Monday, 29 June 2015

The Prodigal Father (2)

In my last installment I reflected on The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henry Nouwen.  Nouwen noted that he saw himself in both the elder son and the younger prodigal son.  Nouwen sees how his have been reflected in the prodigal, “In a spiritual sense, I found myself squandering all I had been given by my father to keep the friendship alive.  I couldn’t pray and longer.  I had lost interest in my work and found it increasingly hard to pay attention to other people’s concern.”
Nouwen also finds the elder son in himself.  As he describes it, “ The obedient and dutiful life of which I am proud or for which I am praised feels, sometimes, like a burden that was laid on my shoulders and continues to oppress me, even when I have accepted it to such a degree that I cannot throw it off”.    

Nouwen discovered that he not only identified with both sons but it also dawned on him that he could aspire to be like the father.  He realized as a beloved son of God the Father he was called to aspire to be like the father.  Now this could be thought of as trying to be God like.  People certainly have been guilty of that and will continue to do that.  However, he saw what it meant for him to aspire to be like God the father was to be compassionate.  Nouwen states that the most radical statement Jesus made was, “Be compassionate as your father is compassionate”.

Nouwen’s vision of living that aspect of God is a vision of love.  This is the core message of the Gospel.  We are called to show our mercy, our compassion for others and for the world as God shows compassion; God’s all-embracing love for God’s creation.  For Nouwen, this means that to live a life of compassion it cannot be one that is based on competition.  Rather it must be one of cooperation.  Nouwen freely admits that this is far from easy.  He confesses, “Against my own best intentions, I find myself continually striving to acquire power.  When I give advice, I want to know whether it will be followed; when I offer help, I want to be thanked; when I give money, I want it to be used my way; when I do something good I want to be remembered”. 

I can in no way claim that I do not want—no deeply desire— all those things that Nouwen confesses to.  That is the problem.  They are natural for people to want these things.  That is why the message of Jesus— to be merciful as your Father is also merciful; to love one another as he loves us—is so radical.  That is why—at least in large part, why Jesus was crucified by the powers of this world—by the civil powers of the Roman Empire and the religious powers that controlled the life centered on the temple.  We know that when we try to live as Jesus commands us we are going to fail.  However, we are called to try.  We need to try to give without expecting to receive.  Try to imagine what it would like to do that—giving joyfully without any expectation of receiving anything. ..  We are called to do good without being motivated to have that act acknowledged in the world.  We know that we are going to fail, to fall into sin—do those things that separate us from God.  However, we also have the assurance that our sins will be forgiven.  We have the assurance that God’s love for us is not conditional on living a perfect life without sin.  Otherwise none of us would be loved and we know that God does love us.  Thanks be to God. 

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Sermon June 14, 2015 2nd Sunday after Trinity

I cannot come to the banquet, I cannot come to the banquet,
don't trouble me now.
I have married a wife; I have bought me a cow.
I have fields and commitments that cost a pretty sum.
Pray, hold me excused, I cannot come.

Do you remember that song?  It was very popular in the 1960’s when it was performed by the Medical Mission Sisters. Both the singers and the song were surprisingly quite popular in the 1960’s.  Their big hit, Joy is Like the Rain, won a Grammy.  Perhaps we will have another Spiritual Revival in popular music in the future.  Miracles do happen and God does work in mysterious way.
I Cannot Come to The Banquet is based on the parable in the Gospel of Luke which is the Gospel appointed for today—the second Sunday after Trinity.  It is the story of a man who holds a great feast—a banquet and sends his servant to invite all the people he knows to come to the feast.  It turns out that each person he has invited has an excuse why he cannot come to the banquet.  The excuses are well explained in the chorus of the song; one bought a field, another has bought some oxen, another has married a wife.  They all ask to be excused from attending the feast.  Well on hearing that no one on his guest list can attend what does the founder of the feast do? 

