Friday, December 23, 2011

Compassion



But I say to you listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. … Do to others as you would have them do to you. …  Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.  Forgive and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.  (Luke 6:27-28, 31, 36-38)

Compassion is the final characteristic of Father in the parable of the Man Who had Two Sons.  Previously I explored the concepts of forgiveness and welcome, so now, as we are within a day of the Feast of the Incarnation, it is time to explore mercy or compassion, oiktirmon for those who study Greek.  From Latin, compassion means “with feeling.”  “God’s compassion is described by Jesus not simply to show me how willing God is to feel for me, or to forgive me my sins and offer me new life and happiness, but to invite me to become like God and to show the same compassion to others as he is showing to me.” (Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son, page 123)  He goes on to say that whether we are the younger or older sibling we are beloved children of a compassionate God, and heirs; and if heirs, then our lives are to reflect the compassion of the One who loves us so much that we too stretch out our hands in blessing to receive those who God brings to us, regardless of how they feel or think about us.

To be a compassionate person is to be willing to give away our lives, to become witnesses to the love of God in our own lives.  In New Testament Greek, the word we translate witness is actually martyr.  We tend to think of martyrs as those who have died bodily while defending the faith.  We hear of the first martyr, St. Stephen, and his brutal death at the hands of the people of Jerusalem just outside the walls of the city.  There are myriad other stories through history down to the present that tell of those who were willing to lay aside their earthly life for their life in Christ.  But we are all called to be witnesses—a legal term that means we can only speak of what we have seen and know personally—of the love and compassion of God that has been offered to us personally and corporately.

         The parable of the prodigious father gives to Jesus’ hearers an example of the generosity of God to welcome home the wayward child, receiving and blessing and offering a place in the family.  The father ignores conventional wisdom that says, “Wait and see if the repentance is legitimate before you bring him into the family again.”  No, as soon as the parent sees the lost child, the one who was as dead to the family, he runs out to greet the child and adorns the wastrel with a robe, a ring, and sandals.  It would be a powerful story if it concluded with the preparation for the feast, but the story continues.  The obedient older child becomes enraged as soon as the music and dancing and feasting are discovered.  “I have been like a slave, never once wandering away from the norms and rules of the family, and no one ever gave me a feast.”  Jealousy, self-pity, self-righteousness, competitiveness: all these speak to the basest levels of the human heart; but God’s compassion also overcomes these sins which separate as surely as the distant country and invites this child to come to the party too.  There is no need for competition, as “all I have is yours.” 

There is more than enough in the economy of God to proclaim abundance.  Scarcity posits that the only way for me to get what I need is for someone else to lack what they need; fear and greed becomes the motivating factors in that scenario.  A century and a half ago, Charles Dickens penned his famous tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, arguably the most famous miser and misanthrope in the English language.  Through a series of visions of past, present, and future Scrooge is transformed from “Bah, humbug!” to “Merry Christmas everyone!”  He discovers that there is more to life than simply amassing wealth for himself.  He suddenly finds that generosity, which I believe to be at the root of compassion, gives him greater joy than he ever imagined possible.

Tomorrow night most of us will be at a worship service where we will sing Christmas carols, hear the overwhelming story of God’s compassion in coming to live among humanity, and remember that we have been given a gift that exceeds the capacity of the human heart to fully grasp.  We will likely either hear or say, “I wish we could carry the spirit of Christmas all year.”  I think we would all love to keep the warmth and closeness that is available as we kneel and sing “Silent Night.”  And yet for many, this Christmas will bring heartache that is almost unbearable from a recent loss and grief that seems unbearable.  The best we can do is hold those who are broken-hearted either in our arms or in our hearts and remember that in God’s heart we are united with those who are not with us, for nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

 In the weeks and months ahead, we in the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth will have more than ample opportunities to express the forgiveness of God, the welcome of God, and the compassion of God as we move toward reconciliation and reunion with those from whom we have been separated.  Litigation may drag on for a long time, but we can choose to become like the one whose name we bear and offer Christ’s hand for blessing even, perhaps especially, to those from whom we have been estranged.  As God was willing to come among us as a vulnerable infant, to take on human flesh, to suffer and die as one of us, so we are called to proclaim God’s kingdom in and through our own lives, reaching out, offering, and showing God’s mercy and compassion at every opportunity.

 Thank you for struggling through this parable with me over this Advent; thank you for your comments and prayers.  My life has been changed through the study of the books by Nouwen and Keller, and I will never again hear the parable of the Man Who Had Two Sons again with the same simplistic ears.  May God richly bless you during the season of Christmas and Epiphany and throughout the coming year.  May the insights you have gained this year make you a witness to God’s forgiveness, welcome and compassion to all you meet.

 Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Welcoming


While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity.  He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him.

Prodigal Son by Rembrandt (detail)

               Over much of the past four week, I have been writing about the characters in the parable of the Man Who Had Two Sons.  One day I explored a role that was not explicit, but I believe implicit in the story: Mother.  Other than that one time the story has been approached from a male perspective.  As Jesus told the parable, there are no female characters, unless one might infer that some of the servants would have been girls/women, which is not only likely but probable.  After all, who would have cooked the great feast, and who would have been responsible for cleaning up the mess?  I am aware that from a 21st century perspective, that comment can be highly offensive, but remember, Jesus lived in a totally paternalistic culture that considered women as chattel, and he related to his hearers with a story that at least on the surface they could relate themselves to.  One might wonder how Jesus might have told the story as the parable of a prodigal daughter.  I will leave it to the reader to make an attempt at translating the parable from all male to all female.

               Henri Nouwen speaks of three characteristics of God, as represented in the character of Father, that are vital both to the parable and to our relationship with God and with others:  forgiving, welcoming, and offering compassion.  Yesterday I explored forgiveness and how if we are to truly accept forgiveness we must be willing to become forgiving persons.  Today the focus is on welcoming.

               In the parable Father leaves the comfort of his home and runs out to meet Younger Brother.  I am convinced that part of the scandal of this story for Jesus’ hearers is that Father does not act like a 1st century father; he behaves much more as a mother.  Instead of waiting for the wastrel to crawl home, having the son grovel before him, and then handing out punishment, this parent throws all conventions to the wind and runs out to meet the emaciated, forlorn child.  Nouwen relates that the Rembrandt painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son” has included feminine imagery in the portrayal of the old man. 

