SERMON 3/31/19 Lent 4C St Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples, FL
Television Drama – Binge Watching
Have you ever noticed that the four television channels we all grew up with has changed to On Demand television, which allows us to watch whatever we want, whenever we want, for as long as we want. “According to a survey done by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American spends around 2.7 hours watching TV per day, which adds up to almost 20 hours per week in total.” (5) With Cheetos, Doritos, or popcorn in hand, we spend more time watching television than we do praying, reading scripture, spending time with friends, or gathering together in community for worship. I have to admit I have been a binge watcher of certain dramas for some time, namely the Walking Dead, Downton Abbey, and now Breaking Bad. The writers of these stories exude creative genius through their complex character development, which seems to hook us into the lives of the key players.
We actually seem to identify with the characters in a show that we see ourselves in.” (5) According to an NBC story we actually experience through these dramas, “’wishful identification,’ where plots and characters offer opportunity for fantasy and immersion in the world the viewer wishes they lived in.” (5) “We get drawn into story lines, become attached to characters and truly care about outcomes of conflicts.” (5) Jesus had a knack for sharing a good story about the characters that represent us in many ways, and if we listen closely to the character development of his parables, like a good binge session of Downton Abbey, we may find ourselves in one of the characters in the story.
In today’s gospel reading we are witness to Jesus’ antagonists, the Pharisees and the scribes, who were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” The folks who most often rejected Jesus’ teachings were pointing out to him in this little drama, where they thought our main character was falling short of prescribed cultural and religious expectations. The antagonists believed that God ostracized and detached from sinners, and abandons us to some place where grace is something strange and elusive. Jesus the Hero of our story turns this misunderstanding on its head, and he does so by using a little familial drama, to show the religious leaders that God’s grace is abundant for all.
The Rest of the Drama
The plot begins when Jesus was accepting invitations of the social outcast to dine with him. Back then, to eat at someone’s table meant you accepted them, you had a social connection with them, and that you were associated with them. In other words, Jesus was identifying with sinners. “Not only is he blamed for eating with “sinners” — that is, at their invitation, but apparently for extending hospitality to them as well. Jesus thus behaves toward these outsiders, these unclean, contemptible persons of low status, as though they were acceptable, as though they were his own kin.” (3) That drove the religious folks absolutely batty, so Jesus counters their indignation with the story of a wasteful and reckless son, his older faithful but angry and jealous brother, and the father who showed immense love for both sons.
You know the story of the prodigal son, or as Webster’s defines him, the “profuse or wasteful expenditure; reckless spendthrift ” (1) son. The story begins when the young lad asked for his inheritance early, and went and spent it on debaucherous living. We need to know how sinful that act was in those times. To ask for his inheritance while his father was still living, implied that as far as the young son was concerned, his father was as good as dead to him. The young son left his father, his brother, and his whole identity behind and went off to live it up.
You know the rest of the story. The young man comes to his senses, travels back home hoping to at least be a slave, but gets the greeting he never expected. He confesses his sins to the father, but the father does not chastise or punish. He throws a party for him! All seems well in the drama except, the older son, the faithful one who stayed by dad’s side was jealous, angry, and hurt, and refused to go the party. I imagine we would have been like that had we been in his shoes. He never received a party, a big dinner, or even a thank you according to the story, but here Dad throws a big shindig for that “son of yours.”
Listen closely to the language of relationship you hear in this story and how the older brother, in an interesting way, falls into the same sinful trap of casting off relationships over sinful intentions. The older brother, like the younger ,left the family himself and refused to participate in the festivities. The father went to the older son to call him back to the celebration. Listen to this, the older brother said, “this son of yours” and proceeds to names his brother’s sins with indignation. He too walked away from the relationship and no longer acknowledged the younger as his brother.
The father though, says to him, “’Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” The gather reminds the lad of their family connection, how much he means to him, and his status in the household. Then he says something we often overlook. He reminds the older son of the family relationship that he too rejected, “this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'” The words “this brother of yours” seem subtle, but like the character development of any good drama, it is the subtleties that mean the most. The older son rejected his younger brother through the words “this son of yours,” but the father reminds the older of his relationship to the younger through his phrase “this brother of yours.” The father speaks reconciliation by reminding the sons of their relationship to one another.
