March 14, 2013

A Shift in Perspective


To see the readings for this day, click here.

Text: 2 Corinthans 5:16: “From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view.”

This is a sermon that tries to draw together a theme from the readings and a theme from our lives together by linking them with a single line of text. And that line is this somewhat murky sentence from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians: “From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view.”

Whatever you make of that, it means that something fundamental has changed; the clue to that is those first three words—“from now on.” Whatever went before is over and past; we cannot go back, and we must go forward. From now on—things will be different. From now on—we will do something, or be something, or see something in a new way. From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view.

At first glance the unifying theme of the readings this morning is turning over a new leaf, or more accurately starting a new life. The Israelites hear the pronouncement that the captivity of Egypt is behind them forever, that they have come into their own as a people. After forty years of keeping the Passover along their wandering way in the desert, after forty years of depending on the manna from heaven to feed themselves, they come to their new lives in the promised land. The text says they ate of the produce of the land; they have matured as a people, they have turned over a new leaf, they are reconstituted as a new entity, the people of the land of Israel.

That’s much the same message we hear in the gospel this morning, the profound story of that prodigal boy. We all know the old preacher’s trope about the call to repentance that is modeled in that foolish young man, that moment when he finally sees the mess he has made of his life.

And the thing he does at that moment, the text says, is to come to himself. In the Greek, the word is lesamoia, a word not easily translated into English; it literally means a thought that we know is different from the thoughts we had before, a change of consciousness. From now on, things will be, forever, different.

I’ll bet you know the other old preacher’s trope about this parable, this story we only find in Luke and that we only ever hear once in three years—the idea that the parable of the prodigal son isn’t really about the son, it’s about that father. It’s about the idea, the illustration, Jesus is giving us about the way God responds to us when we come to that change of consciousness.

The parent in this story is always willing to take back a wandering child on the other side of that realization, on the other side of that turning around. The vastness of that child’s depravity, the height of his imagined pride and the depth of his fall, is matched only by—well—our own, in our own ways.

And when we finally figure out how to come home—when we finally figure out where home is, and make up our mind to start a new life—the little speech we have all rehearsed won’t matter either. Because the loving parent waiting there will come running to meet us on the road.

So there is the theme of the readings. You probably don’t need a preacher to grasp that.

In our own lives together these past weeks there has been a different theme, one I tried to speak to in my small contribution to this month’s edition of the Eagle. And it is just this: that many of us have mourned the loss of a parent in this season, and more of us have been bearing that burden that all children someday face in attending to the frailties of the generation before us.

At the very moment, once every three years, that we are reminded of this unique quality of the love of parents, we are losing our parents.

Maybe your experience of your own parents has not been, or has not quite been, the experience of accepting, forgiving, unconditional love. Maybe.

Or maybe you underestimated your parents’ capacity, or tolerance, or acceptance of you. If you have children of your own, just think for a moment about how hard it would be for your own children really to break your limit of forgiveness. Children can break our hearts, but very, very rarely our limits.

We were all children, of course. And we all have managed, at one time or another, to break our parents’ hearts. That is the nature of things.

But at least we always knew something that prodigal knew: that if that moment came when we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of the ruins of our own designs, if we lifted up our heads and came to ourselves and had a new thought that was fundamentally and forever different from the old thoughts, at least we always knew where we could go and be taken in.

Our parents are our home, in a fundamental way. Remember that line Robert Frost’s? “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.” That is the place our parents have in our lives. They are the thing that makes repentance possible because we know we will be forgiven.

The line right after that line from Frost’s poem is not so remembered, but it is even more theologically rich: the woman who is speaking speaks of home as “something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” You don’t have to deserve home; your deserving has nothing to do with it. It is simply accepting of you; that is what makes it home.

That is what the father of that prodigal boy is to him, and in some basic way that is who our parents are for us—willingly or not, gracefully or not, warmly or not. And so it is that when there is no one left in the world to call you “child,” the thing you most feel is homeless. From now on... things will be very different.

From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view. What then does this mean for us, now?

•  •  •

I want to offer two ideas.

First, perhaps it means that in this moment we are now called to change our own place in this story; we are called to give up the role, or the possibility, of being that prodigal wanderer. Now, we are called into the role of the father—the parent—the person this story is really about.

In so many ways our culture invites us to endure in a kind of permanent adolescence. We want to hold open forever the possibility that no matter how awful a jam we get into, we always have an out, a place to retreat to, a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Down in South Carolina, the former governor, Mr. Sanford—the man who gave a whole new meaning to the seemingly straightforward idea of hiking the Appalachian Trail—is running for office again, and asking his fellow citizens for forgiveness. I don’t know much about Mr. Sanford, but I am sure he wouldn’t be risking such a public repentance if he didn’t think there was a better-than-even chance of being forgiven by his home state. Oh, and I learned one other thing about Mr. Sanford: He’s an Episcopalian.

But we are not that different from Mr. Sanford. We want to know that there is no limit to our last chances. But what shall we do when there is no one left to call us “child”? What shall we do when we can no longer be certain that we know where home is? When her own mother died, Emily Dickinson wrote about being “homeless at home”; and that is somehow what we feel.

What I think we must do, what we are called to do, is to step into that role ourselves. That is the way we show we have fully understood what a gift we have received in the forgiveness extended to us; that we are ready to extend it to others.

From now on we regard no one from a human point of view—the point of view of blame and grudge-keeping, the point of view of settling scores and keeping accounts. From now on we do what disciples do; we regard everyone from God’s point of view, from the point of view of that broken-hearted parent who still comes running off the front porch to welcome God’s children home when they come.

That’s the first idea. The second idea isn’t so much about us and our role in the story; it’s about what God’s invitation is to our community in all of this. Because a lot of people out there, a lot of people outside the church, are homeless.

I don’t mean homeless in the sense of the folks we meet at the soup kitchen when we go to help there. I mean homeless in a spiritual sense, home in a social sense. I mean homeless in the sense that they live their lives managing the fear that they have already run out of last chances, that there is no place left on earth that would really take them in. And that means there is no place where they could really make any sense out of repentance, because there is no place that would accept them and welcome them if they really did come to themselves and come home.

Just like that prodigal child, most of them have a little rehearsed speech, too. Except their little speech is the justification for why they wouldn’t dare test the idea that they might find a home here.

I’ll bet you’ve heard a few of those speeches whenever you’ve let slip in a social conversation that you show up here on Sunday morning. You know that little speech? “Oh, I’m spiritual, but not religious.” “I just really have issues with organized religion.” “I don’t really know if I believe in all that stuff.”

Well, that’s a very understandable, very human point of view. Against the standards of this world, very few of us have any claim to deserve being accepted and affirmed, or even tolerated, by others. But from now on we regard no one from a human point of view. And deserving has nothing to do with it.

When we live in a world without our parents, our place in the world changes forever. From now on, our role is different; now it is for us to be that forgiving, embracing parent. From now on it is for us to be the home that anyone, when they have to come here, will find ready to take them in. With thanks to God for the parents we have known, now it is for us to change our own role in the story,. Now it is for us to be waiting, watching, hoping for that return, and rejoicing whenever anyone finds their way to our door, whether for the first time or just the next time.