Prodigal Son by Rembrandt (detail)

              It all began with the hands.  The two are quite different.  The father’s left hand touching the son’s shoulder is strong and muscular.  The fingers are spread out and cover a large part of the prodigal son’s shoulder and back….How different is the father’s right hand.  This hand does not hold or grasp.  It is refined, soft, and tender.  The fingers are close to each other and they have an elegant quality.  It lies gently upon the son’s shoulder.  It wants to caress, to stroke, and to offer consolation and comfort.  It is a mother’s hand….He is mother as well as father. He touches the son with a masculine and a feminine hand.  He holds and she caresses.  He confirms and she consoles.  He is, indeed, God in whom both manhood and womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood, are fully present. (The Return of the Prodigal Son, page 99)  In addition he sees the cloak of the old man as representative of the wings of a hen comforting and protecting the chicks.  He sees in the painting a mother who caresses her child, surrounds him with the warmth of her body, and holds him against the womb from which he sprang.” (page 100).

               Every year at this time we are bombarded with images of coming home for the holidays: TV ads and programs, billboards, and even Hollywood movies.  A large aspect of the imagery is marketing, encouraging spending on gifts and food for the sumptuous holiday feast.  The Salvation Army, various food banks, and other organizations work very hard to provide to every household in the US more than a subsistence meal for the Holy Day.  Many communities provide Christmas dinner for anyone who would come and feast together with others, so that no one need be alone at Christmas.  Everything about the season calls us to “come home” where we are welcomed as long lost children.  We are drawn to be as children again, remembering a time of safety, security and hopefulness, even if it is only a wishful remembrance of what never was.  We desire for our children and grandchildren, our nieces and nephews, our friends children, even youngsters we don’t know an experience of care and love that will sustain them when the world is not so friendly and the troubles of life beset them.  Then, perhaps, they may return to the memory of care and welcoming that might prevent despair and offer hope even in the darkest hour.

               We all have a deep yearning to be welcomed, to be included, to be drawn into the warmth of a loving mother who caresses us and croons her love as we are embraced by protective arms. Every one of us longs to be called “the beloved one” by God as God runs to meet us, to clothe us in the best robe—the garment of honor, be adorned with a ring—the symbol of inheritance, to have new shoes put on our feet—the sign of prestige.  We ache to be received as the wastrel, not as we deserve, but as God’s beloved child.  And this is precisely the point of Jesus’ parable:  “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”  (Matthew 11:28)  As in the parable, God as father/mother has loved us enough to let us wander, but also loves us so much that as we awake and find ourselves in the hog trough of life’s ills, we may return home to a glorious welcome.  Even if we never left home to slop swine, but allowed resentment to enslave us, we too are welcomed by the same loving God who comes out to us to call us to join the feast.

               Nouwen has posited that the calling of Christians is to become as Father in the parable, to become as God, forgiving, welcoming, being compassionate.  As in the Lord’s Prayer petition concerning forgiveness we might say, “Welcome me only as much as I am willing to welcome others.”  Again, a very sharp two-edged sword.  Am I willing to welcome into my life the unlovable as well as the loveable?   When asked about their congregation, most Episcopalians describe St. Swithen’s as a warm friendly church; and if you are a member and part of the “in-crowd” it probably is.  Too often, however visitors and potential newcomers are virtually ignored as they arrive, perhaps struggling to balance a Prayer Book, Hymnal, and service leaflet with 6 insert pages during worship, and even at the coffee hour.  I know there are some parishes that go way out of the way to welcome the stranger, but every congregation, including those who are best at welcoming, can strengthen their reception and incorporation of their guests.

               “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)  Jesus’ love for us is symbolized by his arms outstretched on the Cross to embrace absolutely everyone and bring them into the loving embrace of God.  In each of the Gospels we see Jesus welcoming women, outcasts, sinners, the untouchables, as well as Pharisees and rich young rulers.  If we are to grow into “the full stature of Christ”, we must be willing to stretch our spiritual muscles to reach out and invite those God sends us into God’s feast.  It is not our own welcome, but God’s welcome.  And She has prepared a banquet table, groaning with the riches that only God can provide; a table surrounded with love; and a warm embrace that says, “I don’t care where you have been, welcome home.”

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The power of “me first”


            How does it feel to say:”The father is like me”?  Do I want to be like the father?  Do I want to be not just the one who is being forgiven, but also the one who forgives; not just the one who is being welcomed home, but also the one who welcomes home; not just the one who receives compassion, but the one who offers it as well?  (The Return of the Prodigal Son, page 122.)

            Forgiveness is the key to the Gospel message for me.  Without forgiveness, Jesus is little more than another prophet who brings another set of rules by which we are able to move a step or two closer to God.  However, no matter how hard we try on our own, we can never attain righteousness or earn a place in God’s heart.  Built into our DNA is a propensity for sin.  Throughout the history of humanity there have been attempts to define sin, and usually the definition contains a list of those things “we have left undone which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”  (BCP p. 41f)  My favorite definition of sin came from a child.  A friend who was a Navy Chaplain in the mid-1960’s was teaching a class of six-year-olds and asked them the question, “What is sin?”  One child replied, “It’s not obeying my mother.”  Another said, “When I hit my little brother.”  But a third said, “It’s the power of me first.”  Forty plus years later I have yet to discover a more profound statement on sin. 

            Advent calls us to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Christ Child and his birth in Bethlehem. Too often we approach the manger in which Jesus was laid, with a warm heart and  a loving soul, desiring to return to the innocence of childhood ourselves, to a time of wonder and delight and hope.


Laser-cut metal Nativity Cross by Designer Valerie Arkisson
We forget the prophetic witness that this child is born for sorrow, to take away all human sorrow.  One of the gifts of the Magi is myrrh, an oil for anointing bodies for burial after death.  Too many times we want to turn away from the horror of the Cross and be consoled by the emotions of new life, new hope.  And yet the Christ event contains Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit.  Remove any of the components and the picture is incomplete; the story of salvation history has not been told.

            Forgiveness of all sin.  As incredible as it sounds that is precisely the mission for the Son of God, a mission which took him from Bethlehem to Egypt, to Nazareth and ultimately to Jerusalem.  On the Cross He bore the sins of all humanity, all individuals and every sin, whether venial or mortal.  No one asked Him to bear this burden; He chose to do so because of love.

