Preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, March 14, 2010
So, what was it? What was the "terrible thing" you said to your father. What was it?
I told him I could never respect a man whose hero was a criminal.
Who was his hero?
Shoeless Joe Jackson.
He wasn't a criminal. You knew that. So why'd you say it?
I was seventeen. He died before I could take it back.
What was the terrible thing you said?
It’s been 20 years since James Earl Jones’ Terrence Mann asked Kevin Costner’s Ray Kinsella that question in Field of Dreams.
What was the terrible thing you said … to your father. What was it?
Whether you liked the movie or not, whether you’ve even seen the movie or not, there is something about that conversation as they drove through the night in that VW bus turned confessional. Something about that question that hits all of us, an answer each of us has.
What was the terrible thing you said?
To your father.
To your mother.
To your husband.
To your wife.
To your partner.
To your friend.
To your son.
To your daughter.
Or maybe even, what is the thing you didn’t say? The words that stuck in your throat in that moment of truth but then the moment passed and the silence grew?
“What shall we use to fill the empty spaces where we used to talk?” Pink Floyd sings that in The Wall. That song. This movie. The Gospel parable we just read. They’re all ways of telling the same story we know so well. A story of injury and regret. Of things said and left unsaid. Of terrible moments that came and went and the empty space between where we used to talk that just grew and grew because we either didn’t know how or it seemed just way too hard to reach across it.
This morning’s Gospel is so familiar not just because we’ve heard it but because we’ve lived it. Jesus tells the story of a son and a father, but really it could have been any combination of family, friends or lovers. And the son says something terrible to his father. Something really terrible. He asks for his inheritance. Now, that’s not “Dad, can I have the car keys?” Asking for your inheritance is saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead. In fact, Dad, you are dead to me.”
I imagine it was one of those moments where once the words were said, there was just this silence – and maybe a tiny gasp (gasp) -- because everyone knew a line had been crossed. That words had been said that could never be unsaid and maybe for a minute the words just kind of hung out there in the air as father and son looked at each other in anger and pain and disbelief and numbness. Like when we break the bread at Eucharist, that was the crack … and then came the drifting apart.
What was the terrible thing you said? And whom did you say it to?
Or what was the thing that you could have said at that moment of fracture? And to whom were you silent?
Or was there not one moment but ten, a hundred, a thousand little moments where things were said and left unsaid until the space between became like oceans even when you’re sitting in the same room or lying in the same bed. Oceans maybe we long to cross but don’t know how. Oceans maybe we long to cross but we’re so afraid that when we get to the other side we’ll be rejected. Oceans maybe we long to cross but we’re afraid in trying we’ll lose ourselves and the waters will swallow us up. Oceans maybe we long to cross but even thinking about it just makes us feel so very, very tired.
And it’s not just our relationships with each other, either, but our relationship with God. We convince ourselves that there are things beyond God’s forgiveness, beyond the reach of God’s love. We convince ourselves of it so easily and so certainly What is the terrible thing you have said or done? What is the critical thing you didn’t say or didn’t do? What in your life, known only in the secrecy of your heart do you believe that God cannot forgive you for … or love you through … or embrace you in spite of. And so the ocean grows between us and God, and God becomes dead to us.
The story of the prodigal son is the story of all of us. From the moment of first human relationship we have been uncanny in our ability to absolutely screw it up. It is part of the extreme humanness that binds us all together. We hurt and are hurt by those whom we love the most, and precisely because we love them so much and the stakes are so high and the risk is so great we become paralyzed and unable to repair the damage, unable to reach across the increasingly widening empty spaces between.
Unable to do what the younger son in this story finally did.
