Sunday, March 10, 2013

(Lent 4) The (dis)graceful road to reconciliation

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

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This story Jesus told, of a father and two sons,
is an absolutely disgraceful story of grace.

At so many levels, this story is completely ridiculous.
As an example of good parenting, it’s outlandish.
This is no way to run a family.
No way to help children grow up
to become mature, responsible adults.

We don’t quite get how scandalous this story is,
because we don’t live in the culture it came out of.
But I want us to at least make a feeble attempt
to feel the story’s impact.

So why did Jesus tell it?
Well, Jesus, in the eyes of good Jews, was behaving badly.
He touched lepers.
He spoke to prostitutes.
He ate with sinners and tax collectors.
Sharing a table with someone meant an awful lot in that culture.
It meant acceptance.
So Jesus’ behavior bothered people.
Especially those whose job it was
to maintain the community and its purity—
the Pharisees and the scribes.
They grumbled about Jesus, saying,
“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

When Jesus heard them grumbling, he told three stories.
In these stories, Jesus out-shames himself.
It’s like he’s saying to the Pharisees,
you think my behavior is over the top? listen to this!
The three stories in Luke 15 are about the lost sheep, the lost coin,
and the lost son.
The first two are just teasers, but still over-the-top ridiculous.
What sensible sheep owner, who had 100 sheep,
would get so obsessed over one?
Okay, so one is lost. That would be disconcerting.
But he still has 99 healthy sheep in the barn.
Even if the worst happened to the lost sheep,
his profits might drop by 1%.
Surely, a sheep has gotten lost, or died, before,
and life went on.
Would he really throw a big party,
and invite all his friends and family?
The cost of food for a community feast
at least equals the value of one sheep!
But Jesus acts like that kind of behavior is normal.
Same with the coin story.

But after these two teasers, he gives them the real kicker.
This disgraceful story of grace.
And the grumbling scribes and Pharisees get the awful point.
Pretty hard to miss.

The story of the prodigal is profoundly disturbing and shocking.
The younger son,
in going to his father and asking for his inheritance,
is not just greedy and self-centered.
He is downright cruel and abusive.
This is a moral outrage.
In the economy of that culture,
it would have been a huge financial setback to the father.
His wealth was tied up in the land.
He couldn’t go to the bank and pull out a wad of cash.
For the younger son to get his rightful one-third,
A third of the farm would have to be sold off . . . to whom?
Would an investor now own a third of the father’s estate,
and charge rent to the father for cultivating it?
Or would the father or older brother borrow money
to buy out the son’s share and keep it in the family?
Either way, financially, the son was sticking it to his father.
And worse, he was essentially saying to his father,
“I wish you were dead already.”

But the father did the unthinkable.
He did exactly what his son asked of him.
He allowed his son to walk all over him.
It was a disgrace, beyond description.

So Jesus didn’t present either the son or the father
in a positive light in this story.
The son was evil, and the father foolish.
The son was cruel, and the father weak.

And then it gets worse.
The son takes the wealth he got from abusing his father,
goes to a “far country”
and spends it all on loose living.
Soon, his pockets are empty.
With the country in a famine, he finds a job feeding pigs—
the most unclean of animals for Jews,
and gets so hungry, he eats the pig’s food.

It is only after he sank that low, that he repented.
So even his repentance is suspect.
There is no mention of sorrow or remorse
for all the pain he caused his father and family.
He only sees he is starving,
and his father’s hired hands are better off than he is.
So, knowing he’d never get back in the family,
he’ll go back as a slave,
and hope for a shack out back,
and a supply of simple food, if he’s lucky.
It was a move to better himself.

Jesus could hardly have told a more disgraceful story,
of a more disgusting character.

The story defied all logic and all moral sensibility.
But the logic of the kingdom of God
is often an upside-down logic.

So, while the son was still a long way off,
the father sees him coming and runs out to meet him.
Before the son could get any words out of his mouth,
the father throws his arms around his son and kisses him.
The son tries to give his prepared speech about being a slave,
but the father wouldn’t listen.
He hollers to his servants: “Quick, bring the best robe I have,
give him my signet ring,
put sandals on his feet,
kill the fatted calf,
and invite the whole village.
We’re going to have a feast!”

Can grace get any more disgraceful than this?

Of course, the older son now enters the story,
offended and angry and resentful.
The father pleads with him to see the logic
of this family feast of reconciliation.
“Your brother was dead, and has come to life.
He was lost, and now he is found!”

This logic apparently was lost on the older brother,
who was stuck on fairness, on justice, on compensation.
The economy of God’s kingdom
operates on a different set of values.
And one of the highest values of that kingdom is reconciliation.

Reconciliation is what God wants, more than anything.
Yes, for the father in the story,
what the son did to him was painful,
the financial burden was painful,
the social stigma was painful,
but by far the most painful to the father,
was the loss of relationship with his son.
What he spent his emotional energy on,
was mourning the death of that relationship.
What he spent his nights grieving over,
was the absence of his son in his life.
What he spent his days doing,
was gazing down the road,
looking for some sign that reconciliation was on the horizon.

