The Rev. Dr. Ann J. Broomell
St. Paul’s, Brunswick
March 10, 2013
This morning I want to begin by showing you this small figurine. I bought it some years ago in Spain, in the town of Santiago de Campostella. This is the figure of a pilgrim of long ago. One who walked the 450 mile pilgrimage path from the French border to the town’s cathedral of St. James. The scallop shell is the symbol worn by all pilgrims who walk the path, the Camino. Here is the walking stick, and the gourd which the pilgrim used to drink water. The cape was protection from weather, a sleeping bag, picnic blanket—it kept them dry and warm.
I keep this figurine on my desk in the parishes where I serve and it has had a place on my desk these last 16 months. The image of myself as a pilgrim continues to ring true for me. A pilgrim moves from place to place. Each place brings a new adventure, new perspective, something new to learn. A pilgrim’s path is a journey with God, with Christ, where we hope that we can deepen our spiritual depth. A pilgrim becomes part of a community and joins for a while in the local culture. Each step is a time of new discovery, new growth.
I was surprised to find the coincidence, if there are coincidences, of seeing a story of the Camino in last Tuesday’s film, The Way. From the film I got a sense of the journey of the true pilgrim, walking through the fields and mountains and plains of Spain. I am drawn to it all.
The film points out an important part of the pilgrimage—the other pilgrims. Looking out for each other, supporting each other, sometimes naming truths to each other. The main character has no intention of making the pilgrimage, and once he begins, only wants to be alone. Then we see him beginning to travel with three others. It’s clear that by the end they will go to great lengths to be the person the others need.
Community was essential to the story of the monks in the film from the week before Of Gods and Men. We see them sharing a last meal together, one with each other and at peace. In the last scene they are marched off in a snow storm, under armed guard, taking the pace of the slowest of them and physically supporting each other.
The mutual support of community was central to Jesus’ life as he gathered disciples asking them to give up their very identities to travel the countryside with him. His companions were always with him in his most significant experiences—at the Transfiguration, in the Garden of Gethsemane, and especially those who stood vigil at the foot of the cross. Parish life is community with all its true delights and its struggles. We live through the changes of parish life fed by Christ at the altar, bonded together in the Holy Spirit week after week.
Today we come to the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year C. The prodigal son, father, brother. The reading is about forgiveness. We all know that forgiveness is essential to each of our lives as individuals, to our lives in community and to our relationship with God.
The “Prodigal Son” is the story of a son who takes his inheritance and leaves. It’s the story of the father, and of the son who stays behind as well. The father has two relationships—he has two sons. One takes a third of the value of the farm that supports all of them and leaves, a selfish act. The father shares everything else with remaining older son. This reflects the Greek, Platonic impact, on the Gospel of Luke. This action, not a part of the Hebrew culture, in effect makes them equals. The elder son stays but is somehow alienated. This is probably the harder of the two relationships to heal. (1)
The younger son loses all his money and is reduced to tending pigs–a lowly task for people prohibited from eating pork. So, haltingly, no doubt repeating the words of apology in his head as he travels, the younger son returns. He doesn’t have to ask for forgiveness. His father runs to him to welcome him home. Not only is he forgiven, but there’s a celebration as well. That which was lost is found and it’s time to rejoice.
An uplifting story, but one, I’d say that continues to bring us deeper into the meaning of Lent. We might ask ourselves: Who are we in this picture? Are we the father heartbroken at his younger son’s uncaring departure, perplexed and nearly equally disappointed by the estrangement of his elder son? He welcomes the lost son home—no questions asked.
Are we the younger son who wants what is legally ours as soon as we can get our hands on it? Like this son do we turn away from our faith, go away from home to find happiness? Going away, when true happiness awaits us at home. Or, are we the elder son who has seen his sense of duty turn into bitter jealousy, feeling that all of his patience and devotion is ignored now that his useless brother has come home?
Who are you? The father, the son who leaves or the son who stays? How do you need to be healed? Do you need to forgive or to be forgiven?
Forgiving, being forgiven can seem like a simple thing until we are the one who needs to forgive, then the complexity can grow. I imagine that each of us has individual concerns in the area of forgiveness. Each of us has been hurt and the forgiveness process needs to begin. But rather than the topic of an uplifting story, in real life forgiveness is a challenging thing.
The Sufis tell a story that holds meaning on this point:
Once upon a time, the story tells, a Sufi stopped by a flooding riverbed to rest. The rising waters licked the low-hanging branches of trees that lined the creek. There, on one of them, a scorpion straggled to avoid the rising stream. Aware that the scorpion would drown soon if not brought to dry land, the Sufi stretched along the branch and reached out his hand time after time to touch the stranded scorpion and bring him to safety. The scorpion stung him over and over again. But still the scorpion kept its grip on the branch. “Sufi,” said a passerby, “Don’t you realize that if you touch that scorpion it will sting you?” And the Sufi replied as he reached out for the scorpion one more time, “Ah, so it is, my friend. But just because it is the scorpion’s nature to sting does not mean that I should abandon my nature to save.” (2)
I don’t know about you but on occasion I have found forgiveness somewhat like trying to coax that scorpion off the branch to safety. I think I’ve forgiven, only to have the feelings return. But I know that God wants me to forgive, so that I can be healed and whole once again.
Why do we think God is any different from the father, looking for our return day after day, running out to meet us, forgiving us before a word of apology is spoken? Why do we think that God is any different from the Sufi, a being whose nature it is to save? I know God draws us to a faith where we can ask to be forgiven, where we can pray to be able to forgive. I know that God, who loves and supports us, reaches out to you and to me as often as we might sting that outstretched hand. And that were I to turn from God an infinite number of times, God would be waiting, coaxing me to return once again.
We know that the Peace we share at the end of the Confession of Sin comes from the sign of mutual forgiveness so central to the life of the early Christians, where the one you had sinned against was probably standing next to you. The one you forgave in the group as well.
I’m reminded of being on retreat some years ago with a group of cloistered nuns. There were twenty five or so sisters. They didn’t leave the enclosure except to see a doctor or dentist or a dying parent. They were together day after day.
It was a privilege to join them for worship. I remember the evening service, compline, just before bed and sleep. We gathered in almost total darkness—with just one lit candle. When they came to the confession they said the words together as we do. There was a striking difference. When they came to the words as we forgive each other their voices were loud and filled with emotion—with an intensity I remember today. There as here, Christ is found in community and forgiveness is a bedrock of Christian life.
As I move on to the next stop in my pilgrimage, I go filled with memories of all of you. St. Paul’s is like a tapestry of different lives and experiences, gifts, energy and vision. I take with me memories, new ideas, and a deep gratitude for it all. I leave with you memories, new ideas and, I hope, a sense of God’s presence with you in this time. Many of you have told me you wish I could stay and I know some of you will breathe a sigh of relief as I move on. Isn’t that life? Parish ministry? Yet, I go.
I leave grateful that I have been part of this strong faith filled parish. People joined in the Spirit at the altar week after week, one in Christ. My prayer for you is that you will ground your lives in Christ and that you will offer each other and this parish all of your love and support. I pray that you will continue to be a beacon of hope in this community, like the father, throwing a party and welcoming the pilgrim, the wander, the prodigal, home.
(1) Johnson, Luke Timothy. Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 234-242.
(2) Chittister, Joan. Not the results that count, but the becoming. (Lent and Sufism philosophy) National Catholic Reporter, March 16, 2001. http://www.findarticles.com/cf_dls/m1141/20_37/72273904/p1/article.jhtml