160313 – Practicing Perseverance

Yr C ~ Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

The story of the prodigal is one of the best known stories in the bible. I know I’ve preached on it here a couple of times, so some of you may have heard some of this before, but I’m hoping it’ll still surprise you. And if it doesn’t then I’m not doing my job – because it is actually a profoundly shocking story. That’s what parables always are – if you’re reading them right! They’re thought bombs, and they’re designed to explode!prodigal-run-welcome-love

It’s actually three stories. There’s the younger’s story, the elder’s story, and the parent’s story – and they’re all pretty shocking! The younger turns away from the family, squanders the inheritance, falls on hard times, becomes humble, and returns. The shocking parts are that the parent didn’t really have to give the inheritance but did, and that the kid ended up slopping pigs, which for a Jew was shameful, unclean, a tremendous indignity.

So the kid goes home fully expecting, and frankly deserving, to be treated as nothing more than a slave. At least there’d be food!
The response was shocking.

“While he was still a long way off,” the parent came running out, wouldn’t even listen to the apology, and welcomed the kid home without hesitation. The shocking parts are that in Jewish culture a father would never run in this way, and according to Jewish law the parents had every right to have this kid stoned to death! Yes, you heard that right. Talk about tough love!
So the audience hearing this parable probably assumed the kid would be a slave at best and stoned to death at worst.
That was the law. That is not at all what happened.

What does this say about the character or nature of “the parent?”

Instead of death, or punishment, or a reduction in status, or even a period of getting back in the good books the parent throws a lavish party for the wayward child – the prodigal. It’s shocking! I’m not sure that’s how I’d react if this was actually happening to me. How about you?

What does this say about the character or nature of “the parent?”

Enter the sulking older sibling – sees the party, learns it’s for the returned prodigal, and goes off in a huff. This is the dutiful child who stayed home and took care of things while the other one goofed off. Most of us probably relate to this older child. We’re the ones who follow the rules and do the right thing.

Are you ready for the shocking part?
This child is a prodigal too!

Are you ready for another shocking part?
The parent again comes running out and begs the older child to come in and share in the party. Again, Jewish parents didn’t beg, they told.

What does this say about the character or nature of “the parent?”

Now, I’m sure we have some sympathy for the older sibling. Because we’re the dutiful ones we want to be rewarded and honoured for being good. On one level the older kid has a case.

The parent though is on another whole level. The parent says, “But you’ve been with me all the time!”

What the parent didn’t say, and what the preacher gets to fill in is, “You’ve been with me all the time but you were too preoccupied with your own supposed goodness that you never really noticed I was gushing love on you the whole time. I’ve been ready to lavish love on you every minute of every day – you’ve been a prodigal – you’ve wasted the opportunity – you’ve ignored my Presence!”

What does this say about the character or nature of “the parent?”

At every stage the parent utterly surprises us – mostly because the parent doesn’t react the way we probably would. The picture Jesus is painting of the love of God – which is obviously what the parent in the parable embodies – is a love that is unlike and far beyond any measure of love that we humans can seem to muster (at least on a sustained basis).

And perhaps the really shocking part of all this is that after grappling with this parable for 2000 years we still insist on limiting the love of God to our sense of what people deserve based on their actions.

The younger sibling “deserved” judgment – and got unconditional love and welcome.

The older sibling thought they “deserved” reward for good deeds – and got an eye-opening dose of unconditional love that revealed the silliness of thinking we’re able to earn something we already have in spades.

heart-radiate-love-godThe overarching message is this: God doesn’t give us what we think we deserve – thank God!
Instead, God just loves and loves and loves.
That’s shocking! It’s shockingly wonderful!

So what can we learn from this? How can this help us?
Why does Jesus paint such a shocking picture of God’s indescribable, unfathomable, unconditional love?

I think it’s so we can hold it in our imaginations and embrace it as our touchstone.

No matter who you are or what you do – whether you think you’re a good boy or a bad boy – a good girl or a bad girl – the love of God remains unchanged toward you.
This is our bright shining North Star!
We are loved beyond imagining by the Holy Mystery that is Wholly Love.

And we have to keep saying it, and keep preaching it, so that we never, ever forget it. Because the truth is, from time to time, we’re going to go prodigal.
Whether it’s the younger version or the older version we’re going to squander God’s love with extravagant stupidity from time to time.
We’re human! That’s what we do.

