Sunday, February 28, 2016

That Other Son

All over the Orthodox world today (except for my Old Calendar friends), the faithful are hearing the parable of the prodigal son read as the Gospel passage at Divine Liturgy.  And so all over the Orthodox world, sermons are being preached on this parable.  It's the second Sunday of the Triodion, the run up to the start of Great Lent in 8 days time. I was asked yesterday by Fr. John to preach today, another one of those 'in season and out of season', ready or not opportunities to bring God's Word to His people.  What follows is the sermon I preached a couple of hours ago in the Patriarchal Cathedral of Sts. Anargyroi (St. Cosmas and St. Damian) in Nairobi.

Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son (1669)  The older brother is looking on.
It is worth spending time taking in this powerful scene as Rembrandt portrays it.

So Jesus tells a story.  I’ve learned to be very careful when Jesus starts telling a story.  Because invariably he gets halfway through and I discover that it’s a story, not about some harmless spiritual truth, but it’s a story about me.  And I have a very strong hunch that this is a story about you, too.

If you are like me, you probably ignore those readings or those sermons that you think you’ve heard before.  And this parable of the prodigal son probably falls into that category, because we hear it every year as we are preparing for Great Lent.  But our Church gives us this passage to think about every year for a reason.  And the reason is this:  our Church thinks we need to hear Jesus on this issue.  Our Church thinks we need this.  Our Church thinks all of us need to repent.

So you know how the story goes.  The father’s younger son wants to break out of his father’s house and live life the way he wants to live it.  And so he asks his father to give him his share of the inheritance.  The father divides his estate and gives his younger son his share, and the young man goes off to discover everything he’s been missing by living at home with his father.  He discovers that one is popular if one is rich and is spending lots of money.  Parties, drinking, sex, the best of everything that money can buy.  The young man has it all, until he runs through his entire share of the inheritance.  And he discovers that all of his new friends disappear when he no longer has anything to give them.  And then a famine strikes, and he’s really in trouble.  He can’t pay rent, he can’t afford to eat.  He’s all alone.  The rich playboy is reduced to feeding pigs.

It’s at that very low point that Jesus says the young man comes to his senses.   He remembers his father.  He decides to go home.  He’ll offer to work for his father like one of his slaves.  He will tell his father that he has offended both him and God by his behavior.  And he will ask for forgiveness.   He walks the long journey home.  And as he’s still a ways off, his father sees him and runs to meet him.  The celebration has already started before his lost son can say sorry.  The fatted calf is killed, the music and dancing start, and the father’s joy fills his house.

This is the picture of repentance that Jesus paints for us.  Coming to our senses, realizing that we are in the wrong.  Turning away from our wrong choices and our wrong attitudes.  Deciding to come back home. And being received back home with joy.  This is repentance.  This is what it looks like.
However, there is another son in this family.  The older son did not take his share of the inheritance and waste it on loose living.  The older son did not rebel against his father’s authority and leave home.  The older son did his duty.  He stayed and helped his father with managing the estate.  In fact, he had been out in the fields when the sound of music and celebration reaches him, coming from his house.  And when he finds out that his brother has come home, and not only that, but that his father has embraced him, but not only that, there’s a party being thrown to celebrate his return, the older brother can hardly stand it.  The more he thinks about it, the angrier and more offended he feels and finally, he refuses to go in.  Even when his father comes out and pleads with him to come and celebrate, to rejoice with everyone over this dead son who has now come to life again, the older brother refuses.  And that is where the story ends.

We tend to focus on the younger son when we think about this parable.  And there are some prodigals here this morning, prodigal sons and prodigal daughters who have wandered from the father’s house and made choices that have taken them far away from salvation.  And those of us who are prodigals need desperately to hear the good news this morning that you can come home again.  Jesus has made it possible for you to be forgiven, for you to have a new life, for you to have a second chance.  Come to your senses, says Jesus.  Even if you are in the pigpen this morning.  Come to your senses and come home.  The Father will run to meet you.

But to be honest with you, most of us here this morning are like the older brother.  Maybe we’ve been Orthodox all our life.  Maybe we socialize with our Orthodox friends.  Maybe we are proud of our Orthodox heritage.  But our understanding of Orthodoxy is one of identity and not one of relationship.  In other words maybe we are here this morning because we were baptized as an Orthodox.   Maybe we are here this morning because it’s our culture.  Maybe we are self-satisfied.  Maybe we look down on everyone else.    We’ve become like the church in Laodicea in Revelation, who said to themselves, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’  But as Christ says to them, ‘I know your works, you are neither hot nor cold.  You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.’ (Revelation 3:15, 17)

It turns out that the younger brother isn’t the only son who has wandered from the Father’s home.  Turns out that the younger brother isn’t the only son in desperate need of repentance.  Both sons are far from the Father’s heart.  Both sons have chosen their own way.  In this story, the younger son, the one we call the prodigal son, comes to his senses and finds his way home.  But the older son is just as lost.  The older son desperately needs to come to his senses.  The older brother can’t see anything beyond himself, he’s consumed by self-centeredness and selfishness.  He cannot forgive his brother, but he also cannot imagine that he is the one in need of a change of heart, in need of repentance, in need of salvation.  In contrast, his younger brother was lost but now is found.  He was dead, but is now alive again.  He’s come back home, back to his father’s house, embraced by his father’s love.  But the older brother, he is blind to the condition of his own heart, blind to his own need; he cannot see how far he has wandered from his father’s house and from his father’s love.

