“But when he came to himself/But when the Church came to itself”– A Sermon

The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham

Lent 4, Year C 2019

Luke 15:1-3; 11b-32

March 31, 2019

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But when he came to himself/

But when the Church came to Itself

 

But when he came to himself he said . . . I am dying here of hunger. . . I will get up and go to my father.

It is hard not to read today’s Gospel account of what is traditionally known as “the prodigal son,” and not immediately frame this conversation in terms of individual moral behavior.  Greedily grasping for inheritance funds, carelessly charting a course of self-indulgence.  Pride cometh before the fall. It is hard not to focus our attention on the one willful son who squandered it all, who bet the farm—or at least his portion of it—and lost.  Who ended up covered in mud, looking a pig in the face.  When we focus this way, perhaps we think more highly of ourselves: well at least I’ve never been that bad.  Or, perhaps we are convicted in our individual lives: perhaps there’s hope for me yet.

We might also focus on the character of the older, faithful brother who remained with the family and cared for things as a responsible person should.  And perhaps we think too highly of ourselves: Well, I’m glad to see the Bible recognizes how right I am in doing what I have done.  Or, perhaps we are convicted: well, I missed the boat on that one, didn’t I?

We might also focus on the character of the father.  You get my point.  By focusing on each of the individual people in the story, different elements or dynamics in our personal lives are drawn to the surface for deeper reflection.  And, there is good in such an imaginative engagement of the text.  Jesus told this story so that such a conversion could be facilitated within the hearts of all who have heard it through the centuries.  We remember that the “point” is not guilt but conversion of life, and that is key to Christian practice.

We hear the heart-breaking words of the son in the mud and the pathos resonates in our hearts: But when he came to himself he said . . . I am dying here of hunger. . . I will get up and go to my father.  It is the pivot of the story, is it not?  A recognition of one’s circumstances, an awareness of one’s condition, and a movement toward wholeness.  The three-fold pattern is obvious: orientation, disorientation, reorientation.  Order, disorder, reorder.  Construction, deconstruction, reconstruction.  This pattern is foundational to our Christian practice, especially as we look toward Holy Week.

I was surprised as I sat with this parable these past couple of weeks, at what percolated in my heart—and what challenged me and made me uncomfortable.  I understood the meaning of the pattern, the movement, in a way I never really had before.  I now see this text not as a parable or spiritual teaching tool meant only for a personal or individual conversion.  I think it is a parable for the entire Church, the Body of Christ who, in many ways, has become preoccupied with its own agenda and plans and who is being invited to a season of reorientation, to “return to the Father,” to use the language of the text.  Let me see if this is meaningful to you.

But when he came to himself he said. . . I am dying here of hunger. . . I will get up and go to my father.

Last weekend, I helped lead a retreat at Kanuga, the Episcopal Conference Center in North Carolina.  In that beautiful space, we delved deeply into a reflection on our struggle with civil discourse, racial reconciliation, environmental stewardship, and with the challenges we see, on one hand, with declining participation in “church” and, on the other hand, with the Church’s call to share Christ’s compassion in the world.

I shared meals with clergy and church folks from throughout the Southeast who said that it had been years since they had a baptism.  Their pews are mostly empty.  I listened to their struggles and their hope for some kind of rejuvenation, a reorientation.  They shared how, in the face of so much anxiety and fear in our culture, some in their churches would say, “well, if more folks would just come to Church, we wouldn’t have these problems.” Yet they knew the deeper invitation was to reflect on just what or who the Church is.  And maybe, just maybe, the Church itself has become disoriented from the trajectory of Jesus’ own transforming message.  How have we become complacent?

But when he came to himself he said. . . I am dying here of hunger. . . I will get up and go to my father.

        I think of the mission statement of The Episcopal Church itself, what we say we are called to share in, the meaning of our existence.  It is on page 855 in the Book of Common Prayer.

Q. What is the mission of the Church?
A. The mission of the Church is to restore all people to
unity with God and each other in Christ.
   
Q. How does the Church pursue its mission?
A. The Church pursues its mission as it prays and
worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice,
peace, and love.
   
Q. Through whom does the Church carry out its mission?
A. The church carries out its mission through the ministry
of all its members.

 

I always keep this image close by in my discernment and work, because, to put it bluntly, if we aren’t doing this, we have no reason to exist.

The beauty we share here in this space is meant to stir up our awareness of beauty so that we recognize beauty in the world and work to promote and nurture the transforming mission of God.  This is what is meant by a sacramental theology—nothing less.  In my experience, much of the struggle with some is that we see the Church as a comfortable space in a world that seems to be anything but.  We need a place of refuge and peace to strengthen us, empower us, and calm our souls to live more fully as followers of Jesus in the world today.  So, when conversations or sermons “push too much,” this is honestly what is at the heart of the pinch: a desire for the Church to be comfortable.

