Monday, March 19, 2007

Lessons in reconciliation

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A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Lent, Year C.

St Paul the Apostle captured the message of Lent in one statement from his Second Letter to the Corinthian Church, which we heard today: “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Reconciliation is not merely a Lenten theme, it is truly the gospel message. And today we are blessed with that wonderful story of reconciliation which Jesus told about a loving father and a rebellious son, that gem from the Gospel of St Luke we know as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. As we reflect upon this beautiful story of Jesus for just a few moments, I want us to find here four lessons in reconciliation.

Lesson 1: Reconciliation requires repentance. This is a story that might never have been told, a reconciliation which might never have happened if this son had not made a decision to repent before it was too late. The word repent means to turn around. The Hebrew word for repent means to physically stop, turn around, and start heading the opposite direction. In Greek, the word for repent describes such a complete change of mind that it entirely reorients one’s view of the world. This young man decided it was time to turn his life around.

It took a lot to bring him to that moment of clarity. It was only after he had squandered his inheritance and was forced into servitude—a Jew living among swine, hungering for the slop in the pig’s trough—that he “came to himself.” When he had that experience of what people often call “rock bottom,” he came to himself and saw his life in a proper perspective. Without this harsh confrontation without reality, there might never have been repentance, and this young man would have never reconciled with his father. This experience is what drives him to say, “I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’”

A powerful television program on the A&E cable network called Intervention profiles people whose dependence on drugs and alcohol or other compulsive behavior has brought them to a point of personal crisis and estranged them from their friends and loved ones. Each episode ends with a surprise intervention. The intervention is a staged gathering of the individual struggling with addition with family and friends, assisted by an Intervention specialists. It is a confrontational, yet loving conversation aimed at treatment. One specialist described the role of the intervention as creating an experience of the consequences of bad behavior while there is still time to create a new reality.

I think the intervention model is a good description of the family meetings that have been going on in the Anglican Communion recently. The goal is to call the loved one (in this case, the Episcopal Church USA and the Diocese of New Westminster) to a new life before it is too late. Some episodes of Intervention have happy endings; others do not. That depends upon the person who has the decision to make. Repentance is the choice of a new beginning rather than the path of self-destruction. And reconciliation cannot happen without the offending person having the resolve to turn around. That’s why reconciliation requires repentance.

Lesson 2: Reconciliation is joyful. The parable gives the impression that the father had shed many tears, offered many prayers, and perhaps even waited many years to see the return of his son. How could his return not be filled with smiles and joyful celebration? The Bible says, “while he was still far off [which means that he had to be looking], his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” The father called for him to be clothed with the best robe. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Kill the fatted calf and get the kitchen ready, because there’s going to be a party tonight.

The garments and meal mentioned here were things socially reserved only for the special occasions and the most dignified of guests. They were things that seemed all too appropriate to this loving father. “Let’s celebrate”, he said, “for this son of mine was dead, and now he’s alive again; he was lost and he’s been found.”

This is the kind of celebration among the saints and angels for every prodigal son or daughter. This is the kind of joy that God feels when a lost soul returns home. Just before relating this parable in St Luke’s gospel, Jesus had explained, “I tell you that there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” That’s the kind of joy that awaits you and me in the loving embrace of our heavenly father whenever we rebel and then come home to him. By its very nature, reconciliation is joyful.

Lesson 3: Reconciliation is costly. It started when the young son asked for his inheritance early because he wanted to go away and live his life on his own terms, with no interference strings attached. He probably did not have the maturity to do so yet, because it didn’t go so well. It may be the fault of the father for being to lenient at such a moment--not exercising sufficiently "tough love." But we don't know the full history that led up to this moment.

We are told that he “gathered all that he had and went to a distant country and squandered his property in dissolute living.” And now? It was all over & it was all gone. Not even going home would bring that wasted inheritance back. The homecoming celebration is also an expensive undertaking which is added to the cost of the son’s squandered inheritance. The father did not demand that his son pay anything back. He counted it as a loss. It amounts to the price that the father is willing to pay for having him home again.

I remember hearing about a family counselor who was working with an adopted child who had anger with his family and his situation in life. The counselor said all the standard things you are supposed to say to a child who’s been adopted (i.e., “you were chosen”, “they could have anyone, but they picked you” etc). But session after session, none of the standard things seems to be working. He still had a deep anger at his parents over various things. Finally, out of frustration, the counselor said, “Look kid, do you have any idea what you cost?” This sparked the boy’s interest and the counselor walked him through the thousands of dollars in fees and court costs it took to bring him home and the thousands more spent on his upbringing and education.

Beloved, we too have been adopted—adopted as beloved children in God’s family. The cost of our supernatural adoption was mighty high in comparison. The cost was the blood of the only-begotten son of God. Yet it was a price that God the Father was willing to pay. It was the price that bought us a new beginning. As St Paul wrote in today’s epistle, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.” As we come today to eat the Flesh of Christ and drink his precious Blood, let us remind ourselves that reconciliation is indeed costly.

Lesson 4: Reconciliation is not fair. This is what the older son in the story is showing us. Remember that the father had two sons. The younger son squandered his inheritance and finally came home. The older son was the responsible and obedient son. He was faithful to his family and diligent in his work. In fact, he was out working in the fields when the prodigal son came home. It seems he might have still been out working when the homecoming party started. When the older son returned to the house and heard the music and dancing, he called one of the servants and asked what was going on. When he was told the party was for his irresponsible younger brother, he (understandably) got mad and refused to join in the celebration.

The father then took notice and went outside to talk to his older son. But the father was unable to convince him to share in the joy of the moment. His older son pointed out that his younger brother has been disobedient and very wasteful, taking advantage of his kindness. In contrast, the older son points out that he has always been loyal and faithful, but was never given a party like this.

The father asked him to appreciate the fellowship that is unbroken between them and the full inheritance that is has always been there waiting for him. The father said he wanted him to share his joy over getting a lost son back home, or as it were, a dead son back from the grave. We are not told if this made the older son feel any better. Perhaps it did; perhaps it did not. After all, the older son is right; it’s not fair.

As we noted before, reconciliation is not fair, and thank God for that. After all, fairness does not bring us reconciliation with God. The only thing fairness gets you is a ticket to hell. In hell, everyone gets what they deserve. What the older son was complaining about is true: reconciliation is not fair. Or perhaps we should put it another way, reconciliation is more than fair. In heaven, everyone gets better than what they deserve. The glories of heaven and the joys of reconciliation with God come as a free gift of God’s grace through Jesus Christ.

Would we be willing to overlook absolute fairness and rejoice over the homecoming of another, just as the hosts of heaven rejoice over our own? In one way or another, we have all squandered our inheritances. And yet, our heavenly father waits for us time and again with open arms, ready to embrace us and kiss us and welcome us home. It is time to get back to that homecoming celebration.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for this, Timothy. I used your major points here (giving you credit, of course) in my homily at Mass this morning at 7 AM.

Well done.

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