Saturday, June 18, 2016

“Life Together: Reconciliation” - June 19, 2016

Text: 2 Corinthians 5:11-21

One week ago today, there was a horrific shooting at Pulse, a gay-oriented nightclub in Orlando, that wound up being the largest mass shooting in U.S. history.  49 people were killed, 53 wounded.  When we gathered for worship last Sunday, a lot of the details had not yet emerged, but as the days have unfolded since, we have learned a lot.

It was a shocking, horrible tragedy, just one in a long line of mass shootings.  This time, the killing and the carnage and the aftermath come at the confluence of multiple issues: immigration, sexuality, gun control, religion, terrorism, foreign policy, election year politics.  Our response as a nation has been less than what we might hope for.  There has been hatred, rage, vitriol, and plenty of blaming.  A pastor of a fundamentalist Baptist church in California said that he was upset that more did not die in the massacre and that Orlando would be safer now with fewer homosexuals.  (Lord, have mercy.)  This tragedy has been an opportunity for people to project their fears and hatred and agendas on to what is at the root of it all a heartbreaking human tragedy.

This shooting came almost exactly a year after the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.  A young man went to a prayer meeting at Emmanuel AME Church, a historic African-American church, and killed 9 people who had gathered to pray and study the Bible.

While the shooting in Charleston last year affected many of us deeply, the pain was especially deep for many African-Americans.  This historic church held great symbolic importance, and the shooting was a reminder of all of the prejudice and bigotry, the history of lynching and church burnings and violence, and the continuing struggle for equality and opportunity that many African-Americans have to endure.  The murders in a church, by a man who was welcomed into the community felt like an especially terrible violation.

The killings in Orlando have likewise affected many of us deeply.  It was heartbreaking to hear of stories like the 49 year old mother of 11 who had survived breast cancer and bone cancer who was dancing with her gay son and cousin and did not survive the attack.  It has been most difficult for those in the LGBT community.  For those who face the judgment and rejection of many in society, including many in the religious community, and who often feel vulnerable, a place like Pulse represents a safe place where people are accepted for who they are and not judged.  So, like the shooting at Mother Emmanuel, the killings in Orlando were the worst kind of terrorism, shattering what had felt like a safe space.

Now let me say, this is heavy stuff.  A lot of us want to come to church to escape from the problems of the world.  And to an extent that happens; we can come here and be reminded of something greater and more powerful than our day-to-day concerns, and we can gain strength and renewal and the power of fellowship as we gather together.  But we also bring who we are to worship; we can’t help but bring our concerns with us, and for a lot of us, this has been heavy on our hearts and minds.  And if our faith cannot address our deepest concerns, then what good is it really?

So with all of this in the background, in this hurting, divided, and sometimes frightening world, we come to our text for the day, and as it turns out, it could not be more timely.  As Mike Shannon would say in a St. Louis Cardinals broadcast, “Ol’ Abner’s done it again.”

I wouldn’t refer to God as “Ol’ Abner,” but it seems almost providential that we find ourselves in the fifth chapter of Second Corinthians this morning.  In our scripture last week, Paul spoke of our brokenness, our vulnerability – saying that we are jars of clay that contain the treasure of Christ.  He continues by speaking of the frailties of our human bodies, saying that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, eternal in the heavens, not made by human hands, and says that in the meantime, we walk by faith and not by sight.

And then in our scripture for this morning, we read, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.”  It is a very hopeful word about the power of God in Jesus Christ to change lives.  I heard this verse from an early age, and always thought that it meant that if somebody became a Christian, they were a new creation, a new person.  One reason I thought that, I suppose, is that some English translations say exactly that.  The King James, for example, says “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature.”

Now, the King James version has some words in italics – words that were not in the original language but added to make it smoother and more readable.  In the part that says “he is a new creature,” “he is” is in italics.  It is not actually there in the Greek.  A better sense of what Paul wrote would be, “if anyone is in Christ – boom! – it’s a new creation!” (I added the word boom in italics for comprehension).  It is not just that the person in Christ is a new creation; the point is that for that person there is a whole new world.  And that is exactly the way the New English Bible has it: “If anyone is united in Christ, there is a new world.”

This means we see the world differently.  We see everyone – every person, all of creation - in a new way.  So often, our default way of seeing people is through the lens of otherness.  We want to pigeonhole people, stereotype people.  Rich, poor, young, old, black, white, Asian, Middle Eastern, Hispanic, Christian, Muslim, Jew, gay, straight, students, townspeople, Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative.

To experience a new creation is to see the world in a new way, through a new lens – the lens of love, the lens of shared humanity.  Through Jesus, we have been reconciled to God, and God has entrusted us with the ministry of reconciliation.

Reconciliation literally means to be brought back together.  To reconcile is to bring people together – with each other and with God.  And this is where it becomes very timely, because if anything has been clear this week, it is that this world needs reconciliation in the worst way.

Last Sunday evening, we watched the Tony awards.  I don’t typically watch the Tonys, but because of the musical “Hamilton” – Zoe is a huge fan – we were watching.  Hamilton won 11 awards, and like many people, we were taken by Lin Manuel Miranda’s acceptance speech for Best Musical Score.  His speech was a sonnet that began with thanks to his wife and concluded with an audacious word of hope:

...We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger.
We rise and fall and light from dying embers.
Remembrances that hope and love last longer.
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love
Cannot be killed or swept aside.
Miranda’s words remind us of another audacious proclamation which we read in worship just a few weeks ago:
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends…And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
Julie Pennington-Russell wrote,
The Apostle Paul knew something about God’s kind of love: We can mock it, ignore it, reject it, threaten it, torture it, shoot it and nail it to a cross.  But we cannot defeat it.  Love will keep coming back for us.  It will keep pursuing us and forgiving us and inviting us to come out of death and into life.
It is astonishing that God has called us to the ministry of reconciliation – because let’s face it, often as not it seems like we are part of the problem as much as we might be part of the solution.  This is not easy stuff.  Paul goes as far as to say that we are Ambassadors for Christ – we are sent out by Christ to this ministry of reconciliation.

