Sunday, March 10, 2013

"There was a man …"

Sermon by the Reverend Susan Lehman at Grace Church on the fourth Sunday of Lent, March 10, 2013.

Collect of the Day

Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Old Testament Lesson: Joshua 5:9-12

The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And so that place is called Gilgal to this day. While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the Passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. On the day after the Passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

Psalm 32

Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away!

Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, and in whose spirit there is no guile!

While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, because of my groaning all day long.

For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and did not conceal my guilt.

I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD.” Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.

Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble; when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them.

You are my hiding-place; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance.

“I will instruct you and teach you in the way that you should go; I will guide you with my eye.

Do not be like horse or mule, which have no understanding; who must be fitted with bit and bridle, or else they will not stay near you.”

Great are the tribulations of the wicked; but mercy embraces those who trust in the LORD.

Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the LORD; shout for joy, all who are true of heart.

New Testament Lesson: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

The Gospel: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.

But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “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.’” So he set off and went to his father.

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. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

But the father said to his slaves, ‘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!’ And they began to celebrate.

Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered 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!’

Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

The Sermon

In the name of God.

This is the fourth Sunday in Lent, a day of refreshment. The church in her wisdom has so ordered our liturgical calendar that mid-way through Lent we pray to God as our gracious father. In tender words of acknowledgment we pray: “Gracious father, whose blessed son, Jesus, came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world. Give us this bread,” we ask our heavenly father.

Historically, Christians have paused in their Lenten practices of fasting and self denial to observe what we affectionately call Refreshment or Mothering Sunday. Mothering evokes an image of God as one who feeds, tends, loves and forgives

In England it was the practice on Mothering Sunday for the faithful scattered throughout the diocese to journey on this fourth Sunday of Lent to their Cathedral--their Mother church--and there make special money offerings. It served to remind Christians that their parish derived its identity and authority from the Bishop, seated in his cathedral. This was also the Sunday when apprentices and household servants were given a day or two off so they could return to their families, bearing refreshments, gifts of food--a practice we have lost in the American church.

The lessons for today are about what feeds body and soul. The Joshua reading records the presence of God in the memory of those who ate the unleavened cakes of Passover—who were fed manna as they journeyed in the wilderness and now eat the fruit of the land of Canaan. The psalm we pray reminds us that our hunger is always for more than bread for the belly. We hunger for forgiveness and reconciliation. “Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven: whose sin is put aside:” who are free from guilt. The reading from 2 Corinthians picks up on this theme of forgiveness. Paul carefully makes the case that if we are in Christ, we are a new creation, reconciled to God, and given a ministry of reconciliation.

And what is this reconciliation? What does this kind of forgiveness look like? On this refreshment Sunday we hear one of the best known, perhaps most discussed of all Jesus parables: the one we call ‘The prodigal Son story. The prodigal, the younger of the two sons, in a voice that sounds insistent, if not petulant, demands: “Gimee, gimee my share of your property. And I want it NOW.” And so we read: this son takes his inheritance and all his stuff and goes off....and squanders it all. Squanders, what a wonderful word! and in “dissolute” living. We can only imagine!

And when a famine comes and he is starving, he hires himself out to feed … to feed the worst of the worst—pigs! What in the faith of Israel is “tref”—unclean--thus contaminates him and further isolates him from everyone around. The story reads: when he came to himself, he said: “Here I am dying of hunger, I will go to my father and confess: ‘I have sinned. I am no longer worthy to be called your son, treat me as a hired hand.’”

If this was truly a prodigal son story then it should end right here. For prodigal means a wastrel, a profligate. But the story does not end with his misery.

When he is still at a distance, his father sees him, has compassion, and runs—runs--to embrace him. A reconciliation. An occasion for feasting: kill the fatted calf. Adorn this son of mine in finery. The prodigal son reconciled. This should be enough.

