Pastor Tony's Sermon July 30, 2017

Luke 15: 11-32     7-30-17     ACCUCC     Rev. Tony Clark

Reconciliation, based on The Shack & Luke 15:11-32 The Message (MSG)

Then he said, “There was once a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, ‘Father, I want right now what’s coming to me.’

“So the father divided the property between them. It wasn’t long before the younger son packed his bags and left for a distant country. There, undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had. After he had gone through all his money, there was a bad famine all through that country and he began to hurt. He signed on with a citizen there who assigned him to his fields to slop the pigs. He was so hungry he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any.

“That brought him to his senses. He said, ‘All those farmhands working for my father sit down to three meals a day, and here I am starving to death. I’m going back to my father. I’ll say to him, Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.’ He got right up and went home to his father.

“When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’

“But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!’ And they began to have a wonderful time.

“All this time his older son was out in the field. When the day’s work was done he came in. As he approached the house, he heard the music and dancing. Calling over one of the houseboys, he asked what was going on. He told him, ‘Your brother came home. Your father has ordered a feast—barbecued beef!—because he has him home safe and sound.’

“The older brother stalked off in an angry sulk and refused to join in. His father came out and tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t listen. The son said, ‘Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up and you go all out with a feast!’

“His father said, ‘Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours—but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!’”

This week we are thinking about reconciliation. In The Shack, the main character, Mack, is in several relationships that are strained or broken and need some form of mending. Mack is angry at God, harbors resentment against his abusive father, holds violent thoughts against the man who kidnapped and murdered his daughter, and has become a bit estranged from his family. The book and movie present a powerful story about reconciliation; Mack and God reconcile, Mack and his father who had died when Mack was very young, also reconcile in the spirit realm. And near the end of the story, he makes amends with his family. The story leaves open whether Mack might find restorative justice and peace with his daughter’s murderer. In the passage we just heard, the Spirit suggests that if there is true confession and repentance---the acknowledgment of the crime and the desire to make restitution, then Mack might find his heart softening and moving toward some kind of miracle relationship. This is reconciliation.

In the Bible there are two familiar stories about reconciliation —the story of Jacob and Esau meeting after many years separated and the Prodigal Son returning home. Jacob and Esau, though, is not really about reconciliation; it is about conciliation, or buying the peace. Jacob had stolen Esau’s blessing and birthright, and then Jacob, fearing for violent reaction from Esau, fled for about 20 years. When Jacob wanted to return with his family, Esau greeted Jacob with a huge army behind him ready to make war with his brother, so Jacob sent on ahead a peace offering of many of the best animals in his herd. Esau politely refused, claiming he had everything he needed, and only accepted the gift only after Jacob’s urging. If he had not accepted the gift, Esau would be saying to all who witnessed it that the debt was still open. By accepting the gift, Esau publicly declared that the debt had been paid, and there was no more between them. Out of politeness, Esau invited Jacob to join his group, and Jacob politely declined with a rather lame excuse that his herds were too weak to go very fast. (Genesis 33).

If you read the story with a sense of grandiosity and verbosity, Jacob does not come off as contrite, but as taunting and teasing, saying to his brother, “Truly to see you face to face is like seeing the face of God, since you have received me with such favor.” After the exchange, Jacob indicated he would meet his brother in Seir, yet he never intended to go there, and instead went to Succoth. Although, the two estranged brothers did not fight a battle, they also did not eat together, and they did not meet again until their father’s death when they met to bury Isaac. The two separated, unburdened by the strife between them, but also not richer for a renewed relationship.

This was no true reconciliation. This was a polite business deal where a debt was paid; Trust was not restored, only a peace that had been bought when Jacob returned the gift originally due to Esau. Both Esau and Jacob need to have some softening of their hearts, some contrition, some acknowledgement that they both have hurt the relationship, before that could occur.

The Prodigal Son is a story of reconciliation. A younger son takes his inheritance, runs away and lives a hedonistic lifestyle, and then when he is destitute, he comes crawling back seeking to live even as a servant in his father’s household. His father welcomes him in and immediately holds a welcome home party, a huge barbecue, with streamers and crepe paper and a mariachi band for all the workers and neighbors to attend. The relationship was restored, and the restoration was celebrated.