His reaction is quite understandable at first.  He gets angry.  Here he has gone to all this trouble and prepared a feast and no one wants to come and share the celebration with him.  I’m sure all of us would feel the same way.  We could say at least they did send their regrets and just not show up.  However, rather than getting into a snit what does he do?  Rather than giving up he send his servant out and invites all the people who would not normally be included in—the poor, the halt, and the lame.  He wants his house to be filled with those that will appreciate the value of what he is offering.
The meaning of this parable seems clear to us reading it.  It is easier to understand than some of Jesus’ parables.  God offers a banquet to us.  As Christians we are people who will be invited to God’s banquet that is prepared for us in God’s kingdom.  However, many of us who are invited to God’s feast with all the wonderful food and drink that will feed our souls, will decide we have better things to do than attend the Great Feast.   The excuses given by the invited guest all sound reasonable to our ears.  I have business to take care of—my job is very high powered and I can’t spare the time for a dinner party.  I have land and animals to care for that require all my care.  And the best one of all—I have just gotten married and my wife and I are leaving on our honeymoon.  They are all quite reasonable from our perspective.  I can’t find the time to go to church on Sunday.  There are not enough hours in the day to read my bible or set time aside to pray and meditate and be in conversation with God and I don’t.  I am basically retired and have the intention of doing these things and sometimes I don’t find time to do things I know I should.  Have the time or inclination to help others in need like the Good Samaritan  We don’t live as if we know that our sins—those things which separate us from the love of God are forgiven by the sacrifice of our Saviour and Redeemer.  We do not live in the blessing of being loved by God unconditionally.   We do not live in the knowledge that we have been invited to the Great Feast. 

Well as I note, the message Jesus has for us is very clear.  If we don’t partake of the Great Feast that is offered to us in this life we will never partake in it.  The Passage ends, “For I say unto you, that none of those men (and I’m sure he would include woman today) which were bidden shall taste of my supper”.   A bitter lesson indeed.
That is the usual understanding of the parable.  I believe that it is perfectly valid and true.  However, I want to look at another way of understanding the lesson that Jesus is giving us.  What if we look at this from an inner perspective?  What is God offering to us about ourselves—about who we are created by God to be?  We have those parts of ourselves which are good and upright and live a life that is acceptable to us and to society.  We go about doing the things that we need to do in our lives—things which are right and good and necessary for us to do.  We take care of business—day to day life.  My wife Lorna and I have been getting settled into to cottage—getting the internet hooked up, dealing with broken parts of the well, trying to catch a squirrel in our crawl space, getting apple trees to plant, dealing with an issue with our neighbour—all ordinary day to day stuff that life involves .  We aren’t on our honeymoon by a long shot but perhaps we are still in our honeymoon phase of life in the cottage.  Have we forgotten to partake in the Great Feast that Jesus offers? 
What then of the guests that the master invites when we don’t partake—the poor street people, the halt, the lame, the outcasts and people we wouldn’t dream of inviting to our banquets?  What about the parts of ourselves that are the aspects of ourselves that we don’t find acceptable —the street people within us?  We can look at those people invited instead of us as aspect of ourselves that we don’t find acceptable—those parts of ourselves that we don’t like and don’t even want to acknowledge. 

Those parts of ourselves that we don’t want to acknowledge are part of who we are.  They are also invited to the Great Feast as the parable tells us.  If we are going to attend the Great Feast those parts are going to attend as well.  We have to acknowledge them to God if we are to attend.  Otherwise we will not be included in the Great Feast of life that God has given us.  Take a few moments to think an aspect of yourself that you would not want to invite to a party.   What would it be like to welcome that part of yourself to a party that Jesus is throwing?  What if Jesus welcomed that part and made him or her as the guest of honour.  How would you feel about that?  That is the part of you that Jesus truly wants at the party.  If we will acknowledge them and offer them to God we will be invited to partake in the Great Feast that Jesus offers us—acceptable parts and unacceptable parts.  Thanks be to God.  Amen 

The Prodigal Father Reconsidered

I am currently reading The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henry Nouwen.  It is a wonderful exposition on the painting by Rembrandt which is based on the parable of the Prodigal Son.  The interpretation of the parable by Nouwen considers the father of the story to be a representation of God the Father.  This is not unexpected.  He also explores the impact of the painting on him and his developing realization that he was both the elder son who is dutiful and stays home and the younger, prodigal son who demands his inheritance, lives the life of a wastrel, and them repents and returns home to the father in a chastened state. 

Nouwen’s understanding and theology of the parable is that father (as God) is all good.  As he notes, “This is not a story that separates the two brothers into the good and the evil one.  The father is only good.  He loves both sons”.  The elder son is depicted by Jesus, and is understood by Nouwen in the parable as the one who is resentful of having to be the dutiful one.   He is likened to the scribes and Pharisees, groups that Jesus was critical of.  The elder son did his duty—all the law required—and ended up resentful of the loved showered on the prodigal son when he returned.  The parable expresses this very vividly:
He was angry and reused to go in, and his father came out and e retorted began to urge him to come in; but he retorted to his father, “All these years, I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed any orders of yours, yet you never offered me as much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends.  But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property—he and his loose women—you kill the fatted calf”. 
In reading Nouwen’s declaration that “The father is all good”, the question arose in my mind, “is the father actually all good?”; is there perhaps some fault in the father that contributed to the reaction by the elder son?  If we consider the characters in the parable not be archetypal or universal representations of God’s kingdom; the father as an earthly father and the sons earthly children of that father, is then father entirely good?  Put it another way, does the elder son have a valid complaint about the way he was treated?  The father, as story presents him, shows unconditional love.  He welcomes the prodigal son back with open arms literally and celebrates his return not expecting or wanting the prepared mea culpa of the younger son.  He also goes to the elder son and asks, no begs him to come into the feast and celebrate the return with him. He assures the resentful son that, “all I have is yours”. 

