Wasteful, extravagant, profligate, spendthrift. These are all words that are synonymous with the first definition in the dictionary of the word prodigal. I have to admit that it was only recently that I learned that word’s true meaning. I grew up in the Baptist church and all my life have been steeped in scripture. I have heard this parable from Luke’s gospel thousands of times in my lifetime, but I never knew the true meaning of the word prodigal. I had always assumed it either meant ‘lost,’ as in the parable of the lost son. Or perhaps ‘repentant,’ as in the parable of the repentant son. These certainly could fit. But after finally looking up the word, it all makes sense. Prodigal: spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant. So as we read the parable and follow the son’s journey from his restlessness at home to eating pig slop as a result of his reckless and wasteful spending, we see how it is that the young son earns the name: prodigal.
Generous, lavish, liberal, bounteous. These are all words synonymous with the second definition of the word prodigal which reads: having or giving something on a lavish scale. Jesus says when the young son returns, hoping that his father will hire him as a servant, the father does the unthinkable. He orders his slaves to bring out the finest robe for his son and to put sandals on his feet and a ring on his finger. To be given a robe to wear was to be honored and only members of the family wore sandals. Slaves and hired servants were required to be barefoot. And probably the most shocking of the father’s prodigality was the giving of the ring. In that culture if a man gave a ring to another man it was the same as giving him power of attorney; an act so generous it defies common sense even in our day.[i] How many of us would hand over everything we owned to someone who could not exhibit proper stewardship of just a fraction of that. But this is what the father does and orders his slaves to kill the fatted calf and to throw a huge party to celebrate his son’s return.
A friend of mine recently e-mailed me a maxim which read, ‘Work tip: Stand up. Stretch. Take a walk. Go to the airport. Get on an airplane. Never return.’ I sometimes wonder if this is what Jesus and his disciples felt like in their own ministry. When you read the gospel of Mark, one thing you will notice straight away is the fevered pace with which Jesus and his disciples move in their ministry. After Jesus is baptized, Mark writes that the Spirit immediately drives Jesus into the desert to be tempted by Satan. He then begins his ministry, chooses his disciples, heals a man with an unclean spirit, heals Simon’s mother-in-law and then others who catch wind of Jesus power. He then begins a preaching tour through Galilee and cleanses a leper he encounters along the way. And this is just the first chapter and in as little as 870 words!
We’re now in chapter six and we read that Jesus’ disciples have been out on their own preaching, teaching, healing, and casting out demons. They have met up with Jesus again and you can sense their child-like excitement as they begin to recount how they had put to use all that He had been teaching them. With all this commotion around them they had not even had time to attend to their own needs of sustenance and rest. We then hear Jesus tell them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” The sigh of relief is palpable as we read that they got in a boat and set sail for the other side. Can you identity with Jesus and the disciples? Have you ever had one of those days or even weeks that just doesn’t seem to stop?
Exodus 13:17-22; Matthew 2:1-12
For a few of us brothers, one of the highlights of our pilgrimage to the UK this past summer was a trek to The Eagle and Child Pub in Oxford. It was not necessarily for the food and beer that we wanted to visit this pub, although the Slow-cooked Steak, Amber Ale & Mushroom Pie is quite delicious. Rather, the reason for this sacred journey was that this was a regular meeting place for a literary group known as “The Inklings,” of which C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein were members. Sitting in a cramped corner of this pub with Luke, Keith, Nicholas, and Lucas, I couldn’t help but to wonder if perhaps we were sitting at a table where Lewis and Tolkein might have sat, discussing literature, philosophy, religion, and theology. One of my favorite poems from Tolkein’s epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings kept playing over and over in my head. It begins:
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.[i]
Indeed, this became my own personal mantra for the pilgrimage: “Not all those who wander are lost!” Tonight’s sermon is the second part of our Epiphany preaching series on vocation entitled Gifts for the Journey. This evening we will explore: The Gift of Detours.
The Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ
Today in the calendar of the church we arrive at the beginning of a new season: Epiphany. Growing up in a different Christian tradition, I admit that the meaning of this period of the church year alluded me for quite some time. Like being a postulant and novice in a monastery, becoming acclimated to the richness of a new tradition can take some time and more often than not, we learn by entering into the life and slowly absorbing little by little all that tradition has to teach us. There usually comes a moment when the nature and purpose of a particular practice will become apparent and make us exclaim: “Eureka! I got it!” While an epiphany seems like a sudden and random event, the truth is epiphanies happen after a significant period of time when a final tidbit of information gathered brings something into focus. While the ‘Eureka effect,’ (the sudden elation one experiences when having an epiphany) makes this event appear to be random, in actuality it is the end of a long process. Epiphany (from the Greek) literally means manifestation.
