Deborah's shared a wonderful article with me this week from the New Yorker magazine. And the article was all about our friend, Father Richard Rohr, and his recent book, The Universal Christ. It was such a wonderful article. Now, many of you remember a few years back, a group of 20 of us traveled to New Mexico on a church trip, and we got to spend time with Father Rohr at his Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque.
For those of you who don't know Richard Rohr, he is a Franciscan priest, a New York Times bestselling author, and he's one of the leading voices of the Progressive Christian movement, of which our church is a part.
Some of you may remember a few years ago that Oprah Winfrey devoted a whole hour of her show to interviewing Richard Rohr. Now, Richard Rohr talks in this New Yorker article about his book, The Universal Christ. And he describes it as his “end of life” work, because as some of you know, Father Rohr has been experiencing some severe health issues in recent years.
On the back of the book, there are blurbs from people like Oprah Winfrey, and Bono, the lead singer of U2, and Melinda Gates, and the Reverend Michael Curry, who you may remember officiated the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Megan Markel a few years ago.
And all of them describe this book, as Father Rohr’s most important book.
So what is the Universal Christ? Well, Father Rohr shares in this book something that the early Christians knew, but that we as modern Christians have never been taught.
The early Christians understood that Christ was not Jesus.
And that's surprising. For so many of us. The first chapter of this book is entitled, “Christ is not Jesus's last name.” Now, if I went in most Christian churches today, and I asked them this morning, ‘Who's Christ?” They'll say, ‘Well, Jesus.’
But Father Rohr reminds us in this book, that Christ existed billions of years before Jesus of Nazareth was even born. When God birthed everything into existence, when God said, “Let there be light,” there was the Christ, the firstborn of all creation.
Jesus of Nazareth, was a man who discovered 2,000 years ago that that Christ power and presence, that light and life of God was within him, and within the universe. And he was able to become one with it.
And after he made that discovery, he made it his mission to show us the way, the way home, the way to our Christ Self, the way home to our God Self, the way home to our True Self.
And that's what today's Gospel reading for the fourth Sunday in Lent is all about – the parable of the prodigal son. Everybody knows it. Even people who aren't Christian know this parable. It's probably Jesus's most famous parable. And some theologians say they believe it's Jesus's greatest teaching.
As we just heard, the prodigal son takes his father's inheritance, and he goes off and squanders it. He spends it on wine and women and a life of debauchery. But then he realizes he's miserable. And so he decides to come home.
And the father must have been looking for him all these years, because the father sees him coming home from a great distance, and runs to meet him halfway. And when the father gets there, does he say ‘Son? I am so disappointed in you!’ Does he say, ‘Son, I told you so’ Does he say, ‘Son, I'm gonna punish you for what you did!’
No. He does just the opposite.
He embraces his son, kisses him, and then says, ‘I'm going to put the finest robe on you. I'm going to put an expensive ring on your finger, and we're going to throw a party for you.’
Once again, we see that Jesus is giving a parable to the people to let them know, God doesn't punish people. This parable is a continuation of the parable he told us last Sunday. If you were here last Sunday, we heard the parable of the barren fig tree. And the reason Jesus tells these two parables in a row, is because the Scribes and the Pharisees are asking, ‘Why is Jesus hanging around with sinners? Why is Jesus eating at tables with people who are unclean and unworthy?’
So Jesus tells them these two parables to say, ‘No, God doesn't punish people.’ Now we, like the prodigal son, punish ourselves, when we stray from home. When we stray from our true nature, we sin. But as we heard, in our Words of Integration and Guidance this morning, Sin means to live outside of the garden. I really love that. God created this garden, this paradise, this Eden, this place of peace, love, and joy that Jesus said is within us. That's that's our true self.
When we live outside of that, when we act and speak in ways that are against that, we're straying from our authentic self. And when we do that, we live in misery, like the prodigal son lived in misery when he strayed from home. That's what the story symbolizes.
Sin is a sense of separation from God. It's when we forget that God is with us, and within us, we forget our God nature. Father Rohr says, we don't have to do anything to attain the Presence of God,, because we're already totally in the Presence of God.
