Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Today I am, again, at Christ Church in Rochdale. The readings for the day can be found here. The gospel reading is the familiar parable of the "prodigal son" - which might more accurately be called the parable of the compassionate father and his two sons.

Notice who is in the crowd as Jesus tells this very familiar story that we just heard from Luke’s Gospel. There are the tax collectors and sinners, who have been coming to him to hear from him a word of healing, a word of “good news.” We can almost see in our mind’s eye, however, how their mere presence causes the religious people to grumble.

Now don’t make the mistake of thinking this is a Jewish- Christian thing, that Judaism is a legalistic religion and we Christians always get to the spirit of things. Not only does that get “spun” in ways offensive to our Jewish neighbors, but it leave us hearing these words without taking a closer look in the mirror. Also it just isn’t true.

All of Jesus’ original hearers were Jewish. Better to hear this as a religious thing. Religious people are always at risk of acting “holier than thou.” The scribes and Pharisees are the religious insiders: the vestry, the altar guild, “good” church people.  The tax collectors and the sinners – those are the people who were out late last night and are headed out to brunch later this morning. Maybe they are  “spiritual but not religious” or maybe not even all that spiritual.

In any case, Jesus tells the religious folks a little story about why he spends so much time with people outside the church. He reframes the question so it’s not about good people and bad people but about found people and lost people.

Actually, he tells us three stories if we go back and look at the Bible and not just the little sheet in our bulletins today. (The clue to that is those eight verses that are missing from today’s reading.) Taken together, all three parables are what we might call “lost and found” stories. Story one is about a shepherd who has 100 sheep and one gets lost. So the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine and goes after the lost one.  The second story is about a woman with ten silver coins. (A little note in my Bible says each coin is worth the equivalent of a day’s labor, so these aren’t dimes—but more like $100 bills. I bet if you lost one you’d turn the house upside down, too!) So she had $1000, a stack of ten Ben Franklins, and then she loses one. But after looking diligently she finally finds it, and she’s so happy that she invites the neighbors over and cracks open a bottle of champagne.

Story three is the one before us today, the story most of us know as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. I imagine him as a restless soul, who lives for the moment. He can’t wait to leave home. But as soon as he does, he finds trouble. Or maybe trouble finds him. We are told that he squandered his inheritance in dissolute living. We’re also told, though, that a severe famine hit the land. So he makes some bad choices and he has some bad luck. I bet you’ve known folks like that – maybe you’ve even been that person yourself.

When I reflect upon those gathered around Jesus as he tells this story, I imagine that most of those “sinners and tax collectors” could immediately identify with this character in the story. They encountered in him a kindred soul.

But I think we misunderstand the story if we are too literal about applying the lessons of the two previous stories, the one about the lost sheep, and the one about the lost coin. For in this story I think that there is more than one lost brother. In his own way, the elder brother is just as lost as the prodigal one. It’s far more subtle, and perhaps less obvious both to him and to those around him. But no less real.

The older brother is also lost, and he, too, needs to be found. He’s an overachiever, but he’s grown to be somewhat resentful about that. Carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders has grown wearisome. I suspect he’s at least a little bit envious of his little brother, imagining what it would be like to be far from home, and living the good life, but failing to recognize that his brother ends up in a pig pen without any money. He’s perhaps bored with his life, but let’s be honest – by any objective measure his life is pretty good. No doubt the days are long and he works hard, but unlike his brother he has a roof over his head and three square meals a day.

I suspect that most of those scribes and Pharisees listening to Jesus—and as I’ve already said many of us here today as well—tend toward getting lost in the way of the older brother. We may get less lost to dissolute living than to resentments. But still lost in ways that, if left unexamined, can lead us to self-pity and self-righteousness. Those traits don’t leave much room for joy.

In any event, at the end of Jesus’ story, the younger brother has been found, and he is celebrating. His story is like the hymn, “Amazing Grace:” He once was lost, but now he’s found; he was blind but now he sees. He is the recipient of an abundant outpouring of love that helps him to see the wideness of God’s mercy. He encounters a loving father who rushes out to greet him with open arms and then serves veal piccata for everyone.

