Sunday, March 10, 2013

4 Lent

Laetare Sunday
March 10, 2013

Psalm 32; Luke 15.22-24.

+ I know this might sound absolutely nuts to you. Especially with me standing before you dressed in pink (or “dusty rose” as my liturgics professor from seminary called it). But here it is.

I am a bit of a rebel. I know. It sounds crazy. I should—you would think—be a part of the so-called “Establishment.”  I am, after all, a priest in the Episcopal Church, a vanguard (at least at one point in our collective history) of  White Anglo-Saxon Protestant normalcy. Few of you have seen me wear anything other than my clerical blacks and collar (or cassock).

But I really am a rebel. And have always been. My poor mother can tell you horror stories. I know a few of our Vestry members and Wardens can tell you stories of my rebelliousness.

Growing up I was very headstrong.  If I didn’t want to do something I did not do it, no matter what anyone said.

But at age 13, an event happened that completely turned my world upside down.  At thirteen—in fact, it will be 30 years this Mary—this nominally Lutheran boy decided to become a Catholic priest. Now, I know this isn’t your average form of rebellion.  But for me, becoming Catholic and becoming a priest was the ultimate form of rebellion.

While people my age experimented with different kinds of music, so did I. Of couse, I LOVEd alternative music very much—and in 1983, New Wave was by far THE thing in my life. I was also getting pretty enraptured by Gregorian chant or 18th century hymns,  While other teenagers were maybe tempted try some, shall we say, exotic-smelling herbs, I was getting high (spiritually high) from incense.  And while my friends were going to concerts, I sat enraptured during Mass.

But my rebellion was probably hardest on my poor parents.  I think there were times when they might have thought it was easier having a kid who actually did go the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll road, rather than the celibacy-incense-and-high-Mass route.  I don’t think they understood what I was doing, or why.  It was a kind of rebellion that simply boggled their (and most of my peers’) minds. 

Now I am not saying that I was the Prodigal Son to my parents. I’m not because in my rebellion I left and never went back.  I stand here before you, thirty years later exactly what I thought I would be—a catholic (albeit ANGLO-Catholic)  priest.

But turning away from what my parents’ held dear, turning away from generations of good Protestant upbringing, was not easy.  There were times when I realize that the route I chose was very different than that of all of my friends who went on to have so-called “normal” lives and “normal” jobs.  And there were many times when it was downright hard.  There moments when I looked at their faith and the life I could’ve had and thought: maybe it would have been easier. And there were times when I rebelled against my vocation (before I was ordained of course).

I think, to some extent that is why I can relate so well to the story of the Prodigal Son.  We have all been down that road of rebellion and have found that, sometimes, it is a lonely road.  Sometimes we do find ourselves lying there, hungry and lonely and thinking about what might have been.   That’s just the consequence of being a rebel.  And if you think I might not be rebellious in some ways even now—if you don’t see me as counter-cultural in some way, then I don’t think you’re really looking. Let’s face it, people: I stand before you, a vegetarian, Anglo-Catholic Episcopal priest and poet, dressed in pink vestments, who lives in a house decorated in mid-century modern wonder. Name me one other person like that in the entire world. And if you can, I really want to meet that person! 

In our Gospel for today, we find the Prodigal Son having some big goals and some pretty major hopes and dreams.  First and foremost, he wants what a lot of us in our society want and dream about: money. He also seems a bit bored by his current life.  He is biting at the bit to get out and see the world. He wants the exact opposite of what he has.  And that’s a difficult place to be.  He only realizes after he has shucked all of that and has felt real hunger and real loneliness what the ultimate price of that loss is.

God does occasionally lead us down roads that are lonely.  God does occasionally lead us down roads that take us far from our loved ones.  God does lead us down roads of open rebellion sometimes.  And sometimes God allows us to travel down roads that lead us away from God. But every time we recognize our loneliness and we turn around and find God again, we are welcomed back with open arms and complete and total love.

