Saturday, March 30, 2013

Easter Sunday, Year C

It’s Just Too Good!

Readings: Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12

The women got up early and headed for the tomb. They went despite their fear and apprehension at all that had taken place over the last three days. They were filled with disappointment at what might have been. They were filled with grief over the death of the one they had come to love and trust. Others had run away in fear and confusion: but they were drawn to the tomb. They had some unfinished business. Because of the approach of the Sabbath, Jesus’ body had not been properly prepared for burial. They came bringing spice prepared for that purpose.

They knew what to expect. They had stood at the foot of the cross while others simply fled. They had watched as the life ebbed out of Jesus. When you watch someone die, the reality of death stays with you. They had received his body when the soldiers took him down from the cross. They had lovingly laid him in the tomb and watched, dumbfounded as a huge stone was rolled into place. And yet, they could not help but feel that this dead man was more alive than all of them put together.

And our God is a God of surprises! When the women arrived at the tomb they saw that stone was rolled away. When they entered the tomb Jesus’ body was nowhere to be found. The tomb was empty.

“Why look for the living among the dead?” they were asked. “Why, indeed! He is not in the tomb! He is risen!

And they believed it. They remembered what Jesus had told them. They did not just believe it. What they believed, they proclaimed. They went and told the others. “Christ is risen!” they proclaimed. And two thousand years later we still echo those words.

In the 1920’s Nikolai Bukharin was sent from Moscow to Kiev to address and anti-God rally. For an hour he ridiculed the Christian faith until it seemed that there was nothing left to believe. Then he invited the people to ask questions. An Orthodox priest rose and asked to speak. He turned, faced the people, and gave the Easter greeting, “Christ is risen!”

What do you suppose happened? All the people rose to their feel. “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” they replied, loud and clear.
Belief in the resurrection is the greatest sign that it happened. The women at the tomb saw and believed. It cannot have been easy for them. Faith in the resurrection was risky business for the early Christians. People gossiped about and plotted against those who believed that Jesus rose from the dead. The idea was so absurd and laughable that Christians were ridiculed and shunned, even persecuted for their beliefs. But that did not stop the faithful from spreading the message that Christ indeed was risen from the dead.

It has not stopped in over two thousand years. When asked, ‘What do you believe?’, Christians still respond, ‘Christ is risen!’ Though today we live in a world that is often indifferent to faith it is still possible to proclaim, “Christ is risen”, and have millions of people all over the globe respond, “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

What you say yourself in reply to the question is a choise you must make. You can argue with me and say that you cannot believe because there is not enough evidence, but we believe because we take it on very good authority.

One of my favourite writers, C. S. Lewis, writes the following in his book, The Case for Christianity. “Don't be scared by the word authority. Believing things on authority only means believing them because you've been told them by someone you think trustworthy. Ninety-nine per cent of the things you believe are believed on authority. I believe there is such a place as New York. I haven't seen it myself. I couldn't prove by abstract reasoning that there must be such a place. I believe it because reliable people have told me so. The ordinary man believes in the Solar System, atoms, evolution, and the circulation of the blood on authority -because the scientists say so. Every historical statement in the world is believed on authority. None of us has seen the Norman Conquest or the defeat of the Armada. None of us could prove them by pure logic as you prove a thing in mathematics. We believe them simply because people who did see them have left writings that tell us about them: in fact, on authority. A man who jibbed at authority in other things as some people do in religion would have to be content to know nothing all his life.”

And if it seems to good to be true, look for the signs of resurrection around you. Like the women on that first Easter morning, we frequently find ourselves heading into the tomb, to places and circumstances where we expect to find only death. It is truly difficult to believe in the resurrection when all around us we are experiencing death. There are the environmental issues that the world faces. Is our planet facing extinction? Many people seem to thing we cannot possibly do anything about it. We must simply learn to cope with environmental changes. We need to prepare ourselves better for the natural disasters, which are inevitable.

