05 Nov “Transformation” (Read)
Rev. Peggy O’Connor
Date: November 5, 2017
(Luke 15: 25-32)
Today we continue our sermon series theme of HOPE focusing on the Elder Brother. We do so because at the end of the story we do not know what happens to him. So we ask, what about the Elder Brother? We know that the prodigal son has been blessed by his father’s grace. The Father’s love has never lessened, and the younger son is welcome home with a celebratory feast. But it is unclear how the Elder son, who has never done anything wrong, can access that grace.
After worked hard all day, the Elder Brother comes home to find his selfish younger brother is back and their father is celebrating with a feast. The Elder Son is furious. You have never given me a goat to share with my friends, but you give this son of yours, who took your money and squandered it on God knows what, a welcome home feast with the fatted calf! Outraged at his father’s generosity, he refuses to join the party. He will not welcome his brother home or even acknowledge him as his brother.
It is so easy to judge others when we otherize them. There is no such word, but it is what people have done since the dawn of time. We otherize people who are not like us, often on religious, national, or ethnic grounds. Native Americans were subjected to multiple genocidal campaigns based on the idea that the only good Indian was a dead one. Africans were sub-human, making slavery acceptable. Chinese, Irish, Italians, and Jews, lower life forms than the white European, Christians of the ruling class were subject to all manner of hardships that were deemed their lot in life. Today we otherize Muslims, those from some Middle Eastern countries, and Latin Americans as well as the very poor.
We have a long history of being older brothers. We know best. We are right. Even though Bible tells us that this is not God’s plan for us we struggle because, like the Elder Brother, we want life to favor us. We want it to reward us for our hard work. And we complain when someone who has not worked as hard or been as loyal gets rewarded. We say, I deserved that promotion. It’s not fair. And by our standards it is not. Yet, this is what God, does all the time. God’s grace is available to everyone! We cannot buy it or earn it or steal it. It is just there. This, for people who believe they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, is a hard thing to accept.
A very interesting thing about this parable is that it is an answer to a question about how to live a sinless life., the Big Brother goal in life. But, the parable tells us that living a sinless life is not the point. For God’s grace is available to us all, even those who lose their way and resort to seeking pleasure in questionable ways. Again, a hard thing for us to hear. We think we have to earn our place in God’s arms, but the parable tells us that we don’t.
There is a Sufi teaching: A seeker ran through the streets shouting again and again, “We must put God into our lives. We must put God into our lives.” An elder said, “Poor soul, if only he realized the truth: God is always in our lives. Our spiritual task is to recognize this.”
The Prodigal did not earn his father’s love by returning, although that is what we tend to believe. Rather, in receiving his father’s love, he came to see that he had never lost it. It was always there. Now the question is, will the Elder Brother learn this too. The parable does not tell us because, the question is really for us. Will we learn it?
The Elder Son, like so many of us, has built a life on being right and it is this that stops him at the dining room door. To enter means giving up being right…giving up his sense of entitlement and giving in to the love and grace of God. His father encourages him to be a part of the blessings the meal offers. Come to the table, his father begs. In doing so he is telling his elder child that it is through our relationships with one another that we find grace. When the elder son refers to his younger brother as “This son of yours” his father replies: “Son…this brother of yours was lost and is found…come celebrate this blessing”. The father highlights: You are still my son and he is still your brother so come break bread together; Come reaffirm your place in this family.
Sharing food and water is of central importance in the Bible. Stories like: The wedding in Cana, Martha and Mary, the woman at a well, Abraham and Sara feeding strangers are centered on sharing. Repeatedly, the Bible tells us that gathering to share is a blessing from God. The simple daily need to eat, brings the opportunity to remember and to share in God’s blessings three times a day. For those trying to earn blessings this seems ridiculous. What’s special about something we do every day? Special is standing out in the crowd: Best, First, Fame, Fortune etc. Surely these are the true blessings in life.
But God is not interested in our human system of fame and fortune. God’s system is reflected in creation. God’s first system was the system of days…then seasons…then the solar system, then the biological systems of life: plants, birds, reptiles, mammals, then humans. And in every life form God created systems: circulatory, digestive, pulmonary, reproductive etc. The very basis of life is made up of systems that we take for granted.
And God created life to depend on other systems too…the family and community systems, where daily sharing of food and water bind us to one another and celebrate the goodness and grace of God. Gathering at a table to share food, we acknowledge God’s daily blessings, singing: Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
Today we will gather at the table for Communion. This is our hope filled act of routine faithfulness; our act of reaffirmation of our connection in this community of faith. Here we acknowledge the one true blessing, communion with God through our communion with one another. Unlike the other places in our life, here we come together as equals, united in a union that respects differences and celebrates one another. Here we create a space for everyone, linking arms as valued individuals and members of the whole, bound in a voluntary union. And while we can connect in many other places: scouts, sports, school, work, etc. It is only here, at the table, that we really commit ourselves to one another. Here are we truly loved. Here we discover we are loveable and are freed to love more freely.
None of this is easy however. We don’t like everyone. She is irritating; he pushes my buttons. We can avoid the people we don’t like at the gym. But here we are asked to enter into communion with one another, to come to the table loving and affirming each other. This is the love God offers and asks us to share. It is unique. It is why we call it Holy Communion. For it is unlike anything else. Holy means godly and here, at the table, we make a God connection with each other. It is an experience unlike any other. It is important because when we connect with God together, we are empowered and inspired to take the love of God out into the world. In a world where disagreeing, needing to be right, wanting more for me, and otherizing them seem to be the norm, communion is a transformational alternative.
In her book, Take This Bread, Sara Miles tells the story of her spiritual journey. An atheist, Sara, wandered into a church and received Communion and “found herself transformed – embracing a faith she’d scorned.” In response she “turned the bread she ate at communion into tons of groceries…to be given away.” Within a few years she had begun nearly a dozen food pantries in the poorest parts of her city. Hers is a story of “the living communion of Christ” AND the transformative power of coming to the table.
Until the Protestant Reformation, Christians believed the bread and wine was transformed, during the blessing of the elements, into Christ’s actual flesh and blood. The reformers changed this and as Protestants we believe that it is we who are transformed by the sharing of the bread and cup. The miracle of transformation is not in the bread or the cup…but in the people who gather and share the meal.
A Zen master asked his students, “How will you know that night is over and day has come? The first said, “When I see a tree and can see what kind it is.” The second said, “When I see an animal and recognize it as a cow.” The master replied to both…you have not learned. The third student said: “When I see a person and recognize them as my sister or brother, then night is over, and day has dawned.” The master said, “you have understood.”
This is the kind of transformation that gathering at the table offers us all: to see our relationship to all of creation. To see, not what makes us different but all that we hold in common. This is the lesson that the father offers to his eldest son and the lesson that God offers each of us and all of us. As Christians we practice accepting this lesson every time we come to the table.