Agnes Scott Sunday Scriptures: Joshua 5:10-12; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:11-32

It is a joy to be here with you all today. This Sunday is a wonderful celebration of the long relationship between the church and the college, and what is yet to come. When I was invited to preach today I began thinking about what texts seemed most appropriate for our conversation.

We’ve paid special attention to the promises made at baptism, “Do you, as members of the church of Jesus Christ, promise to guide and nurture this child by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging them to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of his church?” So I looked at texts about baptism, but I kept coming back to the well-loved, and well-worn story of the Prodigal. But you just heard two other texts as well. When I looked up this parable in the lectionary those are two of the texts that are paired with this story, and not surprisingly they don’t get used or preached very often. I’d like for us to pay a little attention to them both, but I promise we won’t be here all day.

Our text from Joshua tells us of the arrival in the Promised Land. The Israelites who have wandered in the desert for 40 years, and have arrived in Gilgal and are encamped there long enough to celebrate the Passover. And we are given the impression that for the first time since crossing the Red Sea, they are eating local food, and the next day, for the first time in their experience there is no manna.

After so many years in the liminal space of wandering in the desert, they have arrived at their destination, more or less. Liminal space is a funny thing. It’s a space between. It’s a threshold, neither in nor out; a space of transition and waiting. The Israelites have been there for a long time, and we find ourselves there throughout our lives. College students have a double whammy, throughout their educational career they have been working toward college. They’ve been making good grades and taking test prep courses so that their SAT or ACT scores are competitive, and being involved in student organizations and doing volunteer work, so they can get into the college of their choice. Then they come to us, and enter an entirely new kind of liminal space. They live in the already/not yet dichotomy of young adulthood.

The Israelites have spent two generations in liminality, wandering in the desert, until they were ready to enter the Promised Land. Their entrance is marked by ritual, both by the mass circumcision of the preceding verses, and here with the observance of the Passover with local food. When the manna finally ended the next day, it is clear that the liminality of the wilderness wandering was well and truly over. We too mark our times with ritual on the college campus, opening convocations, and baccalaureate and commencement at the end of a student’s time on campus.

This both/and space has promise and problem. For Joshua and the Israelites, they have the concerns of how to live now that their needs are not provided for them in the same way, and for college students it’s not all that different. They too are eating local food for the first time. No matter the choices any of them have made or will make, both the Israelites and college students can be assured that God’s love is unwavering and God is faithful still.

Paul addresses this to the church at Corinth as well. He reminds them, a church very far removed from him and his experience, that they too are a part of God’s kingdom, that God’s faithfulness has not changed, and that God’s reconciliation is powerful enough for all. What we don’t get in this portion of the text is that there is ongoing tension within this church, as well as between Paul and the church in Corinth. In three verses he uses the word reconciliation no fewer than five times. And this is far bigger than “forgive and forget.” Paul is seeking reconciliation between this congregation and himself, as well as reminding them of the new creation they are a part of in their life in Christ. It is a whole new country and a new way of being, we are a new creation.

Reconciliation is a tough thing, and certainly for us to reconcile with one another, and be truly reconciled, is hard work. It does not mean ignoring the conflict, but rather looks at the conflict from all sides. The church at Corinth is a prime example of the need for a ministry of reconciliation. They have bickered with each other and challenged Paul, yet, he continues to remind them that being in Christ makes them a part of the new creation.

In the midst of the worst of World War II, a new ministry was born out of the bombing of Coventry Cathedral. The original cathedral was built in the 14th century, and in 1940 was bombed into nothing but an empty shell. The shell still stands today, with the neighboring modern cathedral just next to it. At Christmas 1940, the Provost of the Cathedral declared that once the war was over, he would commit himself “to build a kinder, more Christ-child-like world.” A new world, a new community, a new creation. The Cathedral established the Community of the Cross of Nails, making crosses for their partners in reconciliation from the nails of the 14th century cathedral, inscribed with the words, “Father forgive.” The Community has over 200 partners in 40 countries, and any body of people who have a heart and a need to pursue reconciliation in their own lives and the lives of others can become a partner.

The work of reconciliation is also an in-between space, a space where we are already friends but not yet seeing each other with new eyes. The Bible is filled with liminality and the tension between already and not yet. Our text today is no exception. Paul is talking about the tension between the old and the new. It’s like that song I learned in Girl Scouts, “Make new friends, but keep the old; one is silver and the other gold.” They are very much already and not yet.

Paul is talking about the new creation, our full reconciliation to God. Paul is talking about the in-breaking of the kingdom. We are looking through the back of the wardrobe into Narnia. We see with new eyes that reconciliation is not simply something we ought to do, it is something that we must do because the grace that has been granted to us will not allow us to do anything else.

