"South Africa: The Gift of Truth and Reconciliation"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 1/20/2019
Matthew 18:15-22
“South Africa: The Gift of Truth and Reconciliation”
January 20, 2019
            Forgiveness can be hard on everybody.  I’m talking about real forgiveness, not only the simple type, like when you bump into someone and say, “Excuse me,” and they say, “Sure.”  I’m talking about the kind where someone has either intentionally or unthinkingly done something that has harmed another person, maybe even a whole community, in a way that leaves a scar and cannot simply be undone.
            Jesus outlined a way to do that, and it begins with an act of courage by the person who was hurt.  It doesn’t start with somebody offering an apology.  It starts with someone saying, “I think you owe me an apology.”  Jesus said,
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” [Matthew 18:15]
That takes guts.  It is an act of vulnerability that exposes one of your weak points to someone who has hurt you, which means that if there is anything malicious there, you’re telling them exactly how they could hurt you again.  “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”  You’ve heard that?  Jesus’ teaching tells you to take that risk.  He expects us to expect the best of others, looking for us to approach the one who has hurt us with a presumption of trust and a desire to remain in relationship.
            An assumption – maybe it would be better to say, “a hope” – built into the process is that a believer (since he’s speaking here of what can happen within the family of faith) will be open to the idea that he or she can go wrong and that the reproof of another believer is to be taken seriously.  Not every time someone points out a fault or a failing is a personal attack.  It could be an opportunity that someone is offering you or me to become a better person.
            That’s why it’s best to talk over anything serious face-to-face or privately and one-on-one.  If you hear how hard it is for someone to tell you something, you know that it is something important, not done lightly.  The sound of a voice conveys things that other forms of communication do not always get across.  Sometimes, but not always, it can be useful to write a note instead, if you feel a need to choose your words, and that can help someone who might have a knee-jerk reaction of defensiveness (confession time: I’m thinking of myself here) to react right away and then to come back to it with a clearer head in five minutes or five days.  Again, it’s a risk, but
“If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” [Matthew 18:15]
 Jesus even goes as far as to say to keep on trying if that doesn’t work, but to take back-up. 
“But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.”  [Matthew 18:16]
You can sort of sense a situation that is becoming more tightly wound, where you need people to help do the listening, because there is often a point where people are so busy planning out a rebuttal in their heads that they miss an apology when it happens.  It helps to have someone else there who is able to say, “I heard what you did,” but maybe also, “I think you missed the explanation.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” [Matthew 5:9]
            In one of his old Prarie Home Companion monologues, Garrison Keilor told a story about a theological split that had taken place among the believers with whom he grew up, the Sanctified Brethren.  His grandfather was leader of one party, and held that the leader of the other side had reached the point where the next step needed to be invoked:
“if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector,” [Matthew 18:17]
which was just fine with the other man.  The day came, though, when theological diplomacy brought them together to the supper table, which was a major achievement.  Only, who would say grace?  There was a danger that prayer might turn into preaching, and that could bring it all down.  So they decided to share in silent prayer.  Everyone bowed their heads and prayed.  And prayed.  And prayed.  Who was more pious?  Surely the one who spent longest with the Lord.   The fervor and zeal of the silence grew.  Then came the voice of Keilor’s grandmother: “Lord, we thank you, but the chicken is getting cold.  Amen.”  And in the laughter, the healing began.
            Yet not every situation is simple, and some involve so many people, patterns of injustice so deeply engrained, wrongs committed over such stretches of time, that they seem immune to Jesus’ cure.  What then? 
            One of the great gifts that comes to the world from the Christians of South Africa is an example of an entire nation at least trying – and often succeeding – to have that kind of honest assessment of the damage done by apartheid (their word; ours are slavery and segregation) and to set up a framework of one-on-one sharing where the oppressed could be heard and others could realize their own involvement in ways that could lead to true repentance and responsibility.  It consciously sought to adapt Jesus’ own way on a huge scale.  This overall “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” divided its work to both identify human rights violations and to determine where to go from there. 
            According to the South African government’s mandate,
“The task of the [Human Rights Violations] Committee was to investigate human rights abuses that took place between 1960 and 1994, based on statements made to the TRC. The Committee established the identity of the victims, their fate or present whereabouts, and the nature and extent of the harm they have suffered; and whether the violations were the result of deliberate planning by the state or any other organisation, group or individual. Once victims of gross human rights violations are identified, they are referred to the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee. … 
The enabling act empowered the [Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee] to provide victim support to ensure that the Truth Commission process restores victims' dignity; and to formulate policy proposals and recommendations on rehabilitation and healing of survivors, their families and communities at large. The envisaged overall function of all recommendations is to ensure non repetition, healing and healthy co-existence.”[1]
In our setting, that kind of process needs to take a different shape, but it is still the work of Christ.
            Buried in a very long newsletter that appears weekly in my inbox was a notice about how United Methodists in our part of the world are going about it, and I’ll leave you with an invitation to be part of that.  The announcement says:
“A South District Initiative is pulling together a diverse group of laity and clergy across the district for discussions about race and racism. In response to the 2016 Call to Action, this dinner discussion group was formed during the South District’s Tools for Ministry Training in 2017. Now, on average, ten guests share a meal and accounts of unchecked racism, white privilege, and internalized oppression in intimate home settings.
I enjoy the dinners. What’s most unique is that the dinners are house gatherings. We’ve been able to connect inside the privacy and comfort of someone’s home without feeling obligated to the formalities of a church meeting. It’s a healing experience- we can be open and honest. Also, we can express concern and even applaud growth. The unique set up allows for us to hear one another more clearly and love each other better. – Krystl Johnson, St. Daniel’s UMC
Dinners have been hosted in West Chester, Oxford, and Schwenksville. Within the next few months, group dinners will be expanding to new locations as most guests have committed to hosting their own private dinners throughout the district. With the mission statement being Supper and Sharing: Fostering Intercultural Competence and Authentic Community One Meal at a Time and with the initiative reaching a 2-year milestone, the Dinner Discussion Group hopes to make more room at the table for all of you in the South District. So, stay tuned for further updates and announcements.”
I have the phone number for the coordinator and can get you connected, if this is on your heart.  Truth and reconciliation are big topics, and deep thinkers have brought their wisdom to it, all of them saying that it has to begin with people simply doing what they can and what they must.
            Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, delivered as the Civil War was winding up and his own assassination was weeks away, had reflected on the cost of setting great wrongs right.  He knew it would be work as difficult as the war had been, but that it was part of the work of reconciliation among people that he saw as the divine call.  Lincoln said,
“Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether’.
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”[2]

