“No prophet is accepted in his own native place.” It struck me today that the prophet’s own native place is in our hearts. It is to those hearts that the prophet speaks, urging us to action for our own good, and the good of others. But do we hear that prophet speak? And if we hear the prophet speak to us, are we willing to accept his word? Well, we better hear and accept that word, because it’s the Holy Spirit speaking through the prophets, whether they be prophets of the Scriptures or prophets in our own lives. Maybe our prophets are parents or spouses, or even children. God uses all kinds of people to speak to our hearts, we have to be ready to hear and to act on their word.
The word "prodigal" means incredibly, perhaps even wastefully, extravagant. So it has been argued that today's Gospel should really be called the Parable of the Prodigal Father. The story isn't about the son – neither son actually – it's about the Father. The Father is the one who sees us in all our sinfulness and runs out to meet us as we're coming up the road. He doesn't have to do that, but his mercy wouldn't have it any other way. And when he gets to us, he embraces us and showers us with blessings that we couldn't possibly deserve in a million years. The Father is truly prodigal with his mercy, prodigal with his compassion, prodigal with his forgiveness and his grace and his many blessings. All we have to do is start the journey back.
The great visionaries of our faith have often been rejected. Joseph, the prophets, and Jesus of course – all of these have been rejected by the people of power, even by their own families in some cases. If they have been rejected for propagating the faith, we disciples have to know that that same fate can await us. If the cornerstone has been rejected, then we building blocks have to know that we too may be rejected by our contemporaries, even by our families, when we live our faith. But the Spirit calls us to be true to our witness, and to place our faith in the One who knew the same rejection that we are suffering.
And someone, of course, did rise from the dead – Jesus himself. And many among the scribes and Pharisees remained unpersuaded. The Kingdom of God demands trust in God, not in human beings. Our own resources are laughable in the face of the salvation and compassion and mercy poured out on us through the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. But we have to be persuaded of that. Our Savior rose from the dead to put an end to our death. We don’t need to trust in anything or anyone but him.
Servant leadership is a key concept for all disciples. As we go off to our work today, we will be called upon to be leaders in any number of ways. At work, with subordinates as well as coworkers – will they see Christ in us, in our business practices, in our ethics and in the way we treat others? At home, with spouses and children, family and friends – will they see Christ in us, in our quality time with them, in our loving patience in the face of frustrations, in the behaviors we model by the television we watch or the activities we engage in while at home? Every one of us who wishes to be great in the kingdom must be the servant of all.
Lent is a time to make all things new. And the first thing that has to be changed is our hearts. We are sinners, every one of us. We know that. But sometimes we act as though we were the Savior himself, longing for places of honor and tying up heavy burdens for others to carry. We servant disciples must come to the level of conversion that we realize our salvation is the greatest thing that we have, and that same salvation calls us to help others on the way to it. We have to humble ourselves, for our own salvation, and the salvation of everyone in our lives.
That whole notion of the measure that we used being used to measure us is a little scary, I think. How often do we fail to give people a break? How often do we forget that the person who just crossed us may be having trouble at home, or might be facing the illness of a loved one, or any number of things. We confess our sins and long to be forgiven, just like Daniel did in today’s first reading. And our God longs to forgive us those sins. But God’s expectation is that the mercy he has shown us will be the mercy we show to others.
“Seeing is believing,” or so they say. It’s not an entirely accurate saying, either. The real definition of faith, as St. Paul reminds us in his writings, is that faith is believing in spite of the fact that we don’t see God face-to-face. But there is some truth in the statement that seeing is believing, and that’s a truth that can be found in today’s Liturgy of the Word. Because sometimes we get stuck and can’t get out of the rut of our sinfulness. Or sometimes we get caught up in our day-to-day concerns and activities and can’t notice the Spirit working in us. And that’s when God needs to make a visit to his people. And he does that all the time, our God who is not some remote deity that made us and left us to our own devices. Our God is intimately involved in our world and in our living, and our God often makes entry into our world and our life events. This is what we call a “theophany.” It’s God doing a God-thing.
I hope I have your attention now. Because today’s readings seem to be screaming that we should indeed wake up. All kinds of waking up is going on in today’s readings. Abram fell into a deep sleep after preparing the sacrifice and was enveloped in a terrifying darkness. He woke up to God’s presence ratifying the covenant. Peter, John and James had fallen asleep up on the mountain. They woke up to see Christ’s glory in the Transfiguration. Our readings proclaim our God doing God-things in and around his people, and we are called to wake up and take notice of it, lest we sleep through our salvation.
