How can we talk about reconciliation in a culture of mass shootings and hatred? This sermon tries to deal with this question as it brings 2 Corinthians 5:11-21 into conversation with the violence and divisions our country experiences every day.
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It’s been a crazy week.
We’ve all watched in horror as the news media has replayed the events of last Saturday night again and again. A man walks into a nightclub, starts shooting, and 50 people are dead and just as many injured.
It’s been a crazy week, because, while we have been processing this national event that brings shock and fear, we have also been doing Vacation Bible School.
In the midst of all this pain in the big picture, we’ve been telling children how much God loves them, that God knows them, and hears them, and strengthens them, and sends them out to share God’s love with others.
And then we send them out into a world where a gunman can walk into a nightclub, into an elementary school, a high school, a movie theater, a church…and people die.
We live in a country where there have been 136 mass shootings in the first five months of 2016.
We are shocked by this because we live in the United States and things like this aren’t supposed to happen here. But, we live in a bigger world where, in some countries, people walk into the market every day and wonder if this is the day a bomb will go off, or the neighboring faction is going to invade my village.
This is reality.
I recently had a conversation with a police officer.
It was a conversation like I have had with many officers over the years. I’ve had it with my own brother-in-law many times. He is a detective in the vice squad.
All of these officers tell me the same thing. They are trained to enter into every situation and the first thing they do is to assess the threat. They spend every day of their job dealing with the darkness of humanity. They are painfully aware of how much violence one person can bring onto another person or group of people.
The rest of us get to live our lives in a sense of denial because of these brave officers. We get the luxury of walking around as if everything is fine.
Then we have another week like this one and the happy bubble is burst again.
What does this do to you?
If you’re like me, it messes you up inside. It makes me sick. It produces fear and anxiety. It makes me ask deep theological questions, like why does God continue to allow this violence? How can find peace?
It makes me very thankful for the police officers who go out there every day and risk their lives so that I can live in my little bubble of denial.
So, the conversation with the police officer continues.
We inevitably get to the part where we mark the stark contrast in our two lines of work.
The police officer is trained to expect the darkness. Their job is to think worst-case-scenario and to prevent it from happening. They protect and serve.
I, on the other hand, am called to proclaim the Gospel.
I am called to hold up a candle in the darkness and announce that God has defeated Sin and Death through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I am called to open up a passage like our text for today in 2 Corinthians 5 and read these ancient words. They declare that we no longer see each other in a human perspective. That God has called us to a ministry of reconciliation. That God makes all things new.
And then I look around. I turn on the TV and see the political pundits driving the dividing wedge deeper among us.
I see the Orlando shooting which stirs up the ongoing battles and divisions about the LGBTQ community, the Islamic community, gun control, immigration…and the hatred and violence and division swirls around me, and I am overwhelmed.
And it makes it seem like the Gospel is just a cartoon, like this VBS set. Like it is just a Pollyanna wishful thinking where we sugar-coat the harsh reality of life.
How can I hold up a candle to this?
I don’t even have to look at the National or World News to be overwhelmed by this.
I know that I can’t do much to change the whole world. Yet, when I look at my own family and my friends and see the deep lines of hurt and division that go way back and I see the pain in people’s eyes.
And I wonder.
The Apostle Paul says here in 2 Corinthians 5:18 that God has given us a ministry of reconciliation. Really? What does that even mean?
To be reconciled is when two parties, who were once unified, but have fallen out, come back together and find their common ground again. Reconciliation takes hard work on both sides. It requires that both parties admit their own guilt, confess their guilt, turn away from their offenses, seek forgiveness, and work toward the common good of all parties.
Reconciliation is hard work.
It requires letting your guard down and trusting the person who has been hurting you. It requires being vulnerable. It requires risk. Risk means being willing to lose something.
The bigger the stakes, the bigger the risk, the bigger the loss.
And so, we watch a world that is not willing to do the hard work of reconciling and we continue generation after generation of hatred, violence, and death.
How do I hold a candle up to this? How do I join in Paul’s words and say that we are ambassadors for a ministry of reconciliation?
I have been wrestling with this text all week. I have been reading these words and then hearing the news reports. Back and forth.
It is easy to see why police officers see the world the way they do. That seems to be the grim reality. The world is a dangerous place. People will hurt you. We must protect ourselves. We must have laws and justice.
And then I read these words of David Fredrickson, a New Testament scholar at Luther Seminary. He said there is a difference between reconciliation and forgiveness. He says,
Reconciliation depends on reasons, excuses, or confession; these in a sense “buy” back the debt incurred through the injury. Forgiveness, however, seeks to exist apart from any economic consideration.…Forgiveness requires there be no reason for it. It must be a pure gift, the arrival of the impossible (a “new creation”)
Let’s look again at our text in 2 Corinthians 5.
Here is the apostle Paul. He is in the middle of a struggle with his friends in Corinth. He has spoken harsh words to them, they have betrayed him, everyone’s been hurt, it’s a hot mess, kind of like our lives and our world.
Then he says this, beginning in verse 19,
in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
I am reminded today that there are two realities.
On the one side, we do live in the world that the police officers face every day.
We live in a sin-soaked world where each of us is fully capable of being the gunman. Where each of us, in our own way, has gunned down another person on multiple levels.
We live in a world where the dividing lines of fear, hatred, and violence go so deep, and go back so many generations that it is impossible to be truly reconciled.
On this side we need the Law. We need checks and balances. We need police officers to protect us.
On this side of reality we view each other, as Paul said in verse 16, from a human perspective.
But my calling is to stand and declare to you today that there is another reality.
There is a reality in which God looks at all our sin, at all our violence, and fear, and hatred, and betrayal, and loves us anyway.
It is a reality where God became flesh in Jesus Christ and he who knew no sin became sin for us.
It is a reality where the Father runs to greet the Prodigal Son and says my son has come home.
He forgives us.
He wipes the slate clean.
God says, “I don’t hold it against you. I don’t want retribution. There is nothing you can do to pay it back.
I just want you! I will be with you, in the darkness, so that we can hold the light of this reality up together.”
And that is Good News. That is the Gospel.
These two realities exist at the same time.
The Gospel does not remove us from the Law.
But the Gospel reminds us that the only way we can have reconciliation in this world is when we remember that it takes a love so radical, a divine love, that is willing to make all things new, to forgive each other, to see each other in Christ, and realize that we are all in this together.
Let us continue to pray that we might be reconciled to God and to each other, through Jesus.