Sermon for High Mass – Trinity 16 Sunday 11 September 2016
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Exodus 32.7-14; 1 Tim. 1.12-17; Luke 15.1-10
A couple of Sundays ago, my wife and I were at Mass in her sister’s village in France. The Curé, Fr. Pierre, who is 89, was preaching. We have been listening to his homilies now for some 20 years. Like most French sermons I have heard, Catholic or Reformed, they are rather serious and solemn affairs. The previous Sunday in Toulouse we had heard an exception to this general rule from a young African priest who preached the most animated sermon I have ever heard in a French church.
But on this occasion, Fr. Pierre said something which did provoke laughter from the congregation. He told us how, when he was a boy, he had been at church with his parents and brothers. The gospel that day was the Prodigal Son but when they got home their father said to his sons: “Don’t think you will be welcomed back like that if you go off and blow the family fortune on wine, women and song.”
Now why is the Vicar talking about the Prodigal Son this morning, when we have just heard the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin? Has he got the readings mixed up? No, he hasn’t. If we read on in St. Luke’s Gospel, we find that the rest of Chapter 15 is the parable which we usually call the Prodigal Son, although we should probably call it the Loving Father. We might also call it the parable of the resentful elder brother.
In the lectionary, the Church’s selection of readings, in the long stretch of Sundays after Trinity, we normally read through one of the Gospels in sequence, so we might expect to get to the Prodigal Son next week. But we will not because it was lifted out of sequence to be read during Lent; for obvious reasons. So, you might like to read it when you get home.
Jesus tells these three parables in response to the reaction to his ministry which he has encountered among the religious folk; the scribes and the Pharisees. They complained: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
We should not think that these people did not love God. They were serious about their religion. They lived in expectation of the Messiah who would come to redeem Israel. They believed that their role in that coming was to study and interpret, to apply and obey the law of Moses. Keeping that Law would prepare the way for the Messiah.
So, for Jesus to welcome people who had not done any of those things, who were notorious sinners, and even to sit down and eat with people like tax-collectors, collaborators with the Romans and their puppet rulers, men who exploited their own people for personal profit, and with prostitutes , was an offence against true religion and virtue. It was an obstacle to the coming of the Messiah.
Jesus tells these parables not simply to condemn the pious but to convert them. He tells them to show what God is like. Most of us have heard these stories so often, and so far from their original context, that their sharpness has been blunted, their edge dulled.
Jesus invites them to think of God as a shepherd. We think that should not be too difficult; that’s how he was seen in the Psalter and other parts of the scriptures. Kings, too, were seen as shepherds of their people. And we who live in cities, and have rarely ever been near a sheep think of shepherds as rather romantic, kind and caring figures. But in his time shepherds were regarded as a disreputable lot. Their work and way of life meant they could not sustain the religious respectability of the Pharisees.
Then he invites men who blessed God daily in their prayers for not having made them a woman, to identify God with a housewife scouring her home for a lost coin. Christ came into the world to save sinners. (1 Tim. 1 15) God turns the world upside down to do it. And if this is how God behaves, if this is what his kingdom is like, then their part in preparing for the coming of that kingdom is to do so too.
These parables are full of actions which interpret and illuminate what Jesus is about in welcoming “sinners,” in sharing table fellowship with them, in risking spiritual contamination by them. They are all about:
- celebrating the return of what was lost.
Jesus is acting out God’s gracious and determined search for the lost; for those who feel excluded from the community of faith; those who feel there is no place for them in it; no way back to God’s favour.
And this is a cause of joy. Joy dominates and climaxes these parables. The joy of restoration leads to celebration on earth and joy in heaven: Just so, I tell you, there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance….There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
Shepherd and woman rejoice when the lost is found; heaven rejoices when a sinner repents.
When Jesus speaks of repentance here, he means a change of heart not just by obvious and notorious sinners, but by religious people, by the devout, by people like us who turn up at church week after week and say our prayers and try to be good. There is something of Fr. Pierre’s dad and the prodigal’s resentful sibling in most of us.
What does Jesus mean by repentance here? The clue is given to us in words which he says just before these parables: Let anyone with ears to hear, listen. Then, Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. People who should not even have been considered as worthy were being drawn to act as if they were disciples of Jesus. Following the Jesus who shows us the way God is and what God does in his life and actions is not restricted to those who have already demonstrated their qualifications and respectability; a moral clean slate. As Fr. Julian said to us last week, God looks at the world through the eyes of Jesus on the cross. The words Jesus speaks from the cross in Luke, are ones of compassion and mercy. To those who crucify him, he says: Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. To the penitent thief: Friend, today you will be with me in paradise.
The two parables and that of the prodigal all result in celebration. If the price of sheep then was anything like it is now, the party might have ended up costing more than the lost one was worth. But we should not get bogged down in the detail of parables. Jesus uses exaggeration, hyperbole, to get his point across; to lodge his message in our hearts and minds so that it can work away at us. He is talking about God not giving instructions for the care of earthly sheep.
Jesus is calling us to celebrate the grace and generosity of God which reaches out not only to the flagrant sinners but to the hard-hearted and narrow-minded ones; and so in the parable which follows, the Father not only goes out to meet the prodigal on his way home but also to the older son who resents the celebration of that return and refuses to share in the father’s joy to try to persuade him to come in. We are not told if he did or not.
In the Eucharist we are invited to share the Lord’s table and to give thanks for the gracious mercy of God who has prepared a place even for us.
Pope Francis has famously called for priests who are pastors who “smell of the sheep,” who are willing to get out of the sacristy and into the streets; for a church which is willing to take risks and get its hands dirty: looking after sheep is not for the prissy.
But we should not pretend that conversion of heart and mind to the ways of God seen in Jesus is an easy matter. If it is hard for “sinners” to believe that God loves them, that may be because we believers have made it so; we have drowned out the words of mercy with ones of judgement and condemnation; we have censored and not celebrated; turned away rather than welcomed.
We should not pretend that this repentance, this conversion is an easy matter. It is more demanding of the devout than it is of those who know that they are sinners.
Churches of different traditions are going through a difficult process over attitudes to people who are gay or divorced. The Church of England’s bishops are meeting this week to discuss where to go after the “shared conversations’ on the Church’s attitude to gay people. The Synod of Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church had the novel, for it, experience of discussing openly both that issue and the place of the divorced and remarried people. There are real tensions between those who see any compromise in these areas as a betrayal of the faith and the gospel. And those whose experience of such people and their understanding of the nature of human sexuality, leads them to want a more pastoral approach. Pope Francis himself has spoken to his fellow Jesuits in Poland recently about the need for them to teach clergy to be more discerning in pastoral care; to be less prone to see everything in black and white because most things are in shades of grey.
Such an approach is not to say that morality does not matter. It does because we are still talking about people being called to discipleship; to holiness. The question is what form that discipleship and holiness should take.