Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sermon: A father and two sons

I had a chance to preach in chapel a few weeks ago. I don't do that very much anymore. I'm not ordained, and have no plans to be. I once felt compelled to wrestle with that and kept trying to find a way to make ordination make sense for me. But, something shifted for me last summer and I'm happy to report there's no longer a struggle. It's a huge relief to say I'm a lay person, one who is theologically trained. And one who occasionally preaches.

So here you a go, a sermon on the text from Luke 15:1-3; 11b-32. There's a podcast of it on the seminary website for those who would prefer to listen to it: Go to this page and scroll down to 3-10-10.


The familiarity of a text such as our gospel reading for this week causes me to work a lot harder to find meaning in it. A surface glance doesn’t reveal much, at least not for me. And in the case of the particular text for this week, there is so much there that it’s hard to figure out where to focus my attention. I’ll admit even to a momentary longing that the lectionary actually offered up for us the parable found earlier in the 15th chapter of Luke, the one about the lost sheep. I am, after all, a shepherd now, and let me tell you, I have a lot to say about searching for and finding lost sheep. With lambs running around the farm, it’s a daily experience. And can you imagine the props I could bring to breathe new life into that story!

But, at this point in the middle of our Lenten journey, the lectionary offers up the story of a father and his two sons, a familiar story that we can too easily dismiss precisely because of its familiarity. One that we know so deeply in our bones is one that requires work to let it shed new light on our faith.

For me, some of the newness came as I paid attention to the pace of this story. It covers a lot of time in a relatively short space. It seems to be in a hurry to get a particular point. The younger son asks for his inheritance. It’s given to him. He blows it on wild living. He comes to his senses, and returns home. Phew! The details are sparse, just enough to give us some sense of the significance of what happens next. And with that the story shifts to a moment, one particular moment only. And it is the meaning of that moment and all that is behind it that remains the focal point of what’s left in the text, the moment when a father embraces the son he fears he’s lost.

Reading the part of the story that focuses on the younger son, my thoughts almost always immediately go to a ballet performance I saw when I was in college. Ballet choreographer George Balanchine created a beautiful interpretation of the story, set to the music of Prokofiev. In the ballet, the younger son is seen dragging himself through the mud and slop of the pigs, an image made more profound in my mind as I grew to understand the significance of a Jewish man finding himself caught in that situation. The choices the younger son made didn’t just mean he ended up penniless. They ultimately led him to give up his family and his faith. Balanchine understood the younger son’s decision to return to his father to be an indication of remorse and repentance. The principle dancer in this ballet is seen dragging himself across the floor, no longer walking, perhaps weak from hunger, but more likely, given the downward gaze and lack of eye contact when he meets his father, an act of contrition, a sign of his sorrow for what he’s done. In the text, we are given every reason to believe that too. When he comes to his senses, he recognizes that his suffering is needless. He knows a man, his father, who treats the least in his household better than he’s being treated by the one he hired himself out to. In what he says both to himself and to his father, he demonstrates at least a cognitive awareness that his actions mean the relationship has to be different. He can no longer be a son, but his hope is that he can at least be a hired hand in his father’s household. It would be better than his current situation by far. He doesn’t seem to expect to go back to what he had before. He’s merely trying to improve his current situation and turning to the resources he has to do so.

The climax of the ballet is the point at which the father sees his son from afar and runs to meet him. The music reaches an emotional crescendo as the beautifully choreographed scene shows the father run and fall to his knees to catch the son who is unable to stand, and from that position on the ground they embrace. There’s no distance, no holding back. The depth of each one’s longing for the other is seen in the profound absence of separation.

For most of us, it’s not hard to identify those times in our lives when the regret of our actions leads to a shame that keeps in place a distance from those we’ve hurt. It may be physical distance. It may be emotional distance, but it is separation nonetheless. There’s an invisible line we feel can no longer cross because of what we’ve done. We know what it’s like to be out of God’s presence, don’t we. We know what it’s like to feel the sheer force and impact of the consequences of our poor choices. And, certainly, in this season of Lent, we are invited to an examination of our lives that sheds light on those things which separate us from God’s love. And when we recognize those things and become aware, we need only turn to God and know that God stands ready to receive us. Indeed, that is the good news of the gospel. And what beautiful news it is to be reminded of God’s grace, to be reminded of and to know that we are invited to experience again those moments when the past is overlooked so that the distance that separates us might be overcome.

