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: http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres32.html. Accessed March 4, 2016.