22nd Mar, 2004

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Lent IV, Laetare
Sermon preached by Fr. Mark D. Stuart

By now in mid-Lent, if we have taken the admonitions of the Church seriously, we should be acutely aware of things “done and left undone,” to quote the Book of Common Prayer.

Here at St. Thomas parish we recited the Great Litany in procession on the first Sunday of Lent and those sins painfully disclosed in that petition: our self-indulgent appetites, our pride, false judgments, hypocrisy, and unfaithfulness, to name but a few, haunt us like angry ghosts. We realize, as May West once concluded about herself, that we are “as pure as the fresh-driven snow, but we drifted.” The danger in persisting in a steady diet of rigorous self-examination is that it can lead to a deadly condition called despair… after all we can never live up to the perfection of the saints, or even more to the perfect example of our blessed Lord.

Well, the Church in her wisdom has countered this all-too-human tendency to want to jump ship midway during Lent has allowed a lighter, even somewhat joyful theme for the midway point in the penitential season, called Laetare Sunday (from the first words of the introit at Mass, “Laetare Jerusalem,” “Rejoice O Jerusalem”) It is also known as Refreshment Sunday, with the traditional Gospel lesson appointed for this day, being Jesus’ miracle of feeding the 5,000. Lighten up; loosen up; celebrate up – the Church seems to be telling us on Refreshment Sunday. We are to remember that we are the lovers of Christ, who but wander from His embrace from time to time, not miserable wretches haunted by a divine Perfectionist.

On a more human level, the Church seems to be reminding us that we won’t keep at anything very long unless there is joy in it. A sense of grace, an understanding of God’s unconditional love for the world through Christ, underlies all the disciplines of Lent, or of any other season. The result is that we are rescued from taking ourselves too darned seriously, from becoming legalistic bores, from becoming dull and depressed… and calling it “suffering for the sake of the Kingdom.”

In the British Isles the theme for this Sunday evolved into what became known as Mothering Sunday, as the faithful would make a visit to their cathedral, or mother church of the diocese. But on “Mothering Sunday” this year we hear about a loving Father. It’s a parable Jesus tells about a delinquent boy, his “good” brother, and a forgiving Dad. The parable is commonly known as the “Prodigal Son,” but the focus is more importantly on the Loving Father. He’s a loving father who allows his beloved son the freedom to go out on his own, to make his own decisions (bad ones as it turns out), and the freedom to fail.

Many people today have hit bottom like that boy. They’re slopping hogs, so to speak, and they feel despair and desperation. Anxiety, fear, and loneliness press upon them mercilessly, as they try to cope inside a system that only seems to take, that turns people into things. They feel disconnected from themselves, they don’t know who they are, and they become sick, or addicted, emotionally distraught; or they become cynical wanderers without hope. They feel excluded from the feast of forgiveness. They forget they have a home. Inside them is an irresponsible rebel, selfish and arrogant, who runs from love, who must hit bottom and land hard. And then an awakening, a realization turns on… maybe not like a switch of the proverbial light bulb, but more like the gradually increasing brightness of a rheostat. Will they gain the courage to go back home and into the feast of forgiveness, or stay outside, overwhelmed by the reality of their unworthiness, still stuck in the pigsty slopping the hogs?

And what about the older son? He clearly was as distant in spirit as his brother was in body. Mark Twain described him perfectly as “A good man in the worst sense of the word.” He’s upstanding, a hard worker, respected by others, probably perfect in every way. He is the quintessential co-dependent: always right, always good, long-suffering… and when his no account brother gets all the demonstration of his father’s love, after partying it up with the family inheritance, his quiet resentments boil into rage, “It’s not fair!”

This elder brother lives in many of us, whose sin is quiet forgetfulness. We overlook our blessings and our appreciation turns dull. We feel sorry for ourselves, become jealous of others, and strive all the harder to be counted worthy. We have no taste for a party that welcomes a prodigal. The older son may be an unappealing figure in the story, but he has many descendents: they are found in the Church and they are found in society. They are the steadfast leading citizens who have no patience for those who squander time and money or little sympathy for those out of work or down on their luck.

But the father loves both the sons. Perhaps Jesus is telling us here that there really are two potential sons within each of us. There is the free-spirited, partying bad boy whose failings are plain to see. Then there is the subtle, judging “perfect” hero-son, whose sin is even more grotesque because he sees himself without shortcomings; staring at others with brooding eyes that do not gaze inward. Dad may run to meet his lost younger son to lavish him with his affection; but he also reaches out to his older son with gentle love and acceptance: “Son, you are always with me, and all I have is yours.” The elder son, too, has been lost, and is invited to come home again by the love of his father.

The door is open. What about you? Will you go in to the party where all are welcome, or will you remain outside? One thing I can tell you, the party would not be complete without you. Jesus Christ does not just tell us about the party, He’s holding the door open for us and makes the party possible. We have responded to His story because we are here, here inside our Father’s house. Now comes the feast of forgiveness; the table is being set for you; it is the banquet of our eternal home.
Amen.

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