Do not assume death in any situation. Expect the possibility that God has been here before you. Even a small rolling away of stones indicates resurrection. People are becoming more aware of the need for stewardship of our resources, of their need to conserve God’s amazing creation.

Are there signs of Resurrection in this community of faith? There certainly are! For over a year, this congregation has been without a permanent priest. Yet it has been a time of spiritual growth and renewed excitement for the faith. There is a dedicated leadership that works hard on behalf of this congregation. So many people participate in the life of the parish. There is a strong sense of community. You are meeting your financial obligations. You are welcoming new people into the community.

Are there signs of Resurrection in your personal lives? Is God taking you in new directions? Look at what God is doing in your life! Look at where God is leading you!

At the heart of the resurrection is the one who participated in it, who died for it, and who, in a way we will never understand and must accept in faith, moved through death to us to build the kingdom of God in our own lives and in our society and time.

And if the message of Easter is simply too overwhelming to believe consider this story.

A young boy was an avid fan of both Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers. He watched both of their television shows. Then one day it was announced that Mister Rogers would be making a guest appearance on Captain Kangaroo. The little boy was ecstatic. He could hardly wait. He kept asking, “Is it today that Mister Rogers will be on Captain Kangaroo?”

Finally the day arrived. The family all gathered around the television. The boy watched for a time and then surprisingly got up and wandered from the room. His father was puzzled. He followed him and asked, “What is it? Is something wrong?”

“It’s too good,” the boy replied. “It’s just too good!”

Jesus is not in the tomb. He is risen from the dead. That is the Easter message. And it is too good!

Christ is risen, Alleluia! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

The Great Vigil of Easter

Some Resurrection Images

Readings: Romans 6:3-11; Luke 24:1-12

The Easter Vigil celebration is not truly the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection. Rather it prepares us to experience the empty tomb. Resurrection remains a mystery at the heart of our lives. It is such a mystery that we find it difficult to express it in words. So on this Easter Eve we gather to experience the inexpressible. We do so by drawing on a wealth of images that take us back to our sacred roots.

Images abound in this service. We ring bells to prepare our hearts to resume the joyous shouts of Alleluia! We have held back that exuberant proclamation of praise during these past forty days. Now we shout it out, all the while ringing our bells, proclaiming the good news of the Resurrection. The water of baptism, the Paschal candle, darkness, light …

But perhaps the most obvious image on this night is fire. One of the earliest expressions of mystery for humankind must surely have been that of sacred fire. Dating back more than three hundred thousand years, it was the beginning for us of becoming separated from the animal kingdom, of becoming truly human. It speaks to us from the very depth of our being.

That is no doubt why so many cultures have traditions related to sacred fire. It was sacred to the ancient Celts. The domestic hearth fire was never allowed to die except during the festival of Beltane, when it was ritually rekindled from the royal fire. Indeed, the hearth fire was the centre of Celtic family activity. Cooking, eating, storytelling all took place around the fire.

For thousands of yours our aboriginal people have held council fires. The Sacred Fires are kept from one generation to another, the wisdom passed on by Elders to children and grandchildren. The Elders who speak the wisdom are revered and cared for, as they are the very heart of the people.

So tonight we begin this celebration by lighting the new fire. From the fire we light the Paschal candle and then pass the flame from one person to another. We come into the darkness of the church bringing light with us. By its light we recount the story of our faith.

The storytelling connects us to our sacred roots. We recount the story of creation. We tell how God led the people of Israel out of Egypt. We hear of the people of Israel wandering in the desert, of times of exile, of times of deliverance. We hear the Christian message. “Do you not know,” Paul asks us, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We are reminded that we are new people, focused on new goals, compelled by new motives, committed to new objectives, reborn, free to love and accept ourselves, and to rededicate our lives to loving others. It is a fitting time to renew our baptismal covenant, to remember the promises made at our baptism.

