Archives For Reconciliation

Portrait Karl BarthI’m actually preaching last Sunday’s Jeremiah lection this weekend, but I did notice this Sunday’s Gospel lection is Luke 15.1-32, a trifecta of parables about lost objects and creatures ending with the Parable of the Prodigal Father.

Or is it the Prodigal Son?

I can’t let the Luke 15 parable pass on the lectionary without mentioning what I take to the best interpretation of it from my Mt Rushmore theologian, Karl Barth.

Barth creatively tackles the parable in Part 2 of Volume 4 of the Church Dogmatics, The Homecoming of the Son of Man. Already by the title you can that Barth is framing the parable in terms of atonement or what he terms the Doctrine of Reconciliation. Obviously, to make this parable a story of the homecoming of the “Son of Man” is contrary to how we often treat it, but Barth argued (both creatively and, I think, correctly) that every parable warrants a proper Christological exegesis; that is, every parable Jesus tells is on the first order self-revelation, making every parable about Jesus before it’s about God generically or any of his listeners.

Barth begins his interpretation of Luke 15 with John 1:14, “The Word was made flesh and lived among us.”  Barth writes that the word “flesh” is a statement about God:

“We say – and in itself this constitutes the whole of what is said – that without ceasing to be true God, in the full possession and exercise of His true deity, God went into the far country by becoming [human] in His second person or mode of being as the Son – the far country not only of human creatureliness but also of human corruption and perdition.”

In other words, it is Jesus, who is and remains fully God, who goes into a ‘far away country’ by becoming fully human.

“Without ceasing to be man, but assumed and accepted in his creatureliness and corruption by the Son of God, humanity – this one Son of Man – returned home to where He belonged, to His place as true man…”

Says Barth, the atonement is where God in Christ “goes into a far country” and humanity in Christ “returns home” to the Father’s House. In other words, when Jesus is reconciled with God all of humanity is reconciled with God because Jesus, as ‘fully human,’ is “true humanity.”

David Fitch, in Prodigal Christianity, takes Barth another step by suggesting that Barth’s reading of Luke 15 provides us with a framework for what it means to be missional. Fitch believes that the point of the parable is that God radically sends God’s own Son into the far country to bring back all who are lost. The journey of the Son reveals the radical missionary nature of God, that the Father has sent the Son into the far country to redeem the world and that the Church are those sent out- prodigally- into world by the Spirit to join in the Son’s work of returning all that belongs to the Father to his feast.

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(The Harrowing of Hell)

Here’s the sermon from this weekend based on the lectionary epistle from Colossians 2.6-15.

If you’re receiving this by email, you can find the audio by clicking here.

 

Today’s passage begins the heart of the apostle Paul’s argument in his letter to the Colossians, and it’s a passage that begs an obvious and inescapable question.

Not- “Why are there so few praise songs about circumcision?”

That’s not the question.

     It’s this one: If you’re already forgiven, then why bother following?

If you’re already forgiven by Christ of every sin you’ve done, every sin you’re sinning this very instant in your little head, every sin you will commit next week or next year- if you’re already and for always forgiven by Christ, then why would you bother following him?

If you’ve no reason to fear fire and brimstone, then what reason do you have to follow?

Because you don’t, you know- have any reason to fear. Fear God or fear for your salvation.

That’s the lie, the empty deceit, the false teaching, Paul admonishes the Colossians against in verse 8 where Paul warns them against any practices or philosophy that lure them into forgetting that Christ is Lord and in Christ God has defeated the power of Sin with a capital S and cancelled out the stain of all your little s sins.

You are forgiven.

You have no reason to fear.

Because the whole reality of God (without remainder), dwells in Christ Jesus and, by your baptism, you’ve been incorporated in to Christ fully and so you are fully restored to God. You have fullness with God through Christ in whom God fully dwells.

Fully is Paul’s key boldfaced word- there is no lack in your relationship with God.

At least, from God’s side there’s not.

And for Paul-

Your incorporation in Christ, your restoration by Christ to God, it’s objective not subjective. It’s fact not foreshadowing. It’s an announcement not an invitation.

Christ’s incorporation of us has happened- literally- over our dead bodies, our sin-dead bodies.

And it’s happened perfectly. As in, once. For all. It’s not conditional. It’s not an if/then proposition. It’s not if you believe/have faith/roll up your sleeves and serve the poor/give more money/stop your stupid sinning THEN and ONLY THEN will God forgive you.

No, it’s not future tense. It’s past perfect tense.

It’s passive even. You have been reconciled by Christ without qualification. It’s a finished deed and no deeds you do can add to it or- or– subtract from it.

From Paul’s perspective, “What must I do to be saved?” is the wrong question to ask this side of the cross because you were saved- already- in 33 AD and Christ’s cross never stops paying it forward into the future for you.

It’s as obvious as an empty tomb: God forever rejects our rejection of him.

What circumcision was to Israel, Christ is to us. He’s made us his Family, and, just as it is with your biological one, as much as you might like to you can’t undo family.

You once were lost, dead (to sin), but he has made you alive in Christ, raised you up right along with him; so that, you can say he’s forgiven all your trespasses. Your debt of sin that you never could’ve paid, it’s like a credit card Christ has cut up and nailed to the cross.

And it’s not just your little s sins he’s obliterated, it’s the Power of Sin with a capital S. He’s defeated it forever. He’s brought down the Principalities and Powers, Paul says.

