Sermon: “True Reconciliation”

Romans 4:23-5:11

Accountants like Jackie and Joe talk about reconciling numbers, making sure that the numbers are in agreement with one another.  At times we discover that we have to simply reconcile ourselves with a situation or an idea that we don’t like, making peace with it, accepting it.  But this morning I invite you to explore with me a different kind of reconciliation.   Reconciliation that the apostle Paul describes, reconciliation which is being put into friendship with another.  He is a deep and sometimes confusing theologian, and his letter to the Romans is especially so.  He is trying to get across to a gentile community the essence of God’s grace offered in Jesus Christ.  It is a totally new concept and Paul uses many chapters to try to explain and teach about what it means to be a recipient of God’s grace. Our text for this morning is part of his argument.  He says that Jesus died for humans even while we were in a state of separation from God.  God did not wait until we had it all together and then reach out to us.  I guess God would still be waiting…  It is like the message from last week—it is God who initiated love toward us first.  God makes the first move in a relationship that basically has a wall between humans and God, a wall of sin.  God breaks down the wall with Jesus Christ and turns us into friends instead of enemies.  That is what Paul means by reconciliation—being made a friend of God.  We are reconciled to God through the events on calvary on Good Friday.  Since we are reconciled, we are in a position to be recipients of salvation through the resurrection on Sunday. Being a friend of God has long term benefits.

There is a great song that perhaps you have heard or sung before:   I am a friend of God.  Israel Houghton and New Breed.   Houghton repeats the simple message again and again:  I am a friend of God.  God calls me friend.  He is amazed that God loves him so much that God calls him friend.  God calls us friend.  I think this is Paul’s amazement as well.  Even when we least expected it, even when we never deserved it, Paul says, even when we were enemies of God, God made us friends.   That is amazing.  Paul acknowledges that you might be willing to die on behalf of a good person, but not too likely.  How wild is it to think that someone would die for sinners?  How wild is it to think that even when we feel far away from God, it continues to be God’s intention to restore our relationship, to call us friend, to be reconciled, reconnected, to set things right between us.

God is all about reconciliation.  I would call God the great Reconciler.  Reconciliation with humans is God’s goal in sending his son, Jesus Christ.  It follows that we, being reconciled to God, are all about reconciliation as well.  Wall breaking, friend making, restoring, setting things right.  Our presbytery has as its stated purpose:  to encourage, challenge and equip our congregations to thrive spiritually and be apostles for reconciliation.  Apostles are sent messengers, carrying a message from someone else.  In our case, we are sent by God to bring the message of reconciliation to the world.  That can take many shapes and forms.  And it seems we need to start right here at home.  It is a tall order.  True reconciliation is hard work.  Remember the Truth and Reconciliation commission in South Africa which worked to bring blacks and whites together after so much pain?

True reconciliation was the impetus for the first mothers’ day.  After the Civil War, Anna Jarvis decided to do something about the feelings of distrust and hatred which did not just disappear when the fighting ended.  She lived in West Virginia, where some mothers had had sons on either side of the war, where families in the community had aligned with the south or with the north and now had to figure out how to live together as a community again.  So Anna Jarvis called women together for a Mother’s Friendship Day in 1868, a day to gather in recognition that all were grieving losses and to offer support and healing to one another as mothers.  Calling mothers together for peace was the beginning of Mother’s Day almost 150 years ago.  It was a day for the beginning of reconciliation.

Reconciled with God, let us be agents of reconciliation, apostles of reconciliation, if you will.  Indeed, the need for the ongoing work of reconciliation has not stopped, has it?   About 100 years after the first mothers’ friendship day, Howard Thurman, a black theologian and religious leader, spoke about the hard work of reconciliation.  He cautioned our country to be aware of the heavy lifting that would begin once the walls of division were down.  When walls that divide us are destroyed, then the hard work begins of really creating a just community, and the insistence that new walls will not be built.  That is the hard work of reconciliation.

I want to tell you about the Collins Avenue Streamside Community.  I am not sure how well you know the Irvington neighborhood, but Collins Avenue runs into Frederick Rd. from the north and then picks up again on the other side of the block into a one block section of the street that is a dead end nestled up against a stream and lots of trees.  It is home to an intentional community of people who have chosen to live in Irvington to live and work alongside neighbors in an area of concentrated poverty and all of the struggles that come with it.  Families have purposefully moved into this struggling neighborhood to raise their children.  They have worked to support new families repairing and moving into houses long empty.  With the renewed earnest conversations about what we can do to address the systemic injustice in this city, the Collins Avenue Streamside Community offers an idea to the rest of us who are looking for a way to work for justice in Baltimore.  Community members are inviting anyone to a conversation on their block later this month.  They say:  “One simple way to work for justice is to commit to live for the long term in one of the city communities where poverty is concentrated. Raise your family there. Be a neighbor in all the small and large meanings of that word, to the children and families around you… Honor and nurture the gifts of the youth that are far too often ignored or denied. Learn from your neighbors and be blessed by their strength and compassion…..Wrestle with the complexities of relating respectfully, truthfully, and with humility across potential differences of race and class and seek to reconcile across those divides.”     Nurturing.  Reconciling.  These words keep coming up this morning.

This is a bold form of reconciliation.  The Streamside Community members call it simple, but it brings many challenges.   Surely reconciliation is always bold.  God’s move to reconcile us with him was definitely a bold, amazing, knock you off your feet type of action.  There are other reconciliation models around us.  Restorative justice provides an alternative system of justice to our deeply entrenched Western criminal justice system.  The promoters of restorative justice are pulling on ancient communal ways of dealing with harm inflicted on individuals or a community—and seeking to allow all affected by the harmful action to be agents of reconciliation.  No one can unwind the clock and undo a harmful action.  Rather than seeking to give the offender the punishment she deserves, restorative justice takes into account the victim, the offender and the impacted community, recognizing that they each need something in order to put things right.  It works not only to address the harm done, but also to address the causes of that harm.  Restorative justice looks at the whole picture, evaluating the harm done and the resulting needs of all involved, recognizing the obligation and responsibility of the offender to repair the harm, and pulling all stakeholders together to work on justice that restores instead of tears down individuals and communities.

It is hard work!  Restorative justice practices are followed by a group in Baltimore called the Community Conferencing Center, located just a couple of blocks north of North Avenue.  They use the community conference practice in a variety of settings—schools, neighborhoods, with recently released prisoners, after minor crimes, after serious crimes, and in the workplace.  A community conference can work like this:  First the offender speaks.  Then the offender’s supporters talk about how they have been impacted.  Then the victim (either an individual or community members) speaks.  And then the supporters of the victim speak.  Then members of the community which surround the offender and the victim speak.  The emotions will be high, tension palpable, disappointment and pain pour out.  But as people talk with one another a way will emerge to bring justice to those involved, to set things right.  Imagine how this might work with the recent rioting.  What if the looters were sitting in the same room with their parents, their teachers, the store owners whose stores were damaged, the store employees and the neighbors who live next door to the store.  What if as a group they worked on how to set things right?  What if together they figured out how to be reconciled in a way that addresses the needs of all in the room?  Surely the results would be vastly different than sending a teenager to juvenile detention.  For the entire community.

Paul’s argument is that we have been set right with God because of the death of Jesus Christ.  And that leads to peace with God.  Humans and God reconciled.  Brought back together.  Restored.  It is amazing.  Amazing indeed.  Amen.

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