Notice first what everyone notices: that this story actually has little, if anything, to do with the "prodigal son." In fact, the word never appears in the text at all. It's a convenient handle for the story applied to it only much later.
Nor does the story have much to do with the dutiful brother, the one who stayed home and worked at his father's side all those years while the kid went out and wasted his life. Yes, he sets up the dramatic tension of the story with his resentment.
But this story really centers on the immense generosity of the father. If anyone in this story is prodigal—if anyone is reckless or extravagantly wasteful—it's the father, who throws his love away on a son who turned his back on that love for far too long. These days, I suppose we would call him an enabler. You have got to use tough love, or these drunks will never turn their lives around.
The father stands in for God, of course. God's mercy and forgiveness go far beyond what anyone could expect or understand as anything remotely resembling common sense. He forgives and forgives and forgives, and we seethe under our breaths like the older brother, wondering what those ingrate sinners ever did to deserve this.
Nothing, is the short answer. But God wants to throw a party, and he wants to invite everybody. Hope you enjoy fatted calf.
It is not beside the point that Jesus tells this story in the context of other meals. Specifically, the Pharisees accuse him of eating with "tax collectors and sinners," people who have been cast out of the community for their misdeeds.
Jesus responds to this charge with three stories: the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Parable of the Lost Coin, and the Parable of what amounts to the Lost Son. In all three, someone believes something of great worth has been lost and rejoices when it is recovered. God celebrates in just the same way whenever a sinner returns to him, Jesus says.
Lent is all about returning to God. You should repent of your sins and turn back to your loving father, who will accept you with joy and much hoopla. Put down those pig scraps and go home!
Home is the place where they have to kill the fatted calf when you show up, we might say. Here in the church we build a home of sorts to welcome back prodigal sons and daughters, older brothers too, Pharisees, tax collectors, sinners, what have you. The food we serve in this home—the hospitality that we provide—is the welcome. There's no story of the Prodigal Son without the fatted calf!
We have to serve it up with humility, though. At best, we are the older brother of this story, needing a not-subtle reminder that it is, after all, God's home. We're invited to the party as well, but it's up to our father to decide how to spend his grace. We should follow his lead and be generous as he is generous.
We also should exercise gratitude. At worst, we're the younger brother, without an excuse in the world, forced to rely on whatever handouts any sees fit to distribute.
With humility and gratitude, hospitality begins. The table is set, the soup is on the stove, and all God's children have a place at the table, should they desire one. Amen.
A better-formatted .pdf version of this service can be found here.
Welcome to you in the name of Christ. Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father's Son, be with you in truth and love. And also with you.
2 John 2:13
On Ash Wednesday, Christians gather to confess their sins, resolve to do better, and to hear God's reassurance. We draw near to God in word and worship to learn what we must do to be rebuilt as the people of God, and to hear once again God's promise of new life.
God gives us the rituals of this holy day not to burden us with laws we cannot keep, but to remove from us our grief, renew the branches of Christ Jesus, and to cause us to hear and see one another, so that we may restore the vital imagination of our faith put into action.
Ringing of the Church Bells
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
"Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
This is the holy gospel.
Praise to you, Lord Christ.
Prayer of Confession
The prophet Isaiah records the people of his time wondering why God no longer seemed to hear them when they prayed in the temple. The answer came swiftly: "You serve your own needs," said God, "when you gather for worship. Then you leave and you oppress the people who work for you."
May the Lord have mercy on us if we do anything like this.
Lord have mercy on us.
God continued: "You fast and pray to make yourselves better people, but then you quarrel and fight and even resort to violence!"
May Christ have mercy on us if we do anything like this.
Christ have mercy on us.
God had one more thing to say. "You worship only to make yourself known to me, to get me to notice how good you are, but I will not hear false prayers."
May the Lord have mercy on us if we do anything like this.
Lord have mercy on us.
By the grace of God, the Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For God knows how we were made;
and remembers that we are dust.
Our sins are forgiven us.
Let us be renewed. Amen.
Prayers of the People
Let us pray now for our needs, and the needs of others.
When we keep alive injustice and lay unfair burdens on other people, make us aware of what we are doing, and free us to free others and change the world where we can. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.
When we are afraid that we will not have enough money for our lives, widen our hearts to share our bread with the hungry. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.
When we are afraid that we will have no place to live or no space at our table, grant us the grace of generosity that we might shelter the homeless and welcome them into our lives. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.
When we are saddened and depressed by the figures we see in the mirror, cause us to remember those who shiver without a winter coat, the poor of the world who stand in tatters, and to treat them as if they were our very own brothers and sisters. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.