But the jury is still out on the elder brother as the story ends. Will he uncross his arms and join the party or not? Even if he does, will he be able to let go of his anger and hear the words of his father? The veal piccata awaits him, too, after all. There’s more than enough for everyone. No one has excluded him from the party.  

Those of you were here on Ash Wednesday – do you remember the line from that Easter sermon I shared with you, from the great John Chrysostom – preached in the fourth century? That golden-mouthed preacher said: The table is rich-laden; feast royally, all of you!The calf is fatted; let no one go forth hungry! Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.

To which our older brother might say – but that’s not fair! I don’t want to share it with my younger brother!

But to enter the party, he will need to let go of that sense that his brother is so undeserving. Like the scribes and Pharisees and the good church people who hear this story, he needs to let go of the false notion that he’s “holier than thou” and risk accepting the invitation that we all are welcomed not because we’ve “earned it” but because that is who God is.

Whether or not we recognize on any given day how lost we are, Christ desires to find us all. We are all beloved of the Father, and there is always room at the Table for one more.  If we are more like the younger brother, we need to “come to ourselves” by getting up out of the pig pen and making our way back home again. If we are more like the older brother, then we need to “come to ourselves” by letting go of our resentments and grievances and step off the porch and off our high horses and join the party. The truth is though that these two have much more in common than either realizes—not just because each is lost in his own way, but because both are children of a compassionate father.

And so are we. The Eucharistic Table is set, and all are welcome. And all means all. There’s room for everyone. We are invited to come not because we’ve earned a place here, but because we are all children of a compassionate God whose steadfast love and mercy abound. We are invited to eat and drink and sing and to dance and to live. Today we offer prayers for healing – healing that allows us to accept this invitation with glad hearts.

And once fed, we are also called to get up and then to “go and do likewise.” We are called to become more like the God who loves us by loving our neighbor. Or as that former Pharisee, Paul, puts it in today’s epistle reading: we are sent out as “ambassadors for Christ.” We are given this same ministry of reconciliation, to share with others. We who have experienced reconciliation with God are sent out into the world as reconcilers who seek out all who are lost, sharing with them the good news that there is room enough at the Table for them as well. Our mission—our calling—is not to remain children, but to become more like the father. It is to become people who are willing to risk embrace as the defining posture of the Christian life.

Both of these brothers are in need of grace and of healing and of love. But as the story ends, only one of them has recognized that fact and received that gift. Only one has allowed love to heal and transform him and to unleash the peace that passes all understanding in his soul.

Now I admit that I may be overly optimistic about this, but I like to believe that while it may have taken him a while longer, eventually the older brother joined the party too. That he, also, “came to himself.” Maybe he tentatively walked toward the party; hesitating at the door. Maybe his younger brother sees him and runs to embrace him, mimicking the role that the father played for him. And the tears began to flow. This is how the world is made new, even if it didn’t happen that day. At some point they come to see that they are more alike than different, and that they share a common responsibility that comes from being at the receiving end of such amazing grace. At some point they will both need to be there for their father when there are difficult choices to be made about his care.

The story is just a snapshot in time, and Jesus ends it where it does, forcing us to at least consider the possibility that the two never reconcile, and that the betrayal the older brother feels causes a permanent rift with his father. Perhaps he leaves home in disgust, never again to speak to his father or to his brother. We must consider that ending also, because all of us know that it can happen that way, as sad as it is to admit. We are free to refuse love; and even to convince ourselves that being right is more important to us than love.

The story confronts us where we are, with our own unique ways of being lost. It leaves us pondering whether or not we dare take the risk of being found. Like so many of Jesus’ great parables, the story lingers in the air, and across the centuries, still haunting us.  We oldest children and we prodigal children, we sinners and saints: we are all invited to join the party. 
The table is rich-laden; feast royally, all of you! The calf is fatted; let no one go forth hungry! Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.

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