Except it is not a complete restoration of relationship. The older brother doesn’t attend, doesn’t reconcile with his wandering, partying brother. The older brother holds onto his anger, unable to forgive, unwilling to let the past stay in the past, and unwilling to make new memories with his newly returned brother. There is no actual closure to the story. We don’t know if the older brother held his grudge until the father’s death like Esau or if he was finally able to move to forgiveness and reconciliation. It is left open-ended. I can imagine that after some time of working together on the farm there was a peace that began to seep into his heart. I can imagine a conversation that included a naming of broken expectations, an acknowledgment of broken trust and broken relationship, a declaration of the awareness that he had maintained the fractured relationship through his own stubbornness. I can imagine reconciliation.

We saw Reconciliation in the late 20th century in two ways: in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, and in the Restorative Justice movement in our prison system. The Truth and Reconciliation movement, started by Bishop Desmond Tutu, was a chance for aggrieved parties under Apartheid to tell their stories. Through deep listening it allowed the people to hear each other, and acknowledge the pain in a court-like setting. The Commission granted amnesty for both victims and offenders. This Commission was different than the Nuremburg Trials; the Nuremburg Trials sought retribution for the crimes against humanity during the Holocaust, because the relationship was so broken there was no possibility of reconciliation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa assumed that there was still relationship to restore, that community was stronger when you could really hear the other’s pain, and that God delighted in this restoration of relationship.

The Restorative Justice movement, encourages perpetrators of violent crimes and their victims to listen to each other’s stories. Victims name how they were affected, offenders acknowledge their wrong-doing, and together they decide what steps the offender must take to restore a balance of justice. This is a radical departure from our standard punitive legal system where punishment is determined by a government-sanctioned court, rather than the community harboring the hurt.

In story-telling cultures such as many indigenous peoples there are various forms of restorative justice. For instance, the Hawaiian practice of Ho'o Pono Pono is an effort to set things right through a meeting of the aggrieved and aggrieving parties and community elders. The success of these efforts depends on restoration of relationship. 

Restorative Justice assumes anytime there is a crime, the victim and offender have a relationship, even if the only thing they have in common is the moment of the crime. They are in a strained relationship because of the crime, and to make a relationship whole again, there must be restitution paid directly to the victim, in the form of money and service. Both the offender and the victim determine together the extent of the crime and the amount of restitution. Crimes are understood as committed not merely against victims, but that the whole community is affected and must be part of the solution. In restoring trust, we can rebuild communities that are more whole, and therefore more Holy. Restorative Justice comes with the implied belief that God delights in restored relationships that lead to whole communities.  

You may remember the case of Cary Stayner, who was convicted of killing a tourist and her daughter and niece at a hotel just outside Yosemite National Park, and of the murder of Joie Armstrong within the boundaries of the Park. The family of the first victims sought the death penalty and, after a long and arduous penalty hearing in state court, death was imposed. 

Joie Armstrong's mother pursued a different path, possible because her daughter's murderer was tried in federal court since the crime was committed on federal property. Through the work of the Defense Initiated Victim Outreach, she came to believe that a death sentence was inappropriate, and she persuaded other family members to consider a plea bargain. In exchange for Stayner's apology and agreement to forego any profits from telling his story, the family would accept a life-without-possibility-of-parole sentence.

The family of the first victims later conceded that they would have preferred the process Joie's mother pursued. 

In The Shack, Mack reconciles with God, his biological father, and himself, restoring relationships that were strained. He begins to forgive his daughter’s murderer, but does not move into relationship or trust of him, and they are not at the point of reconciliation. For that to happen, there does need to be some contrition on the part of the offender, some recognition that they have hurt the victim and that the victim is due something for the harm caused. There needs to be an agreement about what that looks like—money, labor, something.

These kinds of restored relationships are difficult. They are counter-cultural because our legal system resists admitting fault, and quite frankly, it is hard to forgive someone else who wrongs you. It takes practice, and it takes courage, and it takes releasing the anger that has held you in a prison, so that you might move into the new freedom of reconciliation and relationship.  

This is the wholeness and holiness that God delights in.

Holy one: Teach us to forgive, and give us the courage to meet those who harm us, to really listen, and to form whole communities built on peace and justice. Amen.