He’s thrown the dragon down, as St. John puts it. He’s plundered Satan’s lair, as St. Peter puts; he’s descended all the way into Hell to liberate the condemned and on his way up he hung a condemned sign on the devil’s doors. Out of business. God literally does not give a damn anymore.

Your sin. Our alienation and guilt and separation from God. Humanity’s hostility and divisions. God’s wrath and judgment. All of it, every bit of it, the fullness of it-it’s just like he said it was. It is finished.

But, that begs the question:

If you’re already forgiven, once for always and all

If you’re a sinner in the hands of a loving God

If you’ve no fire and brimstone to fear

Then, why bother following?

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     If you have no reason to fear God, then why would you upend your life, complicate your conscience, career, and keeping-up-with-the-Jones? Why would you invert the values the culture gives you and compromise your American dream by following the God who meets us in Jesus Christ?

If Christ has handed you a “Get Out of Hell Free” card, then what’s the incentive to follow Christ? Why would you bother? Why would you forgive that person in your life, who knows exactly what they do to you, as many as 70 x 7 times? Why would you do that if you know you’ve already been forgiven for not doing it?

Why bother giving water to the stranger (who is Christ) when he’s thirsty or food when he’s hungry, why bother visiting Christ when he’s locked away in prison or clothing Christ when he’s naked or sheltering Christ when he’s homeless?

Why go to all that trouble if Christ is only going to say to you what he says to the woman caught in sin: I do not condemn you?

You know as well as I do-

It feels better to leave the log in your own eye and point out the speck in your neighbor’s eye instead. It feels better.

It feels almost as good as not walking a mile in another’s shoes, nearly as good as not giving them the shirt off your back, as comfortable as not giving up everything and giving it away to the poor.

And none of that feels as right and good as it does to withhold celebration when a prodigal comes creeping back into your life expecting forgiveness they don’t deserve.

So why would you bother doing all of what Jesus commands if you’re already forgiven for not doing it any of it?

Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

Easy and light my log-jammed eye.

Not when he says the way to be blessed is to wage peace and to show mercy and swallow every insult that comes your way because you hunger and thirst for justice.

Easy and light- have you been following the news lately? You could starve to death hungering and thirsting for God’s justice.

So why? What’s the point? What’s the benefit to you? If you’ve no reason to fear Christ, if you’re already forgiven by Christ, then why bother following the peculiar path laid out by Christ?

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  I don’t have cable on my TV. Instead I have this HBO Now app on my iPhone. So anywhere, anytime, whenever I want, on my 6 Plus screen I can watch Rape of Thrones. Or, if I’m in the mood for something less violent, I can watch old episodes of the Sopranos right there on my phone.

     Or, if I want to see more of Matthew Mcconaughey than I need to see I can rebinge season one of True Detective. Right there on my iPhone, I can thumb through all of HBO’s titles; it’s like a rolodex of violence and profanity, sex and secularism.

     Earlier this week, I opened the HBO Now app on my phone, and I wasn’t in the mood for another brother-sister funeral wake make-out session on Game of Thrones. Because I wasn’t in the mood for my usual purient interests, I happened upon this little documentary film from 2011 about Delores Hart.

Delores Hart was an actress in the 1950’s and 60’s. Her father was a poor man’s Clark Gable and had starred in Forever Amber. She grew up a Hollywood brat until her parents split at which time she went to live with her grandpa, who was a movie theater projectionist in Chicago.

Delores would sit in the dark alcove of her grandpa’s movie house watching film after film and dreaming tinseltown dreams.

After high school and college, Delores Hart landed a role as Elvis Presley’s love interest in the 1956 film Loving You, a role that featured a provocative 15 second kiss with Elvis. She starred with Elvis again in 1958 in King Creole.

She followed that up with an award-winning turn on Broadway in the Pleasure of His Company. In 1960 she starred in the cult-hit, spring break flick Where the Boys Are, which led to the lead in the golden-globe winning film The Inspector in 1961.

Delores Hart was the toast of Hollywood. She was compared to Grace Kelley. She was pursued by Elvis Presley and Paul Newman. Her childhood dreams were coming true. She was engaged to a famous L.A. architect.

But then-

In 1963 she was in New York promoting her new movie Come Fly with Me when something compelled her- called her- to take a one-way cab ride to the Benedictine abbey, Regina Laudis, in Bethlehem, Connecticut for a retreat.

After the retreat, she returned to her red carpet Hollywood life and society pages engagement but she was overwhelmed by an ache, a sensation of absence. Emptiness.

So, she quit her acting gigs, got rid of all her baubles, and broke off her engagement- renounced all of her former dreams- and joined that Benedictine convent where she is the head prioress today.

What’s more remarkable than her story is the documentary filmmakers’ reaction to it, their appropriation of it. This is HBO remember, the flagship station for everything postmodern, postChristian, purient and radically secular.

Here’s this odd story of a woman giving up her red carpet dreams and giving her life to God, and the filmmakers aren’t just respectful of her story; they’re drawn to it.

They’re not just interested in her life; they’re captivated by her life.

Even though it’s clear in the film that her motivation is a mystery to them, you can tell from the way they film her story that they think, even though she wears a habit and has no husband or family or ordinary aspirations, she is somehow more human than most of us.

You can tell that they think her life is beautiful, that believing she is God’s beloved and living fully into that belief has made her life beautiful.

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     That’s why-

Why we follow even though there’s no fire and brimstone to fear, even though we’re already and always forgiven.

