Sunday, February 9, 2014

Phil Kniss: Reconciliation -- It’s a Stretch

Church Matters: Practices for the Body of Christ after Christendom: Reconciling
2 Corinthians 5:14-21; Matthew 18:10-22

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The practice of reconciling is a stretch.
    I think I can say . . . always.

One reason I say this is the cross.
I wanted to make sure you got the point,
    so on Friday I dragged this big cross over here,
    from it’s usual spot over in the corner.
    This inconvenient, imposing structure
        sits here on stage, sort of in the way,
        usually from Ash Wednesday through Easter until Pentecost.
    Then it goes back to its spot in the corner.
        Where it’s more convenient.

Ash Wednesday’s a month away.
    But the cross belongs here today,
        because we are speaking of reconciliation.

Usually, at some point during my morning prayer time,
    I read a few prayers from the Book of Common Prayer.
    I often find traditional, semi-poetic language
        a good vehicle to express profound thoughts about God.

There is one short prayer that especially moves me.
    It’s titled a “Prayer for mission.”
    It goes like this.
    Lord Jesus Christ,
        you stretched out your arms of love
        on the hard wood of the cross
        that everyone might come within the reach
            of your saving embrace:
    So clothe us in your Spirit that we,
        reaching forth our hands in love,
        may bring those who do not know you
        to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name.

We can look at the big horizontal cross-beam
    of this horrible, violent instrument of death,
    and we can almost see the arms of Jesus stretched out.
It’s an image etched in our minds
    from every crucifix we’ve ever seen,
    and from gory Bible paintings, and scenes from epic Bible movies.
Jesus’ arms stretched wide and tight by his executioners.

But the Book of Common Prayer reframes that image for us.
Did you hear it?
    “Lord Jesus Christ,
        you stretched out your arms of love
        on the hard wood of the cross . . .”
    What was obviously, at the time,
        an involuntary, forced, violent,
            pulling apart of his arms
            as he was overpowered by Roman soldiers . . .
        is completely re-imagined in this prayer
        as a voluntary, loving, stretching out his arms,
            to embrace the whole world, including us.
    The stretch becomes a saving embrace,
        initiated by Jesus, out of a deep love.

But that is not all that this prayer does to this ugly cross.
    It makes it a model for us.
    It invites us to imitate the stretch.
    “So clothe us in your Spirit that we,
        reaching forth our hands in love,
        may bring those who do not know you
        to the knowledge and love of you.”

Jesus voluntarily stretched his arms
    in a posture of vulnerability and sacrifice,
        to bring about our reconciliation with God.
    And we are invited to copy the practice.
    We are invited into the practice of reconciling
        and being reconciled,
        precisely because of the cross of Christ.
    There is brokenness and alienation,
        between us and God,
        between us and God’s creation,
        within our own selves,
        and certainly between us humans.
    And the cross is both the model and the instrument
        by which we are invited into the practice
            of reconciling that which is now torn apart.

Of course, that idea isn’t original to this prayer.
    It comes from the scripture we read from 2 Corinthians 5,
    “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation . . .
        All this is from God,
            who reconciled us to himself through Christ,
            and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;
        in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself . . .
            and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”

You know, everything around us seems to be in need
    of the ministry of reconciling we have been given by Christ.
    We don’t need to look far for brokenness and alienation—
        between nations,
        between political opponents,
        between tribes, racial-ethnic groups,
        between individuals in families,
            neighborhoods, and churches.
    Everywhere we look, there is a hunger
        for justice, for peace, for reconciliation.

    This morning we can’t be comprehensive,
        in one worship service, and one 20-minute sermon.
    So since this series of worship services is about
        the practices of the body of Christ after Christendom,
        I want to focus our thoughts on reconciliation in the church,
            and the practices that reconcile.

There are many forms of brokenness and alienation in the church,
    which need reconciling.
    It may be personal conflict between members of the church.
        A relationship broken because of hurtful words or actions,
            or a business transaction gone sour,
            or a workplace dispute.
            In this community and church
                there are many overlapping relationships.
            Our lives inside and outside the church intersect.
                Conflict out there impacts relationships in here.

        It may be that some persons in the church
            have been wounded by the church itself—
                either by this congregation, or another church,
                or the larger institutional church.

        There may be brokenness and alienation
            because of sharply conflicting ideas,
            that were dealt with in unhealthy ways.