Just this past week, in a class I taught, I had a student who got very upset with me over the fact that I am not despairing over my atheist friends’ lack of faith. As you know, I LOVE atheists. I think they’re cool, and true rebels to some extent. Talk about what might’ve been if I hadn’t followed the road I did.  There but for the grace of the God I might not be believing in, go I.

This student, who was red-faced in his frustration, said to me, “you should be crying over your atheist friends. They have turned their backs on Christ. They are lost.”

I, in return, said what I always say when confronted with such thinking: “No,” I said (and you’ve hear me say this a million times, I know). “Just because one turns their back on Christ, does not mean Christ ever turns his back on them. And as long as Christ does not turn his back, I have no reason to despair those friends.”

And I believe that, firmly and without doubt.

The Good Shepherd will always find his lost sheep. And will bring them back.  And this comes from one of his sometimes-lost sheep.

There’s another aspect to the story of the prodigal son that is not mentioned in the parable.  The prodigal has experienced much in his journey away.  

There is a wonderful poem by one of my all-time favorite poets, Elizabeth Bishop, called “The Prodigal,” which explores a moment in the life of the Prodigal Son as he wallows about in pig sty [I will include the entire poems at the end of this post]  It puts a wonderful perspective to the depths the Prodigal Son falls.

As the Prodigal turns back and returns to his father’s house, we know one thing: that the prodigal son is not the same son he was when we left his father.  The life he returns to is not the same exact life he left.  He has returned to his father truly humbled, truly contrite, truly turned around.

And that’s the story for us as well.  In my life I have come to appreciate my family’s ancestral Protestant faith, to some extent.  And I have come to appreciate and respect the lives my friends and peers have chosen for themselves.  It’s not mine, but I respect it and appreciate it.  I no longer see my life as a rebellion against those things.  I now see my life has an embracing of those things—a healthy respect and appreciation of those things.  But those things, I realize now, are not right for me.  They are not me.   This—for better or for worse—is me. And I am happy with it and for it.

God at no point expects us to say the same throughout our lives.  Our faith in God should never be the same either.  In that spiritual wandering we do sometimes, we can always return to what we knew, but we know that we always come back a little different, a little more mature, a little more grown-up.  No matter how old we are.

We know that in returning, changed as we might be by life and all that life throws at us, we are always welcomed with open arms.  We know that we are welcomed by our God with complete and total love.  And we know that, lost as we might be sometimes, we will always be found.  And in that finding, we are not the only ones rejoicing.  God too is rejoicing in our being found.

So, let us this Laetare Sunday—this Sunday in which we are called to rejoice—do just that.  Let us rejoice in who we are.  Let us rejoice in our rebelliousness, and in our turning back to what we rebelled against.  Let us rejoice in our being lost, and in our being found.  Let us rejoice especially in the fact that no matter how lonely we might be in our wanderings, in the end, we are always, without fail, embraced with an embrace that will never end. 

A Prodgical

 By Elizabeth Bishop

The brown enormous odor he lived by
was too close, with its breathing and thick hair,
for him to judge. The floor was rotten; the sty
was plastered halfway up with glass-smooth dung.
Light-lashed, self-righteous, above moving snouts,
the pigs' eyes followed him, a cheerful stare--
even to the sow that always ate her young--
till, sickening, he leaned to scratch her head.
But sometimes mornings after drinking bouts
(he hid the pints behind the two-by-fours),
the sunrise glazed the barnyard mud with red
the burning puddles seemed to reassure.
And then he thought he almost might endure
his exile yet another year or more.

But evenings the first star came to warn.
The farmer whom he worked for came at dark
to shut the cows and horses in the barn
beneath their overhanging clouds of hay,
with pitchforks, faint forked lightnings, catching light,
safe and companionable as in the Ark.
The pigs stuck out their little feet and snored.
The lantern--like the sun, going away--
laid on the mud a pacing aureole.
Carrying a bucket along a slimy board,
he felt the bats' uncertain staggering flight,
his shuddering insights, beyond his control,
touching him. But it took him a long time
finally to make up his mind to go home.

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