Sunday, September 25, 2005

Reconciliation: When it All Comes Together

Genesis 1:31; 6:5-8; 9:8-11, 16; 2 Cor. 5:16-21

There is nothing God cares about more than reconciliation.
Nothing God cares about more than reconciliation.
Now that’s a pretty strong statement for opening a sermon.
But I wanted there to be no mistake where I’m coming from,
as we begin a series of six worship services on this theme,
and four Sunday School sessions
to explore in greater depth how God is calling us
to engage in a ministry of reconciliation.
By the time we finish this series,
I hope we can all affirm wholeheartedly,
that there is nothing God cares about more than reconciliation,
and it is our agenda to engage in that work.

But right now, I imagine some of you are questioning that statement.
But you are thinking too narrowly about what reconciliation is.
You might be thinking it’s about
shaking hands with someone you’ve been arguing with—
being polite, tolerant, agreeing to disagree.
There’s a time and place for that, of course,
but that’s not reconciliation.
It’s far too simple to shake hands and get along,
for us to call that reconciliation.
Or you might be thinking reconciliation is all about
trying to bring together two irreconcilable positions, or ideas,
doing whatever is necessary to make two exact opposites agree.
Well, that’s far too difficult, too steeped in fantasy,
for us to say that kind of reconciliation is our agenda.

Let’s be honest with each other.
Reconciliation is not always possible.
At least not when we define it that way.
There are enemies, who will never become friends.
There are ideologies so opposed to each other,
they cannot be reconciled.
There are marriages that fail, and cannot be put back together.
There are families, churches, and nations so estranged,
that parting ways seems like the only way forward.

We cannot manufacture reconciliation. It is God’s work.
If it happens, it is the hand of God that accomplished it.
And we can never force the hand of God.
We can only try to understand what God is doing
in a particular circumstance,
and then put ourselves in a place where we cooperate with God.

That is why I chose to begin with this strong—
and hopefully clear theological statement.
There is nothing God cares about more than reconciliation.

And by the way, I didn’t get this notion from reading a few Bible verses.
Proof-texting wouldn’t lead me to make such a sweeping statement.
Because I could easily find some verses that sound otherwise.
I got that notion from trying to sit back and think about, and reflect on,
the whole story of the Bible, from cover to cover.
So this morning, I’m going to do like some old-timey preachers,
and preach from Genesis to Revelation in one sermon.
The only difference is that old-timey preachers
got to do it in 45 minutes, or even more.
I now have less than 20.
So hang on tight, here we go.

And to help tell the story, I’m going anthropomorphize God.
That’s a $60 word for “giving God human characteristics.”
I’m going to tell the story as if God is a man.
Which, of course, God is not.
God cannot be equated with a human being, male or female.
But the Bible itself tells the story that way, much of the time.
God walks in the garden of Eden,
has a chat with Abraham over a bowl of curds and beef,
wrestles with Jacob.
It’s how the biblical writers experienced God.
And it’s kind of hard to talk about the tenderness and love of God,
or the wrath of God, for that matter,
without ascribing to God some human characteristics.

So I begin my story with Creation,
with the highly anthropomorphic words
of the African American poet, James Weldon Johnson:
And God stepped out on space,
And He looked around and said,
“I’m lonely—I’ll make me a world.”
And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.
And Johnson continues that way through all the days of creation.
Here’s day six:
Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that He had made.
He looked at His sun,
And He looked at His moon,
And He looked at His little stars;
He looked on His world
With all its living things,
And God said, “I’m lonely still.”

Then God sat down
On the side of a hill where He could think;
By a deep, wide river He sat down;
With His head in His hands,
God thought and thought,
Till He thought, “I’ll make me a man!”

Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled Him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till He shaped it in His own image;

Then into it He blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.

I can’t think of a better way of communicating
the tender love of God toward his creation,
in all its beauty, and diversity, and perfection.
And God’s special love for humankind,
his deep desire to be in relationship with humankind.
God being lonely—
I don’t know a theologian who would put it that way.
But a poet would.
And it captures the essence.
God loves us so much, that he longs for us.
He yearns to be in relationship.
But a relationship has no meaning if it’s not mutual.
So God took the greatest risk of all,
and gave us the gift of freewill.
Because love is an impossibility, outside of freewill.

Of course, the next chapter of the story, we know pretty well.
And it’s still being played out.
Humankind often chose against God, and for self.
Instead of returning God’s loving, vulnerable gesture,
of opening himself to those he loved,
we turned toward ourselves.
We looked out for our selfish interests.
We enjoyed our freedom a little too much.
We got enamored with the power we possessed over each other,
and over creation.
And we abused that power,
by doing violence to each other.
And very soon the world did not resemble the Garden of Eden.
In the words we read this morning, from Genesis 6:
“The Lord saw that the wickedness of human kind
was great in the earth,
and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts
was only evil continually.”
What kind of evil was this? A few verses later it tells us.
“The earth was filled with violence.”
Humankind took this gift of love and freewill from God,
and corrupted it,
turned it against each other,
and lived only for themselves.
And God got angry.
Let me depend again on the words of James Weldon Johnson,
in another poem,
And man, as he multiplied on the earth,
Increased in wickedness and sin.
He went on down from sin to sin,
From wickedness to wickedness,
Murder and lust and violence.
And God was angry at the sins of men.
And God got sorry that he ever made man.
And he said: I will destroy him.
I’ll bring down judgment on him with a flood.
I’ll destroy ev’rything on the face of the earth,
Man, beasts and birds, and creeping things.
And he did—Ev’rything but the fishes.

And we know how that story played out.
We read it together in the third reading from Genesis.
Noah, his family, and two of every creature were preserved.
And when it was all said and done,
the waters receded, the ark emptied out,
God made a promise to Noah, and to all his descendants.
The first covenant recorded in scripture.

