March 31, 2019
All Saints’ Church
Today is Laetere Sunday—Laetere from the Latin word “rejoice.” There is an old church tradition about why this Sunday is the one during Lent when we should rejoice, but I’ll tell you the real reason—it’s because Lent is more than half over! So rejoice! Our disciplines and mortifications and fasts are more than fifty percent done. Or your sense of gnawing guilt that you’re not doing anything for Lent is half-over. And if you aren’t feeling any of those things, then maybe you can just rejoice that Easter is on its way—or that the days are getting longer. You get the point. There’s not a whole lot to celebrate this time of year, so we might as well make something up.
So what is there to rejoice about in the story of the prodigal son? That impudent younger brother who runs off with his share of the family money and proceeds to blow it all on stupid stuff. There’s not very much joy for him in this parable. I think I know how he feels: embarrassed, out of control, exposed, ashamed. His poor father—having to deal with this wayward son of his must have brought him to the brink of despair. It’s a horrible tragedy for him.
Then there’s the brother, who has the least to rejoice over of the three. You know, I’ve developed a theory about this parable over the years. We’re tempted to put ourselves in the place of the prodigal, the ones who have strayed from our heavenly Father and need to come home. But I think that casting ourselves as him is actually kind of narcissistic. After all, it’s the leading role. And there’s something sort of rugged and exciting about him. Imagine the things he saw and experienced! There might actually even be a part of us that wants to be him. But in reality, if you’re here in church, you’re probably not very much like the prodigal son at all. You’re probably much more like…the dependable older brother. The reliable but boring one who does his duty and sticks close to home, follows the rules, tends to everyone’s needs…and winds up watching his father slaughter the fatted calf to celebrate his underserving, no good, irresponsible brother. Yes, friends, I think it’s true. There aren’t too many prodigals here this morning—they’re all sleeping off a hard night of partying or on some exotic vacation they can’t really afford. And isn’t there just a little part of us that’s jealous? I think this is one of the reasons there’s so little joy in so many churches—because the small number of people who still bother to come and offer themselves to a community of faith are resentful of our brothers who are off being prodigal. In fact, as the story shows, it’s the older brother who has the hardest role and the most to overcome spiritually. And here we all are.
So what about that rejoicing Sunday, after all? It’s in there, and there’s much to rejoice over. Because no matter how much tragedy occurs, no matter the lengths to which people go to act against their own interests, no matter the pain and heartbreak of separation, in God’s creation, nothing is lost.
Nothing is lost with God. Even the most hopeless case, even those things that seem to be as far from each other as east is from west. People, relationships, hope, justice, community, faith, love—because all of these thing are from God, they will never be lost. Instead, they are all held together in God’s precious embrace, forever.
The Jesus who tells the parable of the prodigal son goes on to tell other stories. The woman who searches for her lost coin. The shepherd who abandons his 99 sheep to find the one lost one. This is the same Jesus who eats with the lost people of his time, the sinners and the tax collectors. This is the Jesus who preaches a Gospel of God’s love for all people in a brutal age. And finally, this Jesus offers himself to be lost to the world and to us…only to rise again and restore all that had been hidden from sight.
This is the reason to rejoice this Sunday. The prodigal son ruined his life. He disgraced himself and his family. And yet—he was not lost. The self-righteous elder brother lost his perspective and his compassion, yet that too was restored. And the father—he had lost a son. Can you imagine the pain? Can you feel the gaping hole in his life, that of a child who was gone from him? There is perhaps no greater sorrow in life. I think of him trying to take joy in his prosperity, taking strength from his first son, yet always carrying with him this grief of the absence of his other child. But all was not lost. His son returns to him, and it is a miracle. Kill the fatted calf! Call a feast! Because that which I have counted as lost is now found.
Truly, one of the great mysteries of the Christian life is the gift of seeing that all things are held together in God’s creation. Doing so is a challenging discipline. It requires us to squint through the distractions of this life while searching for the distant horizon. It means that we must at the same time accept the suffering of loss while trusting that that which we miss is being held in an embrace we cannot see. And yet when we are able to have this faith, there is cause for rejoicing, just as the father does when his son comes home.
The more days one spends on this planet, the more there is to lose. We lose time and opportunities as the months and years slip by, chances to do those things we wish we would have figured out way back when. We lose ways of life, and even the memory of how we once lived. There is always the danger of losing innocence and wonder at the majesty and complexity of life. And most painfully, we lose people. Relationships torn apart by dispute, or circumstance, or even death. We lose friends and relatives, companions and family, spouses, parents and even children. Sometimes the depth of these losses flashes before us through the loss of something seemingly small. I’m always shocked at the total sense of loss I feel when I leave an umbrella on the subway realize I’ve dropped a dollar bill on the ground by accident. But you see, these are just proxies, stand-ins for all the rest of the loss I’ve experienced in my life. Ultimately, I can buy another umbrella, and a dollar won’t set me back. But if I thought about the vast treasure that has slipped through my fingers, I’m not sure I’d ever get over it.
The Gospel teaches us today that the thing that slips through your fingers is caught in the palm of God’s hand. That doesn’t meant that our losses are trivial or that we shouldn’t mourn them. Our suffering is as real as that of the out-of-control prodigal, or the rueful brother, or the heart-broken father. But in those moments of greatest despair, we can still find a glimmer of hope—a hope that joy is not extinguished, but merely hidden, for a time. And that in the end, all that is lost will be restored, that the broken pieces will rise again and form a new joy--changed, yet resurrected.
There’s something about a church that lets us live out this parable. All Saints’ Church is 151 years old. It was founded in 1867, right after the end of the Civil War. As messed up as our own times seem, I can only imagine what the spiritual reality of being American in that year was. The country was only just recovering from catastrophic loss. All the lives of the men and women lost in the war, the loss of a sense of the country together as a whole nation. Even amid the great joy of freedom for former slaves, there was the beginning of a new era of mourning, grieving for the hundreds of years of suffering that could now be looked back upon with a measure of distance. It was in such a time of loss that this church was founded. And over the century and a half since then, the losses have just continued. We console the sick and suffering and bury the dead. The fortunes of our parish have risen and fallen with circumstances beyond our control. And at times we have been brought very low.
And yet, here we are, this morning. An assembly gathered to hear the Word of God—a word that proclaims boldly, without hesitation, that the losses of today belong to today alone, and that all shall be restored in God’s time. It is that God we worship this morning, and the fact of our being together is one small piece of evidence that this promise is true. The prayers we offer today will not be lost, just as the prayers of our ancestors were not lost.
So friends, rejoice! All is not lost. Nothing is lost. All that is good comes of God, and God is eternal. When the lost parts of God’s creation seek return, God will rush to embrace them, just as the father rushed to embrace his prodigal son. And on that day, the fatted calf will be killed, and there will be a great feast, with all the heavenly host gathered around the table, reunited, restored, resurrected.
Rejoice, for what was dead has come to life, and what was lost has been found. Amen.