So you’re probably wondering what any and all of this has to do with this amazing group of college students and more particularly the well-love story of the Prodigal. In as much as I chose this text myself, I did so knowing that it is such a well-known and well-loved story that trying to say something new to many of you will be a significant challenge. I suspect the number of sermons titled Lost and Found using the story of the Prodigal is quite a few. It’s possible that I should have changed the title of the sermon to Already/Not Yet or even Both/And.

Generally when we think of Lost and Found, it’s the place we go when we’ve lost our keys, or the bin at the school we go diving through for lost jackets and sweatshirts a few times during the school year. Here though it is the refrain of the father whose son has all but written him off and then returned home when he ran out of money and food. Now we could follow this rabbit down a hole into a conversation about the boomerang generation, but I won’t go that way. I’d rather we think about both sons together.

Let’s look again at what the text tells us about these siblings. We know from the very beginning of the parable that there are two siblings, but the bulk of the first part of the story is about the younger son. It’s not until he returns home that we learn anything about the elder. It makes me think a bit about Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” where the older brother George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, stayed home to run the family business while his younger brother went off to college and became a war hero. Now their story doesn’t harbor much animosity, but there’s a moment when Harry comes home with his new bride and she says that her father has given Harry a job that you catch a glimpse of how crestfallen George is. (I could talk about that movie all day, it’s simply a taste of what we have before us.)

The story before us though is about two who are lost. The younger son is lost because he has forsaken his family, essentially telling his father that he is dead to him and gone off and spent his money on (I love this language) dissolute living. The elder has stayed and worked, and in the moment of anger we witness in the text, he too is lost to his father. In a span of mere moments both children are both lost and found.
Every person in this sanctuary has identified with one or both of these characters at some point. I’ve spent much of my life (as an older sibling myself) relating to the elder, but I’ve also had times, like when I went off to college, where I was ready to spread my wings and be on my own, when I found myself feeling like the younger. We expect and enjoy a certain amount of “lost-ness” during these in-between times like college. It doesn’t mean they don’t have purpose, it means that this is the time in your life when one has the privilege of a little extravagance, and the grace of a caring college community and a family at home who we hope welcomes them home like this parent does.
At the same time, we have the “quietly competent” elder who has done what was expected. Stayed and continued to work and maintain the land that is both part of his birthright as well as the livelihood of many. In this regular, day to day setting, he has hoped to be rewarded for his hard work, and yet it is the return of his brother that is the cause for celebration.

It is very easy to get excited about the triumphant return of one like the younger. We want to celebrate that they have “come to their senses.” And in the case of young adults and more particularly college students in the church, it’s easy to get excited when they are here on a Sunday morning. And I want you to get excited, but get excited about the ones who are here all summer too. Those who may be connected in a different way where they attend college, but are here on breaks, celebrate them too.

One of the commentaries I read in preparation for today was written by David Lose, the president of Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia. He writes about this parable being like hearing from an old friend because it is so familiar, but also that there is always something new to hear in it. He talks about the in-breaking of the kingdom and that all too brief glimpse of the other country we sometimes get to see.

As we at Agnes Scott have placed a particular emphasis on global education with our new Summit initiative, I was intrigued by the idea of this view of another country. He talks about what things are different, smells and tastes included. I had the opportunity to travel with the first cohort of students last spring and had an amazing time in New York City with 45 wonderful first-year students. For most of them it was a wonderful experience, with a few hiccups, and eye-opening to say the least.

This other country we catch a glimpse of shows up in all three of our text for today. This in breaking of the kingdom, doesn’t only happen in the Gospels. This other country, David Lose says, is very different from our own, the most notable difference is that no one counts anything in this other place. There are no billable hours, no headcounts in worship, no assessment, no “are we there yet’s” from the back seat, no I owe you and you owe me. It is God’s unmerited, undeniable and eager grace that frees us all from the need for counting, because we are already counted. Every hair on our heads has been numbered, and we are free. We needn’t be counted because we already have merit, just by our very existence, we have inherent worth.

So if you are feeling like you are among the lost, know that you are found, whether it is here in this congregation or on campus (at Agnes Scott). If you are among the quietly competent found, know that when we put on the right glasses and look into your face, we see your sacred worth.

Here today, we sit between these two worlds, between the already and the not yet, the both/and, the lost AND found. We sit here to remember that the space between, the liminal space is thin space, where we can catch a glimpse of that other country, where we can see the in-breaking of the kingdom and see that someone is running to welcome us, each and every one of us, even if we’ve been here all along.

In the name of the creator, sustainer and redeemer, Amen.

Rev. Kate Colussy-Estes
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Decatur, GA
September 18, 2016