If you’ll forgive my continuing to anthropomorphize God,
let me tell you how I would describe this event.
God was deeply pained by what he did in the flood.
Deeply pained.
And he sat down with Noah on the top of Mt. Aarat,
and looked out over the earth,
and it all came together for God.
And he said to Noah, “This hurt me too much.
I’m never going to do this again.
No matter what you or your descendants do,
I’m not going to utterly wipe out the earth again.
I’m going to win you over with love.
And I’m putting this rainbow in the sky to remind me.
I don’t want to ever forget how I feel today.”
You know that’s actually what Genesis says.
The rainbow was not put there for our benefit.
Ch. 9, v. 16: “When the bow is in the clouds,” God says,
“I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant.”
And from that day until today, and until the last day,
God’s number one agenda is reconciliation.
Judgement, yes.
But judgment for the purpose of reconciling,
not destroying.
God still loves and longs for us,
and has been trying ever since the days of Noah,
to restore what has been estranged.
But our freewill permits us to keep saying no to God.

You just follow the story of scripture after Genesis.
You’ll see this time and time again.
God makes a covenant with us.
We break it.
He tries again. We break it.
And it goes on and on like that.
All through the Torah, the people wrestle with God.
God empties himself. God becomes vulnerable.
But God’s people refuse to do likewise.
We hang on to our self-determination at any cost.
We resist laying down self for God or for each other.
But God continually, and in every way,
keeps drawing us toward himself.
God, the hound of heaven, keeps pursuing us.
Keeps searching for ways to bring us back.

Read the prophets.
This theme permeates every prophetic book.
God is calling his children home,
back to their spiritual home.
Back to the purpose for which they were created.
Calling, calling. Never forcing. Just calling.
And from time to time we see glimpses of God’s judgment
against the evil we have perpetrated.
But it is a judgment that always calls us back.
It is judgment for the express purpose of reconciliation.
A perfect example is Isaiah 43,
which I preached from in my last sermon.
In the chapter before it, we see God’s heavy hand of judgment.
Listen to the last verse of Isaiah 42:
“So God poured upon Israel the heat of his anger
and the fury of war;
it set him on fire all around, but he did not understand;
it burned him, but he did not take it to heart.”
Now listen to the very next verse, Isaiah 43:1:
“But now thus says the LORD,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.”

And read the Psalms and other writings.
Here we have a God who longs to be in right relationship,
who would love to lead us as a shepherd with his sheep,
restoring our souls,
who forgives our sin, and abounds in steadfast love.
Here we worship and pray to a God
who restores and reconciles us to each other,
helping kindred to live in unity.

And then we have the Gospels.
How can we describe Jesus’ ministry in any other terms,
than restoration and reconciliation?
The way he lived his life, modeled this
compassionate and vulnerable and self-giving love of God,
which is the very basis for reconciliation.
The parables he told—the prodigal son, for instance—
shows that reconciliation is the very character of God.
And then finally, and most profoundly,
Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection,
leaves no doubt whatsoever
that God would go to any length, including the cross,
to effect a reconciliation with us, and with all creation.

And the stories and letters coming out of the early church,
Acts and the epistles,
show the further development of God’s reconciling work,
not only toward the Jewish people,
but all the peoples of the world.

And then we have the book of Revelation...
(see, I told you I’d get there in 20 minutes)
with all its images of cataclysmic judgment.
The final image, and the most telling,
is of the lamb sitting on the throne,
and there is a river flowing from the throne,
and on the banks of the river there is growing the tree of life,
and the leaves of the tree are for what?—
the healing of the nations.
This is the same tree—the tree of life—
that we first met in Genesis, in the Garden of Eden.

God’s creation—his wonderful, beautiful, diverse, perfect,
and harmonious creation—
is shown to us in the first chapter, and the last chapter,
of our sacred scriptures.
And every chapter between Genesis 1 and Revelation 22,
is connected in some way to the desire of God
to bring about reconciliation,
to be in a living, loving relationship with us.
We, dear friends, are living in those chapters in the middle.
This is where we are.
Genesis 6:11—“the earth was filled with violence.”
That sounds pretty familiar.
We can find ourselves in the pages of scripture
no matter where we look.
God is still yearning, seeking, reaching for us.
And we still have the gift of freedom.
And we can choose how to enjoy that freedom—
to emulate God’s posture of self-giving, self-emptying love,
or to turn inward,
toward self-interest, power-mongering, and violence.
_____________________

I haven’t given many answers this morning.
Partly because I don’t have many to give.
But partly because I only wanted to set the table
for this six-week-long feast.
We’ll have plenty of time to dig in.
And we’ll have a lot to chew on.
But for now, I just wanted us to see God, our host at this feast,
in a new light.
To see God through this lens of reconciliation.
To understand that God is still longing for us,
or to put it in James Weldon Johnson’s words,
“God is lonely still.”
I want us to embrace reconciliation not as an intellectual exercise,
but as a risk-taking, vulnerable, move toward God,
who is already making a risky move toward us.

We’ll have plenty of time, in our worship, and in Sunday School,
to wrestle with the implications of this view of God,
for own lives as believers in community, in the world.

But I will be satisfied if we can begin this journey
by all agreeing on this one affirmation—
That God loves us and longs for us to be made whole, made one,
to experience deep reconciliation.
And while we cannot make that reconciliation happen,
we can’t make it all come together,
we can position ourselves
in a way that allows God to make it happen.
And that posture is the same posture taken by God—
vulnerability, openness, and self-emptying love.
And once we are in that posture,
from that point on, it’s up to the Spirit of God to do the work.
And the Spirit will make it all come together.
Let us believe that.
And let us proclaim it together in song.

—Phil Kniss, September 25, 2005

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