by Rev. Dr. Krista S. Givens
In 1952, at the age of forty, Albert Camus – author and philosopher – returned to the home of his youth, Algiers. He returned to “the City of Summer” as he called the North-African city, escaping from “Europe’s night, the winter of faces.” But Algiers in December was not what he remembered: “The summer city herself” he wrote, “had been emptied of her laughter and offered me only bent and shining backs.” He explored the city, the ruins of Tipasa, the mountain Chenoua, but in the rain and gloom, in the cold of winter, Camus could not find what he was looking for, as he explained “To come alive again, one needs a special grace, self-forgetfulness, or a homeland.” (1)
After several attempts to find that “wellspring of joy” he remembered, in the rain-soaked city, the sky broke and the morning sun rose over the sea and he realized what he was searching for all along. He wrote in an essay called, The Return to Tipasa:
“I discovered once more at Tipasa that one must keep intact in oneself a freshness, a cool wellspring of joy… Here I recaptured the former beauty, a young sky, and I measured my luck, realizing at last that in the worst years of our madness the memory of that sky had never left me. This was what in the end had kept me from despairing…. In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.” (2)
It has been a long winter for most of the world. For our friends around the country, it has been a long, cold, snowy, wet, depressing winter. And every day, I give thanks to God our winter season is mild and warm. But the more I speak with people in our extended church family, the more I am reminded of the impact winter has on us.
But even though we do not experience winter with snow and rain, we experience winter in other way: Many of us suffer from depression and take those continuous days of gray into our moods, experiencing the mental and emotional effects of winter. Some in our midst have been sick with various colds and flus this season have taken the physical brunt of winter. Some have lost loved ones or have been plagued with tragedies this season have experienced a winter of the soul. It’s been a long winter for us in many different ways.
So when we encounter a text like the one from the Psalm 32…
1Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
2Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. 11Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart….
Those of us who have experience the winter in our minds, hearts, souls and bodies may find it difficult to accept the instruction of the psalmist and just “Rejoice and be glad.” How do we bring ourselves to rejoice in the midst of winter? How do we find within ourselves what Camus described as the “invincible summer?”
But God calls out to us: “Rejoice with me!” Come and be glad. But what do we have to celebrate, especially in the midst of winter?
Our scripture lesson today from the gospel of Luke contrasts two groups of people in their dealings with Jesus: the chief priests and the sinners. The chief priests, adherents of the Law, interpret the winter as a time of repentance, piety, solemnity and seriousness. But as he did in many occasions, Jesus rejects those religious leaders and instead aligns himself with the unclean, the sinners, going so far as to tell the chief priests and elders of the people, “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom before you.” (3)
Author Richard Hays explains, “Jesus’ message was controversial and threatening to the established institutions of religious and political power in his society: the message carried with it fundamental transvaluation of values, an exalting of the humble and a critique of the mighty.” (4)
Jesus challenges the religious authorities and he calls to us. “Rejoice with me!” he calls. Do not be content with your glum ways. Come and rejoice. Turn your mourning to dancing!
We begin with setting the scene:
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
And then Jesus explains why he is happy to eat with sinners, using three parables, the Prodigal son, which we heard Jay read so beautifully, and these others: The parable of the lost sheep, and the parable of the lost coin.
This is the image of how profoundly God loves each of us, that God is willing to welcome us, even when we’ve been mischievous, disobedient, even when we have been trouble-makers. God rejoices and calls other to rejoice!
Joy comes when one who has been lost has been found. God and the angels and the people of God rejoice when one of the LOST is found. The phrase, “Rejoice with me” in verses 6 and 9, is the emotional response to repentance! The Pharisees and scribes in the introduction will not rejoice with Jesus over the sinners who eat with him. Instead they criticize. (5) Joy is the answer to repentance. But does that seem right?
As we hear the story of the prodigal son – the story of the son who stays and the son who leaves. We often cast ourselves in the role of the “good” son – the obedient son, the faithful son. And we understand the son who leaves as the one who is “BAD” in the story. He squanders his gifts; he spends his time and energy in frivolous ways; and after he fritters away all he has been given, he decides to return to his Father… to repent and to commit to a different way of life. (And so, in verse 20, he sets off to return to his father… ready to repent… ready to be humble and apologetic….
20But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
Now, this is an unusual act for a man in Ancient Palestine. Men did not run. In order to run, a man would need to lift his tunic and expose his legs. Men did not do such things. Moreover, Fathers did not run to their children. This is more maternal behavior, as is the kiss. Here the father exposes himself to humiliation to prevent his son from being humiliated… He is the patriarchal head of the household. His running to meet his son is an expression of a love so strong that one is willing to cast one’s dignity to the winds, to put aside one’s power and position for the good of another (6).
Repentance is understood as a kind of self-flagellation: beating ourselves with our sins – like the younger son – to the point we finally say, “Okay, I give up. What I did was wrong and I am forever a stupid human, a worm. I mean nothing and I am no one.”
But the point of repentance is not to make ourselves feel bad. It is to change our way of being, our way of living, our way of interacting with others and with God. In fact the word “repent” in Greek (metanoeo) means – “to turn around” or “to change one’s way of thinking” and in changing our way of thinking we change our way of acting, our way of living, our way of seeing and interacting in the world. In “returning to his Father’s house” the younger son repents, changes his way of thinking and changes his life. Perhaps in realizing our own “lostness” – the fact that we’ve been in a perpetual winter, wandering in the wilderness, like a lone sheep or a lone kindergartener or a rebellious son – perhaps in recognizing how lost we were and remembering the lengths to which God has gone to find us, maybe THAT knowledge is our invincible summer.
God has found us. We once were lost but now are found. That should be our wellspring of joy, our memory of that beautiful summer sky: We are found. And that’s something that stays with us, even in our darkest times.
And those dark times will come. Whether in the gloomy days of April or in the emotional storms of health problems, job stress and lost loved ones, the days of winter will come. Or as Ned Stark would say, “Winter is coming.” (Winter is always coming.) But that is why we come together as a community. God calls us to be together, “Come and rejoice with me!” God calls to us, even in the midst of dark times.
May we, even in the midst of winter, recognize the heaven all around us. May we remember that we are found, that we belong to God and that we belong to one another. And may God’s love within us be our invincible summer.
- Albert Camus, The Return to Tipasa, found on http://www.douban.com/note/47785510/
- Matthew 21:31
- Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996, 163.
- Brian Stoffergen, found on http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke15x1.htm
- Brian C. Stiller, Preaching Parables to Postmoderns (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005).