Sunday, March 14, 2010

Fourth Sunday of Lent 2010

Joshua 5:9-12
5:9 The LORD said to Joshua, "Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt." And so that place is called Gilgal to this day.

5:10 While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho.

5:11 On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain.

5:12 The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

Psalm 32
32:1 Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

32:2 Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

32:3 While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.

32:4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah

32:5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD," and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah

32:6 Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.

32:7 You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah

32:8 I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.

32:9 Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.

32:10 Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD.

32:11 Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

2 Corinthians 5:16-21
5:16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.

5:17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

5:18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;

5:19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

5:20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
15:1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.

15:2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."

15:3 So he told them this parable:

15:11b "There was a man who had two sons.

15:12 The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them.

15:13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.

15:14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.

15:15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.

15:16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.

15:17 But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!

15:18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;

15:19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."'

15:20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.

15:21 Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'

15:22 But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.

15:23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;

15:24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.

15:25 "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.

15:26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.

15:27 He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.'

15:28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.

15:29 But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.

15:30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!'

15:31 Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.

15:32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"
Lent calls us to the things of this world.

Driving the usual routine, there was nothing unusual except the particulars of the traffic: which car was where, at what speed, making what kind of indications of change that might affect my selected path. Nothing to see here, in other words.

Then I turned the usual corner, and for some reason looked up and forward, rather than resolutely at the pavement in front of me, or the bumper just before me. Maybe it was the white that caught my eye: the small tree in the middle of the boulevard covered in a snow shower of blossoms, as perfectly white as nature can manage. It was probably the stark contrast, the sudden white agains the grey bark, grey morning cloudy sky, grey pavement and nondescript (and so grey) buildings. It almost shone, it reflected the morning light through the clouds so perfectly. It made me look up, and realize, at least for a moment, how little I look up when I'm driving.

Habit and consciousness of danger and safety, I suppose; but I didn't realize until that moment how narrow my vision usually was when driving: how much I focussed on the car in front of me, or the pavement, or what cars were immediately perpendicular to me, at the next intersection, the next driveway; and, of course, the cars in the next lane. Looking up and away seemed to invite distractions and destruction; so I kept my head down and narrowed my gaze, by an act of the mind, a trick of consciousness, to what I only wanted to be aware of. The rest of the picture was there; I'd just refused to look at it. The budding white tree shook me out of that.

I don't even know what kind of tree it is. It's too early yet for the dogwood with its extravagant blossoms. And it was too white and again too early for the redbud, which these tiny blooms resembled, except in color. But it made me look up, as I approached it, and it made me look around, even as I paid attention to the traffic and the turn I had to make soon. It made me aware I was in a world crowded with things, and some of those things, freshly looked at, freshly acknowledged, were almost...beautiful.

Lent calls us to the things of this world.

I have to aver that my locale is not one known for its scenic vistas and dramatic sights, so I am not a resident blind and dull to the tourist attractions of my locale. There really wasn't much to see at all, but when that white tree broke the gloom of the day and gloriously called attention to itself, it called my attention to the world immediately around me, to the things immediately around me. And it was almost like going from wearing a blindfold, to having it removed for me; or from fasting, to finally being able to enjoy the taste of food again.

Lent calls us to the things of this world.

The thought is not original with me. It comes, although I have modified the form, from Richard Wilbur, who thought for awhile he'd gotten his version from St. Augustine, the great Platonist of Christianity, and as much as anyone a single source for the notion that: "For the Abrahamic faiths, the body is fallen and a source of evil, [i]ts presence...a constant reminder of the depravity and mortality of human nature." We think, almost reflexively, of Christianity as being a world-denying, world-denigrating religion, and of Lent as being the apex (or nadir) of that doctrine; but it isn't, and it doesn't have to be.

