Thursday, March 22, 2007

San Francisco

Everyone takes photos here: the Golden Gate Bridge, the harbour, its islands, streets going up into foggy hills, cable cars. These were taken at dusk in Berkeley, looking across Oakland to San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge across the bay.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Lost Sons

Sermon preached on Sunday 18 March 2007 (Lent 4) at St Peter’s Eastern Hill, Melbourne

(Luke 15:1-3,11b-32)

Just when we’d got used to the gloom and doom of Lent along comes a party. We were all determined to be miserable, but there’s a party for the missing son. Joy does keep breaking in, no matter how much we try to keep it out.

First, let’s notice the context of this passage. If we look immediately previously in Luke 15 we find that Jesus is talking to the tax-gatherers and other sinners. The Pharisees and scribes (teachers of the law) are grumbling that, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Luke then relates the story of the shepherd who had lost one of his one hundred sheep and who abandoned the ninety-nine in search of the lost one; and then the story of the woman who had lost one of her ten silver coins. Having found what was lost, they called their friends to rejoice with them in joy that what had been lost was now found. Surely the shepherd might have thought it expedient to lose one sheep for the sake of the other ninety-nine who would be in danger while he went away. But Jesus rejects the way of exclusion, of making victims and scapegoats. He shows that the dispensable one has become indispensable in God’s eyes.

This is not just a matter of showing that God’s goodness and mercy are greater than ours. Human society often maintains its collective identity by excluding those who are different and making victims of them. Jesus by taking on in himself for all time the role of victim, of outsider, has by pure love triumphed over evil. In Christ there is no outsider, no one is excluded. The ways of exclusion are a sham. And when the lost is found, that’s reason enough for a party.

And now Luke continues with the parable we heard in today’s Gospel reading.

“There was a man who had two sons.” He also had substantial property. What does the younger son demand? A share of the property which will come to him.

Let’s look at the two words which have been translated as property in this story. They are not the usual words used in the New Testament. The first word is in the son’s request in verse 12. What he asks for is his share of the father’s ousia. This word means substance or being. The same word is used in verse 13 when the younger son squanders his ousia in that foreign land. The father generously gives of his “substance” to his son; a love and generosity which is boundless. The younger son squanders his substance in a foreign land—he loses himself. The other word used for property is bios, which means “life”, and that is in verse 12, when the father divides his bios among his sons and again in verse 30 when the elder brother complains that the younger one has devoured his father’s bios. This parable is more than a story about a father giving away his property. Something much deeper is going on, something which touches on our identity as God’s beloved children and sharers in God’s life.

The younger son has demanded his share of what he would normally inherit. When would he normally expect to receive that? Of course, it would be after his father’s death. That younger son is saying to his father, “you are as good as dead”. In the culture of that day, and in the ears of the first hearers of the story, everyone would be scandalised. Old age and parents were to be respected and obeyed. The father agrees, rather than rebuke his son, and this too is surely profoundly shocking. He divides up the property. Notice something here – we are so much used to think about the younger son that we often miss this – the property is divided up “among them”. The older son gets his share too.

And so we follow the familiar trajectory of the story. The younger son and his life of wild living. His eventual poverty and loneliness, his going out to feed the pigs (and what a shudder of horror that would have brought to those who first heard the story), his decision to return back to his father and his carefully rehearsed speech. His father watching and waiting for his son’s return, and then running out to greet him. Yet more scandal. Respectable gentlemen, rich landowners, those who wear long robes, don’t go out running to greet someone who has publicly insulted them. Ordinary decent folk might have given the son a thin-lipped, “quick, come inside and hope the neighbours haven’t seen you”, but this father is no ordinary parent. The son is restored to full family membership; the robe reserved for honoured guests and great occasions; the ring which is the sign of authority; and the shoes on his feet because slaves don’t wear shoes.

And as for this party the father throws? This is not going to be a quiet family-only dinner. It’s a grand gesture and once again we are stepping over the bounds of decent behaviour. The party is for everyone, neighbours, the whole village. It’s about the restoration of a lost relationship.

But now it’s another one who is lost and the shadowy elder brother steps onto the stage. Suspicious of the party, rather than entering, he calls a servant to ask what’s going on. He gets angry, and fuming outside the party, lost in his own rage, it’s now up to the father once again to take the initiative and go out in search of the lost, pleading with him. What proper, dignified and authoritarian father would be reduced to pleading? Why can’t he order? This father seems powerless against his elder son who has now become the rude, disrespectful one. Look at the way he heaps insult on insult. He says he’s always been working for his father like a slave, and that his father never gave him anything good. He can’t bring himself to call his brother by the word, “brother” but as, “this son of yours”.

This parable is in some ways deeply troubling for the church and for theologians. Is the younger son really sorry for his sins? Some have said that he is not. They say he is sorry that he’s hungry, and he’s really just trying to bargain his way back into getting a more regular supply of food. But he doesn’t express proper sorrow for his sin as sin. This is, as I said, deeply troubling for some theologians. They say that this young man is not a good example for us of how to go about repentance.

