It was midnight, and his brother should have been home two hours ago. My friend was back from college, and his parents were looking more and more worried. His younger brother had gone out with his buddies, and given the troubled times he was going through, that was always something to worry about.

All their lives the two brothers had divided up the roles. My friend was older, so he took the good boy role—responsible, dutiful. And that apparently left for his brother just one other choice—the bad boy—and he stepped into it with gusto, getting himself into trouble in and out of school, and eventually into trouble with alcohol and drugs.

It was one o’clock now, and still he wasn’t in. My friend went on to bed, leaving the worrying behind. But when he emerged the next morning, he heard quite a story.

At around two the telephone had rung, and there was a garbled voice on the other end, not making any sense at all. His parents didn’t think it was their wandering son, but they couldn’t be sure. Still, it terrified them with the possibility that something awful was happening. And so their father got into his car, drove the 25 miles to Jackson, the big city, and began going to some of the bars and hangouts his son had mentioned. For the next several hours the father drove the streets of the city, stopping at one place after another, asking if anyone had seen him.

The father never found his son that night, but eventually, close to dawn, the boy came home, looking the worse for the wear, but safe. And both exhausted parents threw their arms around him in relief, got him to bed, and then collapsed into bed themselves.

The story of that night has stayed with me all these years as I’ve thought of that father roaming the streets of Jackson, refusing to give up on his lost son.

We Christians have a word for what happened that night. The word is grace—as in “Amazing Grace.” It was just about St. Paul’s favorite word—“The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,” “Grace and peace be with you,” “My grace,” God says, “is sufficient to you.” But for all the times we hear it in church my sense is that few of us know what it means.

C.S. Lewis and a good many others have claimed that grace is Christianity’s unique contribution to world religions—the notion that there is a Love behind the universe that is completely unearned, unstoppable, inexhaustible. There are no eight-fold paths Christians must follow as in Buddhism, no code of laws that must be obeyed to draw close to God, no levels of holiness we have to achieve. Jesus came to declare something downright scandalous—that there is nothing we can do to make God love us more than we are already loved, and nothing we can do to make God love us less.

Think for a moment what an ungraceful world we live in. Our lives are driven by a meritocracy of achievement. You’re as good as the work you do, the money you earn, the level to which you rise in your profession. No pain no gain. No such thing as a free lunch. Demand your rights. Get what you pay for. There is little grace when you can’t pay your mortgage, when you’re caught speeding on the I-95, when your child is competing to get into college. If a CEO has a string of bad quarters, he or she is gone. If a baseball manager makes a big mistake in the playoffs, he might as well pack his bags.

And the religion many of us have encountered has shown little grace. Get all the rules right, you often hear. Behave yourself. Don’t commit any sins, because if you do you’ll make God angry and you’ll end up in hell. Much of it has been a religion of morality, observance, and propriety. Ask most religious people what they need to do to get to heaven and they’ll reply with something like, “Be good.”

But Jesus turned that whole way of thinking on its head. For one thing, he didn’t seem particularly drawn to pious people. He hung out with rowdy fishermen, a sleazy tax collector, a social revolutionary or two, a woman of ill repute. His followers were largely a lot of losers—lepers, blind men, people down on their luck and out of work.

That’s what has the pious Pharisees and scribes grumbling in our gospel lesson today. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” they complain. And so Jesus tells them a parable—probably the best-known and most loved story he ever told.

I recently heard of a priest visiting a man in the hospital who was near death, and the man said he had never had much use for Christianity, but wondered if the priest could just take a few minutes and tell him what it’s all about. And the priest paused for a moment to think, and then said, “Well let me tell you, there was a man who had two sons…”

It’s the heart of the Christian story. A son demands his inheritance from his father and heads out to make it on his own in the world and. There he throws himself into “dissolute living,” as the story tells it, partying, drinking, squandering his father’s savings.

The young man ends up humiliated and desperate, eating what the swine eat, for Jews the most humiliating state imaginable. It all feels like the bitter taste of the morning after. But while he’s there in the far country, he remembers who he is. “How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish here.…I will arise and go to my father…” And as he makes his way back, he prepares his speech asking to be allowed to come home.

As he approaches, the father sees his son and runs out to embrace him as the son falls in his arms. And as the son starts to deliver his speech, the father calls out for the best robe in the house to be brought, puts a ring on his finger, and orders a grand party to begin.

