Returning to the true Self

Readings for Laetare Sunday, the Third Sunday in Lent (Year C)

This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka CA on March 27, 2022.

Happy Laetare Sunday! Today is a day in which we are invited to rejoice (which is the English translation of the Latin word “Laetare”) and a day when we wear our rose-pink vestments, which we only wear twice throughout the entire year. We rejoice because we know that Easter is just around the corner. We just have a couple more weeks until Holy Week and three more weeks until Easter Sunday. And this year, on Laetare Sunday, we read from a chapter in Luke’s Gospel that includes three parables that each conclude with rejoicing, specifically rejoicing that is the result of repentance. In Luke chapter 15, we read the parable of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin and the Lost Son. However, our Sunday lectionary omits the first two parables of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin, which is unfortunate because these are some of my favorite parables that speak directly to our everyday experiences. If anyone of you has ever had a pet who has gone missing or who has just caused you some anxiety, then you can likely relate to the parable of the shepherd who loses one of his sheep. When he finds the lost lamb, he carries it home on his shoulders, rejoicing. This parable is depicted in our central stained-glass window here at Christ Church. In Latin, the word for “rejoicing” is gaudens, which is connected to the word “Gaudete,” the name of the other Sunday when we wear these vestments, the third Sunday of Advent. The shepherd then calls his friends and neighbors and says, “Rejoice with me! I have found the sheep that was lost.” And then Jesus describes all the rejoicing that fills the heavens whenever someone repents. (Remember that word: repent).

            The next parable of the Lost Coin might be my favorite. On the surface it seems almost silly. A woman loses one of her ten coins and then sweeps through the entire house, searching carefully for it. And then when she finds it, she throws a party. It seems stilly and yet it speaks to such a common human experience. Honestly, I think of this parable almost every time I misplace my car keys, which means I think of this parable probably 2 to 3 times a week. Have any of you ever misplaced your car keys? If so, then this parable is for you. Jesus knows how maddening it can be when we misplace something, when something like our keys seem to have sprouted legs and ran away. And he also knows the tremendous relief we experience when we finally find those car keys. We almost want to throw a party like the woman in the parable, who says, “Rejoice with me! I have found the coin that I had lost.” And then, again, Jesus describes all the rejoicing that fills the heavens whenever someone repents. The tremendous relief and joy that you feel when you finally locate those car keys and when you reunite with your lost pet is not too unlike the joy that God feels whenever we repent. So, what does it mean to repent?

Last Sunday, we explored the Greek meaning of the word “repent,” which is metanoia, to change one’s thinking, to change one’s heart. Jesus said, “Stop blaming the victim! Stop using your religion to make you feel better about yourself at other people’s expense. Break out of that habit. Break out of that addiction to scapegoating innocent people. Repent or else other people will blame you when tragedy crashes into your life. You will perish as they did” (Luke 13:1-9). Stop blaming the victims to boost your own sense of perfection and start subverting the systems of sin and oppression. That’s such an important meaning of the Greek concept of metanoia, which our Bible translates as “repentance.”  When we repent, the angels rejoice in the heavens.

Now understanding the rich meanings of repentance is so crucial to understanding Christ’s teachings, which both Matthew and Mark sum up with the phrase “Repent! For the Kingdom of God is near” (Matthew 3:2, 4:17; Mark 1:15). As I said last Sunday, we Christians often have a very superficial and narrow understanding of repentance and sometimes we misunderstand it so completely that we use it as a weapon to hurt others in doing the very thing that Jesus calls to stop doing when he says, “REPENT!” 

            On this Laetare Sunday, as we read about all the rejoicing that takes place in heaven when we repent, Jesus shows us another crucial meaning of repentance in the beloved Parable of the Prodigal Son. Just as last Sunday’s reading from Luke 13 emphasized the Greek meaning of “repentance” (metanoia), this Sunday’s reading from Luke 15 emphasizes the Hebrew meaning of “repentance.”

