March 14, 2010

Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

The big churchy word that I didn’t use with the children this morning is RECONCILIATION – but that is the over-arching theme in the scripture readings today. Reconciliation with God is longed for by the psalmist. It is celebrated in Luke’s parable. And in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, reconciliation is the word of the day!

Paul writes to the Church at Corinth, proclaiming the good news that God has reconciled us to himself through Christ. And he goes on to tell them that God has given us the ministry of reconciliation. And so, this sermon will be something of an exploration of the word “reconciliation” and what it might mean for us, both as something that God has done for us, and something that God is inviting us to do for others.

Within the practices of the Roman Catholic Church, reconciliation is the official name of one of the seven sacraments. It is seen as something that Jesus did, and something that he instructed his followers to keep on doing in the same way. You may know about this sacrament simply by the name “confession” – when a person confesses their sins to a priest, and the priest offers absolution – an assurance of God’s forgiveness offered freely to the one who confesses their sin and turns back to God.

“Reconciliation” is the name of the sacrament, in which God acts to reconcile the person to God, to restore relationship, and to remove the burden of guilt. It’s not too different from the prayers of confession that we make to God each week in our liturgy. We confess our failures and mistakes. God hears us. And the worship leader proclaims the assurance of God’s love and grace. We are reminded that we are forgiven. We are reconciled to God.

But perhaps we shouldn’t just think of “reconciliation” as a religious word. Perhaps we can understand it even better if we consider how the word is used in other contexts. I looked up “reconciliation” in a few online dictionaries, and I found that reconciliation is an important concept beyond the church. The word is used in politics and in ethnic relations to refer to the restoration of normal relations between groups, or the restoration of mutual respect between people from different backgrounds.

Reconciliation may refer to the process of winning over hostile persons to friendliness. It may be about settling a quarrel or dispute. Or it can be a matter of bringing things into agreement or harmony – making things compatible or consistent.

The last definition made me think of book keeping. And since I don’t do a lot of book keeping myself, I called my mother to ask about what’s involved in doing a bank reconciliation. I wondered about why that process uses the same word that we use for a theological concept. My mother works at a Presbyterian church in Ottawa, and part of her job is doing the book keeping for the church. I told her that I was working on a sermon, and I needed her to describe what it means to do a bank reconciliation. (She laughed, but then she gave me a really good explanation.)

She said it’s about checking to see that what the bank says you have in your account matches up with what your own records indicate is there. It’s about bringing your records into agreement with the bank records by finding any errors or omissions and correcting them.

Thinking theologically, reconciliation seems like a very appropriate activity for Lent. It’s about self-examination. It’s a disciplined commitment to review, to evaluate, and to make corrections so that our lives can match up more closely with the way God wants us to live.

As my mother kept talking about reconciling her accounts, she mentioned the “aha” moment – the joyful discovery that everything balances, made all the more joyous after a long struggle to find an error. She told me that she gets such a good feeling when it reconciles perfectly. She knows that everything is alright. She can close up the books, knowing that nothing has been neglected, and everything is in order once again.

Thinking theologically again, I remembered today’s psalm. A children’s version of the psalm really emphasizes what it feels like to be reconciled to God – the joy that can be born from the process of confessing and being forgiven. Listen to this paraphrase of Psalm 32 (From the Lectionary Story Bible, Year C, WoodLake Books):
I’m happy again. Yes, I am.
I’m happy because I told God.
I told God about
the wrong things I did,
and I said to God, “I am sorry.”

For a long, long time I felt bad.
I was always worried and sad.
I didn’t tell God about wrong things I did.
I didn’t tell God anything.

But now I’m happy again.
I can sing! I can dance! I can play!
I told God about the wrong things I did,
and I said to God, “I am sorry.”

I said to God, “I’m sorry,
I’ll try now to live in your way.
I’ll try to be kind to the person I hurt,
I’ll try to be friends once again.”
I’m happy again. Yes, I am.
I’m happy because I told God.
I told God about
the wrong things I did,
and I said to God, “I am sorry.”

In the midst of my online definition search, I noticed one site indicating that literally, “reconciliation” means “to meet again”. “Re” (of course) means “again”. And “conciliare” refers to a meeting (like the English word, council). In fact, it refers specifically to a “friendly meeting”.

When I mentioned this definition to my mother… that reconciliation literally means “to meet again”, she said, “Well, of course! When everything works out, you meet the same number again at the bottom of your page! You meet the same transactions on your bank statement that you have in your own records too.”

But then we got to talking about the times when things are not going so smoothly – when there’s an error somewhere, and you just can’t find it! Often, the thing to do in that situation is to set it aside for a while and come back to it later. Look at it again “with fresh eyes”. Usually, with a little rest and a renewed effort, you can suddenly “see” something that you just didn’t see the first time, and the problem is easily solved. When you meet it again, things look different, and reconciliation becomes possible.