We are given tools for this ministry.  As we have moved through Second Corinthians, we have looked at some of the themes that Paul has presented.  Consolation.  Forgiveness.  Brokenness.  Each of these play a part in reconciliation.  We offer consolation, or encouragement to others.  We forgive one another and remind others of God’s forgiveness.  We remember that brokenness and vulnerability is part of the human condition, that we are all broken people, and the power that can bring about reconciliation is not ours, but God’s.  And as Lin Manuel Miranda and the Apostle Paul remind us, the greatest tool we have as we work for reconciliation is love.

In a column for members of her conference, United Methodist Bishop Minerva Carcano of Los Angeles wrote about a lawyer she knows who specializes in immigration law.  He has seen enough that he is skeptical about our human ability to be agents of any kind of reconciliation, much less ambassadors of God’s reconciliation.  He is a cradle Presbyterian, who along the way became a self-declared agnostic.  Today he says he is a deist - there is a god out there somewhere.  More recently he’s begun to wonder whether God is closer than he had ever realized.

Earlier this year he took on the asylum case of a Syrian family.  They had suffered a great deal in Syria because of their faith and it became clear that they would die if they stayed in Syria.  The parents, a daughter and her husband, and their 6 year-old son came to the U.S.  This lawyer, deist of a man, worked hard on this family’s case.  Knowing the potential consequences of failing to get this family asylum kept him awake at night.  It did not help that the case had been assigned to an immigration judge known for his cruel way of treating immigrants in his courtroom.

Then something started to happen.  Just days before the final hearing, the lawyer received word that the case was being postponed for a few weeks, giving him more time to build his case.  And then just before the rescheduled hearing he received another gift.  The originally assigned judge would not be able to proceed with the case; the new judge assigned to the case was known as the most compassionate immigration judge in the whole circuit.

The day of the court proceeding arrived and after a sleepless night, the lawyer did his best to represent this family and won their case.  Afterwards the lawyer invited the family to a debriefing room to explain the next steps.  In a most uncharacteristic moment the lawyer shared with the family how stressed out he had been over their case.  The family matriarch who had spoken throughout their journey together of her faith and confidence in God, asked him why he had been so stressed.  The lawyer opened his mouth to answer but before he could do so the 6 year-old grandson came over to him and declared with a big smile, “That’s because you love us!”

This lawyer considers all the changes in the case – extra time, a kinder judge – as coincidences or perhaps good luck.  But he continues to wonder and marvel about the sentiment of the little boy, “That’s because you love us.”  He had not thought of his work in those terms.  But every time he thinks of that little boy and his declaration, he feels a love so profound that it breaks through the hard shell he’s barricaded his heart with and he begins to weep.  Could God be at work in him and through him?  He wonders.

Bishop Carcano said, “I’m a pest in his life because I do not wonder.   I know that it is God within him and through him bringing reconciliation, love and hope in a broken world!”

We are called to be God’s ministers of reconciliation.  We may have never thought of ourselves in that way.  We may not think of ourselves as worthy of that calling or capable of such a thing.  But as we explored last week, God looks at us and says, “You are a jar of clay that carries a great treasure.”  This ministry of reconciliation happens and we are used by God as we are able to love others.

In the aftermath of Orlando, I have thought about our church.  I thought about that pastor in California and how a lot of people might assume that he is probably only different from other Baptists in degree, not in his basic position toward gay and lesbian folks.  It is a sad indictment that for a lot of people, the church is the last place they might look for acceptance, for love, for hope, for reconciliation.

I talked with an incoming student a few weeks ago.  He asked about the church and then he pointed out our identity statement, the part where it says we welcome all people, gay and straight, and he said that this appealed to him.  I don’t know anything about this student, but I think it is important that we communicate to others that we are a church that is in the business of love and welcome and reconciliation.

Our American Baptist Churches USA has issued statements in the wake of the shooting.  “We are anguished and aggrieved at this heinous massacre where the evils of terrorism, gun violence and hatred against members of the LGBTQ communities converged,” says ABHMS Executive Director Dr. Jeffrey Haggray. “We condemn with the strongest language possible whatever ideologies and sentiments contribute to a culture of homophobia, bigotry, hatred and violence against fellow children of God, including our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. We are all created in the image of God, and God’s love for all people is steadfast, immovable and unconditional.”

I appreciated this statement, and the fact that there are people out there calling themselves Christian and calling themselves Baptist who are actually applauding what happened in Orlando makes statements like this all the more important.  To be silent at such a time is to be part of the problem.

It is clear that God’s children have a long way to go.  Just to share the planet, we have a long way to go.  As a society, as a nation, as a world, we have a long way to go.  There is a great deal of division and polarization and mistrust out there.  There is discrimination and hatred.  People are hurting, people are feeling left out, people are fearful.

In this kind of world, a broken, hurting world, we have been called by God, entrusted by God, to be ministers of reconciliation – every one of us.  This is a ministry that we carry out in our homes, in our neighborhoods, at our workplaces, in our classes, in the community, in our church.

We are Ambassadors for Christ.  It is a daunting calling.  But while it may not be easy, at the root of it all, it is fairly simple.  It is about love.  Amen.

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