Teeter-totters and Algebra: Reflections on Lent 4

Lovely welcoming approach to Westminster Presbyterian Church, Portland, on Lent 4, 2019

The epistle lectionary lesson for Lent 4 was 2 Corinthian 5:11-21, and it was the lesson chosen for reading and preaching at Westminster Presbyterian Church, and the theme of the children’s sermon, as well, but while the word, reconciliation, reverberated numerous times in that sanctuary, my mind turned onto curious side roads.

I began to think of what we once did, and I suppose many still do, when the monthly bank statement arrived. If we were wise we got to work fairly quickly to reconcile that bank statement with our check book, or if we were careless we put it off, maybe for weeks, and then the next statement arrived and reconciling became more challenging or impossible.

Then I remember that the goal of reconciliation was balance; our checkbook would be in balance after reconciliation, and that stream of consciousness leads to an image of a teeter-totter in a children’s park, where if you really want to have fun, you get a friend about the same size as you are so that the teeter-totter will balance. It wasn’t any fun at all when some big guy at the other end stranded you high up in the air, if he was mean enough for a long and maybe scary time. Or even worse, would suddenly jump off his end of the teeter-totter sending you, maybe painfully, crashing to the ground. By all means, avoid out-of-balance teeter-totters!

By now my reflections are well off the beaten path being followed by our pastor, I land on Algebra, a sixth-grade classroom, say, and pesky equations where the idea is to figure out what makes them balance, the two sides of the equal sign—note, the equal sign—reconciled. Hmmm. Something like the teeter-totter, right? Of course, because there’s an equal sign, then there’s reconciliation already, but usually there’s an x or a y in that equation somewhere, and that’s the puzzle. So let’s say that we get this problem to solve:


Which means, because the = sign is there, it’s an equality, an equation, so therefore in balance as it is, and it’s up to us to figure out the number that’s unknown. If we’re following our teacher’s instructions, we show all of our work, and we divide both sides by 3—which of course we can do because we’re dividing by equal quantities, 3=3, and won’t mess up the equivalency, and voilà, if we know how integers work, we find that


a new equality, so therefore, because they are equal, we can now substitute -9 for x and we have


and our solution checks; we’ve arrived at equality, balance, reconciliation.

Now my mind is far, far astray, and then the deviation gets far more tricky. My mind takes a sharp turn to last Sunday’s sermon text, Philippians 3:5-8, where equality plays a leading role. We’re told that Jesus did not consider “equality with God” something to be grasped (as in “held onto tightly,” “unwilling to let go”). Then we hear that Jesus “emptied” himself—some versions of the Bible say that he “made himself nothing,” a zero with no weight at all.

Now, it would seem we’re far out of range of the teeter-totter, but consider it for a moment. If we picture God as occupant of one end of the teeter-totter, and ourselves at the other, we’d certainly figure we’re vastly, unimaginably outweighed, the inequality plain, yet we’re hearing in Philippians 2 that God in the person of the divine son, decides to create equality with humans. One can almost see that divine being, glowing with heavenly Light, slowly fading, deflating, until he no longer outbalances our humanity. He’s willing to be our equal, and unless I’m really off track, that’s God reconciling—equalizing—the world and Godself.

So that’s what I’m thinking as the sermon goes on and by now has got to the crucial point where Paul turns this all around and writes of the church being trusted with “the ministry of reconciliation” (the Greek word translated “ministry” is diakonia, which implies serving. In fact, the word appears in that puzzling story of Martha and Mary in Luke 10 where Martha is portrayed as “distracted with much diakonia,” likely associated with serving of food, or hospitality).

Now our preacher is speaking about deplorable inequality in the distribution of food worldwide, given that it’s Bread for the World Sunday. So, I surmise, if ours is a ministry of reconciliation, then it must be incumbent upon us that we strive to remove such inequality, do our best to make the out-of-balancedness of our world, so evident wherever we look, disappear. To help a homeless family find a home is reconciling work, as is dismantling vast differences in wealth, in education, in criminal justice, in fact wherever one looks and sees inequality in everyday society—perhaps even within the church.

Our model in all of this? God, who, in Christ, has reconciled the world to Godself. Christ who has emptied himself, made himself zero, giving up heavenly equality he enjoyed to be in human form and therefore an equal—reconciled, in balance—with those who walk with him on the rough roads of Palestine, and once and for all, especially in his being “obedient to death, even death on a cross.”

Now, moving on through Lent 5 and into Holy Week, if we have the eyes to see, we behold that balancing, the striving toward equality, the reconciliation, played out in the events of his entry into Jerusalem, his encounters with those in power who denied his equality, for him and for themselves, his being at table with his closest friends, washing their feet, serving their bread and wine, his praying, his trial, his death.

And then, when Easter dawn breaks, the blessed recognition that God’s plan for reconciling the world is not at all dismal failure but grand success, that all things are in balance, and that our primary work beyond our own willingness to live in that equality is to extend it to all around us in whatever form of humble diakonia available to us, and invite others into the perfect reconciliation of God’s realm.

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