my miscellany

The Fourth Sunday in Lent, 2019 — 31 Mar 19

The Fourth Sunday in Lent, 2019

RCL Year C Lent 4
Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Saint Luke 15:1-3 and 11b-32

The parable we have just heard, the Prodigal Son, could be made into a great movie, one that could be nominated for Best Picture, don’t you think? Although there’s no love interest, the parable is very well known, and viewers would want to see how we handled it and developed its themes. Next to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Parable of the Prodigal Son probably has more people that know it than any other passage in the New Testament. We know it so well, we probably save ourselves from the sharper side of its meaning for us.

For my movie of the Prodigal Son, I think I would cast James Coburn as the Father, rough and gruff enough to explain the Prodigal Son’s running away from home but capable of melting and showing the equal and unlimited and unconditional love he has for both sons. For the Prodigal Son, you would want someone better-looking than bright, maybe Brad Pitt or, a few years ago, Robert Redford or, even longer ago, Montgomery Cliff. In this role, the emphasis should be on the stupidity of running away with a nod toward the cunning involved in his speech prepared for his Father.

For the Elder Brother, the working stiff who stays at home and turns his honesty and his hard-working approach to life with his sense of responsibility into a crusty, self-pitying weapon in the warfare of sibling rivalry, how about Robert DeNiro, Sean Penn, or Al Pacino? They are all capable of the angry self-pity which motivates his jealousy at the end. Alas, in this parable, I cannot find work for Sandra Bullock or Tom Hanks though you know, doubtlessly, how versatile they are. For the director, Kenneth Lonergan, who directed Manchester by the Sea, about a grief almost impossible to overcome. A grief like that exists in the Prodigal Son until he perceives that forgiveness may overwhelm the stupidity of his choice to take his money and go. And a grief like that lives in the Elder Brother who glimpses not the forgiveness that both his brother and he need. That’s an important element because the Parable of the Prodigal Son is played out in households and congregations across the country.

The fundamental role is that of the Father. His steadfast love, his unconditional and unending love, for both of his sons pushes the sons into the foreground where they are shown to need repentance and reliance upon the steadfast love of the Father. The Prodigal Son so mistrusts his Father’s love that he runs away. And when he runs through his Father’s money, he creates his possibly genuine, possibly just manipulative, speech about sinning. The Father doesn’t even let him get the speech out—the Father’s love just overwhelms it and renders it unnecessary: the Prodigal is back, and that’s all that counts. And, similarly, the Elder Brother so mistrusts his Father’s love that stays at home, never risking himself and never really enjoying and accepting his Father’s love. He makes himself, in his own words, his Father’s slave so he will be protected from becoming his Father’s Son. He so mistrusts his Father’s love that he cannot bear to see that same love shared with his brother, so we get that self-serving speech about never even asking for a party with his friends. But the Father’s love overwhelms his speech, too. His Father makes it clear that the Elder Brother could at all times have accepted his Father’s love the way the Prodigal Son is accepting it and now enjoying it.

Both brothers are amazingly like us. For we have the Father’s love, too. And the Father’s love will overwhelm all of our pretty speeches, all of our self-pity, all of our resistance to grow up into the full stature of God’s children.

You heard in the Old Testament reading from Joshua how the Israelites entered the promised land and celebrated the Passover. And when they entered the promised land, the Lord stopped feeding them with manna. In the promised land they had to eat the “produce of the land.”[1] We’ve made it to the promised land too. Through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ we have been guaranteed eternal life if we obey and trust him. All we have to do is to eat the produce of the land. All the two brothers have to do is to eat the produce of the land. And I take this to be the produce of the land: to give and to receive the Father’s love, and share it with one another. Neither brother finds that easy. And it may not be easy for you. That’s why the Father’s role is fundamental to the movie. His love overwhelms all our excuses and our weaknesses. We just have to give and to receive the Father’s love, and share it with each other. That’s a tall order, but so is making a movie, and so is observing Lent. But with God’s help and with the Father’s love, we can do it, and we can thrive while we do.

[1] Joshua 5:11.

The Third Sunday in Lent, 2019 — 24 Mar 19

The Third Sunday in Lent, 2019

RCL Year C Lent 3
Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Saint Luke 13:1-9

Two weeks ago today, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, after taking off from Addis Ababa, crashed, killing all of the 157 people aboard. And so, I ask Jesus’ question in today’s Gospel. Do you think that because those passengers suffered in this way they were worse sinners than any other group of people we could mention?

