The Table of Reconciliation – Chuck Rush (10/1/07)

The Table of Reconciliation
Mt. 5:24

When we were visiting our kids in Hawaii when they were stationed there in the Army, I went to see Pearl Harbor. Right near me was a man in his 80’s, sounded like he was from Ohio, talking to his family about being stationed in Hawaii in 1941. About 10 feet away, there was a Japanese man in his 80’s, who was undoubtedly talking to his family about what it was like to be a pilot in the Japanese Air Force in 1941. They were very slowly backing towards one another, when they both turned to see where they were going, and acknowledged one another.
Both men became silent and took the other in for a moment. Slowly one of them raised his hand and saluted. And the other one raised his hand and saluted. We humans want resolution to our lives. Out of our shared pain and loss, we want to be reconciled.
St. Paul taught us to think of the Eucharist as a table of reconciliation. Jesus said, “Take, eat… do this in remembrance of me”. What we are remembering is that the Christ brings reconciliation between us and God, between neighbor and neighbor. One of the fundamental markers of Christians, Paul said, is that they are “Ambassadors of Reconciliation”.
And on our best days that is true. When Christianity came to the British Isles, almost literally from the very beginning (one of Paul’s disciples came to Ireland before 200), they started a monastery on the Island of Iona, off the western coast of Scotland, in between Scotland and Ireland.
The place was significant. The Druids had used it before Christianity came to the area. The Druids were priests in the ancient Celtic religion. Sometimes depicted as Wizards in popular folklore, like Merlin the Wizard in the Tale of King Arthur. They used Iona as a place to make peace between the warring Celtic Clans.
The Christian missionaries wanted to communicate that their religion was a religion of reconciliation, so they started a monastery at Iona at the place the Celts came to make peace.
Early on, the Christians were also very effective at reconciliation in a rather admirable way. The Irish actually brought Christianity to the English which required quite a spiritual leap at the time.
Way back then, the English were continually at war with the Irish, destroying their villages, and routinely enslaving the Irish that they captured in battle. For the Irish to make a humane gesture towards an enemy like this in any way required an incredible leap of spiritual imagination, probably more difficult than a member of Hamas reaching out to an Israeli settler in the West Bank…
But St. Aidan reached to the family of one of the English kings, the beasts, the enemies and eventually gained their support and he opened a school and a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, in the north of England, just off the eastern coast. The year was 650. You can walk to the island at low tide but you don’t want to time that wrong. It is also a place that is basically cut off an it became a place of refuge, a place where people came to broker peace between two disgruntled parties, two disgruntled clans that had let a feud get out of hand.
On our best days, that is what we were, people of reconciliation. Got a dispute, I know who can help solve that… Call a Christian.
The literally the meaning of the word ‘sanctuary’ is “a place of refuge, a place of protection, safety”. It is a place where reconciliation can happen.
It is a small miracle that happens every time we gather around the table together. Here, as I’ve shared before, I really felt it one week when we had two candidates running for office against each other, Democrat and Republican, just a day before the election.
The truth is most all of us here are competitors all week, but as we approach the table of reconciliation, we transcend our competitiveness, as we stand shoulder to shoulder in human solidarity as pilgrims. We come here in our hunger and our need.
6 days a week, we compete with each other as hard as we can in the marketplace, and on the 7th day, we transcend our competitive differences in reconciliation around a table where grace is broken and passed one to another.
We have to have both for balance in our lives. I was interested to read this summer that intellectuals believe this virtue is likely to grow in our life time.
Robert Wright, the philosophy professor at Princeton, wrote a book a decade ago entitled “Non-Zero Sum” in which sets out the modest ambition of explaining “the logic of human destiny”. Yet again, modesty eludes a Princeton Professor.
The book is a broad brush look at why our societies evolve into an evermore complex and differentiated social world. That is our destiny, to become evermore complex and differentiated.
