Reconciliation and “Areas of Growth”

I’m realizing that the only time I ever use this blog is to post the sermons I’ve written. However, I think that these sermons are actually a pretty good summation of some of the larger issues I’ve been contending with here in DC.

This is my most recent sermon, though I actually preached it over a month ago. The day after I preached this, I had a conversation with someone that set in motion a LOT of reflection and processing. The result: I was once again compelled to accept the fact that I am a broken human being.

My sermon, which explored reconciliation with neighbor and with God, became another point of reflection for me. Though I tried to talk about both internal reconciliation (breaking down the walls we create between ourselves and God) and then external reconciliation (breaking down socially constructed walls between ourselves and neighbors), I ended up only including one paragraph that discussed my own process of internal reconciliation. That paragraph was almost exclusively what people wanted to speak about with me later. I would much rather discuss systems of oppression than my personal shortcomings and “areas of growth,” as my supervisor Ashley recently put it.

Admitting my own brokenness is significantly scarier than talking about how God stands with the marginalized. This sermon was an important reminder for me that God’s healing work in me isn’t any less important than God’s healing work in the world. I won’t be an effective instrument of peace in the world if refuse to reflect on my own brokenness and thus move toward reconciliation with God.

Here’s my sermon:

______________________________________

Last spring, a sculpture depicting Jesus as a homeless man sleeping on a bench arrived in the town of Davidson, North Carolina. A blanket envelops him, covering his face and body; only the crucifixion wounds on his bare feet clue us in to his identity. There’s just enough room on the bench for one person to sit next to “homeless Jesus.” According to the rector of this church, it’s now common to see people come, sit, rest their hand on the bronze feet, and pray.

However, not everyone in the community appreciated the arrival. One woman called the police after seeing the sculpture. Upon learning the sculpture’s intended identity, she was offended: “Jesus is not a vagrant,” she explained. “Jesus is not a helpless person who needs our help…We need someone who is capable of meeting our needs, not someone who is also needy.”

One letter to the editor stated: “My complaint is not about the art-worthiness or the meaning behind the sculpture. It is about people driving into our beautiful, reasonably upscale neighborhood and seeing an ugly homeless person sleeping on a park bench…I have stepped over actual homeless people sleeping on a sidewalk in New York City and not been as creeped out as I am walking past this sculpture.”

What was perhaps most striking about “Homeless Jesus” was the inscription from Matthew 25 on the plaque next to it: “I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.”

This affluent, suburban, bubble of a community now has a visual reminder of poverty each time they leave or come home. If you live or work in Washington, DC, you don’t need a sculpture to remind you that many folks slept in the street last night. Take a moment now to imagine a person you pass everyday. Maybe on your commute, maybe outside your office or home. Who do you wonder about? Where were they last night? What were the circumstances that led them there?

Imagine this sculpture of homeless Jesus. Or imagine someone you notice every day. Hold them in your mind as we listen to our first story.

(Matthew 25 : 31-46)…..

“When you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.” The same woman who called the police on “homeless Jesus” said that she would’ve preferred a sculpture of a homeless person with Jesus standing over him, protecting him. This passage flips that image on its head. Jesus doesn’t say he protects the vulnerable and marginalized, he says he is the vulnerable and marginalized. Jesus promises that the closest we can come to a transformative face-to-face encounter with him is to be aligned with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned.

Throughout Epiphany, we’ve been exploring what the kingdom of God looks like. The piece of the kingdom we’re exploring today is reconciliation. This is a loaded word, which means we probably have as many definitions as there are people in this room. I asked two friends who have served as Young Adult Volunteers in Belfast, Northern Ireland what this word stirs within them. They explained that reconciliation work has two components: breaking down the walls we create internally that separate us from God, and breaking down the external walls we’ve inherited through structural inequities that separate us from our neighbors. Internal walls that separate us from God and external walls that separate us from neighbors.

