31 March—The Fourth Sunday in Lent
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
People don’t change.
You’ve heard that, right?
You might have even said it.
I’m sure I have.
And at times, I’m sure that I’ve meant it.
People don’t change.
I mean, look at this parable…Does the father change? He’s overly generous in giving his younger son half of his inheritance, and when the same ne’er-do-well son comes back, he drops everything and gives him even more…the best robe, a ring, a fatted calf. Does the father really change?
Does the younger son change? He takes his inheritance and squanders it…and maybe—maybe—he has a kind of awakening moment, but the text is actually pretty vague about this. Is he coming back and saying “I have sinned, I am no longer worthy” because he’s really had change of heart? or because he knows this is the quickest and easiest—the most expedient—way to get what his greedy little heart desires? Has he really changed?
And what about the older son? Does this line, “son you’re always with me” really do anything to change him? Won’t he continue to be angry, and bitter, and maybe jealous of his brother?
Do any of these characters really change? There’s certainly a way to read it in which they do…but there’s also a way to read it in which they don’t. There is no scene of the brothers reconciling…no happy family all gathered around the feast…and even if there were…I can still imagine a post-credit scene where the brothers turn and just glare at each other. Because people don’t change.
I’m sure I’ve told this joke before, but a guy goes to his priest and says, “I don’t know what to do father. For 30 years my wife has been trying to get me to change, and I’ve tried to go along with it, but now all she does is shake her head and say, ‘You’re not the man that I married.’”
People don’t change, except when they do. Or maybe it’s better to say, “People” don’t change. But you do.
You have changed. Haven’t you? I mean if you think back on your life? You’re not the same person you were five years ago? or Ten years ago? Are you? Are you the same you were as a teenager? or a young adult? Yes and no.
What is the biggest change you’ve ever made in your life? Did you change when you got married, or became a parent? Did you change when someone close to you died? Did you change when you moved away from home? …What has been the biggest change you’ve made in your life? How did it happen? How did you get through it? How did you come to recognize it as the profound change the it is? Even though you might look like (and often still act like) the same person? Maybe people don’t change…but you do.
The long journey the Israelites started last week with Moses turning aside to see a burning bush, changes today. Today the manna ceases to appear…the miraculous food that has sustained them for the long, long trek in the wilderness is gone. Today they eat the produce of the land. They’ve changed and will continue to change. Will they still gripe, and complain, and make dumb choices about who should lead them, and make mistakes, and stumble and fall? Of course. Because people don’t change. And yet, they do.
How is this Lent changing you? How is what you’ve given up, or what you’ve taken on…how is that changing you? How is that re-molding and re-shaping you? Sitting with this group on Wednesday evenings struggling with how we want to continue the work of dismantling racism is changing me…I’m becoming more aware of a whole range of emotions I carry (guilt, and shame, and grief, and anger), and the weight of the responsibility I too often ask others to carry for me. I also see all of those who are in that circle with me, in new light…as new creations…
So people don’t change…but I have.
Here’s a different parable about people changing and the mysterious process of reconciliation. One drawn from real life, as told by Fr. Thomas Keating.
He tells the story of a man who had committed a terrible crime…he was caught, convicted, and served a long prison sentence. And at the end of his life, he was sent to a hospital essentially to die. He insisted that no one in this hospital —this new place—know what he had done.
He refused to believe that God could forgive him, and so he resisted every form of reconciliation. Chaplains tried to persuade him to trust God. He refused. He clung tightly to a deep self-loathing, knowing he could never be forgiven.
In this hospital was a nurse, who (as she did with all her patients) took excellent care of him. Tucked him in at night, brought him fresh flowers sometimes, remembered his birthday, asked about this family. His dying was prolonged and he was there a long time, and he and the nurse developed a friendship.
As the end of his life neared, the pressure to reconcile with God mounted. But he refused to change. “God couldn’t possibly love me, and certainly won’t forgive me for the horrible things I’ve done.”
One of his friends said, “but think about your nurse. How much kindness and love she shows you. Couldn’t God do the same?”
The man said, “yes, but she doesn’t know what I did. If she did, she would never do those things.”
The friend looked down and said, “I have a confession…she does know. I know you didn’t want me to tell her, but when you arrived, I told her everything…every lurid detail of what you had done. I’m sorry and I hope you can forgive me.”
The man was stunned, because what he had done, made no difference to the way she treated him, and eventually he said, “If she could love me, knowing all that I’ve done, then God must be able to love me too.” [Thomas Keating, The Duty of Confrontation, in Contemplation in Action, ed. by Richard Rohr. Crossroads, 2006. p. 117-118].
Did he change? Did the nurse? Did the friend? Something changed. Maybe everything.
Maybe it’s true, that people don’t change. But it’s also true that we can change, and do. Maybe this ministry of reconciliation we’ve been entrusted with isn’t really about change…about who changes, and how much. How much I have to give up…how much you do…Who is capable of changing and who isn’t. Maybe the work of reconciliation is really about showing up with our whole selves (light and shadow, strengths and weakness, certainty and doubt)…showing up with our whole, broken selves—to sit together, talk together…dig down to the roots together…uncover all the truth…continue to act in love…and trust—trust— that God will be with us, and guide us, and bring us to that promised land.