        There may be families in the local body of Christ
            that are wounded by family events or crises,
                or by deeply hidden family secrets.
            Family brokenness—
                whether in a marriage, or between parent and child,
                or between siblings—
                    has a way of seeping out
                    into other relationships in the church.

        Maybe sharply different viewpoints
            on political, theological, or social issues
            have caused people to distance themselves from others,
                and relationships are either greatly strained,
                    or reduced to superficial politeness,
                    or simply become non-relationships.

        Maybe there has been some deep personal loss
            that has built a wall between yourself and this body—
                loss of a loved one that has changed your whole world,
                loss of physical, or mental health,
                perhaps even loss of faith.
            And this loss has been made more painful,
                by a distancing of relationships,
                    when others don’t know how to reach toward you,
                    and you don’t have the energy to reach toward them.

    For various and sundry reasons,
        the fabric of Christian community is being torn,
        we are being alienated from other members of Christ’s body.

If one of these forms of brokenness touches you or me directly—
    and I can’t imagine anyone who isn’t touched by at least one—
    I give us this question to ponder:
        “How is God inviting us to stretch, in love,
            toward the reconciliation made possible in Christ?”

Reconciliation is never possible without a stretch.
    If there is brokenness, if there is a fracturing that needs mended,
        there simply has to be stretching involved
        to bring back together the parts that have been put at a distance.
    Stretching is never easy or comfortable.
        Stretching is not the path of least resistance.
        Stretching is matter of leaning into the resistance.
    Reconciliation is a stretch. Always.

    If I stretch my arm out as far as I can reach,
        there is tension throughout my body.
    That tension is actually useful.
        If my arm was to reach out this far to one side,
            and every muscle in my body was relaxed,
            I would collapse in a heap.
            I couldn’t stand.
        Stretching in one direction creates an imbalance
            that has to be counteracted by other parts of the body,
            pulling in the opposite direction—legs, hips, torso.
        When one part is stretched,
            everything else works together
            to maintain integrity and balance and prevent injury.

    So acknowledging, and facing the tension,
        letting the tension do what it needs to do,
        is part of the church practice of being a reconciling body.

So what am I saying?
    What are the implications of this self-evident fact?

God has always stretched toward us in love.
    Ever since Adam and Eve became estranged from God in the garden,
        God has been stretching toward humankind,
            offering, and deeply desiring, reconciliation.
        God has been leaning into the tension,
            stretching until it hurt,
            hoping, waiting, for a reciprocal response from us.
        God has leaned in toward us,
            through the prophets and judges, the poets and priests,
            inviting, enduring rejection,
                painfully letting us go, over and over again,
                because to force us to obey,
                    would be to stop loving us.
                And God could not stop loving.
        Ultimately, in the greatest stretch, and with the greatest tension,
            God entered our world,
                came to be with us,
                took on our limitation, our body.
            God became us.

    And in the ultimate stretch,
        Christ laid down the very life he had earlier taken up,
            he absorbed, in his body and soul,
                all the tension and pain and suffering
                required for such a stretch.
            And only after giving it all up,
                did God redeem and raise and transform that life,
                and make it the means for our reconciliation.

So . . . if the cross is the means of our reconciliation,
    and the model for how we undertake
        the continuing ministry of reconciliation,
    then perhaps, when we practice reconciliation in the church,
        we might first look at our posture.
    Are we, like Jesus, in a full-body stretch,
        giving our all, in love, to the effort?
    Or are we protecting our position? our self-interest? our status quo?
    Are we expecting the other to make the move to our side,
        before we are willing to re-engage?
    Are we—as Ruth Haley Barton urged us,
        in the School for Leadership Training a couple weeks ago—
        indifferent to the outcome?
    Not indifferent, as in not caring. We should care a great deal.
        But are we indifferent,
            as in letting go, completely, of our own expectations
                of what the outcome should look like?
        Can we all—
            all sides who are estranged and alienated from each other—
            can we all lay down our own vision for the future?
            can we all be willing to lean into the tension until it hurts?
            can we all be willing to let the Holy Spirit transform us?
            can we all pray the prayer of indifference
                Jesus prayed in the Garden,
                “Please spare me, Lord!
                    Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done”?

I truly believe that all reconciliation requires a stretch.
    No matter what kind of brokenness or alienation we speak of.
        As I said earlier,
            it could be personal conflict,
                past wounds inflicted by the church,
                ideological disagreement,
                family estrangement,
                broken marriages,
                polarization on issues,
                personal loss and grief.
        Whatever the source of the fracture,
            if there is to be reconciliation,
                there must be a willingness and readiness,
                    on all sides,
                    to stretch to the point of tension and discomfort.

