A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock

at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 31 march 2019 [Lent 4]:

Joshua 5:9-12; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32


 One thing that I wish came more naturally to me is to be able to ask the kinds of questions that open things up.  I greatly admire people who can listen carefully, be detached from the atmospherics of the moment, and then ask a question that touches what is really going on.

Fortunately, I’ve known a few of these people: Oddly enough many of whom are therapists of one sort or another or blessedly those who are spiritual directors, embodied resources of the God-life.  Of course, as God’s “blueprint” for real life, Jesus was a complete example of one who always connected to what matters.  No matter how intense or threatening the situation, Jesus never got sucked into the manipulation of a confrontation or the pain of an encounter.  In a very real sense, he kept his cool; and with the posing of a piercing question, he was always able to cut through the stuff to place those in his midst into the reality of life as God knows it.

In my recent reading, I encountered one of those piercing questions.  Particularly at this time in Lent, it bears repeating.  You see, today marks the midway point in the season of Lent.  Traditionally known as “Refreshment Sunday”, this Fourth of Lent’s Sundays comes as a break from the disciplines of this penitential season.  Yet, in our own time Lent is not kept by many.  So, we may ask: What’s the point of taking a half-time break? From what?

Yet, as our closing hymn, with its lilting French tune, reminds us, Lent has a much deeper purpose than grunting and groaning: namely, to create in our experience life-giving space for God.  This, then, raises the question I recently discovered.  It is this: What have you learned about yourself as a result of your experience with God?[1]

This question implies the truth that knowing God and God’s love for us is foundational for all genuine knowledge of ourselves.  More specifically, the Christian spiritual tradition teaches us that “[w]e do not find our true self by seeking self-knowledge.  Rather, “we find [our true self] by seeking God.”[2]  This is to say that our spiritual growth, our growth in the God life is not a matter of self-help improvement.  On the contrary, knowing our true selves can only come from knowing the One who made us and loves us – no matter what.

Particularly in Lent, when the question is asked about what we have learned about ourselves from our experience with God, what first appears to be an anthropological question actually turns out to be a theological question.  It is a question about God, what life with God is like, and what difference all this makes to us.

So, what have you learned about yourself as a result of your experience with God?  What’s your answer?  Which in a sense is to ask, “How’s your Lent going?”

I once served a bishop, whose Lenten greeting was: “I hope you’re having a miserable Lent.”  To a certain extent, if Lent is to be an honest experience, it needs to be a bit miserable.  Taking personal inventories and making audits of the soul with regard to who and what resides at our life’s center very frequently pinch and cause us to cry out.  Yet, if our Lent contains the question of what we have learned about ourselves through our experience with God, then Lent needs also to contain relief, not just anguish.  I can think of no more powerful resource, a more “refreshing” resource in working on an answer to what we have learned about ourselves with God than what we find in our gospel reading for this “Refreshment Sunday”: The Parable of the Prodigal Son.”

Among the most famous and well-recognized parts of the New Testament’s record, the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” radiates significance.  Of course, Jesus tells this parable (and all his parables) as a way of conveying what God is like and what life is like on God’s terms.  Irrespective of its public title, this parable is less about either son and much more about the steadfast father, what he endures over his children, and why he endures it.  Consequently, the parable that is set before us on this “Refreshment Sunday” sets out two basic principles.

One principle expresses the steadfast nature of the father (that is, of God), saying that the love of God is uniquely unconditional, long-suffering, and passionately committed to everyone.  The other principle demonstrates a staggering truth – one we “sons and daughters” of the father have a hard time keeping in mind and in our hearts: namely, that we are always the beloved of God – no matter what.

One way of approaching the profundity of this parable’s impact is to ask which of the two sons are we.  Are you the “bad boy,” the “bad girl” who wastes what the father gives and represents?  Or are our lives more in line with the elder son, the “good boy”, the “good girl” who did everything right, except appreciate his/her life with the father?

