Monday, March 28, 2016

Miracles of Trust

[Sermon from Easter Vigil, March 26, 2016]
Tonight – as we take this stunning journey from the darkness of sin and death into the light of Christ’s resurrection – tonight seems an appropriate time to reflect on the latest darkness trying to extinguish the light.  That darkness is this week’s terrorist attack in Brussels. 
Like shootings in our public spaces, terrorist attacks have taken on a depressingly familiar narrative in our national life.  Violence strikes like a snakebite; we spend time with the news channels, unable to look away from the carnage; we argue about who’s to blame, filling in the identities of those we mistrust or fear; we consider new steps we think might control the power of sin and death; and at the end of the narrative, we’ve become just a little more afraid than we were the week before. 
Myself, I believe that is our real threat: fear, leading to despair.  That’s the real enemy – not the perpetrators, not even death itself.  For tonight, we see and hear that we need not fear death or its perpetrators.  For those who put their trust in the God of Moses and Isaiah and Ezekiel – for those who put their trust in God’s ultimate Word and our risen Lord, Jesus Christ – for us, death has already been vanquished.  It’s a battle we don’t have to fight.  I know that I will die, and I know that I will live.  The details of that certainty are secondary because they don’t change the story’s ending.  So on this side of eternal life, the real enemies are fear and despair, because fear and despair seem to confront us new each day.  Just check your news channel of choice. 
It’s enough to test our faith, just as fear and despair tested the faith of our ancestors.  Ezekiel, in his vision we heard tonight, comes into the valley of dry bones; and the Lord asks Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” (37:3)  It was a pressing question, because this prophet of Israel’s exile shared his people’s worries about whether they’d endure conquest and captivity.  How about us?  What are your deepest worries, the driest bones you know?  Maybe the everyday reality of terrorism?  Maybe the incivility of American politics and government’s failure to govern?  Maybe the suffering of refugees – or the threat some think they pose?  Maybe your own broken relationships or the fears that lay siege to your heart?  What dry bones rattle long and loud enough to keep you up at night?
Let’s think about someone else who had some serious worries – the disciple Peter.  In the Gospel story, Peter doesn’t even get the security of bones to look at.  When he comes to the tomb, the body’s gone.  Has God raised Jesus, as the women proclaimed?  Or have the grave robbers gotten in to desecrate the body, adding insult to Peter’s injury?  For Peter, that injury isn’t just the death of Jesus.  Peter’s also struggling with the death of his own courage three nights before, when he denied the Son of God to save his skin.  Those bones rattle loud in Peter’s head even while the women’s proclamation rings in his ears.  Their call to trust in what simply couldn’t be true seems as absurd as God asking Ezekiel to make dry bones “hear the word of the Lord” (37:4).  The women’s “words seemed to the disciples an idle tale, and they did not believe,” Luke says (24:11).  So Peter goes to the tomb himself, looks in, is amazed at what he doesn’t see – and then he goes home.  He must have told the rest of the group eventually; but for the moment, he just goes home.  Maybe he needed to sort out what he really thought about all this.  Could he find a way to make sense of what the women had said and the empty tomb he’d seen?  And if so, then what was he supposed to do? 
After all, things hadn’t ended well between Peter and Jesus, especially the way Luke’s Gospel tells it.  There, we have the familiar scene of Peter denying Jesus three times while Jesus stands before the high priest, on trial for his life.  But Luke’s account adds a chilling detail, an image Peter couldn’t get out of his mind.  As soon as Peter denies Jesus the third time, Jesus turns away from his accusers and looks Peter in the eye (Luke 22:61).  That look leaves Peter broken and sobbing.  So then, three days later, as Peter hears what’s supposed to be Good News, I imagine him thinking, “Oh my God – if it’s true, how can I ever look him in the eye again?” 
I imagine that might be true for some of us, as we hear the resurrection story.  Maybe we hesitate to believe in resurrection because of the personal implications of this grand story we’ve lived tonight:  If it’s true, is my conscience clear?  If I’ve denied Christ – explicitly in things I’ve said and done or, a thousand times more, implicitly in things I haven’t said and done – if I’ve denied Christ, then what?  If I’ve only signed up for an affiliation with the Church to hedge my bets, just in case this Jesus stuff is real – then what?  What do I say when I take his Body in my hand at the altar rail?  What do I say when the resurrected Christ takes my hand and looks me in the eye?
