On any given night on American TV, you can find as many as 30 million folks watching the latest crime shows such as Law and Order, Law and Order SVU, Law and Order Criminal Intent, CSI Miami, CSI New York. The Navy is getting in on this trend with shows like NCIS. We are fascinated with these shows. Maybe we like them so much because of the intrigue, the mystery, or the drama. We don’t tune-in simply to watch the criminal activity itself, because on most of these shows, we may not even see this part. The plot of these shows is the dramatic interactions between the criminals and the cast of characters. These stories are really based on the broken relationships between individuals and co-workers, families, and like on one show recently, an entire town.
In this season of Lent, we spend a lot of time reflecting on the sin of broken relationships. We occasionally begin worship during Lent with the penitential order. In this service, the Decalogue (The Ten Commandments) is read, and the congregation responds, “Lord have mercy upon us.” How often have we heard these words, and really thought about them. The Ten Commandments are not merely laws that represent a system of spiritual crime and punishment, they serve a much deeper purpose. These commandments are God’s standards for living. Jesus summarized the Ten Commandments in Matthew’s gospel, “’Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.” In this summary, we discover that loving God with all that we are, and loving our neighbor as ourselves, is at the very heart of the relational nature of God’s standards for living.
On a re-run of a recent crime show, an investment broker, who was not only abusive to his spouse, but also lost his brother-in-law’s retirement funds in a bad business deal. The plot of this particular show was that the spouse colluded with her brother-in-law to bring a fateful end to her husband. Through astute detective work and the dedication of a brilliant crime lab, the culprits were caught, and the show was over. Their crime was heinous and their punishment just, but the heart of this crime story, lie in the brokenness between the woman, her husband, and her brother. Sin is broken relationships with God and each other; an estrangement between people in relationship. God’s standard for living is so much more than merely a matter of Law and Order.
Our estrangement from God and from others, the chasm of brokenness in our relationships is rooted in our choices. Life is a series of choices so we are told; choices between living under God’s standards and living under our own. We can choose to live life loving God with all that we are and loving those around us as well as we do ourselves, or we can choose the alternatives.
When we make choices about our time and we choose what is important in our day, how often do we miss the opportunity to spend time with God in prayer. How often do our minds drift into worry and fear, and we fail to share that with God. Why are we surprised when we fill our lives with so many activities and such busyness, that there is no room for thoughts of God, adoration of God, love for God. A couple had been married for over 65 years, and they were being interviewed on a local TV station. They were asked about the secrets of a long and happy marriage. “How have you two done it,” they were asked. “It’s not always been easy,” said the woman. We both worked and it was hard with all the kids, but we made it a point, each day to spend time together. There were even occasions when we sat together and neither of us said anything, it was important for us to recognize that we were present together, and our thoughts were on each other.
The chasm, the estrangement, the sin in our relationships emerge because of our own decision to remain apart from the other, because something else takes the place of the other, or we refuse to allow the other space in our lives. God longs for us to be reconciled to Himself and to each other. We are created in the image of God, and it is in the life of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) that we see the image of perfect, relational love. Jesus prayed, “Father, that they may be one, as you and I are one.” It is in this love that God calls us to live, under God’s standards, restored, reconciled, and made new.
We can choose to live life loving our neighbors as well as we love ourselves or we can choose the alternatives. Hank was in his mid-seventies and he lived in rural Alabama near his two adult daughters. Hank had terminal cancer and his time was drawing close. He was receiving wonderful care from hospice and his days were for the most part, pain free and comfortable. His two daughters, Jean and Betty visited Hank each day, although they lived a great distance away from each other. “The girls,” as Hank called them, spent hours each day caring for him. Despite their dedication to their father, there was something unresolved between the two sisters. Hank knew that this rift was rooted in an event in their past and it had haunted the daughters for years. No one ever discussed it, but Hank longed to see this painful disagreement between his daughters resolved. He wanted to spend his last few days without the cloud of anger and resentment that hung over Jean and Betty. Unfortunately, they were never reconciled, and the opportunity for them to be a whole family was missed. Those last, precious few days of Hank’s life were lived, not knowing the joy of the restored relationship between his two girls.
