(Sermon for Sunday, March 14, 2010 || Lent 4, Year C, RCL || 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:-13, 11b-32)
Connie looked especially haggard. For the better part of two hours, I watched her hold a phone to each ear, tap-tap-tap on the keyboard, and patiently plead with belligerent passengers all at the same time. As I inched closer to the desk to change my flight information, I caught snippets of the abuse hurled in Connie’s direction and prayed for forgiveness for the entire irate human race. The reason for the belligerence was simple: the airplane was broken. Some gizmo that keeps the flaps from freezing fell off during the plane’s trip to Nashville. One piece in a hundred thousand broke, and the plane was grounded. One piece – a nothing part, really, until you don’t got one. Then it appears to be everything.
Ironically, Delta had to fly this nothing part, this anti-flap-freezing gizmo, in from elsewhere. The departure time leapt forward, finally settling on 8:00am yesterday morning, a full twenty hours and ten minutes late. With the airplane broken, the system broke down, as well. All the other flights out of Nashville were booked solid. Passengers missed connections. People were stranded and growing more bellicose with every update of the plane’s ramshackle status. And in the middle of it all stood Connie, a wisp of a woman on the verge of tears. She clung to the desk, and she clung to her manners. She was the unlucky target of vented frustration, of heaps of bile, of caustic protestations. And all because the plane was broken.
You’d think that people would be used to brokenness by now. You’d think that people would take the brokenness in stride because brokenness marks our lives everyday: broken homes, broken bones, broken pavement, broken promises, broken ecosystems. You’d think that this brokenness would come as no surprise. But every time we encounter brokenness, we seem to react with astonishment and incredulity. How could your best friend betray your trust? How could the kid break his wrist right before the big game? How could the airplane be grounded?
While brokenness does seem to mark our existence, I think we react with astonishment because in some deep place within, we know that “broken” is not the way things are supposed to be. We believe that God created everything and called Creation “good” and never made a thing called “brokenness.” And yet, brokenness crept into Creation. Separation and division soon followed. Today, we see a broken world, and we know that it could be, that it should be – better.
And in that seeing, in that knowing, we hear God calling to us, inviting us to work with God’s help to repair this brokenness. In today’s lesson from his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us that God “has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” He continues, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”
The world needs this message of reconciliation because the world is marred by broken relationships that need repairing, separations that need healing, divisions that need stitching up. When Jesus welcomes and eats with “tax collectors and sinners” in this morning’s Gospel, he models the ministry of reconciliation. The scribes and Pharisees like their society just fine the way it is, and they grumble when Jesus upsets the brokenness with which they have learned to live. So Jesus tells them a story about a family, a family marred by brokenness, a family in need of reconciliation.
The younger of two sons presses his father to give him his share of the inheritance. The father acquiesces and divides his property. The younger son takes his portion and travels to a distant country where he squanders his fortune in what the King James Version calls “riotous living.” So I’m wondering: what’s the younger son’s sin? At first glance, his sin sure seems to be his debauchery, given his status as a decadent wastrel. And while this qualifies as sin, I don’t think his prodigality takes the top seed.
Instead, his major sin is the division caused by his separation from his family. Jesus makes a point to say that the father divides his household to fulfill his son’s wish. And then the son doesn’t settle nearby, but in a “distant” country. With the division and separation complete, all that’s needed is a famine for the younger son to notice his folly. When he comes to himself sitting in the filth among the pigs, he realizes the brokenness his departure caused. He no longer feels worthy to be called a son, so he prepares himself to live with the brokenness and to be considered a hired hand rather than a member of the family.
At this point in the parable, I imagine the scribes and Pharisees nodding their heads in approval. The younger son defiled himself. He is unclean after touching all those pigs. Of course, he mustn’t be welcomed home. But Jesus isn’t finished telling the story yet.
The younger son travels back to his father’s house, and yet he’s aware that it will never be home again. His decision to separate himself from his family saw to that. But when he is still a vaguely human shape on the twilit horizon, his father sees him and runs out to meet him and embraces him and kisses him. “I am no longer worthy to be called your son,” he says. But his father will not tolerate the separation, the brokenness any longer. “This son of mine,” he says, “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” This son of mine. With these words, the father repairs the broken relationship, and the two are reconciled.
At this point in the parable, I imagine the scribes and Pharisees raising incredulous eyebrows. Now the father is unclean, as well, because he touched the younger son before he purified himself with the appropriate rituals. What kind of family is this? But Jesus still isn’t finished telling the story.
A celebration for the younger son’s return begins. His elder brother hears the revelry coming from the house and asks a slave what’s going on. When he finds out about his brother’s return, he will not enter the house or join the party. The elder son echoes his brother’s sin by separating himself from the celebration. When the father comes out to plead with him, the elder son shows his own division from the family. He calls his brother “this son of yours,” thus ignoring the fraternal relationship. And rather than working like a son, he says, “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you.” Like a slave. Like the hired hand the younger son was prepared to be.
But the father continues to repair the brokenness in his family. “Son,” he calls his eldest. There is no division between us because “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Then the father attempts to heal the fraternal separation by emphasizing the sons’ relationship to one another: “This brother of yours was…lost and has been found.”
As the parable ends, I imagine the scribes and Pharisees noticing that they themselves look an awful lot like the elder brother. I wonder if their own irritation with Jesus deafens them to the reconciling nature of the father in the parable.
Both sons separate themselves from the family, the younger through taking his inheritance to a distant country and the elder through refusing to join the celebration. But their father goes out and meets both sons in their brokenness. He runs up to the younger when his son is still far off. He leaves the party to be with the elder. When neither brother feels much like a son, the father practices reconciliation and repairs his broken family.
The father refuses to separate himself from his sons. Likewise, God refuses to be separated from us. Our sin may separate us from God, but God never separates from us. As Paul says, God “reconciled us to himself through Christ.” God never gives up on relationships with us. Instead, God continually brings us back into relationship with God. We may be broken, but God is whole, and so we can find wholeness. We may be separated, but God is welcoming, and so we can bring welcome. We may be divided, but God is One, and so we can come together.
Today, we see a broken world, and we know that it could be, that it should be – better. We know in that deep place within that the world is not supposed to be broken. And we also know that God has reconciled us to himself in order that we might engage in a ministry of reconciliation to this broken world. The question is: will we?
And the answer is this: we will, with God’s help.
* The first person to notice and correctly identify the reference to Joss Whedon’s Firefly in this sermon wins five points. (These points aren’t really redeemable for anything, but hey, you should try to get them anyway.)
* If you are as big a fan of Firefly and Serenity as I am, you may also notice that the overarching theme of this sermon is pretty similar to that of the film Serenity. And no, that’s not the reference. The reference is incredibly specific.