Thursday, March 14, 2013

Lent Is for Renewal!

Scripture for the 4th Sunday in Lent includes Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; II Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Happy Refreshment Sunday. That’s what today, the 4th Sunday in Lent, has been called since the middle ages. Roughly halfway through the penitential season of Lent, this has long been kept as a feast day for lightening up on Lenten discipline.

Happy Mothering Sunday. That’s another long-standing name for today, so called in the U.K. since the 16th century. In those days, to “go a-mothering” was to attend worship today in the mother church of your region, perhaps the diocesan cathedral or another large parish. This wasn’t so much about celebrating motherhood as it was about sensing spring in the air. Children would pick whatever flowers were in bloom to decorate the altars, and whatever the equivalent of coffee hour was in those days was likely beefed up for the occasion.

Mothering Sunday became a day off for the growing number of men and women in domestic service in the great houses of the British Isles. Each would be sent home with a simnel cake, a gift for mother. All this became a secular holiday, and the day has become much like our Mothers’ Day, but earlier.

One day last week, I was having a conversation with Joyce Lincourt, our youth minister, when I heard myself say, “After all, Lent is meant to renew us, not exhaust us.”

“Is that so?” came her reply. I had to agree: my claim is hardly self-evident, especially to Joyce this year, when she’s in charge of our Friday-night Lenten Series delving into “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” In fact, ask any church staff member what Lent is for, and the answers will sound more like a season in training for a marathon than a season for refreshment;
More a season when more is expected, rather than a time for lessening burdens.

But this purpose of renewal is the Church’s claim for Lent, not just mine. And we hear it today through scripture. At the midpoint of this penitential season, we hear Psalm 32 announce, “Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away! Happy are they to whom the LORD imputes no guilt, and in whose spirit there is no deceit!” Hear the exclamation marks! Rejoicing is in the air. A yet older name for this day is Laetare Sunday, from the Latin “rejoice!”

Manna is served up in the wilderness wanderings of our Hebrew ancestors. Manna was some kind of a natural nutritional substance that these migrating people discovered in supernatural abundance, renewed nightly. It saved their lives, though they had for it the kind of love-hate feelings that soldiers have for MREs—meals ready to eat, for survival but little more. Our reading from the Book of Joshua today highlights the last day those immigrants faced distasteful instant food, the first day they ate the produce of the land they were to claim as their own. The manna had been sheer gift from God; the crops of the land where they would settle would, from Israel’s viewpoint, be sheer gift as well.

Renewal, refreshment, sheer grace.

Reconciliation is served up in Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Corinthians. Five times the word appears, in the course of five sentences. Do you think he’s making a point? “In Christ God is reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us, entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation.”

Restoration, renewal, sheer grace.

Those themes prepare us to hear Luke’s story of the prodigal son. Drawn to Jesus like moths to a campfire are tax collectors and sinners catching in the air the rumor, the aroma of reconciling love—the very thing that causes self-righteous scribes and Pharisees to grumble in harsh judgment of tax collectors, sinners… and Jesus.

“There was a man who had two sons…” starts Jesus, addressing both halves of his audience, embracing them both.

The younger son is restless, unhappy, unfulfilled, bored. How he scorns the life he has, loathes his limitations, punishes the people around him for trapping him in this pointless life.

“I’m out of here… leaving this Podunk village, this annoying farm, this zero night life… I’m leaving, and you’re paying, Dad…

You know the rest. What looks like a lot of money quickly isn’t. A glamorous life can become a squalid life. The famine accelerates it all. “And he began to be in need.”

There’s a new sensation. He has long needed… but had all along been insulated from needing, until now. To his credit, he finds a job. An entry-level job. A dead-end job. A despised job, if you factor in a certain cultural bias against pork. And he had to deal not just with what went into the front end of the pig, but also with what came out of the other—which perfectly describes what kind of job this was.

“And no one gave him anything.”

Such was his life, as an alienated man. Until he came to himself and recognized the far distance he had come, headed (he now believed) in the wrong direction. Could he change course? Return? What would it take? What would be required of him? New attitudes were already forming in him: the lowest of the low on his father’s farm, hired hands he had ridiculed (or been horrified by) now seemed to him in a better place than he was.

“He who sees himself as he is, and has seen his sin, is greater than the one who raises the dead,” St. Isaac the Syrian taught. Martin Smith adds, “When we are prepared to face our besetting faults, then the opportunity comes for the Spirit (of God) to change our practice of scorning, punishing, and loathing weakness.”

“Purity of heart,” St. Isaac goes on, “is love for those who fall. If you see your brother in the act of sinning throw about his shoulders the mantle of your love.”

“The best robe!” cries the father to his servants, while he warms this boy back to life by his embrace, his compassion thawing whatever remains frozen within him. “Let us eat and celebrate! Rejoice with me! This my son was dead and is alive again! He was lost and is found!”

“Oh, yes!” agree the tax collectors and sinners. “Just the right thing to do!”

But the other half of Jesus’s audience is about to speak. “What is going on here?” asks the father’s elder son. And when he learns what, he scorns his father’s generosity, verbally punishes the old man’s love, loathes his weakness. “All these years, I have worked like a slave for you. Never have I disobeyed you. Did you once give a party for me and my friends? My good behavior you have never acknowledged. You ignore the bad behavior of this son of yours…”

“This brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found,” insists the father. Insists Jesus, hoping these scribes and Pharisees will recognize this elder brother in themselves, and come to themselves, and choose to see themselves as they are, and see their sin, and allow the Spirit of God to change their practice of scorning, punishing, and loathing weakness.

Jesus throws about our shoulders the mantle of this short timeless story, this tapestry that depicts restoration, renewal, reconciliation, sheer grace. What will we make of it?