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March 31, 2019
[Holy Family Church, Honolulu (Installation of Pastor)]
Do you know how the date of Easter is determined each year? It is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring equinox. From this equinox, which is normally around March 21, you wait until the next full moon, and the Sunday after it is Easter. It has to do with planting and harvesting, with cultivating the land. And so the grain that is buried in the earth rises up and bears fruit is what we celebrate in the Paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus, so the date of Easter is connected with these signs of the phases of cultivation of food.
Today’s Scriptures also remind us of the importance of cultivation, because they remind us that there are many things that we can cultivate, some bad and some good. Just as the Israelites, after being fed with manna for forty years, given to them from the hand of God, were now to eat the produce of the promised land, they also now had to cultivate that land so that it would flow with the milk and honey that God had promised.
In the familiar story of the Prodigal Son, we see various people who cultivated things in very different ways. There is the younger son, who cultivated arrogance and such self-centeredness that he had the gall to ask his father for his inheritance before his father was dead. Then he took his substantial fortune and squandered it, we presume, on a life of wine, women, and song. He cultivated irresponsibility. There was the older son, who seems to have cultivated more a sense of duty than of love toward his family. When his brother messes up and goes away with his share of the inheritance, this older brother cultivated resentment and perhaps a sense of self-righteousness. The father cultivated the virtues of patience and mercy, and though it must have been very difficult for him to welcome back a son who had so severely insulted him by, in effect, telling him to “Drop dead,” he worked very hard to cultivate an understanding of human foibles, of unbelievable mercy, and of attention on relationships above all else.
And what did they reap? The younger son, who had cultivated selfishness, arrogance, and such a love for money that he disdained his family, was left empty, hungry, and without dignity. (We presume he was a Jewish boy who was put in charge of tending swine, which was an unclean animal for a Jew.) The older son reaped many moons of misery by cultivating a resentment not only toward his brother – to the point that he calls him “that son of yours” – but also toward his father, whom he thought took him for granted and did not pay attention to him – even though all the father had belonged to him. The father, of course, reaped a rich harvest because his long-suffering virtue was the seed that made the younger son come to his senses and seek reconciliation, and we can see how his careful cultivation of the virtues of mercy and unfailing love yielded a rich harvest of festivity and joy. He even tried to sow that seed of mercy in the heart of his older son, so that he, too, could turn away from his dead end resentment and open himself to reconciliation and joy.
What do we cultivate? Do we cultivate the vices of self-centeredness? Or a disordered love of sex, wealth, or power, which may yield a short term harvest of excitement, as they did for the younger son, but that will ultimately leave one empty and starving for what is truly important in life. Do we cultivate resentment in our marriages, between family members, or with people at work or in the neighborhood? Do we really believe this will yield good fruit for us? Do we cultivate an attitude that “my truth” is the real truth, rather than cultivating a search for the truth that God reveals to us, and do we think this will ultimately leave us in a land flowing with milk and honey? Or do we cultivate mercy, patience, and giving the other the benefit of the doubt, which is hard work to cultivate, but will yield a rich harvest – and may even be the seed that turns others from their self-destructive decisions into the arms of a most merciful God?
This beautiful story of the Prodigal Son is worth contemplating all this week and throughout our lives, so that we will understand what we are really cultivating within ourselves and in our community. And even as your new pastor must always contemplate this story for himself, it is his duty to cultivate within himself and in this community the virtues that will lead to life, to celebration and to joy.
As we approach the celebration of the greatest yield the earth has ever given from a grain that died in the ground, the death and resurrection of Jesus, we thank our merciful Father, who plants the seed of his patient and merciful love in all of us, so that in the time of harvest, we will overflow as did the land of milk and honey.