I ask this of you because Jesus speaks very stridently and high-handedly today.  It’s the Third Sunday of Lent, and if we are to listen to some tough things, now, or never, is the time.  Today he says, and I have trouble simply repeating the words: “unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”[1]  Who, really, wants to preach on that?  Who, really, wouldn’t rather evade that, swerve around it, and tap-dance to a different tune?  “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”[2]  Jesus says this twice in today’s Gospel.  The first time, he refers to some “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.”[3]  My study bible tells me that the Galileans had been slain by Pilate’s order while they were sacrificing, that is to say, worshipping, at the temple in Jerusalem.[4]  Pilate, evidently could give an order to kill when he wanted.  Jesus’ point is that the Galileans who were killed didn’t specially deserve to be killed.  The same goes for the passengers on Flight 302. They were not worse sinners that other worshippers in Jerusalem.  Jesus declares that everyone has the need to repent in order not to perish.

Jesus says the same to us.  We have to change, too, from living for ourselves to living for God.

I once heard a fine sermon on today’s Epistle, a good sermon about temptation and the assurance that our temptations are never stronger than we are, itself a fairly challenging idea.  It made the same point that Jesus makes in the Gospel: we have to change.  We have to give in to fewer temptations if we hope to be forgiven for our sins.  Having God on your side helps in resisting doing those things, those sinful and harmful things, which destabilize our families and our parish.

That, I believe, is what Jesus is telling us if telling us rather harshly.  We have to change for the better if we hope to live.  The Good News is that we can choose life rather than death, and God offers us life, offers us life in the person of his Son who died to open the gate of everlasting life to all who put their trust in him.  That’s very good news.  But it’s not good news for passive people who wish not to have to repent or not to have to change.  It’s good news for people who are willing to put aside the comfortable life to live the life God calls them to live.

Not one of us is free from this obligation. Ours sins are no worse and no fewer than those of any group we can think of. Everyone of us has to embrace, if not a wooden cross, at least the cross that God has prepared to give us to work out our salvation in fear and trembling.[5]

[1] Saint Luke 13:3.

[2] Saint Luke 13:3 and 5.

[3] Saint Luke 13:1.

[4] The New Oxford Annotated Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), page 103 nt.

[5] Philippians 2:12.

The Second Sunday in Lent, 2019 — 17 Mar 19

The Second Sunday in Lent, 2019

RCL Year C Lent 2
Genesis 15:1-12 and 17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17–4:1,
Saint Luke 13:31-35

What is an acceptable sacrifice to God?  Do we really have to take a heifer three years old, as Abram does in today’s first lesson, a female goat three years old, and a ram three years old and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other, remembering not to cut the turtledove and the young pigeon?  Is giving up chocolate for Lent an acceptable sacrifice?  Is taking on the commitment of a new ministry during Lent an acceptable sacrifice?  Do we even need to offer an acceptable sacrifice in order to gain God’s favor?  In other words, can God be bought?  Do we have any idea what an acceptable sacrifice might be?

The fifty-first Psalm may offer some help: “The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; * a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”[1]  The broken and contrite heart that is not despised by God is the heart set to do God’s will in the world.  And what that heart does to reconcile the world to God is a sacrifice, a holy action which makes holy the deed and the doer.  For us Christians, the supreme example of a holy action done to reconcile the world to God is Christ’s self-offering of himself on the cross.  But like it, everything that you and I undertake this Lent and any day of our lives for the purpose of reconciling the world to God, of bringing people to God, is the sacrifice of a troubled spirit, a broken and contrite heart.  For our hearts must break and our spirits must be troubled at the distance between the world as it is and the world as God wants it to be.  You have only to consider Jesus’ bitter remarks about Jerusalem killing and stoning the prophets, and all the people God sent to help Jerusalem, in order to understand what Jesus thinks about that very distance.[2]

When I have presented at Spiritual Gifts workshops, I have told people that their calling, their vocation, as Christians may be found at the intersection of what the world most needs and what they most want to do.  And I tell that to you.  Lent is available to you to look inside to see what you need to do, what you can offer, to take your rightful place in the reconciliation of the world to God.  You may be surprised to discover that what you can do, and what you can offer, is something you really like to do and really like to give.  After all, in my experience, God doesn’t play hard to get.  He lets us know how to approach him.

It may only be a superstition of mine or it may be an insight, but when each one of us is devoted to bringing God’s kingdom to our world, that kingdom will have arrived.

[1] Psalm 51:18.

[2] St. Luke 13:34.

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