Faithful Presence – Reconciliation
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This morning as we continue our series on what it means for us to be a faithful presence in the church and community we are talking about reconciliation. Every week in your bulletin there is a guide to prayer and study with daily readings, thoughts, and prayers that all tie back into our message and this week especially I would encourage you to take a look at them during the week because forgiveness, reconciliation, is something that we all have to continually seek.
It was five years ago, in Ferguson, Missouri, that Michael Brown, a black teenager, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. After the shooting, Michael Brown’s dead body was left in the middle of the street for four hours and protests quickly and justifiable emerged. People wanted to know why this teenager had been shot and killed, why his body was left exposed in the street. In response, the police gathered in a way that didn’t appear like they were protecting or serving. Crowd control was enforced with military equipment and tear gas. Those initial protests lingered for a little over a week, expressing years of black frustration at systemic racism and racial profiling.
It was four months later that the white district attorney announced that there would be no indictment or further investigation into the shooting that Ferguson erupted.
Protests were lunched all over the community. Vandalism and and violence spread too with multiple fires set throughout downtown Ferguson.
The murder Michael Brown was just one more spark that landed on the gas of generations of systemic racism and white privilege. The fury and rage of racial injected erupted in Ferguson for all to see.
It must be said that the death of Michael Brown, as awful and unnecessary as it was, helped to birth a new awareness in white folks of the systemic privilege and power that we have. Many things have changed, and yet, in Missouri, black drivers are twice as likely as white drivers to be pulled over, and in Ferguson if you are driving while black you are more likely to be pulled over now than you were five years ago.
We are oddly used to stories like this aren’t we?
As much as this is evil and wrong, this is also simply the way things are.
In Iowa, even though the crime rate of black and white persons are about the same, black Iowans are ten more times likely to go to prison than white Iowans.
These stories and statistics make the news, but what rarely, if ever makes the news are the stories of kindness and reconciliation that unfolded in Ferguson even in the midst of the protests and anger.
Five years ago, a family grilled hot dogs for both police and protestors. A group of women carried milk jugs with them to treat tear-gas injuries. Neighbors lined up around their neighborhood stores to keep them from being vandalized, and to clean the stores that had been.
People helped one another, they worked together, and as they did, they began to understand one another because they were talking with each other and not at each other.
It is easy to stir up anger and antagonism – but hate will only take us so far. Laws can be passed, policies can be change, but as theologian Willie Jennings said, putting a camera on a police officer is just a few steps away from, “a reality television video game, complete with a weapon and a target.”
Unless we move forward, with true reconciliation, racism will continue unchecked, just below the surface of our hearts and minds.
If we talk about reconciliation, forgiveness, and seeking restored relationships with one another in church, we have to talk about racism, because no hour in America is more segregated than this one.
In 1794, Richard Allen founded the first black denomination in the United States, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Allen was born a slave and 1760, and when he was born, he was the property of Benjamin Chew. As a child his family was sold to Stokeley Sturgis, but they had some financial difficulties so he sold Richard’s mother and two of his siblings. Let with an older brother and sister, as slaves, they began to attend a Methodist church.
The pastor, Freeborn Garrettson, who freed his slaves in 1775, began to preach in Delaware, where Allen was enslaved. Surges was so moved by a sermon that Garrettson preached that he came to see slavery as sinful, he was so convicted and moved by the sermon that he offered his slaves the chance to buy their freedom.
Let that sink in for a moment – a slave owner realized how sinful and wrong slavery is, so he gave his slaves a chance to eventually buy their freedom. Good thing none of us think something is sinful and wrong but still find ways to participate in evil and injustice.
It took five years for Richard Allen to buy his freedom from a slave owner that though slavery was sinful.
Allen became a preacher in the Methodist church, at the first meeting he attended as a pastor, he was told that he could not vote on any matters that we being discussed. He began to work at a Church in Philadelphia, but was restricted to only participating in the earlier and smaller service. As more black congregants came to the church, Allen was told that they would have to meet somewhere besides the sanctuary.
Slowly and surly, Allen was forced from the Methodist church, because our spiritual ancestors forced him out.