He points out that all advanced societies are advanced precisely because they utilize competition to produce social cooperation that benefits all of us. This past decade, our Airlines have been merging for competitive advantage, Southwest is bought AirTran, Delta bought Northwest, American Airlines bought U.S. Air, United merged with Continental.
He points out that the external competition between these corporations is matched by an internal ethic of cooperation within each corporation. The corporations that are able to work as a team internally, where everyone gets enough benefit that they have ownership and are self-motivated to give their best and win together, these are the corporations that actually win.
What we are doing is harnessing competition in socially beneficial ways, so that not only are the families of the employees are taken care of financially, but all of us are able to travel cheaper, faster, and in comfort… Maybe THE AIRLINES ARE NOT THE BEST EXAMPLE TO USE: since they’ve gotten more expensive, more cramped every flight, with more delays than ever…
There are negative trends but viewed with the lens on wide angle, they don’t last very long. The least efficient get relegated to the dust bin of cultural evolution. What you see over and over is the eventual triumph of those complex societies that leverage the social surplus that comes from us working together in coordinated fashion.
Witness the fantastic power of the internet. Our collective, coordinated gathering of information puts an array of knowledge at the hands of a 3rd grader that would have taken a PhD student a month to collect when I was writing my dissertation. We have this tremendous collective power which has always been the source of our strength as a species.
Like a lot of thinkers today, Professor Wright believes that we are at the front end of a fairly dramatic time of complexity socially. Like a lot of thinkers today, he can’t quite articulate what that is because we have never been at this place of concentrated human development before.
One thing that is clear, the virtue of reconciliation will become prominent in the near-term. It is a function of having more and more reciprocal relationships and being more and more interdependent around the world. From the ease that we connect with people around a single interest to the breadth of our international markets, we are becoming global citizens of one earth rapidly. I love those articles in “The Economist” that detail how a pension fund that tanked in California ends up having dramatic implications for a small village in the Ukraine.
His point is that as this world converges in interdependence, people that can be reconcilers will be valued more because war has more and more collateral damage. We will continue to have wars but the societies that will succeed will figure out how to evolve into reconciling communities, where leaders understand how to involve people meaningfully so that they own the challenges and the solutions, and they can build consensus. His argument is not that this should be but that is simply will be, speaking as a cultural evolutionist, trying to understand how societies evolve.
Churches he predicts, will play a bigger role in the future? Why? Because we form people around the values of reconciliation… that will be the value of spirituality in the future, to produce a community of leaders who know how to become reconcilers.
In another stack, I’m reading books on marriage, how to be a great spouse to live a meaningful life, day in and day out… Long story short? Try becoming a person that is fundamentally oriented around reconciliation. Become a child that can share your toys and get along with those around you. As someone observed about marriage, it is not ‘marrying the right partner’, it is learning to be the right partner.
John Gottman, the expert on marriage at the moment, can predict couples that will get a divorce with 91% accuracy after studying some 20,000 couples over 25 years. He’ll be the first to tell you, it is not rocket science. They just made detailed notes watching couples spend a weekend together. Over time, he figured out that how you argue as a couple is fairly critical, particularly since what he also noticed is that most of the things we actually argue about as couples are not reconcilable.
The chances are that the argument you had with your spouse 6 months ago, you also had with them 10 years ago, and you will have it again twenty years in the future. 2/3’s of our arguments are over things that are essentially not resolvable. Like what?
1. “Meg wants to have a baby, but Donald says he’s not ready yet- and is not sure if he ever will be.
2. Walter wants to have sex more often than Dana
3. Chris is lax about housework and rarely does his share of the chores until Susan nags him, which makes him angry.
4. Tony wants to raise the kids Catholic. Jessica is Jewish and doesn’t know what she wants but “Catholic” is not even on the short list.
5. Angie thinks Ron is too critical of their son. But Ron thinks he has the right approach: Their son has to be taught the right way to do things, he says.”