When we are tempted to judge one another, when we are tempted to say mean or thoughtless things of others, turn our minds instead to lifting their burdens.
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Strengthen our resolve to act concretely: to take food to the hungry, to care for the sick, to stand with those in any need. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Lord, hear our prayer, for we pray to you as Christ our Savior taught us, saying,
The Lord's Prayer
Our Father, who art in Heaven,
hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,
for Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory,
forever and ever. Amen.
Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, who has given us access to his grace.
The peace of the Lord be always with you. And also with you.
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
He alone is worthy of our praise.
It is right to give you thanks and praise, loving and gracious Father, because in your Son Jesus Christ you forgive us our sins and show us grace and mercy. Through the work of his Holy Spirit, you teach us the ways of right and wrong and prepare us to greet with joy and thanksgiving Christ's paschal sacrifice on our behalf and his being raised from the tomb on Easter morning. In all things and in all ages you show us your steadfast love even when we have turned away and still you call us to come home to you.
Holy God, you offer food to the hungry and living water to those who thirst. You satisfy the needs of the afflicted and your light shines in the darkness of the world.
We recall these acts because we recall that on the night before he died, Jesus our brother took bread, blessed it, and broke it and gave it to his friends, saying: "This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this as often as you come together to remember me."
In the same way, he took the cup, saying, "This is my blood, that has been poured out for you and for many."
Therefore we proclaim the mystery of faith:
Lord, by your cross and resurrection,
you have set us free.
You are the Savior of the world.
In freedom and in love you have chosen to restore our lives and our world. Send now your Holy Spirit upon these gifts and upon us that your work of peace might be finished.
Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.
Eat this, for it is the body of Christ broken so that you may be whole.
Drink this, for it is the blood of Christ poured out to give you eternal life.
Prayer of Thanksgiving
Lord our God, we know that you are gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abundant in steadfast love, and relenting from punishment. We give you thanks for feeding us at your table, and for making us one with you and with one another. Renew us and strengthen us for the Lenten journey ahead and make us once more your forgiven and beloved children. Amen.
Release of sins and shortcomings and imposition of ashes
Dear friends in Christ, I invite you to deposit those sins, shortcomings, and failures that have been bothering you in the wastebasket, where they belong. When you have released your burden, you may receive the sign of ashes as a sign of penitence and healing. Come, as you are ready.
When all are done:
Gracious God, make us into the people we ought to be. In this Lenten season, heal our hearts and make us steadfast and true. Through true fasting, teach us to be fair to one another and to live together the right way. In our prayers, help us not to seek for ourselves, but to see one another and imagine what must be done. In acts of generosity, allow us to rebuild our community, your kingdom. Grant us above all else humility. Bring us home from the loneliness of exile to stand together with you and all our brothers and sisters, as one reconciled people. Amen.
The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord's face shine on you with grace and mercy.
The Lord look upon you with favor and + give you peace.
You are marked with the Sign + of the Cross of Christ. Go forth in penitence and a sincere desire to do what is right, and the peace of God be with you unto life eternal.
Amen. Thanks be to God.
A man named David Carr died suddenly last Thursday at the age of 58. He collapsed in his office and was gone.
I don't expect his name to mean much to you. I certainly didn't know him. He was an editor and the media critic at the New York Times for a number of years. As it happens, though, I know a number of journalists, and every last one of them was saddened by his death. All Thursday night and into Friday, I saw one tribute after another to his legacy.
The journalists remember Carr for the quality of his writing, which they call "wise," "insightful," "humane," and "fearless," among other things.
Carr is also remembered—he is loved—for his personality even more than the product of his professional life. He had an interesting life story, by which I mean that he was a former crack addict who managed to pull himself out of addiction and move forward in his life. He wrote wonderfully about his experiences. He said in one column,
Here is what I deserved: hepatitis C, federal prison time, H.I.V., a cold park bench, an early, addled death.
Here is what I got: the smart, pretty wife, the three lovely children, the job that impresses.
Here is what I remember about how That Guy became This Guy: not much. But my version of events is worth knowing, if for no other reason than I was there.
And so he went back and reported the story of his own addiction, including, I believe, interviewing people from his former life to fill in the gaps in his memory.
I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time soon.
He became a mentor and a friend to generations of writers, who all remember his warmth, his kindness, sincerity, generosity and empathy. This is what it is really remarkable about the story of his passing, what makes it newsworthy: not only was Carr a great journalist, but he is remembered by hundreds and even thousands of people as a heckuva nice guy. There are worse ways to go.
