Across the Threshold

The Rev. Matthew I. PottsThe Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, PH.D., Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church. Photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Gazette.



By the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D.
Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals
Faculty of Divinity

(The following is a transcript of the service audio)

May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, oh God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

So welcome again, everyone. And a special welcome to you families, who are visiting for Junior Family's weekend. It's good to see so many of our students who are definitely here every Sunday, and not only because mom and dad are here. It's good to see you all with your families this morning.

This reading, that we have this morning from the gospel of Luke, the parable of the prodigal son, is one of the most familiar of Jesus' parables. And so, it's probably familiar to you. I think it's also, especially appropriate. It's the text assigned for the fourth Sunday of Lent this year. That's why we have it. But it's especially appropriate, I think, on Junior Family Weekend. The story of a beloved child who takes half the family fortune, and goes away to a far off place, and spends it all. That's probably a familiar story to some of you here today.

Jesus tells this story, because some of his colleagues, some of his peers, are wondering why he's hanging around with sinners, tax collectors. We're told that, when Jesus sees these folks wondering, he tells them this parable. That's not quite true, actually.

If you look at the verses assigned for this Sunday, there's a gap of eight verses. And actually, two other parables precede this parable. There's the parable of the lost sheep. Where a shepherd has 100 sheep, and he loses one, and he leaves the 99 to go find that one sheep. And when he finds the one sheep, he throws a party.

And then after that, there's another parable. The parable of the lost coin. There's a woman who has 10 coins, and she loses one, and she scours the house until she finds her one coin. And when she finds her one coin, to celebrate, she throws a party.

And then, we have this parable. One of my favorites in the gospels, the parable of the prodigal son. Lots of folks have reflected on this parable, what it means. Some say it's about repentance. I'm not sure it is about repentance. Does the son repent? He leaves his family. He leaves his father. In this really cruel way, if you think about it, he says to his father, "I'm going to inherit half the wealth after you die, anyway. That's the only reason you're good to me. Why don't I take that and go?"

And when he is abject and painless in a faraway country, he doesn't think to himself, "Boy, that must have really broken my dad's heart." He doesn't say, "Look what harm I caused?" He says, "I'm hungry. And my dad has money. I bet he'd hire me back."

We don't know the psychology of this person, but it's at least as possible that this is kind of a shrewd and cynical return, as it is, that it is a remorseful and penitent return. So I'm not sure that it's about repentance.

Some folks say, this lesson's about forgiveness. I think it maybe is about forgiveness. But interestingly, the word, forgiveness, doesn't show up anywhere in these lines. Jesus talks about forgiveness a lot in the gospels. But he doesn't mention the word, forgiveness, here. So I think it is about forgiveness, but I'm not going to talk about forgiveness necessarily, right now.

So what is this parable? This famous parable, this apt parable. What is this parable about? I have an idea. I'm going to ask you to bear with me, because it's kind of a long route to get there. I'll get there by the end of the sermon.

So today, in the calendar of the church year, I told you, it's the fourth Sunday of the Lent. This is traditionally known as, Laetare Sunday, in the Western church. Laetare is a Latin word, which means, rejoice. And in the middle of Lent, rejoicing is not a thing you do. And that's why we've actually changed colors here. Usually, we're purple, because purple's a penitential color. But the fourth Sunday of Lent, we have this slight reprieve from our Lenten fast, and we bring out a brighter color, this rose. It's known as, Mothering Sunday, in Britain. I think that's why we heard some anthems to Mary. And the reason it's called Laetare Sunday, rejoicing Sunday, is because rejoicing is part of what happens in the lessons, and in the Latin mass, the old Latin mass.

So I told you about the lost sheep. When the sheep is found, we rejoice. And I told you about the lost coin. And when the coin is found, we rejoice. And you heard about this lost son, and the rejoicing that follows his reclamation.

I just want to observe that, as nice as these parties are, they are not the most responsible decisions. The shepherd leaves the 99, to go find the one. What about the 99? They're without a shepherd. That's sort of reckless. And the woman who throws a party, which probably cost more than one coin, for her neighbors, after she finds the coin, right? This is not following the rationale of economics.