Well, on this night of absurd new life, here’s my advice:  Turn away from fear and despair, and let Jesus take your hand.  That’s what Peter finally did.  He knew he’d failed; he knew he couldn’t love the way Jesus wanted him to love.  And still, at the end of the story, he said “yes” to Jesus’ call to feed the sheep.  No matter where that path would lead, no matter what he suffered along the way, Peter knew it was the way – the way of life.  That’s our journey, too, a journey that begins again this night – the journey with Peter from amazement to belief to trust. 
And in this world where unholy forces always compete for our allegiance, our temptation is to stop two-thirds of the way down the path – to stop with belief.  As I said the other night at Mary Lynn Coulson’s ordination, we take those first words of the Creeds a bit too literally the way they’re translated into English.  We say “we believe” in God who is Father, Son, and Spirit.  OK.  Maybe we believe that, intellectually.  But do we trust in God as the source of our being, our liberator from sin and death, and the power of our resurrected lives day in and day out?  It’s one thing to acknowledge something’s true.  It’s quite another to stake your life on it.  But that’s precisely what God asks of us this night.  Jesus has done the hard work, putting himself through hell, literally, to vanquish Satan and extinguish the darkness of death with the light of life.  Christ has won the war – but he leaves it up to us to win the peace. 
We don’t have miracles to perform.  We have miracles to trust.  That is the primary work Jesus leaves to us: that we would revel in the light of his victory and bear that light to a world that prefers the darkness.  For when we trust, God moves mountains.  When we trust, miracles happen once again.
And that should come as no surprise.  After all, a mumbling, unwilling desert outlaw eventually led his people out of slavery and into freedom in the Promised Land.  After all, the oppressors who tried to drown the children of Israel in the Nile were themselves drowned in the Red Sea.  After all, a people once enslaved became God’s missionary presence to kings and nations.  After all, the water that once flooded the earth and destroyed humanity became God’s instrument for cleansing our hearts and adopting us as beloved children.  After all, a stumbling and cowardly Peter, sure he had failed for all time, became the Rock of the Church, the leader commissioned to feed and tend Christ’s sheep.  After all, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we now walk in newness of life, dead to sin but alive to God forever (Romans 6:4).  These are miracles we can trust.
In our most challenging moments – maybe more often than not, if we’re honest about it – we join the people of Israel in their lament that “our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely” (Ezekiel 36:11).  We live in that valley of fear and despair more than we’d like to admit.  But when we trust, Jesus the conqueror leads us out of the valley of the shadow of death.  When we trust, miracles happen.  For thus says the Lord God to all of our dry bones:  “I am going to open your graves and bring you up from your graves, O my people….  And you shall know that I am the Lord when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.  I will put my spirit within you,” says the Lord, “and you shall live.” (Ezekiel 37:12-14)

Monday, March 21, 2016

Who's in Charge Here?

[Sermon from Palm Sunday, March 20, 2016]
This is a fairly confusing experience of worship we’re having this morning.  We began outside joyfully, symbolically there with the people of Jerusalem, waving palm branches and proclaiming Jesus to be king of kings.  We cried out, “Hosanna” – which means, “save us” – and we followed him in triumph into the holy city, here into the church.  But as soon as we found ourselves here in Jerusalem, everything changed.  Instead of shouting praise, instead of calling out for Jesus to save us, we’re shouting, “Crucify him!” and taunting him to save himself.  It’s a worship experience guaranteed to make your head spin.
Maybe we can get some clarity about what’s going on by asking a question of the scriptures we’ve heard.  And that question is this:  “Who’s in charge here?”
We might think the Jewish religious authorities are in charge.  After all, they manage to bring Jesus to Pilate on a trumped-up indictment, and they play the system to make the charges stick.  But their authority only goes so far: They have no law – or at least no will – to execute a blasphemer, so they have to defer to Rome to carry out their plan.
So we might think the Roman authorities are in charge.  After all, Pilate is Caesar’s man in Palestine, deputized to keep the Pax Romana at any cost and remembered in history as a ruthless imperial hatchet man.  But in the Gospel accounts, especially in Luke, all Pilate does is stand there protesting about Jesus’ innocence – and then he bows to the pressure of the crowd and kills him anyway.  He’s not exactly a paragon of Roman power.
