"A Perfect Mess"
Joshua 5 and Luke 15The Rev. Fred G. Garry
What would be paradise for you? Pleasure? Are you someone who thinks of Tahitian beaches, cool drinks being fetched without delay, and the sun no longer burning your skin? It works for me. I have to say this was the first time such thoughts ever came to me. Growing up in San Diego such an idea was not a notion of relief, but an expectation from May through September, except that for a cool drink you had to actually walk to Seven/Eleven. Many days below -20 expanded my horizon as well as my imagination.
Maybe pleasure is not where you go when you think of a perfect world. Maybe you think of a better society. No hassles, no hunger, no oppression: such might be considered a paradise. Many of you here today work in schools, helping agencies, hospitals, or for the public and you could probably imagine a better world, a better way of living together. Paradise could be no battered woman’s shelter because domestic violence ceased to exist; no food pantries because people shared; no pain in telling the news because it’s all good, baby! For some of you it would be the return of a spouse because in paradise there is no war in Iraq or Afghanistan, no Taliban or Al Qaeda.
Yet, different still, perhaps paradise would be the perfection of humanity. A world where we didn’t fight over abortions or gay marriage or whether rock stars can speak profanity or baseball players should take steroids: perhaps these things would no longer be an issue because in your paradise we live perfectly; we behave or understand or live as God intended in all the different ways that can be interpreted. Perhaps paradise for you is a kind of order that works, a kind of symmetry that creates peace and hope. Another way of saying this is that everyone gathers for Easter dinner and everyone gets along and there are no problems and this happens again at Thanksgiving and, dare I say it, Christmas.
Paradise for me is more a beautiful thing. I should probably be more practical or political, but paradise for me is found in words like splendor, the unio mystica, the beatific vision, transcendence. Hey, I get to have my two cents if its paradise- at least in mine. Paradise is more of a moment of music, like Mozart’s Don Giovanni, or poetry like George Herbert’s Love III, or Bellini’s St. Teresa where she is being overwhelmed by grace. Yet its also tender moments: very old fingers, the way a new born tries to bury their head in your chest, tears of joy as well as sorrow. Bob Dylan crooning, "oooh weee." I better stop there.
Almost five hundred years ago, Sir Thomas More asked such a question, what would be paradise? He wasn’t the first or the last. But his answer to the question gave us a curious word, a place, an imagined island kingdom, Utopia. Utopia was something he claimed to have heard about from a traveler known as Raphael who spent years with the Utopians after being left by Amerigo Vespucci on his fourth voyage. Raphael described and More recounted a different kind of world. They didn’t call it a paradise, but it was. To his credit More had laws and wars and money still present in Utopia, he just described a people who were no longer obsessed with them.
Money in Utopia was for foreign trade, not domestic commerce; wars were fought when expansion of Utopia met with resistance, but never between fellow citizens; laws were in place, some stringent some lax, but punishment was more about restoration than dehumanizing or ending the life of the offender. Plans were the basis of life, not the other way around; religion was manifold and varied, but without competition, and repudiation of someone else’s beliefs was a serious crime. Priests, he said, were the only ones above the law: if they were found to have committed a crime, they were to punish themselves. Thomas More knew pastors well.
It would be easy hearing all of this to say, More was an idealist or just another arm chair philosopher building castles in the sky. It would be easy, but inaccurate. Sir Thomas More advocated for peasants, negotiated labor disputes for King Henry VIII and was imprisoned and executed for his beliefs. He seemed to live a life with a healthy dose of joy and tragedy; he was a man who got his hands dirty and spoke out against injustice when it was very dangerous to do so. If just for his life alone, his Utopia is worth considering.
In our passages today we have a place to do so. The Old Testament lesson from Joshua is about the Tabla Rasa of the promise land, the perfect place, the land flowing with milk and honey. The story of Joshua is a challenging, profound reflection upon the quest for paradise, something so provocative we can only point to it here. The New Testament lesson though affords us a little more latitude.
