A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
By The Rev. John Rettger
A sermon at
St. Johnıs Linden Hills
The Fourth Sunday in Lent
21 March 2004
Jesus said, There was a man who had two sons. Lk. 15.11
Right now our Episcopal Church, and beyond that the whole Anglican Communion, is going through what the Archbishop of Canterbury has called "a time of great uncertainty and disturbance." People often expect the church to be one place where people agree about everything, but the Episcopal Church has never been like that.
The Bible isnıt like that either. If todayıs gospel had began with There was a man who had one son, it would have made quite a different story. In fact, it might not have been a story at all. Bible stories gather us because they are about conflict between peoples who are supposed to be at peace with each other, like brothers or sisters.
So in the parable today we have one father and two sons; one brother, for reasons we can only guess, chooses to leave home. It was a significant decision, and for all we know he may have left home because he was gay.
But even if he was not, he was taking a risk. Some rabbis in ancient times taught that it was impossible to keep the law if you went far from home. When the prodigal left for a "far country" he would not find kosher food readily available. If he got a job he probably could not keep the sabbath. The penalty was great if you returned home again; when Jesus returned to Capernaum, the townspeople threw him no party.
But Jesus was always calling people away from home. Maybe he thought that their discipleship would be more intentional if they left town. Maybe he recognized that journey was so important in the story of faith: Abraham, Joseph, and Moses come to mind. But there is more to journey. It is really about discovering who you are. The prodigal daughter who leaves home is the adventurer, the discoverer, the learner. She recognizes that there is much that she does not know, and she is not satisfied to remain in the world that she knows. The prodigal is the pioneer who left the old country to homestead the prairie in the last century, or the scientist who explored microorganisms that had never been named, or Jeannette Piccard who rode a balloon to the edge of the atmosphere. He is the entrepreneur who saw the niche and filled it, the Georgia OıKeefe who saw flowers and painted them bigger than anyone could imagine, or the Beethoven who shocked the critics with dissonance and an interrupted theme in the 3rd symphony. The prodigal is anyone who leaves home to set up an alternate universe, challenging the conventional scheme: the Benedict in a darkening world who gathered monks around a rule, the Francis who gathered friars around a community deeded to humility, poverty, mother earth; the Luther or the Jefferson who reminds church and state of the importance of the individual standing before the strength of the institution. The so-called prodigal son is you and me, insofar as we think for ourselves and plan for a future that is different from the present. It takes boldness and creativity and courage to be a prodigal son or daughter on a journey. And right now in our church, we have embarked on a journey - working for justice for all our members including sexual minorities - that is risky, and in the news every day, and threatens to split our church.
The traditionalists in our church are not unlike the elder brother in Lukeıs parable. They have (as it were) stayed home. Many of them love the language of faith that they learned in their youth, the cadence of the King James Version of the Bible, the familiar answers to the catechism that they memorized and that defines who they are as people of faith. Their values are grounded in a morality which they say is biblical (though, truth to tell, they stay clear of biblical teaching when it comes to multiple wives and concubines). On their home television they see bared breasts and hear foul language. In their phone directories they see page after page of escort services. Their kids use words that they would never use in mixed company. They see gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the news doing unheard-of things: lining up to get married in San Francisco, Methodist ministers coming out of the closet and facing an ecclesiastical court, and what about Bishop Gene Robinson getting hugged by a multitude and given a robe and a ring, not to mention a mitre?
Over the years I have had many Bible studies on this parable, and in every one there are people who say something like this: "You know, this elder brother is like me. I stay out of trouble, I keep the law. I go to church and pledge a tithe." These are good people. But they do not seem to need a savior. Their interest in religion is apparently grounded in gathering others who are convinced of their righteousness. Right now in our Anglican Communion there are bishops who do not want to receive Communion with our Presiding Bishop. There are clergy who have taken the name Episcopal off their web page and their Sunday bulletin. They do not need to repent nor do they need to learn anything. Their prayer is: "Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered."
In addition to the two brothers, there is a father in the story. He is caught in the middle and wants his sons to be reconciled. He answers the older brother: All that I have is yours. Both of them know thatıs a lie, because they can smell the elder brotherıs 4-H Club calf being barbecued. But he continues your brother was dead, and has come to life. It is an Easter story, but like all Easter stories there is no proof that can convince and no exact ending. There is seed thrown, then death and the bursting away from the shell and then the mystery of new life. We do not know who won and who lost, who was right and who was wrong; if resurrection makes no sense to you, there are no answers to this story. Luke leaves us with hints of resurrection but thatıs all. When the prodigal says I will get up and go to my father he uses an Easter word: anastas - I will arise. But this is but a hint, and if you read just the words of the story you find that it ends with one brother dancing and the other wringing his hands and the father staying awake all night.
What do we do with this parable? Maybe we can write our own ending. The prodigal son settles down and works as a hired hand. The elder brother decides that maybe he too can have a life, and throws away his green eyeshade and takes a vacation. The codependent dad stops trying to fix everything; he moves to Miami and takes up golf.
But hopefully we will not get rid of the unfinished story as Luke tells it. As it stands, the tension invites us to explore the story further. Maybe we can find something about ourselves in each of the characters. Maybe we can learn something by looking at the part we hate to see. Maybe we just need the keep the conversation going. Recently I had lunch with an African bishop, whose church is deeply shocked by the actions of the Episcopal Church. We talked about Bible, faith, Godıs spirit. We two sinners listened to each other with ear and heart. We may not have agreed but we parted as friends.
The call to love one another: at the end of the day isnıt this what is at the heart of the Gospel?
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