Oddly enough, the one who’s in charge here is the one who ends up being tortured and crucified.  Jesus may not have a lot to say, but that’s partly the point.  This isn’t power on the world’s terms, the power of religious manipulators and petty rulers and angry mobs.  This is power on a whole different scale.
Listen to the language both Luke and Paul use in today’s readings.  When the disciples take a colt for Jesus to ride in royal triumph, they explain that “the Lord needs it” (Luke 19:31).  And in the reading from Philippians, Paul says this crucified one has been exalted such that “at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend … and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (2:10-11). Now, to our ears, we probably hear that word “Lord” as something roughly equivalent to “God,” but that’s not what people heard back in the day.  The word in Greek is kyrios, and it means “Lord” in the sense of the divine king, the one who wields ultimate power.  And when you talked about the kyrios in the Roman world, you were talking specifically about Caesar.  Caesar was the one called “Lord.”  Caesar was worshipped as a deity by those under his thumb; he was even described as the “Savior” because of the peace Rome had brought to the ancient world with its iron fist; and when Caesar went off visiting some part of his empire, his messengers would announce the “good news” that the kyrios, the Lord, was coming.  Sound familiar?  So when Luke says “the Lord” needs that colt; and when the crowds come out to welcome Jesus with palm branches the way they would welcome a king; and when Paul proclaims that every tongue will confess that Jesus is “Lord” – in all this, what’s being proclaimed is an explicit challenge to the power of Caesar.  After all, if Jesus is the kyrios, if Jesus is the true emperor and savior, then Caesar isn’t.1
So, the Lord is now hanging on the cross, bleeding and suffocating to death.  All the signs around him point to that deep and awful irony.  The religious leaders speak the truth without realizing it by derisively calling him “king.”  One of the criminals crucified with Jesus picks up the same refrain, naming Jesus as the king but demanding that he prove it by saving himself and the criminals.  And over Jesus’ head hangs the ironic caption for the whole picture: “This is the King of the Jews,” the sign reads (23:38).  It’s only wrong in the sense that it’s too limited.  This kyrios is Lord over every nation.
And then, we hear from the one character in this Passion story who sees the truth.  The second criminal hanging next to Jesus has watched all that’s been going on.  He’s seen Jesus make his triumphal entry into the city, being hailed as king; and he’s watched that adoring crowd from Palm Sunday turn into an angry mob out for blood.  Now, this second criminal has watched Jesus be humiliated and broken.  But unlike the others in this scene, this criminal can read the signs around him.  So when the first criminal joins in the abuse, this second one says, “Do you not fear God…?  [W]e indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:40-41) 
When this criminal looks at Jesus, he sees that this is no wild prophet, no political zealot, no bankrupt faith healer, no failed revolutionary.  This is the Lord, the emperor not of Rome but of all creation.  So, hanging on his own cross, the criminal verbally bows down before him and says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (23:42).  Not if, but when.
It’s perfectly fitting that, while all the respectable people are ridiculing and killing the Lord, the one faithful actor in this scene is a criminal.  In the logic of the Gospel, blessing always seems to come as a reversal.  Blessed are the hungry, for they shall be fed.  Blessed are the mournful, for they shall laugh.  And, in this case, blessed is the lawless, for he shall behold the one who rules all.
So how about us?  When we look on this crucified, broken, innocent man, whom do we see?
Do we see a pitiful sap who got chewed up in the wheels of the imperial machine?  It’s right to pity his horrific suffering, but that’s not enough.
Do we see a great teacher whose words offended the powerful so much that they silenced him?  It’s right to mourn what we didn’t get to learn of Jesus’ wisdom, but that’s not enough.
Do we see a leader who tried to guide people in righteousness and enact God’s peace and justice in the world?  It’s right to grieve the silencing of this prophet who led us into God’s commonwealth rather than our own politics of self-aggrandizement, but that’s not enough.
Or do we see the king, the ruler of the universe, the one who, “though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,” even to the point of death on a cross? (Philippians 2:1-8)
And when we finally recognize that king on the cross, what on earth are we supposed to do? 
