Lent 4C: Joshua 5:9-12; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, NY
The Mayor of Rochester was present.
At the beginning of this Service we lamented the breach of what I would call incivility: the gap between the dignity with which we believe every human being is endowed, and the way we actually treat one another. This gap exists in all aspects of our society. None of us are immune to it.
It takes a fairly violent form, however, on our streets and among our young people. The senseless fights at recent basketball games at the Blue Cross Arena are just an example, and just the tip of the iceberg. They brought into the public eye for a moment what is a daily reality of life for many of our young people.
What to do? Many things, obviously. One thing, though, is that we in the church need to get clearer about our message and find new ways to proclaim it, and not just in our churches. All of us need to become evangelists of this message in our daily lives.
The message of Christianity, by the way, was made for these times. Christianity was born in a violent time, when upholding the dignity of every human being was not a cultural value, quite the opposite. The message of Christianity was profoundly counter-cultural. Why else did so many early Christians die for proclaiming it? Our time is increasingly not unlike that early time. If there ever was a time when the message of Christianity was culturally acceptable it was not at its beginning and it is not now.
I think this reality is something around which most of us have a difficult time wrapping our minds. We still think of going to church as a culturally acceptable thing to do. Some of us may live in circles where that may be true, but overall I do not think it is any longer. And this is especially true if we get clear about what the message of Christianity actually is. Our message is deeply culturally subversive.
So what is the message? Our readings this morning are perfect for answering this question.
Joshua says it, in a word from God,
Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt.
Or, in another translation (NRSV), “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.”
Paul puts it succinctly in a couple of phrases from him this morning:
We don’t evaluate people by what they have or how they look (the New Revised Standard says, “from a human point of view”); and
Anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. (NRSV: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”).
Then Paul gives as close to a job description for Christians as you can get:
All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other (NRSV: “and has given us the ministry of reconciliation”).
And then Jesus tells us a story that illustrates just how this all works: “There once was a man who had two sons…”
The younger son stands for all of us in alienation from God and from one another, sometimes quite willfully chosen. “Give me my inheritance right now,” the son says, which is as good as saying, “I want no more part of you.”
Now let’s stop right there. What does the father do? He gives it to him. He gives it to him. How many of you would honor such a request by one of your children?
The story starts with God the giver of something he never by rights should have given us, our freedom. We are children of God, but we can do what we want to do. We have free will. It is our glory, and it is, of course, how we mess up.
This is how Christianity (and Judaism, for that matter) is culturally subversive right from the beginning. We have been given complete free will by God. God will not do anything to restrict our freedom. Again, this is our glory. But it also leads me to believe that the world is all about me, me and my glorious ability to make choices for myself.
That would be fine (and only glorious) if each of us lived on our own planet. We don’t. We are surrounded by other “me’s.” And the difficult task God has put before me is to make choices that benefit not just me, but us, because God does not just love me, but God loves us, and the “us,” by the way, is literally every created thing.
We are wired to be individuals. But God asks us to be a community. That’s really the dilemma of being human. And God’s answer to this dilemma is culturally subversive because the goal of our culture is for the individual to be all he or she can be, to be able to make every choice without consequence, for every individual to be able to act as if there was no one else in the universe.
The younger son in the story lives into this, his own, dream. It was a great ride for a while. There is something to be said for dissolute living! What a joy to be able to waste and not think about the consequences!
But, of course, there is that little thing which gets in the way of us all: reality. Pain. “He began to hurt.” And then he was thrust into his moment of disgrace: slopping pigs. The detail of the pigs is very important to the story. Pigs were unclean animals. Jews had nothing to do with them. The son has fallen into total disgrace; there is not a shred of dignity left.
That brought him to his senses.
Those few words are a statement of the entirety of what God expects from us. The one thing we have to do to heal our relationship with God. We have “to come to our senses.” We have to be honest about who we are and what we need, and that almost always means being able to say to ourselves—and here comes the cultural subversion again—“I cannot make it on my own.”
I submit to you that there is no reward in this world for making that statement. We define success in our culture by its very opposite: the self-made man or woman is our cultural hero. Someone who says, “I cannot make it on my own” has failed the rule of personal toughness, that is the rule of our streets, be they our city streets, or our suburban ones.
The son makes the choice. I cannot make it on my own. And he prepares a speech, hoping to be received back into his father’s household. Notice it is a speech about status. He assumes he can only get back in by taking on a lesser status. “Take me on as a hired hand.”
Then the story gets really good, and really subversive.
When he was still a long way off, his father saw him.
Now, either his father just happened to see him or, he was watching and waiting. I assume it’s the latter. God doesn’t give up on us, any of us. God sits on the porch and pines for our return like a lovesick puppy dog.
And then runs to greet him. Is that the way you got greeted when you had to come home with your tail between your legs? I’m betting not. And to try to imagine this elderly Middle Eastern-dressed patriarch running down the road is helpful. None of this makes sense.
And note the kiss and the embrace come before the apology. God doesn’t need our confession in order to forgive. He just needs our desire. And then the son doesn’t get the whole speech out, he only gets to “I don’t deserve to be called your son.”
Eugene Peterson captures it brilliantly in the Message. “But the father wasn’t listening.”
My son is here—given up for dead and now alive!
Nothing the son could do could change his status. “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” He was already a new creation, long before he was willing to think of himself as one.
This is the message. You are already loved beyond your wildest imagination. You are free, and God will not interfere with that, but if you use your freedom to take so much as one step toward God, you will find yourself dressed for a party, no questions asked.
And this is also how we are to treat one another. This is “the ministry of reconciliation” to which God calls us. To love as the father in this story loves, without condition, prodigally, that is, extravagantly. The dignity of each and every one of you, and your neighbors wherever you live, and your enemies wherever they live, and the thug wanna-bes, and the mentally ill, and those in prison, and everyone on this planet that is thought of as weak or a sinner, is never in question in the eyes of God who wants nothing but to dress us all in the best robe and throw a party just because we are alive.
Now just in case we thought this news was all good and no one could possibly stick up their nose at it, into the story strides the older son, representing the way we want the world to work. You get what you deserve.
“No, son,” the father seems to say, “even you don’t get what you deserve. It is not how I operate.”
That’s the message we are called to proclaim. It’s about love, pure and simple, and, mostly, unconditional. It is not the way the world works, but the world, including our children, will remain lost without it. It makes no sense at all, but the world will only be converted to anything like civility by love, and we in the church are called to dare to be the ones who act that way.
That’s why we ultimately have to say “no” to war as an answer to anything, and we cannot put our trust in more police and more rules to make our streets—or even the Blue Cross Arena—safe again. We must teach people how to love, and we must do that by taking the risk of loving them first. That is how God works and it is how we are called to work.
And we should have no illusions as to how counter cultural and sometimes even dangerous that work is. And how even we will resist it, because even we want the world to work like the older brother wants it to work.
But ultimately it doesn’t. The world works by love. That is what we are about to celebrate at Easter, and it is what the message is that we are called to get clear about and proclaim.
 Translation of Eugene Peterson, The Message.