Because if Jesus is the image of the invisible God, as Paul says here in Colossians, then what it means for us to be made in God’s image is for us to resemble Jesus, to look and live like Jesus.

If the fullness of God dwells in Jesus Christ, if Jesus is what God looks like when God puts on skin and becomes fully human- totally, completely, authentically human- then we follow Jesus not because we hope to get into heaven but because we hope to become human.

We follow Jesus not because we hope to get into heaven but because we hope to become human too.

Fully human.

The reason Christ’s yoke does not feel easy nor his burden light, the reason we prefer our log-jammed eyes, the reason we’re daunted by forgiving 70 x 7 and intimidated by a love that washes feet is that we’re not yet. Human. Fully human. As human as God.

It’s not that God doesn’t understand what it is to live a human life; it’s that we don’t. We’re the only creatures who don’t know how to be the creatures we were created to be.

We get it backwards: it’s not that Jesus presents to us an impossible human life; it’s that Jesus presents to us the prototype for every human life. For a fully human life.

So we follow not to avoid brimstone in the afterlife but to become beautiful in this one.

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     That’s the why, so what about the how?

How we become as fully human? How do we become beautiful?

If Jesus is the prototype, then it begins for us the same way it begins for Jesus.

And for Jesus, according to the oldest of the Gospels, Mark- the story of Jesus’ fully human life begins not with his birth but with his baptism:

With Jesus coming up out of the water and God declaring like it was the first week of creation: ‘This is my Beloved in whom I delight.’

Jesus’ baptism is not the first time in scripture that God says to someone: ‘You are my Beloved. In you I delight.’

It’s not the first time in scripture that God says that to someone, but it is the first time in scripture that someone actually believes it and lives his life all the way to a cross believing it.

What sets Jesus apart is not the miracles he performed. It’s not his teaching or his preaching. Or, even, that he died on a cross.

No, what sets Jesus apart is his deep and abiding belief that he was God’s beloved.

Jesus was like us in every way. Tempted like us. Flesh and blood like us. Born and died like us. In every way he was like every one of us who’s ever been since Adam.

Except one way.

Jesus never forgot who he was. He never doubted that he was Beloved, a delight to God.

And knowing, all the way down, that he was beloved, set him free to live a life whose beauty renewed the whole world as a new and different creation.

When Delores Hart took her finals vows as a Benedictine nun, 7 years later, she wore the wedding dress she’d bought for her red carpet Hollywood wedding.

She thought it was the perfect thing to wear because the most profound love in our lives isn’t the one that sends couples down the aisle to altar. It’s the love that God declares to all of us from the altar.

If Jesus is the prototype, then you and I becoming fully, beautifully human, it begins not with believing in Jesus and not with believing certain things about Jesus.

If Jesus is God’s prototype, then you and I becoming fully, beautifully human begins with believing like Jesus.

Believing like Jesus believed. Believing what Jesus believed.

You are God’s Beloved. In you, in you, God delights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Untitled101111I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

15. Do Only Christians Sin?

Yes.

To describe oneself a sinner is not a lowest common denominator available to all irrespective of faith claims but it is an accomplishment made possible only through proclamation, baptism and discipleship.

Of course, this is not to argue that only Christians err, lie, commit violence or forsake the good for trivial goods. But sin, meaning as it does the rejection of God’s love and goodness as revealed perfectly in Jesus Christ, is a vocabulary term available only to those who speak Christian.

Sin is not synonymous with the general human condition nor is it empirically verifiable apart from revelation. One must learn to know oneself as a sinner, and to know oneself as a sinner first requires knowing oneself as a forgiven sinner.

Only those who’ve experienced the embrace of the Father who declares ‘…we had to celebrate for what was lost has been found…’ can know the distance of the far country whence they came.

Just as no one can know God apart from God’s self-revelation, we cannot know ourselves as standing apart from God apart from the revelation of God in Christ.

In the same manner that cross and incarnation are only intelligible in light of the resurrection, the brokenness of sin only becomes comprehensible in light of the reconciliation made possible by Easter, in which Christ makes all things new.

The assurance of pardon then necessarily precedes, spiritually if not liturgically, the confession of sin.

‘…Let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.’ – Luke 15.23-24

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‘The first hour of heaven is like an endless room filled with 2-top coffee tables…’

So says my friend Scot McKnight, author of the Jesus Creed blog and book, who preached for us this weekend. In advance of his upcoming book, A Kingdom Conspiracy, Scot preached on the church as a kingdom community of forgiveness and reconciliation.

We should be about the work of forgiving the people in our lives, Scot argues, because we’ll have to do the first hour in heaven any way.

His text was the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18.

You can listen to his sermon here below, in the sidebar to the right, or download it in iTunes here.

 

 

This is from Janet LaisCh~
Lent is about reconciling through Christ as seen in the Calling of St. Matthew.

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This Church, San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, proclaims a message– not from its monochrome façade but rather from the art inside. Cardinal Matteo Contarelli saved money for years to pay for the decoration of a chapel inside this church with scenes from the life of Saint Matthew. Once inside, enter the last chapel just before the high altar and see for yourself how Christ called Matthew to follow him. Jesus never said worship me, but rather he said follow me. Christ initiates reconciliation of us and the world here and now on earth.

