Sermon, 3/27/22: In Retrospect!

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4 Lent
Psalm 32; Joshua 5:9 – 12; II Corinthians 5:16 – 21; Luke 15:1 – 3, 11b – 32

But then he came to his senses. Luke 15:17

One nagging question which we pose often quietly to ourselves, in the privacy of our own minds is: “What if?” That question, on its surface simple enough, has many variants: What if I had only…? What if I could have…? What if the situation had been different, would I have…? The situation which such questions evoke and seek to clarify, is innumerable in its variations. The situation, in its varied forms, is nuanced, and above all is almost always unanswerable. It is unanswerable, because the question so posed, looks to the past, and as we all know and recognize, often with much regret, the past cannot be retrieved. The past cannot be changed, which means that another, more important question looms before us. And that question is: “What can/may I do to…?”

Those, good people, were the questions which raced through my mind as I read the lectionary appointed for this Fourth Sunday in Lent. “What if…?” and “What can/may I do to…?” Your questions and your responses will be unique to you. To think about answers for myself, I was consoled by what I found in the story read in the Old Testament lesson from Joshua and the parable set before us in the Gospel according to Luke. They instill in me hope, but a hope that requires something of me. Complacency is not an option.

The question “What if…?” and the question “What can/may I do to…?” stress, each in its own way, deliverance from adversity on the -one hand, and reconnecting with God on the other. They both, each in its own way, deal with the ultimate question: How does one have faith, when everything can seem so hopeless or foreign, or when one lives in a secular, or seemingly totally faithless society?

So I began to pose some hypothetical questions, first to myself, but now to you. Question one: Suppose one of the richest persons in the United States were to offer to become your silent partner in an enterprise—a man like Mr. Warren Buffet, who by all accounts still lives in the house which he bought years ago before becoming a multi-billionaire. What business plans would you be willing to make? Would you have the courage, the scope of vision, the inquisitive spirit to take a risk, or would you want merely to secure your own portion of the investment. These are the promises that God makes to those who believe in him: sound business decisions involving wise stewardship; sound physical decisions because your body is God’s temple; sound emotional relationships because God is the source of love, and enthusiasm to tackle the biggest projects you can dream.

Would you demand a share of the profits greater than your portion of investment? Surely, so you imagine, Mr. Buffet could afford to be generous to you and not exact an accounting of how you invested his money? Surely, you could fudge on the fine print of your contractual agreement. He would surely not take notice. Is this not what the Israelites were offered, when God spoke eons ago to Abram who became Abraham? Is this not what the Israelites were offered, when that same God freed them from servitude in Egypt? Unlimited growth and freedom and peace! They accepted that agreement, that promise, that expectation. Of what significance was the fine print from such a generous and benevolent God?

Question two: Suppose you had the most intelligent and empathetic medical doctor in the world as your personal physician, advising you on how to maintain your physical and emotional health. Would you listen to your physician? Would you follow diligently the prescribed regimen? The one that in bold print clearly says, “Take all the antibiotics, even when you begin to feel better.” Or would you decide that you know your body better than your physician and leave off the medication?

Is this not what the Israelites did, not only in the forty days of wandering in the desert, but many years and generations thereafter? They decided that they knew better than God. Or would you, because you learned to have faith in your doctor’s care, be able to translate your doctor’s recommendations into a movement which might benefit a larger population? Is this not what the prodigal son did, when instead of remaining in the life of stewardship, he chose to go elsewhere?

The problem with my two questions is that they may appear too theoretical for our real world. But I ask you, is our “real” world so terribly different from the theoretical one posed in Luke’s gospel? As recorded in the Book of Genesis, is it not in our nature to go forth, to explore, to discover? Indeed, it would seem an obligation that we must fulfill. This being Lent, we are asked to consider what causes that mandate to be falsely implemented. The prodigal son is emblematic for all humankind. “Go forth!” we are told. And, forth we go! Things go awry, do they not, when self takes front and center position in our fulfillment of the mandate?

Was it preordained that the Israelites, in their exodus from bondage in Egypt, had to lose faith and began to bicker among themselves and with God, when God did not wave a magic wand and transport them without any effort on their part into that land of milk and honey? I would think not! Did the errant younger son have to end up destitute, begging for food, eating eventually what the pigs eat, when he had only to follow the fine print, the first and fifth commandments: in all things put God first, and honor father and mother, all things which he would have learned from his childhood? I suggest not.

We may well ask ourselves the question: Would the errant son not really have known the depth of his father’s love, had he not left home and fallen into a life-changing situation? Might I suggest a spoiler? The father’s love had not changed, but rather the errant son had failed to recognize the father’s love, because the son, being only human, had taken for granted the routine of his first life and yearned for something different, something challenging, something more exciting. And it is through his mistake that we, you and I, are reminded of God’s willingness to redirect our paths.

In retrospect, if we have come to grasp and appreciate one thing since becoming exposed to the reality of a still unrelenting, potentially life-threatening virus, it is that those central to our daily lives are of greater value, of greater importance than we in the past were wont to recognize. In retrospect, this pandemic has awaken in many of us the realization that our own welfare does not end at the border of our immediate families, our immediate nation, but extends to and is dependent on those whom we have never seen. I offer you this concrete example of our interdependency: How long must one often wait for an appliance repair, because an essential part, manufactured overseas, is not available due to Covid-19 shutdowns?

Not only must we remain diligent within our borders, in order to support and to protect an aspiration expressed two centuries ago in our Preamble and Constitution, so must we be also ambassadors on behalf of those beyond our shores. As I have spoken with family and friends abroad, and as I have watched televised accounts of men and women from many parts of our globe who have chosen to leave the security and comforts of home and travel to Ukraine, in order to lend assistance in the Ukrainians’ time of need, so have I been comforted and reminded of our interconnectedness, which prophets and sages have proclaimed in years past.

We do not always require a motivational speaker to challenge us to offer aid to the less fortunate, or to remind ourselves that we are all made in the image of God and that God would have us go forth and prosper. We need only to think of our origin. The divine promise is clear to those who believe: sound business decisions involving wise stewardship; sound physical decisions because your body is God’s temple; sound emotional relationships because God is the source of love and strength to tackle the biggest projects you can dream.

Yet, my own “in retrospect” does not end with me, and I suspect, nor does your own retrospection cease simply having pondered similar questions. The apostle Paul places us exactly on the road where we are to be, when he writes to the church is Corinth the following: “We are … Christ’s ambassadors. It is as if God were appealing to you … in Christ’s name, be reconciled to God!” (II Cor. 5:20f.) and that reconciliation can only be actualized, when we share with others what support we have found in Christ’s words and deeds on behalf of “all the tax collectors and sinners [who] were coming near to listen to Jesus,” because they needed, as do we now, the consolation and forgiveness which are promised in God’s word. Amen.