St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Precious, and Private, and Mine”
Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,
"At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
and on a day of salvation I have helped you."
See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see-- we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
Jesus said, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
"So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
"And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
"And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
Monday morning of this week National Public Radio had a wonderful piece about how to have hard and confusing conversations with children on subjects like death, and racism, and other scary topics.
They know by the looks on our faces and how we react that it is bad, or something, and that makes them even more anxious. But a huge part of it is not avoiding clear understanding with euphemisms. Do not say the dog has gone to sleep, but say the word. The dog died. It did not pass away. It did not go to sleep or a better place, but the real thing. The body stopped working. It died.
When thinking on what I do for a living, and how so often I have to carefully tread on subjects because of the divisive nature of our times or sensitivities all around. It becomes hard and confusing. Who might take something the wrong way? I have found that so often I move to euphemisms to introduce hard ideas, but in doing so do I help confuse the topic or downplay the seriousness and importance of what we are discussing?
We come into a season where it does no one any good to downplay the hardness and seriousness of what we are discussing. This is Lent. We talk about death and our mortality. We talk about Sin and our frailty. We talk about God and our imperfection.
“All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” [Romans 3:23] and “None are righteous. No, not one.” [Romans 3:10 citing Psalm 14:1] St. Paul opines. We know this. Most of us do not need to be reminded how bad we are. It is one of the main reasons I so often and eagerly emphasize how BELOVED we all are. But even in our beloved state, there are things that we could do to make things even better.
From today’s Epistle reading, we have Paul again, and he is urging is to strive for godliness. “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” [2 Cor 5:20b]
At St. Paul’s downtown I had the word Reconciled transformed for me. It was during their Lenten Luncheon series. A Catholic priest transformed how I saw this word, Reconciliation. So often I have used it, looking at how we initiate peaceful resolution of conflict, or bridging gaps of separation. In the work I have done with Racial Reconciliation it is often about overcoming Power Disparity, and acknowledging and dismantling privilege as best we can. It is about getting to the point where we can begin to glimpse things from someone else’s perspective, but too often it ends there.
My daughter said she was going to invent a game called Rock Higgins sermon bingo, and it would have things on it like “Embarrass my daughters with a story,” “Talk about camp,” or “Talk about when I was a Baptist.” All those are too close for comfort, but too true to deny. Another one she mentioned, “Explain the etymology of a word we think we know” is something else I do a lot, probably too much for some, but it is how my brain works. She said that one could be a whole row on the bingo card. Once you see where something come froms and how it used to work and how it works now, it is like a huge light comes on illuminating and clarifying.
So get this! The word Reconciliation has an amazing origin. Latin. You may even know most of it. “Re-” meaning again. “Con-” meaning with. SO, Again-With-Ciliation. Cilia. Latin for little hairs. In your intestines, the little nodules that absorb nutrients are called Cilia. I learned that from Schoolhouse Rock! I saw as a child between cartoons. But Again-With-Intestinal-Nodules makes no sense. But the little hairs mentioned are also what the Romans used for other little hairs, particularly the eyelashes. Now we are getting a better picture. Again-With-Eyelashes-tion. Or the Condition-of-being-again-within-eyelash-distance of someone. To be reconciled is to be so close as to be able to give butterfly kisses. It is closer than a handshake. It is closer than a hug. It is breathing in the breath of the other. It is so close as to be intimate. Reconciliation is FAR MORE than what we have settled for when we use that word. And as we heard today: “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
St. Paul is asking us to become intimate with God. Naked and unashamed. Breathing in the same breath. So close as there is nothing hidden. And that takes work.
It is hard to maintain intimacy. We are that close to so few people in a normal life. Immediate family has many meanings. Intimacy is one of them. From diapers to marital relations, there is so much, so rare, so precious, so (dare I say it) holy. And we are called to reveal ourselves to that point with God.
That is what Lent is, a time where we are stripped down as to where nothing is hidden, and all is revealed. Reconciliation with God is the ultimate statement of Faith. We admit that God already knows us as we are, AND even in that state of potential shame, we are lifted up, looked in the eye, and told that we are BELOVED.
Remember the woman caught in adultery, that Jesus was invited to stone which would have been within his right and within the law. But here he shows all of those condemning her their state of sin, and in her nakedness at his feet, he picks her up, looks her in eye, and asks who is there accusing her. Not him; not anyone else. He reconciled with that woman. And in so doing enabled her to be reconciled with God.
So, how do we attempt this? How do we work on this relationship?
Jesus in these words from his Sermon on the Mount from Matthew talks about some personal piety. Keeping stuff between you and God.
Now if I wanted to have a conversation with my wife, to work on our relationship, I would not do it on a sermon, or on a billboard, or at the dinner table with the kids there. I would do it one on one. That is what Jesus is getting at. When we take things public, it becomes something else. When we work on Again-at-the-eyelash-level-of-intimacy we keep things down and low. We go into lonely, isolated rooms. We pass notes in stealth. We avoid the flashy and the ostentatious. We love in the quiet, we relish the gift of being alone. Our intimacy with God should be as personal as any other of our intimacies. As precious. As treasured. As withheld.
Tonight, we come before God. “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” In an act of contrition we acknowledge that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. What is mortal shall surely die. But, what is immortal must live. We acknowledge our mortality. We embrace our immortal nature in God. Our dust is marked with dust, for we are “but dust.” And likewise, our Spirit is marked as Christ’s own forever. That intimacy is precious, private, and mine. And I trust and pray that it is yours as well. In this holy Lent, let us give thanks to God. Amen