Let us pray: Lord God, holy and true, we ask for your presence here. Come among us and speak to us. Show us your will and your way. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. In your holy name we pray, Amen.
Letting Go of How-it-was
“I used to be so much better at this.” Sound familiar? “I used to be skinnier”; “I used to have more energy.” “Our family used to get along so much better.” “This would never have happened back then.” Sound familiar?
The past is a mystical place, isn’t it? We look back on it as some better time, conveniently forgetting all the sleepless nights, the arguments, the worries. Everything was better and purer then, we’re sure, as if human nature weren’t the same and our own tendencies were definitely not the same. Like a few weeks ago, I mentioned that I read books when I’m stressed and don’t want to deal with things, and I always think that that’s a recent trend, that I used to be better at doing work before reading. I feel guilty for having become worse at dealing with stress. And then a conversation reminds me of that time in high school where a friend gave me an entire plastic grocery bag full of books to borrow, and how I read them in something like a week.
We hang on to the past, hang on tight, even when what we’re grasping isn’t even the truth. And sometimes we hold on so, so tightly. What we know, or think we know, can be so comforting and familiar, well-worn and fuzzy feeling, same as the feeling of sitting around and looking at old photo albums, laughing at the ridiculous things you did and all the good things you’d forgotten.
We hang on to what’s familiar, what’s known and unsurprising. The past doesn’t surprise us; we already know it. We lived through it, after all. We should know. There are no surprises in memory: we know that that wonderful date ended, eventually, in a beautiful marriage; we know that that difficult year calmed down and that the next year was better. It’s familiar.
And who wants to let go of the familiar for the unknown? Who wants to change, when change is painful, and, hey, I may not love how things are but at least it doesn’t surprise me? at least I don’t have to think much?
Our readings today are full of tipping points. We have the Israelites, preparing to enter the land at last, to take hold of God’s promises and trust in God in a new way. They’ve prepared by reviewing the law together, they’ve made sure every man is circumcised, and now they’re celebrating the Passover. And then they go into the land, and are able to eat from the land. There is enough there for everyone. God’s promises have come to life before them. They are able, at least in this moment, to let go of how they lived in the desert, with manna and God’s physical presence going before them.
And we have the two brothers in our parable: we have the younger son, who basically tells his father: “I wish you were dead so I could have your inheritance now,” and when his father gives him the inheritance he goes off and squanders it, doing whatever he wants and whatever takes his fancy. It takes a famine to send him back home, to beg for some kind of job because he has nothing left. We have the older son, who has stayed behind, who has worked diligently and stayed focused and done his work so well that it seems like he barely makes time for friends.
And we have this tipping point, the moment where the younger son returns, and the father cries out in joy, hugs his son and calls for a great celebration, for music and dancing and feasting to celebrate that his son has been found, his son has returned. The younger son vanishes from the story: will he be able to look beyond his own wants now? Will he be able to change, to live into the generosity and grace that his father has shown him? The older son comes to the forefront now, as he and his father have an argument–’I have always done what you’ve asked of me, and I’ve never gotten a party!’ he cries out. He cannot rejoice in his father’s love and grace; he thinks he’s earned far more, cannot see that this outpouring of love for his younger brother has always been available to him as well. He cannot stop working to celebrate, cannot look past his perceived duty to see the value of grace or a good party.
Or, I don’t know, maybe he can. The story stops before the older son replies to his father–maybe he will be able to see that rest and celebration are as valuable as work, maybe he will see that his brother’s homecoming is a joyful occasion, maybe he will see that his father offers this same abundance to him as well. Or maybe some day in the future he will see. We don’t know.
It’s a tipping point, a moment where both sons have to decide: am I going to keep doing things as I’ve always done them? Or am I going to change? Am I going to let what I’ve seen and done change me? Am I going to let my father’s generous grace change how I see things, how I live?
And what about us? What about our lives? Are we going to hang on to how we’ve always done things, even if it hurts us or hurts others? Are we going to cling to what’s familiar even if it’s killing us, even if it’s separating us from God? Or are we going to let it go? Head into the unknown, into what we cannot see? Go where God is leading us, accept God’s generous grace, the feast laid out for us of forgiveness and healing and love?
God offers so much to us, healing and boundless love, a purpose and a family, but it requires letting go of how we’ve always done things, of who we’ve always thought we are and of the stories we’ve told ourselves, about what we can and can’t do, about what’s good and bad and easy and hard. God’s love changes us. God’s healing changes us. It works in us, making us new, spreading joy and peace and pushing out what has always made us anxious and obsessive and mean and jealous and whatever else.
We just have to let go. We have to let God work, let God guide us and speak to us.
Let go of who you’ve been, and let God’s love shape you.