The Fourth Sunday of Lent | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 27 March 2022 | 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 | Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who gives us the ministry of reconciliation.

Good morning, friends. Welcome to the fourth Sunday of Lent. In this holy season, we make our way through the wilderness with Jesus and the prophets as we read scripture and pray together here. We face our own limitations, our own mortality, and our need for God’s help. Some of us reset our habits by fasting from something. Some of us take time to be more intentional about our relationship with God, maybe through prayer or spiritual practices.

And however we practice it, Lent invites us look for clarity and purpose. Lent gives us space to reflect on things that matter most, and to refocus. Lent reminds us to ask the important questions about what we’re doing and why.

What is it that we’re really trying to do together in our life of faith? If we believe the good news of Jesus, what do we do about it? Lent invites us to reflect on these deep questions about mission and purpose, and our New Testament readings today can help us with that.

In our Gospel reading, we get this dramatic, multi-layered story of reconciliation: the story of the prodigal son. The younger son runs away and damages his relationship with his family, and then he regrets what he’s done, and he decides to come back and try to be with them again. The father welcomes the son home with open arms; it’s a beautiful, joyous moment of homecoming. And then there’s the older son; he’s angry about the reconciliation at first, and the story doesn’t tell us whether he changes his mind in the end or not.

Jesus tells this parable in order to explain why he’s hanging out with questionable people. The respectable religious crowd is grumbling about the company Jesus keeps, and this is the story he tells in response.

Jesus tells this parable to show what he’s up to in his ministry—he’s offering people of all walks of life, whatever they’ve done, the chance to come home and be reconciled together. Jesus is not on earth to find out who’s already good and give them a prize. Jesus comes to gather God’s children who are scattered and sinful and confused. Jesus comes to welcome everyone home into God’s healing love; Jesus comes to celebrate reconciliation.

And in our reading from 2 Corinthians, St. Paul goes on to say that this ministry of reconciliation doesn’t stop with Jesus. This ministry of reconciliation is what we do as the church. It’s why we’re here. God in Christ is moving to reconcile the world. The creator is welcoming all creation home with open arms, home into love and healing and connection. And we get to be part of it.

In fact, this ministry of reconciliation is one of the main reasons that we exist as a church. It’s what we do. It’s why we’re here. By some accounts, it’s our mission.  

That’s what our prayer book says. If you have a Book of Common Prayer near you, I invite you to turn to page 855. This section is the Catechism of the Episcopal Church.

We don’t use this quite the same way as some churches do. It’s meant to be a summary of the church’s core teachings. It’s not something where you have to memorize it or sign onto believing every line of it when you get baptized or confirmed in our church. And it’s not meant to be a complete explanation of everything either. It’s just an outline; it’s a starting point for talking about the basics of what we believe.

On page 855, we get to beliefs about the church and ministry. These are starting points for what the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement believes about the church and about ministry. We have a really important question right at the top there: “What is the mission of the church?” What are we here for? What is this about?

And according to the good folks who put our Prayer Book together, this is the answer to that question: “The mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” According to the catechism, that’s the point of having a church; bringing folks into unity with God’s love and into loving community with one another. It’s the ministry of reconciliation.

And if we go further down the page, we get into the details of who does what in the church. And we see that the ministry of reconciliation belongs to the laity—that is, all the people of the church who are not ordained as deacons or priests or bishops. It is your ministry “to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world.”

You share this ministry with bishops; but oddly enough, if you flip the page over, it’s not in my job description as a priest. Maybe they thought we already had enough to do with pastoral care and church leadership and word and sacrament.

Or maybe all of those things that Holly and I do in our ministry are really part of supporting you in your ministry of reconciliation. Maybe what we do is about building up a community of faith where reconciliation can happen among us, and keep happening, and happen more deeply and expand farther out as we go.  

Because reconciliation is what we’re about together. It is what our loving creator God is doing in the cosmos. It’s what Jesus was doing when he walked on earth, and when he feasted with sinners, and when he and died as one of us, and when he rose in glory. St. Paul understood that the church continues to do that. The leaders of our Episcopal branch of the church name this as our mission and our ministry: “To restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” and “to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world.”

So what does this ministry of reconciliation mean? What does it look like? Our Gospel story gives us a glimpse of it. St. Paul gives us something to work with too.

Friends, the ministry of reconciliation is a ministry of facing real problems, not a ministry of pretending things are okay. It’s important to make that distinction up front, because sometimes language of reconciliation has been used to smooth over problems instead of dealing with them.

