Today’s Gospel of the Prodigal Son is familiar; not so, Saint Luke’s comment that gives the setting for Jesus’ story:
Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus.
Isn’t that amazing? Jesus and his teaching are – attractive? Attractive to “tax-collectors” (in those days, local extortionists) and “sinners” (probably people subject to public shaming, such as the “woman caught in adultery” we’ll hear about next week)? Isn’t this rather unlike what we experience today, when most Christian congregations are largely composed of “respectable” people and churches struggle to keep even them filling the pews?
[In a research study] Case and Deaton document an accumulation of pain, distress and social dysfunction in the lives of working class whites that took hold as the blue-collar economic heyday of the early 1970s ended, and continued through the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent slow recovery. […] Each successive cohort reports more pain, more mental distress, heavier drinking, as well as lack of social connection. Each is observed to have higher mortality rates from drugs, alcohol and suicide than the preceding cohort.
These may very well be, as I probably don’t have to tell you, your own children or grandchildren, or your neighbors’. There is a tremendous, tragic, and growing disconnection between the churches and the suffering of many of our contemporaries. If Jesus comes to “seek out and save the lost” [Lk 19:10, from the story of Zaccheus], something is going very wrong: We’re “saving the saved.”
I have to admit that I have no idea how to change this. But I will point out one thing that we in the churches need to pay more attention to: AA, and the wider recovery movement. If you want to talk about changing lives that are in trouble, I know of no better example of that than Alcoholics Anonymous. That movement is clearly doing something right.
This fact brings to mind a parable I learned from an Episcopal Priest (who was also a Jungian Analyst), John Sanford. As he tells the story, a spring of pure, fresh water once appeared in the desert. People came and were nourished. But, human nature being what it is, some people found ways to fence in the spring and to charge admission for those who wanted to drink. In response, the fenced-in spring dried itself up and reappeared in a new, un-fenced-in, place.
That story leaves me with a question: Are we – unwittingly, to be sure – “charging admission” and “fencing in the spring” from those who want to come? And – as a result – has the spring of God’s grace chosen to emerge in a new place?
I don’t doubt that God will never abandon the Church, or that the sacraments remain a “fount of grace”; but I wonder about the way we’ve set things up: is it that thirsty people too often can’t seem to find what they’re seeking in church?
Until next week, peace.