Whether We Live, or Whether We Die

Sermon on Romans 14:1-12 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

“Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars. The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars.” So begins The Sneetches, Dr. Seuss’s 1961 book about creatures who looked identical, apart from the presence of small green stars on their bellies. As Dr. Seuss explains, “those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small you might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all. But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches would brag, ‘We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.’” It’s a familiar story, one that really gets going when a fly-by-night huckster named Sylvester McMonkey McBean comes to town with two machines: one that will affix stars to Sneetch bellies and another that will remove them, both for a small fee. As Dr. Seuss observes, “from then on, as you can probably guess, things really got into a horrible mess.” The Sneetches paid to have stars affixed and stars removed until they ran out of money and, more importantly, had no idea who was originally a Plain-Belly Sneetch or a Star-Belly Sneetch. Dr. Seuss’s point is clear: while the differences between us may seem significant, they are ultimately inconsequential.

This is a lesson that most of us tend to learn at a young age, which is not all that surprising, since Dr. Seuss wrote children’s books. At the same time, there are ways that this message can feel naive when we consider the complexity of our world. Certainly, the superficial differences between us are less important than we tend to think. Though I am a Red Sox fan, I don’t actually think that Yankee fans are bad people. But sometimes there are fundamental questions of identity that can be very difficult to disregard. Occasionally, the values espoused by various individuals are irreconcilably opposed to one another. For instance, is it really possible for us to say that the difference between a white supremacist and someone who believes in racial equality is inconsequential? While the question of whether Sneetches have stars on their bellies or not is ultimately trivial, there do seem to be differences between us that are important to acknowledge.

At first glance, the disputes in the church in Rome that Paul addresses in this morning’s epistle reading do not seem to be of any consequence. When Paul describes the differences among members of the community, they seem as insignificant as the question of whether Sneetches have stars on their bellies or not: “some believe in eating anything, while [some] eat only vegetables” and “some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike.” The way that Paul frames these arguments makes them seem like a matter of mere personal preference. His advice seems to bear out this assumption. Paul essentially counsels that we should not judge how other people practice their faith. Whatever you decide to do, he says, do it in honor of the Lord. Otherwise, live and let live. After all, these differences aren’t all that important in the end.

While the questions of what we eat and which holidays we observe may not seem controversial to us, they were actually fundamental questions of identity in the first century. Those who ate only vegetables did so in order to avoid meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Idolatry, the human tendency to worship something in God’s place, is the chief sin in the Hebrew Bible, the one from which all other sins stem. So one can understand the desire of devout Jews to scrupulously avoid eating meat if there was even a small chance been used in the worship of something that was not God. In the meantime, those who ate anything weren’t entirely sure it was worth even considering the dangers of idolatry. What one eats, in other words, was far from a casual issue in a diverse community of Jews and Gentiles. Moreover, the church in Rome was full of people who were accustomed to defining themselves in terms of what they did as members of their community: the Jewish community, for instance, could be defined as those people who kept kosher and observed holidays like Passover. If there weren’t any standard community rituals, how could the community define itself? In other words, when Paul instructs the Roman church not to let their differences be a source of division, he is challenging some of their most deeply and dearly held beliefs.

Significantly, Paul does not challenge these beliefs in the name of mere tolerance. Though it may seem like his argument boils down to “can’t we all just get along,” his appeal to unity is rooted in something much deeper than any fortune cookie wisdom. “We do not live to ourselves,” he writes, “and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” Paul finds radical unity in our mortal nature: the fact that, no matter who we are or what group we belong to, we are all going to die someday. As consequential as our differences may be, all of them are overshadowed by our mortality. But Paul doesn’t leave us with this grim observation. Paul insists that this mortal nature we all share has been radically transformed through Jesus Christ. When Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, Paul reasoned that it couldn’t have been significant for just one person or even one group people; it had to have been a defining event for the whole of humanity, and indeed, the whole of creation. And in light of the world-altering magnitude of the resurrection, questions of group identity, once so pivotal, now feel parochial and unimportant. The resurrection puts the differences between us into an entirely new perspective. It invites us to consider our identity not in terms of which group we belong to, but in terms of the fact that we belong to God. Indeed, there is nothing and no one that exists apart from the parameters of “whether we live or whether we die.” We are Lord’s no matter who we are or what happens to us.

