Benediction Online

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Prodigal Son

Sometimes people ask me what I miss about England. I usually think of food; cheese, gooseberry jam, cream teas, or marmite toast eaten sitting in front of a coal fire when you’re cold and wet. I often forget to mention one important cultural event. Pantomime. Every December, theaters around the country stage a pantomime, a musical comedy based on one of the old children’s tales. Favorites are Jack and the Beanstalk, Mother Goose, Aladdin, and Cinderella. It’s a very specific art form where young men are played by women, and the hero’s mother, the dame, is always played by an older man. It’s gender-bending, silly and often bawdy humor with the audience participating in songs, and booing and hissing the villain. Yet it captures the imagination. Will the ugly sisters be able to get the silver slipper onto their large misshapen feet, or will the handsome transgender prince once again successfully find the misrepresented but beautiful and virtuous Cinderella in the kitchen?

Where would Cinderella be without her ugly, bossy sisters? In a world of virtuous beautiful people Cinderella would be unremarkable.

As I think about the story of the Prodigal Son, I wonder about the other brother. The one who stayed home and was good, and then resentful. At first glance it seems that the story would work just as well without him. Our hero says his Dad is so useless as to be virtually dead so he demands his half of the family fortune and goes off to play in the casinos and golf courses of the rich. But after a remarkably short time it’s all gone and he find himself earning minimum wage putting out the trash, and as so many in our county know only too well, you can’t live on minimum wage. So he decides to go home and get a job on the family ranch where at least the workers are paid enough to eat and have a roof over their heads too. When he gets home his father sees him coming and goes out to greet him with tremendous joy. Then he throws a party and invites all his friends to come and celebrate the return of his son who he feared was dead.

The story could end there. A wonderful portrayal of God’s love which is greater than all our sins, faults and stupidity. A love which always comes out to meet us halfway and is ready to welcome us home. Love which rejoices and is ready to embrace us as soon as we are willing and ready to turn towards the divine.

But Jesus doesn’t leave it there. This father has another son who has stayed home and done all that a faithful son should, but somehow no-one thinks to tell him about the party until he is coming home late after a hard days work and hears the music. He is furious that his father is rewarding his loser brother, rather than he himself who has done all that a good son should.

Jesus may have just included the older son for contrast, as a foil for the younger son. We only see things which are different from other things. We perceive by noticing difference. Cinderella would not stand out in a world where everyone was beautiful and humble. The prodigal son would not stand out in a world where everyone went off and squandered their father’s fortune.

But we have all done exactly that. Over and over again we take our inheritance as the daughters and sons of the living God for granted. We forget that we are part of the household of God and the rights and responsibilities that come with that. We have all ‘gone astray like lost sheep and followed the devices and desires of our own hearts’ as the prayer book of my youth put it. We have as a civilization squandered the inheritance of the planet and have taken for granted the resources and the gifts we have been given.

So where’s the difference that helps us see? Who is the older brother whose life helps us to see where we are going wrong? For Christians, Jesus is our older brother whose life and teaching helps us to see the difference, helps us to distinguish right thinking and right livelihood from foolish and wasteful living. Not just in his earthly life and his teachings that we read in the Bible, but in his living presence with us through the Holy Spirit who reminds us that it is never too late to come home.

But of course there is a big difference between Jesus and the older son in the story. Jesus does not become resentful and angry when we come to our senses and return to God, in fact it is Jesus who has made that possible for us. He comes running alongside the Creator God to welcome us home to the great party.

I don’t know who Jesus had in mind or who his original audience thought he meant by the elder brother. With my current bias I sometimes think that the beloved younger son represents the gay, lesbian and transgender people who have been excluded from the church for so long, but now are returning and the older son is those who say that they are clinging to the historic faith of their fathers in wanting to deny our participation. But when they claim the position of the younger son, saying that they need to be welcomed back and have a party thrown especially for them, I become resentful.

On the other hand, we are so used to thinking of the father in this story as representing Creator God that we consider his behavior to be blameless. Perhaps it was, within the context of the Mediterranean family in the first century, but from today’s perspective he was rather foolish not to have sent word out to the oldest son to come and welcome his brother and join the party. There is a place in the story for the father too to ask forgiveness.

There is no moral high ground. We are called to be reconciling forces in the world, to reconcile people to each other and to God. But we can never do this while we continue to think of ourselves as the prodigal son and not the older son, or as the older son and not the prodigal son. All of us need to ask forgiveness. And we all need to play the father’s role too - to offer forgiveness and welcome one another back into communion and community. It’s a natural extension of our experience of God’s forgiving and reconciling love towards us, but it is not easy.

