A Sermon preached on March 31, 2019, by Roderick Dugliss, Dean, The School for Deacons
The Lectionary gives us a special gift today. Because Gospel readings are on a three year cycle, and some stories only occur in one of the synoptics, this morning we hear Jesus’ telling us about The Prodigal Son for the first time in three years (and he won’t be back until 2022).
Martin Smith, the author of Seasons for the Spirit that is part of All Saints’ Lenten Series, is also the current commentator on the Sunday lectionary for Sojourners Magazine. Of today’s Gospel he says, “this parable’s resonance is inexhaustible.”
For each us, the story resonates in some very personal way.
I think we are most likely, initially, to identify with the younger son. We’ve all done something stupid, made a really bad decision, at least once in our lives and we deeply hope that we will be as fully forgiven as the young man was. Some of us have experienced that forgiveness. Some of us are still waiting, but still find hope in the story.
I think we are also drawn pin our hope on the younger son because we live in, and are formed by a harshly unforgiving culture. A recent example: I was struck, but not surprised, by the vituperative push back to the Governor’s commuting of the death sentences of the 732 people (overwhelmingly men and men of color) on death row. We are heavily invested in ‘them getting what they deserve.” Making comparative judgements is woven throughout our common life.
I remember hearing Bill Clinton advocating for some program or other by saying this was “to do right by the folk who follow the rules and pay their taxes.” “Yes!” I said to myself. I was taught to follow the rules and then I watch all these folk flout them, and get ahead. He spoke to that part of me that is still there; the me that waits for the light to change while people, staring at their phones, just launch off the curb, because pedestrians are sacrosanct, or somehow the universe will take care of them (and way better than it does of me, implied). Thanks Bill. You gave me the easy justification for my inner pharisee. I can now live in resentment. Resentment. Which is, of course, a synonym for Envy—one of the big seven, sometimes called deadly, sins.
The current incumbent of the White House may be competence challenged on many fronts, but he knows how to play resentment like a Stradivarius. And look how potent it is. The energy that drives any dividing into we/they, us/them is resentment. These days, resentment is being splashed around like gasoline at a campfire. And it can burn us all.
We might say, “no, mine is genuinely righteous anger.” Any exercise in righteous anger needs to tested for and purged of resentment, if it is, in any way, to claim righteousness.
Jesus tells us this story as a response to the pharisees of his day who complained that he consorted with, even ate with, traitors, prostitutes, and others—all who needed to suffer the consequences of their actions, consequences that they deserved. Certainly not to experience the deeply intimate acceptance of table fellowship with Messiah. Resentment.
We began our Lent with the Litany of Penitence, in which we confessed, among other things, “Our anger at our own frustration and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves.” We purported to take on, as some of our Lenten work, weeding out the roots of resentment. If and as we do this, we can hear and embrace something more.
In our parable, it is the diligent, loyal, obedient older brother who surfaces the voice of resentment and the critical questions of the pharisees. His father responds, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Some folk hear in this a chiding or correcting of the older son. Sort of a fatherly, shape up. But that’s not it at all.
For me, the father utters the most important words in this parable. In them, Jesus wants us to hear and believe the outrageous generosity of God, at all times, in all of our lives.
The father is clearly the stand-in for the Holy One. Who, in the face of our anxiety, our anger, about imagined or real unfairness says, “you/us are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
God is ever present, with us, ever and always. God is not “out there,” waiting to be summoned if we need something. God envelopes and infuses our whole life. And with that, all that God has created, in the vast expanse of interstellar space, or in this earth, our island home, or just in our ordinariness, all of it is shared with us, and is ours to cherish, care for, or use, abuse, exploit.
In the face of such love, there are no grounds for resentment, unless we generate them.
Paul puts it this way for us today.
“So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away, see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”
As the father entreats his son to abandon resentment and join the celebration of outrageous generosity, we find not just a lesson, but the foundation of our calling as Christian people in God’s world.
Tucked away in the back of the Book of Common Prayer is a surprisingly rich catechism—an outline of the faith as we understand it. The Catechism asks; “What is the mission of the church?“ That is, what is our core, baptismally-based calling as the gathered people of God? The response–to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ; what Paul names as the message of reconciliation. Then, asks the Catechism, who are the ministers of this mission of the church? The response: all of its members—all of us.
As all around, resentment fuels what divides us, that which defines all our work is the call to restore unity, with each other, with God. We are to overcome resentment with reconciliation—not counting advantage, nor keeping score, nor pressing to deliver “what they deserve.”
Paul makes it pretty clear.
And our experience, reflected in how today’s parable resonates with, makes it clear it is not easy.
Given how splintered, angry, resentful is the world around us, we, like the resentful older brother, may have some hard work to do, even as God says, and says again, “you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.”