The story continues at the empty tomb. The women go to the tomb to see how Jesus’ body is laid. They prepare the spices and ointments for his burial. What turmoil is going on in them? So much has happened since they came from Galilee with Jesus. They remember the excitement of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Could it be such a short time ago? How exciting it had been to be a part of that throng, jostling, joyfully waving palm branches, cheering Jesus on. They had not in any way guessed what the outcome might be. But just as suddenly as the crowd had appeared to wave him on, so they turned against him. The days that followed would always remain a blur. Now he was dead, brutally murdered. His followers felt the terrible emptiness of bereavement. All hope was gone.

After the Sabbath, they made their way back to the tomb with the spices they had prepared. But when they arrived at the tomb, to their surprise the stone was rolled away from the entrance. As they entered the tomb, they realized that the body was missing. They no longer had a sense of purpose. As they stood there perplexed, wondering what to do next, they were asked a vital question. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

And there in the emptiness of the tomb, they encountered the risen Lord. There was no need to see him. They remembered. They remembered what Jesus had told them; that he would be crucified, and on the third day he would rise again! In remembering, they experienced the joy of the resurrection. In that encounter, their fears and perplexity were gone. They left immediately to tell the eleven of their experience. They became messengers of the risen Lord.

The empty tomb is an image for us at this vigil. It is a symbol to each of us that Christ’s resurrection is much more than mere survival. In the resurrection, death has been vanquished. Our destiny is opened up beyond death and the grave. The Jesus who lived and walked and taught on earth is not in the tomb. He is not to be sought in the far distant past. His saving work is a present reality in the community of the believers. We like the holy women at the tomb, discover that Christ is alive in us, through us, and forever. We are able to proclaim: “The Lord is risen! Alleluia! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Good Friday

How Can We Call This Day “Good”?

John 18 & 19

Christ's life is full of meaningful moments. But surely none is as profound as the events we have been enacting this week, the events of the last days of his earthly life. Here is both tragedy and glory.

It is far easier for us to see the tragedy than to understand the glory. How can we see it as anything but a terrible waste of human life? What kind of a God could allow such a terrible thing to happen to a beloved child? How can we, knowing the depths to which humanity fell, have the audacity to call this Friday "Good"?

The story of the crucifixion is an astounding story of hatred and hostility. It brings up so many questions in us. How could one of his closest companions, one who had travelled with him, the one entrusted with the common purse, deliberately agree with his enemies to assist them in capturing him? Why should the leaders of the synagogue turn on one of their own, a young rabbi, with such animosity? His unorthodox ways are simply not enough to explain it. Why should the guards turn with such vehemence against their prisoner, bullying him in such a vicious manner? How could Pilate, a servant of Rome, go against his inner convictions and impose the death penalty on one he knows to be a good person? Why should the crowd, who only days before had cheered Jesus on with shouts of "Hosanna", just as easily shout, "Crucify"? It doesn't make sense.

The day was a Friday. But it was quite unlike any other day. For on what other day have people gone so far astray? Were they evil, that great crowd of people? Who was in that crowd? There were the unemployed, the disenfranchised of Jerusalem. One can understand how they might take out their frustrations on another. What about the shopkeepers, artisans, business people and housewives in that crowd? People just like you and me. What about the religious people, people with character? Yet none of that saved them from becoming a part of that unthinking mob.

That mob mentality is part of the tragedy of being human. The events of that day are disasters renewed daily in our world. Amnesty International reminds us that, even while we are worshipping here in Newcastle or Orono, some man or woman in a police station somewhere in the world is being battered or tortured for no particular reason except that he or she is at the mercy of another human being. Terrible atrocities take place every day. Many of them take place in the name of God.

Bullying has become a travesty in our school system. Children mock other children to the point where they commit suicide. It is a sad commentary on our society.

There once was a town called Harmony. To be true the town did not live up to its name. For it was a hotbed of bigotry, prejudice and discrimination. The King had long watched what was happening in the town. He knew that he had to take action. So he sent his son to look into the problem.