Predominately black churches in the United States weren’t stared as segregated, they were forced to be. The church, the place that we should find grace and peace, has too often failed to offer either.
We may have not started the fire of racism, but we can’t stand by the flames and act as if it’s not our job to help put them out.
This morning we are talking about forgiveness, about reconciliation with one another and with God, and while Ferguson is a story of systemic evil and injustice, it’s also a reminder that all forgiveness is personal. Reconciliation is never in the abstract, it is always deeply personal.
We all weep for the broken relationships that manifest themselves in our neighborhoods, cities, and families. We hunger for the love of restored and reconciled relationships and throughout the Bible it’s written, over and over again, that God is working to reconcile all things, to heal and repair everything. As the church, and as followers of Jesus, we should be a people of reconciliation.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes, “So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived! All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to [God] through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation. In other words, God was reconciling the world to [God] through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. [God] has trusted us with this message of reconciliation.”
So how do we actually share this message? How do we live into the restored and reconciled peace that God wants for us and needs for the world?
In our reading this morning, Jesus gives us some practical advice on how to move forward towards reconciliation with one another.
Now, as we talk about forgiveness, let’s remember this – forgiveness is not an explanation. An explanation is often nothing more than a justification, and while we may have our reasons, an explanation exerts control, while true forgiveness is found in letting go.
Next, we have to remember that forgiveness is not the same as forgetting. Forgiveness is letting go, but it’s not erasing anything from our minds. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer says, “To forgive and forget means to throw away [a] dearly bought experience.”
Confusing forgiving with forgetting sets us up in a spiritual trap where we assume that wrongdoings not only can be, but must be, forgotten. And yet it is only when we confront what has happened and fit it into the whole of our lives and our community that atonement can occur and forgiveness comes into fruition. Forgiveness is found in remembrance and reconciliation.
Next, we have to remember that there is no such thing as unconditional forgiveness. We are human and everything that we have is conditional. We are not God and it’s idolatry to assume that we can do something that only God can do.
And finally, our understanding of forgiveness must include an understanding of responsibility. Forgiveness does not remove from us or others the responsibility that we have for our actions. If we try to ignore the consequences of irresponsible actions by claiming or asking for unconditional forgiveness then forgiveness loses any significance and becomes apathy, not caring. So let’s look at what Jesus says about how we can seek forgiveness with one another and find reconciliation.
Jesus says, “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together.”
Let’s recognize the genius of what Jesus says – if someone wrongs you, if you have been sinned against, if someone acts in a way that separates you from one another or from God, let them know.
How many times does our anger and frustration towards one another grow because we’re too afraid of bringing it up?
Now, I don’t think we have to bring up every assumed slight with one another, because some of the things that we get angry with one another about, just frankly aren’t worth it. That’s the difference between a sin and an annoyance.
But what is consistent for Jesus, when it comes to how we treat one another, is that we have to be open and honest with one another.
Jesus goes on to say, “If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister. But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses.”
When it comes to forgiveness and reconciliation, Jesus tells us, start with yourself – go to the person that has sinned against you and let them know. If they listen to you, if they make amends, you have won them over, but if they don’t listen, if they refuse to acknowledge what they’ve done, bring one or two people with you so that they can help.
Jesus continues, “But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector.”
You see how the circle of support and accountability gets bigger and bigger, right? And the thing is, this circle of support and accountability isn’t just for the person that was wronged, it’s for the wrongdoer too.
I have to believe that we want to make amends, that none of us deep down want to wrong or sin against one another. What Jesus tells us is that we can’t forgive or be forgiven outside of a relationship. We are in this together, with one another, and as a church.
It would be great if forgiveness was that easy.
But let’s be honest, as much as we can follow this simple, necessary, and practical advice of Jesus, of being honest and open with one another, of supporting and caring for one another, and extending our accountability to the community, forgiveness is not something that we can simply do on our own.
Forgiveness is given – not just to others but for ourselves.
I am not really sure we ever choose to forgive, it’s always a gift that we receive.
The poet Buddy Wakefield says that forgiveness is the release of all hope for a better past.
But we are a people of hope.
So how do we open ourselves up to this gift of forgiveness?
