Sermon for Lent 4 High Mass Sunday 6 March 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
You may have read this week that Donald Trump, presumably doing in-depth research on google for sophisticated arguments to support his subtle and inclusive campaign, recently tweeted a quotation from Mussolini. When asked whether this was appropriate he replied, ‘well at least you noticed’. Some have suggested that we are so over-familiar with parables such as that we’ve just heard that we need a similar wake-up call to get the point.
John Pridmore suggests we try these new endings:
A Samaritan came that way and when he came to the place and saw him – he too passed by on the other side.
Later, the foolish bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, open to us.’ And he replied, ‘Oh, all right then.’
And for today it would be:
But while he was still far off, his father told him to clear off back to his pigs.
So Fr Alan could then have sung,
‘This is not the gospel of the Lord – but for once you paid attention.’
We do have a diffiuclty in approaching these parables: they were striking and original teaching when first delivered, but they’ve inevitably lost their edge, as a result of reverential, and even worse, parsonical repetition. The saddest irony here, especially with today’s parable, which we call the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is that our use of them too often serves the opposite of their author’s intention, completely subverting scripture. Today we should beware listening smugly and failing to notice that he’s talking to us.
Luke’s context, in the opening paragraph of the chapter where this story is told, makes it clear that Jesus is targeting religious people, those who profess religion and those for whom religion is a profession. Our context is where we read or hear the story. That is likely to be the Church (captial ‘C’) to which we belong – the Church of England, say – and the church (small ‘c’) which we attend, All Saints. So our context is in fact the same as Luke’s – organised religion.
The tendency of religious people of every stripe (and the ‘pharisees and scribes’ were certainly no worse than the rest of us) is to erect barriers and close doors. Behind those barriers and doors are people of whom we approve. Beyond them are those of whom we disapprove. These circles, embracing the acceptable, excluding the unacceptable, are like modern gated communities, protected from intruders and undesirables by tight security.
Inside are ‘people like us’; outside, those whom we perceive to be different. The truth we churchgoers have to learn, elder brothers all, is that the Kingdom of God is not that sort of society, not an enclave into which only our sort are admitted, but a fellowship in which all are made welcome, including, perhaps especially, those we find uncongenial.
Perhaps the prodigal son came home with the wind behind him, so that ‘when he was a great way off’ there was borne on the air the faint whiff of pig. To the elder brother the smell is deeply offensive. But I cannot point my finger at him, for I have found proximity to the homeless and bathless difficult in this building (and others) at times.
One thing to notice (and you’ve probably heard this before) is that the true subject of the parable is not the so-called prodigal son at all. The target is the jealous and self-righteous elder brother (who certainly and sadly typifies a large proportion of us church-goers on an unreflective off-day); the true subject is God himself: the parable is primarily about the loving and forgiving Father, hence its appropriateness for this penitential season, and especially this Sunday when the mood lightens and you find us attired in these costumes from Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Mardi Gras arrives late in church. That is a serious point: even Lent is supposed to be a party for forgiven sinners. Sometimes, consciously or unconsciously, we get it right.
On Ash Wednesday I posed a question: What sort of person do you want to be when you make your Easter communion? I suggested that this is the simple, though possibly not easy, question our penitential season puts to us. Of course we won’t be unrecognisably different. But can we do better than sleepwalk into Easter?
This parable adds depth to the Lenten reminder to recall who we truly are, children of God, and to live a recollected life with a consciousness of our true parenthood. It fills out the character of that parenthood: loving, generous and forgiving. And it reminds us that, however difficult we find it, we are to rejoice with the angels over the progress of a brother and sister more than our own dogged and self-congratulatory efforts. One of the hardest struggles of our faith is surely learning to rejoice in other people’s goodness, happiness and success, success in Kingdom terms rather than material ones. Gore Vidal, a ferociously honest self-promoter, some would say narcissist, and certainly no friend to the Christian faith, famously remarked, ‘every time a friend succeeds something inside me dies.’ That is the elder brother talking and we may want to use the parable to examine ourselves on the basis of that weak point.
More than that, I hope we can use this Refreshment Sunday to revisit my Ash Wednesday question. If the answer is that we’ve already failed in our Lenten exercise this day and this parable are here to remind us that the Father does not fail in his love for us, in his desire to welome us home. We’re half way there. I hope you’ll join me in one last push to Easter.