Sunday, March 06, 2016

How Often Do We Really See Each Other?

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
March 6, 2016

Year C: The Fourth Sunday in Lent
Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

How Often Do We Really See Each Other?
            St. Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view, even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!"
            Beautiful words, right?
            I wonder how often we are true to what Paul writes. How often do we really regard each other, really see each other with wonder, really see each other as a new creation in Christ?
            Probably not too often.
            In fact, I’d back up a little and ask, in our world and our country filled with so much anger, fear, and suspicion, how often do we regard each other at all? Instead, don’t we just lump people into demographics, into categories: rich, poor; black, white; immigrant, native-born; friend, foe; Republican, Democrat.
            How often do we really see each other?
            Even worse than that, with our lives full of all sorts of distractions, obligations, and burdens, how often do we really regard the people closest to us?
            How often do we really see our spouses, our parents and children, our friends and colleagues, our fellow parishioners?
            Probably not too much, I bet.
            By now, you’ve noticed that we make some changes to our worship during the season of Lent.
            We all know that we definitely, absolutely, don’t say the “a” word (or the “h” word if you spell it that way).
            We begin in silence and start the service with the confession, highlighting the penitential nature of Lent.
            We’ve put away the silver and cover up most of the crosses and other shiny things.
            At 10:00 we say the contemporary Lord’s Prayer and a different post-communion prayer.
            There’s no blessing at the end of the service and we exit in silence.
            We make these changes because they’re appropriate to Lent and also to help get us to pay attention because, let’s face it, for those of us who come to church a lot there’s a real danger that after a while we don’t really hear the words anymore, there’s a risk that, despite our best intentions, we stop regarding the beauty and wonder all around us, there’s good chance that we stop paying attention, stop hearing and stop seeing.
            And, that’s not only true of the service but it’s also true of familiar Bible stories.
            For those of us who’ve grown up in the church, or who have gone to church and read our Bibles a lot, there’s a good chance that by now we’ve pretty much stopped paying attention.
            After all, many of us think we know these stories, right?
            Many of us “know” Jesus’ parables, especially the really famous ones like “the Good Samaritan” and the parable we heard today, what’s usually called, “the Prodigal Son.”
            I’m certainly guilty of often thinking I know these stories but the truth is that we can never really “know” these parables because they contain so many layers of meaning and they are, in a way, riddles that leave us wondering or maybe just scratching our heads. The parables are meant to snap us out of our complacency – to help us see.
            Today’s parable is part of a trio of parables in the Gospel of Luke.
            The first is the Parable of the Lost Sheep – you remember, a shepherd has 100 sheep, loses one, leaves the other 99 to find and bring back the one that got away.
            Maybe the shepherd should have been paying closer attention – after all, he only had one job, keeping the flock together – but, I guess we can forgive him for losing only one out of 100 sheep, right?
            The second parable is the Lost Coin – a woman has 10 coins, loses one, looks all over the place, finds it and throws a party. Again, not to judge but, if you only have 10 coins, you’d think you’d pay closer attention but I guess it’s understandable – and, anyway, it’s her problem, right?
            And then there’s today’s parable. Lots of us “know” it, right?
            In the Parable of the Prodigal Son there was a man who had two sons, who lost one – the son who went off and blew his inheritance, but then came back to his father, who, was so overjoyed that he threw a big party, much to the unhappiness of the older son who had been dutifully working for his father all along and resents all the attention lavished on his younger brother.
            The father certainly lost more than the shepherd and the woman – he lost his younger son, at least for a time.
            But, you know, the father may have lost even more than that – the father may have also lost the older son, the dutiful son, the son who had been working “like a slave” for his father all along.
            The father may have lost the older son forever.
            In the parable, it seems that the father had been watching for his younger son, the prodigal son, waiting so that as soon as he saw him on the horizon he ran out to greet him. Very poignant, right?
            Meanwhile, the father seems to have little regard for his older son who has been right in front of him all along, the older son whose needs and resentments were just beneath the surface, the older son who doesn’t seem to even get an invitation to the big party.
            The father somehow doesn’t seem to see his dutiful and hardworking son, who’s been right there all along.
            And, because of his inattention, his neglect, the father may have lost the older son forever. Notice how the parable ends – there’s no resolution, no happy ending between the father and the lost older son.
            We just leave them there in the field.
             We take for granted that this parable is about the prodigal son, and it is, in part, at least. But, it’s also about the older, dutiful son who is not regarded by his father – the older brother who gets no attention and who, maybe, is even ignored by us, too.
            After all, nobody calls it the Parable of the Dutiful Son.
            How often do we really see each other?
            We don’t really see people whose lives are a mess – oh, we see them all right – but, often we just see them as a problem – or problems – to be endured or to be “fixed,” or maybe to just be enabled, or papered over and wished away.
            Here, welcome back, here’s a ring and a fancy robe, let’s have a party!
            That’s bad enough.
            But, we especially don’t see the people who seem to have their lives together, the people who are no drama, who go about their business day after day without complaint, until…
            When I was in seminary preparing ordination I always imagined I would be a city priest. After all, I’m from the city. I know the city and its people. I know all the issues and I can “fix” them. Or, so I thought.
            But, it turned out that when I was ordained there were no fulltime openings in the city. The only position available was at Grace Church in Madison. A very desirable position, but I didn’t really want to go. All of my Jersey City insecurities flared up: I wasn’t good enough or smart enough. They’ll look down on me. We won’t be able to relate to each other. And, I actually thought, actually thought, it’ll be boring because out there people really have their act together. There won’t be much for me to do.
            Well, I was wrong about all of that.
            Grace became my second home. And, over time, at my best, I was actually able to see the people out there – people who, yes, were living in a beautiful suburb, who for the most part went about their business looking to the world like they had their act together, but, like all of us, faced fears and regrets, suffered losses and carried resentments – people who messed up sometimes and needed forgiveness or were called upon to forgive, which is so very hard.
            The problems and the challenges may not have been quite as obvious as in the city but they were just as real, just a little harder to see.
            How often do we really see each other?
            In today’s parable, the father doesn’t really see his sons, both the prodigal who was a problem child and the dutiful who appeared to have his act together.
            Lent, the scaled-down and simplified season, is a good time for us to pay attention, to, with God’s help, really see each other – really see the diverse and not so happy people of our country - really regard the person who appears to be nothing but problems – really see the person who seems to have her act together – really see those who are closest to us – really see each other with wonder, really see each other as a new creation in Christ!
            We need to pay attention because, otherwise, like the father in the parable, we run the risk of losing more than we ever imagined.