Winning, Losing, and Becoming Saints

Sermon on Luke 6:20-31 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

cubsIt finally happened. After 108 heartbreaking seasons, the Chicago Cubs are World Series champions. When the Cubs were last champions of baseball, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were major geopolitical powers. The first Model Ts had just begun rolling off Henry Ford’s assembly lines in Detroit. In the 108 years between Cub championships, Pluto was discovered and subsequently lost its planetary status. Even the venerable tradition of singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch didn’t begin until almost thirty years after the Cubs’ most recent title. In other words, it has been a very long time since the Cubs were winners.

Despite their long history as baseball’s loveable losers, the Cubs were actually favored to win it all since spring training. Between a potent offense, a lights out pitching staff, a savvy front office, and a sagacious coaching staff, Chicago was the team to beat this year. Indeed, they dominated the competition, winning 103 games during the regular season. Nevertheless, more than a few people considered the Cubs underdogs as they entered the postseason. Despite their dominance during the regular season, many wondered whether the Cubs could overcome their long history of losing. This is to be expected in baseball. The fact is that the worst teams win games from time to time; the best teams occasionally suffer a loss. As a result, baseball fans are required to be comfortable with failure. They can’t get too exercised about wins or losses. Baseball teaches its fans to take winning and losing in stride. More than any other sport, baseball recognizes that both winning and losing are fundamental to the human experience.

The Beatitudes in the gospel according to Luke provide a sharp contrast to their more famous cousins in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew records eight “blessed are” statements. Luke, on the other hand, balances four blessings with four corresponding woes. “Blessed are you who are poor,” Jesus declaims, but “woe to you who are rich.” “Blessed are you who are hungry now, but woe to you who are full.” Luke’s point seems obvious: those in the first group are in good shape; those in the second group have work to do. To co opt the language of the day: those in the first group are saints; those in the second group, not so much.

This interpretation, however, misses a crucial detail in Luke’s narrative. In his list of blessings and woes, Jesus uses the word “now” half the time. Moreover, there is a precise rhetorical symmetry between the blessings and the woes. Not only are there exactly four of each, they are set up in direct contradistinction to one another: blessed are you who are hungry now; woe to you who are full now; blessed are you who are weeping now; woe to you who are laughing now. While this temporal detail may not seem all that significant, it is actually the lens through which we are meant to read Luke’s Beatitudes. As we noticed a moment ago, our first inclination is to assume that each blessing and each woe describes an existential condition: there are those who are hungry and will remain hungry, and there are those who are full and will remain full. By adding the word “now,” however, Luke signals that these conditions are actually temporary: those who weep will someday laugh, while those who laugh will someday weep. These beatitudes, in other words, are not a catalog of who’s blessed and who’s cursed, who’s in and who’s out. When read together, they provide an honest description of the human condition. Jesus tells those who are listening that if they feel poor, they shouldn’t get down on themselves too much because a day will come when they will feel rich. Meanwhile, those who feel rich shouldn’t get too cocky because a day will come when they will feel poor. In his Sermon on the Plain, Jesus articulates what baseball fans understand implicitly: winning and losing are fundamental to the human experience.

Now if this is where Jesus concluded, Luke’s Beatitudes would not be terribly unique or all that earth shattering. In fact, they would fit very nicely into the traditions of Zen Buddhism, which encourages adherents not to get too excited about positive experiences or too depressed about negative ones. But Jesus doesn’t end with this this list. In fact, Jesus makes a crucial rhetorical turn. After describing how winning and losing are part of the human experience, he offers a corrective: “but I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Jesus outlines the stark inevitabilities of the human condition, the weeping and laughing, the hunger and satisfaction, the winning and losing, and then shows us how to transcend them. To be frank, the way Jesus recommends transcending the endless cycle of winning and losing looks an awful lot like losing: loving your enemies? doing good to those who hate you? turning the other cheek? Jesus must think we’re a bunch of saps! Yet there is a crucial difference between losing because of circumstance, losing because someone got the best of you, and losing because you have chosen a different path altogether. That’s exactly what Jesus offers. Jesus invites us to live as though binary categories he describes don’t matter. Instead of being imprisoned by the uncertainties and vagaries of the human experience, Jesus encourages us to take control of our lives by surrendering control to God. Jesus calls us to transcend the binary categories of this world with a third way, a way that’s not about winning or losing, but is shaped by a profound sense that we belong to God no matter what.

