Tears of Joy

Father TIm’s sermon for March 31st, 2019

Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

       There is a joy to this story that Jesus tells, isn’t there?  There’s a deep joy, an unspeakable joy, right there in those last words of the parable: “this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”  It’s a joy that is reflected in the prayer at the end of the sacrament of confession and reconciliation.  After the person confesses their sins and is absolved, the priest says: “Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Go in peace.  The Lord has put away all your sins.”  The joy of the father in Jesus’ parable: it is an overflowing joy, one that doesn’t even listen to the elder son’s apology but is already calling for a feast and a celebration, that can’t even wait for everyone to gather before the party begins.  It is a joy that breaks the heart and remakes it in the fullness of Life.

       But where does this joy come from?  Well, in a way, it’s obvious.  Anyone who has lost something dear to them knows this joy.  Anyone who has loved something or someone more than anything else in the world can imagine this joy.  Ever since I became a father myself, I’ve stopped seeing this story as a penitential parable, or as one about fairness and unfairness.  The parable is certainly about these things, but my perspective has changed, and the parable has new meaning for me.  Now that I am a father I can more easily imagine what it would be like for me if one of my children became estranged and then, suddenly, out of the blue, returned, unannounced and unexpected.  It is a joy pure and open that the man feels, and that I would feel if I were him, and that I have felt (and surely, you too have felt) when something long lost has suddenly appeared.

       But even still, where does this joy come from?  This is the question that the older brother asks of his father, and this question speaks pretty loudly.  And we may ask: why is this elder brother so angry?  Well, in Jesus’ time, a father’s inheritance meant a lot.  This isn’t just the money or house that parents might leave a child when they die.  This isn’t a few stocks and bonds in a bank.  One’s inheritance represented something much more than a few material possessions.  It represented, instead, one’s whole livelihood and connection to the past.  A child relied on their parents’ inheritance, because going out and making it in the world wasn’t like it is today, where there are a variety of jobs, even if work is scarce.  Inheritance was a connection to one’s family, to one’s past and one’s history before they were even born.  An inheritance was about one’s name, one’s place in society and history, and one’s connection to the land.  The young son didn’t just waste his father’s money, he squandered his name, his family, and his father’s love. 

       But the father isn’t mad.  He just isn’t.  And not only is he not mad, but he’s happy that his son returned.  You can see why this older son is so frustrated, and why he may ask, “What gives, Dad?  Where does all this joy come from?”

       Well, there is a distance between us and God.  There’s something that separates us from our Creator.  And part of this separation, this difference, is good: we aren’t just extensions of God.  We’re not beings that God can control like a remote-controlled car.  God gave us free will, so that we can choose for ourselves how to live our lives.  God hopes, of course, that we choose a good life, a life lived to love, beauty, and truth.  But, too often, we choose otherwise.  We choose to do wrong to our neighbor and slander them, or cheat someone over, or sin, even when we know the right thing to do.  We humans make bad choices, we misuse our free will, and we make a mess of things.  And we, and others around us, have to pay the price.

       And Jesus says, return, repent, change the way you are living.  Making bad choices doesn’t shackle us to those bad choices: we can change how we live, we can return to a path of truth and beauty and goodness, we can walk with God again.  But here is the miracle in all this, that when we return, we are not met by an angry, resentful, vengeful taskmaster who demands we make up what we’ve lost in sin, but a joyful father, his arms wide open, cheering and skipping down the walk to hold us tight because he’s missed us just so much.  We hear the word “repentance”, and we think of long, hard hours praying on our knees on a hard, stone floor, or we think of guilt and grief and sorrow and a valley of tears.  But Jesus, apparently, doesn’t hear any of this.  When he hears the word “repentance”, he thinks of a party.  He thinks of a man who has his son back, whose joy is so deep and so overflowing that maybe he risks even becoming that joy himself.  “Repent”, for Jesus, means “Come home.  The fire is burning, the kettle is just singing, and your place is set at the great table of my Father.  Oh, and by the way, I’ve made your favorite dessert.  Come home, come home, come home.”

       So, then, why do we do all this stuff for Lent?  Why do we cover the crosses, get dressed up in purple and black, put ashes on our foreheads, and talk about carrying the cross?  With life shining forth from the open hands of God, why not just take it?  Well, in a word, we have.  We have taken that light: in Baptism.  And in the Eucharist.  And in living as a part of a beloved community, the body of Christ that we call the Church.  And it is this life, this joy, that we have received from God, that is purifying us and making us whole.  It is Jesus Christ himself, born again within us, that is laying our hatred and our fear and our despair to rest.  And all these practices of Lent are us reaching up and training ourselves to stand as God hopes for us to stand.  And some of that work is tough, just as the tears of the father over the prodigal son are in utter relief, but also a little painful, too.

       Joy is not just an emotion.  It’s not just being happy or glad.  When we Christians talk about Joy, we mean something much deeper than our feelings.  Joy is in the laughter but also the tears of a longed for home-coming.  Joy is in caring for one another, through thick and thin, in the fun of life but also in the trouble and the tragedy.  Joy is in saying hello well and in saying goodbye well.  And that is because Joy is the light of God that sustains us, uplifts us, holds us, and makes us new.  Joy is the open arms of God, open in Love, no matter how far we’ve traveled to get away from him, no matter how far we have to travel to come back.

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