Ambassador for Christ, Lent 4 (C) – 2016

[RCL] Joshua 5:9-12; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32; Psalm 32

The Prodigal Son is a story familiar to all of us and movingly depicted in art, drama and dance. We like stories like this; ones with happy endings where people come to their senses and are restored to the family.

But that isn’t how it always happens, is it? We know of many estrangements between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. A mother recently phoned her ex husband whom she had divorced many years ago. She wanted to have his help to restore her relationship with her lost daughter; but, as her husband told her, “That ship has sailed.” Her daughter was no longer interested, and there was apparently nothing her mother could do to change that.

The parable emphasizes that God is not like that in how God loves us. God desires our return, which is one of the themes of Lent. We, like sheep, have gone astray.

Now, deep in Lent some of us begin to learn the cost. We are hungry for the bread of life; weary of the cheap and tawdry excesses that we choose because that is what we are taught is living by the world.

Today we are invited to holy living, a turning around, and a return to sanity; a restoration of our relationship with our creator and redeemer. Even though we took the cheap route and asked for grace in advance, even though we tried it all in our flagrant lives of spending and using the resources we should have husbanded and shared, there is a pull to return.

Perhaps you have decided Lent hasn’t worked out for you this year. There were too many distractions: projects at work, income taxes, wintery weather, stress, nothing offered at Church you were interested in – the list can be as long as you like. Maybe next year.

Or, maybe now? All it takes for the prodigal son is to turn around. Just one action changes everything. He has a speech rehearsed, but picture in your mind the father seeing his son from afar and running to meet him. Do you think he waited for the son’s speech? Of course not. He ran to him and embraced him. The time to talk came later. In one sequence from a ballet version of this story the son crawls up to his father, then the son climbs up onto him, and his father, who is wearing a voluptuous robe, embraces his son until he is completely enfolded in the robe. That is the vision that awaits us.

So, harmony restored and back in the fold, life for us can go on. But that is not why we have the story of the Prodigal Son today. The intention of this parable is more than just a restoration of relationships with a loving God.

The passage from Second Corinthians begins with the words:

“From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view… we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

This business of being reconciled isn’t about us as much as it is about what we are commissioned to do. We are to be ambassadors for Christ. Or, as we are instructed in the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, we are “to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever [we] may be.”

We cannot do this without our relationship with God and each other, and that restoration gives us the energy and guidance to do the work for which we were baptized. As is often said, “You may be the best Christian someone has ever met.” And then, like the father in the parable, we wait patiently, prayerfully, for the return of those to whom we are sent.

Lent is not just about each of our journeys and us. It is also about to whom we are sent and how we minister to the other, the stranger, the friend, the family member who see no need for a relationship with God or the community of faith. It is about having the strength to give a cup of cold water to the least and the lost. It is about sorrowing over what we have done to creation and finding ways to help restore it. It is about sewing seeds of hope in the midst of darkness and chaos.

So far Lent may have been nothing to you. But today determine it is the time for you to approach the holy table with repentance and faith that God meets you and will feed you with the body of Christ, the bread of heaven. Savor this moment as a time when God is reaching out to you, hoping you will return. Let God’s arms enfold you, and feel the removal of all your sins. Then, having been fed the bread of life, walk out the door into God’s world prepared to be an ambassador for Christ. The Spirit will direct you to whom you are to go. Amen.

Download the sermon for Lent 4C.

Written by Ben E. Helmer

Ben Helmer is a retired Episcopal priest living in the Diocese of Arkansas.

 

The altar is our banquet table, 4 Lent (C) – 2013

March 10, 2013

Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

One year at the start of Lent, a sweet-natured seminarian with a wickedly funny approach to theology decided to give up his vegetarianism for the duration.

Part of his motivation was his absurd sense of humor and his great gift to be able to laugh at himself. But he also wanted to tweak his fellow seminarians about this whole Lenten discipline thing. During Lent, we always give up something we think is somehow bad for us anyway – alcohol, chocolate, dessert in general.

Food and drink ranks high on the Lenten give-up list.

It was a real struggle for this seminarian to, as he put it, become a carnivore again. Changing his diet that drastically, even for 40 days, made him newly aware of what he was eating, and made him consider why.

