The Rev. Christy Laborda Harris
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 March 6th, 2016
In our Lenten study for this coming Tuesday, our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry observes that we are shaped and influenced by the voices in our lives. There are some mighty loud voices in our world right now. In particular, there are some mighty loud voices in our country and in our presidential campaign. And at the moment, those voices seem to be playing on a repeating loop. New material is added to the loop daily, but it doesn’t stop. It just keeps going. And it just seems to be getting louder and louder. I am feeling more and more surrounded by these voices. I am reading more and more about the campaign. Watching more and more. Worrying more and more. And finding myself more and more often in conversation with you and all the people in my life about the campaign.
Presiding Bishop Curry declares, “We are influenced by the forces beyond us…those influences, whatever they are, do shape us… If those are the only influences on our lives, then our values begin to get shaped by those influences. The habits of the heart, the habits of discipleship are the countercultural call of the gospel, the countercultural voice of Jesus summoning us in our lives.”
Many of the loudest voices are currently proclaiming messages of hate, messages of discrimination, bigotry, inequality, violence, lack of respect for life, selfishness and scarcity. They tell us there’s not enough to go around world wide, and we as America, we, are going to get what there is. It’s our’s. Not their’s. We deserve it.
This is the narrative. This is the story being told. This reality is being painted and promised. And it seems that much of our country is buying into it. And perhaps equally unfortunately, many proponents of this reality feel that holding such beliefs and hopes is compatible with calling themselves Christians. It is not compatible. This is not the way of Christ. This is not the reality into which we as Christians are called to live.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes,
“I have a dream, God says. Please help Me to realize it. It is a dream of a world whose ugliness and squalor and poverty, its war and hostility, its greed and harsh competitiveness, its alienation and disharmony are changed into their glorious counterparts, when there will be more laughter, joy, and peace, where there will be justice and goodness and compassion and love and caring and sharing. I have a dream that swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, that My children will know that they are members of one family, the human family, God’s family, My family.”
This is God’s dream. This is the reality into which we as followers of Christ are called. We are called to set our eyes upon this hope. This dream is described throughout our scriptures. Its basis is God’s love for each of us. The parable of the prodigal son told in today’s Gospel captures the essence of that love.
The voices of Jesus’ day, Pharisees and the scribes, were grumbling and complaining that Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them, so Jesus tells a parable.
We know this parable well. It tells of two brothers and their father. The younger brother demands his inheritance from his father while is father is still alive and well. And then goes and squanders it all in dissolute living. After having spent it all, a famine hits the land and he is in need. He ends up hiring himself out to a local of that land and feeding pigs. He has left his family, his land, and now is estranged from his Judaism as he works with pigs.
He yearns to fill his stomach with the food of the pigs and comes to himself, realizing that even his father’s hired hands have enough to eat. So he decides to return. The entire journey home, he rehearses what he will say to his father: “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.”‘
“But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” He begins his rehearsed speech but isn’t even given the chance to finish it. His father doesn’t even care about the apology. His father declares, “Quickly, bring out a robe–the best one–and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”
This story is our story. We are the younger son. We have failed to love God and love our neighbor. We do not deserve to be called children of God. But God runs out to meet each of us. God throws God’s arms around you and around me and kisses us. We were lost and now are found. We were dead and now we live. This is our story. A story of forgiveness. A story of love. This is perhaps the origin story of the Christian faith. In Christ we are brought back to God. Forgiven. Reconciled. In Christ, we are brought back into God’s loving embrace.
We run the risk of also finding ourselves in the elder brother. The elder brother refuses to join in the celebration. He is angry. He declares to his father, “‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’
Those of us attempting to follow God, who have perhaps been doing this all our lives, those of us who are PC, who give to charities, who are inclusive, who aren’t as bad as “they” are—we run the risk of thinking we “deserve” God’s love and grace more than others do. Professor of Religion Daniel Deffenbaugh writes, “Reflecting on the older son’s reaction, it is instructive for those of us who have long been part of the church—who have ‘been with the father always’—to recognize various aspects of our own sinfulness. Pride, jealousy, anger and self-righteousness are all the more appalling when we know that, as beneficiaries of God’s grace at baptism, we should be engaged in the rejoicing that accompanies the return of a prodigal.”
This is where Christ’s reality, where the reality we set our eyes on, comes crashing up against the reality of this world. In God’s kingdom, in God’s dream for this world, in Christ’s reality, there is enough. The love of the father for the younger son does not diminish, does not deplete the love of the father for the elder son.
Commentator Rodney Clapp writes, “It is not about you or me, or my sin or your sin, or my deserts or your deserts. It is about God and God’s life-giving love and mercy. Every time God’s active, stretching, searching, healing love finds someone and calls that person back home, it does not mean there is less for the rest of us. It means there is more. More wine. More feasting. More music. More dancing. It means another and now a bigger, party.”
Our world tells us that the more we give away, the less we have. The more people something is shared amongst, the less there is for me. God tells us the opposite. God’s understanding of reality doesn’t always make sense to our human brains. But it does make sense to our transformed hearts.
When we think about the transformation of the prodigal son, we tend to focus on his realization of his mistake, his journey homeward, and the speech he rehearses the entire way for his father. In one of their songs, the band Mumford and Sons’ sings, “It seems that all my bridges have been burnt, but you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works. It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart, but the welcome I receive with every start.”
It is not the younger son’s hunger and hardship, long journey home and speech of apology that change his heart. It’s the welcome he receives from his father. It is the embrace of his father before he is barely able to utter a word of apology. Our hearts are changed. Not by us. Not by confessing where we’ve gone astray. Our hearts are changed by God. Our hearts are changed by God’s love, by the extravagant mercy, the scandalous grace God shows us. It’s not the long walk home. It’s the welcome.
And it is our changed hearts, our hearts that have been transformed by God’s love and mercy, that enable us to live into Christ’s reality, God’s dream. It is our transformed hearts that enable us to trust that in God there is enough. The more people in God’s embrace, the more there is. More love. More reconciliation. More unity. More feasting. More dancing. More celebration.
It is with the eyes of our transformed hearts that are able to perceive God’s vision of reality and work for God’s dream for creation. God’s dream of a word where ugliness, squalor and poverty, war and hostility, greed and competition, alienation and disharmony have been transformed into laughter, joy and peace, justice, goodness, compassion, love, caring and sharing. Where swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.
Our hearts, transformed by the welcome we have received, by the loving arms of God, silence the voices of this world. They silence the voices that struggle so mightily to tell us who we are and how we should live, that aim to dictate our reality. Our hearts, transformed by the forgiveness, reject the vision of a world of scarcity, fear, hatred, selfishness, and violence. Our transformed hearts lead us boldly into God’s reality, where we are members of one family, God’s family.