The Sacramental Life: Reconciliation
October 5, 2012
The Sacramental Life: Part Two
This is the text of the message from September 23, 2012. If you were present and heard the message, you’ll know it’s always a bit different from what I’ve written down.
A sacrament is a sign that catches our attention and leads us to remembrance by bringing us into a transformative experience with God and other people through Jesus Christ. Jesus is met in mystery and revelation and these sacraments are a visible sign of grace/Jesus working into and through our lives.
William Stringfellow said, “The daily witness of the Christian in the world is essentially sacramental, rather than moralistic.” Too often Christianity is seen as living out the correct set of moral rules instead of living Christ to the world around us. We aren’t called to be moral or particularly righteous in the face of others. We are, rather, called to bring grace in the form of reconciliation into the lives of others–as both sign and sacrament.
The sign we are looking for today is one of reconciliation. We’ve seen quite a bit about this in reading James but let us take these words of reconciliation with us as we approach the Scripture from the Gospel of Mark.
Christian psychologist and writer Richard Beck says that being the sacrament means two things. ”First, it means that Christians in the world should be signs of grace. In a world governed by death and ruled by the principalities and powers [James calls them demonic forces] Christians should be sacraments–visible signs of resurrection, love, freedom, life and grace. Second, Christians in the world should be effective signs of grace. Insofar as we are able we should bring resurrection, love and grace into the lives of others by making ourselves available to the world in the midst of death’s works. And so, may we be sacraments this day and every day.”
The reason we need reconciliation is because we’re often blind to the Living Jesus in the world around us. The disciples in our text still cannot grasp who this Jesus is and it causes them to argue over their own status. I believe our pride urges us to seek status instead of seeking God and, in this striving for place and position; we end up arguing with one another. We’re not very different from the disciples, are we?
In reading James, believers are told to submit to God and we will overcome our disputes with one another. The question that remains is, “How do we do this?” I believe the answer is by becoming living sacraments through acts of reconciliation.
Symbols of Reconciliation. What do they look like? They look like a little child who in Jesus’ time was a symbol of weakness & powerlessness and this is what our symbols should look like as well. In our culture, children are not seen as signs or symbols of weakness for the most part. In fact, in many ways, they often have more power than adults would like to believe. Just ask any marketing professional. “Market to the children,” they’ll say, “because that is where the money is!” I think this is happening, in some ways, because humanity is trying to make up for lost time. Throughout most of our human history children were seen as the weakest and least important part of society. They weren’t any “good” or of any use until they were older and able to work or provide their family with an heir. This is why I believe Jesus turns the cultural ideas of his world upside down. Jesus takes the weak and helpless of his age and sees them as God’s symbol of reconciliation. Why does he do this?
Let’s think about it for a moment. Reconciliation can only come from a place of strength. Jesus, the leader of this band of men, is the one they all looked up to and he shows his followers any who think they are strong SHOULD DECLARE THEMSELVES WEAK. To make things right with another (reconcile) and for the presence of God to be in the midst of it all (sacrament) those of us who think we’re strong must become weak. Reconciliation must then proceed from the strong toward the weak. However, in our culture and the way we’ve taught our children we’ve said it’s the weak one’s job to make overtures to the more powerful. Isn’t that the story we tell our children when they’re being bullied? Go make friends with the bullies. Talk to them. They’ll not bother you if you become their friend.
And this is where we get it wrong. In the world of Jesus, and one that goes against our very human desire to be stronger and greater than others, it is the one who is in the place of position and power (Jesus in this instance) who is called to do the work of reconciliation and extend it to those who are weak by learning to live into the very weakness they sought to exploit in others!
How and where is this weakness formed? It’s formed in community. Notice the two sacraments of the Methodist Church and most other mainline denominations are communion and baptism. The key to the transforming power of Jesus in the sacramental act of reconciliation is found in communion and by this I don’t mean just bread and wine.
I mean real community. The place where things get ugly. This isn’t a community we can run away from very easily. I am speaking of communities from which no matter how hard we try we can’t escape. I’m talking about relationships in which we’re bound through blood, sweat, and tears. These relationships do not let go of us easily. In a day and age when it is becoming easier and easier to leap from one community to another, we must find the presence of Christ in the community in which we live and be willing to go through the ebbs and flows of this community life. Or, as Len Sweet put it, we’re called to “fall in love with our zip code.”
Jean Vanier said this about community:
Community is the place where our limitations, our fears, and our egotism are revealed to us. We discover our poverty and our weaknesses, our inability to get on with some people, our mental and emotional blocks, our affective and sexual disturbances, our seemingly insatiable desires, our frustrations and jealousies, our hatred and our wish to destroy. While we are alone, we could believe we loved everyone. Now that we are with others, living with them all the time, we realize how incapable we are of loving, how much we deny to others, how closed in on ourselves we are.
In our current climate in America I’d say reconciliation would be seen as a weakness to be exploited and this is also true around the world. Political reconciliation, in such a world, is often professional suicide. What would the world look like if this really occurred? What would happen in a world where political professionals began to practice true reconciliation? I believe, sadly, our moral indignation keeps us from being the sacrament of reconciliation. We want to be so filled with moral outrage that we don’t know how to love our neighbor.
The practical way to live out reconciliation is found in this simple phrase my mother shared with me very often over the years. In all her grand wisdom, she would say, “Derek, shut the hell up and listen.” Grand advice! Leonard Sweet says it more politely, “If we spent half as much time preparing to listen as we do preparing to speak, there might be more around of what is called communion.” Personally, I think we need to hear it both ways.
Too often we can’t bring ourselves into reconciliation with others because we want to do all the talking. We want everything to go our own way. We want to be in control of our anger. We want to harbor our pain and that’s why we cut ourselves off from community: so we can be alone and no longer love.
In my last message I spoke about how the cross is a symbol of Resurrection but it’s also a sign of Reconciliation and I want to explore that thought a bit. Reconciliation that comes from God and flows toward human beings is always a two way street. God, through Christ, brings us into relationship with God’s own self and, in the midst of God’s love and mercy, we walk into that relationship.
With human beings, this reconciliation may, sadly, be only one way but that still doesn’t mean we should not actively seek it out. Especially if we are the one in the place of power. It’s so easy to not worry about reconciliation when we are in the place of strength and this is what keeps us from having enduring relationships on an individual, family, or national level. We’ve forgotten to let the “strong say I’m weak.”
So with that I’ll end with the ultimate symbol of reconciliation. The cross. Two sticks connected together. One stick points vertically toward heaven and the other points horizontally toward our fellow human beings. The Cross is meant to restore our relationship with God and it also calls us to reconciliation with our fellow human beings. Jesus told us you can’t have one without the other. He proved this in his life with his friends, his death on that cross, and in his resurrection life he pours out on all of the world. Or, as He put it, “Love God with all your heart, mind, and strength AND your neighbor as yourself.”
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