- The Rev. Matt Welsch
On the night of Nov 14, 1940, the Luftwaffe(the Nazi airforce) bombed Coventry, England. Coventry is a medieval city, long known for its beautiful gothic cathedral. The Luftwaffe bombed the city all through the night and much of the city burned - including the cathedral.
The next morning, as the cathedral leadership assessed the damage, they quickly decided that they needed to rebuild. But they were clear: the would rebuild, not as an act of defiance, but as a prayer for hope and forgiveness.
A stonemason found pieces of roof timbers that had fallen - charred and broken - in the shape of a cross. So they assembled an altar of rubble above the spot where the former altar had been. They put this cross on the altar and carved two words into the wall behind it: Father Forgive.
A month later, they held their Christmas services in the ruins of that cathedral. Their services were broadcast worldwide on the BBC - the first time the BBC had done so. In those services, heard around the world, they intentionally prayed both for the people of Great Britain and for the people of Nazi Germany.
That must have been incredibly difficult.
To this day, Coventry remains committed to the difficult work of reconciliation. The new cathedral is designed to be a visual representation of reconciliation. They decided to preserve the ruins of the old cathedral as best they could, and built the new one in such a way that it seems to grow and extend outward from those ruins.
If you approach the cathedral from the east, you can see the ruins on your left and the new building on your right. On the wall of that new building is a large, grotesque sculpture. It depicts a moment from the Book of Revelation. A larger than life Michael the Archangel, a fearsome look on his face, spear in hand, stands victorious over an equally grotesque, bound and defeated Satan. It’s a challenging image. But it’s meant to be a reminder that, as good and important as reconciliation is - it’s always incredibly difficult.
“Reconciliation” comes from the latin re (meaning “back”) and conciliare (meaning “bring together”). Literally: to bring back together. True reconciliation is more than forgiveness, and more than compromises. It requires a total reconfiguration of a relationship. I give up my position, you give up yours, and we work to establish a new, unified position - together. It’s hard work. And yeat, each of us is called to the ministry of reconciliation.
The Book of Common Prayer even says so. The BCP defines the mission of the church - the work that God has entrusted us to do - as: “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”
This means everyone. Ourselves. The people we like. People who look and think and act like we do. AND the people we don’t like. The people that make us uncomfortable. Even our enemies - the people who hate us. The people we deem unworthy.
As Christians, we rely on the Grace of God. That unearned love, forgiveness, reconciliation offered to us by God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Grace is hard enough for us to accept ourselves. As people living in the US in 2019, we expect a quid pro quo - you do something for me, I pay you back by doing something for you. But Grace isn’t like that. There’s nothing we can do to on our own to earn God’s Grace. It’s offered freely, recklessly.
But Grace often stings - it reminds me of my shortcomings, the ways I have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, even as those sins and shortcomings are forgiven.
Even harder than that? Accepting that God extends that same Grace to the people I can’t stand. This is perhaps the greatest scandal of the Gospel - the Good News that the Grace of God we receive is equal to that received by the people we would deem unworthy.
And yet: we are called to the ministry of Reconciliation. As Paul puts it: “God reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”
In her new book, Shameless, Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Webber talks about reconciliation as being tied to the idea of holiness.
We are made for holiness - which she defines as analogous with wholeness. God created us to be in relationship with God and one another. But we have a tendancy to mess it up. We put up barriers, set prerequisites, place stumbling blocks, as Paul would say.
She uses the image of a clay jar. Every time we break our relationships with God and our neighbor, we create a fracture in the jar. And every time we put up a barrier, we push at that fracture, creating new fractures. In reconciling Godself to humanity, God repaired most of those fractures for us. And calls us to continue that work of restoration - trusting that Jesus is working through and alongside us as we attempt to mend those fractures.
But I wonder - why do we so often push at those fractures instead of mending them? We don’t like to admit it, but we all do it.
Can you believe she wore that? To church? Again?
They’re too liberal. Too Conservative.