And even his father, who throws a big party for his son, his long lost son. And it's a moving moment. I'll talk more about that in a second. It's a touching scene. It's the reason why I love this parable so much. But, when you hear the older brother, he has a point. I feel bad for the older brother. He never got a party, his whole life? Of course, he's resentful. And then the father says, "All that I have is yours." And I feel like the brother wants to say, "Yeah. So why are we spending our money on him?"

One of the things that happens, when Jesus kind of escalates from sheep, to coin, to son, in these stories of losing and finding, these parables of the lost and the found, is that, Jesus is raising the stakes because he's moralizing the issue.

The sheep doesn't insult the shepherd before he goes. He wanders off, not with intention to avoid the loving care of the shepherd. He just goes, the sheep just goes. And the coin isn't trying to get away. Isn't insulting the woman when it goes. But the stakes here are different. Because the son has said this, "You are worth no more to me than your wealth. And so I will go."

The offense is personal, and relational, and we can feel the weight of it, if we listen carefully to this parable. And I think, it's also why we can feel the weight, feel the intensity, feel the emotion, of the restoration of the moment when they see each other again. So let's talk more about that moment, when the father and the son reunite.

I said, I don't think this is a parable about repentance. Listen to what, how it goes, when he was still far off, we're told, before he has a chance to say a word to his father. Before he says, "Sorry." Before he even sees his father, his father sees him. And it says, that the father felt compassion for his boy, coming back from this far off country. He felt compassion for his boy.

And compassion's a great word, but the Greek word, that's translated as compassion here, is so great. The Greek word is splanchnízomai, which means, compassion. But literally, it means, to have your inside parts, your lungs, and your liver, and your kidneys, moved around. Your guts pulled, to see something that moves you so much, that you feel it in your gut. That your guts are pulled.

The father looks out and he sees his son, and he feels it, not just in his heart, but here, in his gut. And then, he runs to him. Again, before the child has apologized, or anything, he runs to his child, and he embraces him, the text says. Again, English doesn't capture the Greek here. The Greek word is, epipiptō, which actually means, he collapses into him. He falls into him. The father, when he arrives at his son, literally falls in love with him, falls into him with love, and drapes himself around him, before the boys said a word. And then he says, "Let's throw a party, because you're home."

It's all beautiful. It's all great. And we can feel the emotion, in spite of, and also because of, the hurt this child caused, the father's willingness to go, and to fall in love with his boy, to fall into him with love. To get up from where he's watching, and to go to him, is so powerful, and so moving. But also, if we pay close attention, not the only time that happens in this story. He doesn't just do it for the prodigal son. He does it for his brother too.

As the story continues, they throw the party, and they're having the big festive thing at the house. And the dad is there, with his son and his friends. And I'm sure, he is quite happy. And then we are told, that the brother is out in the field, refusing to come home. Because of this offense, because of the welcome home of the brother, the prodigal. The older brother is out in the wilderness also, refusing to go to this party. And the father does the same thing. He leaves the celebration. He leaves behind his son, just like the shepherd and the 99, and goes to the one who is outside the gates. He crosses the threshold. He sees his other son angry, and frustrated, and hurting, and he leaves everything behind, and goes to him, and tells him, "Come home. We love you. All I have is yours. Come home." Whoever is lost, whoever is outside the gates, for whatever reason, whichever boy is out there, this father goes to them, meets them where they are.

I'll tell a short story about my parents, who are not here. I think they might be listening on the radio, somewhere. As many of you know, I've served in the Navy. Because, I don't think I've said from this pulpit, but some of you may know. I left the Navy as a conscientious objector, after two years of service. My dad retired from the US Navy Reserve. And I remember as a teenager, seeing my dad come home from Reserve weekends, and coming home in his uniform, and I was proud of him and I wanted him to be proud of me. And one of the reasons I went into the Navy is because I wanted that.

So I got out of the Navy. I left the Navy, as a conscientious objector. I was stationed in Japan, and I came home to Michigan, and I was scared. I was scared I let my dad down. Or, that he was disappointed in me. And I remember the first day I was home, and talking to my mom in our living room. And I told this to my mom. I said, "I'm scared. I'm worried, I let my dad down."

