What would it take for a skeptical culture’s view of Christianity to see our faith as good? While
we aren’t aiming to please an audience beyond God alone, Jesus practiced a faith more interested
in reconciliation than keeping a list of the sins of others. What does that reconciliation look like
today? It surely includes a good faith effort on our part.
Opening: “Beautiful Things” (Gungor) :: The Rising Band; Isaac Herbert, leader
Reader: Roy Peters
Preaching: Rev. Mark Briley
Meditation Music: “Holy Medley” (Arr. Sawyer & Ford) :: Kelly Ford, soloist; Billie Kay Sawyer, pianist
Communion: “Brokenness Aside” (All Sons & Daughters) :: The Rising Band; Katie Herbert, soloist
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, 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.
They were five complete strangers, high school students with seemingly nothing in common, forced to spend a Saturday together in detention: a brain, a beauty, a jock, a rebel, and a recluse or so the labels go. Before the day was over, they broke the rules, bared their souls, and connected with each other in a way they never dreamed possible. Can anyone name the film I’m describing here? In 1985, The Breakfast Club [Breakfast Club Slide] became an emblematic film for an entire generation, ripping off the Band-Aids of the familiar wounds of family strife, teenage angst, peer pressure, and hurtful stereotypes, all exposing our growing sense of alienation from each other, from those in authority, and even from ourselves.
Brian, one of the kids detained, offers this key word to Vice Principal Vernon, the main antagonist in the film: “Dear Mr. Vernon… We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make us write this essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us… in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Correct? That’s the way we saw each other at seven o’clock this morning. We were brainwashed.”
“In a culture that prizes social categories, individualism, competition, sexism, stereotypes, and widespread alienation, the church is called to an alternative consciousness that makes reconciliation with our neighbors, even ourselves, and certainly with God, our highest priority and the litmus test of our confession. Taking our cue from a God who, from the beginning of time, has sought to reconcile us to himself, and having been given a new commandment by Jesus to ‘love one another as I have loved you,’ Christians are obligated to take the initiative in demonstrable acts of neighborliness and reconciliation in the world.” Rev. Mark Feldmeir, a Methodist pastor in the Denver area, offered those words that stopped me in my tracks as I was contemplating this notion of a Good Faith Effort. For the last two weeks, we’ve opened before God in this space the research of The Barna Group that suggests the influence of we who claim to be Christian is fading quickly; with some 85% of those outside of the church finding the Christians they know to be hypocritical and roughly the same saying the Christians they know are judgmental. Something different is possible my friends – and I know it because I know you. The beautiful roar that comes when you greet each other. The passion by which you rise to the challenge when there is a need. The generosity of your time and skill and resource to say, “Yes, we’re writing a different story than one of judgment and hate,” tells me we’re after a Way of life together that I see in the Jesus of the Gospel accounts. And who is that Jesus? Paul tells us today, in this letter he sends to Corinth, that Jesus is one who says, “If we get relationships wrong, little else matters.” So how do we get relationships right? That’s what we’re after today with this final installment of our Good Faith Effort series which I’ve subtitled, “Triumph.”
Now – I’ve struggle with this word, Triumph. It played nicely in the alliteration of the series: Week One: Trying. Week Two: Tripping. Week Three: Triumph! You’ve got to end the series on a victorious note, right? But maybe that’s too optimistic – a little Pollyanna-ish. After all, you got dressed to come to church today to wrestle with the big stuff that’s happening in your life — the loss that remains too tough to speak; the health scare that you haven’t recovered from just yet; your struggle with apathy or the curiosity if any of this even matters at all. You know what I’m talking about – that thing that you woke up thinking about this morning and that you can’t seem to shake right now. And I want to talk about Triumph, eh? It is just a title, okay? Let’s not give it too much power. And I’ve had this trouble before. Do you ever spend a couple of minutes writing a very casual email and then sweat the next fifteen minutes trying to decide how to best word the subject line? What do you call the impact of a Good Faith Effort? What do you call getting relationships right? What do you call the work of reconciliation? Well, at least for today, we’re calling it Triumph.
