Thursday, July 1, 2021

What can we say March 27? Lent 4

       Joshua 5:9-12. A little obscure, but fascinating. Could title a sermon “Rolling Stone,” as the story intimate there were large round stones to mark where Israel crossed the Jordan (“Gilgal” is translated “rolled”). The notice that “the manna ceased”: is this good news? Thank goodness, we’re so tired of that crusty, tasteless food, every day for decades? Or is there some nostalgia? We miss the good old days when we were so close to God, so dependent upon God’s daily gift? Now we have to be responsible, to labor hard for it all?

   2 Corinthians 5:16-21. Reconciliation: if any word sums up what the life of faith is about, here it is. We are reconciled to God, and we go about the business of reconciliation with others. What could be more needed in our fractured world? And more arduous, well-nigh impossible?

   Before the pandemic, my church had a significant series on Reconciliation; check it out! A seasonal emphasis drills in to our folks that this is serious, hard, marvelous. It’s weirdly beyond forgiveness. A restored relationship – although care must be taken not to make the abused feel they need to feel good about their abusers, and so on.

    Paul’s counsel, “Regard no one from human point of view,” is the baseline for Christians functioning in the world – but do we even try? Culture wages aggressive war against this ministry – and thus against our own personal sense of being reconciled to God! Christena Cleveland (in Disunity in Christ) is especially sharp on the nature of the work of reconciliation. We can meet God in our cultural context, but then to follow God we must cross over into other contexts. She explains how “group polarization” works – we experience confirmation of our views because of our narrow social circle or social media tricks. Church makes it worse! God calls us to “cognitive generosity,” as we expand our “we,” and discover the fruit and joy of the hard labor of reconciliation.

    What can preachers do, but to name it, to embody it, to lift up the beauty of reconciliation by telling stories (if they can be found)? And clarifying, gently, that reconciliation isn’t an optional add-on for some churches. This is the church’s work, always, everywhere. Not splitting up, or even being “right.” Sam Wells (in God’s Companions) reminds us that, for us, ethics isn’t so much about what’s right and wrong, but what builds up the Church. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out how our “goodness” can actually get in the way of us doing God’s will; God doesn’t ask for goodness, keeping our hands clean, but prefers we do whatever God asks, which will likely involve getting our hands dirty.

   Notice Paul begins with “from now on” – assuming the saving work of Christ and consequent community engagement and commitment to holiness he’s just talked about. This is totally new – a “new creation.” The Christian isn’t 14% nicer or 11% more generous. We are all new. And we see others through new eyes. Echoing the haunting truth that “God does not see as we see” (1 Sam. 16:7 – when David was the one chosen, not the taller, more muscular sons of Jesse).

   And why do we see differently? Not just because God said Look at them this way! For Paul, it is that Jesus was once viewed as merely a guy. But now he’s the risen Son, the Messiah, our Savior. We, too, used to be mere people; but now we are “ambassadors” for God!  Then, as if to be sure we don’t miss it (since we might), Paul pleads, urges: “See?!?!” And our transformation looks like this, well-described by John Barclay (in Paul and the Power of Grace): “Christ takes on the human condition and participates in the limitations and vulnerabilities of human nature… But this has a purpose and a result: Christ’s self is given into the human condition but not ultimately given away, because in the resurrection and exaltation of Christ a new era is begun and a new life released, in which we may participate. Christ participates in the human condition in order that we may participate in his condition.” Susan Eastman calls this “mutual assimilation.”

  Luke 15:1-13, 11b-32. Oh, so much to say. Amy-Jill Levine has taught us not to read such texts anti-semitically, as if Jewish dads were legalistic judgers as opposed to the Christian vision of the running, welcoming dad. Grace dominates both religions. George Balanchine’s ballet has the son whirling and writhing in a long dance of remorse: lovely choreography but bad theology. Amy-Jill also points out that riotous living and the party life aren’t inherently sinful – and Jesus nowhere in this parable mentions anything about anybody’s sin! It’s foolishness, for sure – but the story isn’t about sin and the son doesn’t really repent, does he? Is he really sorry? Or just cynical or desperate? He’s just hungry and journeys to the only place he bets he can get a square meal.

   And who could forget the mesmerizing, emotionally riveting way the TV miniseries from the 70’s, Jesus of Nazareth, handled this! Peter is indignant Jesus has gone to the home of a tax collector. At dinner there, Jesus tells this story – as Peter peeks in through the tent opening. Everyone is transfixed – and then Peter and Matthew… oh, you have to watch it for yourself!

   Isn’t there a curious kind of judgment in this father’s lack of judgment? Want to feel really sorry for how you mucked things up? Receive total mercy with no requirement for an accounting or an apology! Indeed, Robert Farrar Capon is always eloquent, noting how real confession only comes after forgiveness: “Only when, like the prodigal, we are finally confronted with the unqualified gift of someone who died to forgive us no matter what, can we see that confession has nothing to do with getting ourselves forgiven…. Forgiveness surrounds us, beats upon us all our lives; we confess only to wake ourselves up to what we already have.”

   I’ll thumb through my favorite Henri Nouwen book, at least one-third of which is underlined. Such marvelous stuff. Nouwen, feeling for the steely, distant brother in Rembrandt’s painting of the moment the younger son returns, asks about his own soul: “Had I really ever dared to step into the center, kneel down, and let myself be held by a forgiving God, instead of choosing over and over again the position of the outsider looking in? There are so many other voices, voices that are loud, full of promises and very seductive. These voices say, ‘Go out and prove that you are worth something.’ Do you know these voices like I do? They cut deep inside into those vulnerable recesses where we doubt our worth, where we know we can never achieve enough; they wrap ‘what I do’ around ‘who I am’ and cruelly lie to us. They suggest that I am not going to be loved without my having earned it. They want me to prove to myself and others that I am worth being loved. They deny loudly that love is a totally free gift.”

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