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 1:46-55; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
If you have been worshipping with us with any regularity this Advent you will notice a slight variation this morning in our liturgical colors. The traditional Sarum blue is normally flanked by earthy green and highlights of crimson, all colors that represent the mystery of the Incarnation; that is, God becoming flesh and blood, putting on our human vesture in the womb of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Just as future parents prepare themselves for the birth of a child, so this season of Advent is a time for prayer, recollection, and getting our lives in order in preparation for the birth of Jesus at Christmas. But today, the Sarum blue is complimented by swatches of velvety rose to signify the third Sunday of Advent which is known as ‘Gaudete’ Sunday. Gaudete, the Latin word for “Rejoice,” is the first word we hear in both the Introit[i] to today’s Mass from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice,” as well as the Epistle from his letter to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” Gaudete Sunday is a day of rejoicing!
One of the debates I see played out amongst my friends each year on social media is what I call the Christmas tree debate. Just when is it acceptable to drag out your Christmas CDs, decorations, and set up your tree in front of the living room picture window? We smile somewhat at this familiar conundrum but it seems each year the debate gets even more heated, perhaps one tier below our concerns about whether Russia interfered with our election process. I read comments from friends who dread hearing ‘Sleigh Ride’ played ad nauseum in supermarkets and shopping malls beginning Thanksgiving Day. And I don’t blame them. When I was home to see my parents a few weeks ago, I shook my head in frustration when a local radio station advertised its seasonal format shift to Christmas music exactly one week prior to Thanksgiving! Many of my friends had pictures of their trees on social media on Thanksgiving, one with the defiant comment: “We put our tree up today! Sorry, not sorry!” And who can blame them? In a world that appears to be immersed in utter chaos, in a climate of hostility to those who think, believe, and act differently, who wouldn’t be parched and thirsting for some Christmas joy?
If someone were to come up to you and ask, “Do you consider yourself concentric or eccentric,” what would you say? This question might take us a little by surprise and I somehow imagine most of us would reply, “Come again?” I don’t imagine any of us would expect this question upon meeting someone for the first time or that we would see it on an eHarmony dating questionnaire. We know that a person who is eccentric is someone who is perhaps a little unique or odd, someone who marches to the beat of a different drummer, and not necessarily in a way that we want to emulate. I doubt any of my brothers would ever characterize me that way. I’m completely normal in that aspect. But am I concentric? Merriam Webster defines concentric as: having a common center or axis. To be honest that definition does not really help me in identifying with any certitude if I am a concentric person. Perhaps a better question would be: am I egocentric? Most of us would probably not admit to being egocentric, although we all have an ego and personally, truth be told, my ego can on occasion get me into trouble! Perhaps you can relate. But could any of us really be defined as egocentric? In our gospel lesson today, Jesus is teaching his disciples and the crowds surrounding them about relationship, especially in regards to centricity: the center. He is in effect asking them “Who or what is at the center of your life? Where is your focus?”
If God were to appear to you in a dream and tell you to travel to New York and walk through the center of Manhattan pronouncing God’s judgment and impending destruction of that city, how would you respond? I suspect many of us would wake up and think, wow, that was a really strange dream and perhaps share it with friends for a laugh over a coffee or lunch break. If we felt particularly disturbed by the dream, we might call our therapist or spiritual director to help process the feelings and emotions the dream conjured. Somehow I suspect most if not all of us would eventually shrug it off and forget about it. But what if this dream were to reoccur persistently?
In this evening’s Old Testament lesson we hear a portion of a comical story about Jonah who receives this very message from God. This short book is only four chapters long start to finish and the introduction to Jonah in the New Oxford Annotated Bible states that he is never even called a prophet in the text.[i] To add insult to injury, the book of Jonah is more about God’s dealings with the ‘prophet’ himself than with the recipients of Jonah’s message, therefore making Jonah the ‘circus clown’ of all the prophets. His day starts out by getting a daunting assignment from God: go to Nineveh, the capitol city of the hated and oppressive Assyrian Empire, and pronounce God’s judgment on them. I don’t think there is a single one of us who blame Jonah for his response. Jonah runs away and we shake our heads at him intuiting that this is only going to get worse.
I imagine it was with a youthful twinkle in his eye that our Society’s founder, Father Benson, once wrote: “If we are to have Jesus our friend, we must know him to be continually near. The companionship of Jesus! It is strange how many there are who look forward to being with him in another world, but never think of living fellowship with him here.”
I was eleven years old when I made my way to the front of my childhood church to proclaim what I already knew in my heart: that Jesus and I had had a personal relationship since before I could remember. In the evangelical tradition in which I was raised, the pastor would always give an “altar call” before the final hymn: he would invite anyone who wanted a personal relationship with Jesus Christ to come forward and stand with him as a public profession of that desire, which was the next step in the journey of faith. After I took that step myself, I always looked forward to that moment in the service, to see who else might come to be friends with Jesus the way I was.
