Sermon for Lent 4 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Those of you who have read my newsletter article this month know that for a long time Lent has been my favorite church season, and that this is often considered a rather weird preference by my friends and colleagues. I get a spring in my step this time of year I’ve been told, which is peculiar since this is a season which reminds us over and over again about sin and death. But when you think about it, by gosh, it’s such a relief. The acknowledgment of my sin gives me relief from perfectionism and the acknowledgment of my mortality saves me from death-denial, which comes with its own indignities when we consider how the sick and dying are treated in our culture. The denial of the reality of both sin and death is, in a way, the extension of one’s ego to eternity, and we can never find salvation in that.

Coming to terms with sin can be a very joyful thing, because it saves us from perfectionism and teaches us that redemption is possible. This is, in fact, the Good News we hear in today’s Gospel. Upon the return of the prodigal son, the father’s reaction was neither judgment nor pious superciliousness, but profound hospitality:

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.

The father later explains his reaction to his other son, who happens to be jealous of his prodigal brother’s reception, by saying:

‘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.’

Even in this most penitent season, then, we may rejoice in the midst of our penitence, because we know that God the Father rejoices when we, who have so often gone astray, return to Him through fasting and prayer.

There is an interesting liturgical fact about this Sunday. At least I find it interesting. Historically this Sunday has been called Laetare Sunday, which comes from a Latin word meaning “to rejoice”. It comes from the first word of the old Latin Introit, or entry hymn, which would have been sung in Roman Catholic parishes (and in some catholic-leaning Anglican parishes) every year on this Sunday until Vatican II suppressed that bit of the Mass in the Roman Church. The hymn goes like this, in my probably inadequate translation:

Rejoice with Jerusalem: and be glad with her, all you that love her: rejoice for joy with her, all you that mourn for her: that you may drink and be satisfied with the milk of her consolations. I was glad when they said to me: We will go into the house of the Lord.

Thus, church would have begun on a very high note indeed, and in the middle of Lent! This is why I’m wearing slightly brighter vestments this week than the usual Lenten violet, and why our hymns this week seem a little less somber. It’s because penitence isn’t just about groveling and feeling rotten. In fact, that is to miss the point entirely. When we, like the prodigal son, are able to approach God with sincere penitence the outcome for us ought to be profound joy.

Redemption makes no sense without something to be redeemed from. Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross for us wouldn’t have been anything more than an historical fact had it not been that we needed and are in need of saving. That we are saved, that Christ’s sacrifice saved us from a real enemy, from sin and death, is a very happy fact.

This is good news for all of us. In fact, it is the Good News. We can only fully appreciate it though, we can only attain to the joy which God intends for us, when we recognize that we are too sinful to dig ourselves out. This realization releases us from perfectionism, which is terribly close to narcissism, and brings us to the realization that we can be sinful, and God will still love us. Only when we get over ourselves, when we realize that we cannot attain perfection on our own terms, that we need an Other, will we experience the joy of redemption.

Of course, getting to the point of experiencing this joy may not be entirely pleasant, because it requires that we be honest with ourselves. The process of recognizing our own fallen-ness, our own sinfulness, is full of tears and travail. Yet, like the prodigal son, we may return home and experience joy once again. Like the children of Israel, we may finish our desert wandering and feast on the produce of God’s Grace and Mercy. Like the psalmist, we may declare “Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven: and whose sin is put away.” There has never been news any better than this.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.