He knew that food matters and so do we. We know this as human beings and as spiritual beings. We must eat to live and we must kill to eat, even if we’re vegetarian. Those simple facts make eating a mysterious act of commitment to ourselves, to the world and to each other. We’re communing with the world.

We know how important food is to relationships. The bond of friendship is never truly cemented until we eat together. When someone dies, or is sick, one of our first instincts is to make some food and take it to the family. It’s as if, unconsciously, in the midst of illness and death, we acknowledge that we are still alive.

Think of all the times when it seemed your world was falling apart and you could barely find a reason to get up in the morning. A friend came by with a casserole and said: “You really need to eat something.” Translation: “You really need to go on living despite this loss that makes living seem impossible.”

As a people who gather around this table every week, we understand the symbolic power of sharing a meal together. Many of us who did not grow up Episcopalian joke that we came into this denomination because Episcopalians really know how to eat, and perhaps they’re not talking just about the coffee hour and the spaghetti supper.

In this morning’s readings, we hear of a people who celebrate their passing over into a new land and a family that celebrates the return of one of their members. They all celebrate with food.

The Israelites no longer need manna now that they’ve crossed the Jordan and entered the Promised Land where food is abundant.

The Prodigal Son arrives home destitute and hungry, and his father celebrates by serving everyone the sweet meat of the fatted calf.

Yet, these images are not all so sweet. Frankly, the first one might leave a bad taste in one’s mouth.

The Israelites celebrate the end of their wilderness years with a feast. Granted, it’s only parched grain, but it must have seemed nice to not to have to worry if the manna would in fact show up every morning and the quail every night.

What about the Canaanites, though, whose crops the Israelites take for their celebration? The Israelites are invaders camped outside of Jericho. Soon they will lay waste to the Canaanite city, in the name of their God. They will kill every human being except Rahab and her friends who spy for them. They will kill every animal. They will drag off all the gold, silver, iron and bronze, declare that it all belongs to their God and deposit it in their treasury.

This story is part of our heritage as Christians. Yet, what if those are the not Canaanites, but instead are Oglala Sioux or Cherokee?

The story from Joshua might sound different if we recall what the people who came to this Promised Land did to the American Indians. There has been much thievery and death committed in the name of God and of religion.

At the very least, the implications of this story might make us wonder during this time of self-examination called Lent. They might make us wonder about of our own sense of entitlement. Do I expect that I will get certain things because of who I am, what I do for a living or what God I call my own?

There may be the same sense of entitlement lurking in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Not all of the experts agree about whether the son really had a conversion experience out there with the pigs, or felt at least a little bit of regret and thus turned toward home. Some say the boy sounds a bit calculating:

“Let’s see, I am starving, but my father’s hired hands have more than enough bread. I am slopping these unclean pigs, which, as a good Jewish boy, I would never own, much less eat. No one will feed me.

“I know – I’ll go home to my father and say whatever I have to, to get him to take me back. Then I can at least have the bread he’s giving to the hired hands. Yeah, that’s the ticket.”

Is he the least bit worried about his reception? After all, he’d declared his father dead so that he could have his inheritance early. Did he think he was entitled to even more from his father?

No matter the son’s motivation, there was his father ready to feast in joy and to feed him. No strings attached. No gotcha. No asking, “Now, have you learned your lesson?” We could call it unfair, as did the older brother. Or we could call it forgiveness and unconditional love, as did the father.

He gets “forgiveness with music and dancing,” as one preacher puts it. Forgiveness can seem so somber and fraught with seriousness, perhaps because of the circumstances that created the need for forgiveness.

Forgiving does not come easily to most of us. We have to learn about it. Often, we feel like the older brother of the Prodigal Son. Yet, when we are the ones who need to be forgiven, we can think of all sorts of reasons why this is precisely the ultimate fair thing to do.

Perhaps forgiveness, whether given or received, is not about fairness. Perhaps it is about love, and perhaps it is a gift of generosity purchased with the knowledge that each one of us is a mixture of good and evil, capable of great love and great mistakes.

Forgiveness is a gift that we give and receive because of God’s promise of unconditional love – the love that welcomes us back home each time we have wandered away.