Yet as I grew into an adult understanding of Jesus during my own journey into adulthood, the constant companion I had known as a child became a distant acquaintance that I would see once every great while (and when I did, I wasn’t quite sure what to say). Perhaps you can relate. Maybe you’ve been trying to reclaim a relationship with Jesus. Or maybe, in light of current events, you’re presently searching for a ray of hope, confused and disoriented at what is going on in this world, wondering ‘where in the world is Jesus in all of this?’
In my own journey, I met Jesus again in the same place that I had first professed to follow him: at the altar. Late in my high school years, I had the opportunity to visit an Episcopal Church one Christmas Eve and was most struck by all the activity surrounding the altar during the second half of the service. Something mysterious was occurring, and while I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, it was palpable. I eventually joined the Episcopal Church and came to know and understand what was happening at the altar. It was a sacrament: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Through this sacrament, my personal relationship with Jesus was renewed. What’s more, I realized in this new ‘altar call’ that Jesus had always been with me on my journey, I just hadn’t recognized him. Every time we gather around an altar to break bread and share wine, we get a glimpse of Jesus, who is our constant companion.
As a monk now, I get the chance to meet Jesus at the altar every day during the Eucharist. Yet even as a monk, I also need to attune my eyes to see him in my everyday life. How can we become aware of Jesus, who is also called Emmanuel – “God with us” – when we’re away from the altar? I want to suggest a transformative practice which comes from the monastic tradition: reserving two brief periods of prayer to act as ‘bookends’ to your day.
In the morning, take a few moments and pray forward through your day. As editor David Cobb suggests in the newly revised Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book:
In God’s presence, think through the day ahead: the work you will do, the people you will encounter, the dangers or uncertainties you face, the possibilities for joy and acts of kindness, any particular resolutions you need to renew. Consider what might draw you from the love of God and neighbor, the opportunities you will have to know and serve God and to grow in virtue. Remember those closest to you and all for whom you have agreed to pray, ask God’s blessings, guidance, and strength in all that lies before you. Then, gather up these thoughts and reflections with the words of the Lord’s Prayer.
Or you might conclude, as I do, with Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer,” which is popular in 12-Step work:
GOD, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as the pathway to peace. Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it. Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen.
If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll find that, over time, this way of praying in the morning will help make you aware of Jesus with you throughout your day. Even the empty, in-between times of the day can become full of chances to meet him in the moment. Father George Congreve, SSJE once wrote:
At times, when we have to wait and have nothing to do to occupy ourselves with – Oh! Then it is not wasted time if we have thought of God in it, if we have looked into the face of Jesus. Then anything that we do at the end of such waiting times we do with a glory and a power to witness to Jesus which is, indeed, a precious result. Everything should become by degrees an act of communion with God.
A second period of prayer, at the end of the day, can help you to see how many moments throughout your day were, indeed, “an act of communion with God.” Before you go to bed, take ten or fifteen minutes to pray backwards through your day. You might use the five-step prayer known in Ignatian Spirituality as “The Examen”:
- Become aware of God’s presence and ask God to bring clarity to the end of your day.
- Review the day with gratitude, both what went well and where you might have come up short. Pay attention to the small things. God is in the details.
- Pay attention to your emotions. Ignatius says that we detect the presence of God in our emotions. What is God saying through these feelings?
- Choose one feature from the day and pray from it. Look at it. Pray about it. Allow the prayer to arise spontaneously from your heart – whether intercession, praise, repentance, or gratitude.
- Look forward to tomorrow. Do all this with a posture of gratitude knowing that all of life is a gift of God, and then close with the Lord’s Prayer.
Jesus always waits for us at the altar. And he meets us in the sacrament of our daily lives. He continually accompanies us along our earthly pilgrimage, loving us and upholding us, each step of the way. Look for him beside you.
Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
The other day I ran across a video on YouTube that made me incredibly uncomfortable. The scene was of the famous conductor Leonard Bernstein rehearsing Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations with the BBC Orchestra. In the video, the famous maestro singles out the trumpet section on a particular passage of music and tries to instruct them on what he would like to hear. Confused, one of the trumpeters asks for clarification on the sound Mr. Bernstein is looking for. The maestro answers: well, not a brassy ‘waaah’, indicating how he thought they had just played it. With an agitated expression on his face and obviously disagreeing with the maestro’s assessment of their performance, the second trumpet player responds to Mr. Bernstein, taking a tone that is both ungracious and confrontational. The air in the room is tense as you would expect when a brilliant musician with a bruised ego pushes back against one of the most renowned conductors of that era. At the end of the brief two minute video Mr. Bernstein summons the rest of the orchestra to move on and the camera catches the principal clarinetist smiling nervously, almost disbelieving what he just witnessed.[i] I don’t know about you, but my reaction would probably be like that of the clarinetist. Even though conflict and confrontation are sometimes inevitable in life, I have to admit, I certainly do not go looking for it.