Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Primary Ministry

Today is the mid-Sunday of Lent, formerly called "Laetare" Sunday, from the opening words of the ancient entrance hymn for the liturgy, taken from Isaiah 66: "Laetare, Jerusalem...Rejoice, Jerusalem! Be glad for her, all you who love her...rejoice with her, you who mourned for her, and you will find contentment at her consoling breasts." This graphic reference to a mother's breast influenced the oldest lectionaries and commentaries to call this "Refreshment Sunday", while the Anglican tradition referred to it as "Mothering Sunday". The 1928 Book of Common Prayer also uses the Gospel of the feeding of the 5000.  In ancient times apprentices and those working at a distance from home were actually given leave to visit their mothers on this day. Another emphasis was on the idea of "Mother Church", the "new Jerusalem", and in medieval dioceses Laetare Sunday was especially devoted to the “mother church” of the diocese: the cathedral.

Today is a sort of transition point in our Lenten observance. Old devotional handbooks noted that before mid-Lent you looked at your own sins and spiritual journey, trying to amend your life, struggling with the powers of evil through the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  After mid-Lent, in such books, the focus shifted from oneself to Jesus and the whole movement toward his Passion. So today there's a sort of psychic in-taking of breath before we resolutely begin our journey, in the company of  Jesus, to the Cross. We look backward to see where we've been, and we look forward to measure how far we still have to go.

Far and away, the most common topic chosen for sermons on this day is probably Luke's account of The Prodigal Son (15:1-3; 11b-32). Notice that this story is one of three stories in Luke 15 dealing with the recovery of something(one) lost. Verses 3-7 talk about lost sheep, although the parable is really about the shepherd who seeks, finds, and restores the sheep to the fold. In the parable of the lost coin (vv. 8-10) the story is about a woman householder who turns her house inside out until she finds the coin which she’s misplaced. She's so happy that she can't keep it to herself, and thus feels drawn to invite her friends to rejoice along with her. So, when we come to verse 11, it should be no surprise to find another story of recovery of the lost.

In Luke’s passage Jesus gets right to the point: "There was a man who had two sons..." It's sort of a tip-off that the story isn't really about one of the sons, just as the previous stories weren't about the sheep, nor about the lost coin. This parable gives a lot of space to the the real subject: the father. The father is the one who initiates the younger son's prodigality by giving over to him the inheritance and the independence in the first place. The father later sees the young man at a distance, runs out and welcomes him, and won't let the son feel ashamed or humiliated. The father is the one who tries to pacify and reassure the older son. And it’s the father who has the last word in the parable: a word of resurrection and reconciliation.

In the two earlier parables of Luke 15, the sheep are recovered by the shepherd's efforts, and the coin is found by the woman's industriousness. In this story the younger son's efforts lead to new insight and to self-discovery. Luke says, " one gave him anything, but when he came to himself..." he returned to his right mind, as if coming out of an illness or a feverish state. No activity by the father to recover the son is suggested. The father simply waits: no search party, no deprogramming plan for when he returns. But once the son recovers himself, then the father takes the initiative as soon as he sees him approaching from afar off.

The other character in Luke’s story is the older son, about to be lost to the father because of his anger and bitter resentment toward his younger sibling. Here the father, like the shepherd and the woman previously, tries to recover what he's in danger of losing. He patiently explains to the older son what's going on, he pleads with him to let go of the anger and hardened attitude which is eating the young man up inside. In the story's closing sentence, Luke brings together the themes of all three of the parables of loss and recovery: the lost is found, as with the good shepherd; and the joy of recovery is so great that it needs to be shared and celebrated with joy and music and dancing.

Thus Luke the Evangelist introduces us to three vividly portrayed people: the patient, loving father; the impetuous, irresponsible and, eventually, repentant, younger son; and the faithful, plodding, hardworking, but jealous and resentful older brother. It probably would be a mistake, however, to view the father and the older son as the contrast with the “prodigal” son. In fact, both of the sons are prodigal: both are wasteful, uncaring, insensitive, each in his own way. They, like the sheep and the coin, are the backdrop against which we learn something about the father. We know that the father is fair and generous, perhaps even foolish, to the point of liberality. He honors the younger son's request for his share of the wealth before it's due. Of course, it doesn't really belong to the son because an inheritance presupposes the death of the heir's benefactor. Nevertheless, the father probably deprives himself of needed income which might have accrued to him as he grew older. We're not told if the father doubts the wisdom of his decision, nor if he regretted it, once made. Nor are we told if he's worried about the son's going off on his own, though you and I know he was...probably from our own family experience!

What we do know is that the father deeply loves both of his sons, and that he's immensely relieved and overjoyed at the younger son's return. He celebrates lavishly, prodigally, the return to life of a "dead" son. Luke depicts the father using all the symbolic language and gestures of resurrection and of starting anew: 1) the cloak; new garments: a symbol of all the rights and duties of the household; 2) the ring: probably a signet ring, a sign of authority and wealth; 3) the sandals: a sign of being relieved of humiliation and extreme poverty; 4) the fattened calf: reserved only for the biggest feasts, usually for monarchs or princes, an especially delectable food.

We also know that this father greatly desired not to lose his older son, despite the fact that the son was angry and resentful, that he wouldn't even acknowledge the other son as his brother ("...this son of yours"). The older boy, it’s true, had been there for the father for a long time. He'd kept all the "rules", except for the one which really mattered: the rule of love and forgiveness, especially of his own flesh and blood. The father reminds the older son that, though he maintains a different relationship to him, he loves him no less deeply and fully.

Luke's passage, to this point, has been filled with entreaties to repentance. The burden has been on the one(s) erring to come back, to repent of the past. Now the emphasis of the story shifts a bit: to God's dogged persistence in seeking out anyone who’s lost, and on God's prodigal love and joy at recovering the lost one. The father's joy, and the woman's and the shepherd's happiness, are all the consequence of people turning their lives around, of repenting, of believing and of being reconciled. And this is the point of the story: God isn't primarily interested in the sin, the mistakes, the failures of your past and mine, but rather in what God sees can be made of us in Jesus, if we’re willing: a new creation, in the present and in the future. Jesus is central to the process of restoring broken relationships, between us and God, and between us and each other: of reconciling us to the Father and to him through the Spirit of love, and of moving us to reconcile others, in that same Spirit, with Godself.

One of my most powerful experiences of this happened in 1980, after I’d begun working as an aide at Don Julio School, in the Sacramento County Office of Education’s Special Ed program there. We were working with developmentally challenged young people, mostly age 13-22. One of my responsibilities was to transport higher functioning students to a special weekly workshop where they performed tasks for which they earned a nominal wage. During one of our times there a flare-up erupted at the work table between two of the young men, and shouted angry words were exchanged. Such incidents tended to make the others visibly anxious, sometimes setting off a chain reaction of other inappropriate behaviors. Following the disturbance, there was a long, uncomfortable silence. Then one of the young men said quietly, “I’m sorry.” We could almost physically feel the tension evaporate. It was one of the most touching instances of reconciliation which I’d ever witnessed. 

This is exactly what St. Paul reminds us of this morning (2 Corinthians 5:17-21): that mending damaged relationships isn’t just something that’s “nice to do”, but that, incredibly, God has handed this on to you and to me as a primary ministry: "All this”, Paul says, “is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation...So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God."

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