Delivered at Perkins School of Theology Chapel on September 30, 2015.
Over the last week we certainly saw an ambassador of God among us in the Bishop of Rome. Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. touched many hearts and lives including my own. We saw him live out his words that, “Holiness is always tied to little gestures…..signs of tenderness, affection and compassion.” We saw it as he blessed the children, embraced the afflicted, stopped for those whom others ignore. Small gestures of reconciliation that we can all give.
But he also spoke of big things in clear ways: All people are worthy of mercy including immigrants and the imprisoned. The environment is being destroyed and we have a moral responsibility to care for it. Our priority should be ministering to the most vulnerable among us.
Pope Francis spoke to us through word and deed of the reconciliation that the Apostle Paul exhorts us to practice in Second Corinthians. Do we not remember that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself? We are called to be reconciled and ambassadors of this holy reconciliation.
Paul found himself at odds with the people in Corinth. Enmity was a part of life even among those early Christians. As we consider the church today we see that enmity among Christians is still with us. In the United Methodist Church the litmus test is are we confessing or progressive, do we stand for evangelism or social justice, is our good news the true good news or not. We spend much too much time inwardly fighting over these dividers rather than focusing outwardly being ambassadors of the One who calls us to be reconciled, letting go of our enmity and living in sacred friendship in spite of our differences. You would think that by now we would have learned how to live and love in the way God hopes we would.
As I watched Pope Francis on the constant news coverage that his visit received, I caught myself thinking with a bit of jealousy, “Why can’t we get such news coverage for our United Methodist message?” Then of course I remembered that the Pope speaks for a congregation of 1.2 billion Christians while we United Methodists number only 13 million. The numbers quickly brought everything into political perspective for me.
I must also confess, however, that the more I listened to the Pope the more I found myself challenged to consider what it means to be reconciled as Christians.
Was Pope Francis’ core message not our message as well? A message of love and reconciliation, with God, with each other, and with all of creation; the message of Christian faith, I believe.
There were though concerns raised about the faith institution the Pope represents. There were those who met with him privately because they are victims of the scandal of sexual abuse at the hands of those who have been ordained to proclaim and live God’s love. These victims report that they found no comfort in being told that the Pope was sorry for what had happened to them and would be vigilant so that such things never happen again. And while the Pope gave a shout out to nuns in the U.S., there was also the declaration that the authority of an exclusively male clergy body was not up for negotiation. Sexism, alive and well.
Serving in California I was hoping that Pope Francis would not canonize the Catholic priest and missionary to the Americas, Junipero Serra. Our Native American brothers and sisters in California where Father Serra established missions for Christ and Spain up the Camino Real, the Kings Highway, hold within them the history of being enslaved and oppressed by a gospel that came to them under the intermingled and inseparable shadow of a cross and a sword.
Then this morning we learned that while he was here in the U.S. Pope Francis had a private meeting with Kentucky Clerk Kim Davis to tell her to stay strong. My heart sank. Not only has Ms. Davis obstructed the right of same gender persons to express their love for each other through marriage, she has obstructed the love of God for all people. Pope Francis is but a man, leading an imperfect church.
But it isn’t a matter of the Roman Catholic Church being somehow more damaged than Protestant, Orthodox, Evangelical, Pentecostal, or Charismatic churches. It certainly isn’t about Christians being better than others who do not share our faith. Is not all this a sign of the fact that we are all, even we Christians, in need of the reconciliation that only God can give.
Who else can show us our sin while also forgive our sin? Is our reconciliation not in Christ who knew no sin, but who out of tender mercy was sent by God to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him, ambassadors of God’s reconciliation? We are not saved by our institutional churches, or by a Pope, or a Council of Bishops, by pastors or seminary professors. We are saved by God alone who blesses us with reconciliation, an act of perfect love that should humble us before God and each other.
It seems abundantly clear that humility of the kind we have seen in Pope Francis must be our way of being too if we are to be ambassadors of God’s reconciliation. The Good News is that it is God’s work within us and not the work of our own making. That should give us hope that we can be the reconciled people that God has already made us to be and even ambassadors of God’ reconciliation.
I know a lawyer who specializes in criminal and immigration law. He has journeyed with the suffering of the world in ways that at 65 years of age make him skeptical about our human ability to be agents of any kind of reconciliation much less ambassadors of God’s own reconciliation. He is a cradle Presbyterian, who along the way became a self-declared agnostic. Today he says he is a deist; there is a god out there somewhere. More recently he’s begun to wonder whether God is closer than he had ever realized.
Earlier this year he took on the asylum case of a Syrian family. They had suffered a great deal in Syria because of their faith and one day it became clear that they would die if they stayed in Syria. One daughter left first seeking asylum in France while the rest of the family, the mother and father, another daughter her husband, and their 6 year-old son came to the U.S.
This lawyer, deist of a man, worked hard on this Syrian family’s case. Knowing the potential consequences of his failing to get this family asylum kept him awake at night. It did not help that the case had been assigned to an immigration judge known even for his cruel way of treating immigrants in his courtroom. Then something began to happen.
Just days before the final court proceeding on this asylum case this lawyer received word that the case was being postponed for another few weeks, giving him more time to build his case. Then just two days before the rescheduled court appearance he received yet another gift of grace. He was informed that the originally assigned judge would not be able to proceed with the case. Another judge would be presiding; it would be the judge known as the most compassionate and most helpful immigration judge in the whole circuit!
The day of the court proceedings arrived and after a night of no sleep and with just a cup of strong coffee in his belly, the lawyer did his best to defend this family and won their case! After the legal proceedings the lawyer invited the family to a debriefing room to explain the next steps. In the debriefing room in a most uncharacteristic moment the lawyer shared with the family how very stressed out he had been over their case. The family matriarch who had spoken throughout their journey together of her faith and confidence in God, asked him why he had been so stressed. The lawyer opened his mouth to answer but before he could do so the youngest member of the family, the 6 year-old grandson, came over to him and affectionately slapping his leg, declared with a great big smile, “That’s because you love us!”
He considers all the changes in the case – extra time, a kinder judge – as coincidences or perhaps good luck. But he continues to wonder about and marvel at the sentiment of the little boy, “That’s because you love us……” He had not thought of his work in those terms. He was trying to be the best lawyer for this family that he could be. He was seeking ways to find them some justice. Love was not at the forefront of his thinking. But every time he thinks of that little boy and feels his declaration, he does experience love, a love so profound that it breaks through the hard shell he’s barricaded his heart with and he begins to weep. Could it be God at work within him and through him penetrating the impact of human sin, the sin of the world, and reconciling even him to God’s self and to others? He wonders.
I’m a pest in his life because I do not wonder. I know that it is God within him and through him bringing reconciliation, love and hope in a broken world! It’s what I saw in Pope Francis last week.
While some tried to shame him through the vitriol of the assumed inappropriateness of a religious leader getting involved in political matters, and others even calling him a clown, Pope Francis just kept loving the world and inviting us to love with him. It’s what true ambassadors of reconciliation, ambassadors of God, do. Thanks be to God.