The sheep were doing reconciling work on the external barriers that separated themselves from others. When they gave food to the hungry, a drink to the thirsty, when they were hospitable, clothed the naked and visited the imprisoned, they were participating in the reconciling work of the kingdom. Jesus tells us that reconciliation with neighbor is reconciliation with God.

Now, what are the internal walls that we create that separate us from God? Let’s listen to the second story.

(Luke 16 : 19-31)…

Like our first story, the story of the rich man and Lazarus also touches on external reconciliation with neighbor. However, Rob Bell, a Christian writer, understands this story as one about a rich man clinging to pride, status, and ego. The rich man asks Abraham to order Lazarus to get him some water, because “he’s suffering in this fire.” Abraham tells the rich man there’s a great chasm that can’t be crossed. The chasm isn’t necessarily spatial, like heaven above us with hell below. The chasm is in the rich man’s heart. It isn’t enough that the rich man totally ignored the abject suffering Lazarus endured in life, but now even in death the rich man continues to cling to socially constructed hierarchies. Often in our tradition we speak about how new life emerges from death. The rich man has not undergone any such transformation: “He’s unable to let go of the world he’s constructed, which puts him on the top and Lazarus on the bottom…He’s alive in death, but in profound torment, because he’s living with the realities of not properly dying the kind of death that actually leads a person into the only kind of life that’s worth living.”

Internal reconciliation requires a fearless and honest look at your character defects. This past summer, I conducted a moral inventory of myself. This entailed uncovering the fears and insecurities I clung to that ultimately separated me from God. However, it was a perceived separation because God was present the whole time. I thought I was isolated, but looking more closely helped me discover that the walls that separated me from God were of my own creation. Internal reconciliation is possible when I identify the barriers I’ve created in myself and deconstruct them. Exposing the source of many of my fears, I could begin the process of accepting God’s grace extended to me, waiting until the moment I was ready to accept that grace.

How does reconciliation relate to the kingdom of God? Jesus has a lot to say about what the kingdom of God is like. It may be helpful to take a moment to address what the kingdom might not be like. Our two stories today bring up images of the afterlife. However, our popular conceptions of heaven and hell may not be as biblical as we believe. The word that gets translated as “hell” is used roughly twelve times in the New Testament. In Greek, this word is “Gehenna,” which means the “Valley of Himmom.”

This valley is an actual literal place on the south and west side of Jerusalem. Gehenna was the city dump; people tossed their garbage, waste, and often dead bodies into this valley. There was a constantly burning fire in Gehenna that consumed everything. When Jesus spoke about eternal punishment in “hell,” he was talking about Gehenna. The goats we heard about in the first story were told that they would suffer in unending fire, or eternal punishment. However, some theologians contend that the phrase “eternal punishment” in this story may not be the most accurate way to translate that Greek sentence. A closer translation is actually “an age of pruning,” which would suggest eventual salvation for the goats. The rich man, on the other hand, appears to be in Sheol, which in Judaism is the place of the dead. It’s the common grave of all humans, both righteous and unrighteous.

Similarly, our ideas about heaven being a marble and glowing city after we die isn’t particularly biblical either. When Jesus talked about heaven, he often talked about it in terms of the kingdom. He described the kingdom as if it were at hand, now, among us, upon us, and within us. He invites us to experience this broken, beautiful world, to experience the life of heaven and the kingdom of God now. When Jesus talked about heaven, he was talking about our present, intense, and real experiences of joy, peace, and love in this life. Heaven wasn’t just for someday; Jesus described it as a present reality. That means that when we identify with, when we align ourselves with, and are in relationship with “the least of these,” we participate in bringing forth the kingdom. Jesus believes that heaven is here and now and it’s through our reconciling work that we participate in bringing God’s kingdom to earth.

Heavenly work is dying to my crappy ways to accept God’s grace. Heaven is reconnection with neighbor. We can reconcile with God by breaking down the walls that separate us from our neighbors and the walls we construct within ourselves. In ourselves, we find God. In our neighbors, we find God. What do you need to be reconciled to?

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