Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Why do we do that? a sermon for the middle of Lent (texts: Lent 4C)

Rev. Teri Peterson
Why Do We Do That?
Joshua 5.8-12, Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32
3 March 2013, Lent 3C (4C text)

When the circumcising of all the nation was done, they remained in their places in the camp until they were healed. The Lord said to Joshua, ‘Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.’ And so that place is called Gilgal to this day.
While the Israelites were encamped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable: ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’

Here we are, at the midpoint of Lent. Last week we talked about looking for signs of God’s promise and God’s faithfulness, and on Wednesday we practiced looking at our doubts and challenges through the lens of God’s promise. Where did you see God’s faithfulness?
What was it like for you to be on the look-out for God’s promise this week?
How did you share that vision with others?

Keep your eyes peeled this week for the movement of the Spirit, and when you see, don’t just keep quiet, but share the good news! Keep putting photos and stories on our Facebook page, and sharing your joys and concerns so we can all be praying for new eyes to see God’s love every day.

One of the ways we learn to look is by practicing here at church. Communion and other rituals like it help us grow into the people of God, and they are important! I am often asked “why do we do that?” when it comes to various aspects of worship or of church life. Why are we still doing things that make no sense in a scientific world, or a digital world, or an individualistic world, or a capitalist world? Why do we do things that are hard for outsiders to understand? Why do we insist that some things deserve to be done over and over, though we live in a culture that values novelty?

The word “ritual” often gets a bad rap in our culture—it comes with a lot of baggage. But “ritual” doesn’t mean “rote and meaningless”—it means an action that is heavy with meaning, with symbols that point us to greater things, the way the table points us toward every table. We repeat these rituals because they help us make meaning in our lives, connecting the dots and reminding us who we are. We eat turkey and name our gratitude every November, and watch fireworks every July, because it connects us to our story as immigrants who make something of ourselves in the New World, with all its promise. We put up a tree and hang stockings because it connects us to stories of our childhood and to the practice of generosity that lives even in the darkest days. We put on green clothes and claim to be Irish not just for an excuse to party but also to connect us to a larger story that we desperately want to be a part of. To outsiders, these things are ridiculous, but for us they tell us who we are and what kind of community we should be.

In today’s reading from Joshua, we hear about two important rituals that the people of Israel had not observed between leaving Egypt and entering the Promised Land. During those 40 years of wandering, they were learning to depend on God, learning who God is and who they are, finding their path into a new way of being. And now we find them, on the threshold of the land God promised many generations before, and the first thing they do is call up the two signs of God’s covenant with them: circumcision, marking them physically as God’s people, and the Passover, reminding them of God’s action in their lives. None of these people had come out of Egypt themselves—they had all been born in the wilderness. And yet they told the story of God’s power and might, of slavery and plagues and near-drowning, eating unleavened bread salted with tears. This ritual meal connected them to their roots—to their identity as the people God has redeemed, and to God’s identity as one who saves.

It’s possible that some of these people, two generations removed from the original event, thought this was bizarre and meaningless. Or that they felt unworthy of being part of God’s story. But probably not, because they saw themselves as part of a body, a community knit together by God’s promise, not as individuals who looked for God in their free time. We don’t hear about anyone staying away or not participating. They come together as a people to hear and enact who they are and who God is—and then they take their first steps into the promised land and find it is abundant and fertile and wonderful. And all of this is provided by God…they do not get it for themselves. In fact, if it had been up to them, they’d be back in Egypt making bricks without straw. But they remember now—and this is why the rituals were important. Just like the Deuteronomy reading we heard two weeks ago, this is about remembering that God is faithful, and calls us to faithfulness. The traditional ritual brought them back to themselves.

It’s much the same for the younger brother in Jesus’ story. He chooses to leave behind all that nonsense and go find his own way. Basically, he decides to be spiritual but not religious, to try to strike out on his own because he doesn’t need the community in order to live his life his way. But when it all goes wrong, the story tells us that “he came to himself” and then headed back for the community, with all its rituals and traditions and boundaries. He remembered who he was, and walked that long road home—only to discover that he would now be the beneficiary of one of those rituals that had seemed so stifling before.

While he was gone, and while the older brother is sulking outside, the family is broken—it’s missing a piece. Even as the celebration is happening, there’s still healing that needs to take place. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 12 that if one member of the body suffers, all suffer together with it. If one member of our body is standing outside the door, angry and unwilling to come to the table, or if one member of our body is sitting in the pew, believing their voice isn’t pretty enough, we all suffer together. Withholding ourselves from these rituals of our tradition hurts both us as individuals and the body as a whole—we cannot practice hospitality or compassion or radical acceptance or forgiveness or sharing if we are not all here. Even if we do not understand what is happening, or even if we have doubts about how it all works, it’s important to be there, to at least allow the possibility of an experience of Grace. One of the beauties of these rituals is that sometimes they are so laden with meaning we can hardly stand it, and other times we may feel nothing…but no matter where we are on that spectrum today, we know that God is present and working in us and our community through these moments, making and re-making us into God’s people.

So what are some of these rituals that are so important, that help our roots grow and reach into God’s love? The most obvious is communion, of course—the meal that grows out of the Passover and the feast that welcomes home the prodigal. If you’d like to learn more about Passover, the First Presbyterian Church in Arlington Heights is hosting a Seder Dinner in a few weeks—check the bulletin for more info about how you can go and learn about this important tradition. Some other things that guide our roots to God’s living water include things like saying the Lord’s Prayer each week, sharing the peace of Christ with one another, and even singing. There aren’t many places in our culture where we can get together and sing anymore—the church is the keeper of an important tradition. When we sing, our whole bodies get in on the act of prayer and proclamation. The church has been singing since the very beginning. Of course, what we were singing was usually the psalms. This Lent we’ve been singing a psalm each week—reaching back to fine Presbyterian tradition. It used to be that we only sang psalms! While our repertoire is broader now, it’s still important to reach for the very first hymnal every now and then, joining our voices with centuries of faithful people around the world who have been singing the psalms together.

I’m sure you can think of many rituals that happen in church—everything from passing an offering plate to ensure we all have the opportunity to answer God’s call to generosity, to baptizing babies, to breaking bread together. On Wednesday we’ll be exploring some of them more deeply, so join us at 6:30! Every time we participate in these actions, we put our whole body to our faith. Faith isn’t only about what we think, or what we feel, it’s also about what we do. These roots run through hundreds or even thousands of years of faithfulness, connecting us to the great cloud of witnesses and reminding us, just as the Israelites were reminded on the verge of the promised land, and just as the brothers were reminded by their father, that we are God’s people. We have been chosen, and called, and equipped: with a way to practice God’s story in this room so we can live it outside this room.

So this week’s challenge is an easy one, relatively speaking. Take the ritual out of the sanctuary for a week. Whenever you have a meal, say the Lord’s Prayer. Not a quick and easy grace, but the whole Lord’s Prayer, every meal. See what happens when it’s connected to your daily bread. See how it feels to have Jesus’ words on your tongue several times a day. Notice your awareness of God’s presence when you are living with the words of the prayer beyond Sunday morning. Every meal, the Lord’s Prayer. Let’s see what happens if we move this ritual designed to remind us who we are as the people of God beyond the walls of the church building.

And when we’re in here, let’s practice God’s call through singing with gusto and praying fervently and washing and forgiving and hearing and eating. May those practices shape our lives. Amen.

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