This past Friday night, the 233rd Convention of the Diocese of Pennsylvania gathered for Eucharist at the Cathedral. richard_hookerAmong many other things, we commemorated the life of Richard Hooker, the Anglican theologian who lived during the late 17th century. In the face of the bitter controversy between those English Christians who remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church and those whose allegiance belonged to the Reformed theologies of Luther and Calvin, it was Hooker who conceived of the Anglican middle way, a sense that the Church of England could embrace both the catholic and reformed religion. Hooker believed the Anglican vision could transcend binary categories. In the words of the collect for his feast day, Hooker was given grace to “maintain the middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth.” This is the third way that Jesus describes in Luke’s gospel. This third way is not about splitting the difference or making the best of a bad situation. It is about transcending binary categories altogether. It is about lifting our hearts above the bitter controversy and tribal allegiances that are so destructive of our common life. Jesus calls us to reject and transcend every binary category: rich and poor, winner and loser, even life and death. The path to sainthood, (the path that Anna is embarking on this morning), the path that we are called to walk, is about recognizing that winning and losing do not matter and understanding the only thing that matters is that we belong to God.

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Comeback

Sermon on Acts 1:6-14 offered to the people of St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Midland, TX.

imgresF. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.”  You’ve probably heard this quotation before; members of the media love to trot it out whenever a disgraced politician makes a comeback.  Reporters will repeat the quotation and then say something like, “But clearly, Fitzgerald never met—fill in the blank” (Mark Sanford, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Eliot Spitzer; the list goes on and on and on).  The rhetorical point is clear: though F. Scott Fitzgerald thought it was impossible to make a comeback in America, these people seem to buck the trend.  This interpretation, however, actually misses Fitzgerald’s point.  Kirk Curnutt, the vice president of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society, points out that the quotation originally appears in an essay called “My Lost City.”  In it, Fitzgerald writes, “I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York’s boom days.”  In other words, while one might be inclined to conclude that comebacks are impossible in America, the example of New York points to the contrary conclusion.  Another interpreter points out that the second act of a play is when the protagonist has to deal with difficulties and challenges before things are resolved in the third act.  Fitzgerald may have been implying that in American life, there is no messy second act; things seem to get resolved with out too much complication.  In the case of either interpretation, the point is clear: the comeback is a crucial part of the American narrative, not only for disgraced politicians, but also for military veterans, sports franchises, and cities.  As Americans and as human beings, we tend to find comeback stories very compelling.  One of the striking features of most comeback stories is that the person or the team or the city that has come back usually looks very different.  Sometimes it is challenging to recognize people experiencing a second act because so much about them has changed.  They have a new appreciation for life, a new ambition, a new understanding of their place in the world.

imagesThis morning, we heard about the Ascension, one of the stranger moments in the post resurrection life of Jesus, which is saying something, when you think about it.  Over the past several weeks, we have heard about Jesus being raised from the dead (which is pretty strange in and of itself), appearing to his disciples after passing through walls, and disappearing from their sight after being made known to them in the breaking of the bread.  All of this is pretty bizarre stuff.  The Ascension, however, is even more perplexing than any of these other stories.  It is so strange that Luke, the author of both the gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, is the only evangelist who bothers to include it in his account of the life of Jesus.  In both the gospel and Acts, the story is pretty similar: Jesus gathers his disciples, makes some promises about the coming of the Holy Spirit, and is carried away into the sky until he disappears behind a cloud.  It is a strange story, not just because it’s about someone being taken up into the sky, but also because it is difficult to understand why it is included in the story of Jesus at all.  Most events in the life of Jesus point to some significant truth about the nature of God.  The Ascension doesn’t seem to have a significance beyond, “Hey, remember when that happened?  That was weird.”  And yet, Luke mentions the Ascension two separate times; in fact, it seems to be the pivot point between his gospel and his account of the early Church.  Moreover, the Church fathers thought the Ascension important enough to merit its own clause in the Nicene Creed.  That’s more than you can say for any of Jesus’ teachings.  So while it is one of the more perplexing aspects of the life of Jesus, the Ascension remains an important part of the Christian faith.