Jesus lived this promise. He opened his table to everyone. The Pharisees and scribes sneered about how Jesus welcomed sinners and dined with outcasts. And now, Jesus has become for us the bread of life, as the collect for today says.

The altar is our banquet table. It’s where God welcomes us home no matter how many times we have squandered the inheritance that Jesus left us – the inheritance of equality, unconditional love and forgiveness.

Welcome home!

Let’s eat!

 

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg, D.D., is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service. Prior to joining ENS in the fall of 2005, she was curate and then assistant rector at Christ Church in Short Hills, N.J. She is priest associate at Christ Church in Shrewsbury, N.J. and lives in nearby Neptune. She worked for nearly 25 years as a journalist before becoming a priest.

The perplexing Prodigal Son, 4 Lent (C) – 2010

March 14, 2010

Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

[NOTE TO READER: In paragraph 19, the word “Laetare” is pronounced: lay-TAR-ray.]

Today’s parable is the longest in the Bible – and the most quoted. The parable of the Prodigal Son, as it is popularly known, has preoccupied and perplexed the thoughts and works of countless religious and secular scholars, writers, and even artists.

Why? It doesn’t seem so complex. The meaning doesn’t seem so obscure on the face of it. The domestic scene it describes may even be familiar to some of us: the return to the fold of a beloved family member who has wandered off for a while. His family greets him with conflicting emotions. Some feel joy at his return; some feel relief that he is safe; some feel jealousy that all seems forgiven and even forgotten; some harshly judge his profligate ways; some feel it is unfair that they are not celebrated for staying and remaining faithful to their family obligations.

But as you can expect, the real message of this parable isn’t quite so simple. It doesn’t lie so obviously on the surface of the narrative.

Taking our cue from Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians, we realize that the eldest son’s error was in judging his brother’s return and his father’s reaction of pure joy – no reproaches, no recriminations for the trouble or grief the son’s appearance had caused – “from a human point of view.” Who among us hasn’t and wouldn’t take that same “human point of view” when confronted with a similar situation that seems so obviously unfair?

Somehow the Prodigal Son’s return to his father’s favor seems just too easy: essentially, “Hi, Dad. I’m Home!” And all is forgiven. Let’s have a party!

It is hard for us to accept that the consequences for behaving badly could be, should be, so apparently light. Even though we understand that the return to the faithful flock of any one strayed sheep, even just one formerly lost soul, is always the occasion for joy in the family of God. Even though we understand that always – but especially during Lent – the call to “repent and return” is one that we all should heed in small ways, as well as in life-changing ways. Even though we take to heart the psalmist’s reminder that “happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven and whose sin is put away!”

We understand, we have been taught and believe abstractly, that a forgiving nature is one which we are called to cultivate in a life of faith and to demonstrate in our relationships with others. But somehow we can’t help but feel that the situation described in this parable smacks of what we might call “cheap grace.” It conflicts with our definitely all-too-human notion that we need to earn good fortune, and certainly in some measure deserve God’s favor, and that “no pain, no gain” is the proper yardstick for measuring out someone’s portion of forgiveness.

Understanding God’s justice is never easy. Basically, the difficulty lies in the fact that we confuse our sense of justice with God’s capacity for love. In human and secular understanding, the two have become entangled – and muddled. Justice has to do with fairness; love has to do with selflessness. Justice is balanced; love is extravagant. Justice almost always involves some measure of retribution; love calls us to reconciliation.

The deeper truth of the story of the Prodigal Son lies in coming to grips with the breadth and depth of God’s love. In the words of the hymn, it requires us to contemplate the “wideness of God’s mercy,” to imagine it from outside and beyond the narrow confines of the human perspective.

The breadth of God’s embrace is unknowable to us. The depth of God’s love is incomprehensible – and certainly immeasurable from a human point of view. It is not for us to decide who falls within God’s grace – nor who should be excluded from his mercy.

During this time of Lent, when we are meant to prepare ourselves spiritually for reliving the story of Jesus’ passion, his death and resurrection, we need to keep Paul’s words clearly in focus – that through Jesus’ one astounding act of self-sacrificing love, “God was reconciling the world to himself.” And not just reconciling our one self-selected flock of faithful believers gathered in any one place at any one time, but the whole world, once for all time.