[1] http://www.justice.gov.za/trc/trccom.html
[2] http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/inaug2.htm
"Strangers Bringing Gifts"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 1/6/2019

Matthew 2:1-12

“Strangers Bringing Gifts”

January 6, 2019

            “Epiphany”, the season after Christmas, gets its name from a Greek word that means “appearance” or “manifestation”.  It has the sense of something suddenly becoming clear.  If someone has an epiphany, they have one of those light-bulb moments of sudden recognition or insight.  At one church I served, there was a pair of identical twins who were in their forties and still looked and sounded identical.  They didn’t dress alike or go out of their way to match – it was just natural.  Then one day I saw them standing beside each other and – just like that! – I could tell them apart.  (One combed his hair in one direction and the other in the other direction.  How could I not have seen that?) 

            Epiphany, as a season, concentrates on the ways that God shows himself to the nations of the world, having begun with Israel but going on to all the rest of us when he came among us in a person named Jesus.  So Epiphany begins with the first Gentiles to recognize (or at least suspect) that Jesus was no ordinary infant.

“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem
of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘
Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we
observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’”  [Matthew 2:1]

These are not people familiar with Judaism or the scriptures.  These people are not even coming from within the Roman Empire.  They’re from away out there in the East, someplace in the Persian Empire, Rome’s only significant counterpart or rival at that time.  We call them wise men but they seem politically naďve and unaware of the danger they bring upon the baby just by mentioning his existence and they are sort of bumbling in the way that they act in Herod’s jurisdiction.  Yet these are the people, along with a bunch of shepherds working the night shift and two old folks in the Temple, to whom God decides to announce his Son’s presence in the world.

            Now, it isn’t that the others did not let anyone know about the child Jesus.  Luke says that after visiting the baby in the manger,

“The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all
they had heard and seen.” [Luke 2:20]

When Jesus was taken to the Temple for the first time, Simeon met Mary and Joseph carrying Jesus and took him into his own arms, declaring,

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
            according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
            which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
            and for glory to your people Israel.”  [Luke 2:29-32]

So, too, his female counterpart Anna.

“At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to
speak about the child to all who were looking for the
redemption of Jerusalem.” [Luke 2:38]

But when the wise men came along, they brought with them not only some awareness that this child was chosen above others, but also in what ways.

            You know the story of their visit, and even people who don’t still know about the gifts that they took him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Traditionally, interpreters have looked at those gifts as emblematic of Jesus role in the salvation of the world.  We’ve already sung about them this morning: gold, to surround a king; incense, to burn on an altar in the presence of God; myrrh, to anoint a prophet’s brow or to embalm the dead.

“Glorious now behold him arise;
King and God and sacrifice. …”

So at the same time that God’s Son is being shown to the world beyond Bethlehem and Nazareth and Jerusalem, people who are strangers to those places are showing God’s people something about him of which they themselves had been unaware.

            We need to be shown things that are right under our own noses sometimes.  We need epiphanies brought to us by those who see things we miss, perhaps out of sheer familiarity.  An epiphany moment might be like me pointing out that this flag to my right – one that many of you have been looking at your entire lives – has 48 stars.  Now try to un-see that.  You can’t.  Those Persians point out the complexity of Jesus’ work of salvation as king and God and sacrifice, and we look back at his life and see him acting, from childhood, in ways that overturn the kingdoms of this world and show God’s power among the people and reveal the costly and self-giving love that would find itself on a cross. 

           We cannot talk about Jesus without all of those purposes being there all at once and combined.  We cannot only say that he was a good man, even the best person ever.  He was and is more than that.  We cannot only say that he was God, because his is also human and subject to our weaknesses, which is why it matters to see him tempted but not falling into sin.  It’s why we can say he really and truly suffered and died.  We cannot only say that he sacrificed his life for our sin, without recognizing that he was also God and his mere presence in this world involved infinite sacrifice from the very start, trading heaven for all that we face on earth, even death.

           Throughout the coming weeks we will look at and give thanks for the many things we learn of God’s grace and Jesus’ love through people from cultures and societies that are not our own (always remembering that Jesus and the disciples were not twenty-first century Americans).  We’ll consider what we can learn from believers in China and South Africa and Italy and even Canada.  But first of all we stop and remember the profound revelation brought to God’s people by these strangers and their gifts, and then look at the long line of strangers and offerings that they hold in their hands to lay down also before the Christ Child.  Perhaps they see gifts in our own hands that we don’t even realize yet that we are carrying.


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