The Prince went in disguise. That way he could go about freely. There were no barriers. He made himself a part of every group in the community. He found his way into every ghetto. Rich and poor alike were attracted to him. They sensed his acceptance and love. In return they would have done anything for him.

One day he invited all his friends to a picnic. The whole town turned out. He went from group to group encouraging them to talk with one another, to share the food and drink they had brought, and to have their children play games and run races together. Suddenly the mood turned ugly. The rich looked at the poor and began to mutter. "What kind of company does this man keep?" The poor couldn't help but notice the snobbery of the rich. The blacks looked at the whites saying, "What are they doing here? Who invited them anyway?" The Prince continued to encourage them to find their common interests and to share with one another. The more he tried to convince them the more angry they became until finally their anger turned against him. They rose as a mob. Their shouts and screams of hatred filled the air.

The Prince, battered and bruised, beat a hasty retreat. Just as he left town a huge clap of thunder was heard. The sky turned as black as night. It began to pour with rain. Now the only shelter in the picnic area was an abandoned temple. The crowd hurried inside and stood there huddled together like a flock of sheep. They were petrified at the fury of the storm. They knew that they had done a terrible thing. "Was God punishing them?" They wondered.

In their panic they forgot about their differences. The walls of the temple bound them together, as members of a large family. The barriers fell down. They began to comfort one another attempting to allay each other's fears. They reflected on all that had taken place. They understood what the Prince had accomplished for them. When they discovered his true identity, they were overwhelmed. Love for him overflowed. They longed to make amends to him for their hateful actions. Realizing how impossible that was, they made amends to one another. "That", they knew, "was what the Prince had been sent to do." From that day on Harmony began to live up to its name.

Jesus was not a prisoner dragged to his execution. He was a king offering himself for his kingdom. That is the ultimate love of God. It is not something we can know in any intellectual way. We must experience it. We must know it in the way we know God's presence with us. We must understand why he came and why he suffered and died, for only then can we call this Friday, "Good".

Monday, March 25, 2013

Maundy Thursday

A New Commandment

Readings: Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 116:10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-15

Lord, you reclined at the table with your disciples as you celebrated the ancestral meal on this evening. You knew that your betrayer was sitting with you at the same table. You knew too that there was no other way but the suffering that awaited you.

You took bread in your hands, praying those ancient words, “This is the bread of suffering that our ancestors ate in a foreign land. Let all who are hungry come to the Passover meal. May the eternal, the Almighty, send a blessing on us and on all the Lord’s people.” You gave us a new explanation for the breaking of bread. Your life was about to be given in sacrifice. You could not have known that two thousand years later we would gather on this night and break bread and bless the cup, remembering your sacrifice.

Then during supper you rose from the table. Removing your outer garment, you wrapped a towel around your waist. You poured water into a basin. Kneeling down on the ground, you began to wash the feet of your followers. What a lesson in humility and service you communicated to us that night. You, our Lord, performed a task that not even a Jewish slave would be asked to do.

"Do you know what I have done?" you asked them. "You call me Teacher and Lord - and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done. Happiness will be yours if you behave accordingly."

You taught us a lesson that evening. You taught us that authority was to be a form of service. No one should be allowed to rule who had not proven their willingness to serve.

So often there is a gulf between those who serve and those who are served, between those who rule and those who are ruled. There is so much misunderstanding and hurt. Those in low positions feel misunderstood, unappreciated. They deem those in high positions as being remote and uncaring. They continue in judgement of one another until their hearts become bitter.

Would that we might follow instead your loving example. What a world this would be if we did. Just for once, let the policeman be arrested; the priest sit in the pew; the teacher sit at a desk; the foreman take a shift on the assembly line; the warden be locked in a cell; the doctor become sick and lie in the hospital bed; the judge be judged; the wealthy line up at the food bank; the person with the secure job line up at the unemployment office.