            When I am brutally honest, I am able to admit my sinfulness—not just a sinful nature,
but a sinning creature.  When I realize the enormity of my brokenness I, like Younger Brother want to rise from my pig sty of sin and say, “I will arise and go to my father and say, ‘I have sinned against heaven and against you.’”  When I realize that God the Father has rushed to meet me and to embrace me with the arms of forgiving love I am moved to speechlessness before Him.  I am humbled beyond imagining.  And when I hear of Father offering the same love and forgiveness to Older Brother in me, I cannot but bow again and be struck mute in the presence of such grace.
            Nouwen’s conclusion is that our true calling, our true following of Jesus is to become Father, not simply remain as Younger Brother or Older Brother.  That means I must be willing to offer the same gift of forgiveness as Father in the parable and Father in Heaven.  Try as I might, on my own, I cannot even begin to approach that level of graciousness.  I want to hear those who have trespassed against me beg for my forgiveness; I want to impose burdensome penances for even minor offences; in essence, I want to see my debtors grovel before me before I even lift a finger of blessing.

            Do I really want to be Father?  I desperately wish to be able to forgive as I have been forgiven, to recognize the beloved sons and daughters in everyone I meet, but I am not there yet.  I am still caught up in “me-firstness.”  In Nouwen’s book Home Tonight, a story from Desert Wisdom is told as follows:  A brother who was insulted by another brother came to Abbot Sisoes and said to him, ”I was hurt by my brother and want to avenge myself.”  The old man tried to console him and said, “Don’t do that, my child. Rather leave vengeance to God.”  But he said, “I will not quit until I avenge myself.”  The old man said, “Let us pray brother”; and standing up he said, “O God, we no longer need you to take care of us since we now avenge ourselves.”  Hearing these words, the brother fell at the feet of the old man and said, “I am not going to fight with my brother anymore.  Forgive me Abba.”  (Nouwen, Home Tonight, p.60)

            As I contemplate meeting those who have left the Episcopal Church, I am torn between the response of Older Brother and Father.  On the one hand, I want to extract oaths of conformity and even periods of penance and possibly partial ostracism until such time as I determine they are worthy of my/our forgiveness; on the other hand I long to be Father who, when they are still far away, runs to greet them and draw them into grace-filled reunion.  Like Older Brother or like Father?  Remember, “Forgive us our sins only as much as we forgive those who sin against us.”

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"Becoming the Father"


For a long time the father remained “the other,” the one who would receive me, forgive me, offer me a home, and give me peace and joy.  The father was the place to return to, the goal of my journey, the final resting place.  It was only gradually and often quite painfully that I came to realize that my spiritual journey would never be complete as long as the father remained an outsider.  (Nouwen, “The Return of the Prodigal Son”, pp 102-121.)

God the Father with His Right Hand Raised in Blessing by Girolamo dai Libi

            
The first time I read those words and the chapter they introduce several years ago I was not prepared for the depth into which this insight would take me.  It has only been in my time in Fort Worth that I have really begun to understand what Nouwen is describing as he speaks of “becoming the Father.” 

            I spoke yesterday of my own dad and how he was in many ways an absentee parent, spending almost all of his life with his patients.  I never questioned whether he loved me, and he never pushed me to be something other than who I really was.  I believe that he loved me as unconditionally as he could.  He himself had been reared by a father who was a priest, and I would guess in some ways also was absent.  His father had died when he was just 15, and he had missed the guidance and presence of his father as he went through his tumultuous late teen years.  He never, as far as I can tell, lost his faith, or wandered very far from his connection with God, a connection which he offered to me in my early childhood and became embedded in my soul, remaining even during my wandering in the wilderness in my late teens and early twenties.  How I longed to have his gentle hands, the hands of a physician who heals, draw me back in welcome, even when I questioned the reality of God.  I do not remember ever saying “There is no god,” but I do recall wondering how a god of love could be as cruel as to allow all of the misery in the world, and more personally in the loss of my own father.  Even when I began my journey back to faith, which coincided with the Baptism of my oldest son, God the Father was a distant, unreachable entity, not unlike my own father.

            This Advent, as I have read and reread the parable of the Man Who Had Two Sons and Henri Nouwen’s two books and Timothy Keller’s book on the parable, I have had my heart broken and re-made by God who welcomes me as Father and calls me to become Father.  Nouwen speaks to this: “But Rembrandt who showed me the Father in utmost vulnerability, made me come to the awareness that my final vocation is indeed to become like the Father and to live out his divine compassion in my daily life.” 

            My inclination is to continue to see myself as the child who needs to be forgiven, who desires to be welcomed home, who pleads for compassion.  Even though I have been ordained for 38 years—today is the anniversary of ordination as a Deacon—I still carry in my heart and soul my need to be cared for.  Whether that is as Younger Brother who wandered away from home and homeland or Older Brother whose jealousy and anger erodes his very soul, I still want daddy to comfort and console me, to run out to welcome me home, to remind me that I am the beloved heir of all he has.

            As I reflect on my 68 years of life, God has done exactly that again and again, calling me to grow up into the full stature for which I was created.  God has moved me all along to become as Father in the parable, welcoming, forgiving, offering compassion.  As my younger son said over two years ago, all my life has been a preparation for the work I am called to offer in Fort Worth.  As we potentially wind down the litigation with the likelihood of regaining access to church buildings and probably a goodly number of folk who did not leave those buildings, we are being offered the opportunity to live out this parable “in real time.”  Do we behave as Older Brother and demand public repentance and hold these brothers and sisters at arm’s length while we test their veracity and worthiness?  Or do we run to greet them as children who were dead and now are alive, lost and now found? 

            For about a year those of us in leadership struggled over just who it was that was returning.  Certainly we could say we were coming back to the buildings, but those who left the Episcopal Church and stayed in the buildings were coming home to the Episcopal Church.  With the guidance of the Holy Spirit our language of reconciliation has dropped the word “return” to describe what any of us are doing, and we now speak only of reunion.  The parable offers reunion between Father and Younger Brother, between Father and Older Brother, between the two sons, and ultimately for all the household and the community as well.  How well we live into the parable is yet to be seen, but we know we have a clear picture and a pattern offered by Jesus himself.

            Moving apace toward Christmas Eve and the celebration of the birth of the Christ Child, we are reminded that God sent his Son into the world to save sinners, not to condemn us.  This incredible gift of Life and Light calls us to bring life and light into the dark places we find ourselves confronting.  Decades ago, Bishop Fulton Sheen, a Roman Catholic Archbishop and later Cardinal, had a television program that was incredibly popular.  His theme song began “If everyone lit just one little candle, what a bright world this would be.”  As you read the parable today, open your eyes to find a place to bring the light of Christ which has been given to you and make someone’s world brighter.  Pray to be available to the Holy Spirit when called to be a witness to the Light.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Parent and child


While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity.  He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms, and kissed him.