            Throughout this season of Lent, one of the books I’ve been reading is a biography of a Chasidic rabbi who lived in Ukraine in the late 18th century, in the town of Berditchev, which is about a three-and-a-half-hour drive southwest of Kyiv. This is not far from where my Jewish ancestors lived. The rabbi’s name was Levi Yizhak (or Levi Isaac). He was such a wild and spontaneous Jewish mystic who made a lot of other more formal religious people often feel uncomfortable. Some of his stories remind me of the Jewish mystic whom we worship as our Lord Jesus Christ and his teachings help me appreciate Christ’s teachings in a new light.

            In the Jewish calendar, there’s a somber three-week season not too unlike Lent. They’re the three weeks before Tishah b’Av (the Ninth of Av) which is the anniversary of the destruction of the temple as well as the anniversary of other major disasters in Jewish history. The portion of the Torah that is to be read during this time contains the laws dealing with the Jewish festivals, in which God commands the people to rejoice. So, some of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s students asked him why they read about rejoicing during a time when the people are to abstain from rejoicing. It’s like us reading Luke 15 during Lent. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak explained that we are given these Torah portions during this somber season “so that the spirit of rejoicing which breathes within [us] may ease our bitterness” (Dresner, 140), so that we remember the joy that awaits us, and so that God’s joy in us and in our repentance may be our strength.

            Rabbi Levi Yitzhak also spoke to his students about the Sabbath, saying that “each week on this day [we return to our] true self. [We regain] for a fleeting moment the original state of wholeness in which [we were] made, for the taste of Heaven is in [our] mouth and the future world becomes entwined with the present” (Dresner, 127). On the Sabbath, we return to our true self. The rabbi then explained that the Hebrew word “Shabbat” (Sabbath) is derived from the Hebrew word shuv, which means “return.” Shuv is also the word that the English Old Testament translates as “repent.” So according to the Hebrew meaning, repentance means returning (shuv). Returning like the lost sheep who was returned to the shepherd, like the lost coin that was returned to the woman. Repentance is returning, returning to our true self. And it is this meaning of repentance that comes through most clearly in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

            This is one of the most beautifully crafted parables in the Bible and there are so many powerful and surprising insights to unpack, especially when we look at it in a first-century Palestinian context. But today, I want to highlight just one point. Look at verses 16 and 17 (Luke 15:16 -17). Verse 16: “He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; [but] no one gave him anything.” There’s a phrase from a rabbinic commentary that says, “When Israelites are reduced to eating carob pods, they repent” (Leviticus Rabbah 13.4). They return. [As an aside, legends say that the Buddha died from eating pig’s food. So, it was through carob pods that the Buddha himself returned to his Nirvana). And it is in reflecting on the pig’s pods that the prodigal Son has his own awakening. And how does Jesus describe that awakening? Verse 17: “He came to himself.” (Eis heauton de elthon). He returned to his true self! Shuv! And what is his true self? His true self is a beloved child of the loving, generous Father. Repentance involving returning to our true self, our true identity as a beloved child of God. New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine writes, “Although [he] speaks of being treated as a hired hand, his repeated paternal language suggests that he still thinks of himself as his father’s ‘son.’ He is not questioning the relationship. His phrasing ‘[I am not worthy]’ suggests that he still has the title ‘son.’” (Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, 53). And then when he tries to complete his rehearsed speech to his father, his father cuts him off and says to his servants, “Go get the robe and the ring and the sandals. Let’s have a party! Let’s rejoice! For this son of mine has returned!” Repenting means returning to our true self, our true identity as a beloved child of God. Repenting means letting God clothe us with his robe and ring and then enjoying the feast he has prepared for us. By repenting in this way, we “regain for a fleeting moment the original state of wholeness in which [we were] made, for,” as Rabbi Levi Yitzhak said, “the taste of Heaven is in [our] mouth and the future world becomes entwined with the present.”

The Prodigal Son among the Swine, Albrecht Dürer

I invite us all to repent now by returning to our true self, our true identity as beloved children of God, and by feasting on God’s meal here today so that we enjoy the taste of Heaven in our mouths and the future world becomes entwined with the present. When we repent in this way, God calls out to the angels and all the hosts of heaven,  saying, “Laetare! Laetare! Rejoice with me! My child has returned!” Amen.

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