Monday, March 11, 2013

4th Sunday of Lent: Lost and Found

Psalm 32
Luke 15:11-32

"I received from God wonderful riches … I received the knowledge of God and in Him the knowledge of everything else and the power to be a son of God. And all this I have lost, all this I am losing all the time, not only in particular sins and transgressions, but in the sin of all sins: the deviation of my love from God, preferring the “far country” to the beautiful home of the Father.”  Fr. Alexander Schmemann

The major themes of Lent - reflection, prayer, confession, repentance - are why I not only appreciate the traditions that observe Lent; but these themes are also part of the reason why I dread the season; because like all seasons, it will come to an end.  The fasting observances will cease, and life will pretty much return to what we would probably call "normal". 

The disciplines of Lent are important in themselves especially as we approach that dreadful day when our Lord was put to death, but these disciplines are put away after the season like an old winter coat no longer needed.  Our Lord is eternally risen, so there is no reason we can see to continue what seems to be a constant state of mourning.

For many the constant call to repentance is redundant because the question of when we no longer have to repent or even need to repent cannot be fully answered.  And as I stated previously, if our lives are just fine by any reasonable standard, if we are comfortable in where we are and what we have become, what more needs to be done?  In light of the assurance of salvation, what more can reasonably be done? 

If we have fallen under the notion by which we preach Jesus as the "only way" but actually embrace for ourselves a concept of universal salvation that requires nothing of us, that gives us permission to NOT study Scriptures, to NOT attend worship, to NOT attend to the sacraments of the Church, to NOT offer our tithes and gifts; then repentance is just an empty word that teaches nothing and offers even less.  It is a vain practice of saying "I'm sorry" when we really are NOT sorry or feel as though there is nothing to be sorry about.

We are NOT sorry for cursing those whom we do not like; they had it coming.  We are NOT sorry for our slander, our gossip; we're just passing along information.  We are NOT sorry for our idolatry; all things are gifts from God.  We are NOT sorry for our adultery; we do not believe it is possible to "cheat" on our Lord.  We are NOT sorry for withholding ourselves and our tithes from Messiah's Holy Church; our Lord understands our financial predicaments and time constraints. 

In fact we have convinced ourselves - NOT by Holy Scripture but by man-made traditions - that we are perfectly justified in our vengeance, our slander, our idolatry, our adultery, our robbery.  We disdain a preacher or a teacher or priest who dares to stand firm in what is written in the Scriptures, and we defile ourselves when we choose our own way independent of what is actually written in the Scriptures; finding personal pleasure in the "far away land" as the prodigal son did.

Part of the lesson of the prodigal son is not simply in his return to the father's good graces by his confession (that part, incidentally, is also very often overlooked or outright ignored); but is in the very fact that what the prodigal son HAD in his possession by all rights still belonged to his father!  His share of the inheritance had been given over to him, but that inheritance could not possibly belong to the son independent of the father.  He had no inherent "right" to squander his father's good gifts!  In fact I wonder if a word-play on the root of "inheritance" is not attached to the word "inherent" which means, "existing in someone or something as a permanent and inseparable element, quality, or attribute".

What we understand from the need to repent, then, is to move beyond empty words and understand that everything which makes our lives tolerable does not belong to us but have rather been entrusted to our care.  Fasting, in conjunction with repentance, is to separate those good things from Above from the other things of the world which actually serve to separate us from our Heavenly Father, embracing those "idols" that hold more sway over our lives than the very Word of the Lord! 

These "idols" are many and come in various deceptive forms and practices; but if we never seriously contemplate everything that is in our lives, if we never do a "spiritual inventory" of what belongs to the Father, if we take pride in all we have as a measure of individual achievement, then what need is there to repent at all?  Why should we fast from things that make us happy; for what we worked so hard to attain?  Are they not all good gifts from Above?

The psalmist puts things in proper order for us.  The sin is forgiven once the psalmist moves beyond his own "silence" when he finally confesses, BUT THEN the word comes from Above when the Lord speaks through the Law: "I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go".  But notice also that the psalmist does not speak of the Father's forgiveness and promise of instruction as coming independently of confession - or that these divine gifts will take our will from us; rather, the Father's invitation is for our will to become aligned with His will.  We will not be "controlled by bit and bridle" as livestock, as mindless, instinctive animals that must be controlled and tamed; we will be given "understanding" - for without that understanding, all that comes from the Father "will not stay near you", as the psalmist writes, because what we receive from Above was never "ours" to begin with.

All we have, however much or little, is given from Above; and we can use these things to lift up His Holy Name - OR - we can bring about our own condemnation just as we are reminded in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25).  We are promised much, and given even more once we come to realize our needless - yet self-imposed - separation from our "real" selves, our "real" life whenever we try in vain to create an alternate reality independent of our Holy Father and our True Home. 

We are redeemed by the Almighty; that much can be universally and biblically stated because Jesus did not simply die for "you" or "me".  He died so that "we" - that is, all of the human race, the entire world - may hope to live eternally in our "real" home.  It is the "prodigal", the one who finally comes to his spiritual senses and casts aside this world and seeks to recover all that has been lost by his own hand, who will be welcomed in the end and restored to our Father's Kingdom.

It is our hope; it is truly His Glory.  In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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