It is always easier to see ourselves as the ones who are right and others as needing to change. It is easier to see the differences between us than the similarities. But God calls us all to the party, to the heavenly banquet, to the wedding feast.

The prince always does find Cinderella and they have a wonderful wedding and live happily ever after. That’s our story too. God always does find us and sooner or later we find God and then will come the wedding feast after which we’ll all live happily ever after.

As we come to the Eucharist together today, let us remember that it symbolizes that reconciliation of God and humanity and is a very small foretaste of the wedding banquet that is to come.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

What's In a Name?

Jill and I have started the search for our new dog. Two candidates so far are Caviar and Gertrude. How do people come up with names for their dogs? or their cats? or their children for that matter? and what about names for God?

In our first reading this morning Yahweh declares, ‘I AM THAT I AM… this is my name for ever and this is my title for all generations.’ There is always a slight problem with reading ancient Hebrew – they didn’t write the vowels down – so scholars struggle with translating passages like this, but I AM THAT I AM is the translation that works best. Both the names Yahweh and Jehovah are attempts to translate this Name, the name of Moses’ God and ours.

But Jesus mainly talked about God as Father or Abba, Pappa. This must have been astonishing for the people of his day. Certainly they were used to the idea that prophets like Moses or patriarchs like Abraham had two way conversations with God. But for someone to be so intimate with God that he called the divine Abba was outrageous.

Our youngest cat is named Lu Shien after the very elegant martial artist in the movie Hidden Tiger, Crouching Mountain. But we often call her other things like Lucy Pusy, Sproglet and Little Smudge. Those are our family names, our pet names for her. Whenever we love someone dearly, closely, intimately, we have a special name or names for them – sweetheart, darling, mi cielo.

What do you call God? When we gather together we use formal language “Our Father who art in heaven”, “Our Lord Jesus Christ”, “Holy Spirit”, or the archaic “Holy Ghost”. But what do you call God in private? What is your pet name for God?

Let’s read Psalm 63 again:

O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you; *my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you,as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.
Therefore I have gazed upon you in your holy place, *that I might behold your power and your glory.
For your loving-kindness is better than life itself; *my lips shall give you praise.
So will I bless you as long as I live *and lift up my hands in your Name.
My soul is content, as with marrow and fatness, *and my mouth praises you with joyful lips,
When I remember you upon my bed, *and meditate on you in the night watches.
For you have been my helper, *and under the shadow of your wings I will rejoice.
My soul clings to you; *your right hand holds me fast.

These are intimate words. ‘O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you’. These are the words of a lover. Are you God’s lover? “My soul clings to you, your right hand holds me fast’.

One of our parrots, Bunny, the umbrella cockatoo, loves to be stroked under his wings. He has a special place there under the shadow of his wings where he loves to be touched. It is a very intimate personal place… the psalmist writes, ‘under the shadow of your wings I will rejoice’. We can be as near to God, as intimate and up close personal as if we were nestled in that special place under the wings.

God longs for each one of us to come to Godself in love and devotion. Last week in the Gospel reading Jesus said of Jerusalem, ‘How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings’. God wants us to gather under God’s wings in that soft, downy, intimate place.

What’s stopping us? What prevents you from cuddling up with God?

We can use our breath prayer to help us open ourselves up to intimacy with God. Let’s take a few moments now to do that together.
Please close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
Find that place inside you that feels like home. Think of someone who makes your heart smile – perhaps it is a close friend, a sweetheart or a child or grandchild, or a pet. Let yourself think of them and feel your heart open.
Now turn your attention to God with that same loving openness.

And as you breath in say to yourself ‘I dwell in the shelter of the Most High” and as you breath out say ‘I abide under the shadow of the Almighty’.
I dwell in the shelter of the Most High… I abide under the shadow of the Almighty.’
I dwell in the shelter of the Most High… I abide under the shadow of the Almighty.’

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Abram's Inheritance Genesis 15 1-12,17-18

The first reading this morning is the story of the unconditional covenant between God and Abram. God promised Abram a great reward, but the only thing that Abram wanted was the one thing he thought he couldn’t have, children and grandchildren. God promised him that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars of the sky and when Abram believed this impossible promise we are told that it was reckoned to him as righteousness.

Why did Abram want a clan of children and grandchildren?

The ancient Hebrews did not believe in eternal life. The only way that their name lived on, the only kind of immortality they knew, was through their children and their possessions. So to have children, to have land, was important. It was a measure of their worth and their value as individuals.

Abram and Sara were nomads. They had no land to call their own. They had set out from Ur, up in the area of the fertile crescent near the Euphrates in modern Iraq, and their journey took them as far south as Egypt. The fertile land, the land where you could settle down and grow crops was by the rivers especially in the great Chaldean plain just north of the Persian Gulf, and the delta of the Nile.