This leads us to wonder why.  What is significant about the Ascension?  What does it tell us about Jesus Christ and the nature of the God we worship?  One of the most conspicuous elements of the Ascension is that it is characterized by absence.  Think about the ending of the gospel according to Matthew for a moment.  Jesus gathers his disciples on a mountain and charges them to make disciples of all nations.  Jesus then tells them, “Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  Those are the final words of Matthew’s gospel.  The last thing that Matthew wants us to remember is that Jesus is present with us in some way.  Contrast that to Luke, where Jesus does not promise to be present with the disciples, but instead, vanishes from their sight.  For Luke, the Ascension is noteworthy because Jesus disappears from the disciples’ view, because Jesus is no longer present, because Jesus, like Elvis, has left the building.  For Luke, Jesus needs to be elsewhere, needs to be interested and engaged with creation, but on a remote level.  The reason for this is revealed to us by those mysterious men in white robes.  After Jesus disappears from the disciples’ view, Luke tells us that they continue to gaze at the sky.  Two men approach them and ask, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”  The logical response to this question is, of course, “Duh!  We just saw someone carried away into the sky!”  Before the disciples can offer this obvious response, however, the mysterious men in white say, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  Luke emphasizes the absence of Jesus in order to prepare us for the return of Jesus.  The Ascension, in other words, is less about Jesus’ departure and more about his coming again.

When we hear about the return of Christ, the image that comes to mind tends to terrifying and violent.  Thanks to the apocalyptic imagery found in parts of the gospels, the book of Revelation, and works of popular fiction like the Left Behind series, many of us have come to regard the Second Coming of Christ as something scary.  Christ will return from heaven like a conquering warrior, leading an army of heavenly hosts and slaying the wicked and unrighteous.  In fact, the words of the mysterious strangers in today’s gospel account seem to support this fearsome understanding of Christ’s return: “This Jesus…will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  Through much of Christian history, the prevailing way to read this prediction was as a physical description: Christ went into heaven through the sky and will come back from heaven through the sky.  Charles Wesley embraces this view in the great Advent hymn: “Lo, he comes with clouds descending; once for our salvation slain.  Thousand, thousand saints attending swell the triumph of his train.”

imagesBut what if the prediction of the two men in white is not a physical description, but something much more significant?  What if, by saying that Jesus will come in the same way, these mysterious strangers are not saying “Jesus is going to return from the sky,” but are instead saying, “Jesus will return in the same way he originally came,” that the Second Coming of Christ is going to look similar to Christ’s first advent?  Perhaps these mysterious strangers are saying that when Christ returns, he will return as one who cares for the poor, reaches out to the downtrodden, heals the sick, and welcomes the stranger.  Perhaps these mysterious strangers are saying that in his second act, Jesus will be unchanged, that he will continue to be passionate about justice, compassion, and love.  Perhaps these mysterious strangers are saying that when Christ returns, we will recognize him.

If we are going to recognize Jesus when he returns, this leads us to wonder if Jesus will recognize the Church.  This, I think, is the reason Luke repeats the story of the Ascension in both of his books: he intends this question to be at the back of our minds as we read about the beginnings of the Church in the Acts of the Apostles.  In the gospel, we are told what Jesus did in his earthly ministry, how he cared for the poor, reached out to the downtrodden, healed the sick, and welcomed the stranger.  As we hear the stories of the early Church, Luke wants us to ask: are the apostles living up to the example of their Lord and Master?  By repeating the story of the Ascension at the beginning of Acts, Luke ensures that Jesus’ example and his promise to return are at the back of our minds.  Throughout the book of Acts, we see the apostles striving to follow Christ’s example by caring for the widows and orphans, healing the palsied and disabled, and expanding their understanding of God’s justice as they begin to include Gentiles into the Church.  In other words, we see the apostles striving to make the Church recognizable to the Jesus who will return in the same way he came.

Would Jesus recognize the Church today?  On one level, this is a silly question.  The Church has evolved significantly over the last two thousand years.  Jesus would probably have a hard time recognizing our hierarchical structures, our liturgies, our vestments, our preoccupation with committees, our buildings, and even our creeds, for that matter.  But, would Jesus recognize our passion for justice, compassion, and love?  Would Jesus recognize our efforts to provide for the poor, reach out to the downtrodden, care for the sick, and welcome the stranger?  Would Jesus recognize our attempts to follow his example?  Too often we get distracted from our call to follow Christ’s example by our slavish devotion to our Church structures.  We assume that we are not the Church unless we hold to just the right doctrine or use just the right liturgy or embrace just the right hierarchy.  But what the disciples show us in the Acts of the Apostles is that the Church Jesus will recognize is one that is more passionate about justice than dogma.  The disciples show us that the Church Jesus will recognize is one that is more concerned with compassion than structure.  The disciples show us that the Church Jesus will recognize is more interested in sharing God’s love than being right.  The Ascension reveals to us that Christ is the same, yesterday and today; we are called to embrace his changeless example and allow it to shape our lives and the life of the Church.

