Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
This week’s issue of Time magazine contained a Ten Question profile of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. One of the questions concerned the Truth and Reconciliation Commission chaired by Archbishop Tutu following South Africa’s apartheid. Did the Archbishop feel he had done enough to move past that terrible time in South Africa’s history? “Had we not had the commission, South Africa would have gone up in flames”, he answered. “It was not a perfect instrument, but it did a heck of a good job. It lanced the boil. A festering soul was opened and cleansed, and balm was poured on it.” In his book No Future Without Forgiveness, Tutu described in more detail the workings of the commission. It is difficult to imagine how such a process ever came to be. Of course, we don’t have anything to which it might be compared - the Nuremburg trials? the Tokyo war crimes trial? the UN Serbian war crimes tribunal? And we cannot know what would have happened in South Africa had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission not performed its grueling process of hearing the confessions and testimony of hundreds upon hundreds of perpetrators and victims.
What we do know, and what Tutu’s book makes clear, is that words like truth, reconciliation, and confession, became part of a nation’s daily vocabulary. Moreover, when the truth of some of the most vicious crimes against humanity were told in the open light of day, in packed rooms of witnesses, all supposed rationales, motivations, and hubris dissipated. It was an incredible, improbable undertaking. But was there reconciliation at the end?
As these weeks of Lent wear on, the stories from and about Jesus get increasingly difficult – not difficult in that they are difficult to believe or difficult to understand. Rather, difficult in that they are difficult to emulate. The story is taking us to Jerusalem soon. The conflicts are getting sharper. It’s as if Jesus made a decision to raise the stakes in his already threatening ministry – to push his message into sharper contrasts. Hearing the readings today from Corinthians and Luke, these stories probably don’t register as the kind of stories that would enrage to the point of a public execution. In fact, taken by themselves, they don’t seem harsh at all. There’s that wonderful and familiar story of the prodigal son, the dutiful and jealous brother and the forgiving, patient father. What’s so harsh about that kind of love and forgiveness? And Paul’s letter to the Corinthians – Paul was just talking about reconciliation – how is reconciliation a difficult message? a hanging offense?
Of course, to understand why those last weeks of Jesus’ life led directly to his death, we need to understand more about the context, don’t we? This little story about a forgiving father running to embrace his wayward son, taken on its own merits, is just a story of God’s generous love, a love that is undiminished by human conduct. The Jewish tax collectors, those Jews who collaborated with Rome against the interests of their own people would certainly have rejoiced at hearing such a tale. God still loves you, even though you have been stupid and greedy and weak and even a little cowardly, God will still hike up his robes and run toward you with the open arms of welcome and forgiveness. But the tax collectors and sinners weren’t the only intended audience for the story. No, Jesus wanted the scribes and Pharisees to hear it as well. Luke tells us that they were grumbling - that they didn’t like that Jesus welcomed sinners to his table. It’s pretty clear that Jesus wanted the dutiful, righteous, good, loyal and law-abiding people to recognize themselves. They were the older brothers, weren’t they? They stayed home, careful to observe the familial and religious rules and laws, careful not to offend their father or their faith. In Jesus’ story, the father tells the brother that he is loved, of course, but that rejoicing must happen for the brother who lost his way for a time but found it again.
What do you think reconciliation means? Really, what does it mean? We know what forgiveness is, even if we aren’t altogether skilled at giving or receiving it. We know what it means to move on, to get past slights and injuries and bruised feelings. But do we know, really, what it means to be reconciled?
Years ago, I participated in a year-long program for and with parish pastors, studying together the contours, the valleys and peaks of parish ministry. We met every few weeks. We read one another’s case studies, talked about preaching and pastoral relationships and faith and ministry. One of the participants was an older, outwardly successful Lutheran pastor, nearing retirement. I wondered why he was in the program but it turns out he was coming to the end of his career feeling as if he had squandered his professional life. Another participant suffered from severe anxiety attacks every time he stepped into the pulpit, making the leading of worship a weekly nightmare. Another was a Seventh Day Adventist, wondering how he should resolve the conflicts he had begun to feel with his denomination’s stance on issues of sexual justice. Another was a Methodist, married to a Jewish woman who wouldn’t participate in any of his church’s activities. Though they had worked out those faith issues between them, his parish was beginning to make life difficult for them, especially when the news of her pregnancy was announced. And there was a single, extremely conservative Lutheran who was arrogant, intolerant and judgmental. He was clear that his beliefs didn’t allow for the ordination of women. He was, consequently, dismissive of anything I ever had to say. When I brought anything from my ministry that was conflicted or difficult, he would barely listen, smirking and concluding that anything I had to bring was a waste of the group’s time and wisdom. To say this man made me crazy would be something of an understatement.