Because left to our own devices we are lamentably sleepy. In the eleven chapters of Genesis that come before Abram is called by God, things have gone a little off-course. Adam and Eve have desecrated the Garden of Eden by partaking of the forbidden fruit. Cain has murdered his brother Abel in a fit of terminal envy. God has drenched his creation in the flood as punishment for rampant sin and the arrogance of building the Tower of Babel. Humanity had become so used to its sinful ways that nothing seemed to focus their attention on God. The complacency of sin had led them to drowsiness and sloth. All of humanity, like Abram, was cloaked in a terrifying darkness.
The covenant that God forms with Abram is interesting. Every animal of sacrifice is procured, and cut in half. This was an ancient covenantal ritual in which the two parties to the covenant would walk down the center of the bisected sacrifice in order to ratify the covenant. The meaning of this ritual was something like, “should I ever break the covenant, may what happened to these animals happen to me.” This was a very common ritual in ancient times, but here there is a significant difference. The difference is that Abram does not walk through the sacrifice. Only God does – in the form of a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch. The significance of that is that God takes the initiative in making covenant with us. We have to but wake up and see it, as Abram did.
In the verses that precede today’s Gospel reading, the disciples have been sent out in pairs to heal the sick and drive out demons. Then Jesus fed five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. Finally Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” And Peter responds with great faith that Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus instructs them that his followers must take up their crosses and follow him. But even Peter misses the significance of that cross when they see the Lord transfigured before them. Waking from a deep sleep, they see the Lord transfigured in glory. And it’s that glory they want to dwell on, remaining there in three tents. They have already in their weariness forgotten that to get to the Lord’s glory, they have to get through the cross first. There is hard work to be done: diseases to be cured, demons to be cast out, hungry people to be fed. It’s not going to be easy. Everyone suffers for the faith in some way, but everyone will also be glorified by that faith. All we have to do is wake up and realize it.
We too have once been enveloped in a terrifying darkness. The light of the Gospel and the joy of the sacraments banishes that darkness, if we but move forward in faith. The problem is that so many times we get dragged back into that darkness. It’s so easy to return to sinful ways, bad habits, patterns of brokenness, the shame of addiction. We want what we don’t need. We seek easy answers rather than work through the tough times. We make Gods out of success, and money, and pleasure, rather than honor the God who compassions us through failure, poverty and pain. We see to all our own creature comforts with little regard for the poor, oppressed and marginalized. We return over and over and over again to the terrifying darkness of sin in thought, word, and deed. Lent reminds us that we cannot survive living that way. We must confess our sins and wake up to be children of light.
And we children of light have been adopted to become light to others. The forgiveness we have received demands that we become Christ to others. We are called to become conduits of God’s justice, mercy, compassion and love. God’s justice has been poured out on us so that we in turn can reach out to others, helping to make things right and alleviate the burden of the oppressed and marginalized. God’s justice demands that we see every person the way God sees them, eliminating every form of racism, violence and hatred from the earth. God’s mercy has been poured out on us so that we can reach out to others and show them mercy too. That mercy demands that we forgive as we have been forgiven, that grudges and resentments be left at the foot of the cross. God’s compassion has been poured out on us so that we can then be compassionate to others. That compassion demands that we have concern for every person God puts in our path, that we take time out of our busy and hectic schedules to listen to a hurting coworker or look in on a sick neighbor. God’s love has been poured out on us so that we can love as he has loved us. That love demands that we discipline children with patience, that we honor and respect our parents, that we go the extra mile to share the gifts we have been given. We must wake up to live as God’s people.
We are a people who have been given so much. God has reached out to us in great love and mercy and has taken the initiative to form a covenant with us, first with the sacrifice of Abraham, and in the last days through the blood of the Cross. We deserve none of this, because we as a people and as individuals have turned away from God over and over again. But over and over again, God has sung to our spirit, giving us grace, and calling us to be sons and daughters of light. But we have to wake up and receive it.
Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.
That line sounds like such an outrageous goal that it would be easy to write it off and pretend it's not part of Scripture. But we know that's not true. Perfection is the goal of the disciple's life, and a wonderful goal for Lent. Am I saying that you have the possibility to finish Lent and be completely done with the Spiritual life, knowing that everything is now perfected? Most likely not. But we are called to move in that direction. Real perfection, of course, will only come on that great day when we enter the heavenly Kingdom prepared for us by Jesus our Savior, who will make all things new.
So we must begin by changing our hearts and attitudes, working from the inside out. We cannot be people who pick and choose who to love and who to hate. We must love all people – yes, even our enemies – if we are to take up our crosses and follow our Lord. The weight of that cross is enormous, and it's hard to pick it up and walk onward, but we never have to do that alone. We can rely on our Savior who shoulders the cross with us, helping us to love as he does, and ultimately by providing the example par excellence by stretching out his arms and dying on that cross.
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.