The only thing lacking, he says, is our awareness of it.
When we're aware of God's presence with us and within us, and we stay centered in that home, that garden, then we live a life of peace and fullness and abundance. But when we stray from home, often we live in misery. Now, I've shared with you before that, one of my all time favorite books, spiritual books, is called Discover the Power Within You by the Reverend Eric Butterworth, over 50 years ago. Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey said that it is also one of their favorite spiritual books of all time. If you haven't read it, I encourage you to read it. In the book, Reverend Butterworth also talks about the prodigal son, and I'd like to read to you what he says, he writes,
“If you are asleep to the presence of God in you, then you're like the prodigal son, living in a distant land. But when you come home to yourself, when you wake up, and suddenly you come alive to the God within you, the depths of you, then God becomes very real to you. Not a person separate from you, but as an added dimension of you, as a living presence ever with you. You can never be separated from God, because you are an expression of God.”
You can never be separated from God, because you are an expression of God. That is the truth.
Now, there's one person we haven't talked about yet from today's Gospel reading, and that's the oldest son. The oldest son says, ‘Hey, Dad, why are you throwing a party for the son that's spent all of his inheritance and lived sinfully? I've been here this whole time. I’ve been good. I've been loyal. Where's my party?’
And how often we are like that ourselves. But again, it points to what I was telling you last Sunday. God loves us unconditionally, which means without condition. The father says to the oldest son, ‘Son, everything I have is yours.. You know, it always has been.’
But the oldest son believes that it's based on condition. And how many of us, growing up in the Christian church were taught that we needed to earn God's favor We needed to win God's love, that if we did good things, God would love us. But if we did bad things, God would punish us? And that isn't the truth.
I've told you this before, you could go out this afternoon. And you could feed 12 homeless families. Or you could go to Las Vegas and party the night away. And God is not going to love you any more or any less tomorrow. Because God's love is not based on condition.
As Father Rohr said, it's not based on performance. It's not about performance. It's about realization. It's about waking up to the fact – like the prodigal son does – “Oh, I need to go home to my father.
And that is what the spiritual life is all about. It's about coming home to one’s self, to becoming more and more of who God created us to be, our authentic selves, are Christ Selves, our True Selves.
So here we are. We're in the Fourth Sunday in Lent. And the purpose of Lent is to prepare us for Easter.
And what is Easter?
Easter is the resurrection of the Christ light. That's what we're preparing for, for the light of the Christ to be resurrected in us.
And so my friends, I hope you will find time each and every day, between now and Easter, to enter into the garden, enter into the kingdom within you. Make the return home. And there in the silence, in the stillness, may you feel that embracing love of God, like the father embracing the prodigal son. May you feel that embrace, that kiss. And may you begin to understand that God is present with you always, and in all ways.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
By Richard Rohr
Scripture says that we were created in the very “image and likeness” of God. I find that many Christians, however, still have no knowledge of the soul’s objective union with God, which all mystics rejoice in or they would not be mystics. Even ministers often fight me on this, quoting Augustine’s “original sin,” Calvin’s “total depravity,” or dear Luther’s “humans are like piles of manure, covered over by Christ.” I am sure they all meant well, but such a negative starting point will not be very effective in creating loving or responsive people. How do you ever undo such foundational damnation? Many Christians have tried to pile a positive theology of salvation on top of a very negative anthropology of the human person, and it just does not work. Such traditions produce few mystics and universal lovers. The human self-image is too damaged and distorted from the beginning. The word sin has so many unhelpful connotations that it’s very problematic today. For most of us, “sin” does not connote what it really is: the illusion of separateness from God and from our original identity, our True Self. Jesus seems to primarily see it as a blindness that traps us in self-destructive behaviors and hard-heartedness. Thus he is always healing blind people and challenging people who see themselves as superior to others. The primary meaning of sin is to live outside “the garden.” Sin is primarily living outside of union; it is a state of separation, when the part poses as the Whole. It’s the loss of any inner experience of who you are in God. You can’t accomplish or work up to union with God, because you’ve already got it. The biblical revelation is about awakening, not accomplishing. It is about realization, not performance. You cannot get there, you can only be there.
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