God’s covenant, to give Abram’s descendants the land from the Nile to the Euphrates, is problematic for us if we read it literally. It can provide a justification for Israeli aggression. However, it only provides such a justification if it is taken in isolation from the rest of Scripture. Reading a verse contextually means looking at it within our understanding of the whole of the Bible, trying to understand what it might have meant in its original context and only then considering what it might mean today.

What might it have meant to Abram to be told that his descendants would be given the land from the Nile to the Euphrates? Firstly it was land, which he did not have as a nomad, secondly, it included areas of very fertile valley land as well as the hillsides where he would have grazed his flocks and thirdly it encompassed geographically the whole of his life. It had the potential to provide his descendants with tremendous well-being. This was to be his inheritance.

In Biblical context ‘inheritance’ is often used to mean what someone would be able to leave to his children rather than what he inherited from his parents. And in the absence of life after death, one’s inheritance was one’s immortality. So God’s promise to Abram is that he will be remembered not only through his children’s children but through the land that they will inhabit, a stretch of land which encompassed his whole life. His whole life would become a blessing to those who came after him.

This was a time when gods were very connected to the land because they were thought to be spatially limited just as we are. A god lived in a certain place. It really wasn’t until the Exodus, and more strongly the Exile, that the idea of a God who transcends time and space developed. Abram had experienced God from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates; this was the kingdom of God as far as he was concerned. So in this covenant we also have the sense of God promising that Abrams’ descendants would live in the kingdom of God.

Which is bringing us to more familiar New Testament language. In our baptism we are marked as Christ’s own for ever. We are translated into a new inheritance as the daughters and sons of God, this God who we now know transcends place and time. We are heirs to the kingdom but we no longer understand that as a physical place. It is no longer the land between two major rivers. Now we understand it as the inner country. As Jesus said, ‘the kingdom of God is within you’.

However, the inner kingdom requires translation into outer life. It is not enough to jealously guard our spiritual comfort, to quietly rejoice in our relationship with God and our certainty of eternal life, without living that, without being risk-takers in our outer lives. Because that is what eternal life allows us to do; it allows us to take risks. We don’t have to tread cautiously afraid of the possible outcomes, we can walk boldly in the path that we believe God is opening for us, confident that if we got it wrong, everything is still OK.

We are taking a risk with the Abundance Shop. I think it’s a small risk, I know some of you think it’s a big risk. We are moving the shop to a bigger place with greater visibility on 9th Street. The new store is bigger but only because it has an upstairs; downstairs will be about the same. Is that going to be a problem? Perhaps, perhaps not. We are certainly going to have to pay more rent, and so unless our sales increase, we will have less income. That’s the risk. But it’s a risk we can afford to take, because from a spiritual perspective we know we are already living in the kingdom, we are already living in our inheritance and so whatever happens, we are safe.

We have been looking for a bigger place for the Abundance Shop for about a year, and Sally, who has been our front person on this, has been very frustrated with landlords who don’t want a thrift store. Now the time has come. I am amazed and excited about the possibilities of the new store and feel quite sure that this is the path that God has prepared for us to take. I encourage you, if you can, to go by when we are there working on it, and see the place for yourself.

Because our true inheritance is not in the material world we can take risks, we can step forward in faith AND we do not have to have turf wars. We do not have to defend our physical boundaries nor push forward to establish larger territory at other people’s expense.

However, we do live in the material world, and our call to be wise and careful stewards of God’s gifts, includes the land on which we live. As spring comes and the grass grows I am again reminded that we are stewards here of nearly five acres, not just the parking lot and church. Sometimes it feels as though we are camping in the middle of a field, on land which we have not fully claimed. As we continue to seek God’s will for us as a faith community, I hope that we can find ways to faithfully use this land for the enrichment of all beings, not just the ground squirrels.

But there is a wider question. What will our inheritance be for our children and grandchildren? What will be the state of the land on which they live? So much of what we have come to take for granted is threatened as a result of the ways we have lived. Our water supply is dwindling, global warming is leading to huge changes in climate and the ever-increasing world population is living in increasing poverty. These are not things to be taken lightly.

I hope that if you are not already, you will start using the little Lenten booklets from Episcopal Relief and Development which challenge us to consider the needs of others and the needs of our planet. Unlike Abram we do not need land and children to assure us of eternal life. But what lives after us is important.

What is our inheritance going to be?

Dolly Parton puts it really well when she sings:

And when we're walking together in glory
Hand in hand through eternity
It's the love that will be remembered
Not wealth, not poverty

And when we're gone long gone
The only thing that will have mattered
Is the love that we shared
And the way that we cared
When we're gone, long gone.