It would be nice if we could pretend that the issues surrounding divisions in our society don’t really matter, that we could live in harmony with our neighbors if everyone just stopped being angry for a moment. Most of us would agree that this is naive: the issues that divide us are anything but superficial. Besides, as Arthur Brooks pointed out a few months ago,“the real problem in [our society] today is not anger, it’s contempt.” He went on to define contempt as “the conviction of the worthlessness of another human being.” I find this diagnosis compelling, mostly because contempt has been the root cause of most of human history’s intractable divisions. We cannot defeat contempt by shouting down our opponents or even by making a more persuasive argument. As Paul implies, the only way to overcome contempt, the only way to acknowledge the worthiness of our opponents, is to recognize that we share something fundamental with those whose positions infuriate us. We must recognize that the Lord has laid claim to everyone who lives and everyone who dies. This is ultimately what loving our enemies is about: it is acknowledging the Christ died for them as much as he died for us. We are the ones who have to make this recognition. We are the ones who have to step out courageously and announce that even the differences that are fundamental fade away when we remember that we all belong to God.

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Remembering we have been Redeemed

Sermon on Romans 7:15-25a offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on July 6, 2014.

At Quarterman Ranch in Amarillo, our former diocesan camp and conference center, there is a sidewalk covered in names that leads to nowhere.  During Quarterman’s final years, each camp session ended with the addition of another slab to the woebegone sidewalk.  Campers, counselors, staff, and clergy would sign their names in the wet concrete, leaving a permanent reminder that they had been present in that place.  imgresSome campers acted as though they were outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood; they would leave their handprints and sign their names with the flourish of budding movie stars.  Others would immortalize the romance that they had kindled that week by writing that so and so and what’s his name would be together forever.  Still others would correct the professions of eternal love and devotion that they had made in previous years and indicate that what’s his name was, in fact, a jerk.  I always loved this moment in the week.  In spite of the self-indulgence of some of the contributions to the sidewalk, the act of gathering together and writing our names was an opportunity to recognize that we had been in that place together.  As we mixed concrete in the hot panhandle sun, we were reminded for a moment that we were more than individuals floating through life alone, that for the past week or so, we had been a community.  Each of those slabs of concrete was a sacramental reminder that we were called to be in each other’s lives, that we were called to love one another.

Today, we heard one of the stranger passages from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Out of context, this passage looks more like an entry from the diary of a teenager with low self-esteem rather than an excerpt from the letter of a self-possessed apostle who writes letters of advice to people he’s never met.  Normally, Paul’s letters are dripping with self-confidence, so much so that one New Testament scholar says that Paul’s most obvious attribute is his “robust conscience.”  This is, after all, the same guy who, in the letter to the Philippians, tells his audience that he was “blameless” in regards to righteousness under the law.  In other words, this vacillating, uncertain passage from Romans is out of character for its author.  It is unusual to see  Paul saying things like “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” or “I know that nothing good dwells within me” or “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.”  What is the reason for this change?  Why is it that Paul focuses so thoroughly on his struggles with being a sinful person?  On one hand, it could be that Paul is saying that all of us, including him, can fall victim to the power of sin, that we must remain vigilant at all times and not allow sin to exercise dominion in our bodies.  On the other hand, there could be something very different happening in this passage.  Before we delve directly into that possibility, it would probably be helpful for us to remind ourselves what Paul has been doing so far in this letter to the Romans.

Romans begins with Paul addressing a diverse community of Jews and Gentiles he has never met.  Immediately after he dispenses with the traditional pleasantries at the beginning of the letter, Paul apparently lays into the Gentiles, saying that the wrath of God is being revealed against those who disobey the Law of Moses.  Rhetorically, this is meant to encourage the Law-abiding, Jewish members of the congregation to think, “You tell ’em Paul!  Tell those Gentiles just how sinful they are.”  But, just when it seems like Paul is going to say the Gentiles in the Roman church are destined for perdition, Paul turns it around, saying at the beginning of chapter two: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are…because you… are doing the very same things.”  Paul explains what he means by this when he comes to the crux of his argument, asserting that, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Paul is saying to this congregation: no matter who you are, Jew or Gentile, all of you have fallen short of God’s commandments.