However, I believe we are left wondering if the father took the elder son for granted.  Here he was dutiful and obedient and did all that was asked of him.  But as the elder son says that the father never gave him so much as a kid for him to celebrate with his friends.  This leaves me with the impression that the father did not express the love he obviously had for the elder son in concrete ways.  Perhaps if he had the resentment would not have been there.  Perhaps the brother would have been more well-disposed to celebrate the prodigal brother’s return.  I believe that Jesus, in telling the story, was concerned with putting the brother in the role of the Pharisees and scribes that were lurking around wanting to find a gotcha to use against Jesus.  Jesus directed the lesson of the parable specifically to those who he was especially critical of.

However, if we take the father as a representation of our Heavenly Father, I believe that Nouwen’s understanding of the father as all good is valid.  I believe that God does offer us affirmation and the great feast.  I believe that that God’s love is offered to us freely and unconditionally.    It is for us to hear know and to respond to that love.  Often we are unable or unwilling to do that.  However, with God all things are possible.  

The Return of the Prodigal Son (Rembrandt)

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

The Changing Image of Jesus

I have had a bit of a hiatus in writing my post.  Lorna and I spent a week (five days actually) at the Dream & Spirituality Conference at the Kanuga Conference Center in North Carolina.  After that we went across country to the East coast with our destination being our cottage in PEI where we are now.  We had a bit of a delay getting on-line as the internet wasn’t working and did not cooperate until last night. 
We have attended the Dream Conference for many years beginning in 2005.  We missed that last two years as we were involved with the Spiritual Direction Program offered by the Haden Institute which also runs the Dream Conference.   There is a lot I could write about (and perhaps will later) that has happened in the last few weeks but I want to reflect on the image of Jesus which we encountered on our way to the Conference. 

One of the landmarks on our trip to Kanuga over the years has been a giant statue of Jesus at the Solid Rock Church near Cincinnati, Ohio on the I-75 interstate.   This amazing edifice was (according to my source on the Internet) 52 feet high.  It was named the “Touchdown Jesus” due to its arms being raised triumphantly over its head as Jesus bursts from the ground—not the usual depiction of Jesus emerging from the tomb.  The 51 feet only cover the upper half of the figure which made if even more impressive.  A few years ago we had the interesting news that the statue had been destroyed by fire caused by a lightning strike.  A picture of the statue is below and will give you an idea of the figure if not the truly impressive dimensions. 

I projected a lot on that image of Jesus and what it might have meant for the understanding of Jesus by the people that attended that church.  I must confess I was not too impressed by my impression about this Jesus. Consequently, I was somewhat pleased with the idea that God would not have been too impressed either and perhaps was making that known through the event that destroyed it.  However, I also know that we are treading on dangerous ground when we impute God’s will to natural events that match our theology.  I think it might be more a case of oversight of perhaps hubris that the creators of the statue did not include a lightning rod in the creation.  The last year or two that we drove to Kanuga we were interested (and perhaps a little disappointed) in the lack of a statue at the church.  However, this year we were pleasantly surprized when we were greeted with a new statue at the church which was not quite as impressive in size and of a very different Jesus. This statue has been dubbed the “Hug Me Jesus” statue on the internet.  It is a full body image of Jesus with his arms outstretched in a position seems to say, “Come unto me”.  Below is a picture I found easily on the internet.  It is interesting to note that they appear to have included a lightning rod in this statue.                    
It is said that we create not only God but the second person of the Trinity in our own image.  Jesus was pictured in Western-European nations as blond haired and blue eyes for many years, if not centuries.  I wonder if the change in the new portrayal of Jesus by the Solid Rock Church reflects a change in the understanding by those Christians at the Solid Rock Church of who Jesus is to them.
I think it is wise for each of us to reflect on the internal image of Jesus that we each have and how it reflects on our understanding of who we are called to be as Christians.  Blessings

Touchdown Jesus

 Hug Me Jesus