Sometimes when people call for reconciliation, they mean they want everybody to be quiet and act like they get along. Some of us have even been taught in our lives of faith that good Christians (and maybe especially good Christian women) have to keep the peace at all costs. Some of us learned that the way to be a good Christian is to never to get angry, never to complain, never to bother anyone else with our own needs.

But that’s not what the ministry of reconciliation is about. In order to get to a unity that matters, we have to be honest about what needs reconciling. In order to move toward healing, we have to tell the truth about where we are hurting—personally as well as in our communities.

The younger son in our Gospel didn’t just walk right back in the door like everything was normal. He admitted that he was wrong, and he came ready to make amends. The father, even as he welcomed the son back, acknowledged that the son’s absence had been a deep grief for him; it was as if his son had been dead.

Both the son and the father understood that the breakage was real before they moved to reconcile. They needed to be honest about the hurt that was between them. Reconciliation is not about smoothing everything over and pretending there’s never any injury or conflict. Part of the ministry of reconciliation is about learning to tell the truth about hurt and harm.      

We can also see in this parable that the ministry of reconciliation is mutual and collaborative. It’s not a ministry of fixing the world, or imposing our solutions on other people whether they want our help or not.

The younger son and the father in the story both move to meet each other. The father doesn’t go off after the son to drag him back from his wasteful ways before he’s ready to come home. The son doesn’t barge into the house to reclaim his place of honor without the father’s welcome.

They each move closer to the other. They each wait for the other’s response. There’s a tenderness and a responsiveness to this dance. The reconciliation isn’t something either of them could have forced to happen on their own—it was mutual. It was a shared movement.

It’s like that for us too as we learn the ministry of reconciliation God has given us. We recognize that the Holy Spirit is already in the world, moving for grace and peace, before we get there. We don’t get to do this alone. We have to listen to other people, wait for other people, and discern how to move forward together. Reconciliation may not follow the script we expect or come to the conclusion we planned, and sometimes that is a beautiful thing.

It also means that sometimes part of the ministry of reconciliation involves admitting what we can’t reconcile. We can’t force anyone else to move toward unity with us, or unity with God either. We can acknowledge that some situations are broken beyond our ability to repair, and we can hope and pray for God’s healing someday.

And finally, reconciliation is not just out there with other people; it’s in here with ourselves at the same time. St. Paul says tells us that as the church we’re entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation—and almost in the same breath he says, “we entreat you on behalf of Christ to be reconciled to God.” So, we are the agents of God’s reconciliation in the world, and at the same time we ourselves need to be reconciled. We need healing and homecoming too. And it’s not one after the other—we don’t get to write “Be reconciled to God” on our to-do list, and then when we’ve checked that off, we move on to “carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world.” They’re both ongoing and interconnected.   

The beautiful thing is how our movements of reconciliation in the world and in ourselves are part of God’s cosmic movement to reconcile all creation to Godself. Even the smallest acts of reconciliation we do are part of it.   

 We’re part of the ministry of reconciliation when we help our kids find a nonviolent solution to their conflicts. We’re part of God’s work of reconciliation when we get to know our neighbors. We’re part of it when we stop ourselves from reacting to our spouse or our friend or our coworker with blame when something goes wrong, and we instead try to find a way forward together.

We are part of the ministry of reconciliation when we stand with marginalized folks. A lot of people have been pushed out of spaces like this because of their race or their socioeconomics or their sexual orientation or their gender identity. And when we as a church can say, “We’re sorry. You are part of us. We want to hear what you have to say,” that’s part of the ministry of reconciliation.

We’re becoming more reconciled to God when we find peace in prayer, when we make a new connection with scripture, when we show up here to worship in all our realness and messiness, whether or not we’re feeling especially prepared or spiritual. We’re moving toward reconciliation in ourselves when we find someone we can be honest with about our grief, or when we understand some of our trauma better. It’s a process. The older son in the parable is still working on this internal reconciliation at the end.

We don’t always know the outcome, but we can trust that even the tiniest movements we make toward healing and homecoming are part of the ministry God entrusts to us.

So, friends, as we celebrate this holy season of Lent together, I pray that we find focus in our mission of reconciliation. I pray we find peace with what we’re not able to fix, and that we learn to listen. And I pray we find that our own daily acts of healing are part of God’s holy movement to welcome all creation home with open arms. Amen.   

Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son, 1660s