Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass Lent 4 2016

Joshua 5.9-12
Luke 15.1-3,11b-32

Like many popular Bible stories, that passage, the Parable of the Two Sons, may be something we’re very familiar with. But let’s imagine we were Jesus’ audience, in the gospel, hearing it for the first time. When we heard the story of the younger son, what would we imagine would become of him? What would we want to happen to him?

He’s an unpleasant individual. Asking for his share of the inheritance in advance is the equivalent of wishing his father dead; and in the law of Moses cursing your parents was a capital offence. He has run off to a distant country, heedless of his family, and squandered their inheritance – which he ought to have passed on to future generations – on dissolute living and prostitutes. Add to that, the final touch for a Jewish audience in depicting how low he has sunk, he ends up hiring himself out to feed pigs and wanting to eat their food. 

So, hearing this for the first time, what we would expect to happen to him?

The best this son can imagine is that his father might consent to treat him as a hired servant, if he returns and confesses his guilt. It’s risky, of course. His father could just throw him out on his ear, or even have him killed for the shame and dishonor he has brought on the family. But he’s starving, so he takes the risk.

And what happens? “While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion.” Filled with compassion, for such a son as this! That is what the father is like! The father embraces and kisses him, ignoring his prepared speech about no longer being worthy, instead ordering the very best celebration he can manage.

What a revelation this must have been to his son! He has discovered what mercy means, and has discovered this by means of the father showing it to him. Mercy is not a grudging settlement, a “well alright I’ll give you another chance”. No, mercy is a feast, lavish generosity shown to the worthless son, not because of anything he has done, but simply because that is what the father is like.

But this is a parable of two sons. What about the other one? The younger son’s return leaves him resentful and angry. He refuses to go in, and complains that he has worked like a slave for years and the father has given him nothing. He refuses even to acknowledge the other son as his brother, “this son of yours”, he says to his father.

This son may never have left home, but he has never come to know his father. He does not recognise or understand mercy. He has lived there all those years, but he has never been at home. Because the house is the house of mercy, and unless he becomes merciful himself he will never belong. To take part in the feast of mercy his eyes must be opened to the father’s generosity and love, which are the only basis on which both he and his brother belong.

As with all the parables, a seemingly everyday scene changes our expectations, and challenges us to ask where we belong in this story. Who do we identify with? Are we the younger son, straying and wasting what our father has given us? Are we the older son, regarding ourselves as slaves, never really belonging, trying to bargain for our father’s favour, resenting our own existence and the father’s generosity to the brother we hate? Are we, even, the father, because Jesus tells us that we must be merciful even as our father is merciful?

The truth is, we are all these people. The parable questions us, probes our consciousness, reflects back to us the truth about ourselves, and shows us how we need to change to enter the kingdom that is founded entirely on God’s gratuitous generosity and love.

If we come home to the Father we will discover what his mercy is, and be changed by it so that we become merciful ourselves. Mercy is a feast, a great celebration! Mercy is falling into the arms of our Father who embraces us and kisses us! Mercy is allowing him to put on us the best robe, which is none other than Christ himself, in whom we are adopted by grace as sons and daughters of God.

One dimension of the feast of mercy is how it becomes real in our lives: “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful”, says Jesus. And that is something we shall explore in our Coffee and Chat today after Mass.

Another dimension is how we receive the Father’s mercy ourselves. Primarily we do this through the sacraments. By baptism we are washed clean of our sins and adopted into Christ so that we can enter the feast. In the Eucharist we share in it. And the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or Confession, is available, too, for sins committed after baptism. This is not some Anglo-Catholic niche thing. It is central, bedrock, Church of England, there in the Book of Common Prayer, and especially recommended at times of sickness and in preparation for Holy Communion.

When the Book of Common Prayer was compiled people didn’t receive Communion very often, but now we receive frequently we can still use Confession as part of our preparation for our Easter Communion, for example.

Now, as is often said, the Anglican rule of confession is “All may, none must, some should”. Unfortunately, what many people remember is only the, “none must” bit.  This is a neglected but powerful means of grace, and because it is sacramental grace, guaranteed by Jesus, it has a cleansing and strengthening effect beyond that of private confession to God alone. Of course, confession to God in our private prayers suffices for forgiveness, if we are contrite. But is our Father one to be content with what merely suffices?

I still remember my first confession, I was 22 and had finally plucked up my courage somewhat reluctantly to “give it a go”. And when I came out of church afterwards I felt like I was walking on air. A great weight had been lifted from me that I hadn’t even known I was carrying around. The joy and peace that comes from that definitive absolution, given with the authority that Christ imparted to his church, is part of the Feast of Mercy, and we are all invited. What is holding us back? Or we might ask, reflecting on this morning’s parable, which brother are we? The feast of mercy is ready for us. Will we go in?

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