Sunday Sermon from the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 10, 2013
Text: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa
If you haven't already heard, this week the Dow Jones Industrial Average reached its all-time high. As of the close of trading on Friday, the index closed at roughly 14,397, ending a week in which it finally reached and surpassed the previous high water-mark, set before the economic collapse of 2008. Now, I am hardly an economist, but I know at least three things about the Dow. The first is that, unlike more sophisticated indexes, the Dow tracks only a handful of companies, thirty out of the 2300 listed on the New York Exchange, barely one percent. The second is that the Dow is not adjusted for inflation, so that a closing mark of 14,000 means markedly less in 2013 dollars than it would have fifty years ago. But the third is that, despite these caveats, the Dow number has a particularly firm grip on our imagination. We love ourselves a number, especially when it suggests that the hard times of the past five years are beginning to turn.
But the suggestion of economic fortune is not the same thing as national recovery, and there are no shortage of reasons to think that the fortunes of the Dow -- of this 1%, if you will -- are at some disconnect with the economic situations of real people. Jobs lost in the blink of an eye five years ago have not so easily returned. Entire industries have been decimated, leaving in their wake a new generation of poverty, hunger, homelessness, and debt. When you see headlines about sequestration, austerity, and generational financial ruin across the page from jubilation about the Dow's latest plateau, and if you believe in some conception of the common good, it is hard to escape the conclusion that some 1% have not been good stewards of our national fortune, that some among us have this unpaid debt, that somewhere along the race to the top, some fortunate few have committed the grievous sin of leaving so many others behind.
But of course, the "common good" is not the only value by which we tell the story of this country. America holds dear to a strong tradition of individual achievement and personal liberty, a tradition that, far from chiding those who reap the windfalls of the bull market, instead values their entrepreneurial drive and personal investment, while hoping that any one rising boat augurs a better tide for everyone else. I once heard a local Jersey politician say that America faced a choice between being a nation of individuals or a nation of community, but in point of fact this country has always held those two choices in juxtaposition. And so whether you think the Dow's record is an occasion to celebrate financial success or to confess our corporate sinfulness depends entirely on which of those American values you prioritize: the value of the community or the value of the individual.
Just as that value choice affects how we read the headlines, it also affects how we read scripture, particularly today's very familiar parable. A man has two sons. Presumably a wealthy man: the family has any number of servants, farmland, and and livestock, an inheritance worth thinking about. But something about this is insufficient to the younger son, and so he makes an entirely unconventional and controversial request: he asks his father for his share of the inheritance. His father obliges, and the son takes the money to a distant land, a non-Jewish land, I imagine something a bit like Vegas, and he spends it. Now, he might very well have enough money that spending it freely would have little consequence, but then a famine strikes. Presumably food prices skyrocket. The son is reduced to working in the fields, feeding the pigs food he himself would gladly have eaten. He is left alone: "no one gave him anything," Luke says. And so he determines to go home, to speak to his father, to make his confession: "I have sinned against you and against God."
"I have sinned against you and against God." And now, pick a value -- pick the value or the community or the value of the individual -- and tell me where the son went wrong. Tell me what his sin was. It turns out that if we read this story from the perspective of race-to-the-top American individualism, it's very hard to make sense of his confession. From this perspective, the son asks for and receives the inheritance that will be his eventually regardless. Sure, he makes poor financial decisions, in that he spends his money foolishly -- but it is his money to spend as he wishes. Sure, he makes poor moral decisions, in that he spends his money on what the text calls "dissolute living," but the crisis that provokes his confession is not a moral crisis. It's an economic one. He runs out of money. He could have done so just as easily by playing the market. From an individualist perspective, he's hardly broken the rules. He's acted foolishly, perhaps, But sinfully? At best, he's sinned only against himself.
