Sunday, March 27, 2022

4 Lent, 2022-C: God is always present

Lectionary: Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 

En el nombre del Dios que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

Today is Laetare Sunday as I mentioned at the start of our worship. In the English tradition, today is also known as "Mothering Sunday” when people return to worship at the church where they were baptized as a kind of check-in on their spiritual journey which began at baptism. The goal today is to remember that as our Lenten journey changes us, the disciplines we practice are meant to lead us to joy, to rejoice, which is what “laetare” means. 

As the joke goes: If you want to make God laugh, tell Her your plans. If the last two years have shown us anything, it’s that life can change on a dime and we have to continually rethink, redirect, and repent, that is, turn around and go another way. The good news is that God is always present showing us how to go just as God did for the Israelites in their exile.

As a people traditionally tied to the land, this wandering people had no laws to govern them, no traditions to sustain them. They had to figure it out as they went along – kind of like we are now.

The generation who began the journey into exile was now dead and gone and a new generation was arriving at their God-given destination. Honoring their forebears, the Israelites began re-instituting the traditions that proclaimed their identity and belief; but they did this as a new generation in a new place, with a new understanding. Again, this sounds like us right now.

Their time in the desert had revealed only part of the big picture of the will of God for them. The rest of the story (as Paul Harvey used to say) is found in the words of Jesus in today’s gospel from Luke.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, Rabbi Jesus tells a wild story, filled with things that would make his listeners cringe. For example, a son asking his father for his share of the inheritance would be akin to a death wish; the image of a Jewish man, even a desperate one, wishing he could eat the slop of swine would be horror upon horror for a kosher people; and no self-respecting, elder Jewish man would ever run to greet his son. (Source)

I think there are a few reactions Jesus counted on from his listeners (then and now). For example, it was the son’s own choice that led him to his desperate situation. He was selfish, disrespectful, and disobedient. He made his bed… as some would say. He has only himself to blame.

And what about the older brother? He’s been good and faithful all along and hasn’t asked for any reward. But now his father kills the fatted calf for his low-life brother, and he’s understandably upset.

Looking at this parable from a “human point of view” these reactions make sense, which is why the parable works. We who are followers of Christ, however, must no longer look at things that way. We are a new generation, in a new place, with a new understanding.

Like the father in this parable, God does not count our trespasses against us. We’re good with that, of course, when it’s our own sin that needs forgiving, but we’re often less happy about it when it’s someone else’s sin. Then we, like the older brother in the parable, feel justified in our resentment. Some even feel justified in being violent toward “sinners” they particularly hate.

I once heard Brother Curtis Almquist from the Society of St. John the Evangelist, say: “If you don’t have mercy for someone, you don’t know enough about them.” God does know and God never fails to seek the lost and bring them home for a joyous welcome.

That’s why, as we consider this parable of the Prodigal Son, it helps to remember that we don’t know what led the lost brother to ask for his inheritance. We don’t know how he came to disrespect himself so much that he would live a life of such self-destruction. We don’t know how he came to believe that he wasn’t worthy.

Everyone has a story that plays out within the silence of their hearts. God knows our stories, our interior battles; and has mercy on us.

The invitation during Lent is to return and claim God’s love and mercy, just as the Prodigal son did when he ‘came to himself’ and returned home where he once knew love. Upon seeing his father, the Prodigal son utters the words of repentance: “…I made a mistake…” and in response there is rejoicing! Laetare.

Once we realize the unfathomable love of God for us, then we truly are a new creation, as St. Paul says. We begin to see with the eyes of God and we notice that everyone else is beloved too. We respond with the heart of God, which breaks over anyone’s suffering - no matter how it came about – and rejoices whenever someone returns to themselves… and returns to love.

A final word about the older brother in the parable, who represents us: the church. Like him, we try to live faithfully, and we’re tempted to be judgmental and resentful about those who seem to ‘get away with’ breaking our laws and traditions, but did you hear the father’s response to the older brother? Hearing this as the voice of God, the reply was: “Beloved one, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

What if we, the church, truly believed that? What if we lived in the abundance this represents? What if we honored the truth that everything – everything – is a gift from God who says, “all that is mine is yours.”

God gives freely to us and asks us to do the same. A cycle of abundant life is generated by this relationship. The opposite of this is found in our world where hoarding, or “damming up the river “as I call it, stifles life and leads to a sense of scarcity.

Growing up I knew a man who rose quickly through the ranks of corporate business and every year he and his family had more money, more things, more, more, more. The son of poor immigrants, he was living the American Dream, but it was never enough because the goalpost kept moving for him. Someone was always richer, more powerful, more influential. There was always something else he wanted that he couldn’t have – and he began to hoard. One tiny example: when he retired, this man had hundreds of neckties. Hundreds! Why neckties? They symbolize rank, status, and power (among other things) in the corporate world.

Rather than being grateful for the many gifts he’d been given, including his success in business, this man was fixated on what he didn’t have, what he couldn’t have, and it ate away at his soul and ruined many of his relationships. I’ve lost touch with him over the years, but from what I hear, he remains lost in his universe of scarcity.

I wish I’d known and could have shared with him the wisdom of our Indigenous sisters and brothers, so I’ll share it with you instead. In their book, “A Native Way of Giving,” Forrest S. Cush and Michael Carney tell us that for many native people “the only purpose for wealth is to give it away… A life-giving cycle is created [they say] as gratitude leads to generosity, promoting a sense of abundance that generates more gratitude, making it self-perpetuating.” (p. 10)

Giving wealth away… the needs of the community taking priority over the wants of the individual. It’s as counter-cultural today as it was in Jesus’ time. The good news in the parable of the Prodigal Son is: 1) it’s never too late to return to right relationship with God and one another, and 2) God’s gifts to us are always more than enough but God’s greatest gift is God’s own self always with us.

I close with a poem from our bishop, +Deon Johnson, about this. It’s called, “A note of God’s presence” 

I was there when you were called less than, 
Whispering you are enough. 
I was there when you watered your face with tears,
Warming your heart with strength.
I was there when you heard the impossible news,
Holding you close for the path ahead.
I was there when your heart broke,
Healing the wounds and holding the scars.
I was there when grief almost overwhelmed you,
Igniting the light of hope.
I was there when the unbelievably good news came,
Shielding you from the ugliness and fear.
I am the One in whom you live, and move, and have your being.
I was there. I am here. I will be there. Always. 

(Poem and photo by The Rt. Rev. Deon K. Johnson, March 21, 2022) 

Now that is a reason to rejoice. Laetare!

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