Prodigal Son - drawing by Rembrandt
               Christians for almost 2000 years have spoken of God as Father, following the pattern of relationship and prayers of Jesus.  In the prayer our Lord taught his disciples, used almost every time we gather for public worship as well as in private prayer, we begin “Our Father….”  In John’s Gospel we hear Jesus refer to his Father in intimate words and tones which comes from knowing he is loved.  At his baptism, Jesus hears, “You are my son, the Beloved.  With you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11)  The familial and paternal bond is inescapable throughout the Christian Scriptures.  We can find hints of that same bond between God and Israel as well, but it becomes most obvious in Jesus’ life.

               Every person who professes to be a disciple of Jesus is called to enter into this father-child relationship with God as well.  The difficulty for me, however, is that our earthly paternal relationship is the model that either guides or impedes such a relationship.  I have known too many parishioners whose fathers have been abusive, creating great difficulty in seeing God as Father.  Many others, whose father was not abusive but absent through divorce, can only see God as a too-distant figure. My own father was in many ways an absentee parent; he lived in our home but was preoccupied with his profession, medicine.  My dad was a small town doctor with a 25-bed hospital.  He was an old fashioned physician who still made house calls, mostly in the evening.  We used to joke that he worked 28 hours a day, 8 days a week.  It was not uncommon for him to leave the house by 7AM, come home just long enough to eat supper, return to the hospital for an emergency by 7:30 p. m. and not come home again until midnight or later, and then repeat again the next day.  There was precious little time with us kids.  Then to top it all off, he died of a heart attack when I was almost 16.  I was really angry with God the Father for many years until a very astute spiritual director helped me understand that I was really angry with my own father and needed to forgive him first.

               All of us have been parented by mothers and fathers who were themselves parented by less than perfect parents, continuing back for untold generations.  After First Man and First Woman were expelled from the Garden of Eden, difficulties arose between parents and parents and parents and children.  Why did Cain surmise that his offering was less pleasing to God than that of his brother Abel?  After all God says to Cain, “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” Did it have anything to do with his father Adam and the way Cain felt he was accepted?  Psychologists could have a field day with that (and probably have).  It goes on and on down through all of Salvation history as recorded in the Hebrew and Christian Testaments.

I am still working on my own relationship with God the Father.  I have never had problems with the Son Jesus, and not so much with the Holy Spirit, as with Father God.  For much of my life the Transcendent God, the distant One, the unapproachable One, has been, perhaps, my defense against allowing the loving Father into my life, holding off the fear of being disappointed yet again.  One would think that after 43 years of raising children and grandchildren, working as hard as I know how to change the pattern with which I grew up, would have opened me to see the relationship with God the Father in a new way in my own spiritual life.  And it has changed to some degree, but not as much as I would desire.

               As I have been praying through our parable of the two sons and their father, I have come to some new insights about fatherhood in general, about God the Father, and about my own relationship with my father and with my Father in Heaven.  Both Henri Nouwen and Timothy Keller have called me, each in his own way, to “come home” to the place where I am acknowledged as beloved son.  In the next couple of days I will explore some of those insights and hope that perhaps something resonates for you.

               Again, as we rush toward the great festival of Incarnation, I encourage you to slow down and take a few minutes to read aloud the parable of the Man Who Had Two Sons in Luke Chapter 15.  Read slowly and explore the relationships between the man and each of his sons, the servants, even the man who hired the younger son, the undescribed and unspoken mother, perhaps even those who entered into debauchery with Younger Brother.  Let the Scriptures speak to you today about your life in Christ and how you, too, are the beloved child.  Let us look forward together to the one who reminds us of what it is to be the beloved child.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A distant land


When he had spent it all, that country experienced a severe famine, and now he began to feel the pinch so he hired himself out to one of the local inhabitants who put him on his farm to feed the pigs.
"Prodigal son among the swine" by Albrecht Durer

            One of the readers of this blog brought me up short with a question about the farmer who hired Younger Brother.  I have to confess that when I was listing the dramatis personae that individual never crossed my mind.  But having been raised to consciousness, of course we must explore this individual as well.  The secondary problem I am now having is to question whether there are other characters that I have ignored, even after reading this parable daily since late November.

            We know from the story that Younger Brother had received his inheritance and migrated to a distant land.  To go to a “foreign” land was to leave behind all of the comfort of language, custom, religion, familiarity and community.  For Jews, anything foreign was also defiling, making one unable to perform the rituals necessary to righteousness.  To touch a dead body, for instance, rendered one unclean, requiring purifications described in the laws and regulations of Leviticus.  The story of the Good Samaritan is poignant because we chastise both the priest and the Levite who were required to be prepared to perform duties consonant with their office, and yet they passed by on the opposite side of the road, as far away as possible.  And if they touched the one “left for dead” who might in fact be dead they would be ineligible to perform these duties.  The scandal of that parable is that it is the foreigner, the Samaritan, the one least likely to assist who becomes the rescuer, the life saver for the one who had fallen in among thieves and had been beaten.  Even to be in the company of foreigners could render one unclean, which is why the high priest and leaders of the Temple refuse to go into Pilate’s fortress for Jesus’ trial.  It was, after all, the Day of Preparation for Passover, and being in the presence of foreigners, Romans, would make them ineligible to perform the ritual tasks of their offices.

            We do not know how long Younger Brother was in this foreign territory; the parable is mute on that point.  Was he there long enough to learn a new language?  Did they speak Koine Greek as did most of the Judeans and Galileans, or was it some other language and culture that would have required significant time for Younger Brother to become comfortable in that place?  It is obvious that the locals were quite willing to take this young man for all he was worth and then discard him when he was destitute.  I learned a song in the late 1950’s with a line that repeats, “Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.”  And that is exactly the situation for Younger Brother.

            But who is this farmer that hires Younger Brother, and why does he hire an alien instead of one of his own countrymen?  Perhaps Younger Brother has lost his visa (and I do not mean a credit card) when he has no more money and therefore is an illegal alien.  Perhaps none of the locals will do such demeaning work, so the farmer has to hire illegal aliens.  Or it might just be that if he hired his countrymen he would have to pay them a living wage, and he can hire this wastrel for almost nothing, causing him to starve.  Does the farmer grumble because most of his illegal farm hands are living in a small apartment designed for an individual or a family of 2 or 3?  Are his neighbors angry that they have to put up with all these “illegals” living in their town who are sending most of their meager wages back to their families where ever home is and taking all the jobs away from the homeboys?  I wonder if there is the equivalent of INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) in that country to deport those who are in-country illegally.  Younger Brother cannot even apply for food stamps because he does not have the proper credentials to get a hand-out.  Or is this farmer truly attempting to do a good deed by hiring the young man, thinking it will keep him from starving to death? 