Estrangement, sin, broken relationships are a result of humankind’s actions, choices, and decisions. In today’s gospel, the young son went to his father and asked for his inheritance. He might as well have considered his father already dead for that matter. He ran off to a foreign land and left the rest of the family, his older brother, behind. He might as well have considered that relationship dead too. After squandering all that he had been given, the younger son “came to his senses” and realized that he had created a gulf between himself, his father, and his brother. “I have sinned,” was what he pondered while starving in the pig trough. Maybe father will hire me back and at least I will have bread to eat, was his next thought.
As the son approached his home, the father, who had been sitting and waiting patiently for his son’s return, caught a glimpse of his son walking up the road. The father jumped up and ran to his son. The son, without hesitation said, “father I have sinned.” His dad did not chide him. He did not lecture him about the evil he had done, in fact, he never even mentioned what his son had done. He rather, publically acknowledged the son’s return to his place in the family. “Bring out the best robe, put a ring on his finger, put sandals on his feet, kill the fatted calf, my son was dead, but he is alive again!”
Reconciliation takes place only through the actions of God, and it begins with forgiveness. The father could have said, “sure boy, you’re forgiven, I’ll hire you, get to work with the rest of the crew.” Reconciliation is more than just mere forgiveness; it is the restoration of a relationship, which has been made new. The father in the parable of the prodigal sons is one of scripture’s most beautiful examples of the character of God. God out of love for creation came to us, endured our suffering, our broken relationships, and our pain. Even Christ’s own disciples abandoned him at one point. They rejected him and through that, even Christ suffered the pain of estrangement. But God’s love goes beyond our estrangement, and through God’s own initiative, we are assured that nothing stands between us and the love of God. Nothing in our past, nothing in our future, and not even death can stand between us, and the love of God. God is the loving One who waits patiently for the estranged ones to come home, and upon our return, God runs to us and celebrates in our new life together. We are made right with God by the life, death and resurrection of Christ. We are restored to a right relationship with God, not by our doing, but by what God has done. In this new life in Christ, we are offered, by the grace of God, the gift of sharing in God’s ministry of reconciliation, the ministry in which all things are made new.
It has been said that some people, who have experienced trauma of a car accident, or have endured and overcome a major illness, or have survived a natural disaster and lived to tell about it, go forward with a new lease on life. Nothing in their lives is ever the same after the event and life is thus seen from a new perspective. From the way they spend their time, to the way they treasure the relationships they share, to their dedication to the spiritual life, all for them is changed. All things are new. We don’t have to endure tragedies like these though in order to live life afresh, to live life anew, to go forward with a new lease on life. We who have experienced the homecoming in the family of God, we who have been embraced in the outstretched arms of Christ live a new life together with God and with our neighbors. We who have been reconciled to God are called to share in God’s ministry of reconciliation.
Two ushers from a small, rural parish were chatting one Sunday before worship and one said to the other, “I haven’t seen Miss Sally in a month or so, I wonder where she is?” The other said, “Rumor has it that she had a little falling out with someone about a month ago and she hasn’t been back since.” “What a shame,” said the other, “I really miss her … oh well.” The two continued shuffling bulletins and stacking visitor cards. Ella Jean, another member of the parish, overheard the two ushers chatting and all during worship, she thought about and prayed for Miss Sally. When Ella got home, she decided to send Miss Sally a card. She wrote, “Sally, I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately. I miss your smiling face and your wonderful singing voice. Church just isn’t the same without you. I want you to know that I love you, and that I am praying for you.” Surprisingly, the next Sunday, Miss Sally showed up at church. She walked into the nave and spotted Ella sitting in her usual Sunday pew. Miss Sally walked up to Ella, she smiled and then sat down beside her. Sally, could not hold back the tears that were welling up in her eyes, and so she put her arms around Ella and said, “I am so sorry for what I said to you last month, please forgive me.” Ella replied, “I have missed you so much Sally. I love you and it is so good to see you back in your usual seat … welcome home my dear sister.” Through our new lives in Christ, lives lived spending time with God and striving to restore the brokenness in our relationships with each other, we are truly living into grace of the new life, the new life that we already have in and through Christ. In this Lenten season, it is Paul’s admonition to us, that rings so true … Be reconciled to God …. Be reconciled to each other.