Faced with the deep mystery of a crucified emperor who reigns over us still, perhaps the best thing we can do is what Jesus asks us to do each week at this altar – and that is, to remember.  Remember him this Thursday in the terrible beauty of foot-washing and Eucharist, the stripping of this altar, and the long, lonely watch through the night.  Remember him this Friday in the desolation of crucifixion and the attack on the Savior by the saved.  Remember him again on Easter, when the light of an empty tomb finally breaks over death’s horizon.  And remember him every day thereafter, living your life subject to his authority.
Through this holiest of weeks, and through our weekly remembrance of Jesus, and through all the burdens and blessings that come our way, may we always look to the cross and remember: This is where we’ll find the one true king.

  1.  For more on the “counter-empire” of Jesus, see Wright, N.T.  “Paul's Gospel and Caesar's Empire.”  Available at:  Accessed March 18, 2016.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Serving Saints and Pagans

[Sermon for the ordination of Mary Lynn Coulson to the transitional diaconate, March 17, 2016]
As we gather here tonight for this joyful event – and perhaps a somewhat frightening event for one of us – I’d like to look backward for a bit before looking forward to Mary Lynn’s ministry.  In fact, I’d like to look backward about 16 centuries. Today is the feast of St. Patrick, missionary to the peoples of Ireland.1  And I have to say, St. Patrick’s feast is a very good time to be ordaining someone into the ranks of servant leaders for the Church in our own day.
We associate Patrick with all things Irish, but he wasn’t Irish – born in Britain and raised in the upper class.  He was the grandson of a priest but only a nominal Christian himself, and apparently he ridiculed clergy quite openly as a teenager (imagine that). 
At 16, everything changed for Patrick, and for the Church, when he was captured by invading Irish pirates and sold into slavery.  That might well have been the end of his story, spiritually if not physically.  But as a slave in Ireland, Patrick experienced three changes that would set his life’s course.  First, he came to know God as revealed in creation, and he was transformed from a nominal Christian to a disciple with deep trust in the Trinity.  Second, he came to understand the culture of the Celtic peoples of Ireland.  Third, and most unexpectedly, he came to love those Celtic peoples of Ireland, wanting them to know God as he had come to know God. 
After six years a slave, Patrick heard a voice in a dream telling him to escape on a ship that would be awaiting him the next morning.  Sure enough, when he awoke, the ship was there; and Patrick escaped.  Eventually, after time in Gaul and perhaps Rome, Patrick found his way back home to England, where he trained for the priesthood and served a parish for several years.
But at 48 years old, Patrick had another dream that changed his life and the lives of generations.  He dreamt his former captors were calling him back to Ireland, and he interpreted this as a divine call – a call to share his love of God and trust in God with the peoples of Ireland.  He proposed this mission to his superiors, who affirmed his call and ordained him the first missionary bishop in Christian history – the first bishop without an existing church to pastor.
So, Patrick and his small band of apostles arrived in Ireland in 432.  His mission was unprecedented because Patrick turned the Church’s assumption about mission on its head.  Before Patrick, the Roman Church assumed that Christian faith could only take root in Roman culture.  If the people hadn’t been taught to speak Latin and follow Roman ways, the Church assumed, Christianity couldn’t happen.  It’s the same set of missional mistakes the Church made over and over again with peoples in the Americas, Africa, Asia … mistakes we’re finally coming to unlearn today.  It turns out Patrick was centuries ahead of his time in showing us how to be a mission-shaped Church.
How Patrick went about that mission might sound familiar to someone coming out of seminary in 2016.  In a nutshell, Patrick practiced church from the bottom up.  He didn’t franchise an institutional brand and open up in new locations.  Patrick was a community organizer.  He and his apostolic team came into a new context, got to know the people there (both leaders and regular folks), got involved in people’s day-to-day lives, and lived as Christians, narrating their faith story and their trust in God along the way.  More than anything else, Patrick and his followers took individual people seriously.  He knew their culture; he knew their language; and he knew that a relationship with the Triune God would change their hearts as it had changed his.  And it worked.  Patrick would take a dozen or so assistants into a village, engage the people there for several months, and create an indigenous church – one that remained when the team moved on.  Estimates are that Patrick and his team raised up expressions of church in 700 locations in Ireland over the 28 years he was there.