Dona nobis pacem

Sermon on Luke 14:1, 7-14 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.

For a helpful summary of the situation in Syria, click here.

To help the Syrian refugees, click here.

Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!  Through the windows—through doors—burst like a ruthless force,  Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation,  Into the school where the scholar is studying,  Leave not the bridegroom quiet—no happiness must he have now with his bride,  Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, plowing his field or gathering his grain, So fierce you whirr and pound you drums—so shrill you bugles blow.

Walt Whitman wrote those words in the fall of 1861, just after the United States had embarked on the odyssey of carnage that was the American Civil War.  At that point, most Americans assumed that the war would last a few months at the most; Union partisans thought that the rebels would lay down their arms as soon as they went into battle, while Confederates were persuaded that their cause, which they felt was so righteous, would lead them to speedy victory.  Mathew-Brady-Battle-of-GettysburgDuring the fall of 1861, the war seemed distant; Americans felt that the war couldn’t touch their daily lives. In fact, well-to-do Americans often packed picnics and watched battles as if they were spectator sports.  Young men rushed to enlist, afraid that the action would be over before they got to the battlefield.  We now know that the war dragged on for four long years and took the lives of 600,000 young Americans, but during the fall of 1861, few could fathom the profound impact the war would have on the lives of every single person in this country.  Walt Whitman was one of the few who did understand how much the war would change the very soul of America.  In the poem he published during those early days of the war, he described the ominous and inescapable drums of war, avowing that no place was safe from their incessant pounding: not the school or the bridal suite or the farm or the church.  During the heady first months of the war, Whitman was one of the first to make it clear that no one could avoid the inexorable march of war, that no one could escape those terrible drums.

Over the past week, the drums of war have been beating once again.  Last Saturday, we saw the horrifying images of people in Syria who had been killed with chemical weapons.  The footage was eerie; it looked like the many bombing attacks that we have seen on television, except there was no blood.  Our hearts broke as we watched parents try to revive children who seemed to have drowned without any water.  Many months ago, our leaders averred that the use of chemical weapons was the “red line” for US involvement in the Syrian civil war that has been raging for the past two years.  This week, dozens of news outlets have explored what US involvement would look like, and we’ve heard about possibilities ranging from airstrikes to arming the rebel soldiers.  Even after commemorating the work of the modern prophet of nonviolence on Wednesday, the President warned the Assad regime about the likelihood of violent US attacks.  It has been a week in which the whirring of those terrible drums of war has become louder and more distinct, a week in which it seems that our country is marching inexorably to war.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells a parable that doesn’t seem to deal with anything as earth shattering as the imminence of war.  In fact, there are elements of this parable that seem downright petty.  After all, if you are really worried about where you sit at a wedding banquet, you probably need to reorient your priorities.  It’s intriguing to me that, in this parable, Jesus plays not on our compassion or our righteous indignation or our desire to be loved by God.  Instead, he plays on our sense of embarrassment: “You wouldn’t want to be asked to move to another seat at the table in front of everybody, would you?”  Jesus tells this parable with the assumption that no one likes to be embarrassed in front of their friends.  And so, on one level, the instructions that Jesus gives in this story are just good advice for any social situation.  When you come to a party, make sure you sit a less honorable place, make sure you sit in a spot that is below your station, so that you can be exalted in front of everyone, so that everyone can be impressed with you.

