Sermon for Lent 5 – Year C – 2013
‘I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.’
Last week we were treated to a fine sermon from Jo on the Parable of the Prodigal Son – and I’d like to take a few moments this week just to reflect a little further on that parable, for it leads us beautifully into our texts for this week, and the theme ‘Extravagant Love’.
The Father in the parable displays a shocking extravagance in his response to his younger son. In many ways we might call that parable, the parable of the Prodigal Father, for after the son has squandered his father’s goods on prostitutes and dissolute living, the Father squanders himself on the son, welcoming him back with open arms, Killing the fatted calf, throwing him a party and giving him The Best Robe, the Ring of Sonship and Sandals. The Prodigality of the Son is dwarfed by the Prodigality of the Father. And the elder son picks up on this – ‘You are wasting yourself on this wastrel of a son of yours . . .’
And as I’ve noted before, this Wastefulness can strike us, like a slap in the face – that we might also cry out ‘That’s not fair!!’ Or with Judas – ‘Why didn’t you give it all to a deserving cause . . .?’ However much we try to separate ourselves from Judas’ motivations – of course we are not into waste because we want to remain secure . . . – his response to Mary’s outrageous extravagance with the perfume strikes a chord with us. ‘This could have been sold for $40k and the money given to the poor . . .’ Because of course if we found ourselves in possession of a pot of perfume worth $40k, that’s exactly what we’d do with it, isn’t it . . . we wouldn’t keep any of it for ourselves would we?
The Command of Lent, given to us on Ash Wednesday, has two aspects, but they are two sides of the same coin. ‘Repent and believe the Good News’. To Repent is not primarily to stop ‘being naughty’ as we might perhaps teach our children. Rather repentance is what the Prodigal does – he realises that the story of Life with him at the centre is no life at all – which it isn’t. You take what you can get out of life, you do the best you can with it and then you die. Not much of a life really. The Prodigal realises the utter poverty of his life.
This is why in an age when we are so materially comfortable, we have so much difficulty really hearing the gospel. Like Judas we imagine the meaning of life is to secure ourselves against the harshness of life and have enough to keep going until we stop – indeed perhaps enough to put off the stopping for a few years longer than most. The anxiety ridden story – Get a good education, get a good job, get a good spouse, raise your children well so that in your old age they won’t abandon you, and leave enough money in the pot to pay for a decent burial. And we call this ‘The Good Life’. And when as in a culture like ours these things are at least on the surface moderately easily attainable, we can’t even begin to imagine that relatively speaking we’re sat eating pig scraps, compared with what might be ours were we to return to God. That what we have been trained to call the Good Life is in reality the Devil’s anaesthetic. In the words of CS Lewis, “like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
So repentance is difficult for we don’t see any need to – as every missionary or evangelist will tell us, the gospel is at best utterly subverted, and at worst ignored by the rich – whereas the poor, like the prodigal sat with the pigs don’t need all that much encouragement to believe that life in God’s Kingdom might perhaps be a bit of an improvement on what they have.
Repentance and believing the Good News are in essence the same movement. That is, saying no to the life we painstakingly build for ourselves – a life of great care, a life if we are religious of trying not to break the rules, of living ‘moral’ lives; and saying Yes to the Outrageous Provision of God. To understand that he provides for his children – that Jesus was not lying when he said ‘Seek God’s Kingdom and all your material needs will be looked after’ We don’t believe in God’s provision – That ‘He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things’????
To enter Life we must abandon the idea that we have to look after ourselves – we have to let go of the story of careful frugality and that ghastly parody of the gospel – ‘God helps those who help themselves’ – why?? Because that is not Life – because the only Life there is is the Life of God who is outrageously prodigal – outrageously wasteful – who receives this outrageous act of worship, for it reveals the heart of the Father – the Prodigal God. Mary is a child of God – she lives in the same utterly Care Less abandon and generosity, wasting a pint of pure nard on Jesus
The life of careful frugality is NOT the Life of God – it is merely a sign that we have not heard the Good News of a God who throws banquets for the utterly undeserving. We remember the parable Jesus tells in this regard – the invitations are sent out – and back come the polite refusals – I have business to attend to (I need to watch my security) – I have just got married (I need to watch my security) – I have new oxen to break in (I need to watch my security) – I am too anxious about my miserable life of cares to take time to feast on abundance.
The Apostle Paul, in terms of the times in which he lived had it all – he was circumcised on the eighth day, he was a REAL Jew, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, a Pure blood – regarding the Law, unimpeachable (The Pharisees WERE morally Pure!), as to zeal – he was hot to persecute any false way – Paul had it all in the world’s terms – but when he encountered Christ, he realised that it was all – manure. HIs eyes were opened – he realised that he was sat amongst the pigswill, and yet in the world’s terms he had a life all would envy him for. HE had it all carefully controlled, carefully managed, he’d been to the right schools, if he had children I guess they’d gone to the right schools to – he’d bought entirely into the world’s lies. Then he met Christ – and his eyes were opened.
And to everyone who knew him, what happened next must have seemed utterly outrageous – he threw away all his carefully cultivated security, and like the fishermen before him, set out to follow Christ – in the life of Abundance – as outrageous as the Prodigal Love of the Father for his son – as outrageous as the Life of the one whom the Pharisees saw squandering his Life on Prostitutes, and tax collectors, on galilean peasants, on sinners. The Prodigal Son is of course in a sense Jesus himself
Well, before I close a couple of brief reflections – what does this mean for us as a people. Firstly as the people of God in this Diocese. We have been listening too long to the wrong story – a story of Scarcity. A story which denies the Gospel we proclaim. We have assumed that the bottom line is the bottom line – we have chosen to believe that God is Not outrageously generous to those who chose to live in such generosity – put another way, we don’t believe Jesus when he says ‘Give and it will be given to you, a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” As things stand in the Diocese at the moment, there would be at least a degree of consternation if someone wasted $40k on perfume for Jesus . . . Which story will we live by in the Diocese? The myth of the life we have to scrape together for ourselves, or the Story of God’s abundance for all who live this life of Abundance? The central challenge is that of Faith – that God is who he says he is – The God who provides – and to enter His Life
And what about us, as the people of God at St John’s – we shall in a short while have our Annual meeting – when we consider the state of play for the church. I just want to say ahead of this that this year Vestry has decided to give a double tithe of the fair proceeds – one tenth to Servants Health Centre in town – a charity which gives medical care and attention to those who cannot afford it – and a tenth to Cyclone Relief for our Pasifika neighbours in Samoa. Good. But I want to suggest that next year we try and imitate God our father – that we hold a fair Purely for the benefit of others. That we discipline ourselves as a church to do that, to Be imitators of God as dearly loved children. To put in all that work and time of preparation entirely in order to bless others, as our God gives all he has for our sake.
Imagine the headlines in the ODT ‘Church holds fair and gives all the proceeds away . . .’
Father welcomes home wastrel son with a banquet – God wastes himself on the undeserving – Fishermen leave their nets and follow Christ – ‘Church holds fair and gives all the money away’ . . .
You may have noticed in the gospel that Mary had bought the perfume for Jesus burial . . . and it would have been perfectly in order to think, ‘well all that is used up so there won’t be anything for the burial . . .’ but if we read on in John, then after the death of Jesus we read After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.
Mary wasted a pint of Nard on Jesus – God the Prodigal Father blessed that and provided ‘myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds’ – may we too do likewise and so come to know the Extravagant Love of God. ‘The measure you give will be the measure you get – Good measure, pressed down and running over . . .’