You call us to be a servant people, to live in solidarity with all of humanity. And weknow that only when we are a servant church will we have any relevance in our world. Tonight we come together to share as family at the Eucharist. We are sent out as servants into the world.

We know, Lord, that we should give everything. We should give everything until there is not a single pain, a single misery, a single sin in the world. We should then give all, Lord, all the time. We should give our lives.

But wait! That cannot be what you are saying. I am exaggerating. I must be. It doesn't make sense. It is simply too much for you to be asking of us.

Yet Lord, we know. There is only one commandment for everyone. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. Love your neighbour as yourself. Lord teach us your way of service and love.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Sunday of the Passion Year C

No Other Way

Readings: Luke 19:29-40; Psalm 22:1-11; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:39-23:50

Thomas Berry, a Passionist priest, wrote, “The most appropriate image of Christ is Mother Earth crucified.” It is reflected in the events of Palm and Passion Sunday. Entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, Jesus is hailed by the crowds as a king. “If they were silenced,” Jesus says, “then the very stones in the street would start to shout.” And in the reading of the Passion at the time of Jesus’ death darkness covers the earth as the whole of creation is touched by the selfless act of the Son of God. What was done to Jesus was done to the whole of creation.

That is the journey into which we enter today. We are swept along the city streets as part of the crowd. With the disciples and friends of Jesus we cheer him on shouting “Hosanna! Save us!”

We sit at the table with Jesus and the disciples, passing the cup of wine and breaking bread. We hear Jesus’ words interpreting the bread and wine in relation to his imminent death.

We find ourselves in the garden of Gethsemane agonizing with Jesus. He spends the night in an agony of doubt praying his anguished prayer. We fight sleep, but like the disciples give in, exhausted by the events of the day.

We feel a deep sense of grief as Jesus is betrayed by one of his closest friends. We watch with Peter and the disciples from a safe distance as he is taken away to appear before Pilate. We feel a sense of shock and disbelief, as he is condemned to death. Yet we find ourselves joining in with the crowd shouting our taunts of “Crucify!”

We feel pain and confusion as we stand with the disciples at the foot of the cross. All hope is gone as he is executed along with two murderers. We hear him draw his last breath. We follow to the tomb; we see his body laid out for burial. We scatter in confusion.

A friend recently asked why we tell the story year after year. My immediate reaction was, “Why wouldn’t we?” It is, after all, central to our faith. But then I pondered a little over the question. Is it our fascination with violence? Is it because bloodshed is so commonplace in our lives? Are we so used to seeing it on television and in the newspaper that we need the grisly reminder? Are we hungry for tragedy? Do we want to assuage our sense of guilt with the reminder that there is nothing we could have done differently? Do we want to lay blame on others? Or do we believe that our participation in the passion of Christ is a necessary sacrifice?

Hopefully we do not come together as church out of a sense of duty or shame; nor are we here to make atonement for our sinfulness. We are here to be reminded of what God has done for us. We are here to celebrate the great gift of salvation that God has offered us in the death of Christ.

We are here to confess not our sins and our brokenness, but our hope, our hope in the resurrection. It was not for our wickedness that Christ died, but for the weakness of our human nature.

We are called to be here at the foot of the cross. We are called to be here at the foot of the cross because God will not let death have the final say. God will not let death separate us from the great love of a great God.

From our place at the foot of the cross we know fear, sorrow, grief, pain, and confusion; but we know also joy. We know God’s glory and love. There is hope from that vantage point as look out on God’s new creation.

We can view the cross as the greatest of failures; or we can recognize and be convinced of God’s loving compassion for humanity. In Christ’s death God suffered and died. That is the measure of God’s love. Can we understand that great love? Can we take it and transform it into a thing of loveliness and glory that inspires us, and others to take up the cross and follow in Christ’s footsteps? Do we possess the mind and attitude of Christ? For in dying Jesus showed us God’s glory and passionate love. There was no other way. There is no other way but the way of the cross.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year C

Lavish Love

Readings: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:8-14; John 12:1-8

Jesus is on the road again. He has returned to Jerusalem at great peril. It is a daring act on his part, publicly entering the city, even going into the temple. He is risking his life by doing so. Perhaps even a bit shaken and scared from the danger lurking around him and hoping to find some reassurance, he sets out for Bethany to see his dearest friends.

