Bishop Ordinary: Rt Rev Brian R Marsh

Sermon

Ninth Sunday after Trinity, 2013
Good Shepherd, Charlestown; Trinity Church, Lebanon

Let us Pray:
Almighty and merciful God, of whose only gift it cometh that thy faithful people do unto thee true and laudable service; Grant, we beseech thee, that we may so faithfully serve thee in this life, that we fail not finally to attain thy heavenly promises; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

 

Someone once said: “what's the church without a few good Pharisees?” I like that quote. I repeat is now and again. And I never cite the source. Frankly, I don't know who said it, who wrote it or where it where it came from. It may be two thousand years old. And at one time, in the early years of the Christian faith, the church was made up of Pharisees. Almost exclusively.

 

As we know, Jesus took often took issue with the Pharisees, his own people. Their often exclusive, know-it-all approach to religion was something Jesus found wanting. He taught otherwise. He wanted to reconcile people to God. Part of that reconciliation meant knowing something about struggle and uncertainty and love. And also about a right relationship with God.

 

Now and then, I meet someone who has it all worked out. They have figured out the formula of life and they have a plan. I used to run into these people regularly. It was when I taught high school, the perfect breeding ground for modern Pharisees. Now and again, I think about one particular Pharisee. His name was Eric. He was a bright young man who had a very clear plan for his future. He didn't plan on attending college; rather, he wanted to be a “house flipper.” I had no idea what a house flipper was. When I heard the term, I had the visual impression of a guy with a huge spatula flipping a house onto its roof. But the real purpose was to buy a house, fix it up then sell it for a huge profit. Not a bad plan. Except that, when Eric had his bright idea, the housing market was at its peak. Barely a year later, the crash brought such dreams to a halt. I wonder what Eric might be doing these days, but I suspect that house flipping is no longer part of his grand plan. It was an illusion, a dream of great wealth. But he was quite certain it would all come to pass.

 

We all live with illusions. Some of these we cling to with remarkable tenacity. But when we do, we should always ask ourselves: is this consistent with God's plan? We can always make plans, but God also has a plan. Guess which one is more important.

 

Are there some things we know too well that they seem hardly worth repeating? Do we think: we have heard that before, why do we need to hear it again? Maybe, at times, the parable of the Prodigal Son seems that way to us. If we have studied our Bibles, heard St. Luke's Gospel read to us many times and listened to countless sermons on this passage, we may convince ourselves that we know all there is to know about this parable. As soon as we hear the words “Jesus said, A certain man had two sons...” the rest of the story tumbles out of our minds, almost unbidden. We get it, we may tell ourselves.

 

But we have to be very careful. This story was told by Jesus. It is God's very specific message to us. And when Jesus told it, He had a very important purpose in His mind and heart. He wanted us to understand – to really understand in as complete a way as possible; to have us live with this story for all of our lives; to let it grow inside us and nurture us. Because a story like this is part of us; we live within it, just as it lives within us.

 

Within this story, there are three main characters: a man and his two sons. Each one has a plan. There is nothing mystical about these characters. They are not spirits or ghosts or angels. They are real. We know them. They are people we live with every day of our lives. There is nothing that happens in this story that hasn't happened in the world.

 

The Prodigal Son forms the center of this story. He is, after all, the main character. He has a plan. This plan has to do with enjoying his inheritance. We watch as he spends his inheritance lavishly. He has a great time. But the time is limited, just as the inheritance seems limited. We may judge his behavior, seeing how wasteful he has become. But who is he really?

 

The Father occupies a different role. He also has a plan. He is the generous one who give the inheritance to his son. We watch as he observes - in quiet agony - as his son squanders his inheritance. And we rejoice – along with the father - as the prodigal returns. And who is this father?

 

The Elder Son has yet another place in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Yes, he, too, has a plan. He has been faithful to his father, living and working beside him while his younger sibling lives it up at his father's expense. He expresses his anger when the prodigal's return is greeted with such celebration. He confronts his father with the unfairness of it all. We may judge him harshly – this Pharisee brother – for his self-centered behavior. But who is he really, this elder brother?

 

What is God's plan? It is always to draw us to Him, to be with Him and to know of His love. That love is given freely. Jesus tells us that reconciliation is offered to those who repent and return. It is through the separation and struggle that the Prodigal Son learns the importance of God's love. Sometimes, it takes that struggle for us to know that the presence of God in our lives brings us all we will ever need. Sometimes, when we look at the Prodigal Son, we recognize ourselves.

 

What is God's plan? It is to draw us to Him when we drift away; when we remain close to God but do not recognize His work in the world. When He welcomes back the lost with open arms and great joy. Sometimes, it takes a reminder from God that this is our task – and our joy – as well. Sometimes, when we look at the Elder Brother, we recognize ourselves.

 

What is God's plan? Perhaps, if we remember a time in our lives when we have received with love those we thought lost, we will know – just a little - what it means to God for us to return to Him. It is nothing we can ever know completely. It is nothing we can ever know fully in this life. But it is known. It is known fully and completely – and perfectly – by God.

 

Let us pray:
Almighty and everlasting God, give unto us the increase of faith, hope and charity; and, that we may obtain that which we dost promise, make us to love that which thou dost command; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.