They’re not liberal enough. Not conservative enough.
Too Gay, too straight. Too black, white, brown.
Too sick. T0o poor. Too rich.
They’re not even from here. Why should I help them? What do I get out of it?
And on and on.
We do this. All the time. But why?
Perhaps we have a hard enough trusting in Grace for ourselves that we project our anxiety outward onto others. Look at them, we think. At least I’m more worthy than they are because I’m not like them. There’s a parable about that, by the way.
Paul encourages us to resist that mindset. He’s constantly telling the people of the churches he writes to try to be better than that. As it to say: “You’re Christians aren’t you? Act like it!”
“From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view...if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.”
Now, I’m by no means a Greek scholar, but I’ve heard from some folks who are that this sentence might be better translated as: “If anyone is in Christ: CREATION!” It’s meant to be dramatic - as if Paul wrote it in all caps with several exclamations after it. We, as Christians, become totally new people - freed from sin and death and invited to live as Children of God here and now.
God invites us to trust in God’s Grace and to reconcile ourselves to God and one another. To trust in our own forgiveness. To view God’s grace of the other perhaps not as a challenge to our own forgiveness, but rather as proof of it. To view ourselves and the other as children of God: already reconciled, loved, forgiven by our Creator.
This is a hard lesson to learn. The Gospels are filled with story after story where the Disciples don’t understand it. Where the Pharisees hear it and intentionally or not, fail to grasp it.
This morning, we hear that Jesus is hanging out with all the wrong people. The unworthy ones. And the Pharisees are annoyed. “Can you believe this guy? He thinks he’s a prophet but he’s spending his time with tax collectors and sex workers. Instead of the righteous people like us!”
Jesus hears them and responds by telling three parables: one about sheep, one about a lost coin, and one about a man with two sons. This third parable is familiar to most of us.
Once there was a man who had two sons. The younger asks to get his inheritance early and then skips town and spends it all on extravagant, food, clothes, etc. It would be like winning the lottery and then spending it all in one afternoon in Vegas. Bankrupt, he finds himself taking care of pigs - something that, in ancient Jewish society would have been considered the lowest of the low, as pigs were deemed unclean. As he stands there, salivating over the food he’s meant to give to the pigs, he resolves to go home. He’ll beg his father for the chance to become a slave in his father’s household.
As he takes the long journey back home, he practices his speech in his head “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you…” But then, when he’s still far off, his father sees him and runs out to meet him. As he launches into his speech, his father cuts him off and offers him an extravagant, reckless welcome.
It’s easiest and most comfortable to think of ourselves as the younger son. And of course, we can do so. However, considering the context. Considering that Jesus is responding to the criticism of the religious people makes me wonder if this story isn’t about the younger brother so much as it’s about the elder brother.
You see, the elder son has a hard time accepting his younger brother’s forgiveness. He’s been responsible. He’s out working in the field. And as he comes home, he realizes there’s some kind of party going on. Nobody bothered to tell him - or even ask him about it. He even has to ask a servant what’s going on. The servant responds: “Your brother is home, so we’re celebrating!”
This son is livid. I imagine him pouting, crossing his arms, stomping his feet, and refusing to go inside. Eventually, his father comes out to invite him to come and join the party. And the son responds: “How dare you! This son has disrespected you. He’s not worthy of this extravagance. I’ve been here all along, working hard for you and you’ve never thrown me a party!” In his pride and jealousy, he’s pushing at the fractures in his relationships with both his brother AND his father.
But does the father scold him? No. Rather he gently reminds him of his love. “Rejoice! Your brother his home! Let each of us be reconciled!”
In spite of our stubbornness, and fear, and shortcomings, God extends God’s radical, extravagant Grace to us again and again and again. God calls us to be a new creation, inviting us to see ourselves and others the way God sees us: already reconciled, healed, renewed.
Rejoice! Because this fellow Child of God was dead and has come to life. You were lost and have been found.