Thoughts on Reconciliation, on the Eve of July 4

July 3, 2016

Bible Text: Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 |

 

When I was young, I would daydream about being a missionary. It’s not that I was necessarily much of a budding ambassador for Christ; I just wanted to see the world. I was stuck in this small town, and I knew there was a glorious, fabulous world out there and that I belonged in it. And, on top of that, I was raised in the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church. We had a very high view of missions. The rank went something like this: Jesus, missionary, pastor, families with good Christian pedigree, then everyone else. We were in that last category. But – my Lord – missionary could shoot me straight to the top of the heap.

But by the time I was in high school I’d long given up on any thoughts of being a missionary. I discovered that there were far swankier ways to see the world than to end up in some shoddy mission compound in Southeast Asia.  No. I’d begun lamenting that my father wasn’t an ambassador. That would have done very nicely.

But as a young adult I began growing into an adult faith, and I did end up living abroad as a “missionary” of sorts. I moved to Northern Ireland to be a part of a ministry of reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants. And, I tell you, I loved it. I loved living abroad. I loved Ireland and the people I knew and worked with. I believed strongly in the central role that reconciliation plays in the gospel. And I was seriously open to staying and making a life of it there. But then something unexpected happened: I began to sense that God wasn’t actually calling me to ministry in Northern Ireland – that they were doing fine without my assistance.

Instead, this is what I began to hear: Eric, you are an American and your first responsibility is to the country of your birth. If that is where God chose for me to be born and raised, then that should be the default context to which faith calls me to minister. It’s not to say that foreign missions are wrong, should God so call. But the principal field of ministry for any follower of Christ is not some distant, exotic land. It is here, today, in the world you know.

Now, this was difficult for me. Apart from the innate attraction of living abroad, I struggled with being an American. Like a young person who does everything he can to differentiate himself from his parents and family of origin, I wanted to separate myself from all the negative associations of my country.

But as the years have gone by, I increasingly believe that people are people, and nations are nations. Any caricature of a person or country that is either all good or all bad is simply that: a caricature. There are good things about America, and bad things about America, just like any country. And the call to us, as people of faith, is to live out the gospel wherever we are, and to seek the Kingdom of God in our midst. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

The vulnerability of our country, as well as many countries throughout the world and throughout time, is that we’re prone to believing and claiming God’s particular favor – that somehow we’ve been chosen by God as more special and more Christian and more blessed than other countries. Now, that is always a dangerous line of thinking. I can think of no single example of a country claiming divine preference that ends well. Would you believe that Northern Ireland feels the same way about themselves? The Protestants there hold this enchanted view of their heritage that God was creating some kind of New Israel in Ulster, that they were particularly favored by God as the righteous remnant – while the rest of the world looks on and says – Yeah, right! Y’all are a bunch of lunatics killing each other for Jesus!

I don’t believe God loves or favors any country over another, just as God doesn’t favor any person over another. But that isn’t to say that God doesn’t love us particularly, each in our own way. In the novel, The Shack, the “God character” is this fabulous black woman.  Early on in the novel she says of someone, “Ooh, I am particularly fond of so and so.” And she clearly is. But then, as the story continues, you realize that she keeps saying the same thing about every person in the book. And through it all you find yourself agreeing: Yes, God does have a particular love for each of us, but it’s not a love of preference. The love and favor of God is so rich and so profound that it can land distinctly and intimately in each of us, and nobody is overlooked in the heart of God.

And so it is, I believe, among nations. God can love America in its distinct way, but never in such a way as to give it privilege or rank above another country. Tomorrow is July 4, the day we celebrate everything American. So go ahead, wear red, white, and blue; grill hotdogs and hamburgers; watch the fireworks; and enjoy all that cultural Americana that’s distinctive to us. And get a little weepy-eyed when you hear the Star Spangled Banner and remember those who gave up their life for this country. It is right and fitting to feel an allegiance and pride in your home.

And we have every reason to remember with pride the heritage of our democracy and the freedoms it initiated. America did create something new and wonderful that we inherited. Our constitution was a breakthrough, not only for us, but for much of the world that has since followed our model in one form or another. For over two centuries now we have survived with an extraordinary political stability. The framers of the Constitution had the wisdom that allowed it to mature with time, increasing the breadth of its freedoms and rights to include those who – by cultural blinders – were at first overlooked or abused. And so women and African-Americans and the poor now have the same Constitutional rights as any other American.

But also remember, and respect the fact, that not everyone in this country will have the same perspective you have, because they have not had the same experience that you have had and enjoyed as an American. For our African-American and Native American neighbors, the celebration does not feel the same. The formation of our country created unheard of opportunities for many, but not for those communities. For them, the cost was unimaginably bad, and their ongoing struggle is more than understandable. Although our constitution has been amended towards a greater justice, I believe the soul of our nation – and this includes all of us – is still wounded and suffering from this aspect of our country’s formation.

As Christians our call is to love our nation by living out the gospel with as much integrity as we can. America has a particular heritage and story which means we have the potential to live out a particularly beautiful expression of God’s love and redeeming. Just as I experienced in Northern Ireland, the heart of the gospel is reconciliation. God has reconciled us to himself through love and forgiveness. And so – as followers of Christ – we are called to be agents of reconciliation with one another, wherever there is estrangement: In our families, in our churches, in our communities, in our country. The heart of God is that all would be one, as God is one. And the wisdom and power of God is that this oneness comes through reconciliation.

I can tell you – this is how I am trying to live, in my family and in my relationships. Here in the Harbor, I’ve helped form a group of Gig Harbor pastors – from all stripes of the church – because we recognize that if we are going to be the church in Gig Harbor, with any integrity and shared mission, it must begin with our being in trusting, respectful relationships with each other. I also have a neighbor who is an African American pastor in Bremerton, and we’ve talked about our mutual desire to get to know each other, as neighbors. But I assure you, it is my deep hope that as our neighborly and collegial relationship develops, that we could be part – in our own small way – of healing the racial divide in our country. And when you come to me as your priest, struggling in relationships with other parishioners or within your family, reconciliation will always be my hope and desire for you.

Jesus sent out the seventy disciples to share in his work of ministry. Two by two they entered the towns and villages of Israel and discovered within them the power to do what Jesus was doing. And they were thrilled by what they experienced. Of course they were.

Well we are Jesus’ disciples as well. And we have been sent – not far away to distant lands, but to this land: to our families and neighbors, and to our country. And if the heart of Jesus’ ministry was to bring reconciliation to those who were estranged to God and to one another, then that is our mission as well, and the power of God will be with us when our hearts are set towards God.

So go.  Do not be ruled by fear. These days the airwaves of our nation are filled with angry voices speaking to the worst parts of ourselves. And it is so easy to reply from that wounded place – either agreeing with their fear – or shooting back with our own angry, fear-filled reply. But there is a place in your soul where you’ve never been wounded[1] – a place preserved by God – that longs to hear the melody of Christ whose song has been sung throughout time. It is a song that will always sing of the oneness wrought by seeking the good of the other.

Do not be ruled by fear, but be sent in love, to join with Christ in the healing of our nation. Build no barriers around you, but do what you must do to dismantle whatever walls you have already built, thinking you would be safer in isolation. The gospel of Christ knows no fear, because it knows the power of reconciliation. And when you have tasted it you can share in the most joyful of celebrations, for you shall be free indeed.

I wish you the truest of Independence Days.

 

[1] Meister Eckhart

Sermon Topics: ,