It starts by following Jesus’ advice, we work things out with one another, and if that doesn’t work, then we rely more and more on each other for accountability and support. But we all know that forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting.
We can think that we’ve reconciled ourselves to one another, that we’ve moved on, and yet we can still feel a wound even if it has scarred over and healed.
In the AA big book it’s written that, “Resentment is the ‘number one” offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else.” It goes on to say, “From [resentment] stems all forms of spiritual disease”. Resentment is poisonous because it traps us in the pains of our past. The problem with resentment is that it does nothing to change the person we resent and it doesn’t get rid of the conflict either.
Jesus says blessed are the peacemakers because God knows that the peace of mind that we will have in our lives is equal to the peace of mind that we bring into the lives of others.
We have to be peacemakers, we have to live into reconciliation, and to do that, we have to find a way past our past and everything that brings resentment into our minds.
We can’t just command ourselves to get past something, that’s part of the struggle, so here are a few practices that you can try if you are struggling with resentment.
Pray for them. And if you are not sure how to pray for someone that you resent, try this – think about how you would pray for yourself or one of your friends. Pray for someone you love, and then say that same prayer over again only this tune pray for the person you are angry with. When we can pray and hope for goodness for them, we can find freedom for ourselves.
Another way to deal with resentment is to write about it. Describe, in detail, what has offered you. Resentment often seems huge and powerful in our heads, but once it’s written down down on paper, the things we resent can seem small, sometimes even insignificant. There can be things that we feel completely justified and reasonable that we are holding against one another, and when it’s just in our heads, it’s easy to stay trapped in resentment.
And once you’ve written about your resentment, ask yourself, did I do anything to cause this situation or to make it worse?
I hate to break it to you, but none of us are perfect, and if were honest with ourselves, we can admit that more often than not we had a part to play.
Let’s go back to where we started this morning, in Ferguson. Some of you might think that personal reconciliation is too small of a step to take to make an impact on the systemic injustices and evils of our day. And while it might be a small step, it is still a step we need to take. There are organizational and governmental strategies that have their place, but our efforts for reconciliation must be shaped by the face to face, person to person, presence that Jesus teaches us in Matthew 18. Injustice can too easily be justified by an ideology that enables the privileged to point to the injustice, make a minor change, take control of it, and move on with little to no difference actually taking place.
Even if we are not individually responsible for systemic evils, we are personally responsible to one another.
Rev. F. Willis Johnson is a United Methodist Pastor in Ferguson and a friend. He is a pastor at Wellspring Church and most Sunday mornings before the services get started, Willis goes for a run. Almost every Sunday he runs to where Michael Brown was shot, and he says a prayer.
He says, ““I run to the place where a relationship was ruptured to be reminded that such relationships can be redeemed. I go to a place of pain and hurt to be reminded that is the point at which forgiveness is initiated. That is what happened at Calvary.”
In the book, How Can I help, Stories and Reflections on Service, Ram Dass and Paul Gorman write about a hospital clown that volunteers with terminally ill children and burn victims. As you can imagine, it’s a little tricky. Children in hospitals can already be on edge and then a clown shows up, and not just at Halloween either.
The volunteer said, “Burnt skin or bald heads on little kids – what do you do? I guess you just face it. When the kids are really hurting so bad, and so afraid, and probably dying, and everybody’s heart is breaking. Face it and see what happens after that, see what to do next. I got the idea of traveling with popcorn. When a kid is crying, I dap up the tears with the popcorn and pop it into my mouth or [theirs]. We sit around together and eat the tears.”
Sometimes that’s all we can do. And yet somehow, when we sit together and eat the tears, healing and forgiveness can be found.
Forgiveness and reconciliation isn’t a theory, it’s a way of life. So may you live into this gift of grace and be a faithful presence where God’s love is found and shared. Amen.
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October 21-26, 2019
Read – Psalm 32:1-7, Luke 18:9-14
Notice – Forgiveness starts with honesty. It can be hard to be honest with others, and even harder to be honest with ourselves when we need to ask for forgiveness. Many of us are experts are rationalizing our faults and failures. The Psalmist writes about trying to stay silent, what happened to them? Has that every happened to you? How can Jesus’ image of God’s forgiveness and love for the outcast tax collector help you see more clearly how God values you? How can God’s love and grace help you maintain a healthy sense of spiritual need without sinking into a sense of contempt, either for others or for yourself?