This struck me in particular because of a conversation my wife and I had that same evening, just an hour before Carr died. I was assigned to write a life dream, one of those fluffy exercises they try to teach you in motivational seminars. (I hate motivational seminars.) My smart-aleck answer to this was to become the best crank I could be, because after all you have to do something to keep yourself motivated.
Jen suggested being a loving husband, father, and pastor. I thought she was kidding, and said "Nah, crank is better."
"Really?" she shot back. "You'd rather be remembered for being grumpy than how much you loved your kid?"
When you put it like that, no. I write funny things on the internet, and yes, they are often tart. But when it comes down to it, I would like to live on in memory as a warm and loving person, not as somebody who had the best wisecracks. That is one of the lessons I take from David Carr's death.
I said last week that when Jesus heals Peter's mother-in-law, she immediately gets up and begins to serve them, and this reveals the true human nature that is so often covered up in our lives. I think David Carr did the same thing. He seems to have thought the same thing: he was a committed Catholic, which I choose to believe was an expression of his gratitude for being healed.
It could also be said that Jesus showed something of human nature that day on the mountaintop with Peter and James and John. At the very least, he shows them something of his nature. That's what the whole Epiphany season—this time between Christmas and Lent—is all about, actually. The word "epiphany" means a revelation. In this case, we hear in these weeks stories that reveal Jesus' true nature to us. It begins with the star rising in the east and ends with him shining with "his clothes...dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them." This is how he looked before he was born, and the way he will look after the resurrection. You can almost imagine the disciples rubbing their eyes because of the sudden brightness.
There is a word in Hebrew, kabod, which means "glory" and refers to the fire, light and smoke that accompany appearances of God to humans in the Old Testament. Many people over the years have interpreted this story as a revelation of Jesus' kabod, his glory, and not without reason.
I agree with this, in a way. We do indeed see Jesus' glory here, but not in the sense of overwhelming, domineering majesty. I think he shines with the fullness of God's love. The Nazis identified God with their insatiable quest for power and glory, which is simply the recognition paid to power. This led the Swiss theologian Karl Barth to reject the term "the Almighty" to describe God. Barth
did not disagree that God was almighty, but he insisted that if you worship "the Almighty" pure and simple you are worshiping "Chaos, Evil, the Devil." Christians don't just add the attribute of love to the creative power, which they recognize as divine. Such power is divine only if it is the power of love. Love is the divinity of God, and that's why only the absolute power of love deserves to be called divine.
If you're having trouble following my point, it's simply that to the extent that we see Jesus' divine nature reflected on the mountaintop, it is not his overwhelming power or glory that is on display, but the power of his love. He dazzles the disciples not because he holds power over them, but because the love of God for him and for all humanity shines through him. To see the strength of that love is like staring into the sun.
The way people talk about David Carr makes me wish that I had met him, or at least corresponded with him. He seems like someone who had a lot to teach, not just about journalism or writing, but about living a good life, being a good person. He must have been a remarkable man to come through so much with such kindness intact.
Putting Carr's story alongside the story of the Transfiguration makes me wish that I could meet Jesus as well. I wish that I could see his face or just touch the hem of his garment. I wish that I could have that personal relationship with him that people talk about. He (of course) would have a lot to teach me about being a good person, about letting the power of God's love work through me.
Because when it really comes down to it, I don't want to be remembered as the smartest or most eloquent or funniest guy around, but as the kindest. I want my legacy to be the love I left behind for my wife and kid in particular, and for everyone in general. Given my general level of intellectual firepower and the strength of my jokes in particular, that might be a good call.
Joking aside, the truth is that I long ago made a decision to focus on being a loving, wise, and kind man rather than an intellectual success. As much as I would like to meet someone like David Carr or the man Jesus, I have chosen something more, which is to try to be like them as best I can. I forget that decision too easily and have to remind myself of it sometimes. Often. I too have been healed and want to learn to live in gratitude and service as a result. I hope that you share this experience as well. I hope that through the church you have learned the truth that we only become fully ourselves when we give of ourselves for others.
It would be easier to walk the path of kindness if we could have a personal relationship with Jesus. If you are lucky enough to feel connected to him, perhaps to hear the voice of God speaking to you, well, God bless you. It's not given to everyone. The rest of us will have to content ourselves with the notion that what is most real about the world is other people, and what happens between them. We might not ever make it to the mountaintop with Peter and James and John, but we can catch glimpses here and there of Jesus' power and glory. My faith is in the end sustained not by God whispering in my ear, nor by being blinded by the light glaring off his clothes. It continues because of the undeserved love I have received, and because of the love that comes tumbling out of me even when I think there is nothing left to give. I do hope that you share this experience, that you have seen the glory of the love of God reflected from Jesus and shining still in the face of his followers. Amen.
