Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, February 28, 2021
Jesus liked to use aphorisms (short, pithy sayings) and parables in his teaching. Marcus Borg called them "invitational and provocative forms of speech." He used them to subvert conventional ways of seeing, thinking and living as an invitation to an unconventional, alternative way of life. As you probably know, the first name for the Christian movement was "the Way."
In this light, the Gospel is not primarily about imparting information (that is, what to believe) or about morals ( how to behave). It is rather a way or path of transformation. Metanoia, repentance, is about a change of mind, a transformation of perspective, an illumination of the senses, a purification of the heart all in the service of God, the human race and of creation.
Thus, as Meister Eckhart taught, “the essence of everything is relational.” Part of the power of the parable of the Prodigal Son comes from its focus on something we have all experienced, broken relationships and broken hearts. Notice, too, that chapter 15 of Luke has three such parables about lost things, a sheep, a coin and a child.
Metropolitan Anthony Bloom wrote that the Prodigal Son committed a grave injustice against his father. By asking for his inheritance early he indicated that he no longer needed or wanted his father. Bloom goes so far as to call this an act of patricide. Taking his inheritance and leaving home he cut his ties to his family and set out on his own to follow his youthful passions,
A self-centered life always leads to suffering as it does in the parable. The self-centered life is what we call the “way of the world” and St. Paul refers to it as "the flesh." The way of transformation is the way of self-denial in service to God and his creation.
St. Paul said he would sacrifice everything, even his own salvation, if only his people would be saved. The Three Holy Children proclaimed that even if God did not save them from the fire, yet they would still love him. Patriarch IGNATIUS told us we are not baptized for ourselves, but for one another. Do you see a pattern? It is not about me and my salvation, but us and ours.
The Troparion of St. Antony the Great boldly says of him, "You have become an establisher of the universe by your prayers." Yes, Antony the Great, hermit of the Egyptian desert, unknown to the world was contributing to the cosmos by offering himself to God as a living sacrifice through prayer and meditation. This was a voluntary choice. Only later in his life did he gain notoriety and when he did, he took himself even further into the desert to escape it.
Of course, the Prodigal Son did the opposite. His contribution to the world was to pollute himself and the world with his selfish wantonness. He ended up involuntarily isolated and alone. His choices took him to the dead end of despair.
But there is always a gateway out of despair. The Prodigal found it. St. Antony also found it. It is to say I'm sorry. I have made a mistake. I have sinned. Now I want to leave the “ways of this world” and find my way home. The way home is right behind us. We have but to turn around to see it. Humility is the key. And that is why we always read this parable right before Great Lent.
Jesus points us to the "narrow" path of existential change, to a God-centered way of living, life in the Spirit, which is the journey from the foreign lands to our true home, from death to life. Only we don't have to go anywhere to find it. Both the “far country” and the kingdom of God are within us. We can either blend with the fullness of God or with the brokenness of this world and both choices reside in our interior life.
St. Maximus the Confessor wrote, “If you assiduously concentrate on the interior life you will become restrained and patient, kind and humble. Then you will be able to contemplate, theologize, and pray. This is what the Apostle Paul meant when he said, ‘Walk in the Spirit.’”
We have two eyes, one to look out and one to look within. There is a world outside of us and one within. In fact they mirror each other. So if peace reigns in our internal world, it will also reign in our external world. If anxiety and fear rule our internal world, this will reflect on the outside as well. So, we must become peacemakers and lovers of both the internal and the external world if we are to become like Christ. An untended interior life can subvert even our most godly intentions.
My mother lives in my hometown in Tennessee on a road that parallels the Appalachian Trail. Hikers often walk by the house after picking up supplies in town. One day a woman backpacker strolled by and noticed my mother in her yard. She came over and introduced herself. As usual, my mom welcomed her with open arms asking if she needed anything. The woman paused for a moment and said, "Just to let you know, I am a transgendered person."
My mother, beautiful, hospitable and compassionate didn't miss a beat. She replied, "Oh, yes, I've heard of that. Would you care for some fresh peach cobbler?" That was it. No judgement. The door opened and the two shared a blessed moment, a eucharistic moment, together over some amazing cobbler and probably a glass of sweet tea. "Extending kindness to another is,” in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, “self-interest rightly understood.”
Sister Diane Ortiz, may her memory be eternal, died this week at the age of 62. She was an Ursaline Sister who worked with the poor in Guatemala under a most vicious right-wing military regime. She was thrown into hell by the regime. Raped and tortured with unspeakable violence. She emerged battered and broken. In discussing her attempt to return from horrible trauma to full sacramental life she spoke of the Eucharist in a way that mirrored her escape from the pit of a hellish prison. Our Lord is the One who calls forth the "impossible from the possible."
That is a simple and deeply profound statement. For is it not He who creates community out of chaos, who recreates humanity by weaving it together into His own body, who transforms not only the Bread and Wine into Body and Blood, but us, as well? The Eucharist is one sweeping sacramental movement in which the entire Cosmos is consecrated.
Notice the eucharistic element in the parable. It includes a celebratory feast to welcome the Prodigal home. It is a fine feast indeed! A feast full of joy and restoration just like the Divine Liturgy. And the whole household is invited, the whole community, the church as it were, and indeed all of humanity. Only the elder son who displays his selfishness in a fit of jealousy refuses to attend. All he needed was a little humility to enter the house. It is always true. The door is always open, but sometimes we cannot see clearly because of our interior confusion.
So what must we do? Attend to our interior lives and our exterior words and actions. Repent. Turn around. Return to our true home if we have strayed. The table is waiting for us and is richly laden and we are invited to partake of it. All of life is a eucharist waiting to happen. And we are invited to become part of it.