            I know I am treading on thin ice for some readers, but if we are going to look at the parable and its cast of characters, we have to explore each thoroughly.  Granted, Jesus does not give us any detail about this man except for the fact that he is a pig farmer.  That alone was anathema for Jews because of the prohibition concerning swine, which makes the tasks for Younger Brother so horrific.  I can almost hear the crowd around Jesus gasp when it is revealed that the young man has to slop the hogs.  Our current American distaste for Latino immigrants may seem new, but one only need read history to discover that Eastern Europeans, Irish, Asians, and many, many others have received a similar welcome by those who were themselves immigrants some generations before to the shores of the land which says, “Send me your cold, your hungry, your tired…”  Unfortunately, xenophobia is a part of the human sinful condition that transcends time and place; it is not unique to the US, nor to the 21st century.  Thus, it is a simple translation to read back into the story, in the person of the pig farmer from a 21st century perspective.

            Much is made in the Hebrew Scriptures about caring for the “sojourner”, the resident alien.  Sojourners are to be cared for to the same degree as members of the community; they are to be fed and clothed and invited into the lives of the community.  How do we live out our calling as respects aliens?  Are we willing to make a place at our spiritual table, if not our house, for those who are strangers in a strange land?  From the Old Testament, we discover that the command grows out of the realization that we were once strangers in a foreign land ourselves (Egypt), so we should know the lost-ness, the loneliness of being in a distant country.  Can we welcome “home” everyone?  Or is our welcome conditional?  How does Jesus receive us? 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

So he told them this parable . . .


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… (Luke 15:1-3)

            Sometimes when we read a passage of Scripture, we look at those few verses alone, forgetting that the verses on which we are focusing are set within the midst of a larger context.  We have been looking at the parable of the Man Who had Two Sons as a totality, and it can truly stand alone.  However, it is important to understand why Jesus told this parable, as well as the two parables immediately preceding it: the story of the lost sheep and the story of the lost coin.

            As we see in verses 1-2, all sorts of unsavory folk were gathering around Jesus to listen to him, to learn from him, or perhaps simply to be in the presence of a truly holy person.  They were not welcome at the Temple in Jerusalem and likely not at their local synagogues as well.  They were beyond the circle of polite society and shunned by those who would keep the faith pure from such as these.  They were the outcast of their day.  Now tax collectors and sinners were one step above the true “untouchables”—those who were lepers—but they were not welcome in worship or invited to the homes of righteous folk.

            Jesus welcomes all comers.  Not only are tax collectors and sinners welcome, but he also greets and entertains Pharisees--even dining in their homes-- scribes, Sadducees, and at least one member of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus.  All sorts and conditions of people have an equal opportunity to be taught, fed, and led by this itinerant preacher.

 As Luke begins this section we discover that the grumbling of the scribes and Pharisees had become a distraction.  Rather than ignoring the disruption, Jesus faces it head-on.  He tells first the parable of the shepherd who loses a sheep.  However, rather than begin his story as we might expect, he puts his hearers on notice that he is speaking to them, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them…”  He concludes his story of the lost lamb, “And when he comes home he calls together his friends and neighbors saying to them ‘Rejoice with me for I have found my sheep that was lost.’”

He immediately tells another story and again begins it by challenging those in the crowd, “What woman having ten silver coins…” and concludes it by saying, “…she calls together her friends and neighbors saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’”  He has laid the ground-work by setting up a lost-found-rejoice pattern.

            Finally in this chapter he moves to a deeply demanding parable, our story of the Man With two Sons.  At the end of each act we are called to rejoice.  The first act concludes with the great feast, complete with music and dancing at least for the household, but possibly including friends and neighbors as well.  All is well, and I can hear “amen” from the crowd.  Remember, however, that Jesus does not begin this parable by saying, “Which one of you, having a son who wishes you were dead, goes off into a foreign land and squanders his portion of the wealth…”  He simply begins, “There was a man who had two sons.”  The clincher comes in act two, as we hear about Older Brother and his response to the rejoicing at Younger Brother’s return.  Jesus drives home the point that the dour, self-righteous son refuses, at least at first, to enter into the rejoicing.  He figuratively points his finger toward those in the crowd who would refuse others because the outsiders were not as pure as themselves.  As with many of Jesus’ parables, The Man with Two Sons ends without a conclusion to Older Brother’s dilemma; will he “come home” or will he exile himself to a lifetime of bitterness at the generosity of God.  For Older Brother, generosity to Younger Brother diminishes whatever Father can give him.  Love and material wealth are portioned out in a finite way, reducing that which is available to the elder sibling. 

            As we move closer to the celebration of God’s ultimate act of generosity in the Nativity of God’s Son, help me to remember that I am heir to ALL of God’s Kingdom.  My share is not reduced if others are welcomed to join in on the feast.  In fact, my portion contains more than I can ask for or even imagine, because it is in community with you and those who accept God’s invitation that I discover the totality of God’s riches.  Young and old, rich and poor, tax collector and sinner, all are invited to the banquet.  Rejoice brothers and sisters, and welcome everyone God invites.

Friday, December 16, 2011

I Remember Mama

               There is a character in the parable that is not really a part of the cast of characters: the mother figure.  Nowhere in the telling of the two act tale does Jesus introduce the wife of Father or the sons’ mother.  That certainly is not surprising, given the status of women in first century Palestine.  Jesus so often violates the customs of the times, however, that a 21st century hearer might just expect to find a maternal touch in this story.

               Henri Nouwen, in studying the famous Rembrandt painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son” thinks he has discovered the mother-figure in the deeps shadows of the painting.  She is almost entirely lost, without any of the light which illuminates Father and Younger Brother, the face of Older Brother, or even the reflected light on the seated figure who may be a servant.  She is almost invisible; I had to spend some time looking at a copy of the painting for some time before I even found the person Nouwen describes.

               The maternal aspect is also found within the father figure.  Both Father Nouwen and Brandon Scott in his work Hear Then the Parable speak of the actions of Father as being more mother-like than paternalistic.  It is interesting that Scott entitles the chapter in which the parable of the Man with Two Sons is discussed as “I Remember Mama.” He connects the loss of human food, the need to eat hog slop to survive, the abundance of the hired hands’ meals, and the feast following the wastrel’s return with the nourishing role of mother-hood.

