Preached at the February 2018 meeting of the San Francisco Presbytery.
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10
In 2004, Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino wrote:
We live in a culture of concealment, of distortion, and thus in effect we are living in a lie. There is not only structural injustice, not only institutionalized violence-but also institutionalized concealment, distortion, and lies. And vast resources are used to maintain that structure.
Sobrino knows what it is to risk. He is the sole survivor of the the many assassinations that were carried out in El Salvador in the 1980s, including the one that took the life of his friend Archbishop Oscar Romero. From his position among the disenfranchised, he speaks a risky word to the 21st century church in the same way Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the church of the mid 20th century when he wrote:
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
In the voices of these two men, I hear echoes of Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth as he reminded them of their fundamental work. This fledgling church, only a few years old, had become a place of judgment and power brokering. Communion had become a gluttonous feast for the wealthy who gorged themselves while their servants were left with crumbs. The many gifts found in that community were used as to rank the members with those having more important gifts receiving a higher station. The open-handed generosity that had characterized the earliest gatherings was replaced with a controlled doling out of financial offerings.
It is into this world that Paul says: Listen up! The body of Christ was never intended to have you at the center. If you are to live into what God has called you to be, then the reconciling work of the Christ must be at the heart of all you do. Why isn’t your public life lived in such a way that it is apparent to all who see you that God’s reconciling love has changed you.
It’s important to remember that Paul, like philosophers of his day, understood reconciliation to be a communal process – not a one time, personal event between and me and my own personal Jesus. It was rooted in the socio-political work of restoring property and relationships to their intended purposes. For Paul and for his community, reconciliation was oriented around restoring right relationships – in community, with creation, and with God’s own self.
Reconciliation is more about revolution than revision, more about re-creation than redemption. Paul tips his hand when he reminds his community that in Christ they are NEW CREATION – this isn’t about a few tweaks here and there – it’s a complete makeover – reconciliation is a process that ensures, that the past will not be replicated.
Now, this sounds great, but make no mistake, it’s not going to be easy for us to navigate this understanding of reconciliation – risky even. Over time our theology of reconciliation has often become hyper-focused on the reconciliation WE need with God – highlighting our individual brokenness and the redemption required for us to be right with God. The problem is – that by centering our need for God’s forgiveness, we’ve made it easy to lose sight of the bigger picture that is at the heart of the meaning of reconciliation and our work as ambassadors.
We may feel that we’re already fully awake to the everyday micro- and macro-aggressions that flow from oppression. But sometimes, our desire to maintain the status quo gets in our way. We can even come up with some mighty good reasons for why the status should remain quo. After all – the status quo has kept us pretty well supported, our needs have mostly been served just fine. In truth, it’s pretty easy to shield our eyes from the realities of oppression – just about as easy as it is to drive or take BART here and pass over the1000s of folks hungering for hope down below.
The good news is that as people created in God’s image, we are uniquely qualified and especially gifted by the Spirit to confront the reality of the injustice around us. Though following the path set by Christ means we will immerse ourselves in what some might criticize as “too political”, it’s a risk we must take because this path moves us into deep solidarity with those who are suffering – not because we understand our “christian duty” is to care for the poor, the marginalized, the suffering, but because to be ambassadors of reconciliation means we are beginning to understand that true reconciliation means we stand in solidarity with our neighbors and fully embrace the truth that we can only ever be as safe, as healthy, as comfortable, as fulfilled, as hopeful as our neighbor is. To quote one of my she-roes, Fannie Lou Hamer: Aint nobody free, till everybody’s free.
For reconciliation to be possible, we will need to find a way to be completely honest. Honest about what the Spirit is revealing to us in the world around us. And honest about our own complicity in the systems that create injustice. And then, if we hope to be ambassadors of reconciliation, we have to begin to move in solidarity with those who are most disconnected from power, listening to their hopes, taking direction from their leadership. We won’t have to look very hard to find God’s reconciling work.
Look now. The spirit has pulled the veil back for us so we can clearly see the gap between those with easy access to wealth and education and power and those for whom that access has been historically green-carded, red-lined, gerrymandered and Jim Crow-ed into oblivion.
Look now. The Spirit has pulled the veil back plenty wide so we can see prejudice and fear and the economics of scarcity. Surely we have enough videos of police shooting young men in the back; we have enough reports of ICE coming for people who have lived here 30, 40, even 50 years; we more than enough tent cities throughout our presbytery.
If we are to be faithful to what is revealed, then we are bound to the mission of Christ which holds both great joy for those who benefit from our doggedness in pursuing transformation and the potential for great suffering for us, as those around us deny the realities of injustice, demand to know by what authority we move and ultimately ask us to forfeit our power and privilege, even, for some of us, our lives.
As we enter the season of Lent, and hear Isaiah’s call to take up the fast of God’s choosing, we can affirm that we are called to face injustice head-on. With the power of God’s spirit of truth, we can overcome our history of avoiding the truth, hiding from it, even distorting it because we’re afraid of the risk, so that we can respond with the compassion of Christ that invites us to enter fully into the suffering of others,
Even though Jesus has shown us what can happen when we turn our lives toward solidarity with the oppressed, showing love without limit, we are called to take the risk to live as reconcilers, trusting that with God’s spirit of faithfulness we will find courage for the reconciling work of transforming our communities.
As we journey through Lent, recognizing that the resurrection is still to come, we are called to live in the power of that hope. Even when we feel overwhelmed and the risk seems too great, we are called to be filled with God’s spirit of trust and to celebrate those glimpses of God’s righteousness that signal God’s promise that the future will not be just another version of the present.
May it be so for us.
Where is God? Earthquake, Terrorism, Barbarity, and Hope by John Sobrino, Orbis Books, 2004.
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 16, 1963).