There is, however, another, much more profound level to this parable.  This level requires us to enter the story as a guest.  In this scenario, we arrive at the home of the host, pleased to be invited to a cool party, pleased to have the opportunity to rub elbows with some of the prominent members of the community.  imgresBut as we enter the house, dripping with self-satisfaction, we notice that the other people who have been invited are not terribly prominent.  In fact, most of the people who have been invited don’t seem to travel in the same circles that we do.  Perhaps we’re here on the wrong night, or more likely, perhaps all of these people are gatecrashers.  We make our way to the host, who is having a conversation with one of these ruffians.  Without acknowledging this person who is obviously not supposed to be here, we say hello to the host, who greets us, and then turns back to the other person!  Doesn’t she know who we are!  Why would she snub us in favor of this person who is so obviously below our station?  You can see what’s going on here.  Our expectation is that we will be treated better because of who we are, but the host makes it clear to us that we are as worthy of her attention as everyone else in the room.  The opposite scenario is also true.  Say we’ve been invited to a party, but we are convinced that the invitation is a mistake.  These people would never want to spend time with us: they’re too hip, they’re too educated, they’re too wealthy.  Nevertheless, since we’re afraid of being considered rude, we put on our best suit (which is a little threadbare) and head to the party, planning to stand in the corner and keep as quiet as possible.  When we enter the house, however, the host immediately walks over and greets us, telling us that she’d like us to sit with her for dinner.  Though our expectation is that we will not be treated as well as everyone else, the host makes it clear that we are as worthy of her attention as everyone else in the room.  In other words, this parable is not about how to behave properly in social situations, it is about realizing that regardless of who we are, regardless of where we come from, we are all equal before God, that “places of honor” are irrelevant in God’s kingdom, that we are all worthy of God’s grace and love.

As the drums of war continue to sound, as our country seems to be marching inexorably toward war in Syria, it would be easy for us to judge those people involved in the civil war.  It would be easy for us to view the rebels as hapless victims crying out for the United States to ride in on a white horse and save the day.  It would be easy for us to view Assad and his regime as callous brutes whose only objective is to destroy innocent life.  It would be easy for us to adopt this simplistic understanding of the situation, but then we would be falling into the very trap that Jesus describes in the parable we heard today.  We would be making judgments about the fundamental worthiness of the people involved in this horrific conflict.  Jesus calls us to view those in this situation not as victims who deserve our pity or as thugs who deserve our condemnation; Jesus calls us to view them as people, to acknowledge the inescapable complexity of this situation and not assume that the only option we have is to start raining death from the skies.  I’m not suggesting that the United States does nothing in response to the carnage in Syria, but there may be non-military options that can make an enormous difference in the lives of those who have been affected by this terrible war.  During the course of the conflict, over two million people have fled Syria and are currently in refugee camps throughout the region.  The UN High Commission on Refugees has estimated that it needs 5 billion dollars to meet the basic needs of these Syrian refugees; so far the US has provided $195 million.  Before we intervene militarily, perhaps we can reach out from our abundance to those who fled Syria.  Perhaps this is the way we can acknowledge that those who are struggling in those refugee camps are as worthy of our attention as anyone else, that they are all equal before God.

Now, it may be that I am being naïve, that this is a world in which the only way to stop humanitarian crises is with a show of military strength.  But I hope for peace for one very tangible reason: I have seen it manifested in the community called the Church.  At its best, the Church reveals that peace of God which passes understanding, that peace which the world cannot give, that peace which transcends all of the conflicts that plague humanity.  And there is no example of this peace more powerful than the Eucharist.  Every Sunday, we gather in this place and we live out the truth that Jesus reveals in the parable we heard this morning.  Every Sunday, we participate in Holy Communion regardless of who we are or where we have come from.  Every Sunday, we share the Eucharist with one another regardless of our political views, regardless of our feelings about Syria, regardless of whether we even get along.  And by doing so, by receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in this place, we affirm the fundamental truth that through Jesus Christ, all people have been made worthy of God’s grace and love.  Everywhere that Christians celebrate the Eucharist, whether beneath the soaring arches of Heavenly Rest or behind darkened windows in a Syrian basement, is an outpost of that kingdom where no sword is drawn.  When we participate in the Eucharist, we are exalted to that place where the Prince of Peace reigns.  And it’s no accident that our Communion liturgy often includes these words: “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world; grant us your peace.”  In the coming days, I pray we will remember these words, and that by God’s grace, they will drown out even the drums of war.

Belonging

Sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, Texas.

