On the Sunday of the Prodigal Son
By Subdeacon Steve Walker
Sermon preached at St. Mary Orthodox Church, Cambridge, MA on Sunday, February 8, 2004
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today's Gospel is one that is familiar to many; even those who never darken the door of a church have heard the story. What is troubling for us is the cognitive dissonance that comes with the parable. Because we embrace a cultural lookout that promotes a materialistic and egocentric mindset, and because of our own uneasy consciences, we have trouble identifying with the father, mistaken in our thinking that God could never really be like that. For us God is a Cosmic Big Brother: cold, aloof, desiring to control and curtail who we are and what we would do in this life. Sadly, the profound truth that God loves us, his creation, completely and unashamedly in ways beyond our kin, is alien to a society lost in a poisonous swirling fog of the seven deadly sins.
Let us look again at the actions of the son, before and after he leaves home. The parable begins "a man had two sons". The first scandal belongs to the youngest. In asking for his inheritance, he basically tells his Father in words of the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, "as far as I am concerned you are dead, our relationship is over and I desire to go into the world and make my own way."
If is this sounds familiar, it is because, day in and day out, we tell Almighty God, "I want to make my own way, I don't need you – or anyone else – for that matter". If you don't think you and I are that bad, I raise the following point for your consideration. Timothy McVeigh, the young man who was tried, convicted and executed for the Oklahoma City bombing issued a statement before his execution. His statement was simply a copy of the poem "Invictus" by the British Victorian Poet William Ernest Henley (1849-1903):
OUT of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
The additional tragedy of this young man was the lack of response to his "Statement" from the culture that shaped him. No words were issued, because for many (including us), "Invictus" is the Credo we live by. We all have been taught to consider ourselves fortress islands, or as I heard one career consultant put it, "Me Incorporated, our own private corporation". In a society where rule number one is to look out for Number One, we have become "the master of our fate, and the captain of our soul". The Rev. Dr. John Donne's words no longer have meaning for us; we are not part of the main and someone else's lost is theirs and theirs alone. The bell still tolls, but it tolls in a land devoid of love for God and neighbor.
The younger son journeys off to a far country where scripture says, "He wasted his substance with riotous living". Our reaction? -- "Oh I could never do that!" But, my friends, you may avoid fornication, drunkenness, sloth and idol talk and still fall far short of where God has called you to be. When we ignore God and ignore our neighbor – and focus on our gain, our well being, and our getting ahead – we are most certainly caught up in the riot that worldly success brings. The litany is now "eat, drink, be merry and stay busy". The prodigal of this age has a high five or six figure income, a BMW, a exclusive apartment at the right address, a face and body shaped by a plastic surgeon, a social calendar that cover morning, noon, and night and an empty hollow soul that she or he drowns in alcohol.
But alas: time and circumstance come into play, the dark clouds roll in, and the money is gone, along with the pseudo-friends and the so-called good times. Famine, physical as well as spiritual, visit the land and the young son. It comes to the place where he is only able to find work doing that which is most repugnant for a young man from a well to do Jewish family: feeding swine.
In this day and age, what is repugnant to us? Is it working at minimum wage? Not having the successful career we worked for? Not being a social success? Not being able to take that vacation? Or is it something more? – The feeling that though we are the captain of our souls, our ship is foundering. That nothing seems to be or feel right. Or, is it the feeling that we are so isolated that the phrase "friends and neighbors" has no meaning and the darkness in our soul has eclipsed everything that we hold dear?
Scripture states "And he came to himself…." My brothers and sisters, we stand on the threshold of another Lent and another opportunity to "come to ourselves" and go home just like the prodigal. What should drive us is the very memory that drove him. The knowledge that in his father's presence he was safe, he was happy, and he was loved. The words of confession that were on his lips should be ours as well.
You may think it odd to see security, even love, coming from a crucifixion on a Friday afternoon, but our real enemy is death – the physical death that all men must under go, and the spiritual death that we truly fear. The real fear is that this life is all there is, and that after the grave there is nothing. But on that great and terrible Friday, the thing we fear most died. In order to meet that day we must turn our hearts and minds to the one who created us, die to our old selves and begin to make our way home.
This journey home is not easy. The late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom of blessed memory writes:
Contrary to what many think or feel a period of spiritual endeavor (during Lent, perhaps, or while taking part in a retreat) is a time of joy because it is a time for coming home, a period when we can come back to life. It should be a time when we shake off all that is worn and dead in us in order to become able to live, and to live with all the vastness, all the depth and all the intensity to which we are called. Unless we understand this quality of joy, we shall make of it a monstrous, blasphemous caricature, when in God's very name we make our life a misery for ourselves and for those who must pay the cost for our abortive attempts at holiness. This notion of joy coupled with strenuous effort, with ascetical endeavor, with struggle indeed, may seem strange, and yet it runs through the whole of our spiritual life, the life of the Church and the life of the Gospel, because the Kingdom of God is to be conquered. It is not something which is simply given to those who leisurely, lazily wait for it to come. For those who would wait for it in that spirit, it will come indeed: it will come at the dead of night; it will come like the judgment of God, like the thief who takes us unawares, like the bridegroom who comes when the foolish virgins are asleep! This is not the way in which we should await the Kingdom.
And so we struggle reaching out to cover the distance that separates us from God.
It should be no surprise that the father, upon seeing the younger son, after looking in vain for who knows how many days and months for his return, should run to embrace him. We love and serve a God who calls himself the "Good Shepherd" and has stated that he goes in search of the lost sheep. Not only does our Lord stand at the door and knock, knowing our hearts, he knows that he must seek us out.
In this coming time of Lenten pilgrimage, do not be surprised if you find yourself face to face with the Shepherd. If you really truly seek him he will find you. Even if you don't seek him – beset by fear, shame, and feelings that cloud your heart and mind – know that he still desires to come and dwell with you. The Woman with the issue of blood just wanted to 'touch the hem of his garment' and be healed. Zacchaeus sought only to look at this man whom he had heard about. Neither of them considered that they too might have an encounter that would change their lives.
So, home the prodigal comes and he is restored to his place in family. His robe is bought and placed on him, the ring of authority placed on his hand (a real scandal in this day of the almighty dollar) and his feet are shod. The celebration begins.
Now here is scandal number two: If you have never left the house, did what you were told, and stood fast by the father, don't be like the elder brother. The kingdom of heaven is about love that surpasses all understanding. If this love truly has hold of us the stranger in our midst, or the returning prodigal, who has sought to turn their hearts to home should be welcomed with love, respect, and joy. It does not matter if they were once members of the house now returned from a far county, it does not matter what race or ethnicity they are, whether cradle or convert, rich or poor – what matters is that they have sought the pearl of great price and have given up everything for that. Welcome them; don't come so far in your spiritual journey only to allow the sin of pride to hold you back.
So now we stand together facing Jerusalem, a little over 60 days away. As we walk together, pray together, ask forgiveness of one another, work to feed, clothe, and visit those in need, let us remember that we do this not out of a sense of fear, but calling. A calling to love and be loved, to die to our old selves and to cloth ourselves in Christ; in preparation to one day stand before our Lord at the end of this earthly prologue, our sorrows at end, our tears wiped away, our joy complete and the wedding banquet about to begin.Amen.