The good news, however, is that even though we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, Jesus Christ died for us while we were yet sinners.  Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have been justified, or made righteous, apart from the law, in spite of the fact that we have failed to honor God and God’s commandments.  Through the redeeming action of God through Jesus Christ, we have been empowered to live a new life of righteousness and peace.

This is Paul’s main purpose in the first chapters of Romans: to tell the congregation that regardless of who they are, they have been redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  But Paul has another purpose in these first chapters.  He wants to explain that while the law is valuable, it is no longer necessary to follow the strictures of the law.  One of Paul’s biggest rhetorical challenges in all of his letters is to make this case, the argument that the law, which he believes was ordained by God, is good, but no longer necessary.  In the first part of chapter seven, he does this by saying that sin used the law to bring death into the world.  But in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God destroyed the power of sin.  In other words, the law no longer applies, not because God nullified the law, but because God defeated the power of sin.

All of this brings us to the passage we read today.  While it might appear that Paul’s purpose in this passage is to illustrate how difficult it is to be good, there is something much more important happening, something that is informed by where we’ve already been in Romans.  Paul has been saying that the power of sin has been destroyed and that the law has been rendered unnecessary, only to launch into this prolonged, self-loathing, legalistic complaint about how hard it is not to be sinful.  If this is all this passage is about, it doesn’t to jibe with where we’ve come in Romans (or where we’re going, for that matter).  But if we look at the very end of this passage, we see that Paul has a very different purpose.  After complaining tediously and self-indulgently about his struggles with sinful behavior, Paul melodramatically writes, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?”  Without missing a beat, he immediately answers the question by reminding himself of the redeeming work of God that he has been discussing for the last six chapters: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  You’ll notice that Paul’s rhetorical strategy in this passage is pretty similar to what he does at the beginning of the letter: he draws us in to the point that we also begin to wallow in self-loathing until he snaps us out of it, smacking us over the head with the gospel message of redemption and reconciliation.  This passage is not a meditation by Paul about his sinful behavior; it is a pointed and powerful reminder that we should not be distracted by our apparent failures, that we should not wallow in our supposed sinfulness.  Instead, Paul insists that should live our lives in assurance of the fact that we have been reconciled to God by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Why does this matter?  Why would Paul be concerned if people wallow in a sense of their sinfulness?  Isn’t there a certain nobility in trying to do everything right?  There are two problems with being preoccupied with our sinful behavior.  On one level, if we believe that the power of sin has indeed been destroyed by Christ’s death and resurrection, then focusing so intensely on our sinfulness devalues what God has done through Jesus Christ.  On another, even more significant level, focusing on our sinfulness means that we become completely and destructively self-centered.  Paul is trying to build relationships between the Jewish and Gentile members of the Roman church.  But if they are totally inwardly focused and completely self-centered about their behavior, there is no way that they are going to be able to recognize themselves in the other members of the community.  Did you notice how many times Paul used the word “I” in the passage we read this morning?  If we truly wish to be part of the Church, it is impossible to be that “I”-oriented.  If we value being part of a community, it is impossible for us to be entirely consumed with our own behavior.  If we truly trust that we have been redeemed through Jesus Christ, then we must look outside ourselves and reach out to those around us.

If you walk toward Heavenly Rest on the south side of Sixth Street, you will notice that someone has etched words into one of the paving stones on the sidewalk.  Unlike the concrete slabs that comprise the Quarterman sidewalk, however, this block doesn’t include petty recriminations, professions of eternal love, or Hollywood dreams.  Instead, written in block letters are two simple words: “Look Up.”  347914039_5954ef24c5_mWhen you do, you are greeted by the soaring majesty and beauty of the Heavenly Rest bell tower.  I have no idea who carved those words into the concrete, but it might as well have been Saint Paul.  Because those words are a pointed sacramental reminder to all of us.  Those words remind us to look up from our preoccupation with everything wrong in our lives and pay attention to the reality of beauty and possibility.  Those words remind us to look up from our assumption that must go through this life alone and recognize that we are part of a community that has been shaped by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Those words remind us to look up from our self-centered, self-indulgent perspective and remember that we worship a God who looked up at the world and redeemed creation through Jesus Christ.

