March 10, 2013  — Lent 4

Rev. David Boyd


Phyllis Tickle, an Anglican theologian and book editor in the United States, has suggested that the Church goes through what she calls a "giant rummage sale" every 500 years; the giant rummage sale quote is from an Anglican bishop, Mark Dyer. She suggests that every 500 years the Church undergoes a major overhaul of what it means to be Church. Things that don't speak to the Church anymore are jettisoned and new traditions are embraced.

After roughly 500 years, Pope Gregory the Great, brought the Church out of the dark ages. Music flourished and Gregory is attributed with regularizing what has become known today as Gregorian Chant. Worship flourished, as did architecture. 500 years after that, around the end of the 1st Millennium, the Great Schism occurred; the east and west separated. The pope in Rome suggested that the papacy was the head of the whole Church whereas the Eastern Church always recognized the importance of Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria, Rome being one among many. The split also involved the understanding of Mary as the mother of Jesus. 500 years after that, we had the Protestant Reformation, a tradition of which we are inheritors. And that leaves today. Tickle and other theologians claim that we are in the midst of a major emergence as the Church. Or perhaps that should be re-emergence. The Church is changing and will continue to do so for the immediate future. And that includes the Roman Catholic Church; I know that there are a lot of hopes for a new Vatican 2 emergence in the Catholic Church, but it will likely take a few more years yet.

So what will this re-emergence look like? That's the million dollar question and I don't have an answer to it. I wish I did because I feel just as uncertain about today's church as anyone else. I think, though, that there are a few clues... and the story of the prodigal son allows us an in. The prodigal son story also allows to catch a glimpse into the 3rd strategic direction of the Church Board, the direction of community. What does it mean to be community? What does it mean to be part of the wider community of the Nelson area? (This is my 4th sermon in this Lenten sermon series on the new directions of our Church Board.)

The prodigal son is a story that is well known. It is probably one of the best known biblical stories even amongst people who don't know the bible at all. It's a remarkable story of forgiveness, acceptance and surprise. It is the third of a series of parables that Jesus tells that has to do with seeking the lost. Jesus saw his ministry as being one among the dispossessed and poor, the outcast and the sinners. These were the ones cast aside.

There isn't time to state all of the interesting aspects of this parable, but there are many. The family involved is a rich and powerful family, which, like any family can't escape its share of dysfunction. The son asking for his inheritance was the same as the son saying to his father, "you are dead to me." It just didn't happen. In spite of the son's feeling, the father never loses faith in his son. And the son blows all of his inheritance. We know what that looks like today—there are lots of stories of people blowing their winnings from the lottery. But in Jesus' day and age, it would have taken an awful lot of work and effort to lose the kind of inheritance we are led to believe existed for the young man. And then he ends up in a pig sty, a rude ending for the young man for whom pigs were anathema.

The story really hinges on the father, who was within his rights to disown his son. We are talking about an honour/shame society here. And yet the father does not. All of the response to the son's return is absolutely out of character in such a society. The father hitches up his skirts to run out embrace his son; you never showed your legs and you certainly never ran if you were the leader of a community. The father kisses his son and insists on a feast. The banquet served to say to the community, "I have restored my son to his rightful place as my heir."

The elder brother's response was the typical response of the community, a feeling of outrage and shame. And the father continues his surprising ways by telling the elder brother of his love for both sons.

This whole section in Luke begins with a complaint by the Pharisees and scribes regarding Jesus' association with outcasts and sinners. Chapter 15 ends with the restoration of relations in the family of the prodigal son, with the father proclaiming his love and joy at the profligate son returning.

If part of the history of the Church has been about power, control and judgement—we were perhaps more like the Pharisees than Jesus—today's Church is becoming more like the father's response. The radical message that we have to proclaim is one of acceptance and extravagant love, a love that overcomes the shame that any society might put on what is perceived to be dysfunction, a love that is full of joy, a love that contains a boundless energy that is infectious. This love is one that suggests to the world, "I am for you as our anthem sang this morning. I am stronger than fear. I am stronger than injustice. I am stronger than whatever might separate us."

Today's Church seeks out partnerships with communities that are seeking justice and wholeness in the world. Today's Church seeks, not so much to fill its pews, as to be the leaven in the loaf of bread that spreads the good news of love. This is the new paradigm of being Church: it's not about filling pews. Sunday morning, until the modern world, was never that important. Sure it was good to get together in worship as a community of faith, but the work of Church, the proclamation of the Church, the living out of the Gospel by the Church was what was important in every day life. And there were many opportunities of the community to gather to worship, not just Sunday morning. We may not fill the pews here in the church ever again, but we are still the Church and we are still called to proclaim the gospel of love, an extravagant love.

So, our Board has said this with respect to our community strategy, "We acknowledge and recognize that our lives are integrally and wholly connected to one another, and that our purpose as church is to invite others into a community of radical freedom that seeks the world's healing and redemption. We acknowledge and recognize that our own resources—time, money and energy—are limited, but that we can offer our limited assets as a platform for committed action. We see our physical asset—our church building—as a chief means of supporting social justice and the way of justice. We can open our doors, offer space and support, provide needed leverage, invite and catalyze others in the community who wish to pursue the 'way of Jesus'."

What this means, for example, is that we will pursue becoming an affirming church. We will seek out dialogue with the various and many community groups in the Nelson area; we will invite some of these groups to come to worship and share their story. We will identify gaps and seek partnerships that can enhance the gift of love in our community and world.

We are called to be the loving parent that flouts popular convention about who is acceptable and who is not. We are not a populist community. We are called, as followers of the Way of Jesus, to stand with those who have been dispossessed and left out. We are called to stand on the edge with those who aren't sure if they are welcome into the circle. All are welcome here, as the song says, for we are called to draw the circle wide! Amen.