Sunday, October 14, 2018
Scripture: Mark 4:30-32 & 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
Reconciliation is hard work. Once things have broken down, it is tempting to believe that the two sides will never come back together, particularly when there is deep conviction about beliefs.
Derek Black was born to Don and Chloe Black almost three decades ago. His father has devoted his life to white nationalism. His father has been a grand wizard in the Ku Klux Klan, and runs a radio show to send his message out into the world. His father started a website that supports the white nationalist movement and has a disturbingly large number of weekly visits. Don and Chloe raised Derek to be a future leader in the white nationalist movement. By the age of 10, Derek developed a children’s version of his father’s website. His parents pulled him from his diverse public school to educate him at home. Derek celebrated this move, writing, “It is a shame how many White minds are wasted in that system….I am learning pride in myself, my family, and my people.”
Fast forward a decade, and Derek is now attending a small private college. It’s his first exposure to people and thoughts outside of his parents’ system. There were around 800 students at this school, and in a school that size, secrets do not stay hidden for long. His classmates found out about his beliefs and work in the white nationalist movement, and they wanted to force him to go somewhere else. His ideas were not welcome, so neither was he.
Except a few classmates decided that there had to be a better way to address this issue. As one of the few Orthodox Jews on campus, Matthew Stevenson had started organizing weekly Shabbat dinners in his apartment. He would regularly host a small group of students on these Friday nights, and he decided that the best thing to do about Derek being on campus was to invite him to Shabbat dinner. Initially, Derek came but several of the other regulars wanted nothing to do with dinner with Derek. Matthew made up his mind to build bridges with Derek by talking about everything except for Derek’s white nationalist beliefs. Slowly trust was built, and others returned to the dinners.
These dinners started changing how Derek viewed those he’d so readily been denouncing on his father’s radio show and on the web. Including him caused him to change. Eventually Derek started speaking out against white nationalism. He denounced his family’s racist beliefs. Recently I heard him reflecting on these dinners when Terry Gross interviewed Derek on Fresh Air. He was finally able to empathize with those who were different from him. In his words,
“I think I didn’t realize how much it hurt my friends at school to be inviting me to their Shabbat dinners and to be arguing with me and to be reading about and thinking about the white nationalist world that hurt them and trying to be my friend and trying to help me. But then I would leave the room, and they would say, this is making our lives worse; why are we doing this, and having to come to the conclusion that it’s because we’re Derek’s friends and we have to do this.
And I never saw those conversations. I would come to dinner and have a pleasant conversation about everything except white nationalism, and then I would go home. And then they would have to sit and bask in what was going on around them and feel vulnerable and feel threatened and feel like they had to put themselves out there again next week when I came over again and that maybe I would never change.”
But he did change. These simple Shabbat meals led to reconciliation. It was hard work. I have no doubt that Matthew and the other students who opened their lives up to Derek really wrestled with their choice to do so. But it led to Derek’s transformation. It is a model for how one small but bold choice can make the world a better place. Reconciliation often begins in these small choices each of us has the ability to make.
Reconciliation. That’s at the heart of today’s reading from 2 Corinthians. It was a topic very much on Paul’s mind. Paul had planted this church in Corinth, and it was a mess. After Paul left town, some people came into Corinth and sowed seeds of doubt about the gospel Paul proclaimed. They said he was wrong. They said he wasn’t called to do this. They said he was just after their money and that his motives were impure. Paul had to have been hurting badly to hear such terrible things and that people he loved started to believe them.
Yet Paul believed in reconciliation because he knew that was his story with God. He went from enemy of God to friend because of Jesus. And he frames it all so beautifully, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view” (2 Cor 5:16). Why? Because anyone in Christ is a new creation – the old long gone and the new arrived. Paul continues, “All this is from God, who reconciled the world to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18). The Greek word here is katallage. It means the reestablishment of a broken relationship or to exchange hostility for a friendly relationship. God did this for Paul in Christ. Paul is doing it for the Corinthians because of Christ. Paul spreads this word to any who will listen – because all are in need of the reconciling love of God. Those Shabbat dinners were that same kind of reconciliation – what was needful to bring health to Derek Black and to bring wholeness into the community that was disrupted by Derek’s racism. Reconciliation is one of the most potent things the church has to offer, but sadly it is underutilized. We get satisfied with the status quo. We grow accustomed to the broken relationships, or we just live with the injustices endemic to the system – particularly if we’re not the ones harmed by those.
Friends, God sends us in mission into the world to be reconcilers. Just as God has reconciled us to God and to each other, so too God is calling us to reconcile all things to God. In verse 20 Paul calls us “ambassadors.” We are God’s representatives in the world. We don’t just represent ourselves. We represent God and God’s way in the world. When you walk into a room, you don’t just come as yourself. You come as God’s ambassador into that room. You come as someone sent to live and speak the good news of Jesus Christ.
I love the church, and sometimes the church has learned how to speak faithfully about what it is in the world. During the height of the Civil Rights era in our country, Presbyterians decided that it was time to speak the truth about what God had to say about reconciliation and about the lack of it in the world. So the church produced something now called “The Confession of 1967.” This document is one that makes me proud to call myself a Presbyterian because it so faithfully speaks to reconciliation and the church’s role in it. I’m going to share just a short portion of it this morning because I think it so clearly describes the mission of the church in the midst of a turbulent world. It is a call to us – even today – to be reconcilers in our church, in our community, and in our country. Let’s hear these truthful words now:
To be reconciled to God is to be sent into the world as God’s reconciling community. This community, the church universal, is entrusted with God’s message of reconciliation and shares God’s labor of healing the enmities which separate people from God and from each other. Christ has called the church to this mission and given it the gift of the Holy Spirit. The church maintains continuity with the apostles and with Israel by faithful obedience to God’s call.
The life, death, resurrection, and promised coming of Jesus Christ has set the pattern for the church’s mission. His life as man involves the church in the common life of people. His service to others commits the church to work for every form of human well-being. His suffering makes the church sensitive to all the sufferings of humankind so that it sees the face of Christ in the faces of people in every kind of need. His crucifixion discloses to the church God’s judgment on people’s inhumanity to others and the awful consequences of its own complicity in injustice. In the power of the risen Christ and the hope of his coming, the church sees the promise of God’s renewal of human life in society and of God’s victory over all wrong.
The church follows this pattern in the form of its life and in the method of its action. So to live and serve is to confess Christ as Lord.
So…to live…and serve…is to confess Christ as Lord. Our actions speak very loudly about who we are and what we believe. Do our actions clearly point to God’s reconciling love for the world, or do we look more like those who are happy to find our side of the room and shout down those who disagree with us?
Matthew Stevenson sat at a table with someone whose worldview was evil. It was uncomfortable week after week after week. But that time spent around the table planted seeds in Derek Black’s life that led him to a place of repentance and reconciliation.
Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed. It’s tiny. It is almost imperceptible. But with a little time and a little nurture that tiny seed grows and grows and grows until it provides life and light to all around it. As Christ’s ambassadors, we, too are to quietly and gently spread God’s kingdom into all the broken parts of the world around us. It starts small, but with a little time and a little nurture, the kingdom can break into even the darkest of circumstances around us.
Reconciliation is hard work. But it is holy work. We are Christ’s ambassadors–sent into the world with lives transformed by the work of God and with the ability to do the hard work of reconciliation.
 Confession of 1967, 9.31-33