Ever Present Past

Sermon preached March 14, 2010

Texts: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

How many of you watched the Academy Award show last Sunday night? I watched different parts of it, sometimes while doing something else. One of the parts of the show that I appreciate most is the “In Memoriam” segment – the portion of the program where some of those who had been a part of the movie industry and died during the past year are remembered. When I first started watching the Oscars years ago I am guessing that I knew very few of those being memorialized – some were probably silent film stars. This year I recognized many: Karl Malden, David Carradine, Dom DeLuise, Ron Silver, Horton Foote. It is a sign of growing older. There were some forgotten, like Farrah Fawcett and Bea Arthur; and some who were all too young – Natasha Richardson and Brittany Murphy.
But we like the Academy Awards because we enjoy the movies and we enjoy the movies because we love a good story. We not only love a good story, stories shape us. I grew up in a home that was not the most progressive place when race was mentioned. My dad did not say a lot about African-Americans, but what he did say was too often derogatory. He used unflattering slang sometimes. Apparently he came by some of those attitudes naturally. A couple of years ago, my grandmother said to me she never really liked black people – except she used another word. One reason I am different is the impact of a movie – Brian’s Song – a made for TV drama about Gayle Sayers, an African-American running back for the Chicago Bears, and his friendship with another Bears running back named Brian Piccolo, a Caucasian. Is that the only reason I don’t hold some of my dad’s and grandmothers attitudes about African-Americans? No, but it played a role.
We love a good story and stories shape us. Good stories also often work at different levels, or they contain many layers. That’s true of the story for today from Luke’s gospel. In fact, we have here a story within a story. First there is the story of Jesus in Luke’s gospel. Various religious authorities and leaders see Jesus’ behavior, how he attracted “tax collectors and sinners” and welcomed them. He even ate with them. Such behavior was considered unbecoming among the religiously serious. To their criticism, Jesus responds with a series of stories – a story about lost sheep and how joyful the shepherd is when the lost sheep is found, a story about a lost coin and how happy is the woman who finds the coin she has lost. Then comes the story which we heard – about a man and his two sons. Jesus is telling stories which are meant to teach about God and God’s dream for the world. God seems to welcome all into God’s dream, and when they find their way into it, there is cause for great joy.
So we have this overarching narrative with Jesus telling stories and then we have the story he tells. “There was a man who had two sons.” It is a richly textured story in itself and could easily serve as the basis for a month of sermons. So what are you doing for the next ninety minutes?
It is a rich story, and I want to pursue one angle, an angle in keeping with the overall theme for Lent – “From Darkness to Light.” Today the focus is “Confronting the Darkness of the Past.” What do I mean by the darkness of the past? The past is dark because it is often murky. It can also be dark because it contains pain. Certainly not all the past is dark in either of these senses. Sometimes our memories are clear as a bell. Parts of our past are joyful, not painful – our first kiss, the birth of children, the first time someone called you mom or dad or grandma or grandpa, graduation. But there is murkiness in our past and pain in our past. Michael Eigen writes, “one cannot experience without suffering” (Feeling Matters, 2). I think he is right.
Why even bother with the past? The past is past, isn’t it? Well yes and no. There is truth in the words of novelist William Faulkner, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” (Requiem for a Nun, Act I, scene 3, p. 80). I balance that statement with another that I find deeply helpful and meaningful. Jack Kornfield, “Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past” (The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace, 25). But I don’t think Kornfield is trying to say that we just forget and move on. We cannot change the past, and we need to know that. We can, however, reweave it into our present. We can see it differently. We can let it be present in our lives in new ways. Kornfield is saying that forgiveness involves acknowledging that we cannot change the past, yet not letting the past imprison us.
We are our histories, but how we weave those histories together determines whether we grow through and beyond that history or whether we are imprisoned by it. The past never remains past. While we cannot change the past, nor change that it is part of our present, we can change how it is a part of our present.
These lessons can be found in the story of the compassionate father, the wandering and wasteful son, and the angry, small-hearted, petulant son. Consider the father. His past relationship with his wandering and wasteful son is filled with pain, anger, hurt disappointment. His son had taken the money and run. You don’t sense he even let his father know if he was dead or alive. When we arrive at that moment in the story when the wandering and wasteful son returns, the father cannot change what has already happened. He can choose how he will weave what has happened into his reaction to this son right now. He can take his pain and hurt and disappointment and turn his son away, or demand that the son stay distant for awhile – work his way back into the good graces of his father. Few would blame him if he did either. Instead the father weaves all that has happened with love and compassion. He ran, put his arms around his son and kissed him.
