Sunday, March 6, 2016

Sermon for Lent IV

Trinity, Mount Vernon--Luke 15:11-32, II Corinthians 5:17-21

In the early 1980s, I spent several months selling medical insurance to members of the Oregon Wheat Growers League—farmers and ranchers, mostly in the central and eastern part of the state, some of it actually near where some recent drama on federal land took place! Every farm family, I’m convinced, has at least one dog, and, out in the country, of course, they’re not likely to be tied to a leash or behind a fence. So I formed a habit of trying to spot the local canine and assess its friendliness before getting out of my car. I was particularly glad when the dog seemed old, tired, and, best of all, sound asleep. I learned the meaning of the expression, “let sleeping dogs lie.” If the dog was asleep, I wasn’t going to disturb its slumber. Using such precautions, I only got bit once!

It was a strategy that served well to protect my health. But there is also an unhealthy application of the proverb, “Let sleeping dogs lie.” Out of a desire to avoid confrontation that could be unpleasant or painful, we are prone to tolerate abusive, manipulative, and destructive behavior—and the closer the source of that behavior is to us personally, the more likely we are to tolerate it. Not many of us would be unable to name a member of our extended family, or even our immediate family, who habitually misbehaves but who gets away with it because it seems easier to   just let it go one more time than to confront it and try to actually deal with the problem. Not many parish churches—even Trinity Church, I would suspect—have been indefinitely and completely free from turf battles, struggles for influence and control, slander over the telephone, and parking lot back-stabbing, all quite contrary to the principles of Christian love and advancing the cause of Christ and his kingdom. It may not be happening now here, but I’m sure it has in the past. And even when things appear peaceful and calm, church communities are a communities of sinners, and the unhealthy stuff does go on: In many places, I’ve witnessed it, I have participated in it, and I know I have been the subject of it, as has anyone who is in any way in a leadership position. The same kind of stuff goes on in every church I have ever known, and it usually goes quietly unchecked    because the perceived consequences of trying to do something about it seem more frightening than continuing to overlook it. We thereby absolve ourselves from any responsibility for pursuing reconciliation, for bringing together those who are odds, for bringing wholeness out of fragmentation.

It’s really no wonder at all that we act like this. Reconciliation is a maddeningly elusive goal and agonizingly difficult to sustain. Prideful egos and stubborn wills get in the way. Other values—other positive values, like a passion for truth and a commitment to justice—sometimes get in the way of our efforts toward reconciliation. We resist reconciliation with those who believe differently than we do. Nowhere is this more evident than in the proliferation of thousands of Christian faith communities, the majority of whom claim to possess the highest, and sometimes the only, valid expression of Christian truth. We also resist reconciliation with those whom we believe have not been justly punished for their offenses. This happens in families, it happens in churches, it happens in society. This impulse lies at the heart of gang violence, domestic violence, and racial and ethnic violence. It also lies at the heart of the reaction of the older brother to the “prodigal son” in this wonderfully rich parable from Luke’s gospel. His younger brother had squandered his inheritance and dishonored his family in the process. He was quite correct in his profession that he was no longer worthy to be called his father’s son. Yet, the father killed the fatted calf and threw a party when he came crawling home. The older brother just couldn’t handle this. He resisted being reconciled because the whole thing deeply offended his sense of fairness. He was not willing to sacrifice his honor in order to be reconciled with his brother.

Yes, reconciliation is difficult. And because it’s difficult, we come to see it as optional. The system that I use to plan my activities each day has me list all the tasks that need doing during the week. Then I rank them: those that must be done today, those that should be done today, and those that would be nice to do today. Because reconciliation is difficult, we tend to look on it as “would be nice, but not essential,” because other considerations are more pressing, and if it can’t happen, well, too bad. What God is telling us through this liturgy, however, is that, for God, reconciliation is “must do” task for him, and it should be for us as well.

The good news of the Fourth Sunday in Lent this year is that, in the economy of the kingdom of God, reconciliation is a very valuable currency. God cares deeply about reconciliation. It’s not fat to him, it’s muscle. St Paul could hardly make this point more clearly than he does in his second letter to the Corinthians:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
Paul talks about vertical reconciliation—that is, reconciliation with God—which then becomes the basis for horizontal reconciliation between people. One flows from the other. Our reconciliation with God forms the basis for our reconciliation with one another. And what Paul says didactically, straight up, Jesus teaches allegorically, using parables. The story of what has become known as “the Prodigal Son” follows in Luke’s gospel directly on two shorter parables: The rejoicing of the shepherd who succeeds in restoring his one lost sheep to the fold, and the rejoicing of the poor widow when she finds a coin that she had lost. Then we get the rejoicing of the grateful and generous and forgiving father when his son, who had treated him shabbily and whom he had given up for dead, returned home. The reconciliation of this son was cause for great festivity. There is joy in heaven when a sinner repents and is reconciled to God. There is joy in heaven when two sinners repent on earth and are reconciled to one another. There is joy in heaven when anger dies and forgiveness lives. There is joy in heaven when suspicion dies and trust lives. There is joy in heaven when selfishness dies and cooperation lives. There is joy in heaven when pride dies and humility lives. There is joy in heaven when hostility dies and love lives. And this heavenly joy is larger than the letter of the law and the strict demands of justice.

This is the point the father tried to make to the elder son, though we don’t know if his point got through. But it can get through to us, if we let it. Reconciliation is a high standard to live up to. It is much more than the hollow phrase immortalized by Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along?” It takes commitment, effort, and, most of all, divine grace. We must not let the fact that it is difficult deter us. We must not let the fact that reconciliation can be trivialized into meaninglessness deter us. Our calling as Christians is first to be reconciled to God, as the prodigal son was reconciled with his father. His big act of repentance, of course, was his coming home. But after the debris from the fatted-calf party was cleaned up, it took persistent determination on his part to stay reconciled, to remain in his father’s house.

So it is with us. Repentance and reconciliation with God is not a one time deal; it’s a process. Our second calling as Christians, after being reconciled with God, is to be reconciled with our family—our biological family and our church family. There ought to be no tolerance of silent feuds, unspoken grievances, not being on speaking terms, ulterior motives, rude or intemperate language, jealousy over ministries and priorities, envy over material or spiritual blessing, or malicious gossip—either in a Christian family or in a parish community.

Finally, our calling as Christians is to be ministers of reconciliation in the world. Our vocation is to be peacemakers and healers, to set an example of swallowing petty pride for the sake of Christ and his kingdom. The Prayer Book catechism confirms what I’ve just been talking about succinctly and directly:
Q: What is the mission of the Church?
A: The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.
According to the Prayer Book, at least, reconciliation is Job #1. As we enter the home stretch of Lent, we will do well to examine ourselves thoroughly and rigorously, praying that the Holy Spirit will convict us of those relationships that remain unreconciled because of our stubbornness, because we don't really want reconciliation, we want victory; praying that the Holy Spirit will supply both the heat and the light necessary to see our duty, and the strength to act on what we see. There’s some serious repenting that yet needs to be done this Lent before we can worship at God’s altar in sincerity and truth on Easter. Let it be. Amen.

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