Dark Horse

Sermon on Genesis 12:1-4a offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest.

imgresIn 1844, the people of the United States elected a president no one had ever heard of.  That’s not entirely true, of course.  James Polk was both Speaker of the House of Representatives and Governor of Tennessee, so his name was known in the political circles of the day.  The thing is, no one expected him to be nominated, much less elected to the presidency.  In 1844, most observers assumed that the presidential contest would be between Martin Van Buren, who had served as president from 1837 to 1841, and Henry Clay, who had already unsuccessfully run for the office in 1824 and 1832.  Nevertheless, due to a variety of factors, like a deadlocked convention and the endorsement Van Buren’s former ally Andrew Jackson, Polk received the Democratic nomination for president.  And even though most people assumed that 1844 was finally Clay’s year, James K. Polk won the election by a fairly convincing margin.

urlIn spite of the fact that Polk served only a single term in office and died shortly thereafter, his legacy is surprisingly significant.  Through his negotiations with Great Britain and his prosecution of the Mexican-American War, Polk is responsible for acquiring territory that now makes up a large portion of the United States, including Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and of course, Texas. Furthermore, the acquisition of all this territory impelled Congress to deal with the question of slavery, which may have hastened the onset of the Civil War.  But perhaps the most enduring popular legacy of James Polk’s presidency is the fact that he was the first so-called “dark horse” candidate for president in this country.  Because Polk was largely unknown to the political establishment, his candidacy took most people by surprise and frankly, no one had any real expectations of him.  Since Polk’s presidency, the notion that an unknown can be nominated and elected president has become an important part of the American political narrative, even though it has only happened a handful of times.  Pundits and party strategists spend inordinate amounts of energy trying to determine who the next “dark horse” candidates are going to be (which arguably means that they aren’t dark horse candidates anymore).  The reason for this is the same reason we pretend that so many of our presidents were born in log cabins: there is a romance about the dark horse candidate.  The very concept resonates with our deepest hopes about the American Dream: that literally anyone can be elected president; literally anyone can attain the goals they set for themselves.

In our reading from Genesis today, we are introduced to Abram, who in some ways is the ultimate dark horse candidate from Scripture.  Now you may be thinking, “Come on!  Abraham?  The “father of many nations”?  The patriarch of patriarchs?  He’s somehow a dark horse?  Get out of here!”  But please, hear me out.  Up to this point in Genesis, we have the story of God’s attempt to be in relationship with all of humanity at once.  To put it mildly, things have not gone terribly well.  Adam and Eve have disobeyed God’s commandment in the Garden of Eden, Cain has murdered Abel, and humanity has gotten together to build a huge tower so that they can be like God.  So in chapter twelve, God adopts a new strategy.  Instead of trying to be in relationship with all of humanity at once, God decides to be in relationship with a single person and his family.  This is the genesis, if you will, of Israel’s understanding of their identity as a chosen people; the people of Israel traced their lineage back to Abraham, who they believed was chosen by God to be the father of a great nation.  The fascinating thing is that Genesis does not give us a reason for why God chose Abram.  The very first mention of Abram takes place at the end of the previous chapter, and all we are told is about him is that his father’s name was Terah, his wife’s name was Sarai, and they settled in the land of Canaan.  We do not hear that he was righteous or blameless like Noah or that he was particularly well suited to the life of a nomad or that he had any particular qualifications for being chosen by God.  This is striking.  This chapter is a hinge point in Genesis; in fact, it is hinge point for the story of God and God’s people and it all centers around this guy we’ve never heard of, this guy we don’t know anything about, this guy who was chosen by God for reasons that are beyond our understanding.  We are by no means the first to notice that Genesis fails to give Abram a backstory.  In fact, during the early days of Rabbinic Judaism, a midrash (or non-biblical story) about Abram circulated among the rabbis.  The midrash suggests that Abram’s father Terah was an idol maker, and that one day Abram, in a fit of righteous anger, stormed into his father’s workshop and destroyed every statue, thus demonstrating his intense and complete devotion to God.  While this is a great story, it says more about the fact that we want to know why God chose Abram than it does about Abram’s personal history.