 “A subterranean movement in the story has associated nourishment with a maternal theme.  He goes on, “The father combines in himself the maternal and paternal roles.  As a father he is a failure, but as a mother he is a success.  It is his forgiving, nourishing character that has entranced generations of hearers and readers.”  (p. 122)

               Not all of us had perfect mothers; in fact, there are very few mothers who could live up to that measure.  The June Cleaver image from Leave it to Beaver fame of the 1950’s is a myth, and was even when I was growing up.  Psychiatrists and psychologists, beginning with Freud, have traced the ills of individuals—and with the world--with the misdeeds of mothers.  This latter-day science could rephrase a saying quoted in the Hebrew Scriptures as “The sins of the mothers are visited upon the children to the fourth generation.” 

The  Newborn by George de la Tour
If we are to take Genesis 1:27 as a true statement, “So God created humankind is his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them…,” and if Father in the parable represents God, why should we be surprised to find both paternal and maternal features represented?  Even in our “enlightened” culture, we are still just a bit uncomfortable with feminine attributes attached to God.  For some, to speak of God as “She” or even feminine is both heresy and anathema.  And yet saints of the Church, including Julian of Norwich, and Jesus himself, have done just that, Julian speaking of God our Mother and Jesus referring to God as a hen gathering her chicks.

               I encourage every reader, male and female, to read him or herself into the role of Mother in the parable.  Read it again and make yourself the unnamed, invisible mother.  What is it like to know that your younger son is about to embark on a journey away from family, community, hearth and home?  To whom do you turn in the loneliness of the months and years of absence from this child?  How do you respond when Younger Brother suddenly returns?  And what do you do when Older Brother refuses to “come home?”  I pray that you might discover some new insight into the story out of the experience of your own life, from the relationship with your mother, however that was lived.  Can God’s love be the exact healing you need to redeem any shortcomings, yours or hers?

               As we prepare for Advent IV—Annunciation Sunday—remember we are celebrating the Mother of God, in Greek Theotokos, and her “Yes” to God’s call upon her life.  How does Mary inform you of God’s love, nurture, and care for you?  Does this young maid fit at all into the parable?  More questions than answers, but isn’t that Jesus’ way?
               

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Hired hands


               Early on in this study of the parable of the Man Who Had Two Sons, I suggested reading the parable and inserting yourself into the story as one of the characters, the one with whom you are most able to relate or identify.  Since then I have intimated that it might be good to move into other characters of the dramatis personae.  Today I want to explore the role of the hired hands, sometimes called servants, and slaves, and see if I can discover something about myself and this tale of woe and redemption.

            Hired hands in New Testament days were not so different from today.  They work for a wage, which we might infer from other parables was paid in those days to some day laborers each day.  The workers in Father’s household may either be of the day laborer variety or of the permanent staff sort.  When Younger Brother comes to his senses while he is slopping the hogs, he speaks of the hired hands who dine sumptuously, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare….”  It may be that Father is paying his servants more than the usual going rate, indicating a generosity of spirit.  Of course, perhaps from the starvation situation of the pig sty, even a day’s wage would seem more than abundant.  
 
A linguistic difficulty is that there also appear to be slaves in the household.  Both the Father and Older Brother call slaves (douloi) to do their bidding.  Father orders a slave to bring a robe, a ring, and sandals to dress Younger Brother; Older Brother demands from a slave an account of the music and dancing.  The Greek is quite explicit in these two cases that these are slaves and not hired hands.  Nouwen’s translation of the parable ( The Return of the Prodigal Son, pages 1-2) calls them servants, as do some other versions, perhaps to soften the relationship of the family with their workers.
 
            Whether day laborers, servants or even slaves, I believe Jesus is offering us a picture of workers that are well cared for by the household.  There is nothing intrinsic in the story, save the comment of Younger Son in the piggery,  that indicates a close relationship between any of the family and any of the servants.  From that one comment, however, I infer that he might have had conversations with some of the workers.  It may well be that as he was growing up, he got to know hired hands and played with their children.  It is even likely that the slaves and servants were involved in the rearing of the boys and that Younger Brother had some affinity with them as well.

            I have to admit a bias:  I am guessing that Older Brother, although raised by servants and slaves, always saw himself as “above” the hired hands and slaves, and even their children, as he was to be the one to inherit the majority of the estate, including servants and slaves.  Could it be possible that part of Younger Brother’s departure was to get away from the insufferable arrogance of his elder sibling?  Who knows?

            It is easy to read an excitement in the slave’s relating the story of the return of the profligate son to Older Brother.  The excitement might simply be the joy at having a feast in which all might have a portion, but I read a deep relief that the lost child has returned, perhaps a friendship to be rekindled even with the slaves/servants.

            I am aware that I am eisegeting (eisegesis: reading into the text what I want to read, as opposed to exegesis which is reading out of the text what is intrinsically there) but I believe that the parable from Jesus offers me the opportunity to see myself in His words.

            The hired hands-servants-slaves of this household are a part of the community.  If the parable is about the Kingdom, if this entire chapter is about lost and found, if for Jesus absolutely everyone is invited into the Kingdom, does this not also include the least of the household?  I can see the joy of the hired hands and the slaves as a relief, not just for the grieving Father, but for themselves as well.  They have lost a friend, and now he has returned.  Yes, they will dine well, even if it is only the leftovers from the feast they have slaved to prepare.  They too are partakers in the revelry, the feasting, the elation that one who was lost is found, one who was as dead that is now alive.

            I encourage you to make the remainder of Advent an opportunity to engage with those who serve us without much thanks: store clerks, public servants, even the Salvation Army bell ringers, some of whom are homeless and earning minimum wage by working at what may seem like a menial task.  Thank those folk for being present in your life.  Remember the Baptismal Covenant question, “Will you seek and serve Christ in ALL persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” (emphasis added).  Help me find ways to live that promise daily.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"Joy and resentment cannot coexist."


               This week I have been re-reading Brandon Scott’s commentary on the Parable of The Man with Two Sons in his book Hear Then the Parable.  I have made some remarkable discoveries and gained some insight which, it seems, has eluded me on the other occasions of study.  Scott divides the parable as a play in two acts, the first act being the story of Younger Brother and act two being Older Brother’s story.  As a good scholar, Scott relates the research and conclusions of other prominent scholars regarding this passage and his agreement and disagreement with his peers.  But also as a good scholar he gives us his own insights and conclusions based on his research, which is enormous.