And my mom said, "Don't move." And she went and grabbed my dad, who was working in his office, and she brought him up, and she said, "Now you tell him, what you just told me." And I did. And my dad smiled at me and said, "I'm not disappointed in you, Matthew. I'm proud of you. I love you. I'm proud that you felt you could make this decision."

That's a good story. But there's more to this story. Because a few years later, right when the war in Iraq was picking up, my younger brother was thinking about entering the Marines. And I did not want him to go into the Marines, for all kinds of reasons. But mostly, because I didn't want him to go over there, and get hurt, or worse. And I remember, I was home again, in Michigan, and I was taking a jog with my dad, and we were running, and Thomas was about to go to OCS. And I said to my dad, "Can't you do something? Like, can't you stop him? Like, you have influence here. Can't you stop him?" And my dad said, "Matthew, I don't like what he's doing, but I didn't necessarily like what you did, either. It's not my job to make decisions for you. It's my job to love you, and help you live with the decisions you make."

What is this parable about? This parable of two boys and their dad. Here's what I think it's about. As everything else Jesus says it's about, it's about love. But not just about what love is, more specifically, it's about what love does, Because what love does is, it crosses the threshold. It gets up, and it goes to the one who is lost. It goes to the one who's estranged, and meets them, right where they are. Love is not a feeling, or not, just a feeling. Because the father in this parable doesn't feel his guts pulled. Doesn't feel them pulled apart, and then, just kind of reflect upon it. He feels it, and then, he goes to his child. He gets up, and goes to his long lost son. And then, just a few lines later, he gets up and goes to that son's angry brother.

We live in a visual culture. Moving to our century now, from the first century. We live in a visual culture in an information age and it is easy to feel things deeply. This morning, I looked at the front page in the New York Times, or Twitter, and you can see images that will pull your guts apart. We see them in Ukraine, the last few weeks, but we see them all over the world. And it's important for us not to look away from those images, I think. But I think, there's also a temptation, when we see those images, to believe that, because we have felt deeply, therefore, we have loved. That the feeling, is all love is. That the feeling, is where love ends.

But what this parable tells us, is that the feeling is not where love ends, it's where love begins. It's the feeling that makes us get up and go. It's the feeling that makes this father get up and go out to his boys, wherever they are, because that's what the love looks like. Love moves us. Not just figuratively, but actually. Not just inwardly, but outwardly. Out into the world. Across the threshold. Exactly to where it's needed. And to where we can do our work.

Let me put a finer point on all of this. I love this church. This church is a special place in Harvard Yard. My colleague and predecessor, Stephanie Paulsell, said that, it's hard to get into Harvard, but everyone is welcome here at the Memorial Church. And that's true. We try to welcome everybody, and love everybody, and serve everybody. In the language of this morning's parable, you might say, that it's a party in here. And it's a good celebration. It's a good party. We have the best music.

The party is in here, but the work is out there. Out there, across the threshold of this church. In the world, where the wounded, and the worried, and the harried, and the haggard, wait for a sign from us, that they are loved. Wait for us to go tell them, that they are beloved. As great as this party each week is, we need, like this father, to get up and go. Like this father, meets his beloved boys, right where they are. Whether they are broken, or angry, or embarrassed, or estranged, or ashamed, he goes.

Love doesn't turn away. Love doesn't sit still. And it doesn't stop trying to welcome the disinherited home. It gets up, and it goes. It gets up and goes. Interesting then, that the Greek word here, used to describe what the son does, when he gets up and goes to his father, is the same word the gospels use, when they describe what Jesus does, in the tomb, after his death, when he also goes to his father. The same word.

One way to translate it, anastas. One way to translate it is, he gets up. The other way to translate it, and the way that we will hear it in a few weeks, is it says, he is risen. He is risen, indeed. This. This mystery of love, this is the mystery towards which we journey. This, in every Lenten season. This is the mystery of Christian discipleship, before and after Good Friday. This. This is the difficult mystery of Easter. That crossing the threshold, will carry us home. That serving others, will lead to our salvation. That accompanying the lost, will help us be found. And that, falling down in love, is what raises us to life.