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Caravaggio planned three paintings of Saint Matthew, starting with the moment Saint Matthew’s life began as God intended–the moment Matthew understood Christ’s calling. These three images moving left to right represent the Calling of Saint Matthew, the Inspiration of Saint Matthew, and the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and together they tell a story about the relationship between Christ and all mankind as found in Matthew chapter 9.
“And when Jesus passed on from thence, he saw a man sitting in the custom house, named Matthew; and he said to him: Follow me. And he arose up and followed him.” As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
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Caravaggio layered oil paints with all the realism and drama true to Baroque art from 1600 AD to involve the viewer and to inspire a spiritual awakening in us. Like a director, Caravaggio constructed meaning through setting, lighting, character, costume, and gesture.  Caravaggio depicted this room and these men as a microcosm for the whole world and us in it–where filth and grime and elaborate outward costumes symbolize sin. Soot and grit cover the walls and even the window appears impenetrable to light of what may be the backroom of a seedy pub.  To some it may seem an unlikely place to meet Christ, but the Bible says that he came for the sick and the broken so any place, any time offers opportunity for Christ’s presence. Light enters the room from the upper right corner, perhaps from an open door, as Christ enters this dark room.  Caravaggio used the technique of tenebrism whereby he painted a stark and sudden contrast between light and dark colors– to communicate Christ’s ultimate power in this room and throughout all the world through reconciliation. Christ’s outstretched arm points gracefully calling Matthew to follow him. Matthew perched as one of five males, like peacocks– suited in lavish velvet, crimillion, leather and feathers– around a wooden table counting their day’s earnings. Armed with swords to defend their greed and vanity, they represent how far man has fallen.
Caravaggio used line to direct our attention to the main idea: Christ is calling Matthew despite his sin. Trace a diagonal line from Christ’s graceful, outstretched hand, to the redhead male pointing to himself.
Det. Matthew_Contarelli Chapel
Pointing to himself, Matthew (see above) communicates recognition that Christ calls him, and his eyes fill with hope. Despite his sin when Christ arrives, Matthew meets Christ’s gaze, wide eyed, transfixed in a spiritual awakening. Christ sees Matthew for who he is: everything he lacks and everything he will become.

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A golden coin rests on Matthew’s hat (see image above) to betray his mind’s obsession with money as a Roman tax collector for Herod. During the Roman occupation, Matthew accumulated wealth by oppressing his own people, paying handsomely himself and the Roman infedels who conquered the Hebrews at Capernaum.  We know from reading the Bible and from looking at the next image in Caravaggio’s Contarelli chapel cycle that Matthew follows Christ without hesitation.  Christ transforms Matthew so that his outward appearance matches his inner faith: Matthews like Christ wears a robe and tunic and a golden halo gleaming divine inspiration (see above) like Christ rather than a coin over his head during his days as a tax collector.

Calling of St. Matthew (detail - Matthew)

 

Two of the five individuals seated at the table do not notice Christ’s call. They instead greedily count their money. As voyeurs of this scene, we know their spiritual blindness prevents them from seeing Christ who has entered their very space.

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Caravaggio painted the old man (image above) with closed eyelids as he adjusts his glasses to symbolize the depth of his spiritual blindness. His near sightedness will only allow him to focus on finite pursuits rather than the infinite gifts offered through Christ.

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The young man’s near sightedness allows him only to see the coins on the table rather than look up to see Christ entering from across the room. The money or debt they count is their own sin; they cannot forgive others or themselves to recognize that Christ has already forgiven them. Counting money prevents them from realizing that reconciliation occurs now here on earth as God does not count our sins against us.
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Caravaggio portrayed the boys faces (see image above) lit up from the divine light. Their expressions and actions connote open minds and hearts as they turn away from the money on the table and gaze up at Christ instead. These two young men act as foils to the two money counters’ spiritual blindness.The boy on the right looks at Christ with his mouth slightly parted; he swings one leg over the bench and leans his body toward Christ as he begins to stand up. Caravaggio painted these boys again in the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew where still dressed in their finery they use their swords to try to defend Saint Matthew from the Roman soldiers who will eventually crucify him. A self portrait of Caravaggio is also included in this image as the story continues. We might see ourselves in these two boys and with our own free will to make a decision regarding our own next step whether or not to follow Christ.

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Christ and Saint Peter look out of place, like time travelers, with bare feet wearing robes and tunics from ancient Rome whereas the tax collectors wear seventeenth century finery. Christ’s entry into this pub imposes radical change on the whole world. A bulky, stalwart Saint Peter acts as an ambassador to Christ, helping Christ gather disciples. He holds a staff to indicate that following Christ won’t be easy and standing next to Christ, we are reminded that Christ will never leave either.

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Up close, we notice that Caravaggio accentuated Christ’s bone structure and humanness using the same technique of tenebrism–stark white paints next to bold blacks hues. The beautiful angle of his high cheekbone, his nose and lips reinforces that Christ became fully human and lived on earth among us. Though Caravaggio depicted Christ differently than the other figures; his movements epitomize grace and a halo glows above his head.  Unlike us, Christ is also fully divine. Christ’s expression and movements capture his decisive nature that unlike us, he does not waver. He knows exactly his ministry, and he calls his disciples to follow.

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Above Christ’s hand, the windowpane forms a cross, reminding us of Christ’s actions for us. Reconciliation is an accomplished fact through this cross and a continuing process here and now on earth. Christ doesn’t just save Matthew for eternal life but also saves Matthew in this life. Christ wants to do the same for all of us.