Jesus tells us the younger son, alone and exhausted after trying to fill that empty space between with so many things, had a moment of truth and realization. A moment where he realized that as tired as he was and as terrifying as it was to imagine reaching across the great chasm between his father and him, he had to try. As terrified as he was of navigating the journey home. As terrified as he was of being rejected when he got there. As terrified as he was of losing face, or even losing himself in the process, that anything was better than living with this hollowness inside. That even rejection was better than this horrible limbo of things said and unsaid and never repented. Of exile in the land of “too late” and “if only.” It was a moment of incredible courage of the sort that happens when we finally realize that the only thing worse than what could happen if we do, is the life we know we’ll continue to lead if we don’t.
This moment. This journey. This is why we’re here.
Grab a prayer book, they’re those red books in between your seats. Grab one and turn in the back to page 855. It’s a section called the Catechism and it’s a handy summary of the church’s teaching about what we believe, who we are and what we’re about.
855 … got it. It’s way in the back. Now look at those three questions and answers on the top of 855.
The first is, What is the Mission of the Church? What does it say?
The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.
How about the second question. How does the Church accomplish its mission?
The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel and promotes justice, peace and love.
And now that third question. Through whom does the Church carry out its mission? All together:
The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.
That’s right! The mission of the Church, the mission we proclaim and live out in this place and as we leave this place, the mission that is not just the joy and challenge of clergy or “really involved people” but of all of us … is this mission of reconciliation. About restoring broken relationships. Relationships between us and God. Relationships between us and each other. The mission of the Church is to cross those oceans, to bridge those chasms, to close the empty spaces where we used to talk. To restore those relationships among ourselves. To work to restore those relationships between nations and peoples and races. And together to give each of us the courage of that younger son, the courage we each might not find in ourselves alone. The courage to travel back across those empty spaces in each of our lives, secure in the knowledge that in that journey and the destination because Christ walks with us and we walk with each other, we are never traveling alone.
So how do we do it? We do it by living every piece of this parable. We do it by talking with each other and praying with each other. We do it by being open and honest with each other about the brokenness in our lives and in our relationships. We do it not just by having our name put on a prayer list with no details leaving the community to wonder what’s going on, but by saying “Hey, I lost my job!” or “Hey, I don’t know who my husband is anymore and I don’t think he knows who I am either!” or “Hey, I don’t think my father loves me” or “Hey, I’m just really, really scared” or for me, “Hey, I’m kind of sad this morning because my friend Pearl died this week and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.”
How do we do it? We do it by standing with each other in those moments where we need the courage to “come to ourselves” as the younger son did and take the risk to reach across the empty spaces between. We do it by walking with each other on the long journeys back and holding each other’s hands as we say the words we most fear to say.
But mostly we do it knowing that because there is no guarantee that those from whom we are estranged will respond as the Father in the story did. Because, frankly, life tells us that as often as not we will be rejected because the people we are crossing oceans to embrace are just as broken and terrified as we are. And so mostly we accomplish this mission by making sure we live out the end of this story. By making sure we all remember that though there are things that can separate us from each other there is nothing that can separate us from the extravagant celebratory love of God for each of us. By making sure the party happens no matter what. By making sure that all are celebrated and all are invited. By making sure that although we have no more control than Jesus did over whether our offerings of love and reconciliation throughout our lives will be accepted or rejected that in here, in this community, we will every chance we get sing and dance and kill the fatted calf and celebrate the great gift God gives us in each other. Celebrate each other as God sees us, as created in God’s image and beautiful and good.
What was the terrible thing you said? What was the thing you didn’t say? What were the ten, the hundred, the thousand little things said and unsaid that have created the empty spaces where you used to talk?
Don’t be afraid. You can share it here. Even though it might not look like it because we’re all so great at hiding the oceans that separate us from those we love, we all have them. I have them. You have them. And if you’re too afraid or too tired to make that journey by yourself, that’s OK … you’ve got a Cathedral full of people to cross that ocean with you. And, most important, no matter what happens when you get to the other side, in this place and at this table, you will always have a community who sees you as God sees you -- as beautiful … and good … and deserving of a great party. AMEN.