The wandering and wasteful son might have known bitterness. Surely his father knew he would not manage his new found wealth well. Why had he given in? He should have been stricter. This son had experienced humiliation, and that can make one bitter and angry. He could have talked himself into continuing stubborn defiance of his family ties. Imagine him saying to himself, “I am going to get back all that I lost. I will not return home until I am somebody.” Instead this son weaves all that has happened with humility and love. He cannot change what he has done, but he can say that perhaps he could have done better. He can seek reconciliation.
Then there is the “good son” who is also angry and small-hearted and petulant. He remains imprisoned by the past. His brother left him to keep up the family business and to take care of dad. He will not reweave his own anger or hurt with anything else. The past is not dead for him, and it will be present as motivation to seethe. His imprisonment by the past even causes him to misread it. To a father with whom he has shared a life he says, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.” Do you think this is a very accurate picture of the past? We are left to wonder whether this son will have the courage to reweave a painful past into a more compassionate present and a more hopeful future.
So, how are you and I going to weave and reweave the past, the ever present past, into our present and our future? Let me, as I move toward concluding, identify four areas that may be worthy of work as we seek to move from darkness to light.
We have made mistakes and been unloving sometimes. All of us. I have made mistakes and been unkind and unloving sometimes. How will we deal with these darker moments of our past? Sometimes we choose to try and bury such things. Our inability to acknowledge that we make mistakes, even more that we have been unkind and unloving sometimes, leaves us constantly on the defensive. If I cannot admit my mistakes and my sins, I try and defend my every action instead of acknowledging my humanity. Will we weave this dark part of the past into the present, instead, with humility and compassion – compassion for ourselves? Will we be like the younger son in the story who does just that? Or will we deny our humanity, refuse humility and become like the bitter big brother?
We have been disappointed and hurt in the past. Suffering has been inflicted on us. People have been unloving and unkind toward us. Can we weave these dark experiences of the past into the present with forgiveness and love, like the father in the story? Let us admit that forgiveness is a process and a goal toward which we move. We may not get there, and certainly not quickly when the hurt has been deep, but if we are not on our way there, where are we going? How are we weaving these past hurts into our present?
The past is not simply individual. We have a social past as well. This week I had the privilege and pleasure of hearing Bill McKibben, author and Methodist lay person discuss some of his writing, share some of his concerns. You helped make that possible as this small gathering of clergy and lay people from local churches was held here Tuesday afternoon. As I listened to Bill, I was struck by some of the elements in our social past. We are a country whose culture has moved ever more toward a deep individualism. Individuality is important, but so is community. Will we be imprisoned by our past and keep moving toward more sweeping individualism, or will we choose to weave back in the balancing theme of the commons, the community, the common good? McKibben also argues that the economic ideas of the past drive us in a certain direction. We think of the goal of our economic life as growth and production. Growth, up to a certain point, is good. Production of more goods matters to those on the lowest end of the economic spectrum. But McKibben argues that past a certain point, these inherited ideas from the past are not life-giving for us. Studies show that more does not make us happier when our basic needs are met and we have some security about this. Our planet may not be able to sustain the kind of economic growth we envision with our current models. Perhaps we need to weave the story of growth anew, imagining wealth as wealth of human connection, not simply economic production.
We often inherit from our social past ideas of insiders and outsiders. We inherit barriers of prejudice and exclusion. In our society some of the most powerful have been ideas about race and sexual orientation. As a society, we are working on weaving a new story about race, about our common humanity. The work is incomplete, but we have begun. Our work in breaking down barriers around sexual orientation is not as far along, and if we are honest, one place we have inherited ideas about excluding GLBT persons is the church. We have misread our Scriptures to reinforce our discomforts. Can we reweave this story and confront the darkness of our past exclusion? Can we weave from our dark past a newer story of justice and compassion – values that are much deeper and more frequently mentioned in our Scriptures than texts about sexual orientation?
Stories have power. Will we weave this story from the past – this story of the compassionate father, the wandering and wasteful son, and the angry, small-hearted, petulant son, into our lives more deeply so that the ever present past does not imprison us with our past mistakes, our past hurts, our past paradigms, our past prejudices, but rather serves as a place from which we grow more compassionate, more loving, more relational, more just? May it be so by the power of the love and grace of God, who is like a father running out to meet a long lost son and throw him a party to which all are invited. Amen.