Happy Are the Prodigals Who Return
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
March 31, 2019 Fourth Sunday in Lent
Psalm 32; II Corinthians 5:16-20; Luke 15:1-32
Just when we thought things could not get any worse, on the Ides of March a story in the Huffington Post said, “The Rapid Decline of The Natural World Is a Crisis Even Bigger Than Climate Change: A three-year UN-backed study from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform On Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services has grim implications for the future of humanity.”
This is similar to the United Nations study on climate change that came out in October in that it includes work by 400 leading experts in 50 different countries. It comes to similar conclusions as well. The degradation of the environment and the extinction of species that is already underway leave us very little time. We need to change our way of living as a civilization immediately. Yet we are still increasing our speed in the wrong direction.
Welcome to Lent. We have just landed in the wilderness that Lent calls us to inhabit. Lent is the season for the Spirit of truth, for looking unflinchingly at our condition, which includes admitting how bad things are. The wilderness is a harsh place. It strips away our illusion of immunity from the consequences of straying from the sacred way. It reduces us to the truth of our vulnerability and weakness and need for the help of a higher power.
The wilderness is a place of crucifixion, the dying of our false self through the self-emptying that is known in the Christian tradition by its Greek name, kenosis. The earliest hymn we have praises Jesus for his lowly self-emptying, and the New Testament word is kenosis. (Philippians 2)
Today’s gospel story shows how central this principle was to Jesus. It begins with him eating with tax collectors and sinners, people who were outcasts at the bottom of society according to the fundamentalist, rule-bound scribes and Pharisees. Jesus loved and served especially those who had hit rock bottom—the poor, the incurably ill, the wrong-doers.
It was part of his own self-emptying to turn from seeking power and privilege to associating with people who would make him impure and an outcast like them in the eyes of the establishment. His self-emptying was modeling all three of the primary ethical teachings of most religions: the universal wisdom of the Golden Rule; love of neighbor and care for those who are vulnerable or suffering.
But today’s story shows that kenosis—self-emptying or reducing ourselves to zero as Gandhi called it—was more than an ethical position. Jesus said we need to lose our life to gain true life. The earliest Christian church was called The Way, and the first step on that way to true life was self-emptying. It was at the heart of Christ’s spirituality.
The Prodigal Son begins by filling himself with all the pleasures and power that the false self loves, and then he crashes. He has no money, no food and he is feeding pigs. He is nothing, zero, empty externally, but the life changing moment arrives when he becomes empty internally as well. He gives up his pride and turns in absolute humility back to his father.
This is the second universal truth about kenosis. The first is that self-emptying, giving up our false, selfish self, is the essential prerequisite for ethical living. The second universal truth is that kenosis is the essential prerequisite for spiritual transformation. Kenosis is the first step onto the sacred way. Emptying of our false, selfish self puts us in right relationship both to the external world ethically and the internal world spiritually.
All the good that comes to the Prodigal Son begins with that first inner step of kenosis. The second inner step goes by another Greek name, metanoia. Metanoia means to expand to a new developmental and spiritual level, a new consciousness that comes by turning to God with all our heart, mind and will.
Kenosis is like an exhale, metanoia an inhale, we breathe out our false self and we breathe in our true self. We expand and fill our spiritual lungs with the presence of the force of love and life and light that created the universe. Metanoia leads to what Paul called being in Christ, when we give our will and our life over to God’s higher power.
These two movements, kenosis and metanoia, make up the Big Bang of personal transformation. Paul says if we are in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
This new-life creating combination of kenosis and metanoia is a fundamental principle in the workings of the universe from the biggest to the smallest things. It is how our sun and solar system came into being,
It is how the hymn “Amazing Grace” came into being. There is a scene in the film Amazing Grace when we see the former slave-ship captain, John Newton, as an old man in the church he had long served where he wrote his hymns and preached against the slavery that he abhorred. Newton had gone blind, but in his blindness he began to see again the thousands of kidnapped African women and men he had crammed with no room to move in the darkness of his ship’s hold. He relived the horror of the torture and murder that took place under his command within the stench of human sweat, excrement and sickness. He was haunted by their faces. We see the pain of rock bottom that underlies every word of his hymn. We can imagine the utter devastation of Newton’s kenosis as he wept out the penitence of his former self, and we can also feel the power of the metanoia, the force of love and light that made him a new creation and filled “Amazing Grace” with hope and joy.
This is how every addicted person in the 12 Step movement enters recovery. The first three of the 12 Steps are to see our wrongs and admit we are powerless over the addiction that is making our life unmanageable; to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity; and to make a decision to turn our will and our life over to the care of God.
The result of this spiritual Big Bang of kenosis and metanoia is the third Greek word, agape, or Christ-like love. The Prodigal Son fills with love for life on the sacred way, a longing to return to beloved community. His father fills with a love that is all-forgiving and transformative, that creates beloved community. The father could not have shown that unifying, healing love without his own self-emptying and turning toward the highest power within him.
Jesus gives us the older brother in the story as a foil, as an example of what those who have not been spiritually transformed think of the transformed people they do not understand. The older son is still thinking selfishly and is stuck there in resentment, unmoved by his father’s loving action and explanation. It is a symbol for the struggle between a fundamentalist and open-hearted ethic.
The last two of the 12 Steps of the Anonymous Groups are to seek through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God…praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out, and then, having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, to carry this message to others to help them find the way to their own transformation.
Meditation or contemplative prayer is the practice of kenosis, opening us to metanoia. That is what we do in Centering Prayer—we try to empty ourselves of our self and focus our entire being on God and step onto the path to an expanded heart, mind and soul, a new creation in Christ. I encourage you to come to the introductory workshop and try it out next Saturday morning (4/4/19) if you can. People in our Heartfulness Circle will tell you it is transformational.
Today’s teaching from Jesus is important to our individual happiness—to paraphrase the Psalm, “Happy are the prodigals who return”—but it is about more than just us. Jesus wants us to create the realm of God on earth. The story of the Prodigal Son is the key to the transformation of the human race that we need to undergo right now for our survival and for the survival of all the other species threatened by human damage to the earth.
The Prodigal Son went from zero to one. We need to be Generation Zero-One. We need to undergo a collective kenosis, we need to admit that we have hit rock bottom, that our life on this earth has become unmanageable and that we need the universal wisdom of our spiritual traditions. Our generation needs to empty itself of the selfishness and fear that keep us from living by the ethic of the Golden Rule and love of neighbor and care for the vulnerable. We need the highest power of love to which all spiritual traditions lead in order to restore ourselves to sanity and expand to the new level of consciousness required to find our way to create the realm of God on earth. We need to be zero like the Prodigal Son so that we can live into our true oneness with our creator, our neighbor and our truest self. We cannot save this world unless we see that we are one with it, and it is one. Justice and peace and the ability of the earth to sustain life all depend on this nondual consciousness.
Happy are the prodigals who return. Imagine the joy of a world whose every law or policy conforms to the Golden Rule.
Jesus knew that this transformation has to take place from the inside out, and from the bottom up. We are a tiny church in a tiny village, and this is precisely where global transformation begins. Even smaller than that, it begins in each heart. As Mahatma Gandhi, said “There comes a time when an individual becomes irresistible and his action becomes all-pervasive in its effect. This comes when he reduces himself to zero.”
The new creation that our generation must bring to birth begins in the silence of each heart, so let us practice kenosis and metanoia now, letting our thoughts and feelings flow by without paying attention to them as we open ourselves to the loving presence and transforming action of God within us. Let us pray in silence…