Wednesday, March 16, 2016

"Beginning Again" MCC Windsor, March 6, 2016

Contemporary Word
“...we thought that the Taliban are not that much cruel that they would kill a child, because I was 14 at that time. But then later on, I used to like, I started thinking about that and I used to think that the Tali would come and he would just kill me, but then I said if he comes, what would you do Malala? Then I would reply to myself Malala just take a shoe and hit him, but then I said, if you hit a Tali with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Tali. You must not treat others that much with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others, but through peace and through dialogue and through education. Then I said I would tell him how important education is and that I even want education for your children as well and I would tell him, that’s what I want to tell you, now do what you want.”
            --- An excerpt from a transcript of an interview by Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for female education and youngest-ever Nobel Prize Laureate. When she was 15, she was attacked and shot in the face by the Taliban for supporting female education.

Ancient Word
Joshua 5:9-12
 Then God said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” So the place has been called Gilgal to this day.
On the evening of the fourteenth day of the month, while camped at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho, the Israelites celebrated the Passover. The day after the Passover, that very day, they ate some of the produce of the land: unleavened bread and roasted grain. The manna stopped the day after they ate this food from the land; there was no longer any manna for the Israelites, but that year they ate the produce of Canaan.

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This one welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable:
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.  So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

Will you pray with and for me? Loving and generous God, open our spirits and hearts to your word for us today. May all we hear and speak be reflections of your grace. In all your names, amen.

Our Gospel reading today is one of those parables that even people who don't go to church are familiar with, at least in the general outline--guy has a lot of money, goes away and wastes it all, comes home to ask forgiveness, Dad throws a big party, big brother is jealous, Dad says to celebrate because his brother has come home. It has even affected the language--not in the dictionary, perhaps, but often when people talk about someone as a "prodigal" they mean someone who has gone away and is now returning in shame. But the original meaning, the central meaning of "prodigal" is "extravagant, generous, lavish." So even though it is usually called the story of the prodigal son, it could also be called the story of the prodigal father. After all, he throws a wild party when he son comes home--this younger son who, in a sense, couldn't wait for his father to die, and grabbed his inheritance when he could.

Now, it's usually read as a parable of forgiveness, and the two short parables just before it--the lost sheep and the lost coin--reinforce that reading. And that's true, I think. But it's more than that. Isn't it also about new beginnings, fresh starts, a chance at a do-over?

We're halfway through Lent; beginning that slide down to Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and then Easter. We've been asking those questions about what we really believe, whose we really are, and how we respond to God--and whether we need to change any of that. Today we are looking at what that might look like.

Malala, although a teenager, has already learned a valuable lesson. Hatred solves nothing--it only makes us like those we hate. It doesn't bring peace or an end to violence, it doesn't resolve differences in politics, religion, or even in the family. And so she lets go of that hatred and anger, recognizing that, difficult as it is to let go of it, that hatred solves nothing. Only by caring for those who would hurt her as much as she cares for herself can she rise above the hatred. "Love those that hate you." Now who said that?

Joshua is not a book we often read in the course of the lectionary cycle, but there is some interesting stuff in there! And this is one of those passages. The Hebrews are letting go of what bound then to the past. They have been forgiven for their doubts on the long journey to the Promised Land, and as a sign, no longer are living on the manna from heaven, but only on the produce of their new land. It is now their land and they are farming it, keeping sheep and growing crops, planting vineyards and building homes. They have settled into a new place. They are finally starting over.

And so the the son and the father. The son realizes his error, and returned home. he is not looking to regain his former place; he knows the enormity of his mistake--anticipating his father's death, taking the money, and then wasting it. He didn't even invest it--just spent it "in riotous living," as the King James translation says. The older brother claims it was spent on prostitutes, but how he knew that is a mystery. At any rate, it's all gone, and so the younger brother returns home.

Robert Frost once said, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." Which is a bit cynical, but also true. And so the younger son goes home--not in the expectation that everything will be as it was--he is willing to be a servant, just as long as he has a place to live and food to eat. Maybe he does think that he father will be lenient to him--after all, his father did give him they money he asked for, so he seems to be a bit indulgent--but he can't know that. And he isn't planning to ask for that, even if he hopes for it.

And he receives it. He is given a fresh start, a new beginning--a nice new clean robe, sandals for his bare feet, even a ring to wear--they start a party, with great food, and music and dancing, just because he is back home.

Now, the older brother is not happy about it all. And I think all of us have felt is was a little unfair of the father to throw this wild party for the return of the younger brother when the older brother, who had been dutiful and worked hard, never got any recognition. Especially those of us who have younger siblings who got privileges we didn't or got them earlier than we did, or, heaven forbid, at the same time we did. I remember resenting it mightily that my younger sister got her ears pierced at the same time I did. It seems silly now, but at the time, I felt it took something away from me, as the older sister.

But the father points out that the older brother has it backwards. He reminds him that everything the father has now belongs to him--the older brother--because the younger brother got his share, even if he wasted it. And besides, this is his brother--isn't he glad he's come home safe? I can easily imagine the father suggesting a new beginning-wipe the slate clean between the two brothers and start over.

Have you, in your Lenten thinking and journeying and questioning, been feeling the need for a new start? What better time than Easter, the day of Resurrection, the day of dying to the old and rising to the new? What do you need to let go of? What anger or hatred or foolish mistakes have you  made or that others have made do you need to relinquish in order to celebrate a new beginning?

My friends, take this opportunity for Easter rebirth; let go of the mistakes and pain of the past. Forgive where it is needed--whether yourself or others, let go of the resentment or anger. Start anew, grasp this new beginning offered to you, take it in both hands and celebrate starting over. In all God's names, amen.

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