This leaves us in the uneasy position of acknowledging that Abram is something of a dark horse: we don’t know where he came from or what the rationale for choosing him might have been.  Human beings like to make predictions, we like to put things in categories, we like to anticipate things before they happen, we like to decide who the dark horse candidate is going to be before they arrive on the scene.  Yet, in this crucial moment in the story of God and God’s people, we see that God’s choices rarely align with our expectations.  And this leads us inexorably into the uncertain territory of trust.  In all likelihood, the fact that we don’t know anything about Abram’s backstory means that he was also taken by surprise when God chose him.  Imagine his shock when he heard the Lord say, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  For all we know, this is the first time that Abram heard the voice of the Lord.  And God does not provide an itinerary, God does not say how long Abram will be traveling, God does not say if Abram will ever see his family again.  All God does is hold out the vague promise that through Abram “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  And Genesis tells us that for whatever reason, “Abram went, as the Lord had told him.”  It’s really quite astonishing. Abram’s “call story,” this pivotal moment in the history of God’s people takes up only three and half verses.  We are not told that Abram asks questions, nor are we told that God explains his choice; we are only told that Abram is told to go and goes.  It’s no wonder that in his letter to the Romans, St. Paul summarizes the patriarch’s story with a single verse: “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”  As you’ve probably heard before, the Greek word that we typically translate as “believe” can just as easily be rendered “trust.”  In other words, Paul’s summary of Abraham’s story is that he trusted God, and because of his trust, God considered Abraham righteous.

He may have trusted God, but he wasn't happy about it...
He may have trusted God, but he wasn’t happy about it…

This raises a question about what Abram trusted, about what Abram was called to trust.  On one hand, it is clear that God was calling Abram to trust that he would inherit the land promised to him, that his journey would someday come to an end, that God was leading Abram toward a destination.  On the other hand, there is the promise that concludes God’s call to Abram: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  This promise comes before any of the other promises the Lord makes to Abram: before God promises that Abram’s descendants will be like the sand on the seashore, before Abram is promised the land of the Perizzites, Canaanites, and Jebusites, even before God promises that Abram’s wife Sarai will bear a son.  Before any of these other promises, God calls Abram to trust that he will be a blessing to the nations.  In some ways, this is the most extraordinary promise of all.  Abram was a nomad, a herdsman, a man without pedigree or evident talent, a dark horse, and God tells him to trust that he will be a means of blessing for the whole world.  In response to this outlandish promise, Abram trusts God and establishes the vocation for God’s people.  In the end, Scripture tells us that God did not choose Israel for their benefit, but for the benefit of all the people of the world, for the benefit of God’s whole creation.  As Christians, we trust that through Jesus Christ, we have been incorporated into that heritage, that we have become part of God’s chosen people, and that we too are called to be a blessing to the entire world.  Abram’s act of trust is ultimately the means by which all people will come into relationship with the God who created and redeemed them.

Pope-Francis-waving-crowdThis week marks the anniversary of the selection of another dark horse.  On March 13 of last year, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected to be the Bishop of Rome.  Calling himself Francis after the poor friar of Assisi and the founder of the Jesuit order, the Pope quickly began to make waves as he dispensed with the traditional trappings of the papacy and began to reform the bureaucracy of the Roman Catholic Church.  Perhaps most strikingly, the Pope insisted that the Church was called to be in solidarity with the poor and downtrodden.  Prior to the selection of Pope Francis, there were many observers who claimed that the Roman Catholic Church, and indeed the Church generally, had outlived its usefulness, that it was no longer relevant, that it was plagued by so many issues that it could not possibly survive.  And yet, even in the face of all of these criticisms, even though he hasn’t dealt with all the issues plaguing the church, this first year of Francis’ papacy has been shaped by his understanding that the Church can and must be a blessing to the world.  Francis’ attitude in this first year of his papacy has been the embodiment of the Anglican Archbishop William Temple’s observation: “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”  The season of Lent is an opportunity for us to embrace this reality, to embrace our call to be a blessing to the world.  We are called to realize that God calls every one of us, no matter who we are, to help the people of this world understand how much God loves them.  By doing so, we, like Abram, will be dark horses, blessing the world with God’s promise of love for all people.

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.