There are some who are satisfied with the story ending there. Theologically, I don’t think it’s particularly troubling to do that. But it is hard for me to simply ignore the fact that there’s more. There must be a reason for it, right? This is, after all, the story of a Father and his TWO sons.


Balanchine stopped too soon, I believe. There’s such richness when we shift our perspective to look at this scene through the eyes of the older son.The story is still focused on that moment, the one when after the father and younger son embrace, the father casts everything else aside and throws a party. He’s been watching and waiting for the day when his son would return. What he longed for has happened and nothing else matters in that moment. It’s an occasion to celebrate, and so he tells the servants to put a robe, the best one, on his younger son and to kill the fatted calf so that they can eat and celebrate.

And without moving away from this scene the perspective of the story shifts and instead of seeing the celebration through the eyes of the father, we are invited to see it through the eyes of the older son, the one who has been there all along, the responsible one who has followed the customs and honored his father, the hard working one who we see working in the field when the party begins.

He’s indignant when he discovers what’s going on. And if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s not terribly hard for us to understand why. In fact, we have some good sound reasoning to help us support the older brother’s position. Isn’t the celebration a bit premature, we might ask? Has he been to rehab? How do we know he’s sincere? Don’t we need evidence of changed behavior to demonstrate that he really understands what he’s done?

The older son is focused on the past. He can’t overlook it. And, in all honesty, there’s some wisdom in that perspective. We know that. If our concern is a changed relationship as we move forward, then the past matters, and we’re wise to make clear our expectations that things be different.

But I believe it’s at this point that the pace of this story reveals something very important to us. The focus of this parable is on that moment of reconciliation, the one in which the past is overlooked and the future doesn’t yet matter. It’s that moment when what was lost is found and the celebration begins, when our hearts are open to the beauty of reconciliation with God and with each other.

And, we like the older brother, run the risk often of robbing ourselves by focusing on the past or the future so much that we can’t allow our hearts to feel the profound joy that comes when, for a moment, there is no distance that separates. Our own self-righteousness or concern for the integrity of the church steals the opportunity for joy.

I wonder how different our lives and churches would be if we would say to ourselves at times, all that matters right now is that what was lost is found, that which was dead has been made alive again. Maybe, my friends, that’s the open door to a true transformation, one that invites something new, not something predicted or controlled. For those of us who are in need of reconciliation, like the younger son, transformation is possible because we’re allowed momentarily the chance not to have to answer for the past or prescribe how the future will look, but are simply allowed to experience in the very depths of our being the profound joy of being reconciled with God. And maybe for those of us who haven’t strayed far from God, what we need to truly be transformed is to allow ourselves the opportunity, momentarily, to enter into the joy of others who find their way home without expecting them to explain the past or demonstrate how things will be different, to participate in the demonstration of God’s grace that makes the transformed life possible.

It’s in those moments when the love of God infuses us and makes possible things we can’t imagine, when resurrection can occur and our lives and faith are given new breath. In the remaining days of Lent, what do you need to let go of to truly experience reconciliation with God? What do you need to let go of to be ready to celebrate with all of God’s children?


jo(e) said...

Oh, I'm glad you included the podcast so I could hear this in your voice.

I always hear this text from the viewpoint of the older brother.

Katherine E. said...

Such a treat to hear your voice again, Linda. This is a beautiful sermon. It took me to the present moment where there is nothing at all but love.

I imagine that living on the farm and caring for the animals has really influenced you in living in the present. I'm far removed, of course, so I don't really know, but I seem to really sense a confluence of things in your life that has increased your deep integrity and beauty.

Just a sense.

Again, I really loved hearing your voice and your wisdom.

Sue said...

Even though I had already listened to it, I reread it just now. What an inspiring message! Reminds me to appreciate this farm more too! You are a very gifted writer. I'm blessed to call you my friend!

Linda said...

Jo(e)- I'd love to hear your take on the older brother's perspective some time. He always sounds whiny to me. :)

Katherine- Wow! That's a lot to take in...thanks. I think you're intuiting some that's right on target. Lisa and I were talking about something similar yesterday...hard for me to articulate still, but there is definitely a confluence of things that's really shifted my way of being in the world. Your feedback is really helpful.

Sue- That means so much to me! Thanks! Lisa and I are so grateful for yours and Nanc's friendship. We need to do dinner again soon!