Repentance and Reconciliation


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

March 22, 2020 

Texts: Psalm 32; Luke 15:11–32

       One of the more really awful so-called biblical themed movies was a 1955 version of this morning's Gospel reading. Starring Lana Turner as a pagan priestess who lures the younger son into a life of dissolution and vice, the movie's director didn't even have the common sense to either find a dark-haired temptress or have blond Lana wear a wig. I suspect there weren't too many blond blue-eyed women in the ancient Middle East. Much of the film is taken up with Edmund Purdom, a B movie actor of that generation, languishing in Lana Turner's lap. But then, as the Gospel narrative tells us, the son who spent his money in dissolute living realizes that he could return to his father and begging forgiveness, live as one of his hired hands. 

       All's well that ends well, or is it? The older son when he realizes that the return of his younger brother is the cause of such merriment becomes really, really angry. And, quite frankly, I don't blame him. All the time that Junior has been living his life in ways that are probably defy description, older brother has been working his tail off and without even a thank you from his father. In this iconic story of repentance and reconciliation between father and son, the older brother is really left out of the picture except by a gentle chiding from the father. We, of course, are supposed to be glad that the younger brother who was lost is now found. But, deep down, secretly, I venture to say that most of us are with the older brother in his anger and resentment.

       I have to admit I've always wondered how the two brothers get on after junior comes back full of repentance into the loving and waiting arms of his father who is just grateful that his son is alive.                   Although the younger son may repent and reconcile with his father, the real reconciliation is between the brothers. We ask how do they relate as brothers while their father is still alive, and, even more importantly, after he dies. This is where the real repentance, the real forgiveness, and the real reconciliation must take place. And that is where it is most difficult to forgive, most difficult to reconcile.

        One of the difficult questions here is who is supposed to forgive whom before the reconciliation can occur. Does the repentance of one person in a family obligate the other to forgive? When we confess our sins – those things we have done and left undone – before God, we ask God to forgive us and, in some way, we expect that we will be forgiven – even those secret sins and failings not included in a formalized confession. It is different with people, however, because we really do not know whether our repentance of our sins or failings affecting others will be forgiven. 

       Intimate relationships, whether they are friendships or familial ones, create demands on us. But, are they substantively different than the relationships we have in the public sphere? In this time of fear of the people we do not know, and even those we do know, we ask ourselves about how is it we are to continue our relationships. 

        At the present time many adult children of older adults in extended care facilities are upset that they cannot visit their parents or aunts or uncles, and continue their intimate relationship with them. Older adults living in their homes are even curtailing visits from their own family members. After all this is over we will have to ask ourselves how we will repent of our fear and reconcile ourselves with the people we love and pushed away from us in fear.

        We usually consider reconciliation as little more than the formality of passing the peace during worship. Now, there is a healthy place for anger in this process of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Anger connected to some terrible form of injustice, such as the grinding poverty of the Third World and in parts of our own United States, coupled with action actually helps to speed the process of reconciliation.

       The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, which literally means an afterthought or change of consciousness, a turning around. Biblical Hebrew has two words for repentance: nichan, which means to feel sorrow, and shuv, which means to return. They are often used together, which means that when we repent of our sins and our failings, we turn around and make real changes in our lives. 

        Denial of our need for repentance is not easy, as we hear in the Psalm of David. “While I kept silence, my body wasted away,” David sang. “Day and night your – mean God's – hand was upon me.” Freedom for David came with acknowledging his sin. Now, most of us don't have sins like David did: we did not send spouses of our lovers off to war to die; we did not kill others in our fight for power and monarchy nor do we normally deceive ourselves that whatever we did was part of God's plan. But we do participate in the societal structures and have relationships that often need repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. 

        Each of us has some little corner of our heart where we hold onto anger, usually from some past wrong we felt was done to us. Each of us has a need to repent from that anger, to forgive that past wrong so that reconciliation, true reconciliation can occur. This does not mean that we necessarily forget the wrong that was committed against us; it means that we transform that wrong into something positive so our souls are not warped by the continuing anger. 

We struggle with repentance and forgiveness because we do not know what form that any possible reconciliation will take. Reconciliation does not mean that things go back to the way they were but that there are new possibilities in living together, or apart, that enable us to transform our lives. 

         We are in the midst of Lent now, a time of sacrifice, and, God knows, many in our society are sacrificing a great deal at the present time. We have a justified anger at people like Senators Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga, whose husband is Chair of the New York Stock Exchange) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) who sold stocks after a January classified briefing about the coronavirus outbreak in China, a full month before the market went into free-fall. 

          Two other Senators on the Committee had been selling stock in certain industries: James Inhofe (R-Okla) because he believed that holding defense industry stock was a conflict of interest and Diane Feinstein (D-Calif) through a blind trust. Evidently neither of them have been implicated in trading on insider knowledge. Many have suffered severe losses because the coronavirus was not taken seriously in January. 

         We probably feel like this is a real Lent. What we need to remember is after the injustice of execution on Good Friday, we experience true reconciliation through the transformation of the Resurrection. That transformation calls us to give new life to our relationships and our society through true reconciliation. But repentance leading to a real change in our society must come first.

        Let us pray: You, O Holy One, call us to repent; you call us to forgive. Soften our hearts so we are able to respond to your call and live in true reconciling love with all our brothers and sisters. In the name of him who is your image of reconciliation, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.