This is a kingdom parable about God’s pain at his separation from us,
his beloved human creation,
and God’s joyful, excessive, outpouring of grace,
when we turn back toward him.

Even knowing that,
I’m still scandalized by this parable, when I think about it.
How can the father welcome back the son,
before any clear sign of genuine repentance?
before any honest accounting of the injury he inflicted?
before he could even get out his rehearsed speech?
It’s not the way justice is supposed to work.

Maybe this parable is putting justice in its larger context.
Maybe God’s justice is best served
when justice gets worked out
in the context of a living, loving relationship.

God’s restorative grace must be primary, it must come first,
for reconciliation to have a chance.
We do not earn our favor with God.
We do not earn our reconciliation and forgiveness.
We do not earn our restoration into God’s household.
We are loved prior to any move on our part.
It is God’s grace that draws us back to begin with.
Taking even the first step toward home,
would not have been possible for the son,
if the deep love of the father had not already been at work,
drawing him, inviting him, empowering him.

The story is unfinished.
We don’t find out if the older brother ever came around
and saw the freedom that could come from forgiveness.
We don’t know if the younger son ever broke down in tears
at the pain he inflicted on his family.
We don’t know if, over time, the younger son changed his ways,
and slowly worked off his debt,
so that the scales of justice could be put back in balance.

We only know the beginning of that story,
which is really the main point of the story—
that grace is the primary mover
on any road leading to reconciliation,
and that grace is sometimes seen as disgraceful.

Reconciliation is God’s work. We can’t make it happen.
We can only try to understand what God is doing,
and then put ourselves in a place where we cooperate with God.

And cooperate with God we must,
because while God does the reconciling,
the ministry of reconciliation is ours to embrace and live into.
As the apostle wrote in our reading this morning from 2 Corinthians 5,
“God . . . reconciled us to himself through Christ,
and has given us the ministry of reconciliation . . .
in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself . . .
and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”

God is the Great Reconciler.
So in Christ, God was and is reconciling the world to himself.
And now we, like Christ, are entrusted with this message,
this good news, this Gospel of reconciliation.

And since, as the apostle wrote,
“We are ambassadors for Christ,
[and] God is making his appeal through us,”
then in our life together as God’s people,
and in our life in this world,
we are to be demonstrating this same kind of
grace-initiated and grace-filled reconciliation,
where justice is worked out, in the context of relationship,
where the sinners don’t have to work their way
back into our good graces,
but where the good grace of God gets expressed first;
where the relationship is valued just as highly
as the father valued his relationship with his lost son.

We are now the ones to be demonstrating this grace.
We are the ones in mourning
when there is a rupture in the family—
our biological family, and the family of God,
when someone we love wounds us and walks out of our lives.
We are the ones who lose sleep over the loss of the relationship,
more than over our injuries.
We are the ones who stand watching down the road,
ready to run and embrace the one who turns toward home.
We are the ones who celebrate the new life already begun—
instead of holding up the list of sins to be paid for
as a condition for re-entry,
so as to earn our favor and God’s favor.

Yes, I know this raises a lot of questions, good questions.
Reconciliation is a complicated thing.
It should not be entered into lightly.
In some situations, especially in cases of abuse,
the injuries are so deep and long-lasting,
that reconciliation is virtually impossible,
at least not without a radical and miraculous
transformation by God’s hand.
To move too quickly toward reconciliation,
may invite a repeat of the injury.

But whenever reconciliation is the goal—
whether it’s as simple as a word that stung, and gave offense,
or a loving relationship that ended badly,
or siblings that are estranged from each other,
or conflict that erupts between congregational members,
or churches that experience a schism,
or people who no longer speak to each other,
because their viewpoints on some divisive issue,
are just too far apart,
or . . . whatever has caused, or is potentially causing
a break in the relationship—
when reconciliation is the goal—
there needs to be a profound letting go of control,
of a willingness to risk being re-wounded,
of an ability to receive the turn toward home as genuine,
even if there are some selfish motives,
like wanting to eat real food instead of pig food.

Ours is only to offer the space for grace, offer hospitality,
whether or not it looks disgraceful to others . . .
to welcome the engagement,
so that God might pour out his grace,
and make genuine reconciliation possible,
even if the road becomes long and arduous.

In fact, right now, we are going to offer some space
for grace to begin its work,
as we enter a time of prayers for reconciliation.

I just named some ways we might be in need of reconciliation,
whether we are experiencing separation from God, in our own life,
or separations and estrangements between marriage partners,
or between siblings,
or in parent-child relationships,
or within the church,
or in larger conflicts in the church, community, and world,
which are burdens to us.

We invite you, if you wish, to come forward for prayer—
either for yourself personally,
or for some break in relationship that you are connected to,
or even some larger brokenness in the world,
that you are carrying in your spirit.
We invite you to come and receive prayers for reconciliation,
and receive anointing, if you so desire.

—Phil Kniss, March 10, 2013

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