For our meetings we would travel to one another’s home communities. One day, quite by accident, this man and I were alone together in my car for an hour’s drive back home. I don’t know why or how it happened, but he began to tell me that he was in serious trouble in his church and in his ministry in general. His bishop was about to defrock him. This church he served was his last chance. And he was screwing it up. I don’t know why he told me the truth about his situation that day. Maybe it had to do with the dynamic that sometimes takes hold when you’re driving down a road – conversations can get a little more honest in a car. But whatever the reason, our relationship changed that day. We had bickered with each other in our group meetings for months, and suddenly, we weren’t bickering any more. I still didn’t like him – don’t get me wrong. I still thought he was a sexist, homophobic jerk. But I also loved him a little bit after that conversation.
We all had issues we were working on in that group of pastors. That’s why we joined the group. Two years into parish ministry and I was sure I had made a colossal vocational mistake. My nemesis, the sexist, homophobic jerk, spent the entire year affirming my fears. Yes, he said, you have made a mistake. You shouldn’t be a minister. That tune never changed, in spite of our new tolerance for one another. The difference for me was that I could laugh at him, instead of be hurt by him. Now, years later, I think back on him and on the other members of that group and I realize I learned everything about reconciliation, grace, the leaky, imperfect, clay vessels we all are, trying to make our way in the world, trying to carry out God’s will, trying to be more courageous, honest, loving.
As you can see, I didn’t leave parish ministry. I don’t know whether he did. We weren’t friends and once the year came to the end, so too did our contact with one another. I moved on to a church more suited to my abilities, theology, and interests. But I think of him (without even remembering his name) with affection and gratitude.
You know, there’s no evidence in Jesus’ story that the older brother understood his father’s graciousness and became a more gracious man himself. There is no assurance that the reckless younger brother changed his ways for good and became a productive, contributing member of the household. Jesus never said whether the two brothers got along from that day on and lived happily ever after. That wasn’t the point of his story, I guess. Maybe if he had given it a happy ending, it wouldn’t be counted among the many offenses that eventually led to his betrayal and crucifixion. Who knows?
One more point, and then I’m done talking about reconciliation for today The church in Corinth was not an easy congregation. History tells us that it was cranky, judgmental, bickering. Rules got in their way, both following them and ignoring them. Paul wrote to them more than twice, it is believed, and his letters were not easy, gentle, encouraging. But in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians we have some of the most brilliant, magnificent words about Christian community ever written. Paul told the Corinthians that love is never boastful, arrogant or rude, that it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things. Paul told the Corinthians that the body of Christ is a whole, entire entity, feet, hands, eyes, ears, mouth, that the inferior parts of the body are no less needed than the superior parts of the body. Paul told the Corinthians that they are ambassadors for Christ – ambassadors! That God brought about reconciliation with humanity through Christ, not counting sins or mistakes or anything that happened in the past. In fact God has entrusted the message of reconciliation to us, all of us, irritating, cranky, judgmental older brothers, sinful, profligate, wayward younger brothers, harsh, human, hubristic us.
The thing is, we don’t have to like each other to be reconciled to one another. That isn’t the ministry of reconciliation about which Paul wrote to the Corinthians, about which Jesus told the story to the scribes, Pharisees, tax collectors and sinners, about which Desmond Tutu spoke in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Reconciliation is not so small a thing as that. It’s about love. It’s about loving those we don’t like, those who have hurt us, those who mean us harm, those who think we are less than whole human beings. It’s about love. That’s the stuff of reconciliation – love. Amen.