March 27, 2022———-4th Sunday in Lent

Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5: 16-21; Luke 15: 1-32

Dale was a proud man, a man who was glad that his grown kids had settled in the same area, a man who was happiest when his whole (large) family gathered around the table for a meal.  But Dale had a problem.  His teenaged grandson had acted in a way that he considered to be extremely disrespectful, and he had called him on it.  The boy’s mother (Dale’s daughter) took offense at this, and complained to him.  As a result, they were not speaking to each other.  Dale felt that he was right; his daughter felt that she was right—and they had a standoff.

Then Dale had some heart trouble, and landed in the hospital.  When I went to visit him, he poured out his dilemma.  He didn’t want this separation between him and his daughter—but he couldn’t bring himself to apologize because that would be saying that his grandson’s behavior was okay…and it wasn’t!

I didn’t mention to Dale that his daughter had been on the phone with me that very morning, wondering how to approach her dad.  She was worried that he might die before they had a chance to make up—and this was intolerable to her.  She asked, “How can I be loyal to my son AND visit my ailing father?”

There was a gulf between them, and they both wanted to be reconciled.

The rest of the story is that, the next day, the daughter showed up at his hospital room, prepared to make amends (and not knowing how he would receive her).  And his heart had been softened toward her as he considered the love he had for her.  I was blessed to be in the room when they both reached out their arms and embraced, putting the past behind them, experiencing the blessing of reconciliation.

Our scriptures for today are all about reconciliation—1. Between us and God; 2. Between us and each other.  The parables Jesus told were about a shepherd pursuing a lost sheep, and a woman diligently looking for a lost coin—and the rejoicing when the lost was found.  And, of course, the parable of the son who takes his half of the inheritance and blows it in a far country, alienating himself from his father and his brother—and then coming home with desperate hopes.  He wasn’t hoping for restoration to his former position, but he hoped to get a JOB!  He is greeted with all the signs of reconciliation by his father (and by rejection from his brother).

Then we have Paul, in his second letter to the church in Corinth, saying that God reconciled us to himself through Christ, and that now we have the job of reconciliation!  God is giving us a job!  1. How can we take this job seriously?  2. What is reconciliation all about?  3. Where do we begin?  Friends, let’s begin right here and right now!

Reconciliation Between God and Humanity

The first step in reconciliation is FORGIVENESS.  In fact, there can be no reconciliation without it!  Forgiveness springs from God’s desire to not let anything stand between us and God.  Listen to Frederick Buechner’s definition of forgiveness, which applies to both God’s forgiveness of us AND our forgiveness of each other: “To forgive somebody is to say one way or another, ‘You have done something unspeakable, and by all rights I should call it quits between us.  Both my pride and my principles demand no less.  However, although I make no guarantees that I will be able to forget what you’ve done and though we may both carry the scars for life, I refuse to let it stand between us.  I still want you for my friend.’”

The scriptures remind us that God is always pursuing the alienated ones: like the shepherd looking for lost sheep; like the woman searching for the lost coin; like the heart of the father watching and waiting for the lost son—and RUNNING to him when he appeared on the horizon!  God will pursue us and reach out to us—but God will never force us to be reunited.

Our faith story has a recurring theme of reconciliation running  all the way through it!  “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should have everlasting life.”  “The proof of God’s amazing love is this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”  God is reaching out for us, and all we have to do to be reconciled is to quit running away from God!  Quit running away; turn to God and ask for forgiveness.  “Anyone in Christ is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

Reconciliation Between Us and Them

What about reconciliation between us and others?  Well, this also begins with the conscious decision to forgive (even if the heart is still hurting!)  I find that it helps me to try to understand 1. The history of the person who has offended me; 2. The difficulties in their life; 3. The pain and the heartaches and “shadows” they live with.  IF I can understand them (as God knows and understands me), it helps me to forgive them and to love them.  Then reconciliation can begin.

It turns out that LOVE is more important than anything that divides us.

Let me remind you: when I suggest that we love the person we are trying to forgive, I am not saying to try to develop a feeling of love toward them.  Love is a decision.  Love is an action.  So, to love them means to decide to do those things that you would do if you already had the feeling of love for them!

God has placed us in relationships with others.  And God has given us the ministry of reconciliation.  We can stand for principles, yes.  But we can also choose to step beyond principles and reach out.  It helps to remember that healing and restoration really are just one step away.  Consider these words from Paul to the Christians in Rome:

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil.  Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on YOU, live at peace with everyone.  Romans 12.

The Ministry of Reconciliation

Let’s look more closely at this “ministry of reconciliation.”  First things first: God reconciled us to himself through Christ.  “For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much MORE, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Ro. 5:10)  We need to be reconciled to each other, and forgiveness makes possible restoration and reconciliation (as far as it depends on US).

God has given us that ministry of reconciliation.                            

It means helping others to know God, to respond to God’s love.  It means modeling a forgiving attitude.   Paul says “We are ambassadors who represent Christ.”  Ben Campbell Johnson says, “That means we are friend-makers for God.”

Reconciliation is important for both friends and enemies!          

1. It is restoration of positive relationships that have run into difficulties (like Dale and his daughter).                                          

2. It is reconciliation with “enemies” (who often turn out to be friends in disguise—just waiting to be revealed!)

I’ll finish this morning with this thought: our Gospel reading began with the Scribes and Pharisees grumbling and complaining, saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners, and eats with them!”  (Remember, in that culture, to EAT WITH a person meant far more than just being in someone’s company when one is consuming food.  Eating with a person signified a strong bond between them, a mutual commitment and a sense of welcome that overruled any other barriers.)  When Jesus encountered Zacchaeus, the hated tax collector in Jericho, he invited himself to his house for lunch!  That was his way of saying to Zacchaeus (in the hearing of all the crowd around them), “I want to be in relationship with you” (or, more simply, “Let’s be friends!”)

It’s no small wonder that Jesus responded to the criticism of the Pharisees by telling stories about searching and reconciliation!  And, in the last book of the Bible, Jesus says this: “Here I am!  I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me.”

Prayer: God, help us to lay down our pride, our sense of being offended, and embrace others the way you have embraced us—even while we were yet sinners.  Let your Spirit draw us into the joy of unity and reconciliation.  In the name of Christ, amen.