Nonetheless: he confesses to his father: I have sinned against God and against you. And so I submit that the only way to make sense of this text, the only way to understand what it is that the son does wrong, is to change perspectives, to change values, to think not in terms just of the individual but in terms of the community. From this perspective the son's journey is not a journey from affluence into economic poverty but rather the journey from connection and family into solitude: "no one gave him anything." It's a journey motivated by the illusion that he is beholden only unto himself, that not only the money but in fact his very life and his very life choices are his entirely to have and to use and to abuse. But his confession reveals this to be entirely in error; his confession reveals that he has been beholden to something much bigger the whole time, that he has a real debt to pay, but not to the loan sharks who have been financing his lifestyle. No, his debt is to his community, to his family, to the father who loves him and calls him into being, to the God who loves him and calls him into being.
The parable of the prodigal son is not an economics textbook. It does not easily proscribe how we are to read the headlines or stand before the marketplace, nor will it decide for us whether to be a nation of individuals or a nation of community. It cannot so easily tell you how to be citizens of a republic. But it has something very specific to say about what it is to be a citizen of God's household, namely that here in this congregation, we are none of us beholden only to ourselves. Here in what John Calvin called the great invisible church of Christendom, we are none of us free to our own selfish ends. Here in the great fellowship of all God's children, we are inexorably, we are inevitably, we are indisputably bound to one another, baptized together by one Spirit, seated together at one table, gathered together by Almighty God at the foot of one cross.
One of the reasons I'm excited to be back in the Blue Ridge is that I love hiking, or, rather, I love day hiking, and one of the reasons I love day hiking is that in my younger years, during my dalliance as a Boy Scout, I had to do an inordinate amount of overnight hiking before I realized that you could do basically the same thing without having to carry forty pounds on your back. That's when I started day hiking. But there is something to be said for hiking with scouts: I remember the large group of us, preteens and 18-year olds and dads and scoutmasters, some of us (well, some of them) athletes in their prime and some of them (well, some of us) perpetually racing to catch up, I remember starting up a steep mountain path with two bowling balls strapped to my shoulders and having the scoutmaster strictly inform us that we would be going at the pace of the slowest hiker.
Of course, a whole scout troop strapped with gear and probably loaded with donuts is also likely to be loaded with testosterone and pride. Go at the pace of the slowest hiker? Yeah, alright, except that that's a terrible idea. There's a trail, there's a mountain, this is obviously a race to the top. We all complained bitterly. It was important to complain. It was important to go on the public record opposing this ridiculous policy, because it meant that you were one of the strong ones, that you could look out for yourself, that frankly you weren't one of the unpopular kids who straggled behind. And I think that the stated purpose of the rule was about safety: by holding the group together, the adults could more easily supervise and guarantee that we would all get to the mountaintop at the same time. But of course what the rule also did was to raise even the slightest possibility that we might think not only of our own race to the top, but might also open our hearts to the welfare of our companions, to something like the common good.
We are now only two weeks away from Palm Sunday. The season of Lent grows long, and time time left on our liturgical journey grows short. Much like the prodigal son on his journey home, we travel this path weighed down with our own individual burdens, our own individual sins, envy, greed, pride, I'm sure you don't need me to spell them all out. But we don't just travel as individuals. No, instead, we travel as a gathered community of faith; we travel as the gathered children of God. We travel with debts not just to ourselves, but to each other, to the communities that call us into being, to God who calls us into being. Of course, a feast awaits all of God's prodigal children, a feast of grace and fellowship and joy and the forgiveness we so desperately seek. The light of the promise of the cross shines brightly from the mountaintop.
But as we make our way up the path, we travel at the pace of the slowest walker. At the pace of the poorest among us. At the pace of the hungriest. At the pace of the outcast. At the pace of the most prideful and most arrogant. At the pace of the most hated and the most powerless. At the pace of the person in your family, or in this church, or in any church, or in any room in the vast sweeping household of God, that you find the most despicable. The scandal of this Gospel is that they will get to the cross at the same exact moment that you do. God calls us to travel together to raise even the slightest possibility that we might open our hearts to the welfare of our companions. And so we travel together, we bear our sins together, we bear our debts together, we lay our heaviest burdens together at the feet of our one common savior. We travel together, and we will all get to the mountaintop at the same time. After all, it is our most common good.