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Looking at this Creation painting by Michelangelo from the Sistine Chapel, we see that Caravaggio has borrowed the graceful lines of Christ’s arm and hand from another master for great purpose. Caravaggio communicates through line and pose that Christ is the second Adam who redeems man. The transference of reconciliation takes place from God to Jesus to us. Reconciliation takes place now here on earth. Jesus accomplished reconciliation through the cross and continues this work now here on earth through each of us. If we pray to hear the next step, knowing that if only Christ invades our space like he did with Matthew, we would get up and follow…follow absolutely anywhere… without question. Then we must also stop and listen. Only then can we realize that Christ already does.

 

33526_1549442418229_3208720_nThis week I’m in Guatemala with a service team from my church. We’re beginning work on a multi-year sanitation system for a Maya community, Chuicutama, in the Highlands. Our reflections for the week center on the theme of Jubilee, the biblical commandment mandates forgiveness of debts and economic restoration as part of God’s New Creation.

     Jubilee is what Jesus announces as his Gospel in his first sermon in Nazareth in Lk 4. According to Torah, a big part of the good news of the Jubilee is reconciliation of wrongs in the world- a theme Paul picks up in 2 Corinthians.

To complement this theme, I’ve asked Laina Schneider, a friend and college student at Virginia Tech to post her thoughts on Jubilee. Laina studies agriculture at Tech and has served as Aldersgate’s mission intern in both Guatemala and Cambodia. Perhaps more importantly, as a college student her wrestling with questions of faith and life are just what the Church needs to hear. I’d encourage you to subscribe to Laina’s blog here.

Each mission trip and organization that Aldersgate involved with is founded some level on the concept of reconciliation. Though how that element affects the overall purpose and role of the organization varies, we can see throughout, a tendency towards service with an oppressed people.

In Cambodia, the working class is one that only a short time ago was scarred by the powerful Khmer Rouge regime, who inflicted a genocidal wound in the kingdom no one could heal.

In Guatemala, the Mayans have been pushed out of their homes and told that their culture and language is lowly for hundreds of years. They have been forced out of their fertile fields and pushed into the last livable place high in the mountains. Their war-stricken country has taken the lives of so many men, leaving women and children to fend for themselves.

The Ft. Apache reservation was formerly a U.S. military post, chosen specifically to trap the Apache tribe and control their actions and interactions. American Indians, Mayans, and the Khmer people are all injured. They are calloused from a history that we today may not have had control over, but that doesn’t mean we should pretend it never happened.

Jesus’ message of Jubilee is centered on forgiveness, the forgiveness of debts, neighbors, and all wrong doings.

So what is our role in this Gospel?

Mission can serve as an avenue for reconciliation in places that we, or others, have done wrong. It is easy to say “sorry” or to act like because we are living now, that it wasn’t our fault. But it is our job as Christians to show love to these people. To reach out and show them that not only are we sorry, but we want to help them to help themselves.

Mission provides an opportunity for both forgiveness and tangible reconciliation in ways that not only provide relief and an apology, but also create a sustainable process to ensure empowerment of many generations to come.

 

 

Clay Jars

Jason Micheli —  May 29, 2013 — 2 Comments

clay-jarsLast week I posted a reflection on the passing of a member of my congregation. The post struck a chord with a number of people despite many not knowing the deceased. You can read it here.

In light of that resonance, I thought I’d post the homily I wrote for his funeral service.

Clay Jars – Jeremiah 18 & 2 Corinthians 4

Afflicted in every way, but not crushed. Perplexed, but not driven to despair. Persecuted, but not forsaken. Struck down, but not destroyed.

Les Norton, as he himself told me during his many “constructive criticism” visits to my office these past 8 years, read every word of his bible several times over and then some.

Les loved scripture.

In fact, in his later years, whenever Les would wake up confused or disoriented, he would recite the Psalms to himself. The scripture he’d read so many times during his long life came to calm and ground him as his life came to an end.

Les loved scripture, and I learned it straight from Les’ lips that he harbored a particular affinity for St Paul, the one formerly known as Saul, the one who formerly made it his business to stick his nose in the business of the Church.

Indeed, during one of his frequent visits to my office, I once suggested to Les- in love- that his affinity for the Apostle Paul must due to his sharing a similar personality to the former Pharisee.

And because Les loved scripture and had read every word of it, Les knew enough to not know whether I had just commended him or insulted him.

I remember he just squinted at me for a few moments and then changed the subject by calling me ‘young fella.’

Les loved scripture. While we never talked specifically about 2 Corinthians 4, I’d wager that Les would give his stubborn, grudging approval to today’s passage.

After all, Les loved St Paul and this text is one of Paul’s greatest hits. Paul’s rhetoric here in 2 Corinthians 4 nearly reaches off the page and stops you in your tracks, and burrows deep into your memory.

Paul’s rhetoric here in 2 Corinthians 4- it’s like a great line of a famous speech, like “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” I know from Les’ own lips that that line, like the Psalms, was a constant companion to Les when he served deep in the belly of  the Massachusetts during World War II.

And so I think Les would approve of this scripture text in which St Paul uses high altitude rhetoric and soaring description to describe the life of faith as you and I carrying treasure.

Inside clay jars.

I think Les would give his stubborn, grudging approval to this scripture text. He might even smile and point his finger at me and say ‘you got me there, young fella.’

I think Les would approve because Les, who loved and read his bible, would notice St Paul uses high rhetoric and soaring description to distract you and me from the fact that he just called us ‘clay jars.’