I love this passage from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. It’s so full of bumper sticker material. We once knew Jesus from a human point of view – just a causal relationship; sort of like you have with your barber or something, but now… now that our spirit has come alive, now that we’re not just going through the motions of life but we’re listening to the soul, we see Christ in a new way. And because we do, Paul says, “We are now a whole new creation” which is great because my back still hasn’t recovered from my dunking efforts at the trampoline park a week ago. I need some newness, don’t you? Paul says, “You new, man!” And that’s worth saying out loud. Would you turn to a neighbor and say, “You new!” Yeah you are! But the triumph we’re getting at today is found in this motif that Paul sets off next about the idea of reconciliation. He knows what pop song writers have come to learn today – the power of what is called processing fluency. In this next little run he says, “Reconciled … reconciliation … reconciling … reconciliation … be reconciled.” All in two sentences. How could one forget the focus here? Researchers discovered this to be true about those songs you get stuck in your head – ear worms as they’re called. Scientists have studied what makes songs so viral and addictive. Some studies point to the power of background singers or high pitches. One study attempted to link the popularity of these songs to our gross domestic product. But the most recent findings keep falling back to the repetition of a simple hook. It’s why you’re still singing, “It’s a Small World After All” or “Who let the dogs out. Woof, woof, woof, woof.” Some advice – apparently chewing gum while listening to these songs helps eliminate them getting stuck in your brain. I’ve also heard that singing “We are the World” cancels out whatever other song you’ve got stuck in your head. But here is Paul, ahead of his time in employing processing fluency with the Corinth Christians. “All this [this new creation stuff] is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself … and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us… so that on behalf of Christ, I implore you, be reconciled to God.”
Reconciliation is a curious word. We may lump it in with ideas like forgiveness and simply “getting along” or “playing nice” and while those ideas may all be invited to the same family reunion, reconciliation is something more. The original language of Paul’s letter uses this word from the financial realm – the ways in which we might talk about reconciling bank statements. Paul used that sort of imagery often: think of when he spoke of the ransom of Christ or Jesus counting the cost; paying the price. But this reconciliation – how do we make sure that what is supposed to be is in check with reality? If our relationships are to be at this [high] level but they’re holding steady at this [low] level, then how do we reconcile the difference, the gap between the two. If reconciliation is making it right between me and God and others, then how do we reconcile that gap? It surely starts with repentance. It’s not all about the other person – all about their issue or their personality or their attitude. They’ve got their part but a one-sided correction is, by definition, not inclusive of the idea of reconciliation. It’s the line I’ve shared before – “If you run into more than a couple of jerks in one day, you may be the jerk.” One of my colleagues says, “There is a direct correlation between how much patience you need to deal with people and the patience people need to deal with you.” He said, “I’ve found I must repent my way into patience.” (Rev. Geoff Mitchell). And so do I. It’s terribly hard to be in relationship with someone who is always right. There tends to be zero mutuality in such a relationship – no intimacy, no vulnerability, no growth. And for those in the house today who are always right, you’re thinking, “What does this guy know?” Not a whole lot, I admit. But I have seen the whittling away of friendships when people choose being right over relationship. And I’ll also admit, choosing relationship over rightness can often only come with the strength of faith and the power of Christ in us to reconcile and rise above our differences.
Rev. Mark Feldmeir is a writer and pastor I just happened to stumble across in seminary. He had compiled a book of some sermons he had written that was on discount in the seminary book store and I picked it up. Super influential in my own development of the practice of preaching. I went to his church while on sabbatical a few years ago and enjoyed getting to meet him and engage him a bit. He tells a story from his own experience that has stuck with me, particularly as we exist in this season of side-taking, back-biting, and group-hating. It was a time a few years back when he found himself torn over an issue in the church that was dividing churches right and left. It was an issue that, for some, can only be resolved by reading selected passages from the Bible, especially the Old Testament; for others, it’s an issue resolved only by practicing the uncompromising and indiscriminate love of Jesus. Listen to what he writes about this moment: “One particular family in the church was alone in their choice of the former method of resolving the issue, and the prospect of losing them became a growing concern for me. They called one afternoon to set an appointment with me to discuss their options, and I spent the next three days praying for peace, and grace, and understanding. I’m embarrassed to say that I also found myself reaching for whatever armor I could find, preparing for a painful confrontation, drawing a line in the sand and rereading every Bible passage I could find on the issue, which turned out to be a brief exercise. On the afternoon of our scheduled appointment, I waited, and prayed, and contemplated the seemingly inevitable outcome. At three o’clock they walked into my office – she carrying a five-gallon bucket of water; he, a small hand towel. Before I could rise from my chair, she knelt down on both knees, and removing my shoes and socks, washed my feet in the warm, fragrant water – first the right foot, then the left, slowly, generously, with great care. He followed with the towel, quietly drying both heels and all ten toes, one at a time. Then, rising to their feet, they turned for the door without saying a single word. When I saw them sitting in the second row of the sanctuary the following Sunday morning, and every Sunday morning thereafter, I caught a glimpse of the grace and courage that [reconciliation] requires.”