So I've been doing this thing over on my Twitter account, writing little essays, one tweet at a time. It's actually a form unto itself, too young to have many rules or conventions yet. I like it. Writing 140 characters at a time isn't as limiting as you might think, but it does force you to concentrate to pare down and include only the bare minimum. And even a roundly-ignored Twitter essay collects more views than my best post here.
Don't worry, I'm not intending to give up writing here. Twitter's just one more option for writing, as if I needed more. Some things are more appropriate for a considered, full essay. Others can be handled over there.
Just one problem: if you don't follow me at Twitter, it's pretty hard to read my stuff. (I use that fact to hide my, ahem, more adult material from my parents.) So I've used the Storify service to pull together the latest essay below the fold. You'll notice that I've numbered the tweets, more or less, and there are a couple of responses mixed in. Enjoy!
Oh, Pee Ess: speaking of Twitter and Storify and other nifty things, click the "Social Media" button at the top of the page. Go on, see what happens!
There is a disturbing tendency these days in our global society to divide the world. (I want to say "divide the world in two pieces," but of course, it’s much more complicated than that.) The list of these divisions is long and tedious. I will not rehearse it. But it goes much deeper than the partisan arguments of politicians and talking heads on the cable news shows. It goes deep, down to some of the very pieces that make up our human identity.
There are Christians who think the only good Muslim is a dead one, who call for the death of as many "ragheads" as possible. Of course, there are some Muslims capable of almost unimaginable cruelty as well, against Christians, Jews, people of no particular faith, even other Muslims. I won't go through that list, either: there is no room for it in a place of peace. The violence, sadly, is not limited to Jews or Christians or Muslims. In Burma, for example, Buddhist monks lead riots against religious minorities.
Some white folk seem to believe that brown and yellow and in particular black are engaged in an enormous, desperate struggle for dominance. They conjure up one supposed fact after another about what defines each race to justify their hate and their need to stay on top of the social order at all costs. They literally see other races as somehow less than human, little if any better than an animal.
Strange and unlovable men think women are a foreign enemy, that sex has to be won through manipulation and sheer force of will, that the only acceptable relationship between men and women is one in which the man controls and directs the woman who is completely dependent upon him. Otherwise, they say, a wife will take her husband for all his money and all his children and leave him cold, alienated, and alone. I feel sorry for people who think like this.
But the very worst, I think, are the people who go even beyond the logic of us-versus-them to simply declare that they don't owe the world jack. There really are people who think that any attempt to help the poor, the disabled, the elderly, to fund schools or to preserve natural resources is some sort of plot to rob the successful and give their money to lazy, greedy con artists. They really think that any kind of assistance traps the people being helped in a web of dependence. Worse, they think that assistance makes those receiving it into predators, cheating those who help out of more and more money, and undermining the natural order of the industrious leading and sponsoring those who cannot support themselves.
How the patrons of a food pantry can be both predator and prey is something of a mystery, but the point is that the people who believe this nonsense think they are the real victims of dark and sinister social forces. They would tear up the social compact in favor of "I got mine, you're on your own."
Mostly, this is aimed at what people call government "handouts," but there are some extremists who go even beyond this to say that churches, soup kitchens, food pantries and other charitable organizations should close up shop to teach the poor to fend for themselves. I recently read about one individual who thought that parents should have the right to starve their children to death if they couldn't support them, on the thought that it would cut down on assistance and fuel a free market in infant adoptions.
This heartlessness depends on a victim mentality, as I say, in which any payment from a responsible individual without some kind of return on investment is a form of robbery.
But it also depends on a deep—very deep—misunderstanding of human nature. It's not just that people with this worldview think that humans are fundamentally competitors, if not enemies, of one another.
It's like this: in the Roman world, the world in which Jesus lived, the moral order depended on sacrifice: what kept the gods happy was a constant flow of victims being offered up on the altar. That's what "victim" means, literally: a victim is an animal sacrificed on the altar. Or sometimes, it was a human. The gladiatorial games in which Christians, slaves and criminals were put to the death were in fact a kind of sacrifice which cleansed the social order and reassured those making the sacrifice that they deserved to be the winners in that society. It is Jesus' peculiar genius to place himself with the victims in Roman society. More: by going to the cross—the lowest, most shameful death imaginable in that day—he identifies God in the flesh with the victims. No more will there be winners and losers, he declares in his death: in the kingdom, there will only be God and the people of God.
