Leaving Home is Dangerous Yet Called For

Posted: March 21, 2016 in Sermons Year C - Advent 2015 to 2016

Lent 4C, 2016

Luke 15:1, 11-32


Our story today is a story about a father who had two sons. Indeed, not only had two sons but loved two sons, went out to two sons, and was generous to two sons. Second, the father does not reject either son, under any circumstance. His love is given to both, not to one at the expense of the other. Yet this same love does not resolve the conflict. It accepts conflicts as the arena in which the work of love is to be done. Third, there is a missing third act in this parable (Scott 2001). The conflict between the brothers is left unresolved. So in the end there is a real question: it is; what happens next?

New Testament scholar Brandon Scott is helpful, with a suggestion: He says: “Soon the father will die.  Then what?  If the sons continue on with their established scripts, they are headed for a collision.  One will kill the other. Or they can follow the father’s script and surrender their male honour and keep on welcoming, accepting, and being with the other.  They have a choice between being lost or found, dead or alive” (Scott 2001:82-83).

In this parable the storyteller has Jesus offering a simple suggestion: that re-imagined world, hoped-for world Jesus continually talks about, pictures co-operation, not contest, as the basis for the realm of God. That one is loved not according to pre-set conditions. It’s that simple but do we have ears to hear?

The fact is that we can’t hear this story too many times because we are the son returning again and again. We are the father scanning the horizon watching for the impossible and then embracing it in our arms. We are the revellers in the far-away town, we are the servants in the father’s household, and we are the older brother in tears of rage, uncomprehending and exasperated.

One of the things about Lent is that it gives us time to find ourselves- our true self – for better or for worse, and usually both. Lent gives us time to work on habits that alienate us from ourselves, and from our God, and from our loved ones. We learn to see the “edited” version of ourselves for what it is, and to step back from the “cult of this shadow” we’ve created of ourselves. This unknown self…….. Thomas Merton wrote of this unknown self…….. He said…..

This is the man I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him, and to be unknown to God is altogether too much privacy. My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love – outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion…. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin.

And Frederick Buechner wrote about the new seeds of Contemplation that are born in the telling of secrets………

It is important at least to tell from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are—even if we tell it only to ourselves—because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing.
Lent teaches us to wake up in the middle of the waking day to a fuller awareness of our state of mind, to repent, to turn around toward the Loving Presence watching for us. Despair, the saints say, is the worst sin. Despair is a kind of pride – the pride of putting oneself beyond the possibility of redemption, the pride that says God’s ability to love is limited. Despair makes an idol out of wretchedness. I’m no good it says. I was never any good it says. Even God has despaired of me. I’m slowly starving to death while the hogs fatten. I will die here. And, it’s what I deserve.

he truth is that one aspirin is good for us. But taking a whole bottle will kill us. So it is with compunction. We can wallow in sorrow like pigs in mud, happily revelling in the smell and sticky filth of it. We can attach ourselves to the selfish stinking sweetness of self-pity. After a while, though, compunction alone without action – repentance, contrition, satisfaction – will poison us.

ut how does the young man know it’s time to arise? Maybe he remembered his prayers “We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.” Being sorry is one thing. We can stay in the lower barnyard feeling sorry for all eternity. But repenting requires action.

hen he comes to himself, the former prodigal assesses his situation. He asks himself; how many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger!

He realizes his only path out of pride is through humility. He re-evaluates his options. He responds in saying; I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”

The only way he can raise himself is through honesty. Humility and honesty help him stand up and take the first steps of the long journey home. So he set off.

Martin Buber wrote of insight….. His coming to himself……

The Baal Shem said: “Imagine a man whose business hounds him through many streets and across the marketplace the livelong day. He almost forgets that there is a Maker of the world. Only when the time for the Afternoon Prayer comes does he remember: ‘I must pray.’ And then, from the bottom of his heart, he heaves a sigh of regret that he has spent his day on vain and idle matters, and he runs into a by street and stands there and prays: God holds him dear, very dear, and his prayer pierces the firmament.”

Lent teaches us the subversion of loving and being loved. Howard Thurman says of integration, keep open the door of your heart.

There is a profound ground of unity that is more pertinent and authentic than all the unilateral dimensions of our lives. This a man discovers when he is able to keep open the door of his heart. This is one’s ultimate responsibility, and it is not dependent upon whether the heart of another is kept open for him. Here is a mystery: If sweeping through the door of my heart there moves continually a genuine love for you, it by-passes all your hate and all your indifference and gets through to you at your centre. You are powerless to do anything about it. You may keep alive in devious ways the fires of your bitter heart, but they cannot get through to me. Underneath the surface of all the tension, something else is at work. It is utterly impossible for you to keep another from loving you.

Lent prepares me to accept our authentic self, which is love.

Sometimes in art, we see the father looking into the distance from a tower. In this rendering, the artist emphasizes that the father not only waits for the son to come home but actively watches from a great height, taking time from a busy day in order to know the first possible moment his son might drop by. You don’t hear him brag, “I’m sure he’s taken his talents and turned them into more talents.” He doesn’t complain, “The boy’s an idiot, he’s probably lost everything.” He just watches. But not passively.

Is it possible he neglects other duties to ponder his younger son’s return? “I must go up to the tower now.” “But Nigel , there’s overdue accounts to settle, seeds to order, and the veterinary doctor is downstairs waiting for you to come down and he’s charging by the hour!” “But my son might come home soon. I wouldn’t want to miss it.”

Even without the tower of the medieval artist and the neglected work we have just invented, the detail Jesus offers, “But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him”. This implies the father’s foolishness. What does this scene remind us of?

Maybe the father was waiting to entertain angels, and instead of the heavenly messengers he expected, sees his son, and undergoes a profound conversion at that moment. “My poor, idiot son, is God’s messenger for me.”

This man has no shame, say his family, his employees, his neighbours. That’s right. The man jettisoned his hard earned shame the moment his heart melted when he saw his pathetic, profligate son. The shameless father embraces the shameful son in full view of all the sensible people around them. And there it is. We meet ‘grace’.

The once prodigal son rehearses and perfects his speech as he travels. He has to get it just right. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”

But when he meets his father on the road, he is unable to finish his carefully honed apology. His father interrupts and calls for the best robe, a ring, and shoes for heavens’ sake, and to kill the fatted calf meant, perhaps, for some predictable upcoming anniversary. Maybe the older brother’s birthday. A feast! Now! “Let us eat and make merry!”

Grace interrupts. Grace, by very nature, is not what you expect. Grace reverses expectations. That’s how you know it’s grace. “What’s that tower for, Dad?” “Oh. I built it so I could watch for you.”

The most sympathetic character in Jesus’ story is the older son. It is not helpful to say he represents some elite group of righteous people opposed to Jesus any more than it is helpful to say that the father represents God. If the father represents God, his compassion is otherworldly and exempts you and I from compassion’s uncomfortable stretching and piercing of soul. The truth is that we are the father. We are the profligate son. And no kidding, we are probably heavily weighted, inside the core of this resentful older son.

When did this older son resentment begin? When he saw his brother in the robe, with the ring and new shoes? Or earlier, when his brother asked for his inheritance and left to seek his fortune and he did not? Or even before that, in childhood games and rivalry?

The father ran out onto the road to meet the younger son. And now he leaves the party to run after the older son who is sensible, hard-working, good, faithful, and true. Except now that son is justifiably angry.

Lo these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!

And then……. Jesus leaves the story open. He knows who we are.

Are we going to go to the party? Or not?

Are we going to engage with this re-imagined world, this hoped-for world Jesus continually talked about, will it be about co-operation, not contest? This realm of God.


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