Now I don’t know about you, but that’s not the way I’d tell that story. I’d have the father waiting with his arms angrily folded, and when the son threw himself down say something like, “Well, I’m glad you’ve seen the error of your ways. I hope you’ve learned your lesson.” Which is exactly the view of the elder son in the story, the responsible one, who like most of us, wants nothing to do with welcoming his brother home.

Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to be able to collapse into a love like this father’s? Maybe for many of us the experience of a far country has been less about wild living than in feeling ourselves alone, isolated in a hard world. Have you known the sense of having to make it for yourself, of bills to pay, a job to find, friends to seek out? Have you ever felt that you were out there just coping, cut off from family and friends, even from God? My guess is that we’ve all longed to be able to fall into the safe arms of a Love that would hold us.

This story is usually called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son”—the misbehaving boy finally coming home. But that’s not really what it’s about. After all, it begins, “A man had two sons…” This is really a story about a father who cannot keep from giving to the children he loves. This father irresponsibly gives half his wealth to this younger son, and then after the boy has squandered it all, runs out to welcome him home. No demands for apologies, no rehearsal of mistakes. Nothing but a grand feast.

And that, Jesus is saying, is what lies at the depth of our lives. It’s a story about grace, the shocking fact that our life and our worth are unearned. Everything is given—the love and support in our lives, even the talents we’ve used to make our way in this world. Gratis. Grace. We didn’t produce it. And this Love won’t quit on us until we’re home.

There are loving arms waiting to embrace us. Can you see how revolutionary this is? We have nothing to prove. The key to our lives is not, “Be good,” but simply our learning to ask for help.

After Communion, we will sing “Amazing Grace,” written by John Newton, who was for much of his life a slave trader. When he finally let himself face the horror of the life he had been leading, he knew what it meant to be a wretch, to have done terrible damage to the lives he touched. But he had also discovered the grace of God, a grace that sought him out, and never stopped working on him, trying to bring him home.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me;
I once was lost but now I’m found
Was blind but now I see.

Grace is the most revolutionary medicine of all, because if we can take in God’s grace, we can be people of grace ourselves. There isn’t a family among us that does not need the grace of forgiveness. I forgive you because I have been forgiven, not because you have earned it.

Abraham Lincoln was once asked what he would do with the Confederates once the war was over. “I will treat them as though they had never gone away,” he said. He was ready to welcome them back into the fold.

One of the miracles of our time has been the way South Africa threw off apartheid without having it lead to a bloodbath. This was a nation that made grace a public policy. Rather than track down and destroy all the brutal enforcers of apartheid, it decided instead to create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, so that victims and perpetrators could come and simply tell their stories, confess what they had done or what had been done to them. There were unimaginable moments, as victims of torture and maiming and the death of loved ones came to utter maybe the most freeing words the human race has ever discovered, “I forgive you.”

Grace reaches across barriers. Last Monday night a group from this Cathedral squeezed into a packed downtown church for a WIN rally. WIN means Washington Interfaith Network, and is an interdenominational organization that works together to advocate for the poor and underserved in our city. It was a night of singing and speeches and preaching and a meeting with the Mayor. Clear and challenging words were spoken about what must be done in the city. But what you couldn’t miss was the sense of joy in being together, the sense that we were all one in being held in an unshakable Love. A divided city felt like one family. Amazing grace.

In this time of racial and ethnic conflict around the world, a time when racism still haunts our American life, when the gaps between rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight are still profound, I can think of no more powerful message than this one that got Jesus killed—that all of us are loved endlessly and equally by God. And called to come home and grow in that love.

Can there be any more important mission here at this Cathedral than to be a place that embodies that grace—in how we welcome people, in how we love, forgive, and respect each other, in how we serve the city around us? Our world is starving for grace, God’s amazing, healing, unearned grace, and that is a gift that only the church can give.

I think of that father, driving endlessly up and down the streets of Jackson. I think of that father in the parable, wondering if he would ever see his son again. And I think of the father-like, mother-like God who loves you and me that way.

When I picture the prodigal son returning home, I imagine him looking up and to his stunned surprise seeing his father, running down the path to greet him, arms spread as wide as a cross.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me;
I once was lost but now I’m found
Was blind but now I see.