Part 3 of a Three Part Sermon Series for Lent
Ms. Sara Emmerich
Kay Spiritual Life Center
March 14, 2010
Joshua 5:9-12; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
In the parable of the prodigal son, which we just heard, we find a story that lies very close to many of us. A young person, eager and ready to find his way in the world, takes a look at his vast inheritance. And he decides that, rather than wait, to take that inheritance now, convert it into money, and spend it on what he wants. After all, life is short. Youth is short. The day is young. We might as well get what we can now and deal with the consequences later.
The father in this parable says “Sure. Why not?” He divides the land, sells off the younger sons’ inheritance and gives the money to the young man. The prodigal son then looks at his adoring family, his generous father, his probably doting mother, and his bitter older brother, and says, “Peace out.”
The place where this young man is at is the place where the majority of America as a nation is at. We’re adolescents. We love our independence. We love this vague idea of freedom. We love trying on different identities and reinventing ourselves. We love searching for meaning and purpose. And we want what we want….now.
The fortunate and the unfortunate bit is that our wealth, for many though not for all, has allowed us to persist in this type of mentality. We feel as if we can buy beauty, meaning, and purpose. It’s all tied into the advertising we have for our products. And getting these products is easy, much as it was with the prodigal son. We sell off our inheritance. We get a credit card. And we just buy it. And we keep buying “it,” whatever it might be.
Now, I’m not an economist nor am I a scientist, so I can’t tell you the exact details of what this consumerism does to our global human community or to our natural world. I’ve heard that the hamburger we buy at McDonalds is linked to the burning of the rainforest in, and our Coca-Cola drinks are linked to Union Worker deaths in Columbia, and I know that there is a mydriad of jobs, lives, and economies in a delicate balance that hinges on us buying more than we can afford. But I also feel as if these are signs that point to a much deeper disconnect we are experiencing.
Because it’s not about the stuff, the high credit card bills, or the lack of saving accounts, or the amount of trash we have piled up in the bins outside our dorm rooms…these are just the signs. It’s not the stuff, but rather how we treat and interact with this stuff, the tools, the objects, the material world we are in. Because that treatment reflects our connection not just to one another, but to God.
As some of you know, I have an odd liking for the Rule of St. Benedict, a rule that Benedict of Nursia wrote in the 6 th century when the church was going through one of its first decadent phases. As legions of Romans flocked to the church for Baptism in order to be part of this politically savy faith, Benedict fled to the desert in order to connect to a much simpler expression of the Christian life. As religious seekers started coming to him in order to live into this alternative version of the faith, Benedict wrote his rule, which later became a foundation in western monasticism.
And in this rule, the separation between the material world and spiritual world, between human communities and the natural world, between God and those in the monastic community…did not have the divide as sharply as we do today. And the way they interacted in their communities, with one another, with their possessions, and with the land reflected the knowledge that they were always in the presence, in the direct connection, of God. Being able to maintain a recognition of that connection led to a life of intentional balance between their prayers, their work, and the community they lived in.
The monastics, then as well as today, are allowed to have more than enough, but they are also to take care of and respect what they have. They can have a moderate amount of food…enough for the work they have to do and a little wine on the side…but no more. They are to wear enough clothes and of a good cloth and design in order to be comfortable…but they are also to take care of and repair those clothes and replace them when they are beyond mending.
Taking care of the tools is also in the rule, and when I stayed at a Benedictine monastery this summer we spent a good amount of time polishing and scraping the mud off of our shovels and pitch forks before putting them away. The objects we interacted with were to be treated gently and with care, and were to be cleaned and repaired so that they would last for a long time. For even the use of these everyday objects, shovels, buckets, plates, silverware, cups…could lead us to seeing how God is active and alive in the world we are a part of.
All of these details, all of these bits of ministry of living out an everyday simple life, point to seeing “stuff” as not just outward expressions of things we need to acquire in order to fulfill what we think we want. This stuff is also part of God’s creation, and a part of God’s creation that we need to relearn how to respect and interact with.
In our passage from Joshua, the Israelites had just finished wandering the desert for 40 years after leaving Egypt behind. The food God gave them throughout their desert years…manna…was now being replaced with the produce that they could grow for themselves in their land and in their new homes. And as they grew this produce they realized that God had not just given them enough while feeding them manna in the desert, God has now given them plenty in their ability to work the land and grow food in this new place. They were learning a life of balance.
In a similar line, the Prodigal son soon realizes that the path he has chosen does not lead him to a new freedom or a new radical self. Instead, his inheritance is spent on empty relationships and pleasures that evades the difficulties, and the joy, of growing within a community or a relationship where we learn how to argue, disagree, cry, and ultimately to love and care for one another. As he is feeding scraps to the pigs…a nice twist for a good Jewish boy to tell…he laments that he cannot even have the basics that these un-kosher pigs get…in this life of greed he does not even have enough.
And so he returns home. He thinks he is returning home because of his hunger and his need to have things, stuff back in his life. And he knows that he will lose his pride along the way, but just returning to those he can trust and depend on is worth it. In this place of scarcity he just wants to go back to having enough stuff…
But the father does not see this story in terms of stuff. The father sees this story in terms of relationship. Of reconciliation. Of love. He runs and throws his arms around the son, receiving him not as the servant the son thinks he has to be, but as a child who he deeply misses and loves. It is not about the stuff, but about this time of returning back to relationship, back to balance, and back to God. And God lets him know: there is plenty. It is all here.
Now, I realize that not all cultures and communities right now feel as if they are living in a land of plenty. I’m sure many of you feel that way as you look at your bank statements and student bills. And, on a deeper level, hunger and starvation in DC, the USA, and around the globe points to our disconnect that today’s version of consumerism is intricately tied into.
As we struggle to regain balance in our economy, in our spending habits, and in our relationship to the natural world we are a part of, we need to recognize and connect with those who are feeling the brunt of our bad habits the most. And in regaining that sense of connection, we might find a little of that joy that the prodigal son must of have felt as he re-entered the community of his family and homeland, and feasted not just on bread and wine, but on the love that his community welcomed him back with.
The way back to balance and to this sense of connection is not easy. It’s counter cultural. But that does not mean that it is impossible. Here within the UM Protestant Community we had a Simple Living Experiment last year and this semester many are part of the Justice Walking program that look at the very practical ways of regaining this connection and awareness to both the global communities and the natural world we are all woven into within God’s creation. We can start at these points and we can also start with very simple steps.
We can stay within our budgets. We can take care of things we have and find gratitude and joy in them. When feeling low we can turn to a friend instead of turning to a hunt for an item that will eventually fail to give us any sense of identity or self-worth. When lonely we can turn to our communities instead of turning to internet shopping sprees or empty attempts to have relationships with no emotional cost. And, most importantly of all, we can turn to God to give meaning and shape to our lives rather than the messages that advertisements and media often bombard us with.
Because, it really is not about the stuff. It’s about God–and sometimes fasting from the stuff helps us hear and see God’s embrace of plenty so much more clearly than when we are distracted by our regular, unhealthy routines. Give it a go. Fast from the spending, spend time with friends and in community, connect with those who are struggling within this economic breakdown, and return to the plenty that God has already given you. Because God is always waiting. And God is always here, ready for the feast.