Thank God we have that bedrock assurance of God’s never-ending love to draw us back.

Think about the story of the younger child for a minute. At this prodigal’s lowest point “he came to himself” – which is kind of like saying you came to your senses.
In other words, that touchstone, that North Star, that remembrance of God’s love penetrated the darkness and reminded the prodigal of a way home.

Now, here’s the hard part.
The turning is vitally important, but it’s just the beginning. Dying to your old way and being reborn, renewed into a new way is a critical point – but it’s just the start of the journey – it’s just the beginning of your transformation.
The journey back into “the loving arms of the parent” takes time and effort – not on God’s part, on ours!

And the journey is usually not easy. It’s certainly not instant. There’s no finger snapping or clicking your heels together like Dorothy and finding yourself home and done.
This is an especially hard lesson for us in today’s instant gratification society.

Ok, let’s hold that image and fast forward to us today. And let’s broaden the imagery so that we’re thinking about the two prodigals as two aspects of our spiritual journey.

Some of us are like the younger prodigal – turning our back on God and living recklessly.
An image I like is that most sheep don’t defiantly run away, they tend to nibble their way into trouble and separation.

Some of us are like the older prodigal – taking God for granted and not appreciating God’s Presence.

No one is immune from this, no one is perfect.
At some point, maybe many points, every single one of us will lose focus and be a prodigal.

So, going prodigal is a given, and God’s unfailing love is a given.
What is our spiritual task in the midst of this?
Let’s ask Brother Lawrence!

Lawrence knew all about these challenges. He suffered from both kinds – both turning away and taking for granted. Actually, for him the biggest challenge was just getting lazy and losing focus. (Sound familiar?)
To deal with this he used the word perseverance.

The reality of the spiritual life is that practicing God’s Presence can, at times, feel like you’re not accomplishing anything at all.
Lawrence said: “In the beginning you may often think that you are wasting your time; nonetheless, you must continually resolve to persevere until death in spite of all the difficulties.”

And for the person who chooses to turn away or quit trying, Lawrence urges them to “make a holy and firm resolution at once never to deliberately turn away from [God], and to live the rest of your life in this holy presence,” for if God is always present then the only way to lose that presence is to deliberately turn away, and the only way not to reap the benefits of being present to God is to block them.

Lawrence never wants a person to give up, so he compels us to persevere: “Knock at [God’s] door, keep knocking, and I tell you that [it] will open to you in…time if you do not give up.”

In other words, as Lawrence said, “You don’t become a saint in a day!”

To practice Presence you have to practice perseverance.

Perseverance means steady persistence in a course of action or purpose, especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.

I don’t know about you but my faith journey is frequently interrupted by difficulties, obstacles, and discouragement – by dry spells, distractions, and falling short. There are days when it feels like I’m spinning my wheels and it’s unbelievably hard to stay the course and not give up.

But then there’s that touchstone. I literally have one in my pocket all the time. It’s my reminder that I’m not alone, that God’s Presence is present, if only I could be. And it reminds me that it’s not solely up to my ability to persevere. I have a remarkable helper (the Holy Spirit).

And so I keep persevering. I keep knocking.
I’ve been doing it long enough that I know that when it seems like there’s no answer it isn’t a sign of God’s absence it’s a sign of my distractedness.
And at the other extreme I have had vivid experiences of knowing and being enfolded in the love of God that are so awesome and awe-full that I’m certain they’re worth passionately persevering for more.

And I keep persevering with confidence and with faith because I’ve learned something that has utterly blown my mind.
As much as I think I’m persevering to be present to God’s Presence, God is persevering infinitely more passionately to embrace me.
That is simply God’s character.
God loves and loves and loves.
God races out to meet me when I’ve wandered and begs me to join the party when I take God’s Presence for granted.

Whatever we think we might deserve – positively or negatively – what we get is nothing but unconditional, unending, unfailing love.
The church has a word for that: Grace!

We persevere not to earn that grace – because by definition grace cannot be earned.

We persevere because that’s what it takes for us to stay on course, stay in the light, and keep our prodigal personalities in check.
Practice Presence perseverance and you’ll most surely become a saint – but not in a day.