These are irreconcilable because they represent fundamental differences in your personalities. You are essentially asking your spouse to change something in themselves that is fundamentally who they are. So these annoyances come up again and again and again. And they account for exactly 69% of our arguments in case you were curious.
So how do you get along? Good question.
It is actually easier to answer the question how don’t you get along? We can chart that and you can turn on almost any episode of Reality TV and watch people act it out.
Professor Gottman just looks for four things. He calls them the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse because, like the 4 Horsemen from the Book of Revelation, when they show up together, bad stuff happens. Here is what they are:
1. Criticism- We can have complaints about specific issues like “I’m really angry that you just left the dishes and went to play golf”… Criticism takes it a step further like “You are such a slob, what is wrong with you?” or “You never fill the car up with gas”.
2. Contempt- You don’t stop at the criticizing; instead you add “sarcasm, name calling, eye rolling, sneering, mockery or hostile humor.” You have a well of “long-simmering negative thoughts about your partner. You introduce a couple of phrases, “You always” and “You never”… character attacks.
3. These attacks produce, no great surprise, Defensiveness. Your partner, if you’ve noticed, can’t or won’t actually apologize under these conditions, so it doesn’t produce the desired effect. Instead, they either argue the case… (‘that’s not true, I picked up the whole kitchen yesterday’) or they counter attack defensively, (“if you really cared about order, maybe you’d clean out your car once in a while”) Defensiveness is punctuated by a lot of sophisticated body language (you speak slowly, you pepper with questions to make your spouse squirm) to counterattack…
4. You stonewall. One or both of you feel flooded with anger. You either get up and leave or what a lot of men do is just turn on the Giants game and tune out. Physically or spiritually, you are in separate space. [AA- or drink slowly] Most of the time, these arguments start harshly. Someone barges in, so to speak, and it takes off like a rocket. Turns out that most of our engagements end the way they start as humans. If you blow in and blow off, your spouse will blow out.
If this cycle is left un-checked… If you find yourselves falling into this routinely. Professor Gottman says that some relationships get caught in a holding tank, where it is easy for them to enter into this negative space and neither partner seems to be able to get them out of it. And you don’t do anything about it, people in these relationships eventually become lonely in their separate spaces and they do something about that loneliness.
If you are just a little anxious right now, I have some good news. Usually, Professor Gottman, says this is a toxic brew and will do couples in. However, you can actually periodically engage in several of these toxic behaviors as long as… you are really good at ‘repair attempts’, the technical term at the moment.
Can you apply the brakes before this car hits the guard rail? Can you calm yourself down? Can you soothe your spouse? Can you change the subject to remind each other of what you have in common that you value together? Can you let your spouse know that you have absorbed their frustration, even if you don’t accept the way that it was delivered? Can you work through a process in communication, so that if it is not completely resolvable, both of you can learn to steer around it? Can you be…. a reconciling person? That is really the key.
That is why we come to the Table of Reconciliation. We really want to become reconciling people. We don’t want to live in isolation from each other or from God. We want to improve here. We want to grow.
On our best days, we want to be loving, empathetic, and to share each other’s burdens. We come together with all of the prayer requests, shoulder to shoulder, and that takes away some of the loneliness that we have with grief, which can be so isolating in a completely different way than anger.
We want to be better at this. We really want it. The truth is, we are hungry for it. We are thirsty for it. We want to get this right. We want to love and we want to be loveable. We need to turn again to our higher selves. And some of us need to get really creative about how to break through an impasse and love our spouses or our close friends more meaningfully.
Today we join with millions of people, literally spanning the globe, at this table of healing, hearing the same words now spoken every week for 104,764 some odd Sundays, “Take, Eat… Do this in Remembrance of me”. Reconciliation is that important. Amen.

*Gottman, John and Nan Silver. “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (London: Orion House, 2007), pl. 130.
Ibid. p. 31.

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Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.