               Dr. Scott points out the biblical theme of the favoring of the younger/youngest brother, which surely must have been in the mind of Jesus’ original hearers.  Isaac’s wife Rebecca knew of the fraternal conflict while her twin sons Esau and Jacob were still in utero.  The conflict plays out in Esau selling his heritage for a portion of soup, and again in Jacob’s theft of the elder son blessing by old, blind Isaac.  Even the least educated Jew of the first century knew by heart, embedded in their psyche, that the Israelites were God’s chosen people.  But the memory of Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son, and the one on whom the old man dotes, was also a beautifully recalled tale of paternal care.  Remember it was not Reuben, the oldest son of Leah and Jacob, who was given the coat of many colors but Joseph, the first son of Rachel, son number 11.  An older son of the younger wife, to be sure, but far from the eldest of Jacob.  (For more on the sons of Jacob read Genesis Chapters 29 and 30).

               In act one of the parable it is obvious that Father loves his younger child with a great love.  When Younger Brother asks for his inheritance now, Father grants the request without regard to loss of prestige or honor in his household or community.  We can imagine that Father pines for the loss of this son throughout the time of his absence.  Is he dead or alive?  Is he well or sickly?  What has become of this beloved child?  One may infer that every day Father looks for the return of Younger Brother, and every day his disappointment grows.  Finally one day, looking out, hoping to see his son, Father catches a glimpse of Younger Brother in the distance and runs to him and falls on him, embracing him as he has wished to do for ever so long.  The resulting restoration of Younger Brother to a place of honor, complete with robes, a ring, sandals, and a feast is heart-warming and, for Jesus’ hearers, reminiscent of God’s love for the Chosen People, and the story is strikingly similar to the various rejections by Israel of God’s love and restoration by God to grace.

 Act two is a glaring contrast with the story of Younger Brother.  Older Brother, who has stayed home, tended the estate, been a loyal son in all things, has apparently grown resentful during the intervening years of Younger Brother’s absence.  What we are not told is whether or not the resentment had begun in youth.  Did Father show partiality outwardly throughout the growing years of his two sons?  Maybe.  Was Older Brother always jealous of the affection shown to his sibling?  Perhaps.  Was Older Brother ever able to enter into a truly joyous celebration if the party wasn’t for his calculated benefit?  Jesus does not fill in the details; the master story-teller allows us to “fill in the blanks”.  I do have a sense here that as Older Brother returns home (note the irony that both brothers come home) and discovers a party for Younger Brother’s homecoming he will once again be left out.  As Father Nouwen says, “Joy and resentment cannot coexist. The music and dancing, instead of inviting to joy, become a cause for even greater withdrawal.” (The return of the Prodigal Son, p.73)

               I intentionally chose these books for this Advent study, as the parable of the Man with Two Sons has much to tell us about ourselves and our relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ.  We are preparing for the coming of Christ: in the celebration of His Incarnation, in His coming into our hearts, and in His coming in glory to bring in the reign of God.  I believe that the way we receive others will be reflected in how we receive God’s presence. In Jesus’ prayer for His disciples—best known as the Lord’s Prayer—we are taught to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Some years ago, I began praying that phrase, “Forgive me only as much as I am willing to forgive others.”  That, friends, is a very sharp two-edged sword.

               As we await the decisions of the court system, let us prepare to receive both Jesus and our brothers and sisters as we have been welcomed.  Pray with me, friends, that the hearts of everyone will be softened, and that we might see and serve the Christ in everyone.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Can you join the party?


All these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed any orders of yours…

               In his book The Prodigal God, Timothy Keller describes the situation of Younger Brother in the category of “lost-ness.”  Anyone reading the parable can come to the obvious conclusion that the wastrel son has lost his way.  We see hints of that in the request to receive his share of the inheritance long before the appropriate time, that is, at the death of his father.  The moment the son leaves home for a “foreign land,” a place of debauchery—gambling, prostitution, excessive drinking and drugs, and God only knows what else—it is easy for the hearer/reader to gasp either audibly or spiritually, knowing what is coming.  Parents carry in their hearts a fear that our children will leave in the same way Younger Brother leaves, even if we don’t give them a bag of money.  Even the departure that will help a teenager develop skills and knowledge in college carries incredible risks.  Perhaps for the first time in a young person’s life, freedom to behave in any way that might momentarily please becomes an option.  But is this true freedom or slavery of another kind?  As he loses everything he owns and is forced by hunger to work in the pig sty, we can feel the abject aloneness and lostness of Younger Brother in our hearts and souls.

               Years ago, after preaching a sermon on freedom, the thesis being that freedom is only possible with clear boundaries, a parishioner told me a story about a childhood friend.

"I had a friend whose father had a bicycle.  This was decades ago, before the advent of coaster brakes.  The only way to slow or stop this bicycle was either to back-pedal or to skid sideways—hockey-stop like.  My friend’s father told him to stay off the bike without supervision, as he could easily get hurt.  My friend had learned to ride some years earlier under his father’s watchful eye, but he had never ridden alone.  

"One day when he was about 13 my friend decided to ride the bike down a long hill near their home; he wanted to feel the freedom of going fast and doing so by himself.  As he started down the hill he began to pick up speed and thought, ‘I’m free!’  As he continued to move faster and faster, he remembered there was a crossroad at the bottom of the hill and he would have to crash to stop, at which point he said to himself, ‘I’m not free, I’m loose.”

               Whether we ourselves have ever taken the path of “loose-ness” or simply watched while others wandered off, we can easily understand lost-ness for such as Younger Brother.  But understanding lost-ness for Older Brother is somewhat more complex.  The first son never leaves home, never wastes anything that belongs to his father or family, never disobeys in any way, always acts “appropriately,” whatever that may mean.  It is not until the wastrel returns and is feted with robes, a ring, and a feast of the fatted calf that Older Brother’s lostness becomes evident.  Keller says, “As we said, the younger brother knew he was alienated from the father, but the elder brother did not.  That’s why elder-brother lostness is so dangerous. Elder brothers don’t go to God and beg for healing from their condition.  They see nothing wrong with their condition, and that can be fatal.” (p. 66)

               The anger and resentment that have been building in the heart of Older Brother can be a toxic brew.  Has he been obedient out of love or merely from a sense of fear?  Is his feeling of entrapment in slavery a jealousy of the younger sibling who perhaps left home because of the rigidity of his elder brother? Can he have been so angry all these years and kept his resentment a secret?  On the day of the return of Younger Brother, his anger, resentment, and even perhaps a tinge of hatred explode as he stands apart from the festival.  There is no joy in his heart for the return of his “dead” brother.  We do not know how he might have reacted if when the wastrel returned the father had simply put Younger Brother to work hoeing weeds.  But this?  A party—a veritable feast?  Never!