Vessels made of clay.

Not exactly an unambiguous comment.

After all, things made of clay can be beautiful but they can be brittle too- all at the same time.

Things made of clay come with rough spots as well as smooth, polished spots. Things made of clay always contain imperfections, some visible and some unseen. Yet when it comes to things made of clay, it’s those very imperfections- the ratio of rough to smooth spots, beauty to brittle- that make each and every clay jar unique.

And it’s those imperfections, that uniqueness, which proves that each and every clay jar was made by hand.

Was created.

By an Artist.

Who had exactly that clay jar in mind.

And intended to be a gift to someone in the world.

I can’t think of a better metaphor for who Les was than the metaphor Paul gives us in 2 Corinthians 4.

Les was a clay jar. Unique. A gift both to those who loved him, a devoted father and a doting grandfather. The kind of father who still said your boyhood bedtime prayers with you when you came home from college, and the kind of grandfather who asked me about his girls in one of the last sentences he shared with me.

Les was a clay jar. He was a gift to the many whom he served without ever seeking credit for himself, logging countless hours volunteering in all kinds of ways and places.

Les was a clay jar.

Capable of beauty. Capable of being a vessel of grace, and, at the same time, like any handmade art, Les had his stubborn, rough spots that could make you want to shake him or throw him against the wall.

Just ask Dean or Jay- the reason they have no hair is because Les made them pull it all out.

I mean Les was so stubborn that when given the chance to be one of the first Americans on Japanese soil at the end of the war, absolutely refused to go because his commanders couldn’t tell him exactly where he’d be spending the night. That’s stubborn.

Les was a clay jar with both rough spots and beautiful spots.

And though St Paul doesn’t say so, sometimes the beautiful parts take on a deeper beauty because of the rough parts.

And Les and I, as most of you know, had our rough parts.

I’ve been here at Aldersgate for eight years, and for the first five years I ended any mention of Les’ name with the passive-aggressive Southern epilogue ‘…bless his heart.’

For years, Les seemed to me a clay jar with no finish. Just all coarse, rough spots. He was a thorn in my side. He personified ‘church politics.’ He was convinced I didn’t know what I was doing, couldn’t preach my out of a paper-bag and would be the ruination of his church.

I remember my first Sunday at Aldersgate when I was introduced to the congregation. After worship, out in the Narthex, Les came up to me and, without introducing himself, gave me one of his death grip handshakes and then motioned over to Dennis and warned me not to let Dennis teach anything.

And so I replied: ‘Are you kidding? I taught him everything he knows.’

As I’ve shared with some of you, Les has the distinction of being the only parishioner in my twelve years of ministry ever to challenge me to an actual, honest-to-God fist fight.

Showing my own rough, clayjarness, I leaned in close and told Les that if he was going to critique my preaching he first needed to be able to hear my preaching.

And Les responded with another death grip handshake and then challenged me to a fist fight. And it says something about our relationship that my first impulse to this provocation from an 88 year old was ‘let’s go.’

 

Despite our self-images, despite the pretenses we try to project, despite our best efforts- each of us, we’re little more than clay jars.

Creations with unique flaws and imperfections and rough spots right there along with the beauty the Maker gave to each of them.

And yet when it comes to 2 Corinthians 4, Paul’s poetry about clay jars can overshadow his point.

Paul’s poetry can tempt us into placing too much emphasis on our clay jar-ness.

Because what is very clear when you take an honest look at any Christian, is our brokenness and imperfection. You don’t really have to say much more.

Our clayjarness is obvious to any who takes a good look.

But what is far too easy to miss or gloss over or forget all together in these verses is “the treasure” Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians 4.

This treasure. We have this treasure in clay jars, Paul says.

Instead of ‘Clay Jars’ the sermon title should be ‘This Treasure.’

This treasure that despite all our imperfections and flaws, despite our clayjarness, we contain and can pass on to others.

Les is no exception, the clayjarness of any of us is a given. This treasure, not the clayjarness, is Paul’s main point.

And the treasure is what Paul describes in the very next chapter of 2 Corinthians: that in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself and that Christ has given us this same ministry of reconciliation.

You and I, despite being clay jars, we’re vessels of Christ’s continuing reconciling ministry to the world.

That’s the treasure inside each of us, says Paul.

Maybe you don’t believe that, but more than anything I want you to know that Les believed it.

Most of you know about Les’ clayjarness.

But many of you don’t know about the treasure, what he did with this treasure inside his imperfect self.

For example, almost none of you know that a couple of years ago I was doing a burial for someone in the community. Not many were gathered in attendance, but Les was there. I had my head bowed and was praying for the departed, but Les must not have realized I was praying. After all, he wouldn’t have heard a plane landing right behind him.

So thinking we were all standing there in silence, Les interrupted my prayer and began an impromptu, heartfelt, gospel-based reflection on death and resurrection and the life of the deceased. Where so many come to church every Sunday but are embarrassed to talk about their faith, Les’ words were worthy of any minister.

Like treasure from a clay jar.

I’ll give you another example.

Many of you know that we raised about $40,000.00 for the sanitation project in Guatemala this Lent. Almost none of you know that 1/4 of that total was given by Les, more than any other donor before he had any reason to believe he didn’t have much time left.

When I told him he should be proud of the good his gift will make happen, he responded that he felt it was his obligation.

And then Les, ever the clay jar, requested that I carry his gift down to Guatemala myself in cash.