Which brother are you?  Are you the younger brother, the prodigal son? Have you taken the father’s inheritance and squandered it on yourself?  Have you broken your relationship with the Lord by living for yourself?  Or are you the older brother, who has been in his father’s house his whole life, but never understood his father’s heart, never understood what the gospel is, never understood your own need for repentance and forgiveness and for a new and changed heart?

You can come home again.  It’s not too late.  Come to your senses and leave your pigpen.  Come to your senses and leave your self-centered judgmentalism, your self-justification, your religious Pharisee-ism .  And where do we come?  In the story, both sons were meant to come home to their father’s house.  And you and me?  We are to come to Jesus.  We find him here in the gospel.  We find him here in the body of Christ.  We find him here in the sacraments.  When we come to our senses, we will begin to realize what we have been missing, we will be looking for forgiveness.  We will be looking for reconciliation.  We will be looking for a new start, for a new life, for a new way, for new power, for new friends, for faithful guides.  All of these things we will find right here.  But it all starts – it can only start – when we see ourselves as we really are.  When we admit that Jesus really is telling this story about you, and me.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Where Bishops Dance

There is joy in the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church, deep joy.  Faithful believers coming together to pray, to reorient their lives around the Holy Trinity, around the love that is our God.

The Liturgy itself is a choreography, a kind of dance. The priests follow steps practiced as far back as the Church’s memory goes.  Processions with the Gospel book, and then with the unconsecrated bread and wine become the Lord Jesus bringing Good News to the World, and then the Lord Himself going up to Jerusalem, to the cross for the sake of the world that God so loved.

And there is the response, the constant response of the faithful, singing their ‘Amen,’ adding their ‘Lord have mercy’, singing the great ancient hymns of the Church.

It doesn’t matter that people sometimes don’t see this, that sometimes the Orthodox themselves give the appearance that they don’t believe what they are saying or what the Church around them is singing.  The Church is the outstretched hand of God to every person who comes, giving to each one of us yet another opportunity to touch God, to meet with God, to listen to God, to be transformed by God.

Sometimes protocol is mistaken for theology.  And we Orthodox are very good at protocol.  Sometimes propriety is mistaken for goodness.  Sometimes decorum is mistaken for spirituality.  Sometimes the form seems more important than the content.  Sometimes joy is overlooked as a fruit of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work in our lives.  But then, sometimes not.

This past Sunday, I was in the middle of a celebration of the Divine Liturgy.  The Bishop had just come through the Royal Doors with the Holy Gifts for God’s people.  The brightly dressed choir launched into a call-and-response riff of praise, with drums and guitars, the choir ladies in their bright blue blouses and their sensible navy skirts and the men in the back row singing their hearts out, and everyone swaying back and forth.  And the people lined up, first the children and then the grownups, a long, long line of people waiting their turn to receive the Holy Gifts, the Body and the Blood of our Lord.  And as I was watching, I noticed that people in the line were, in fact everyone in line was moving with the music.  Young mamas carrying babies, old mamas with their grey hair covered by bright scarfs, young men jiving, old men stepping – I suddenly realize that everyone is dancing, two-stepping up to the Bishop, dancing before the Lord, dancing for the Lord.  Even I found myself moving, dancing, such was the scene, it was contagious, such was the joy around me.

And it continued.  Once the Liturgy was finished and the offering was being collected.  We take offerings here by having people bring theirs up to the front.  And the people came with their offerings to the Lord.  And they came dancing, unselfconsciously dancing.  And the Bishop came down for the final blessing, and he was dancing.  We didn’t want it to end.

Life is hard in rural Kenya, a scramble to come up with enough. There is none of the bling and glitter that beguile so many in the West.  No granite countertops here, or three car suburban garages.  No Tablets for children.  No retirement plans for the grandparents.  But I’ve seen joy.  Plain, ungarnished joy.

Joy is wonderful, and it overflows. Joy makes some to cry, and others to shout.  And some just have to move their feet.  I found joy this past Sunday, in an unexpected place, in this land that has so little.  Little did I know as I drove down dusty bumpy roads, past small farms with their maize and chickens and goats, past the tidy mud-walled homes with tin roofs and the occasional round hut with a thatched roof, little did I know that there might be joy here.  But there is, in this land where the faithful pray, in this land where Bishops dance.