A strict observance of Lent made possible a pleasure which is unknown to us now, that of "un-Lenting" at breakfast on Easter Day. If we look into the matter closely, we find that the basic elements of our pleasures are difficulty, privation, and the desire for enjoyment. All these came together in the act of breaking abstinence, and I have seen two of my great-uncles, both serious, sober men, half swoon with joy when they saw the first slice cut from a ham, or a paté disembowelled, on Easter Day. Now, degenerate race that we are, we could never stand up to such powerful sensations!--Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
Brillat-Savarin,the most famous of gastronomes, recalls us to something we have forgotten: Lent calls us to the things of this world. What is fasting, except a reminder to us of the importance of the things of this world? There is even a legend that, after 40 days without food in the wilderness, and after the temptations, angels brought Jesus soup from his mother's kitchen. Fasting always ends with the pleasures of eating, and as Luke says just above, the Pharisees grumbled against Jesus because he both welcomed sinners, and ate with them. I'll say it again: Lent calls us to the things of this world.

Why does it call us to them? Because we are of this world, and yet Paul assures us we are ambassadors for Christ. Because the prodigal squanders everything he owns, because the world is so much with him he considers his own father dead, until he has no choice to go back to him. Because the father rewards the son not with words and promises of affection, but with the ring and the robe and the fatted calf; the things, in other words, of this world.

Okay, now here's hope and change we can believe in. Or, perhaps, if we read the parable carefully, that we can't believe in. Because it really doesn't make sense; there's an audacity here that literally takes your breath away. At least, it seems to take away the good sense of the prodigal's father. Because we don't understand this parable unless we understand the insult of the son, the prodigal, the wastrel. Not only does he waste his father's property, he wastes his father as well, in the all-too descriptive modern slang sense of that word. When he demands his portion from his father, he means the inheritance he'll get when his father dies. All that stands between him and that is the inconvenient truth that his father is still alive; so he treats the paterfamilias, to his face, as if he were dead. What father wouldn't turn such a child away, or be justified in turning him out of his house? And what lesson could be more obvious than that this boy is besotted with the things of this world, and has neglected something far more metaphysical but also valuable: the social order that demands a child respect the parent, that no child (especially) is to place property above people.

That would be the lesson, except the father accepts the child's demand, and becomes a homeless pauper living off the kindness of one son, having divided the property between his two sons (Shakespeare's tale of Lear is a warning about how badly this kind of decision can turn out to be). And the story ends with the father still claiming his rights to the property (something poor Lear finds he cannot do) and giving still more of it to the young son who returns. The father can claim those rights because the older son is dutiful and still honors his father as society requires; but even this is almost too much, and he has to protest. And here lies the lesson: that Lent calls us to the things of this world.

The last words of the father in the parable are that his son was lost, and has been found. What is Lent, except a reminder to us that the things of this world can be lost to us, should be lost to us, not so we would never have them again, but so we could take them up again with joy and appreciation for their true value. Listen to Psalm 32: it is all about recovery. Re-read the words of Paul: they are all about reconciliation. We cannot be reconciled to something we have never known. We cannot recover what we have never had. We are not placed in this world to be miserable, but to enjoy what God provides. Look again at how Luke frames that parable:

And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
You cannot eat what is not of this world. You cannot enjoy the company of people who are not of this world. You cannot accept your failings, your errors, your mistakes, without acknowledging the importance of this world, without saying other people matter more than you do. And who are those other people, if they are not of this world, if you don't know them in this world?

Lent calls us to the things of this world. It calls us to look up on a dreary day and notice everything around us, the ordinary as well as the sublime, because even the sublime is just an ordinary part of this world. It's just that we never notice. But when we do, even the ordinary parts of this world are new, and perhaps for that moment we see as God sees, and maybe in the lessons of Lent we can begin to learn to "regard no one from a human point of view," but to see that "everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" Maybe in Lent we can learn the lesson of the Psalmist, that "steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD", and we can "Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart."

Because Lent calls us to the things of this world. And that is where we will find God, and where we can live out our days.


Picture from Vanderbilt University Special Collections.

1 comment:

  1. You'd really like Chet Raymo's 'The Path'. He's an astronomy prof/humanist who's done a lot of great writing. This one's a detailed, mindful observation of the path he walks to work on: history, nature, seasons, himself. Beautifully, economically written...