I suspect that on the surface most of us here feel we have more in common with the elder son, the rule keeper who for all his law-abidingness tragically is a lonely, bitter prig of a person.  Yet, those of us who are honest also know that in spite of our life-long desire to be the “right kind of people”, there is a prodigal (a wastrel) within us that we have worked to hide away in hopes that this unruly one might only emerge when no one else is looking.  But beyond seeking this biblical Rorschach, the more essential spiritual principle at work is that we will only come to know our true selves as we seek and find the parable’s father, that is, God.

So, what does this parable teach us about God so that we might dare to learn more about ourselves?

As I say, encountering this gospel parable at this particular liturgical and spiritual time of the year offers a great deal of clarifying help.  Even those of us who have tended to avoid Lent’s opportunities can take advantage of this “half-time” period to catch up and regroup.  I say this being so mindful that in two Sundays, we will enter Holy Week with its hard culmination on Good Friday.  Suddenly, facing the concrete reality of Jesus’ cross and death, all our safe generalities about Lent fade away; and we are left with the choice of dealing with these hated realities or again avoiding them for another time.  Or put another way, has our experience with God (not just of God) caused us to learn important things about ourselves?

As we enter and face Holy Week’s stark reality, dare we keep this question in mind?  From today’s standpoint, what does the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” teach us about God so that we might see ourselves more clearly and helpfully?

The essential learning about God is that God loves us unconditionally.  (Only God loves this way.)  As such, God suffers.  God suffers, and therefore God endures the pain and rejection of the younger son, which is what we see in the younger son.  Instead of rightfully and understandably writing this adolescent rebel off as a business loss or a lost cause, the father waits … waits in agonizing love, longing in hopes that the prodigal son might … might return.

Needless to say, this loving behavior is foolishness to most of us.  While we may be broken hearted about this runaway, our life must go on. We wouldn’t stand publicly making a fool of ourselves, waiting, looking, hoping against hope that this separation would not be the last word.  “Get over it!” is the common wisdom; “move on!”; but the father’s wisdom is uncommon; it is quite literally extra-ordinary.  It is the wisdom of God, a wisdom that is rooted in love that endures all things because we are God’s beloved – no matter what.

Of course, everyone knows the parable’s story: That the younger son does return.  He “hits bottom” (as we like to say nowadays) and sobers up.  He comes to his senses and realizes what a schmuck he has been, how he has disrespected and devastated his father and ruined his own life with his self-centered and materialistic behavior.  So, in contrition, the younger son seeks to return, not as a son but as a servant-worker.

This is good Lenten insight on the part of the young boy.  As they say, confession is good for the soul, and there are always consequences to our actions.  Even if we get a “do-over”, it’s not like nothing has been broken and we can start over with no collateral damage.  But the focus here is the father and his reaction to this return.  The father, in his radical love – what in the eyes of the world is his foolish love — until we are the ones who need such foolishness – in this radical love the father shamelessly runs to meet the son and reinstates him fully and with great festivity.  For the son is the Beloved – no matter what!  And so are we!

But the cost to the father is enormous; yet, it doesn’t matter to the father.  “My son was lost and now is found.”

What does such a welcome cost God to love us? to love me? to love you?  That’s what Good Friday asks and reveals.

In contrast to the younger son, the elder son is ironically just as prodigal, just as “wasteful”.  For having defined his life and worth under the guise of “doing the right thing”, the elder son complains bitterly over his father’s apparent soft parenting, spewing the well-worn, childish protest: “It’s not fair!”  “What about me?!”

The father has to explain to his elder son in the gentlest terms that his first-born has always had what the younger rejected.  Both offspring have always had him, the father and the life that only the father can offer.  Without saying it, the father’s implicit question to his son is: “What else do you truly need?”

As we approach Holy Week and its unvarnished story of God’s love for us and how the Holy One suffers over us because of our fickleness, remember that no matter what, we are God’s beloved.  Now what does that say about who we most truly are and what we are most truly to do?  Amen.

[1] David G. Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery, page 31.

[2] Ibid., page 83.