Pray – Jesus, show mercy to me, a sinner. Forgive me and grow me beyond both the sin of contempt for others and the sin of self-contempt. Let me live in the atmosphere of your forgiving grace. Amen.
Read – Matthew 18:21-35, Ephesians 4:31-32
Notice – Jesus’ story made the debt owed to the king absurdly large— it is as if Jesus said the man owed “a gazillion dollars.” Was Jesus right in his picture of the debt we owe God, to show us how badly we need a Savior? Scholar Craig Keener notes, “Seventy times seven… does not really mean exactly 490 here; it is a typically graphic Jewish way of saying ‘Never hold grudges.’” How can taking in God’s vast forgiveness transform you over time to be able to forgive others as God forgives you? What would it look like this week to put aside all bitterness so that you could be kind, compassionate and forgiving in the same way God forgives us in Christ?
Pray – Jesus, you gave up so much to reach me with your forgiveness. Help me to accept and value that gift, and to be more forgiving toward myself and others in my life. Amen.
Read –Isaiah 55:6-8
Notice – Isaiah 55 observed that God’s wonderfully merciful ways are very different from our natural patterns. How does Isaiah’s picture of the gap between God’s mercy and our ways of relating speak to your heart? Are there persons (or groups of people) to whom you do not want to show mercy? Are you convinced that God’s ways are indeed different from, and higher than, ours?
Pray – God, I offer my life to your re-shaping hand, because your forgiving way of life is the best way of life. Amen.
Read – Luke 23:34, 47
Notice – Jesus’ friends and his nation betrayed him, a Roman officer could see his innocence but still approved his crucifixion (cf. John 19:4-6). Jesus felt a deep sense of separation from God as well(cf. Matthew 27:46). Yet on the cross, Jesus did what might seem impossible—he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” Too many Christians just ignore injustices that aren’t personal. Jesus rebuked very pious people in his day for carefully giving a tenth of even tiny herbs like mint “while neglecting justice and love for God” (Luke 11:42). In what ways each day, in regular or volunteer activities, could you bring about greater justice? Are you willing to consistently make justice a priority?
Pray – Compassionate Christ, you suffered so much, yet prayed, “Father, forgive them…” As you forge a new identity in me, may I see myself and others through your eyes, and forgive as you forgave. Amen.
Read – Luke 15:17-24, Romans 5:6-11
Notice – In Jesus’ day, patriarchs did NOT run—it was unseemly. But as the long-absent son in Jesus’ story took the road home, his father ran to greet him. Jesus said God is thrilled when you turn toward home. Scholar N. T. Wright said it was vital that Jesus was God: “When we look at Jesus, the Messiah, we are looking at the one who embodies God’s own love, God’s love-in-action. Look at [Romans 5,] verse 8. What Paul says here makes no sense unless Jesus, in his life and death, was the very incarnation, the ‘enfleshment’ (that’s what ‘incarnation’ means) of the living, loving God. After all, it doesn’t make sense if I say to you, ‘I see you’re in a real mess! Now, I love you so much that I’m going to… send someone else to help you out of it.’ If the death of the Messiah shows how much God loves us, that can only be because the Messiah is the fully human being (how much more human can you get than being crucified?) in whom the living God is fully present.”
Pray – God, I want to keep turning back toward home. And I rejoice to know that you are always eager to welcome me, even when I’ve wandered. Amen.
Read – Galatians 5:22-26, 1 Corinthians 13:1-8, 13
Notice – Reflect on the qualities Paul listed in today’s two passages. Which of them most appeal to you, and seem to come most naturally? In which, if any, of your day-to-day relationships are you able to readily and easily live out most of the things Paul listed? In which relationships is it a struggle to show these qualities, even with gritted teeth?
Pray – Holy Spirit, plant your fruit in my heart, and teach me how to be good soil in which that fruit can flourish. Let me be a person who gifts others with love, joy and peace. Amen.