Donna couldn’t sleep.  Even though she had had an extremely long day at work, even though she had spent the evening driving around town, asking people about her son, even though she had been up late, reassuring her mother over the phone that she was doing everything she could, Donna couldn’t sleep.  Donna couldn’t sleep because it had been three weeks since Sam had left, three weeks since the fight that had brought the police to the door, three weeks since Sam had said those words she didn’t think it was possible for a son to say to his mother, three weeks since she had seen the young man she still thought of as a boy in a Little League uniform.  Donna couldn’t sleep because she was searching her recollections, trying to recall something she had done, something she had said to make Sam act the way he had been acting.  Donna couldn’t sleep because she was trying not to imagine where Sam was, trying not to imagine what he might be doing.  She sat up, put on her glasses, and watched as the square numbers of her alarm clock changed from 3:59 to 4:00.  As her husband snored quietly next to her, Donna tried to push frightening images from her mind: images of Sam’s bedroom floor covered in vodka bottles, images of Sam’s face contorted in rage as he screamed at her, images of the twisted wreckage of a white pickup truck.  As she watched the clock march forward slowly, Donna tried to push frightening words from her mind, words like “emergency room” and “overdose.”  Just as she was about to remove her glasses and try to sleep for a few hours, the screen on her cell phone began to glow.  Her heart pounding, she reached for the phone and brought it close to her face.  She didn’t recognize the number.  Glancing at the clock, she noticed that it was 4:28 A.M.  People don’t call with good news at 4:28 A.M.  After waiting another moment that felt like an eternity, Donna pressed the button to answer the phone.  Bringing it to her ear, she held her breath and waited.

Return-of-the-Prodigal-SonToday we hear an incredible story from Scripture about a parent waiting for his child to come home.  The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most familiar and probably one of the most misunderstood stories from Scripture.  It is a challenging tale of grace, restoration, and an unconditional love that is far more powerful than we can imagine.  The story goes like this.  There is a man who has two sons.  One day, the younger son goes to his father and asks for his share of the inheritance.  This would have been just as shocking to Jesus’ hearers as it is to us.  This younger son essentially says to his father, “I wish you were dead so that I could have the money that is coming to me.”  Surprisingly, the father grants the request, and the younger son leaves town and spends his money wastefully.  After a severe famine strikes the land, the young man, who is working as a pig farmer, realizes the error of his ways and determines to repent and live as one of his father’s servants.  As he returns home, ready to grovel and beg for his father’s mercy, the father runs to his son and embraces him, proclaiming that his son “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and now is found!”  To welcome the lost son home, the father dresses him in finery and throws a big party.  The older son, however, is miffed at the welcome his brother has received.  He goes up to his father and says, “Dad, I’ve been here, working my butt off for you and you have never thrown me a party!”  I imagine he might also have said, “You didn’t even invite me to this one!”  The father patiently explains how extraordinary this situation is, saying “This brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

One of the elements in this story that I find very poignant is the moment that the younger son comes to his senses.  He realizes that he has made a huge mistake and after he decides to return home he begins to plan what he will say to his father.  This is something that we all do.  Before we go on a job interview or make a phone call to someone we’ve never met or apologize for missing an appointment, we tend to rehearse what we might say.  I like to imagine the younger son revising and editing his speech as he began his long journey home.  He probably thought very carefully about what he would say and considered how he would say it.  He probably imagined how his father would look: arms folded, stern look on his face as his son kneeled before him.  The younger son probably polished the language and practiced the speech until he entered the city limits, when he finally settled on saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”  His father, however, takes him by surprise.  Instead of having to walk all the way to his father’s house to sheepishly knock on the door, the wayward son is spotted by his father, who is waiting on the front porch.  When the father spots his son, he picks up the hem of his robe and sprints out to meet his boy, which is not something that a man of means would be caught doing in the first century.  The father embraces and kisses his son, refusing to let him go even as he tries recite his speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son…”  But the father interrupts and begins organizing a celebration for the son who was once dead but is now alive.

The love and the forgiveness in the story of the Prodigal Son are obvious and palpable.  This story teaches us an important lesson about the expansiveness and transcendence of God’s grace.  There is, however, a subtler message embedded within this extraordinary parable.  Twice the father proclaims that his son was dead and is now alive, once when the son arrives from his journey and once when the father is explaining to his oldest child why he welcomed his wayward son with open arms.  “He was dead and has come back to life.”  While I think Jesus is using symbolic language, I also think it’s important to remember that for all he knew, this father thought his son was dead.  He never imagined that he would see his son again.  We only get the younger son’s perspective when he is away; we don’t know what things were like back home.  But what we do know, what Jesus implies in this parable is that the father waited for his son to return.  We know this because Jesus tells us that the father knew his son had returned while he was still far away.  This means that the father was standing in front of his house, scanning the horizon, hoping against hope that his son would return to him.  This means that the father trusted that he would see his son again even though he wasn’t sure if he was alive or dead.  This means that the father knew in his heart of hearts that no matter what happened, his son belonged to God.

