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The Fourth Sunday in Lent - March 31, 2019 - The Rev. Matthew Stewart

One of my more vivid memories from my time back in seminary was this one time when I heard the school’s librarian preach. He was this quiet, mild-mannered, unassuming kind of guy who you’d rarely hear speak. He was on the preaching schedule for some midweek service and he made his way up into the pulpit, slowly futzed around with his manuscript placing it on the book stand. And he looked up at the congregation and said, more loudly than I had ever heard him speak before, “The master or father figure in the parables of Jesus is NOT God.” I can’t remember anything else he said after that because I was initially just shocked by his energy and uncharacteristic vehemence. It wasn’t until much later in the service that I started thinking about the content of his what he said. That when we think about Jesus’s parables and there is a father or a master, we shouldn’t think of that person as referring to God. It’s a little out there when you consider it.  In today’s extremely well-known Parable of the Prodigal Son, how do we think about it? Basically, we are either the younger son and the father is God, welcoming us back with open arms whenever we turn away… or we are the elder son, jealous of the way that God is so merciful and giving to others when we fail to remember that all those blessings are ours too. How could the father in this story not be God?


Well, I think this librarian was engaging in some level rhetorical hyperbole.  Exaggerating to make a point. He was referring more to the work of Biblical scholars who grapple with parables where the father/master figure is more judgmental and condemning. Those are places where it makes more sense to not equate the master with God’s true nature.  


But there may still be something here for us in today’s story, too.  Now, I do think we can and should think about the father in today’s parable as telling something about the inclusive welcome and absurd generosity of God. Absolutely. That is our God. But I also think we can play with this story in a new way.  Do something a little different with a narrative that many of us have heard so much that it’s hard to engage with anymore in a way that is creative. So, let’s do something different and think of ourselves not as the younger son or the elder son but as the father. Us as the father. We’re the one who throws the party for those who have lost track of their belovedness. We’re the one who runs out with joy to greet the younger son in love, when he doesn’t that he’s welcome anymore. We’re the one who also goes out to that angry, self-righteous older son to help him grapple with his jealousy and confusion and hatred.


Now, we go out not only to welcome although that’s part of it. We go out not only with joy and love although that’s part of it. We go out because we need to go out for ourselves. We go out because we, as father, need the son.

The father needs the son every bit as much as the son needs the father. Our full flourishing cannot happen in any one place. No matter how beautiful it might be. No matter how great the people might be. No matter how many amazing encounters with God we might have in that place. The father would not be the father if he simply remained at the feasting table waiting for others to show up.


This Lent at St. James’s we’ve been offering a discussion group that we called Caritas. Today, our discussion is being led by Isaac and Jesse from Nuevo Amanecer (Nah-way-vo Ah-man-eh-sehr). This is a fascinating ministry over in East Boston where folks have gone out into the community and starting by listening and connecting. And then new “ministries” have emerged out of those conversations and relationships. It’s worth hanging around after worship and coffee hour to hear their story because they enflesh what this going out can look like.


You know, the fuller name of our Lenten offering is Caritas: From Charity to Relational Solidarity. When we were putting this program together, we tried to come up with language to articulate this shift we’re perceiving in our call to mission at St. James’s.  From a kind of serving that is more utilitarian to a kind that is more interpersonal and connective.

We wrestled with the language here and the best expression we could come up with was “relational solidarity.” It isn’t exactly the most elegant turn of phrase and if any of you can come up with a better word here, I have a crisp one dollar bill to give you.

But, even though we might be able to do better in terms of our vocabulary, you know, “relational solidarity” ain’t that bad. Indeed, I think it might be a phrase that doesn’t tell us how we should “do outreach and mission” but actually be a way of grappling with the very mystery of God. Today. we have our Indaba partners here with us from Marshfield and Boston. To build relationships. And they’ve brought with them a prayer. The Indaba Collect. It begins like this, “Holy God, as we look to the Trinity- the unity in diversity- give us the courage to embrace your image in each other.” “As we look to the Trinity- the unity in diversity- give us the courage to embrace your image in each other.” If God is Trinity, three in one in some way that we can’t fully process… then what we can say is that the transcendent fabric of reality… the heartbeat of the cosmos, is somehow a brand of relational solidarity. To enter into deep relationship with God, with friend, with stranger… it’s not just a tool to get something done. You know we think about solidarity as a way to get to something else that is justice, or as a way to build power to bring about something else that is the common good.  

I’m not knocking any of that at all but, at the core of it, relationships are the end goal. The relationships are where God is and, in some sense, what God is. And we all, like the father in the parable, can constantly run out with joy into those relationships, and find God there. My podcast guru Richard Rohr puts it this way, “Christ is the light that allows people to see things in their fullness. The precise and intended effect of such a light is to see Christ everywhere else. In fact, that is my only definition of a true Christian. A mature Christian sees Christ in everything and everyone else. That is a definition that will never fail you, always demand more of you, and give you no reasons to fight, exclude, or reject anyone.”


Now, for this season of Lent, we are taking some time in every worship service for quiet reflection. So, for the next five minutes we’ll be sitting in silence. You can use the time in whatever way seems best for your heart and mind and soul. One possibility is to take a look at the reflection text and question that the folks from Nuevo Amanecer (Nah-way-vo Ah-man-eh-sehr) gave us. They get us thinking about how one might go out for relationship.