Sunday, March 6, 2016


The crucial point of our Gospel story
isn’t the prodigal son’s return.
Jesus isn’t telling this story to the sinners.
He’s talking to the righteous folks who are grumbling
         about his friendship with sinners.
No, the point is the good dutiful son’s reaction
-- boycotting the welcome party.
It’s about Communion – both our Sunday morning ritual;
         and the lived reality of Communion in the world.
If we are just doing the ritual and not living out what it means,
         then we desecrate the sacrament
and derive no benefit from it.
The story of the dutiful son’s boycott of the dinner party
         Is our jumping off place to reflect on Communion.

I will be going to our House of Bishops meeting this week.
I like going to House of Bishops.
I like the people. I learn from them. I enjoy them.
And our worship makes my heart sing.

But it wasn’t always like that.
There was a time when the bishops used to make angry speeches
         at each other.
They used to act like some of our politicians these days,
         judging, condemning, and mocking each other.
When it came time to worship, some of the bishops
would go off separately and hold their own communion,
with the people they approved of and agreed with.
We don’t do that anymore.

When Bishop Katharine was first Presiding Bishop.
she would go to the meetings of the Primates
– that’s the top bishop of each of the 39 Anglican Churches.
But when it came time to worship,
         some archbishops refused to receive communion with her.
They chose to cut themselves off from Christ
rather than be in communion with a woman bishop.  

So let’s look at the dilemma of the dutiful son.
He has worked like a slave for his father,
         while his no-count brother was off squandering
                  the family fortune.
Then the brother returns and dad is throwing him
         a welcome home party.
The dutiful son wants justice.
He wants to see dad slam the door in his brother’s face.

But his father is not that kind of a man.
His father is like God.
Remember what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount?
“Be like your father who causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall
         on the just and the unjust alike.”
God is not judging but forgiving,
         not punishing but embracing.

Paul says that Jesus paid the price to reconcile
         all people to God in himself.
Sinners are in Christ right along with the relatively righteous.
According to Paul, none of us is good enough
         to stand on his own righteousness.
“For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,”
         he told the Romans.
We all got our problems.
We all live in glass houses.

Our very right to exist depends on what Paul calls “being in Christ.”
That doesn’t mean having the right theological opinions.
It isn’t something we do.

We can accept it or fight against it.
But we don’t do it. Jesus already did it.
He did it on the cross.
He died to reconcile us to our source, our destiny,
         and the meaning of our life.

Once Jesus dies for us, we are in Christ.
He has reconciled us to God.
Now what does that mean for where we stand with each other?

Back when I was a priest in Georgia,
         there were some antagonistic factions
                  in the Church.
So people would ask our Bishop, Neil Alexander,
         how he would go about how he’d deal
                  with this group or that group.
Bishop Alexander would answer,
         “I never met anyone yet that Jesus didn’t die for his sins.”

Paul says in today’s lesson,
         “ God reconciled us to himself through Christ,
                  and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”
He says it twice back to back to make sure we got it.
God didn’t make peace with one of us or a few of us.
God made peace with all of us.
The way for us to live in that peace
         is to be at peace with each other.

But there is something that sets us against each other,
         something that makes us build an edifice of pride
                  on something that we have and someone else doesn’t.
I am alright because I am smart or spiritual or left wing or right wing.
I’ve been born again or baptized in the Sprit or reached mystical union.
I am the right race, the right religion, and the right political party.
I pack a gun or I don’t pack a gun.

The problem isn’t our opinions.
The problem is that we identify with them,
         stake our human worth on being right about them
                  and that requires someone else to be wrong.
Paul says that when we invest our human worth
in something that separates us from others,
we’re investing in the wrong stock.

None of us are fully right about anything – ever!
We are not capable of it.
If our human worth depends on any of that, we are lost.

But by the grace of God, our human worth depends on Jesus.
Your worth and my worth are the same worth.
That puts our different opinions at a considerably lower level
                  of importance.
Trusting our souls to Jesus creates a space
         in which we can have respectful, caring, curious conversations
                  where we might even learn something.
That is what we mean by love.

But, as Phil Collins said, “love don’t come easy
         when it’s a game of give and take.”
It takes time and effort.
It takes practice.
That’s why God has given us each other
         and given us the common life.
When I say “the common life,”
         I mean the stuff we do together.
-- church life, work life, political life, and social life
including traffic and social media --
how we drive and what we post.
The common life is where we learn how to live with difference.
As Phil Collins said, “It’s a game of give and take.”
It’s where sacrifice, compromise, patience, forbearance, courtesy,
         civility, and understanding different viewpoints are all essential.

And that brings us back to Communion
– both the ritual and the lived reality.
Communion is about difference united in love.
Communion isn’t sameness. It isn’t thinking alike.
It’s difference coming together.
That’s where the energy comes from.

The common life keeps us humble.
It frustrates our willfulness,
         offers us a chance to practice patience and forgiveness,
         evokes our compassion and tests our integrity.
So what’s all this for?
If God has already reconciled us to himself in Christ,       
         why must we undergo the ordeal of each other,
         or as Paul puts it, why has God given us
                  “the ministry of reconciliation?”

St. Augustine answers that God
is preparing us for something
         that we are not yet ready for.
Praying, meditating, doing yoga, eating groats
         and all of that are fine spiritual practices.
But the essential spiritual practice is Communion,
         including participating in the messy frustrating
                  common life of church and community.
We practice Communion while we are being changed by it.
 Through Communion, we are transformed from glory
         unto glory into the likeness of Christ.

Augustine said we have to undergo this hard process
         of Communion in a broken bleeding world
         in order that we might someday be able “to bear the weight of glory.”
We long for God now, but we are not ready for God yet.
Dealing with each other is what prepares us
for the nearer presence of Our Lord.

Or as William Blake put it,
“We are put on earth a little space
         that we might learn to bear the beams of love.”
That’s what this altar is here to teach us.
That’s what the common life  is here to teach us

-- “to bear the beams of love.”