When I asked if this was to insure 100% of his gift went where it was needed or if he was merely trying to get me cavity-searched at the airport, Les responded with trademark chuckle and a ‘we’ll just see.’

Treasure in a clay jar.

But here’s the real ‘treasure’ I want you to know.

A week before he died I went to visit Les in the hospital. He was weak, emaciated and slightly disoriented. He smiled when he saw me. Even though he was dying, he still had his death grip handshake. He grabbed my hand and tried to hug me.

The first thing he mentioned was how he’d woken up the previous day to discover Dennis sitting by his bedside.

‘I guess he did teach you a thing or two’ Les spoke no louder than whisper.

I leaned in close to his ear and I said: ‘I told you…I’m the one who taught him everything he knows.’

But Les didn’t laugh. No trademark chuckle. He was very serious with something to say.

He pulled me towards him and with dehydrated lips he said:

‘Can you forgive me for the ugliness I showed you in the past? I reckon I was in the wrong…’

I smiled and said: ‘Ditto.’

‘I still could’ve taken you in a fight,’ he said mouthed hoarsely.

‘Try it old man’ I replied loudly into his ear. His smile quickly became another cough.

And then I prayed for him.

And even though I was the one who traced the sign of the cross on his forehead, he was the minister in that moment.

He was the clay jar, rough in places and beautiful in places, unique with flaws that bore the fingerprints of his maker.

He was the clay jar who knew what treasure he’d been made to be a vessel of.

He was the clay jar taking up the ministry of reconciliation, Christ’s ministry, for himself.

He was the one that knew what truly matters when all is said and done isn’t our flaws and imperfections because we’re all just clay jars.

What matters is what we finally do with this treasure with which we’ve been entrusted.

And that’s the thing about working with clay…clay can be willful to work with, clay can act stubborn in the Maker’s hands.

Sometimes with clay it’s not until the very end of its making that you can finally see the shape its been taking this whole time.

 

 

5127ee0225791.preview-620If you read this blog then you already know that I’ve spent the last four days at a Taize Pilgrimage gathering at Red Shirt Table on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. I’m writing this on our trek home. I calculated the time and the mileage- the journey here took me just as long as it took me get to the Taize community in Burgundy, France and it will take just as long to return home.

The same is true for hundreds of the others who gathered this weekend and that should tell you all you need to know about the power of the Taize community and the grounding, foundational role it plays in the faith of Christians all over the world. I’ve met pilgrims who came here from Poland, France, Spain, Korea and Italy.

I’m too tired to write much now- especially on my phone of all things- and I’ll reflect more later, but I wanted to take a moment to share a few observations on the nature of the event itself.

As I posted earlier, the Taize community understands its mission to be a ‘pilgrimage of trust on Earth.’ All of life, the brothers believe, is a pilgrimage wherein we embody our trust in the Creator by extending trust (in the form of hospitality, listening and reconciliation) to others. In their community in France, this mission gets realized in how the brothers welcome 5K pilgrims every week from places around the world- places, it should be noted- that often have nothing in common and much in dispute once you extract Christ from the equation.

This same emphasis on ‘trust’ has been paralleled by the pilgrimage gathering here at Red Shirt, as we (and that ‘we’ is mostly very white and across the board Christian) are only here because of the trust and hospitality extended to us by the Lakota. No small thing when you consider we’re the only outsiders of this number gathered in this part of the reservation since the “Incident” at Wounded Knee in the 1970’s.

This pilgrimage weekend was the initiative of Robert Two Bulls and his Father, both Episcopal priests. It’s their land we camped on. It’s their bulls we ate.  And it’s their trust in the possibilities of Christ’s reconciling work that has brought us here. 5127ee0433ed6.preview-620

When it comes to reconciliation, the Two Bulls and the Taize Brothers see eye to eye on methodology. Or rather, you might say, theology. That is, they both share the conviction that the everyday, simple practice of Christian faith is itself an act of and means towards reconciliation.

Christians need not defer to the more ‘professional’ realms of politics, economics or social science (none of those disciplines have been particularly benevolent to the Lakota in the past anyway). Instead, the Two Bulls and the Brothers share the belief that the historical issues here are complex, the politics messy and the solutions seemingly elusive but, in the meantime, people of faith- no matter how different- CAN sit down and share a meal together, open their home to strangers, share stories and prayer and listen.

And that’s all this weekend has been about. There’s no ‘work project’ or charitable, mission activity- reservations have enough of those and seldom do they yield any sustainable good.

There’s no issue advocacy, passing around of petitions or voting on resolutions- which surely would have dominated this weekend had it been sponsored and run by a denomination (UMC) like my own.

And what teaching there has been about the history, culture and suffering of the Lakota has been first-person, told unrehearsed in small groups or around a meal.

In a culture where Christians of both liberal and conservative stripes defer to politics for hope and change, the Two Bulls and the Brothers would remind us that, for Christians, real change comes through our solidarity in Christ. Indeed a few hours in a place like this and you realize, given the tragedy that is omnipresent, Christ is the only bridge, the only common ground, upon which we have any hope of meeting.

And I think that’s where Taize (here at Pine Ridge or in Burgundy, France) intersects with Emergence Christianity: the conviction that everything must begin with the Gospel authentically embodied and practiced in community.

I’ve always like the rhetoric of Stanley Hauerwas’ maxim: ‘The Church doesn’t have a social ethic. The Church is a social ethic.’

