Lent 4 – Sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 27th March 2022

Joshua 5.9-12; Psalm 32; 2Corinthians 5.16-21; Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32

The Kingdom by R. S. Thomas

It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.

Three weeks ago, on the first Sunday in Lent, as the full horror of the war in Ukraine became apparent, we read together of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. I offered the suggestion that, rather than describing that time as one of temptation, it might be better understood within the phrase in our modern translation of the Lord’s Prayer: Do not bring us into the time of trial, but deliver us from evil. Jesus’ time of testing, like any time of trial, is what reveals what we truly believe in, what our faith is, particularly in the face of evil. This week our Gospel reading – that most famous parable of the Prodigal Son – engages us with the phrase in the Lord’s Prayer immediately prior to that: Forgive us our sins, our trespasses, as we forgive those who sin against us.

Last week, Paul in his sermon reflected on what faith in a good God means in a world where evil and suffering seem so ever present and triumphant. This week our Gospel gives us Jesus’ sustained response to that persistent question: the response of faith in the power of forgiveness. For forgiveness lies, of course, at the heart of the parable: ‘while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.’

That moment, when the father sees his son far off, and runs towards him, remains profoundly moving with the power to shock us. The son who by demanding his share of the family inheritance early, and then squandering it, effectively cut off his father and treated him as dead, is greeted by that same father with an embrace of love and forgiveness that silences the son’s practised words of penitence. Here is Jesus’ picture of the presence of God among us – in the father’s overwhelming response to a child who had done the unthinkable.

And whether we identify with the son, as those who have in different ways made that journey into a far country and then found our way back home, to discover the warm embrace of forgiveness; or if we identify with the father, called to respond, beyond rationality and justice, to offer forgiveness to enable new life; this parable takes us to the heart of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom, the possibility of a different relationship being known to sustain and transform us.

And yet, in our continuing time of trial, and more particularly the time of trial for millions of people across Ukraine, and the surrounding countries, does the language and practice of forgiveness really offer much? It can seem a fragile and futile response to the depth of callousness evident in the destruction of Mariupol. What can talk of forgiveness really mean in a world of Vladimir Putins? The danger of this being cheap talk, forgiveness a cloak that simply covers over a multitude of sins, is surely all too real.

It’s a question and a perspective that the Parable gives voice to, of course, in the response of the older son – his aghast anger, and refusal to join the party, over the obvious injustice of his errant brother receiving the full fatted calf treatment: ‘When this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”

It’s a response that makes perfect sense. And we would have to be naïve in the extreme, if we thought that there will be a moment when Putin and his henchmen make a journey from the far country of the brutality of war, and come seeking forgiveness. The demands of realpolitik, of compromise and the negotiations of troop strengths and battle realiites, are what will, we pray and hope, bring an end to the suffering of Ukraine. The father’s response to his elder son – “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” – that response doesn’t feel like it addresses the realities of war.

In the parable itself, we don’t hear how the older brother responds to the father; he may well remain unconvinced. The reconciliation with his brother may have taken a long time, if it happened at all. That question is left hanging. But the father’s response opens up the question – it offers the possibility of reconciliation, a new perspective to shift what had become hardened and embittered opinions.

And in the midst of the brutality of war – of the devastating callousness of the bombing and destruction of cities, the need to hang on to that possibility, to hold on to the faith that refuses to let such callousness and cynicism define us, becomes ever more urgent.

And this is how God’s mercy and forgiveness operate – as that unquenchable possibility ever held out, that we might be drawn into that practice of reconciliation and forgiveness. And our response is the faith that our humanity is best defined by moments of grace, of unmerited and unexpected forgiveness, rather than brute power. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
…. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.

 

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