Interestingly, and sadly, that happy ending wasn’t quite the end of Patrick’s missional story.  He and his fellow apostles had this amazing experience of joining with the Holy Spirit to breathe church into being among people who had never known the Good News.  But back in Britain, the bishops who’d sent Patrick generally condemned him and distanced the institutional church from his methods.  They disowned Patrick because … wait for it … the Church hadn’t done it like that before.  In that day, apparently, bishops understood their role to be administrators and chaplains, and the Church saw its work primarily as running its operations and ministering Word and Sacrament to the existing flock.  The British church leaders didn’t know what to do with someone who wanted the Church to be mission-shaped.  So they condemned Patrick for spending so much time with barbarians.  They would have preferred that he spent his days in the office rather than out in the bars and coffee shops with the pagans.
So, what does all this have to do with our work here tonight on this feast of St. Patrick?  The first point is obvious:  Mary Lynn is being ordained into leadership in a Church that the Holy Spirit has placed – and increasingly is placing – among non-Christians, if we can imagine such a thing.  God is asking us to be a mission-shaped church every bit as much as God was asking Patrick to raise up a mission-shaped church in Ireland.  The church God calls us to be is formed in conversation with the context of a given time and place, just as much as in conversation with Scripture, tradition, and reason. 
So that’s the first point of connection with Mary Lynn’s ordination tonight.  The second point of connection may be less obvious until you’ve lived it a while.  As we hear St. Patrick’s story, of course we focus on his faithfulness, his trust, and his courage in following God’s call.  What we don’t hear is the cost to Patrick himself.  Just imagine the spendthrift servant heart it must have taken to raise up church in 700 Irish villages. 
That servant story is also Jesus’ story, as we heard in the Gospel reading tonight.  Out of context, we may not get the full irony of that reading about greatness and servanthood.  A dispute arises among Jesus’ followers about which of them is the greatest, which seems the height of presumption and immaturity in any case.  But in the context of the larger story, it’s just appalling.  Jesus is at table with his friends for the last time that night, celebrating God’s redemption of Israel at the Passover while the chief priests and Judas have hatched a plan to have him arrested and killed.  Jesus washes the feet of his friends and institutes the Eucharist, as we will remember one week from tonight – asking his friends to re-member him in bread broken and wine poured out, the fullest expression of self-giving love.  And then, in the next breath, his friends are arguing about which one of them is the greatest.  Maybe they’re considering the practicalities of succession before the body’s even cold.  Maybe they’re just astronomically tone deaf.  I imagine Jesus slack-jawed, even he being surprised at their blindness.  “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them,” Jesus says, “… but not so with you; rather, the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves” (Luke 22:25-27).  After all, Jesus reminds them, “I am among you as one who serves” (22:27).  Remember?  Remember.
Mary Lynn, would you please stand?  Now, at this moment, I’m supposed to give you some sage wisdom about the call you’re about to undertake.  I don’t know that what I’ll say is particularly wise, but I do know that it’s true:  Being ordained to serve Christ in his one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church will cost you everything.  That costly process has been well underway for you for some time, I know.  It will feel sometimes like you can’t win.  The Church will commission you as an apostle to those outside the assembly, and it will expect you to give your all to those already within the flock.  Bishops and colleagues will remind you of the need to set good boundaries even as you have two deaths and a parish meeting that week.  The institutional culture, as well as your own brokenness, will tempt you with visions of greatness, especially when the day-to-day work of loving people becomes more grind than gift.  As a deacon, and later as a priest, you are absurdly called “to serve all people” in the name of Jesus Christ (BCP 543), incarnating his presence in everything you speak and everything you do.  Acting under our own power, all this is simply impossible.  Acting through the power of the Holy Spirit, this call that costs you everything is paradoxically life-giving – for those you serve and, astonishingly, for you.  As you join with St. Patrick in re-inventing the Church and in serving thousands of individual children of God, remember the verb that will save your life.  It’s the verb that drives the creeds, though we mistranslate it and hear it intellectually, asserting, “We believe….”  Don’t just believe.  Trust.  That’s the verb that will save your life.  Along with St. Patrick and his glorious hymn, trust in the “strong name of the Trinity.”  Trust in the “power of God to hold and lead.”  Trust in Christ within you, Christ behind you, Christ before you, Christ beside you.”  Trust in “the Lord of [your] salvation,” that you may be Christ’s deacon and, later, priest, loving both the saints and the pagans God sends you to serve.

