Emmanuel Baptist Church
275 State St. Albany, NY 12210
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|A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation||
Minister: Rev. Kathy J. Donley
Entrusted with Reconciliation
Rev. Kathy Donley
Scripture Lesson:2 Corinthians 5:16-19
A few years ago, an online magazine put together a website that it is a collection of six-word memoirs, where famous and not famous people share 6 words about what is significant about their lives. Someone recovering from a break-up wrote, “I still make coffee for two.”
Other examples are:
“I am turning into my mother.”
“Named me Joy, didn’t work out.”
“Never really finished anything, except cake.”
And one just published this week says, “Hope, hanging on a safety pin.”
After that, some preachers tried for 6-word sermons. Miriam, one of the pastors at First Presbyterian, preached at Easter Sunrise a few years back. Her sermon about that first Easter was “Turned out better than we expected.” Which is a sermon some of us might need to hear again just now.
The gospel writers were never challenged to use just a few words. John 3:16 is a good one-sentence summary of the gospel, but still runs about 25 words. If you know it, say it with me please: “For God so loved the world, that God gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him would not perish but have everlasting life.” That’s a good one-sentence summary, but it is not my favorite. My favorite is even shorter. My favorite is just seven words from 2 Corinthians 5:19.
“God was in Christ reconciling the world.”
Seven words, not six, but what a powerful sentence. Let’s focus on just those seven words: “God was in Christ reconciling the world.”
God – the ground of being, the first cause or prime mover, the creator of the universe, the ultimate love energy. Whatever your most expansive understanding of God is, insert that here.
The most expansive definition of God was in Christ. Christ means the anointed one. We understand Christ as a title to refer to Jesus of Nazareth who entered the world as a baby, as vulnerable as any other infant, dependent on human beings for warmth and care and survival. Jesus of Nazareth who lived a human life, a life characterized by healing, teaching, and prayer. His teaching was so revolutionary that he became a scapegoat, a target of religious and civil authorities, to the point that he was executed. And after three days, God raised him from death.
God was in Christ – God (whatever your most expansive understanding of that word is) was inside, embodied in, Jesus of Nazareth, a vulnerable, obedient human being who healed and taught and prayed so hard that he was killed for it.
God was in Christ reconciling the world. Cosmos is actually the Greek word used here. God was in Christ reconciling the cosmos, the universe. There is an epic scale to whatever it is that God is doing.
Reconciling is the what that God is doing. Reconciling is the saving act of re-making the creation into a place of shalom, a universe of deep and pervasive well-being. Outside of the New Testament, the word reconciliation was used to describe the political process of making peace between warring parties. Either side could initiate the process. But Paul says that God is reconciling human beings, God has hammered out the peace agreement with the world.
Swiss theologian Karl Barth said that Jesus did not die for the sake of a good world; he died for the sake of an evil world, a broken world with all its terrorists and thieves and racists and child abusers and fear-mongers and people who enjoy cruelty and those who exploit the vulnerable. And Jesus lived and died for all the supposed good people too, the pillars of the church, good citizens who are indifferent to the needs of the poor, those who voted for any presidential candidate and those who didn’t vote at all, and those who mean well, but who still hurt others in spite of ourselves. For all of these and more, to make peace with a world intent on division, pecking orders, competition, violence and death, Jesus lived and died and was raised. God was in Christ, reconciling the cosmos.
That’s my favorite summary of the gospel, but Paul takes it one step further, when he says that God has entrusted this ministry of reconciliation to us.
Jean got many of us to read this very powerful book, Just Mercy, this fall. Allow me to offer a story from this book, as a parable for today. Bryan Stevenson is criminal defense attorney who represented people on death row in Alabama. Bryan is African-American. A good part of his book is about the battles he fights against racism in our justice system, while also trying to argue his cases and advocate for his clients.
Hear then the parable:
When Bryan pulled into the prison parking lot on his first visit to a prisoner named Avery, he noticed a pickup truck that was completely covered with Old South bumper stickers, Confederate flag decals and other troubling images. Bryan saw these kinds of things every day, but this particular truck was clearly intended to provoke a reaction and seeing it left him feeling shaken.
On entering the prison, he met a correctional officer he had never seen before -- a white man, about 6 feet tall, in his early forties with a military haircut. As Bryan walked toward the lobby of the visitation room, this officer stepped in front of him and blocked his way. He would not let Bryan go any further, until Bryan submitted to a strip-search, which is outrageous and something never required of lawyers. Bryan did not have to comply, but he had driven 2 hours for this visit and did not know when he could come back to see Avery, so he did. Then the guard continued to harass him, requiring extra duplicate paperwork. Then, when he was finally ready to let him into the visitation area, the guard leaned in and lowered his voice,
“Hey man, did you happen to see a truck out in the lot with a lot of bumper stickers, flags and a gun rack?”