Have you ever humbled yourself in that way? Truly incredible. That surely is what triumph looks like. And without our faith in Christ that elevates our concern for others, not settling for a self-preservation mentality, I’m not sure how we could do it. I’m not sure why we would bother with the struggle. This is a spirit that would help us not only in our closest relationships but certainly in our relationships with the world – the very culture that looks at us feeling judged, unwanted, de-valued, and cast off. It’s a move from a selfish faith to a communal one. One man put it like this: “I no longer believe God is working behind the scenes to make me powerful, rich, or famous. Instead, I think I’m supposed to contribute something to the people around me and create an environment where healthy relationships can flourish.” This is the ministry of reconciliation and if we are to take that seriously – like a spiritual earworm that we just can’t shake—we’re going to have to get out more – outside, into the neighborhood, into the realms beyond our three-point areas of comfort (home, work, and Andy’s frozen custard). Chris Heuertz (which is just a fun name to say) describes himself as a “contemplative activist, ecclesial provocateur, curator of unlikely friendships, instigator for good, witness to hope, and clergy for common people.” Doesn’t fit great on a business card but it does say a lot about what he values. Chris felt this call to get out more – reconciliation as ministry wasn’t a stay-at-home sort of calling. While we can do this work by only driving a few miles perhaps, Chris went to India where he was mentored by Mother Teresa for three years. This changed him as you can imagine and he’s been here in the States since that time working to reconcile people to each other and to God. In the midst of recent racial tensions across our country, he was part of a diverse contingent called to gather in Nashville to imagine how they might play a role in bringing people together. He believes that the racialization of our daily reality leads to a deep poverty of friendships. At this gathering, Chris challenged everyone to take a look at the last ten text messages and phone calls on their phones. He said, “If you’re a twentysomething Protestant black woman or a fifty something straight white man, most of the calls or texts you send and receive are to and from people who look like you, think like you, live like you, worship like you.” This lack of what Chris calls “textured diversity” keeps us poor in friendship and keeps us believing there is an us and them rather than a we. He quoted his mentor, Mother Teresa, who used to say, “We need the poor more than the poor need us.” Chris wrestled for many years to understand what she meant by those words. He now believes that it’s only through relationships with the Other – who he named as “the poor, the gay, the Catholic or charismatic, the black or white or brown” – that we can become the we Christ intends the church to be. “We need ‘them’ if we want to be a signpost pointing to the new creation. When we form and cultivate friendship with the other, the we of the church becomes a tangible, visible sign of the kingdom of God.” Do you think that’s true? Is that why reconciliation isn’t a “Ya’ll just get along” but an ongoing ministry of care for all people? [Quote Slide] I was fascinated by Barna’s research that says 83% of Americans say it is “completely accurate” that they do NOT enjoy spending time with people who are not like themselves. At the same time, 75% of American adults believe that “Christian churches play an important role in racial reconciliation.”
This is why Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, one of the largest evangelical congregations in the nation, has made reconciliation a top priority. Every year, members of Saddleback participate in a Christian-Muslim picnic, building bridges of relationship. They partner with African-American congregations in the city of Compton, California. Bridges are being built with Hispanic pastors in Southern California, and work is being done to keep young people out of gangs and in school. Many wouldn’t imagine Saddleback, a church pegged, perhaps, to have greater concern for personal salvation, making this communal effort of reconciliation a priority. But… this is what the alternative consciousness calls us to as people who follow Jesus. It’s one reason you may want to stretch yourself and get engaged in our new Family Promise partnership where we will house homeless families in our church for a few weeks each year. Our first week will be at the end of September with a mandatory training for any who will volunteer on Thursday, September 6. Feeling stuck in faith, in life, in relationships? Want to be a new creation? Give this a try. Do something different. This is the triumph of reconciliation. “If we get relationships wrong, little else matters.”
Our world is full of Vice Principal Vernon’s who think they already have us pegged – stereotyped as hypocrites, judgers, haters, detached, superficial. They see us like they see Professional Wrestling – there’s a lot of grunting and sweating and chair smashing but they’re not sure all the moves are real. May our moves be real, authentic, grounded in the desire to reconcile our soul to its Source and all the beloved of God to each other. If that’s what triumph looks like, then I’m glad it’s the subtitle to close our Good Faith Effort series. Triumph. I just may put that in the subject line of every single email this week.
 From Stirred Not Shaken by Mark Feldmeir. Chalice Press. 2005. Pg 115-116. The later story about his congregants washing his feet also comes from this work; Pg 97-98.
 All statistics and references in this message to the Barna Research come from “Good Faith” by David Kinnaman & Gabe Lyons. Baker Books. Grand Rapids, MI. 2016.
 The info about processing fluency as well as the later story about Saddleback Church come from the work “Song of Reconciliation” by Bob Kaylor, Senior Writer of Homiletics and Senior Minister of the Park City United Methodist Church in Park City, Utah.