               Where is your heart when you begin to think about and pray for reunion with someone who has hurt you deeply, who has wandered off from a close friendship or family relationship?  How can I welcome them home when they haven’t paid enough penance or begged me to forgive them as much as I think they should?  Have I become a slave to anger and resentment?

               Take time today to re-read the parable, slowly, aloud, and prayerfully.  Ask God to take away the “older-brother-ness” from your heart.  Rejoice with the Father that one who was lost is found, one who was dead is come home. Then join the party!

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Older Brother


He was angry then and refused to go in…

               As much as I have wanted to ignore Older Brother and somehow pretend that he doesn’t exist, I am drawn to reflect on this sibling.  It is much easier for me to identify myself with Younger Brother than the other son, as I am more sympathetic toward one who has some realization of his lostness and attempts to return home.  Older Brother relies totally on himself, his own personal sense of righteousness—self-righteousness, in fact—to demand his standing.  He has earned his place in the family, in the community, and in the world, and this wastrel has squandered what he was given.  There is no sense of thankfulness, no gratitude in his heart, no openness to anyone who is not equal to him.  As the writers of the Gospels describe the Pharisees as they relate Jesus’ life, I see a reflection of Older Brother, or maybe more precisely I see the Pharisees reflected in Older Brother in the parable.

               My deep issue is that I do not want to see myself in any way as the first son of the Father.  He is compassion-less, stern, rigid, and it seems, devoted to his father out of a sense of self-serving or “I will do this because I can get something for myself.”  His superiority over all the others in the story drips with an iciness that is bone-chilling, from his servants, to his brother, to his father.  He has every right to make demands because he has been faithful.

To put a not-so-subtle point on it, I see myself being tempted to relate to those who have left The Episcopal Church precisely as Older Brother relates to Younger Brother’s return.  We may be on the verge of receiving a judicial decision in our favor regarding the property that has been taken from us.  With that return, there is the likelihood of individuals who were less than kind to those of us who remained a part of TEC being again a part of our communities.  For well over 18 months, we as a diocese have been talking and praying and planning for the future, using such terms as reconciliation and reunion.  And yet, in my heart of hearts, do I really want to welcome with the kiss of peace those who snubbed us—me?  Or would I rather stand outside with arms crossed in defiance and say, “All these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed any orders of yours…”  with the implication that I deserve to say who is welcome and who is not?  This will be especially poignant for me personally should there be clergy who took their share of the inheritance and left for a far country.  Will we—will I—be willing and able to receive them as brothers, or again will we rail against them?

               I again encourage you to re-read this parable, taking for yourself the position of Older Brother, trying on this role as a cast member playing that part.  Reflect on how you have received Younger Brother in the past, and how the Holy Spirit is calling you to receive these brothers and sisters in Christ who may have hurt you deeply.  This is Gospel work that every one of us in the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth must enter into now, before the day comes when we cast ourselves as the one who refuses to welcome anyone.  If you want more Gospel imperative, read Matthew 25:31-46.  Pray with me this Advent to heal the divisions in our hearts that we might welcome the Christ in absolutely everyone.
            

Friday, December 9, 2011

Inviting others into the story


I will arise and go to my Father…
               Almost 40 years ago I knew a wise older priest who had been a Jesuit for many years.  He told the following story which he claimed happened to a friend of his, but I always suspected was autobiographical. 

               A young priest on staff of the Cathedral was assigned to preach on the following Sunday.  As it happened, the bishop was present that day which made the young man extremely anxious.  He had been taught in homiletics class to preach without a manuscript, and should one forget the memorized sermon, return to the text and repeat the text, emphasizing a different word than when first read.  At sermon time, the young priest mounted the pulpit and quoted the text, emphasizing “I will arise and go to my Father.”  Unfortunately he was so nervous that all his preparation failed him, and he remembered nothing of his sermon.  Pausing he tried again: “I  WILL arise and go to my Father.”  Still nothing.  “I will ARISE and go to my Father.”  Each pause became longer and more dramatic as he repeated the text emphasizing the next word.  When he finally said “I will arise and go to my FATHER,” and still could remember nothing he had prepared, he decided to end what had by then become a farce and simply said AMEN.  He left the pulpit in shame and returned to his sedilla near the bishop.  As he passed the old prelate he heard, “Give the old man my regards.”

               For decades, as I have read, studied, and preached on this portion of Luke 15 I am reminded of this story told by a mentor and challenged to say something more profound than simply repeating the single phrase text.  However, this Advent as I have been reading the parable each day, I am often moved—sometimes to tears—by a different word or phrase of Jesus’ teaching.  When that happens, I stop and re-read the sentence again, like the young priest stressing a different word for emphasis and discovering some new meaning.  Even though the story I repeated has some great humor, and for those of us who are preachers a lesson of humility, I have discovered a depth of learning and discovery by taking the teaching of an unknown homiletics professor of long ago and applying it to my study this season.  This is in some ways similar to the “African Bible Study” method that I learned from Verna Dozier 30 years ago at a conference on ministry development in Dayton, Ohio.  In that method, one member reads the full text to be studied to the group.  “What word or phrase grabs you or gets your attention?” begins the group study.  After each person has had the opportunity to expound on his/her thoughts, the text is read a second time by a different person.  This time the question is, “Where do you hear Good News?”  Again each person is invited to respond without interruption by others.  The third and final reading of the text is offered by yet a third person, followed by the question, “How is this passage calling me to live out my life in Christ?”  

I have found this study method to be a profound opportunity for Christians to dig into any portion of Scripture without having to have in-depth exegesis or expertise to discover insights.  That is not to disparage other opportunities to learn from those who have expertise in a didactic setting.  This is simply an opportunity for every Christian, in a community setting of a few other Christians to gain some insight and understanding which they might otherwise miss.

               A suggestion:  before the end of Advent gather together 5 or 6 friends—members of your congregation, or family, or even neighbors who do not attend any church—and try this study method using the parable of the Man with Two Sons.  Hearing the story read by different voices and listening to the insights of others may bring new depth and meaning to your own Advent.  And who knows where that might lead.