1.      St. Patrick’s story is summarized from: Hunter, George G.  The Celtic Way of Evangelism.  Nashville: Abingdon, 2000, 13-25.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Prodigal Father

[Sermon from Sunday, March 6, 2016.  Luke 15:1-3,11b-32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21]
If I say, “We are a people in need of reconciliation,” would any of you disagree with me? 
I ask because I’ve been thinking about reconciliation a lot recently.  It is, after all, the mission of the Church.  The catechism spells it out:  “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP 855).  So everything we do should be pointing, one way or another, toward reconciliation: bringing people together in Christ and bringing them into deeper relationship with God.  Well, this is one of those moments when I’m seeing God stirring several different pots at the same time, all of which call for generous measures of the seasoning of reconciliation.
First, God is stirring our own spiritual pots in this season of Lent, and building relationship really is what Lent is all about.  All our Lenten work points in that direction, if you get right down to it.  This year, we’re exploring that call to build relationship with Henri Nouwen as our guide, as well as Rembrandt van Rijn.  Nouwen’s book [The Return of the Prodigal Son] and Rembrandt’s painting are helping us put ourselves into Jesus’ parable we heard this morning about “the man who had two sons” (Luke 15:11).  We call it the story of the prodigal son, though I think that misses the point.  I might call it the parable of the two lost sons and their prodigal father.  More on that later.  Anyway, through this story, and through our Lenten practices, I think God’s asking each of us to take seriously both our call to be reconcilers and the power of what we can do to bring people together and connect them with God.
Another pot that’s simmering – or maybe boiling – is the race for the presidency.  That may seem about as far away as we can get from the topic of keeping a holy Lent, but it’s a huge part of our national discourse right now, the Sunday after Super Tuesday.  I will confess to you my civic irresponsibility: Until recently, I had not watched any of the candidates’ debates all the way through.  So, when I was out of town a couple of weeks ago for a conference, I decided I’d do it.  It was the Republican debate the last week of February, and it was a doozy.  I want to say that the party affiliation isn’t the point; if the Democrats’ race included different power dynamics and personalities, the same thing could just as easily have happened there.  As you know, the debate that week was pretty short on content and pretty long on jabs and insults (as was the debate a few nights ago).  The whole experience was captured by a deeply insightful, though unintentional, bit of analysis that came through in the closed captioning.  If you had the closed captioning on while the candidates talked over each other, you saw this summary at the bottom of the screen:  “incomprehensible bickering.”  Perfect.  We’ve known for a long time that our national discourse has been becoming more and more divisive, but we may have reached a new low here.  A mom told me this week that she’s concerned about letting her children watch the presidential debates because of the bad habits the candidates teach her children.  Think about that for a minute.  When I was a boy, parents and teachers tried to get us to watch presidential debates so we could learn the process and the issues.  Now, kids need protection from them.  Once, our leaders cast a vision of “malice toward none” and “charity for all” as we strove to “bind up the nation’s wounds.”1  Now, we hear name calling and “incomprehensible bickering” among those who want to lead us.  And we see our need for reconciliation in living color.
