Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 06, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
I had an interesting phone call yesterday. One of my Denver friends wanted to talk. Specifically, a friend who is a brilliant artist, and a heavily tattooed genderqueer atheist. Genderqueer, by the way, means “a person who does not subscribe to conventional gender distinctions but identifies with neither, both, or a combination of male and female genders.” My friend goes by “they,” instead of “he” or “she.” We could hardly be more different, or more accepting of each other, and to be honest, I’m proud of myself for earning their trust. But anyway, they wanted to talk because for the last month, they have been experiencing some terrifying symptoms, and been hospitalized three times, and almost died, and nobody can figure out why. The way they told me their story, as laid back and lackadaisical as they were about everything before they got sick, made it all the more heartbreaking. And my friend, my beloved atheist friend, asked me to pray for them. And I did. Hard.
The parable of the prodigal son is a gem as a narrative, but it’s also difficult to really connect with the characters. Everything about them feels just out of reach. We may have been disrespectful and wasteful, but not to the extremes of the younger son. We may have been resentful, but we like to think we wouldn’t be as hard-hearted as the elder son. We may be gracious and forgiving, and aspire to the generosity of the father, but we don’t have an enormous estate to divide, fatted cattle, fine robes and rings to hand out like Halloween candy to everyone who stirs us to compassion. Although oddly, at the end of the parable he seems to be just as wealthy as he was at the start.
Maybe none of these issues are problems at all. Lots of people interpret the parable as strictly a teaching about the nature of God, with no direct teaching about our own behavior. And certainly, it’s incredibly important for us to understand and remember how vast and accessible God’s mercy and forgiveness are, how much God loves us, how much joy our movements toward God bring to God, as well as to ourselves. When we feel alienated from God, or when somebody tries to make us feel guilty, or claims that God is hateful or vengeful, we should have this parable close to our hearts, and minds, and lips.
And while this parable is all about forgiveness and mercy, the way they are delivered is important too. Remember the complaint of the righteous, or self-righteous, people that prompted Jesus to tell the parable? “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” They aren’t talking about the nature of God, or anything Jesus said. They object to what he did: welcome. They are offended not by his words this time, but by his hospitality. And his parable shows hospitality as the means by which the father grants forgiveness to his son.
Offering hospitality is something every one of us can do. Sometimes we don’t even have to literally open our homes, or buy meals, or even be in the same state as the person we welcome. My friend in Denver never abandoned their parents, never squandered a fortune. They worked hard up until they got sick, and they are a caring, devoted parent to their toddler daughter. But they were alienated not only from God and the Church, but also from their own capacity for spirituality. And just like the prodigal son, God began operating in their heart when the world had brought them to their lowest point. When they called me and shared their agonizing story with me and asked me to pray for them, I welcomed them to the domain of faith with open arms. And no judgment, no expectation of changing them. Although I certainly hope that one day I’ll be flying out for their baptism, instead of their funeral.
If they had been in front of me, I would have literally embraced them. I’m sure God did, and will. So the two time zones that separate us didn’t feel so vast in that moment. My friend is still an atheist, but there is no denying that we both feel closer to God than we did before we spoke. Their very act of reaching out to me was an act of faith, an awakening of a spirituality they had convinced themself they did not possess.
Ministry brings its share of frustrations and disappointments, but also profound privileges. They seem to come with greater frequency in ordained ministry, but all Christians are ministers, by virtue of our baptism. By becoming united to Jesus, we also become united to his vocation of servanthood. This vocation brings a certain amount of pain, no matter what we do, but we can control how much good we bring to the world, and to ourselves. So we do ourselves a favor when we do favors to others. We share in the joy and the grace we give to others. The greater their need for hospitality, the greater our joy when we provide it. The longer their journey, the greater the celebration. Perhaps that is why the father seems to be no poorer for his generosity. There is no limit to how gracious we can be.
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