks involved. The younger brother went home and was received with literally open arms. He could have met rejection. He could have met his death at the hands of his father or a neighbor or his brother – after his betrayal and the pain he had caused the father. It can be difficult to live from a place of honesty and vulnerability but it is the only way for love and joy and grace to get into our lives. And that is what makes us truly alive.
This aspect of making All Things New functions on a collective level as well as an individual level. In society, we can spend a lot of energy and time protecting the past; creating images and illusions about who we are as a culture, as a community. We are seeing this play out related to Confederate monuments and the naming of buildings. If we want to heal the racism in our country, we have to be willing to “come to ourselves” and be honest about the legacy we have inherited. Without that honesty, the walls of protection prevent connection and reconciliation, grace and understanding.
We went to the Will MacLean Folk Music Festival several weeks ago. A well known Florida folk musician, an elderly man, sang a song that he wrote about how disturbed he is that the Confederate flag is being used by neo nazis and skin heads to promote hate. The song conveyed his indignation that the symbol of the Confederate flag is being used to foster violence and bigotry. He sang of the nobility of the Confederate flag as a symbol of men giving their lives for their convictions; an honorable cause defending hearth and home. But there is no acknowledgement in the song that the Confederate flag is a symbol of a culture and economic system based on people owning people. It is about some people benefiting from the free labor of other people who are possessions. The Confederate flag cannot be dissociated from slavery. That is the honest truth.
When we can be honest as a society, we can begin to open ourselves to the process of healing and transformation. What would happen if we were honest with ourselves as a society about fossil fuels and global warming? This could lead to something new. But there are still many walls of protection round the current fossil fuel mindset. What if we were honest about economic inequality? What if we were honest about gender bias and sexual identity? Amazing healing could take place freeing America from bondage to false images and narratives that keep people down instead of lifting them up.
The younger brother in the story from Luke comes to a reality based assessment of his situation in his many hours spent tending the pigs. To come to ourselves, to be honest, to examine our hearts, to be self aware takes time. It takes reflection. In our busy society, bombarded with messaging 24/7, it can be a challenge just to step off the media mill and think. Remember. Ponder. Let meanings and patterns surface. But this is essential to our health and highest good.
Edward Abbey, a 20th century environmental writer, reminds us, “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.”
“He came to himself.” When we come to ourselves we can be part of creating a new future for ourselves and for society. Honesty and vulnerability create openings for grace and love and joy. The process can lead to celebration. A party.
This week I heard Terry Gross of National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” interview Lori Gottlieb, a therapist who writes the “Dear Therapist” column for The Atlantic. Gottlieb has recently written a book called, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone. In the interview, there was a conversation about Gottlieb asking her therapist, Do you like me? Gross followed up asking Gottlieb if she is asked this question by her clients. Gottlieb explains: “But I think that one of the things that people worry about is that if they tell the truth of who they are, that they can’t be loved. I think that when they come into therapy, they’re telling you all of these things that they won’t tell the people that they want to be loved by in the outside world, because they’re afraid that those people won’t still love them if they know this. I think what they discover in therapy is that the truth of who they are is what draws people to them.” Gottlieb talks about how she likes her clients when she gets to know who they really are. Until then, she doesn’t know if she likes them because she hasn’t really gotten to know them. Until she sees more than the facade, the image, the impression, how can she like them? About one client she says, “When he tells me the truth of who he is, then I start to like him.” She goes on to explain that when you know someone, when you see who they are, then the way is opened to understating and acceptance. You see some of yourself in others. We discover our common ground as human beings. According to Gottlieb, what people want is to be understood, accepted, liked, and loved. This can only happen when we are honest and vulnerable with ourselves and with others. When the walls come down, then the real me can like the real you. And it is authentic and genuine. [https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/03/28/707561940/a-psychotherapist-goes-to-therapy-and-gets-a-taste-of-her-own-medicine March 28]
May our faith encourage us to “come to ourselves.” May we dismantle the walls of protection and illusion that separate us from others creating openings for the flow of love, forgiveness, acceptance, grace, reconciliation, and joy! Amen.
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