I think that their point is precisely the reason why this parable is for us. It’s real and it reflects human reality. In the words of the American Episcopalian priest, preacher and teacher, the Rev. Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor:

Those of us who have done unforgivable things in our lives—who have broken solemn vows, betrayed sacred trusts, who have hurt the people we love so badly that we have knocked the wind right out of them—we know what it is like to watch those people struggle for breath, while we wait for the words we so richly deserve: “Damn you to hell forever.” When those words do not come, however, when the people who have suffered because of us rise up on one elbow and say, “I’m forgiving you for that”—well, that is when true repentance usually begins—not before the pardon but after it. (from a sermon preached on 15 March, 1999 at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, Tennessee)

In other words grace goes before repentance. Or rather, in the context of this parable, grace begins when we “come to our senses” and start to make the journey home. We haven’t got everything sorted out. Perhaps we’re not sure what really it is we’re sorry for. All we know is that we are seeking healing. People who are broken by sin and despair can’t be expected to express themselves in theological clarity. They know something is wrong, and they want to get things right again. That is the important point because it is then that grace begins the long work of casting God’s light into their lives, exposing what is broken and opening it for healing. Forgiveness is not something to be purchased, but a gift from a generous God.

In other words atonement is about reconciliation, it’s not a transaction.

There is so much more in this parable for our reflection. Let me suggest something, based on Henri Nouwen’s book, The Return of the Prodigal Son: a story of homecoming. (And available from the St Peter’s Book Room!) He said that he first saw himself as the younger son, the one who had sinned and who returned to the father, back in his own home and held in the warm embrace of the father’s loving hands. He delighted in knowing those hands holding him firmly, and at the same time caressing him in a warm embrace. Next he came to see himself as the older son. Righteous, obedient, hardworking, reliable—but also lost to human spontaneity, and more than a little jealous of those who seemed to be having all the fun. This son needed also to come to the father’s loving embrace to be healed. Finally, and to his surprise, he came to see that the task of his life was to become like the father: generous, loving and a sign of God’s mercy. This was the real and final challenge for him—to be like that father who, having giving away his “substance”, had nothing left of himself to lose.

I suggest you do as Nouwen did and in reflecting on the parable see yourself in each of the sons. Recognise the need each of the sons has for healing and for knowing forgiveness. Then see yourself as the father—for we are all called to be signs of God’s love. And in considering the father, remember the words we heard in today’s epistle, “we are ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor 5: 20). An ambassador goes out on behalf of another, and so too do we; we are the ones who go out on behalf of Christ. If people will come to know Christ’s love and welcome and forgiveness in this place, it will be through our own words and actions.

To the glory of God almighty:
the Father who searches for us
the Son who travels with us even to far-off lands
and the Spirit who is the life of our home-coming.

Christopher John SSF

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

flying friar

From the departure lounge at Newcastle Airport:

Yes - you are right. Blogging from a departure lounge is as pointless as those mobile phone conversations which go like, "Yes, I'm at the airport, yes, I've checked in, yes, I'm waiting to board the plane, yes, it's on time. yes, I'll call you when I get there."

Except I'm just enjoying this for the sake of doing it!

I'll be in Melbourne for the next six days, based at St Peter's Eastern Hills, where I'll be preaching on Sunday and generally just renewing our connections with the parish.
The parish is a
"place of soul-stirring liturgy, challenging preaching, fine music,
concern for issues of justice and peace - and it is a place of warm care
and welcome: a community gathered in the name of the Lord."

What a challenge to meet!

Return of the Lost Son

I'm preaching on this text this Sunday and it has been fascinating to explore some of what the web has to offer.

A thought-provoking sermon by the Rev'd Dr Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopalian priest, teacher, writer.

A collection of resources and links from the Girardian reflections on the lectionary website.

A sermon by Paul J. Nuechterlein, Delivered at Zion Lutheran Church - also from the Girardian reflections (If you haven't yet encountered the thought of René Girard and his mimetic theory you can learn more there - I find it a gives a whole new positive way of seeing Christ's death and resurrection in relation to the human desires for vengeance and exclusion.)

A sermon by Andrew Marr OSB from his community's website Seeking Peace - a Benedictine web site with articles on peace and spirituality.

Clip art from Crux Blanca (The Franciscans of the White Cross)

And finally a real old fashioned book with paper pages - Henri Nouwen's reflections on this parable and on Rembrandt's painting of it in the Hermitage Musuem, St Petersburg - it's the picture at the top of this posting.

There's also an immense amount of rubbish about this parable on the internet. Such as saying it's not really for Christians today because it doesn't illustrate true repentance. The young man just wanted to get back to somewhere there was dinner... You can find it all in Google.

I'll post my sermon next week.

Monday, March 12, 2007

awakening the dawn

7My heart is steadfast, O God,
my heart is steadfast.
I will sing and make melody.
8 Awake, my soul!
Awake, O harp and lyre!
I will awake the dawn.
9I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
10For your steadfast love is as high as the heavens;
your faithfulness extends to the clouds. (from Psalm 57)

This week one of my duties at the hermitage is ringing the Angelus bell at dawn, midday and evening. I walk across in the darkness to the bell, pull the rope, 3, pause, 3, pause, 3, pause, 9. "The angel of the Lord brought tidings to Mary..." and calling to prayer not only the brothers, but a good part of the natural world around. Birds screech back at the bell. Cattle call out. "I will awaken the dawn."

Monday, March 05, 2007

dry land

New South Wales in Australia has been hit by serious drought and in many parts there hasn't been any real rain for years. The land is parched and stock has nothing to graze on. It's one of the most serious problems in Australia, although as city dwellers can still get water out of a tap without thinking about it, there is not enough concern yet. But the city dams are drying up and as their water supplies diminish everyone is realising that is a problem which needs clear understanding and good solutions. Things which politicians are not famous for.