2 Cor. 5:11-21
Our next door neighbors have been married twice. To each other. I do not know why, but they were divorced many years ago. After some years apart, they were reconciled to one another and they re-established their marriage. So, when they go away for an anniversary trip each year, I always ask, “So how many years have you all been married?” And my neighbor always says, “Well, it depends….” For a time they went their separate ways. Then they came back together as one. Anything they had against each other had to be dropped and a new fresh start undertaken when they got re-married.
Bringing people together is God’s business. It is reconciliation. Bringing people together who have been at odds– either for a short time or for generations. Bringing people back to him who have walked away. God’s reason for sending his Son, Jesus Christ, was to reconcile us to him, to bring us back, to re-establish our original relationship, to reconnect us with the source of our life, the Creator. Paul says that this is what God is about: God reconciling the world to himself, re-establishing the relationship by not counting people’s sins against them. Sin had been the barrier, the wall, between God and God’s creation. God reaches out in reconciliation.
Jesus has come and gone. We are left to carry on. We have been trusted with this same message of reconciliation– re-connecting people to God and re-connecting people to one another. We do that by being ambassadors for Christ to others. We represent Christ to the world.
Reverend Allen Boesak and other leaders of South Africa were clear that human reconciliation can only happen when the two parties stand on equal footing. The uneven power between blacks and whites in South Africa is well known. Their attempt to move beyond apartheid has been a long, long struggle, even after the truth and reconciliation commission has done its work. Our newest statement of belief in our Book of Confessions comes from Belhar, South Africa, a statement which describes our role as agents of reconciliation with God. Listen: “We believe … that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.” Ambassadors stand in for someone else. As ambassadors for Christ, we basically stand in for the Lord as agents of reconciliation, as people who re-establish relationships, as people committed to making the footing more even.
Reconciliation is hard work. Our footing is so uneven in this country that it is no wonder we are constantly tripping. Our footing is so uneven in the church of Jesus Christ that it is no wonder that people outside the church can’t figure out what an ambassador for Christ actually does. It will do us well to reflect a bit on our roles as ambassadors for Christ, as agents of reconciliation in our world.
First, let me share with you a story about a group of American Quakers visiting Ramallah, in the West Bank. While they were there, a Muslim family was the target of an Israeli military shooting spree, and had to huddle with their children on the floor of their home until the shooting stopped. When Nadia saw the Americans, she railed at them. “It was your country who provided the bullets and the guns which almost killed my whole family!” She was full of blame and anger toward anyone who represented the US in any way. The group of Quakers chose to represent Christ instead. They collected funds from each participant to give to the family in order to repair the damage to their home. They were not sure the gift would be accepted, and were worried that Nadia might be offended, thinking they were trying to buy her forgiveness. Perhaps she wanted nothing to do with Americans or Christians.
Just before the group left Ramallah, Nadia called to ask if she and her family could thank them in person. After sharing a meal and conversation together, Nadia asked, “Are Quakers Christians?” The members of the group answered “Yes, just not always very good ones!” “I thought so,” Nadia responded, “but I didn’t want to offend you.” She then reached into a bag and handed each one in the group a little Christian token: a Crusader’s Cross, a crucifix made of olive wood from Bethlehem.
A Muslim woman, nearly killed by weaponry supplied by the country of a group of visiting Christians, chose to express her gratitude with Christian souvenirs. A wooden crucifix is not exactly part of the Quaker tradition, but that did not matter. A gift is a gift. Being ambassadors for Christ means being ambassadors for peace, and agents of reconciliation.
Now let’s talk about being ambassadors closer to home. So how are we ambassadors for Christ in the face of the hatred, bigotry, racism and fear that became so terribly visible last weekend in Orlando, Florida? Were the victims targeted because they were Latino immigrants? Or because they were part of the LGBT community? Or because they were happy, simply enjoying life with friends in a safe, comfortable setting? A twisted, angry mind combined with a weapon designed for war is a recipe for death. Again.
We have just passed the one year mark after the devastating shooting in a Charleston church. That rocks us to the core. Churches are safe places. But when hatred spews out combined with a weapon, families are in mourning and a community is shaken. We know they were targeted because they were black. But also because they were church folk? Also because of the long held activism for civil rights on the part of that church in the community?
We live in a world that is intent on labeling, dividing into “us” and “them”, building walls and drawing lines. These divisions are based on sexual identity, race, national origin, religion, or geographical location. All human-made divisions. It makes footing very uneven and it makes reconciliation a very big job. As an ambassador for Christ, what do you say when you are at a family reunion and someone is putting down people who identify as homosexual? Or the neighbors down the street who adhere to the Muslim faith? Or the immigrant family running the corner store? The first step is to speak up. It may not be comfortable, especially if you are in the minority. You know your family, you know your group of friends, you know the opinions that might be voiced, especially in this crazy election year. You can prepare ahead. Think about how you will be an agent for reconciliation instead of a contributor to further division?
Our denomination is working on reconciliation this week at the General Assembly meeting in Portland, OR. (Which, by the way, James and Laurice Parks were unfortunately unable to attend due to illness.) One vote will center around being ambassadors for Christ in relationship with our Native American brothers and sisters. Maybe you did not know that there are 95 Native American Presbyterian congregations in our denomination. If the request to the General Assembly coming from Baltimore is approved this week, each of those congregations will get a letter of apology from the Presbyterian Church USA. That is, an apology for past actions coupled with a desire to be reconciled to one another going forward.
Our denomination was part of great pain and suffering of Native American children and their families through the Indian Boarding School program which began in the late 1800’s. Quoting from the General Assembly document addressed to the Native American congregations: “In our zeal to tell you of the good news of Jesus Christ, our hearts and minds were closed to the value of your spirituality. We did not understand the full extent of the Gospel of Christ! We should have affirmed the commonality between your spirituality and our understanding that God’s sovereignty extends with length from East to West, with breadth from North to South, with depth throughout the Earth, and with height throughout the Sky and Heavens.
Even worse, we arrogantly thought that Western European culture and cultural expressions were necessary parts of the Gospel of Christ. We imposed our civilization as a condition for your accepting the Gospel. We tried to make you be like us and, in so doing, we helped to diminish the Sacred Vision that made you who you are. Thus, we demonstrated that we did not fully understand the Gospel we were trying to preach.
We know that apology is only a first step in the larger hope of repentance and reconciliation. We seek the guidance of relationships with your people within and beyond our church as we seek to identify and act on restorative practices and policies at the relational, communal, and national level.”
We know that arrogance and power and selfishness and greed have repeatedly created uneven footing between people, groups, and communities around the world and right here at home. Some simple steps toward equal footing are: acknowledging the sin which separates, seeking forgiveness, listening to the stories of the other, and creating a path forward together. None of this is easy.
We are dealing with unequal footing in many arenas. Children in Sandtown and children in Ten Hills have very different starting points, different sets of resources, different kinds of outlook on the world, etc. Majority black congregations in our Presbytery do not feel treated equally as majority white congregations. Small rural congregations in our Presbytery do not feel treated equally as congregations located in and around Baltimore. One step forward for our Presbytery is the calling of an African American woman as the next general presbyter. Jackie Taylor comes to us from New Castle Presbytery in Delaware. She will begin her work here in August or September. Hooray!
One step forward for us all is to have our eyes open to words we can use, actions we can take to be agents of reconciliation on any level, to be ambassadors for Christ in all places. May it be so.