In Christ, in his death and resurrection, God was reconciling the world to himself. There was no universal accounting of trespasses, no meting out of more salvation to some than to others. There was no greater redemption for one group than for another, no fuller restoration of a chosen few over the vast hordes of sinners. God was reconciling the whole world to himself. That isn’t justice; that is unfathomable divine mercy and unbounded holy love.

Paul tells us that we have been entrusted with spreading the message of this kind of absolute reconciliation – the message of reconciliation that lies at the heart of the story of the Return of the Prodigal Son.

And the kind of reconciliation that we are called to preach is the kind of reconciliation that does not weigh our merits, but simply pardons our offenses, as the collect says.

It’s the kind of reconciliation that holds nothing back, harbors no recriminations, nurtures no resentments.

The kind of reconciliation that demands nothing in return – nothing except utter surrender to God’s mercy.

The kind of reconciliation that starts with a heartfelt confession like the one the Prodigal Son makes to his father: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am not worthy of your favor.”

We are called to preach the kind of reconciliation that comes from unconditional forgiveness, like the father gave in his immediate welcoming and loving embrace of his errant son: “Let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

Today is the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Laetare Sunday, or as it has been more popularly called “Rejoice Sunday,” referring to the opening words of the Introit for this day: “Rejoice, O Jerusalem.”

On this one day amid the other thirty-nine of this penitential season, the clergy may shed somber purple vestments for glorious rose ones.

On this Sunday we are permitted to dispense with whatever Lenten regimen of fasting we may have imposed upon ourselves and indulge – moderately – without guilt.

And on this Sunday we are told to make a truly joyful noise unto the Lord with hymns and organ, and even array our altars with gloriously colored flowers – a celebration that immediately calls to mind our gospel story and the father’s celebration at his youngest son’s return.

On this Sunday, we are meant to cast our eyes forward to the end of this season of penitence. On this Sunday we are called to anticipate the joy of Christ’s resurrection, to celebrate the fulfillment of God’s promise of redemption given long ago to the Israelites, God’s chosen people:

  • a promise renewed time and again down through the millennia each time God’s people have returned from their disobedient and faithless ways
  • a promise given to Moses when he led the people out of Egypt and across the Red Sea
  • a promise renewed with Joshua at Gilgal, redeeming all Israel from their forty years of wandering faithlessness in the wilderness
  • a promise renewed again with David, forgiving him for his sins against Uriah and God and making him king of all Israel
  • a promise renewed by bringing the dispersed people of Israel out of exile in Babylon and restoring God’s people to the promised land

Again and again, scripture recounts one story after another of redemption, restoration, and renewal of God’s people – individuals, tribes, and nations of God’s people – until finally, the promise is fulfilled in Christ once for all time for all who would believe.

Jesus Christ died once for all time and once for all humankind.

On this Sunday of rejoicing, let us remember the words of our psalmist this morning: “Mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord. Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord; shout for joy, all who are true of heart.”

 

— The Rev. Susan McCone is the director of Mission Funding for the Episcopal Church. A priest of the Diocese of Connecticut, she also serves as priest-in-charge of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Washington, Connecticut. Susan is an M.Div. graduate of the Yale Divinity School and the Episcopal seminary, the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale.

In the end, it’s about bread, 4 Lent (C) – 2007

March 18, 2007

Joshua 5:9-12Psalm 322 Corinthians 5:16-21Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

“Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life for the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him.”

In the end, it seems it is about bread. Which is only right, since in the beginning it was also about bread. Not just any bread, of course, but “true bread,” which comes down from heaven. If we could just get our hands on the right bread, Christ will live in us, and we will live in Christ. And one notes that as we pray, we acknowledge that this bread is bread that is given. We ask God to give us this bread, just as Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Those who live in Christ are those who depend on bread that is given daily.

In the Bible this is an echo of an earlier time when our ancestors in the wilderness did, in fact, depend on bread that was given daily: They called it manna, which in Hebrew roughly translates as “what-is-it.”

As our first text notes, however, once out of the wilderness and into the land of Canaan, the people no longer depended upon daily bread, and instead we are told “they ate the produce of the land.”