In our funeral liturgy, as the body is carried into the church, we hear that wonderful anthem: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”  At one point, the anthem quotes Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.”  It is in this reality that the father trusts.  He understands that even if he never sees his son again, his son is the Lord’s possession.  Even if the son wastes his life and winds up destitute, he still belongs to the God who created and redeemed him.  This affirms the deep and powerful truth that whether we live or die, we belong to God.  This may seem like a small comfort to the father waiting on the front porch or the mother waiting to hear news in the middle of the night or the parent who has lost a child, but I think that it is crucial.  In our human understanding of the world, we often imagine that there are things we can do that are completely unforgiveable, that we are capable of running so far away from God that God has no claim on us.  But the message of this parable is that even when we have completely turned away from God, even when we have run away from those who love us, we still belong to God.  The season of Lent is meant to be an opportunity for us to trust that we are the Lord’s possession.  Our Lenten disciplines are daily reminders that God is present in our lives and will be with us no matter where we go or how much we refuse God’s abundant love.  During Lent, we are called to remember that even if we push our families away, even if we forget who we are, even if we die, we belong to the Lord who embraces us and refuses to let us go.

Figs

wrapped_fig_treeWhen I was growing up, there was a large Italian community in my hometown of Hartford, Connecticut.  One could easily identify the Italian neighborhoods because many of the houses in these areas had fig trees planted in the front yard.  The first immigrants to the area planted these trees so that they and their families could have a taste of home.  The only problem is that Connecticut does not have a particularly Mediterranean climate.  While the mild temperatures in southern Italy are the ideal growing conditions for figs, the harsh New England winters can kill the temperamental trees.  Not wanting to forgo their taste of home, however, the immigrants would insulate their precious fig trees.  Every year as autumn gave way to winter, one could drive around town and watch as older couples tenderly wrapped their trees with blankets, tarpaulins, and plastic wrap.  For this community, the taste of home was important enough to warrant inconvenience.  For this community, preserving their fig trees was worth an extraordinary amount of effort.

Yesterday, we heard a passage from Luke’s gospel that deals with figs.  In chapter 13, Jesus tells a parable about an unfruitful fig tree.  The owner of the fig tree wants to cut it down, since it doesn’t bear fruit, but the gardener intercedes on its behalf, asking the landowner to wait one more year, to give the gardener some time to give the tree some attention.

figThe fig tree is a common Scriptural image.  In the prophetic tradition, the fig tree is representative of Israel.  Jeremiah, for instance, uses the image of the fig tree to lament the infidelity of Israel to God: “When I wanted to gather them, says the Lord, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree” (Jeremiah 8:13).  This is probably the tradition that the gospel of Mark appropriates when Jesus curses the fig tree on his way into Jerusalem:

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, Jesus was hungry.  Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it.  When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.  He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”  And his disciples heard it…

In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots.  Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look!  The fig tree that you cursed has withered”  (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21).

Mark was written at a time when it was clear that the Temple system was not going to exist for much longer.  Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree is meant to foretell the destruction of the Temple and the reconstitution of Israel.  Matthew’s gospel adapts this story (21:18-19) so that Jesus can make a similar prediction.

It’s strange, then, that Luke puts Jesus in a position of forbearance.  In Mark and Matthew, the fig tree is not producing fruit, so Jesus curses it.  In Luke, the fig tree is not producing fruit, so Jesus intercedes on its behalf, suggesting that we might give it more attention, that we might fertilize it, that we might wrap it in blankets and tarpaulins.  Only after we have done everything we can possibly do to save the tree and make it fruitful can we cut it down.  In Luke’s gospel, preserving the fig tree is worth an extraordinary amount of effort.  This is an amazing message, particularly because it comes in the context of Jesus teaching about repentance.  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is saying that there is always a chance for renewal, that there is always an opportunity for us to bear fruit.

urlUltimately, this is the message of Lent.  As we engage in Lenten disciplines of fasting and prayer, we must remember that these are like the fertilizer and the blankets for the fig tree; they are not ends in themselves, they are meant to help us bear fruit for God.  As we focus on our spiritual life and our relationship with God during this season, we may very well discover some things that draw us away from God.  The message that Jesus proclaims in Luke’s gospel is that it is never too late for us to turn away from these things, that it is never too late repent and turn to the Lord, that God will expend an extraordinary amount of effort so that we might be renewed in Jesus Christ.