But it is not enough in the mind of the gospel. For we always hear a second chapter: the story of the second son, the elder son. If we call the younger one the prodigal: what then shall we call this son? The one that for the most part is most like me. The one who watching all the activity surrounding this lavish feast, all the extravagance for the return of the prodigal, is angry. He refuses to participate. And when his father pleads with him, he says: “NO, No, all these years I have towed the line, worked like a slave, never disobeyed. Yet, I was never rewarded, with even a little extravagance.” And the father, the loving father hearing this says: “O my son, all that is mine is yours. You are with me always, but your brother, (the prodigal ), the one who was lost is now found; he who was dead is now alive.”

We may call this the Prodigal son story, but it is not about the sons. It is about the father. And it is a parable Jesus tells when he is asked why he welcomes sinners--takes meals with them. It is a story told to show what forgiveness—reconciliatio--looks like and it begins: “There was a Man, and he had two sons.” It is about forgiveness, about the mercy of God, about what in the end really does feed the soul, refresh the spirit. “Let me tell you about a man who had two sons.”

I am 72 years old and I ask myself, what kind of person would I be if every single day of my adult life, say for the past 50 years, I had begun my day with a reading, a prayerful reading of this wonderful account: There was a man who had two sons. I believe in my heart of hearts I would have been more gracious, more forgiving; less like that angry, embittered, self righteous elder son, the one who is law-abiding, responsible, contributing to society, but mean-spirited, begrudging his own father’s generosity. For I am persuaded our summons is not to take our clues from the children in this story; we are not called to be one of the sons; this is not about sibling rivalry; it’s not about the kids at all! It’s about the father, the adult, the dad: ‘There was a man...”

I think it is time that we in the church start acting like grown ups; that we start behaving like the father in the parable.

Grace church, I don’t know you very well, I am more of a “drop in.” I pray with you on an occasional basis. I see all the signs in your side yard; I listen to the announcements on Sunday morning: community dinners, work days and lunch with parolees, all kinds of music programs. You participate in and invite your neighbors to regularly scheduled healing services. Of all the churches in greater Cincinnati, I notice YOU are welcoming the recently re-activated Integrity group. I know many groups use your facilities and thus shape your presence, your ministry and mission here at the corner of Hamilton and Belmont. As an outsider, let me commend you: you have more going on in a given month, more engagement with the world, the body of God, than any other church I visit.

I look around at this large, extensive building you have and I wonder: how, how do you manage, financially, but more significantly, in terms of your own energy? This is not a congregation where on a Sunday morning you can just slip into a pew and let the timeless cadences of the liturgy roll over you. Every Sunday you pray with a different worship leader: ‘Fathers, Mothers, Healers, Lay Leaders, Retirees: all representing different styles, pieties and practices. And music: look at the song books you sing from; sometimes with John ringing the bells, or Bill at the organ, or maybe, Bill or Judy at the piano; and those drums that sit in the corner, I am just waiting for those

I am overwhelmed by the time, energy and devotion you manifest to be the church, the ecclesia, the fellowship of those who believe in the Lord Jesus and intend to be his disciples. I don’t know how you do it. I don’t know your business. I don’t know how you make decisions. I don’t know how you solve problems when there are disagreements, as there must surely be in this very complex ministry.

But this is refreshment Sunday and I am nourished by your witness. I think you are like the father in the parable we just heard. Jesus says: ”Let me tell you about a man who had two sons.” You are like that man. Your stony presence stands as one comes up the hill from Northside, like the father whose arms are outstretched to welcome those who pass by. Your doors are wide enough; your arms appear to be strong enough to embrace both the sinner who has gone astray and the self righteous embittered one. If you sometimes get weary or distracted, or even irritated with one another, do not let that take you off course. We are not meant to be like one of the sons: not the self indulged, “gimee, gimee, gimee” nor the whinnying: “it’s not fair, what about me.”

No. We are the grownups. We are meant to be like the father. Our calling is to proclaim: “Come, celebrate and rejoice, for what was dead is now alive: what was lost has been found.” This my friends, is the bread that gives life to the world.


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