Relationships and Reconciliation
You see, reconciliation is not about sin and punishment. The work of reconciliation is about restoring relationships, healing divisions, and making a way for grace to become the glue that binds us together. As Hulitt Gloer explains, “Reconciliation, belongs to the sphere of personal relationships, and ours is an age which is acutely aware of the alienation between people, which exists at every level. Ours is an age hungry for the healing of broken relationships.” (2)
Reconciliation happens not because of our own efforts, but because of the loving Father God who constantly reminds us every one, of our connection to one another, even when we are estranged. God reminds us, “this brother of yours,” “this sister of your.” “It is God who acts to bring about this reconciliation.” (2) It is through the work of reconciling love in Christ that the dramas of our lives are no longer played out on the big screen of competitive, judgmental, disingenuous, and “dog eat dog” relational estrangement.
Ambassadors in the story
If we are to be Christ-like, we must be like Christ, the father who welcomes home the lost, and then actively engages in the work of bringing us back together with those we have hurt or those who have been hurt by us, by those things we have done and left undone. God never lets us alone to wander aimlessly in the estrangement we often create, but God makes righteousness (right relationships) possible. However, this reconciling work does not begin and end with just a “me and God” notion of reconciliation.
The Apostle Paul writes, “So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.” (Jesus) “has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” We have known the loving embrace of the father that meets us on the road when we have strayed from the path. We are the same ones that are called to go and meet those, with whom we are estranged. In contrast to our television drama addiction, Christians must be at the work of binge reconciling, rampant self-giving, abundant loving, and copious compassion for all of God’s children. We need to get hooked into the drama of reconciling relationships with others.
As Ambassadors of Christ, recipients of grace unmerited and underserved, we may need to leave the spiritual pigsties of relational estrangement, self-serving apathy, and the hurt feelings of disaffection towards others, and make our way back home to the Way of Jesus. His work of reconciling love will continue in and through us, but if we do not respond, what then will be the outcome of the story? Theologian Karl Barth once said “if Jesus himself had not left the Father and traveled into the far country, to share a table with sinners, we would still be there, eating those pig pods.“ (4)
Who are you in the story
So, in our own binge watching relationship dramas of life, who are we most like, most of the time? Maybe we are the Hero father, who pours out grace unexpected, unearned, and unmerited on both sons. Maybe we are the prodigal one, who left his closest relationships, to live it up, but finally came home to find grace unexpected. Maybe we are the older one, who refused to welcome back his closest relationship, in order to sulk in self-righteousness anger. If we are honest, I imagine we have been and are, all three characters. I know I have been.
I guess what we need today, in a world desirous of reconciliation and grace is a little more “wishful identification” with the characters in the drama of life around us and not on the television screen. We need to get “drawn into the story lines of others, and become attached to characters (of our lives) and truly care about outcomes of conflicts, celebrations, and struggles.”
So, what will happen if we fail to become the ambassadors we are called by God to be? Well, if we choose to not answer the call, we might as well sit in our comfortable recliners, remote in hand, eating popcorn, and binging on Episode 10 of Season 20 of the Kardashians. If we fail to be the instruments through which God is making his appeal, we will merely be sideline observers of reconciliation and grace, lived out and experienced by others. We will miss the opportunity to actually participate in the best drama ever, the Kingdom of God, where grace calls us back home, and all along the way, we are commissioned and sent out, to bring somebody else back home along with us.
(2) Gloer, Hulitt. “Ambassadors of Reconciliation: Paul’s Genius in Applying the Gospel in a Multi-Cultural World: 2 Corinthians 5:14-21.” Review & Expositor, vol. 104, no. 3, Sum 2007, pp. 589–601
(4) Grieb, A.Katherine. “The Real Prodigal.” The Christian Century, vol. 121, no. 5, Mar. 2004, p. 21