The very best time for mercy, forgiveness, and welcome

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A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 10, 2013.  The lectionary readings are Joshua 5:9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, and Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32.

We often hear that “timing is everything,” and especially today, as we have set our clocks forward an hour for Daylight Saving Time, we may be especially sensitive to time and timing.  The scriptures for today also have to do with timing, as they invite us to notice and respond to God in a timely manner.

In the Old Testament reading God tells Joshua that it’s a new day.  The old has passed, the new has come.  God reminds Joshua of the Exodus of God’s people out of Egypt and into the wilderness, where they spent a long time.  With that stretch and the stretch in which people felt God wasn’t speaking, wasn’t noticing, wasn’t paying attention—then, as now, even the attention of the most faithful begins to wander.  But God says basically, “Wake up.”  “Today,” the disgrace of Egypt, your captivity and enslavement, what felt like shame and punishment, is over.  The food of yesterday, the manna, was yesterday’s meal.  Today, there is new faith, there is daily bread, so eat it while it’s fresh, just made, at its most inviting.

Bread is certainly offered in today’s Gospel:  bread, drink, a fatted calf, all kinds of good things are offered when the prodigal son returns home.  This also is a story about timing—a child who wastes time (perhaps necessarily, in order to learn about life; or perhaps unnecessarily. ) The word “prodigal” has to do with wastefulness—both wasting things and being a waste.  One could even use the popular term, “wasted,” and fairly appropriately describe the child who runs through money, people, and opportunity.  But there comes a time for the child, to say, “enough.”  And he goes home.

The story is a welcome one for those who relate to the prodigal—St. Augustine related to him, having spent some of his early years running, living beyond his means, using people to rise socially, fathering a child out of marriage, joining an heretical sect. But Augustine came home, and he came to know the welcome of his mother Helena, who had been praying for him, and he came to know the welcome of his spiritual father, Ambrose. He spent the rest of his life coming to know the heavenly father—who is the combination of all that is maternal and paternal, the one who seeks us out and finds us. Augustine writes, “The prodigal son was sought out and raised up by the One who gives life to all things. And by whom was he found if not by the One who came to save and seek out what was lost?”

One could also pretty easily step into this story and understand something of the older brother. Some of us might relate to the older brother who has stayed at home and done his work—and yet gets no feast from the father. But I wonder if there’s not more than resentment in the older brother—but perhaps also, isn’t there just a little bit of envy? Notice that he assumes the younger brother has spent time with prostitutes, though there’s no other mention of that little detail in the story. Charles Wesley, the great hymn writer, once thanked God that in his youth he had escaped the more “grievous sins” and that he had not been one of the “young corruptors,” as he put it. But, he said, the reason he didn’t sin more was because of a kind of “sacred cowardice.” It was not his goodness that had kept him from sin, but the fear of the consequences. (Do we ever stop to wonder what trouble we might get into if there were no risk of getting caught?)

Today’s Gospel presents us with characters we can understand. There is the younger child who runs away, who becomes lost, and who loses himself. But then he is found, and in the finding he finds himself. He comes to himself. There is the older child who watches all of this and doesn’t understand, who simply grows angrier and angrier and angrier, until at last the rage breaks. But there is also the father who forgives. Jesus tells the story, “While [the younger son] was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”

For the father, it’s time for a party. It’s time for feasting.  It’s as though God’s time intersects and overtakes earthly time.  The father announces “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”

Rejoice. Laetare!As the Church sings in today’s introit. “Rejoice in gladness, after having been in sorrow, exult and be replenished.”

Henri Nouwen wrote a great little book about his time with this parable, especially as he prayed about the story in front of Rembrandt’s famous painting in the Hermitage.  Nouwen believed that Jesus tells the parable of the lost child who is found not so we can related to the prodigal, not so we can relate to the older child, but so that we can relate to the parent; the parent who forgives.

Praying through the parable, Nouwen realized that he was being called to deepen, to grow, and in some ways to grow up and behave like a parent, like a spiritual adult.  Saint Paul writes, “We are children of God. And if we are children, then we are heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, provided that we share his sufferings, so as to share his glory.” (Romans 8:17)  But we don’t remain children forever.  We grow up with Christ, in Christ.

That means that sometimes we’re called to act less like the spoiled brat, and less like the resentful sibling, but we’re called to act like a spiritual adult—to make the first move, take the first step, “suck it up” and extend mercy.  Leave judgment to God.  Forget about payback.  Get rid of the need to be respected, to be honored, to be given our “due respect.”  The spiritual adult extends mercy and welcome, in the name and joy of Jesus Christ, whether the timing is ours, or God’s.

At the 11 a.m. Mass, today includes some special music, Bach’s Cantata 106, “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbest Zeit”, “God’s time is the very best time.”  Bach wrote this music for a funeral, perhaps his uncle’s, and Back was only 21 or 22 years old.  Though Bach didn’t have very much life experience to draw from, he uses scripture to have a conversation about death and life.

One part of the conversation suggests the old motivation of fear for living a good life.  “Put your house in order,” Isaiah preaches.  “It is the ancient law,” says Ecclesiastes.  But then, just before the ending, there’s interjected a note of hope:  “Yes, come Lord Jesus!”  Like a prayer of hope and wonder, “Come,” Lord Jesus.  Rescue, redeem, re-make, renew, resurrect!

In the second larger section of the Cantata, the parts we hear during Communion, the Psalm is of peace and surrender, the Psalm Jesus quotes on the Cross, from Psalm 31:5, “Into your hands, I commit my spirit.”  And then other words of Jesus, words that he speaks and words that we can imagine him speaking.  At death, these are words we might hope could be on our lips as well.  There is calm and comfort and quiet as the words are sung, “As God had promised… death becomes my sleep.”  This leads to more rejoicing, to all out praise and thanksgiving.  Christ raises us up.  Christ takes us by the hand and leads us to God in a joyful reunion of love that never ends.

Old Testament and New Testament sing to one another until they become mixed and fugue-like, create a song of overarching hope and joy, “God’s time (for life, and for death) is the very best time,” because it is God’s—made holy, made meaningful, made full by the hand and love of God.

God’s time is the very best time.  Today, if we will have it, is God’s time—time for renewal, for returning to the love and mercy of God, and time for us to stand with Christ our older brother and extend the love and mercy and welcome of God.

May the grace of God work on our hearts to help us to grow up in our faith. May we be brought to the place where we can offer forgiveness without reservation, generosity without question, and where the homecoming feast at the altar may be never ending.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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