Bethany has become his headquarters during this visit to Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover. It is not difficult to understand why. Bethany is a hamlet just over the eastern ridge of the Mount of Olives. From Bethany to the Temple is no more than three kilometres, closer even than the Garden of Gethsemane.

But there is more to the visit than that, for Jesus has three friends there, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. He loves them. They love him. At Bethany he will find friends, family, a place to relax, a place where he can be himself. They go all out and prepare a dinner party for him. Martha loves to entertain. Lazarus sits at the table with Jesus and his friends.

Impetuous and affectionate, Mary comes forward during the dinner bearing a flagon of costly perfumed oil. Pouring the rich ointment over Jesus' feet, she bathes them with oil. What is her intention? She is certainly communicating her love for Jesus. In that anointing we see anticipated his death. It is a gift of humility. It displays love and generosity of spirit. It is a lavish gift from a prodigal child. Whatever her motive, it is a gift given in gratitude, a gift of pure thanksgiving.

Judas immediately reacts to her unselfish act. “Why waste such a lavish gift? Convert it to cash. Make it useful,” he says to her. “Use it for good works and deeds of mercy.” And at first glance he seems to be right. The oil cost the equivalent of a year's wages. Is it not an excessive gift? That kind of money could feed a lot of hungry people.

So imagine the expression on Mary's face; it changes from joy to shame. But what Judas has really failed to understand is that Mary's gesture is hers to give. It is not his. It is not ours. And it was exactly the gift that Jesus needed. He accepted the gift with the same generosity of spirit with which it had been given. He saw the bitter sweetness of the gift. And so he accepted it with sadness as well.

His words to Judas are not angry words of rebuke. They are the words of one who sees love betrayed. Jesus knows that Judas' attack on Mary tells so much about him, about his lack of love, about his misunderstanding of all that Jesus stands for. It reveals Jesus' failure to communicate what is going on in his life. It is the failure of his gospel message of love. Jesus knows that her gift is an anointing for burial.

He speaks words of truth. “You always have the poor with you, but I will not always be here,” he says. Jesus is not forgetting the poor. He spent his ministry befriending the poor. He ate with outcasts and sinners. He healed the sick. He fed the hungry. He knew they would always be in need of our concern and help. He knew that his followers would continue the work that he began. He knew that he was preparing his followers to reach out to one another in love.

We have the poor with us always. That is certainly not difficult to understand. Food Banks that we naively thought would be a short term solution to a problem continue to expand. In Canada, one of the richest countries in the world, children go to bed hungry. We personally may live in relative luxury, but there are many in Durham region who live below the poverty line. In a recent report on poverty it was pointed out that it affects people on so many levels. Their access to health care, proper nutrition, adequate housing and transportation marginalizes them.

Yes! The poor you have with you always. I am reminded of it every time I go into Port Hope. I see a man sitting on a bench in the downtown area. People bring him coffee and stop to talk to him. He is dirty and unkempt. And sometimes I reach into my purse and give him some spare change. Sadly I often find a little dialogue going on in my “He'll just spend it on booze.” Fortunately it is a fleeting thought. I personally would rather give a little change to alleviate his suffering than miss giving it and think that he might really need the most basic things in life. I remember too that surely our gifts to anyone in need, large or small, are tokens of our loyalty and commitment to the Christian faith. They are expressions of our love for Christ.

There are other kinds of poverty as well. In our impersonal society, so many people live impoverished lives. They live an existence that is not really living. There are the bereaved. There are the sick and the suffering. There are the lonely. There are the unemployed. There are those who deal daily with mental illness. There is so much need around us. How do we become Christ for them?