A third pot that’s simmering, at least for Episcopalians, is the one in which our Anglican stew is cooking.  As you’ve probably heard, The Episcopal Church is continuing to experience discord with other churches of the Anglican Communion because of our actions last year to open the sacrament of marriage to gay and lesbian people.  The leaders of the churches of the Anglican world met several weeks ago, as they regularly do; and our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, was part of that conflicted meeting.  He was also part of the conference I attended two weeks ago, and there he shared with the rectors and deans what he had experienced at this Primates’ Meeting.  Now, if you followed the headlines from the Primates’ Meeting, you read things like, “Episcopal Church Kicked Out of Anglican Communion.”  That’s simply not true, and we’ve had a piece in the Messenger for the past few weeks that takes you to our bishop’s careful analysis of what actually happened at that meeting.  In a nutshell, here it is – and I would say the headline is actually good news.  First and foremost, what the primates’ agreed to was this statement:  “Over the past week,” they said, “the unanimous decision of the Primates was to walk together, however painful this is and despite our differences, as a deep expression of our unity in the body of Christ.”  That isn’t just churchy happy talk; that is a deeply powerful theological statement of how Christians are called to be in relationship with each other even when they disagree on important questions.  “The unanimous decision … was to walk together, however painful that is.”  Then, after that, the primates agreed to reduce the role of The Episcopal Church in interfaith work and doctrinal policy setting for a period of three years.  That stings, yes.  But at the conference I attended, Presiding Bishop Curry characterized that as “a surgical response.”  He said to us, “The thought is, we have a difference in doctrine [with many of the other Anglican churches], so we can’t represent doctrine for this period of three years.”  But, he added, “It doesn’t go beyond that.  It’s a very narrow expression of profound disagreement and displeasure.”  And most important, that restriction on us doesn’t trump the churches’ unanimous commitment to walk together in the light of God.  That is the power of reconciliation in action.  These leaders were able to express their “profound disagreement and displeasure” together, including our presiding bishop expressing his conviction that “part of the vocation of The Episcopal Church is helping our Communion figure out what it means to be a house of prayer for all people.”  But ultimately, God’s call to reconciliation carried the day.  As Presiding Bishop Curry said at our conference, “Expressing ourselves clearly and staying in relationship is a marker of maturity” in Christ.
So as we hear this Gospel reading today, and as we explore Nouwen’s book and Rembrandt’s painting, let me ask:  How are we doing as reconcilers?  What rifts are you helping to heal through your life?  As a congregation, we might look to the example of our relationship with the people of United Missionary Baptist Church.  As you know, we’ve worshiped together three times now.  Over the past few weeks, we’ve also had a small but faithful contingent of St. Andrew’s people attending a weekly Bible study at UMBC, and Fr. Marcus has presented there twice.  The conversations have been lively and, sometimes, conflicted.  We don’t see Scripture through exactly the same lens, and people from our two congregations would disagree about some key ideas – the place of women and LGBTQ people in church leadership, for example.  Those differences are real.  And still, we can read the Bible together and worship God together.
And, we can serve God’s world together.  UMBC has been hearing a call to create a community center for its neighborhood, beginning by developing space in its basement for computer classes and nutritional programs.  Our Outreach Commission has decided to get involved with this project – not in terms of funding but, at this point, by looking for parishioners who might help UMBC work through organizational and governance questions.  I don’t know how all this will play out, but the point is the call we share:  as our baptismal covenant puts it, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves” and to “strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being.”  We don’t agree about everything, UMBC and us.  But we can still work together to “restore … people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”
This work of reconciliation isn’t easy – and that’s one sign of how much it matters.  It isn’t easy because, going back to Jesus’ parable today, we’re always tempted to be one of the two sons, in their less-than-holy moments.  The younger son acts from self-centeredness.  He’s so wrapped up in himself that he symbolically kills his father, asking for his share of the inheritance before the old man even has a chance to die.  The older son acts from judgment and resentment and self-righteousness.  He’s so wrapped up in himself that he symbolically leaves home by refusing to go in and join the celebration for his brother’s return.  In both cases, the father’s passion for reconciliation is so strong that he humbles himself to go out and meet the sons where they are, rather than waiting for them to come and apologize to him for their offenses.  Righteousness under the law dictated otherwise.  The father deserved satisfaction from the boys for their disrespect of him and of God, who commands us to honor our fathers and mothers.  But instead, the father goes out and meets the sons where they are – as Paul writes in 2nd Corinthians, “not counting their trespasses against them” but serving as an ambassador of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:19).  The father is the true “prodigal” in this parable.  After all, “prodigal” means someone who spends resources freely, even recklessly; someone who spends without counting the cost.  The father is the prodigal here, prodigiously spending himself for the sake of relationship, running out the door and down the road to bring his children home.
May we go and do likewise – with our brothers and sisters wherever and whoever they are.  When it’s easy to let ourselves be hindered by barriers like Troost Avenue, let us cross the boundary instead.  When it’s easy to let ourselves by hindered by theological or social or political differences, let us cross the boundary instead.  When it’s easy to let ourselves fall into “incomprehensible bickering,” let us cross the boundary instead.  Because Jesus has called us and commissioned us as ambassadors of reconciliation.  So, like the prodigal father, let us run to take God’s love on the road.

1.        Lincoln, Abraham.  2nd Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865.  Available at:  Accessed March 4, 2016.