But here’s the thing:  it is a false dichotomy to put the comforting and nurturing space of the Church and the transforming mission of the Church as opposed to each other.  If we hold too tightly to that dichotomy and resist out of some claim for comfort, I have a sneaking suspicion that we are doing so to let ourselves off the hook.  This is a false dichotomy, because, what is actually underneath both of these apparent poles is our deep yearning for healing.  If we are willing to look deep within and ask ourselves what we really desire, what we hunger for, yearn for, I believe we come to a deep desire for healing, for wholeness.

But when he came to himself he said. . . I am dying here of hunger. . . I will get up and go to my father.

We can work with that!  Indeed, we are meant to work with that, to nurture that, as the Body of Christ.  We are in the wholeness business.

Far too often, on the institutional “side” of the Church, we constrict ourselves, seeking to settle on those superficial levels of comfort and self-focus rather than allow ourselves to live out of this deeper hunger for healing.  And, just in case you’re wondering, folks can smell self-preoccupation a mile away these days when it comes to institutions.  And, the social capital we accumulated in the 1950s to 1970s has been spent down to zero.  That account is zeroed out (thanks be to God!), so now we’re left with the actual transforming, spiritual work we have always been called to do by the One who gives us life.

And, of course, we struggle, and we feel provoked and pinched because we’re human and our egos are sharp.  And in those moments of feeling pinched, our egos grasp and we can cling onto our own self-preserving agendas.  Our tribalism.  And Lord knows we have had enough of tribalism these days!  We all know this is true.  The wonderful Quaker teacher and writer Parker Palmer describes it this way:

When the primitive brain dominates, Christianity goes over to the dark side.  Churches self-destruct over doctrinal differences, forgetting that their first calling is to love one another.  Parishioners flock to preachers who see the anti-Christ in people who do not believe as they do.  Christian voters support politicians who use God’s name to justify ignoble and often violent agendas.  When the primitive brain is in charge, humility, compassion, forgiveness, and the vision of a beloved community do not stand a chance. . . . Learning how to hold life’s tensions in the responsive heart instead of the reactive primitive brain is key to personal, social, and cultural creativity: rightly held, those tensions can open us to new thoughts, relationships, and possibilities that disappear when we try to flee from or destroy their source.[1]

But when the Church came to itself we said. . . We are dying here of hunger. . . We will get up and go to our father.

At the heart of the struggle is fear.  Fear is always such a pernicious force, because it drains hope from our souls and leads us to believe that we have to rely on our own agendas and grasping rather than God’s grace.  But, as we see in I John 4, in a translation I’ve been playing with:

There is no fearfulness in Divine Love,

because the essence of Divine Love rejects fearfulness;

for fearfulness restrains growth and thwarts life,

and whoever promotes fearfulness restrains the

expansion of Divine Love.

We love God because God first loved us.

this mutual in-loving defines the meaning of our

existence.

So, here is where I am left: I am aware that this is the work we are called to do—this is my vocation as a parish priest and I’m not going anywhere because there is a lot of good spiritual work to be done.  And, I’m also aware that we, as a Church, don’t really know how to do this work.  We have not had to do it, and now we find ourselves struggling and fearful, and yearning for…something more.  We need what Beverly Lanzetta describes as “access to the alphabet and vocabulary of the spirit.”  We need to practice this, to explore this transforming reality that is, actually, the heart of who we are as the Body of Christ.  It is going to take time, and that is fine.  We’re in this for the long haul.

To that end, I am inviting us all to celebrate this unbelievably beautiful and rich space on Sunday mornings and to lay alongside it a monthly Sunday evening study group.  I’m inviting us all to share in a deeper space of reading, study, conversation, with music, art, poetry, stories, and food and wine.  Yes food and wine!  And chocolate.

I have taken to calling them “Gatherings,” times to come together in different locations to share who our conversation partners are, what questions we have, what insights we have gained, what blind spots we have become aware of, and what hopes we have.  The first one will be next Sunday evening, April 7, at our home.  We’re inviting you there to dig deeper.

We will look at our sacred stories and see how contemporary writers and artists—and the ancients—help us break them open and enrich our spiritual practice.  We may sing, we may look at artwork, we may explore a film.  We may tell stories.  We will share Communion.  We will say prayers and celebrate our lives.  We will be the Church, a community of healing and hope, of reorientation and peace, of transformation.

Thank God we have this time together every Sunday morning to nourish our souls.  Thank God for this beauty and the way our common prayer shapes our lives. And thank God we have six other days in a week to practice our faith as well!  Because we have work to do, my friends.  Deep, holy, life-giving, and transforming work.  Let us be about it.

[1] Parker Palmer, as quoted in The Spirit and the Art of Conflict Transformation: Creating a Culture of JustPeace by Thomas Porter (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2010). 16-17.

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