God’s Call to Reconciliation and “The Living Years”
March 7, 2012 -- 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
That’s quite a song, isn’t it? Mike Rutherford of Mike and the Mechanics wrote The Living Years about his relationship with his father after his father died. It’s a powerful song of regret, a warning of chances not taken to come to terms with those you love, with some incredibly powerful imagery. It speaks to families, but it also can speak to friends, groups, churches, or even nations.
It is a song that cries out to us of the importance of reconciliation.
During our Wednesday Lenten services, we’re exploring the theme, “Listen, God is Calling!” Each week we’re exploring a different aspect of that call, through the lens of Scripture and in conversation with a pop song from the last 40 years. Last week we looked at God’s call to repentance through the lens of Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror. Today, we listen for God’s call to reconciliation.
Reconciliation is a major theme in both of Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth. Paul’s relationship with the church there is best characterized as complicated. From reading both the books of first and second Corinthians, it sounds as though there was a great deal of conflict both within the church, and between the church and Paul. As a result, much of what Paul had to say to them dealt with the ways in which followers of Christ were to treat each other. In fact, the famous “love chapter,” 1 Cor. 13, which we hear so often at weddings…you know it, “love is patient, love is kind…” and so on…and it ends with the beautiful phrase, “and now these three remain, faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love.” It wasn’t written about marriage. It wasn’t written to be a frilly, nice saying. It was written in response to a church that was having bitter disagreements, a church that was sacrificing relationship on the altar of being right. Paul was telling them to knock it off. Faith in God without love for neighbor becomes self-centered and exclusive. Hope in Christ without love for neighbor loses its grounding in the real life of the here and now. Faith and hope without love results in brokenness.
In The Living Years, we hear the same sort of message. “You say you just don’t see it. He says it’s perfect sense. You just can’t get agreement in this present tense, we all talk a different language talking in defense.” Disagreements happen. People are not going to see eye to eye all the time, because we’ve been created as different people. We have different understandings, and different experiences that we bring to each situation. Sometimes, in the present tense, we’re not going to get agreement. But how do we react when that happens? As the song says, if we react defensively, if we put our guard up, if we decide that we’re going to regard differences of opinion as personal attacks or decide to go on the attack ourselves, it’s as though we begin to speak a completely different language from the other person. We talk past them, or AT them, instead of with them. They become an object, something outside of ourselves to hammer on or to protect ourselves from, rather than a fellow child of God, created like us in God’s image, with worth and value, from whom we may learn, with whom we are part of the body of Christ, and with whom we are called into relationship.
We don’t have to go too far to see examples of this. Yesterday was Super Tuesday in the presidential primary race. Every election cycle, we complain that candidates do too much attacking each other and too little discussing of the important issues, but there we are eating it all up and feeding into it. Look at the many issues regarding sexuality and the church. In response to the 2009 vote regarding the sexuality social statement, the ordaining of GLBTQ clergy, and the blessing of same sex unions, this congregation is to be commended I think in choosing to form a relationship task force, whose purpose is to engage each other and engage the issues not in attack mode, not in defense mode, but with honesty, grace, and compassion. In other places, I have seen far too many examples of objectifying and demonizing the other side, no matter what that side may be. I’ve seen the cutting off of communication, and the cutting out of relationship, rather than healthy, vigorous debate which seeks in love to understand. As a nation, our level of discourse tends to shoot straight to the lowest common denominator. As our song today says, “So we open up a quarrel between the present and the past, we only sacrifice the future, it’s the bitterness that lasts. So don’t give in to fortunes we sometimes see as fate, we may have a new perspective on a different date. And if you don’t give up and don’t give in you may just be okay.” When we allow ourselves to be dragged there, when we allow the tone of our inevitable disagreements to sink to the objectification and demonization we all too often see, we do sacrifice the future. It IS the bitterness that lasts. And in the church we sacrifice our mission, we sacrifice our call, we sacrifice the love and the relationships and in the end we sacrifice the very body of Christ on a cross of our own making. We sacrifice who we are, Christ for the world, on a cross made not of wood but of anger and bitterness, or a cross of silence, or a cross of exclusion.
And so Paul’s message that we hear today in 2 Cor. 5 is the message of reconciliation. It is a message of healing wounds, it is a message of restoring relationships. And it begins with verse 16. “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.” Reconciliation begins with choosing to see our neighbor through the eyes of Christ. To Jesus, you are not a project. To Jesus, you are not an object. You are a person who was created in God’s image. You have worth. You have value. You have dignity. And so does your neighbor. So does your enemy. So does that person you’ve been arguing with. So do intolerant people. So do people who stand for nothing. So do liberals, so do conservatives, so do muslims, pagans, Catholics, atheists, Tea Partiers, Occupiers, people who are gay, people who are straight, legal immigrants who don’t speak English, illegal immigrants who do speak English, people of every color, people of every background, people of every political persuasion, you name the category or the label or the name and THAT PERSON was created in God’s image, and we no longer regard them from simply a human point of view, no longer simply as someone with whom we disagree, no longer simply as a category or as a designation, but as a PERSON through the eyes of the loving and grace-filled God who gave himself for ALL of us.
Martin Luther talked about this in the Small Catechism. I spent some time last month with our 6th grade Confirmation students discussing this. The 8th commandment reads, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” In the original context, it basically meant that we were not to lie in court about someone else. But, as was the case with most of his explanations of the 10 commandments, Martin Luther wasn’t satisfied with saying “well, as long as you don’t do what it says on the surface, you’re doing God’s will.” He saw God’s will for us not as the absence of a negative, but as the presence of a positive. He wrote, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest possible way." What would Washington DC look like with this understanding? Or the unicameral? Or churchwide or synod assembly? How would this transform our congregations, our families, if we took this seriously? How could we transform the world?
God didn’t wait for us to get it right. God didn’t wait for us to see it God’s way. Reconciliation with humankind was SO important to God that God didn’t wait for us to come to God—God came TO US. God came FOR US. Jesus was born, lived, died, and rose FOR YOU. And for all of those other people too. God took the first step. God took the initiative. THAT’S reconciliation—not waiting for the other person to finally come around and see it your way. It’s also not devaluing your own position. Did Jesus’ death on the cross mean that God’s okay with sin? Of course not. God just made the decision that God’s relationship with humankind was SO important that nothing, not even the power of sin and death, was going to get in the way of that relationship.
So then, Paul says, God entrusts US with that same ministry of reconciliation. It becomes OUR job. God has reconciled Godself to us, and we then are called to be reconciled to one another. That doesn’t mean remaining silent, nor does it mean that disagreements aren’t going to happen. “Say it loud, say it clear,” the song tells us. But then it reminds us, “you can listen as well as you hear. It’s too late when we die to admit we don’t see eye to eye.” We are, as Paul tells us, ambassadors for Christ. What is the message the church is sending the world about the kind of God that we worship? What is the message that we are sending about the call to love God and love our neighbor? Are we building walls, or breaking them down? Are we sowing seeds of division, or acting as ambassadors of God’s love for the world and God’s reconciliation with the world? Where is God calling you, calling me, calling us, to the ministry of reconciliation?
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
March 7, 2012