    Make no mistake!
        Reconciliation cannot happen when only one side moves.
            If I have been wronged, or wounded, or abused,
                I cannot, must not, pretend to be reconciled
                if the wrong has not been named,
                    and the wrongdoer held accountable.
                It obviously requires a tremendous stretch
                    from the one who did me wrong.
            But I who am wronged, if there is ever to be reconciliation,
                also may be required to stretch toward a place
                    I vowed I would never go.
                That place might be forgiveness.
                Or it might be sometimes,
                    renaming, reframing the wrong that was done.

    There are more cases like that in the church than we want to admit,
        where the wrong-doer is not willing to name the wrong,
            or be held to account.
        Reconciliation will have to wait, and may never come.
    But many situations in the church needing reconciliation,
        are more balanced than that.
    I think in most fractured relationships in the church,
        there is more than enough blame to go around.
        We all play a part in moving away from each other.
        And we all play a part in leaning back in, toward the tension.
    We all, if we imitate the loving embrace of Christ on the cross,
        must be willing to stretch open our arms,
            in the same posture
            of love and vulnerability and hospitality.

Jesus may not have used this language,
    but in Matthew 18, the Gospel reading this morning,
    he was talking all about this stretch,
        leaning in toward the tension,
        even if it was uncomfortable,
        even if it was irrational.

    It’s a stretch for a shepherd to be so obsessed over
        one lost sheep,
        to the neglect of the ninety-nine others.
        A one-percent loss in the flock is pretty insignificant,
            in the larger scheme of things.
        A disease could take out half the sheep in no time.

    It’s also a stretch to keep forgiving someone for the same offense.
        Not just seven times, but seventy-seven times.

    And the middle part of that reading,
        the most well-known,
        the source of what we call the Matthew 18 principle
            for church disputes and discipline—
        we usually read this teaching wrongly, I’m afraid.
    We read it as the biblically acceptable method
        to get the outcome we think we deserve in a church conflict.
        As long as we follow these rules,
            then we can dig in our heels,
            and insist on getting those sinners to repent,
                or be excommunicated.

    I think this teaching needs to be read in the same spirit,
        as the teaching that precedes it, and follows it.
    This section of the Gospel begins,
        “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones.”
        This is not a text about getting our way in a dispute.
            It’s about being willing to be stretched out,
                in love, in hospitality, in vulnerability.
            All for the sake of restoration and reconciliation.

I don’t know where this message connects most to you this morning.
    If we are honest, I think it connects to us all.
        It does to me.

I can’t say what kind of brokenness is hindering your relationships
    in and with the church today.
    If it’s conflict with a brother or sister in the church,
        or wounds you carry from the church itself,
        or family brokenness impacting your relationships here,
        or sharp disagreements on issues you care deeply about,
        or deep loss that has created distance in your relationships.

And, of course, I can’t prescribe the next step for you.
    I only know, and believe deeply,
        that the step God is asking of you,
        involves some kind of stretch toward something or someone,
            that will create some kind of discomfort or tension.
    If you are willing to open your arms,
        lean in to the tension and resistance,
        and stretch toward reconciliation,
            I believe the Holy Spirit will be present,
                and will help you reach what now seems unreachable.

This morning I invite us to take the first step.
    To name the brokenness and the resistance,
        and to bring it to the cross,
        the means and model for our reconciliation.
    In your bulletin you will find white slips of paper,
        with room to write on them.
    You are invited to name what it is, or who it is,
        that the Spirit of God seems to be inviting you to stretch toward.
    And you will be invited to bring it to the cross, if you so desire.

The next step begins after this service is over.
    It will be the hardest.
    It may require others to accompany you in this stretch,
        both to help you discern,
        and to give you support, encouragement, accountability.

But if you are ready to take the first step, you are invited.
    We will take a few moments to reflect and write,
        then whenever you are ready,
        come and bring them to the cross.
        What you bring will be read later, by the pastors only.
        Include your name, if you will,
            or not, if you prefer.
    There is a large basket here at the foot of the cross.
        If the steps are difficult for you,
            there is a smaller cross and basket
            on a table here on the floor level.
    Come to the cross while the music is playing,
        and while we are singing,
        “Breathe on me, Breath of God,”
            HWB 356.

—Phil Kniss, February 9, 2014

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