For the benefit of anyone who missed this, the text goes to great pains to repeat this assertion: “The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.”

Now this might be seen as good news – good news that the people are now capable of being self-sufficient, taking their fill from the produce of the land. But we might note that the text makes a peculiar assertion that could easily be overlooked: the manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land. There is a suggested cause-and-effect here: self-sufficiency interrupts the bread supply.

Were we to read further into the Joshua saga, we would discover that self-sufficiency begets dangerous and dysfunctional behavior. For once the people no longer depend upon bread that is given, once they take from the produce of the land, once they wean themselves from a dependence on the grace of God, new problems set in – in particular the problems of covetousness and greed.

This is something God had warned them about back in manna season. One of the ten commandments, the tenth, and the only one repeated twice in the Exodus text is Exodus 20:17: “You shall not covet.” But once the new-found freedom of self-sufficiency had set in, covetousness was not far behind.

Indeed, after success at crumbling the walls of Jericho, things begin to go awry, all because of one person’s covetousness. The Lord had decreed that all the silver and gold and vessels of bronze and iron were to be deposited in the treasury of the Lord to benefit the entire community. Just as manna season provided enough for everyone, no one had too much. If you saved it and hoarded it, it went sour. The treasury of the Lord was meant to work for the benefit of the whole of God’s community.

Sure enough, come the next battle in chapter seven, things go poorly. A special prosecutor is appointed to find out why, and the way the special prosecutor worked in those days was to throw some dice. The special prosecutor determined that there had been some serious transgression against the Lord, and that the sin was in a particular tribe. Then rolling the dice again, it was determined that it was in a particular family in the tribe, and another roll of the dice revealed it was one man, Achan, who had held back some of the things that belonged in the treasury of the Lord. Achan had taken from the community goods, set aside his own little 401(k) or whatever, and this had caused the people to lose the next battle. One man’s sin caused the entire community to fail.

Because of Achan’s covetousness and greed, the life of the community was imperiled. What the Bible appears to be saying is that covetousness and greed kill. Withholding anything from that which belongs in the Lord’s treasury brings misery to God’s gathered community. Giving up dependence on bread that is given daily has its consequences.

Luke and Acts go to great pains to recreate manna season in the life of the early Christian community. What else are we to make of Acts, chapter four, verses 32-37, where we learn that “No one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own but they had everything in common. … There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.”

Which brings us to: What does it mean to live in Christ? It has something to do with a return to manna season. We might note in passing that among the principal characters in the story of the “Prodigal Son,” the servants provide an example of what it means to live in Christ. We might note with particular interest that at the father’s command, the servants evidently have free access to all the best in the father’s household: the best ring, the best clothes, the best food. And these servants are to administer all these “best” things according to the father’s wishes.

Now we might readily identify ourselves with the father, or the younger son, or even with the seemingly justified anger and self-righteousness of the older son – but the servants truly get at what it means to live in Christ. The servants are stewards of all the best in the household and are trusted to do with those things what the Father wants done.

Isn’t that who we are? Have we not been entrusted with all the best God has created – the earth and all that is therein? Look around and see the abundance and richness God has entrusted to our care. As servants in God’s household, we are stewards of all creation. Covetousness and greed, withholding anything that belongs to the whole community of God, leads to seriously bad consequences. Not much exegesis is needed to verify this.

Saint Paul says that being in Christ means that in addition to bread that is given daily, God gives us something else: a ministry of reconciliation. One suspects that these two things are related – a willingness to accept bread that is given daily and reconciling the brokenness of the world, a brokenness largely born of extravagant living, covetousness, and greed.

We are ambassadors for Christ, says Paul. God makes his appeal to the world through us. We are those people who pray for daily bread. May we also pray for the courage to be reconciled to God so that we might accept the ministry he so desires to give to us: the ministry of reconciliation. Our willingness to accept bread that is given daily has consequences for the whole world and everyone and everything therein.

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, Maryland, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He also travels throughout the church leading stewardship events for parishes, dioceses, clergy conferences, and diocesan conventions. He has long been involved in the work of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS), and the Ministry of Money. He frequently uses music and storytelling in his proclamation of the Word.