What immediately came to mind was the long process of working on healing and reconciliation between the churches and the First Nations People of Canada. Our first meeting on this land did not go too well, we might say. European Christians came in and took over – imposing our cultural practices, our religion, and claiming the land on which those before us had lived for centuries.

When my mother talked about trying to reconcile her statement, she said she can’t stand it when it doesn’t get reconciled. It bothers her. Nags at her. She just can’t bear to ignore the problem until it is fixed. Even if it’s only 16 cents! Others might just write it off, but she just can’t! She has to go back to the books and work on it until reconciliation is achieved.

Much of the reconciliation work that is being done within our Presbyterian Church in Canada is about being committed to meeting our First Nations neighbours again. It’s about seeing them “with fresh eyes” and allowing them to see the church “with fresh eyes” too. Perhaps if we keep on meeting again and meeting again, we will be able to see the errors of the past clearly enough to find ways to correct those errors. Just knowing that we made mistakes is not enough. We can’t just write off that history, if we want true reconciliation to occur.

This morning’s text from Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians begins with these words: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.” Think of the “fresh eyes” that the book keeper needed to find her error. Those “fresh eyes” are what we need when we attempt to be reconciled to our neighbours, when we try to turn enemies into friends, when we seek to make peace in our relationships.

And we don’t just need to look at those with whom we meet from another perspective. We don’t simply need to try to see things from their view point. In fact, we need to let the Spirit help us to see the other in the way that God sees them. It’s not a human point of view, but it’s a divine point of view that we need to make reconciliation possible.

Our Gospel story this morning gives us a good sense of what God’s view point might be when it comes to judging people. And it’s quite different from most people’s assumptions about how God judges people. The Pharisees and the scribes, for example, got very upset about the kind of judgment that Jesus was making about the people he encountered. While the religious establishment was measuring up the average person, and finding each one severely lacking, Jesus seemed willing to hang out with anyone and everyone. The religious folk started to grumble and complain about it: “This fellow welcomes sinners and east with them!” How shocking! How terrible! Doesn’t he know that they are not worth anything?

But it’s not that Jesus doesn’t know something. It’s that Jesus sees them differently. He doesn’t see them from a human point of view. He sees their value. He sees them as God’s beloved children… no matter how many mistakes they may have made, he sees their potential for goodness and righteousness and reconciliation with God and their communities.

It makes me think of the Micah Mission here in Saskatoon, a ministry of the Mennonite Church, Saskatchewan. The ministry includes three important projects that all seek to minister to and with people who have made mistakes and been through the justice system. Person-to-person ministries gathers volunteers, gives them training, and then arranges for them to visit with prisoners who have no one else to visit them. The Community Chaplaincy provides support and help to people who have been released from prison and are trying to re-adjust to life back out in society. And COSA (Circles of Support and Accountability) are groups of individuals from the community who provide a circle of care, concern, help, and accountability for sexual offenders who have served their terms and are now back in the world.

These ministries make an amazing difference in the lives of offenders, their families, and the communities in which they live. And they only work because Christian people decide to try to look at these people from a God point of view. They try to see through the criminal so that they can care for and support the beloved child of God as he/she attempts to be reconciled to family, community, and society as a whole.

Remember the famous parable of the prodigal son? God is the parent who chooses to welcome the child home, who sees through the selfishness and the wastefulness to the repentant child who is lost and alone and in need of help. Like the mini-celebration that occurs with a reconciled bank statement, God pulls out all the stops and celebrates the fact that a wandering child has come home.

Reconciliation with God does not require us to become perfect. But it is by God’s grace and through God’s help that we are reconciled. It’s a gift that balances our books even when we have been neglectful, or when we have embezzled, or when we have failed to give as much as we get. As Paul wrote, “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting [our] trespasses against [us]”.

Today’s message is both grace and challenge. As much as we are like the younger brother, we have God’s gift of reconciling grace. When we confess our sins and return to God, God is like the Father who comes running out to meet us again. God sees beyond our failures, and remembers our identity as God’s beloved children. God’s arms are open to us to welcome us, to embrace us, and to celebrate our return.

But at times, we are more like the older brother. We may have been hurt by the decisions of our brothers or sisters, and we are holding it against them. It is obvious to us that they are in error, and we have no intention of meeting with them again until they correct what they have done. But God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, has given us the ministry of reconciliation. It is up to us to look again, to meet again, and to show the kind of grace and love for our neighbours that Christ has shown for us.

May God’s Spirit of grace work within us, and through us, and among us, until we can join in the celebration – the party that God is preparing and hosting in our honour – because the child who was dead is alive, the one who was lost is found, and we are reconciled. Amen.