Sadly, however, the promised kingdom has not yet arrived, at least not fully. These days, I submit to you, the victims—the losers deserving their fate—are those dependent on others. For too many people, to be a "taker" justifies one's position on the bottom of society, and therefore any kind of contempt, control, or coercion. This obscures the true human nature, which is something entirely different. We are not naturally takers. We are givers.
When Jesus and his disciples leave the synagogue in Capernaum, they go to Simon's house, where they find his mother-in-law sick in bed with a fever. (Let us pause here for a moment to notice what we've just learned about Peter: he's apparently married, and settled enough to have established his own house. In Luke, Peter's house is sort of the apostles' clubhouse, a place they return to often in between missionary trips. As far as I know, this is the only visit they make in the gospel of Mark.) Jesus takes the woman by the hand and "lifts her up," using the same word that will later describe his own being raised from the tomb. The fever leaves or "goes out of her," just like the spirit that Jesus cast out of the man in the synagogue earlier in the day. She gets up and she begins to serve them.
We need to be a bit careful here. Simon's mother-in-law doesn't get up and start making dinner because it's her job to do so. Too often I think this story is told that way in order to keep women in their place. But this is not a story about men being entitled to be waited on hand and foot by a woman. The mother-in-law gets up and begins to serve because that is her nature, that is her human nature. When Jesus heals her, he recovers this nature. He sets her free to express it. The promise of the resurrection is that we will all be restored to do likewise.
As usual, there seems to be a bit of sly humor in this story that is easily overlooked. The word "serve" is diekonei in the Greek, commonly used for waiting on tables, and as you probably know, the root word for "deacon" in English. So first of all, the mother-in-law is the very first deacon in the gospel of Mark. She understands what it means to be a servant long before any of the men do, including her son-in-law. Peter and his friends hunt Jesus down the next morning, intending to drag him back to the work of healing. They don't understand that service is a free gift given through healing. If you try to make someone a servant, they're not. They're a slave. You can only become a servant in the Christian sense by choosing your ministry. For Peter's mother-in-law, that's setting the boys up with lunch. For Jesus, it's moving on from one spot to go preach and heal in the neighboring towns. He won't have his ministry limited to just one city.
So Peter's a bit of a dope. It's the first time we see that in Mark, but it sure won't be the last. The other bit of humor is that diekonei means literally "to stir up dust," that is, to serve so actively that you form a little dust cloud in your wake. The mother-in-law, in other words, has gone from bedridden to Road Runner in about two seconds flat.
There are lots of little jokes like this in scripture, if you pay attention, even in otherwise quite serious passages. And we did start out with a rather serious point. The world seems ever more polarized these days, and the voices of those who want to turn us against one another seem louder and colder than they have in a very long time.
We are called as Christians to resist those voices. We know the truth, which is that no man is truly an island. No one can make it on their own: we all have to work cooperatively if we're going to make it. We know as well that it is in human nature to be cooperative. Even beyond that, it is in our nature to serve one another humbly. It's true that it's also in our nature to be vicious, competitive, hard-hearted and mean-spirited, but the most audacious Christian idea—far bolder than any of our historical claims—is that underneath all the ugliness of humanity there lies a concealed beauty. It is our affirmation that this essential beauty will be restored in the resurrection, and it is our duty in the meantime to uncover as much of it as we can while we wait for that day.
After many years of living in the city, we moved to rural Washington county, far away from city lights. (The church had a huge neon cross on the steeple, but that only worked about half the time.) I rediscovered the beauty of the stars there: were they always like this? Yes, you just couldn't see them.
When Bill was little, I would bundle up and go out on cold, clear winter nights, out past the cemetery to the row of pine trees that separated our property from the school next door, out where it was good and dark. I would look up in wonder at the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper, Orion's belt, sometimes the Milky Way itself. When it's 14 below and dark, you can see a lot. Even when it was warm, we would often see Venus or Mars rising over the fields just after dusk. Sometimes you'd get lucky and see a satellite or a shooting star. When Bill got a little older, we bought him a telescope and we would go out and look at the moon or the stars together.
"I wish we could go there," he would say.
"I do too," I'd say.
When Jesus heals us, he reveals the true grace of our nature, which to serve, to cooperate, to give to one another. He lets our light shine. He makes it possible to see the stars once again. It is our job, however, to look up, to pay attention to them, to want to fly through space to join them and shine with the same kind of light they shed on us. If you go out tonight, you might be able to just catch a glimpse of Peter's mother-in-law, still shining her example on us. Amen.