by Rev. Joseph Connolly
“So this makes us ambassadors for Christ, since God is making an appeal directly through us. Therefore, we entreat and implore you on behalf of Christ, and in the name of Christ: be reconciled to God.” — 2 Corinthians 5:20.
When I was very young, my family lived in Brooklyn in the kind of house that was, both then and now, called a railroad flat. It gets that odd name because these houses are long and quite narrow, like a railroad car. Part of what gave a railroad flat a railroad car kind of look to its interior design was the fact that it was built on only half a city lot.
Generally, a typical lot size in Brooklyn was 23 feet wide. Therefore, half a lot was eleven and a half feet. And two of these railroad flats houses fit on a single 23 foot wide lot. The two house addresses on a lot would, hence and for instance, be 74 A Schaefer Street and 74 B Schaefer Street, each house taking up half a lot number 74— section A and section B.
All the railroad flat houses on an entire street were connected, side by side— no spaces in between. Once you subtract the thickness of the walls on each side that drops the useable width, the room width in any one railroad flat, to under eleven feet wide.
And, since the useable space was under eleven feet that poses the obvious question about railroad cars: how wide is an Amtrak car? About 10 feet, two inches— long and narrow— so you can see how the railroad flat got its name.
Under eleven feet is not a lot of living space. And the kitchens were really tiny— New York City kitchens— really tiny. The one in the house of my youth was crammed into what could only be called a cubby hole off a dinning room. It had a stove, a sink and cabinets all squeezed into it.
Well, when I was young one of the chores often assigned in rotation to myself, my brother and my sister was helping my mother do the dishes. Being the oldest, I was the first one who could actually help my mother do this. So once, when I was maybe six or seven and helping her (because I would have been the doing that at this point), I was standing on a stool over the sink washing. She was drying.
I am not sure how this happened, but at one point she lifted a large, cast iron frying pan out of the drying rack. It suddenly slipped from her hands and landed on her foot— the big toe of her left foot to be precise.
Good Irish Catholic woman that she was, she did not curse. However, I do remember her jumping up and down in place on the good foot because of the pain and the words “Jesus, Mary and Joseph” escaping from her lips. (If no one has ever told you this, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph” is what passes as a curse from a good Irish Catholic woman.)
I know she went to the doctor right away, since I went to the doctor with her. The doctor had to remove the nail on her big toe. And the nail was never the same. It eventually grew back but always looked ugly, bumpy, twisted.
Now, the reason I’m telling this story is my impressionable young brain somehow absorbed this incident, this accident, as being my fault. I was standing there! It must have been my fault!
I somehow translated what happened to my mother as my having caused her to drop the heavy pan on her toe. And not only did I think it was my fault. I became convinced that she would never forgive me.
Neither of those things were, of course, true. It is simply what I perceived to be true. (Slight pause.)
Well, one day when I was in my mid-thirties and talking with my mother, I mentioned this incident. Then I told her I realized the accident was my fault and, at this late date, I wanted to say I was sorry.
She looked at me like I had just landed in a spaceship from Mars. “I dropped the pan on my own foot,” she said. “You… had nothing to do with it.”
“But, but…” I stammered, “you took me to the doctor with you. That’s one reason I thought it was my fault.”
“I took you with me to the doctor for two reasons,” she insisted. “I did not want to burden your grandmother with all three of you at once and if I had fainted dead away on the street from pain at least you were old enough to have asked someone for help.” (Slight pause.)
One wonders, of course, why I felt both culpable and unforgiven. Well, as I said, I was young. I was impressionable. And the truth is, a lack of maturity can contribute to a total misreading of reality. (Slight pause.)
These words are found in Second Corinthians: “So this makes us ambassadors for Christ, since God is making an appeal directly through us. Therefore, we entreat and implore you on behalf of Christ, and in the name of Christ: be reconciled to God.” (Slight pause.)
Nothing may be more difficult for Christians in North America in the early Twenty-first Century than adopting the new way of discernment— Paul’s way of discernment— which is inherent in the message of Scripture. Part of that discernment has this basic truth: the old categories— race, gender, social status— all of which Paul references earlier in Second Corinthians— the old categories have become obsolete when it comes to judging people.
It seems obvious to me these categories— used in Paul’s day as well as our own— these categories— race, gender, social status— and others, are, in fact, how people judge. And yet, the message offered is stunningly clear. With God there are no categories. With God there is no them and us. The message is plain, simple: be reconciled to God.
Further, God acts to shape a new creation out of the chaos of alienation, estrangement, which frankly we can feel around us. What is, to use the same words again— stunningly clear, stunningly clear— is that the love of God knows no limitations. (Slight pause.)
In that Fifteenth Chapter of Luke we hear three parables. It has become an unfortunate traditional that some Bibles print headings for different sections, especially parables.
I say it’s unfortunate we get these headings because the headings are not part of the underlying text. Indeed, the translators of the text do not put these headings in. The decision which places these headings in Bibles are made by editors and publishers.
For the casual reader the headings may make stories easier to find. But they can also leave an inaccurate impression as to the nature of the stories.
Among these three parables in the Fifteenth Chapter each is often seen with the following headings: The Parable of the Lost Sheep, The Parable of the Lost Coin, The Parable of the Prodigal Son. But, again, those titles imply what is at best an inaccurate assessment of the stories.
If one was to continue with the ill advised practice of placing headings in the text but named these stories more accurately, the appropriate titles might be: The Parable of the Diligent Housekeeper, The Parable of the Passionate Shepherd, The Parable of the Loving Parent. I want to suggest just seeing the parables in a way which reflects what they really say changes our whole perspective on their meaning. And their meaning is not about us being lost. Their meaning is about God who loves.
And their meaning is not just that the love of God knows no limitations. Their meaning is that God acts and God acts first. God actively seeks to be reconciled with us.
That brings me back to the story of the interaction I had with my mother and the misconception under which I labored for thirty or so years. I thought I was both culpable and unforgiven. Well, I was young, impressionable. And the truth is a lack of maturity can contribute to misreading.
And I think part of our problem today is we, as a society, read Scripture in a way that lacks maturity. So, the question with which that thought presents us is straightforward: can we discern what Scripture actually says or does the culture in which we live inhibit us? Does the culture in which we live entice to read Scripture in an immature way?
After all, what Scripture says is both clear and runs counter to a cultural message we encounter on a daily basis— a cultural message of fear. What Scripture says is the love of God knows no limitations. What Scripture says is God actively seeks to be reconciled with us. What Scripture says is God wants us to be reconciled with one another. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, NY
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “There is, of course, one thing in the words of this passage which really frightens us. It is that we are (quote:) “entrusted us with this message of reconciliation.” This frightens us because the clear implication is that we must spread that word, share that word. But Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson says this: ‘It’s funny that you can preach a judgmental and vengeful and angry God and nobody will mind. But when you start preaching a God that is too accepting, too loving too forgiving, too merciful, too kind you are in trouble.’”
BENEDICTION: Let us seek to love as we have been loved by God, welcoming our brothers and sisters. Let us rejoice in God’s goodness and steadfast love. Let us follow where God leads. Let us go on our way with Christ as our companion. And may the steadfast love of God and the peace of Christ, which surpasses understanding, keep our minds and hearts in the companionship and will of the Holy Spirit, this day and forever more. Amen.