A young woman I know suffers from deep depression. She told me how meaningless her life was. She spoke of non-existence, of lack of memories, of not being a person. She said that she experienced only death. She had, in fact made elaborate plans for her own death. Then one day she came into my office looking totally different. Happy! Not a manic high, but truly happy! She spoke differently. There was no talk of suicide. She had experienced something wonderful, a whole new way of looking at herself.

"I know the feeling of happiness will not last," she told me. "But it doesn't matter somehow. Now I know what it is like to live. I’ll remember it when despair sets in again. It will never be as bad again."

There are those who are spiritually impoverished. For whatever reason, they have not heard or believed the gospel message. Or even more sadly they have lost what they once knew. How do we share the good news of Christ with them?

Mary knelt at the feet of Jesus and offered the lavish gift of her love. At the altar we offer our best gifts. We break bread. We bless wine. These are symbols of human life, products of human hands. They satisfy the basic human needs of hunger and thirst. As Jesus offered himself, his body broken, we offer ourselves in our brokenness. As Jesus identified the bread broken and wine poured with his suffering and death. In the Eucharist we remember that obedience, that selfless giving. We share in it. We go out as bread to the world. As bread we may meet rejection, but in faith we share in the joy of the Resurrection. Thanks be to God.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year C

Our Prodigal God

Readings: Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 34:1-8; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 22-32

All of us have key moments in our lives when we realize who we are and what we must do. All of the Scripture passages this morning illustrate such times. It is a new beginning for the people of Israel. They are poised between the wilderness and their first conquest in the new land. As they make the transition to their new life, they begin by taking the time to observe their traditions. For the people of Corinth it is a time of decision as Paul calls them to further their relationship with Christ. He wants them to understand what God has done for them. In the Gospel, Jesus tells that wonderfully familiar parable of the prodigal son, speaking to us of those moments of self-realization in our lives when we move from flight to return, from abandonment into discovery, from dying into living.

The parable is a familiar one. Yet in its familiarity it continues to speak to us on a deep level about our own lives and our relationship with a loving God. If we examine our lives we can see ourselves in the characters in the story.

There is first of all the younger child, the prodigal son. He does something unthinkable in a Jewish family. He demands that his father give him his inheritance. Think about it! What he is saying to his father is, "I wish you were already dead.'' He wants what is coming to him, and he wants it now. He wants to have it all now. He wants to see it all. He wants to explore it all. He wants all of life, and he wants it now. He has no regard for the consequences to his family. He is thinking only of himself. By his actions he cuts himself off from his whole family and even from the community. He severs every relationship in his life. And then he skips town with his new found wealth. He wants to get going, no matter where as long as it is away from home.

The story gets even more shocking. He is wantonly wasteful. He squanders his whole inheritance. He leads a dissolute life. In his new found sense of freedom, he goes all out. He spends money lavishly. He becomes a slave to his appetites until there is nothing left.

Just when you think things cannot get any worse for the son, they do. A famine hits the land. He has no money. He has no job. He has no prospects. He has no friends or relatives to fall back on. He hires himself on to the only job he can get, the lowest of jobs, this young Jewish man, feeding the pigs. He even envies the pigs their carob pods; the only time pigs will eat them is when there is nothing else to be had. He is totally lost.

Then he comes to his senses. Not that he is thinking about anyone else! He is still thinking only about himself. This is not a point of conversion in his life. It is simply a realization that there may be a way out of his troubles. He might even be able to maintain a sense of dignity and pride through it all. He will return home and offer himself as a servant. He is willing to work, grant you, but only on his own terms. He will save himself. He will have to ask for forgiveness, but he doesn’t need to mean it. Let us be clear about it! He is not repentant. At least not yet!

That brings us to the father. It is not until his father comes running out to him, arms open in forgiveness, that there is a change of heart in the son. “Father, I have sinned against you and against heaven,” he says to him.

