Friday, March 04, 2016

On Ambivalence and the Prodigal Son, a Sermon for the Saturday night Eucharist.

Twelve years ago this very week, about an hour into an evening Bible study on the Gospel we just shared, something happened which I’ve never forgotten. We had prayed, read the story aloud, talked through the social background, the family expectations, with major themes and minor points: forgiveness is good, first and second sons should be honoured in their different roles, and father knows best even in this difficult episode. But we decided look at the more uncomfortable bits of the story.

Then we decided that the father was almost unbelievably forgiving; that the second son, coming home with a canned speech to get some support was lucky (even graced) to be fed, to say nothing of forgiven; that even though the first son had a case for being somewhat ticked off for not getting rewarded for his commitment and obedience, he was visibly hard-hearted and unforgiving; and that all the villagers must have been fascinated having a first row seat for this family drama.

But we also felt sort of short-changed at the end of the story because none of us saw a lasting happiness for the future of that family: you could see the brothers keeping a suspicious eye on each other and the father’s love at least stretched after the younger son’s packaged repentance and the elder’s outburst about rights. It was safe at least to say there wouldn’t be another spontaneous party in the near future. And yet mercy had been served, repentance seen, forgiveness happened; a celebration enacted even while the neighbours watching this family wash their dirty linen on the public footpath and wondered what would happen next.

It reminds me of the worldwide church right now. We’re having disclosures and discussions, arguments and outbursts, about inclusion and abuse, refugees and human rights, headship and heartfelt understandings about the ways where the church lives out our discernment of scripture, tradition, reason and community. People are not only talking about “What would Jesus do?”, but “What did Jesus (and Paul) mean in the first place?” It is a difficult time to be part of the institutional church and the vast majority of our former members, friends and neighbours have already voted with their feet. But I think the question we have to stay with is close to the ones in the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Forgiving Father: how are we to continue the story?

And I feel that we have, like the people in the Bible Study 12 years ago, to  ask, where do we go from here?. And I think Jesus offers an option that is not an easy out or a sacred shortcut, but it is also not the route we would like to choose ourselves. So I think I know where the Good News is here, and I need to tell you it is awfully close to the bad news.

Because it’s right in front of us in the actions of the Eucharist. In this feast of God’s way, truth and life, we are invited to nurture the daily fabric of our unfinished story - just like Jesus - by giving our lives over to a future we have mixed feelings about, accepting the betrayal by friends as well as the fear that the message shared has been lost, cast underfoot and scattered. Because while Jesus goes on, accepting the death sentence for a crime he didn’t commit, he invites us to take both our present doubts and our doubtful faith and join him on to a road that goes past that dead end to a new life larger than we can ask for or anticipate.

Now I find it hard to lean into this, but when I am honest I find I am still hungry for that bread of heaven, that cup of salvation, which both quenches my hunger and increases my appetite, both for holiness and for wholeness on the dry road we are called to share together in this journey through Jerusalem.

But it’s not the most convenient Good News and it isn’t meant to be; remember there is a repeating rhythm in the whole church year threading through light and darkness, triumph and tragedy. Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, highlight birth but follow with the shadows, the darkness, defeat and death that come from Ash Wednesday through Good Friday. And even when the Easter uprising assures us that God’s life is bigger than our fear of death, there is then the task to translate that hope into a new message in the pattern of Pentecost that we can both follow and can share with our friends, family, neighbours, and the stranger. That's actually where this dangerous opportunity occurs.

Thomas Merton writes that the paradox can only comes to promise when we realise we are totally incapable of meeting God — and that God is for us. running to meet us, calling us home for celebration, in all our incapacity.

The Good News comes in that crossroad of this fearful and faithful pilgrimage where our all our earthly hopes fall short so that we might witness something larger than the life we know: a new life where our hope, our faith, our capacity for love and forgiveness can come as a gift from God.

And this is not only our “personal relationship” with Jesus in the spirit, but our corporate way of understanding and speaking about who we are as the church. The world is watching for our fresh responses to both the wrongs we are guilty of and the rights we stand for.

It is time to tell our truth anew. While the world has turned in innumerable revolutions in the last 100 years we’ve often shared the Gospel in time-bound language and outworn concepts. Now we all, clergy and laity, newcomer and old-timer, believer and skeptic alike, need to ask God for new ways to articulate this eternally compassion love in the contemporary world where we are called to minister.

But I believe the answer will only come when we turn towards Jerusalem, when we gather both our hopes and hypocrisies, our questions and concerns, and carry these crosses into the place where our living death can be transformed by Jesus’ dying life: to that upper room where we can meet our fear, quench our appetites and renew our courage and commitment for taking on this high hope and wide horizon to which we are called. In the end that is our way, our truth, our life.


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