When Bryan said yes, the guard said, with obvious hostility, “I want you to know, that’s my truck.”
When Bryan met with Avery, Avery’s first question was “did you bring me a chocolate milkshake?” Avery had serious mental illness that no one had attended to, which was part of Bryan’s concern for him. But his focus on getting a milkshake made it hard for him to assist in his own defense. Bryan apologized and said he hadn’t known to bring a milkshake, but if the prison would let him, he would bring one the next time he came. And he did try, but the prison would not allow it. Every future meeting started with Avery asking for a milkshake and Bryan explaining that he would keep trying.
Bryan did not run into that hostile guard again until the day of Avery’s appeal. That guard had been assigned to transport Avery to court. In the meantime, Bryan had learned from another guard that that officer had a bad reputation among the other officers and usually worked the night shift. Bryan was concerned that Avery might have been mistreated on the three-hour drive to court, but everything seemed in order.
For the next three days, Bryan presented evidence about Avery’s disabilities which included organic brain damage, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Avery had been in care with foster parents who had been later convicted of sexual abuse of foster children. The court heard how Avery had been passed from one unhappy situation to the next, until he was drug-addicted and homeless. Bryan argued that Avery needed treatment not punishment and that the earlier courts had not attended to his disabilities.
About a month later, before any decision had been rendered, Bryan went back to see Avery in prison. He saw that old pick-up truck as he pulled into the lot and was not surprised to find that guard working when he entered the prison. To make things go easier, Bryan said, “I’ll step into the bathroom now, so you can do your search.” The guard said, “That won’t be necessary. I know you’re ok. And I’ve taken care of the paperwork too.”
The guard was acting different, kind of nervous, and that was confusing to Bryan. But he went along with it and moved toward the visitation area. The guard stopped him and said,
“Hey um, I’d like to tell you something. You know I took Avery to court for his hearing and was down there with y’all for all those three days. And I was listening in court. You know, I appreciate what you’re doing. I really do. It was kind of difficult for me to be in that courtroom to hear what y’all was talking about. I came up in foster care too.”
His face softened. “I didn’t think anybody had it as bad as me. They moved me around like I wasn’t wanted nowhere. I had it pretty rough. But listening to what you was saying about Avery made me realize that there were other people who had it as bad as I did. Sitting in that courtroom made me realize how I’m still kind of angry.”
He continued, “That expert doctor you put up said that some of the damage that’s done to kids in those abusive homes is permanent; that kind of made me worry. You think that’s true?”
Bryan said, “Oh I think we can always do better. The bad things that happen to us don’t define us. It’s just important sometimes that people understand where we’re coming from.”
Then Bryan went on, “you know, I really appreciate you saying to me what you said. It means a lot. I really mean that.”
“Well I think you done good, real good,” the guard said. He looked Bryan in the eye and they shook hands. Bryan started to move inside, when the guard grabbed his arm again.
“Oh wait. I’ve got to tell you something else. Listen, I did something I probably wasn’t supposed to do, but I want you to know about it. . . . On the trip back down here after court that last day, I took an exit off the interstate. And well, I took Avery to a Wendy’s and I bought him a chocolate milkshake.”
Finally, Bryan went to meet with Avery, waiting for their opening ritual to begin. When Avery didn’t say anything, he played his part, “Look Avery, I tried to bring you a milkshake, but they wouldn’t --. Avery cut him off. Grinning he said, “Oh I got a milkshake. I’m okay now.”
Bryan is a reconciler. It is his job to seek justice, to make things right for other people. He works in a broken system. In this broken world, he can’t just do his job, he has to deal with people who make it harder, who amp up the injustice that he and his clients are already facing. He took on the indignity of a strip search and being mistreated by the guard in order to get justice for Avery. And in the long process, because somehow he manages to see people with Christ-like eyes, he effected reconciliation between himself and that hateful guard, and reconciliation between the guard and Avery.
Reconciliation has a cost. Always. It was costly for Jesus. It is costly to anyone who has ever chosen to swallow pride, suffer ridicule or physical injury for the sake of love and righteousness. It is costly to forgive, to let go, to refuse to let our wounds define us, to insist that love is stronger than hate.
God was in Christ reconciling the world.
Now we are entrusted with this ministry of reconciliation. What a privilege. What a responsibility. In Christ, we are reconciled to God. In Christ, we practice reconciliation with each other and also with those who understand nothing about reconciliation. It seems that in the next few weeks and months, this capacity may need to be exercised again and again. We are entrusted with this ministry of reconciliation for such a world as this, for such a time as this. Let us pray for the strength to be bearers of hope, part of the inbreaking kingdom of God, a movement for wholeness in a fractured world. Amen.