February 6, 2022 ~ Reconciling Sunday ~ Rev. Beckie Sweet
There was a young couple that just moved into a new apartment. Their kitchen window faced the backyard shared by surrounding apartment buildings. On their first morning in the new neighborhood, while they were eating breakfast, the young woman watches her neighbor hanging her laundry on a clothesline. “That laundry is not very clean,” she said. “She doesn’t know how to wash correctly. Perhaps she needs better laundry soap.” Her spouse looked on but remained silent. Every time the neighbor would hang her wash to dry, the young woman would make the same comments! About a month later, the young woman was surprised to see a nice clean wash on the line and said to her spouse: “Look, she has learned how to wash correctly. I wonder who taught her this.” The spouse replied, “I got up early this morning and cleaned OUR windows.”
The young woman had passed judgment on her neighbor, seeing things only from her limited perspective and assuming she was right, and the neighbor was wrong.
Often God’s people are guilty of being judgmental in a way that negatively affects relationships. This has always been part of our human condition. Jesus fought this judgmental, limiting attitude throughout his ministry. Jesus countered the dominant view held by those who grew up in the Jewish faith – a view that centered on excluding others by labeling them unclean or unwanted. The religion of Jesus’ day excluded those ~ all those ~ who were different: those of different cultures and nationalities, those with different lifestyles, those with different health issues, and the list goes on. Limiting those included to a select group that met certain criteria was central to the faith. The circle of inclusion was small and exclusive.
Jesus broadened the circle to include all of God’s people. Jesus reached out with healing, restoration, acceptance, and reconciliation to those previously excluded. Jesus’ life ministry was about reaching those that the religious leaders of the day had taught should be excluded. Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation and restoration of relationship to God for ALL people was met with resistance from the religious establishment of his day. THAT was too radical for the religious leaders of Jesus’ day to handle and, is part of the reason he needed to make the ultimate sacrifice of LOVE that we might LIVE.
Fast forward with me to the early days of the Christian church. The congregation of the Church in Corinth had been abundantly blessed with Spiritual Gifts for ministry within their community. And yet, they bickered and disagreed, and had begun excluding from their fellowship those who did not meet their expectations, and those with whom the leaders disagreed. This is the church to whom Paul was writing.
By today’s standards, we would say that the Corinthian church was a hot mess. The congregation was full of all kinds of drama and sinful behavior that threatened to ruin the witness of the Church of Jesus Christ. And so, Paul writes this amazing letter, including the LOVE CHAPTER read to us today. But this chapter is not meant to be a mushy definition of “EROS” the erotic form of love as defined by the Greeks. It is meant to be a clever correction to the Corinthian church to stop them from misbehaving.
Following the chapter about Spiritual Gifts which we shared in worship a couple of weeks ago, Paul begins to speak about LOVE. This chapter about LOVE is about how to correctly use the gifts God has given all of us. LOVE is about how to correctly use the freedom we have as Christians who are assured of our salvation. LOVE is the more excellent way. This is not the love of romance and infatuation. Paul uses the Greek word “Agape” which means self-sacrificing love. Agape LOVE is behind all actions that put others first. This is the love with which God loves us by sending Jesus to live and die and show the power of resurrection, in order to reconcile our relationship with God.
Sadly, I am aware that Jesus’ form of radical welcome, hospitality, and reconciliation is still too much for some religious leaders to handle, even in our United Methodist denomination. I anticipate that if Jesus were here today, the religious leaders of our day would be challenged and stretched to make the circle of inclusion ever wider so that ALL of God’s people would find a home ~ a place of spiritual nurture ~ in the church that bears the name of Christ.
St. Paul’s United Methodist Church has been a leader in our denomination as a Reconciling Congregation for the past 24 years. That is easy for me to remember, since I gave birth to my youngest son just a couple of weeks after you took that monumental step of faith in making a public declaration based on the love of Christ known here. This identity as a Reconciling Congregation is one of the things that drew me to this church. It makes a statement that this congregation has intentionally chosen to be welcoming to a community of people that have been, and are still, being excluded from many churches that bear the name of Christ. It is a statement of the wideness of inclusion in this community. And in this congregation’s reputation, as I have seen in the seven months since I joined you, we live and breathe the spirit of inclusivity of ALL persons, including those of “every gender, identity, gender expression and sexual orientation, and of every economic, immigration, marital, and social status and so much more.” That is a quote from the Reconciling Statement included in our bulletins this morning. Our current statement, found on our website, is amazingly beautiful. AND, this newly updated statement, which will soon go before our Council for affirmation, is so profoundly meaningful, that when reading it a couple of weeks ago, I found myself weeping tears of gladness.
Is this where our responsibility ends? Is a statement of hospitality all there is to it? Of course not! This statement is the springboard for our public Christian witness to the LOVE to which we become reconciled. This is the narrative for our Communion with our Savior. This is the challenge to faithfulness in our Christian mission. Why do we celebrate Reconciling Sunday every year? Well, we continue to see in a mirror dimly. Our proverbial kitchen window gets dirty from time to time and needs to be cleaned once again. Sadly, sometimes we forget to even look out of the window and notice our neighbors, which means we are not aware of the opportunity for a conversation, an invitation, the assurance of God’s love and ours expressed in word and action. For, as Paul reminds us, all of our words and actions need to be motivated by God’s love; for without that motivation our words and actions are worth nothing.
We who have been given the ministry of reconciliation – who have been called to love our neighbors as ourselves – must continue to seek justice for those that society, and even the church, would exclude, limit, or harm. Steps of progress have been made, but the journey for LOVE and JUSTICE is not yet complete.
May God give us the fire of the Holy Spirit that this celebration may become motivation for continuing the ministry to become reconciled to love. Amen.