The parable of the prodigal and the older brother is a kind of critique or profound reflection upon the quest for paradise. Before we get into how that could be, just know that we all look for paradise. It is as if once Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden we have been looking for a way back in ever since. Sometimes our attempts are small and quiet, others are loud and grandiose. Whatever the form, looking to the parable we read we can see this penchant for paradise if we dig a bit. We know this story well enough, probably, to do this, to explore a bit.
In a way, I grew up in this parable. As a young boy my parents’ respective extended families were the two brothers. One family loved to play poker and throw parties, a sporting event was an opportunity to bet as well as watch; the other side was demure, self-controlled, always respectable, Irish Catholic with fish on Friday. One Grand Mother taught me how to cuss and play cards, the other introduced me to the mystery and pageantry of the Mass. Growing up with both I have a kind of unfair advantage reading this, because I know the secret going in: it’s not about the brothers, it’s about the father bringing them together and how difficult it is.
We need to know that these brothers didn’t get along. Each one was waiting for the other to change. The younger brother wanted his older brother to just loosen up, let it out, have some fun. For he believed life was about the moment, the swirl, the joy to be found. He took it too far; but his quest was common. He sought to find paradise in pleasure, a good life in wine, women, and song. I grew up hearing people say, "if they would just let hair down a little bit and lighten up they might just enjoy life." We can read this into the story and the younger brother.
We can do the same for the older brother, who most likely waited and waited for his prodigal brother to grow up and accept responsibility, be a good person, stop all of this drinking and carousing. And the older brother was right, he was terribly, terribly right; and he was terribly, terribly dead inside. Jesus takes the two common attempts to find paradise and puts them in very extreme forms. Most of us take pleasure in small doses and try to keep a limit on our guilt and need to control lest we grow cold and rigid. In these brothers he let the extremes show the contrast.
I grew up with that contrast and can tell you that sometimes one would goad the other by being extreme just to offend the other. When I read this parable my heart goes out to the father who had to watch these two beat each other up again and again. And so it was with those who heard this parable. The Pharisees and scribes for whom the parable was given heard their life: their quest for perfection, the need to control, the belief that people get what they deserve sooner or later, and the worst, life is better without the trashy people. A part of me also believes there were sinners and tax collectors who heard this parable, who still took pride in their sin, who still wanted the pleasure without the pain, to find a way, or limit the cost. They heard this and knew: it was time to repent, "I can go home."
But this parable is about the way we seek after our heart’s desire. For some paradise is found in pleasure, for others it is in perfection, the absence of mistake or misdeed: not once did I do anything wrong, Father.
Thomas More was an Epicurean, a believer that there must be both pleasure and perfection, but both in moderation. The short novel Utopia was about striking this balance, finding a way to be both joyful and good. It’s a delicate balance. The parable of the prodigal and his brother can be interpreted this way. The father wants to bring them both into the house, into the celebration, which in Jesus’ day would have been understood as the temple in Jerusalem and the temple of your heart; that it is for both, joy and goodness. This is true, but there is something more.
Growing up I noticed that the two brothers or two families as it were never accepted one another and never really could forgive one another. It was as if waiting for the other to change was more important than loving one another. This is one of my few regrets in life; I don’t have many, but this is one. Just like the parable, the hope is that at some point the brothers will come together, but that is not what the parable says. We are left with the pleading of the father, come in. This one was lost and now is found, he was dead but has come to life. We don’t know if the older brother ever came in. More than that, we don’t know if he ever learned to love his brother.
What if paradise is not about pleasure or perfection, but forgiveness and acceptance? These are the real road blocks for us. Most of you have people you would rather punish than forgive; most of you have people that pigs would fly before you accepted them- all with good reason and even documentation. And we are quick to shrug our shoulders and say, "that’s the way it is." But what if the kingdom of God, the church, our heart is meant to be ruled by something else, something more?
As we move toward Good Friday we need to wonder this: did Jesus die so we could strike a balance in our lives or that the world would be transformed by forgiveness and acceptance? We all have our own version of paradise, our own way back into the Garden or to Utopia. What if we find our way best by simply treating others how God treated us in Jesus Christ? What if the kingdom of God begins when perfection is defined by forgiveness and pleasure by how wide our arms can reach? Amen.