And the father forgives him. Don’t we all expect something quite different to happen? Aren’t you just waiting for the father to pounce? Jesus audience would have been startled by the father’s behaviour. They would have been hanging on every word that Jesus spoke, certain that the young son was about to get everything he deserved and more. They fully expect to hear that the father has banished him forever, given him his just desserts. Yet where they expect judgement the father shows love; where they expect condemnation he shows compassion. This is, after all, no ordinary father. This is the prodigal father. Without any hesitation, he can forgive the wandering child and welcome him home. As his son was lavish in living, so the father is lavish in love. He is prodigal in mercy, and in grace. What a transforming gift that is for the son!

The father’s mercy extends to the older son as well. Truth to tell, he does not come up smelling like roses in the story. His younger brother spends his inheritance having a good time while he has been taking care of the family business. Then when he returns home, he gets all the attention. What about reaping what you sow? It just doesn’t seem fair. Shouldn’t he be paying for his sins instead of having a party?

The older brother asks for nothing. He wants nothing. He also enjoys nothing. He devotes himself to his father’s service. He never disobeys. Yet he is the centre of his every thought. He reacts with jealousy. “This son of yours…” he says. He is disappointed, to say the least. He fails to experience the loving relationship of a loving parent.

We may see ourselves like the younger son, wanting to live life recklessly. We may drift away from the faith. As the family grows up, somehow we get out of the habit of going to church. We intend to go. We sometimes yearn for the sense of community that we once had. But at the same time, it seems impossible to go back. We feel unworthy. We do not feel as if we belong. We do not see ourselves as beloved children. And so we stay away. That is somehow easier. For by staying away, we don’t risk being rejected. But if we go back, the parable assures us, God receives us back.

We may be rather like the older son, carrying resentments and jealousies. Here we are trying to serve God. Trying to do God’s work. Then the homeless, the addicted, the downtrodden, the hopeless sinners, get all the attention. “If I hear one more sermon about domestic violence or abuse!” “Where is the justice?” We ask. “Don’t I deserve more?”

In retreat a man was meditating on the story of the prodigal son. He used an etching Rembrandt once made of it with the father embracing his lost and found son. The man strongly identified with the younger son. It brought him with a jolt to the sudden realization that God forgave him. Even more he understood that God loved him. Then he had a further insight. It moved him to tears. He realized that the young son forgave himself. He accepted his shadow side and decided to do something about it. He loved himself as the father loved him. It lead him to the realization that he needed the same sense of forgiveness.

It is a profound learning. It is difficult to forgive others; it is much more difficult to forgive oneself. That is why it is one of the greatest gifts of healing that we could possibly receive. The sense of divine acceptance is so radical and sweeping that sometimes people cannot wrap their heads around it. It angers them. Like the older son they are filled with resentment and rage at a God who could possibly be so unfair as to offer forgiveness and grace so freely.

How like God! God gives us dangerous freedoms. God allows us to live our own lives. God entrusts the world into our hands, knowing that we are capable of destroying the wonderful work of creation. God welcomes sinners to the table. God offers us salvation, not because we deserve it. Not because we have earned it. Simply because God’s mercy extends to each of us.

This is a story that has the power to shock us. It has the power to offend. That is because it speaks to us of God’s free gift of grace. Grace not only has the power to offend us; it does when it is exercised. Let’s face it. Most of us want some assurance that our obedience and good behaviour and faithfulness to God actually count for something. We do not like to see someone get away with bad behaviour. The notion that God simply graces us, all of us, bothers many people. That is because we fail to understand the idea of free grace, of undying love.

At every turn God surprises us with grace. God is merciful and loving beyond all reason. The salvation that God offers us is more than a legal transaction; it is a loving relationship. Our prodigal God rushes out to meet us, bless us, reinstate us, and call us God’s own.

The Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

Come and See Readings: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42 Invitations come in many shapes and sizes. They ...