Liking that rhetoric and understanding it are two different things because I think this is first time and place I’ve had any real notion what the hell Hauerwas means.

As Brother Alois, the prior of Taize, said:

“In going to Pine Ridge we want to listen carefully to the story of the Lakota people, and listen together to what the Spirit is saying to us all in our attempt to create a world of solidarity and peace. Only by coming together beyond our differences in a climate of prayer and sharing can we find new ways forward.”

5127ee036396c.preview-620Or as Brother John put it in a bible study Saturday morning;

“Forgiveness is God’s act of New Creation performed on the relational level.

Saying ‘I’m willing to listen to you or I forgive you’ is one of the ingredients that ultimately culminates in what Isaiah describes as a New Heaven and a New Earth.’

The surprising thing for me in all this is how disempowering and ennobling an experience this has been.

The Rule of Taize spells it out like this:

‘It is Christ himself whom we welcome as a guest. So let us learn to be welcoming; our hospitality should be generous and discerning.’

White Christians from the States aren’t usually in the objective part of sentences like that one.

We typically think of ourselves as welcoming people in Christ’s name and chiding ourselves- sometimes a bit self-congratulatory- to see Christ in the stranger. But here, we’re the ones being welcomed by people- Americans…more so than us even- who’ve gotten the shaft from my people at nearly every turn, past and present. And that is a humbling (in the sense of stripped bare) experience.

It also means that in some way I am Christ to/for them and maybe that’s the greatest leap of faith of all, for being welcomed here to Pine Ridge by the Lakota leaves me feeling not a little like a blinded Saul being welcomed, nursed and cared for by Ananias, Saul’s former victim.

 

70X7This past weekend as part of our Lenten Sermon Series on Idolatry, Counterfeit Gods, I taught from Matthew 18. That’s the chapter where you’ll find Jesus’ double-dog dare command that we should forgive not once, not twice, not even seven times but just shy of 500 times.

Which is Jesus’ Jewish way of saying: Forgive all the time. 

And, because he’s the Christ of the perpetual offense, Jesus follows up that turd of a teaching with this parable, in which a servant- who’s obviously meant to be our doppleganger- receives grace and forgiveness from the King (ie, God, in case you’re terrible at reading stories).

Because the forgiven servant can’t extend forgiveness to to others, he’s thrown in Hell to be tortured for a debt whose math works out to about 64 million days.

Nice.

Of course, we did kill Jesus for telling stories like this.

Unexpectedly, the sermon’s subject elicited several dozen questions from folks who heard it or who’ve since read it online.

Questions about forgiveness.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. We all live life, to some degree or another, with other people. Bumping into people. Rubbing and getting rubbed the wrong way. Like milk and bread in a snow storm, conflict and forgiveness are just staples of weathering life with other people.

I’ll try to answer some of the questions in posts this week.

Here’s one question I got:

‘Does forgiveness mean that we have to stay friends with people or is it enough to let go of our anger/resentment and decide to no longer keep a score/ledger of their transgression?

Short answer: no. 

Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to remain friends, and forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to restore a broken relationship.

I think we can all probably name people and situations where to do so would be naive, at best, and dangerous, at worst. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to stay married to someone who repeatedly breaks their vows. Forgiveness doesn’t mean someone should continue to suffer at the hands of an abuser. And forgiveness doesn’t mean you’re obligated to play the fool to a friend who’s shown they’re not actually a friend.

So if the answer’s no, then exactly what are Christians talking about when we talk about forgiveness?

I hate it when people pedantically cite Webster’s dictionary definitions but that’s exactly what I’m going to do. The clarity is helpful in this case:

Forgiveness = the action or process of remitting a debt

While I think some people overemphasize debt language as it pertains to the cross, the imagery can be helpful in thinking about our own relationships.

Forgiveness is forgoing what another person owes you. It’s declaring a pardon. It’s eating the cost of what was done to you rather than making the other person pay. Forgiveness is sacrificing what you deserve for the sake of the other. Forgiveness is you no longer needing what the other person has coming to them to come to them. It’s letting go of the (righteous) anger, and putting down the score card.

Forgiveness can be a form of suffering. It usually is, but it’s the only way to stop the cycle of retribution.  

Now, all that is different than:

Reconciliation = the action of process of restoring a broken relationship

Though we often merge them together so they become incoherent, forgiveness and reconciliation are two related, but distinct, terms. Forgiveness and reconciliation name two different poles in the process of healing. Reconciliation is the fruit of which forgiveness is a necessary first seed.

You can’t have a reconciled relationship without forgiveness. 

But, in a fallen world, you can have forgiveness- and sometimes you must- without reconciliation. 

Think of the servant in Jesus’ parable.

He’s been forgiven. His debt to the King was canceled. But the rest of the story shows that he was not in a reconciled relationship with the King because his heart remain unchanged.

Think of us.

Jesus declares us pardoned from the cross. We’re forgiven. The debt, for all time, has been paid. But that does not mean every person- or even every Christian- enjoys a reconciled relationship with God.

To answer the question behind the question:

The hard, scary work of humility, I think, comes in discerning whether you refuse to seek reconciliation with your former friend/spouse/whatever because to do so would be unwise (ie, they’ve hurt you too many times) or if instead you refuse the possibility of reconciliation because you haven’t truly let go of the debt.

You’ve forgiven them in name only. 

Which means you haven’t really forgiven at all. 

And that, Jesus says, has scary stakes.