Sunday March 6, 2015: St James Episcopal Church, Somerville MA
Lent 4: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
We live tight. We, who live in cities, live jammed up, crammed up, layered on top of one another. We hear the fighting beneath us and the dog scratching above us. We live with arguments we cannot stop and doors we cannot open.
We live tight. We, who live in cities, live side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, eyes unmet and houses stacked so close together that as I cook in my apartment, I can see a pot boiling over on their stove next door, third floor across from third floor.
We live tight in a stew of euphemisms: We live with garden apartments, without enough sunlight to grow much of anything except mold. We live with half-baths, which means a space so small you’ll hit your knee on the sink about half the time you go. We live with the Craigslist Code, where “historic” means the place has never been updated, and “great location” means your apartment is above a bar.
We who live in cities, live tight on money, tight on space, tight on time. We ride tight in the MBTA car, stand tight in the checkout line, and park tight, wedging our way in and out to squeeze in between yet another yellow moving van and a beach chair space saver, though it is March and there is no snow is in the forecast.
We cling tight to the people who remain, since many of the new who move in will probably be gone in three years anyway. We know the churn and the turn-over and the High Holy Day of all our messy humanity that falls on September 1 every year and spills onto the sidewalks.
We, who chose the city or do not have the means to leave the city, live tight with people who may not look like us, act like us, talk like us, behave like us. How does the Christian story of reconciliation sound different in most densely populated municipality in all of New England? With 19,220.5 people per square mile here in Somerville, the question isn’t “who is my neighbor?” but “who isn’t my neighbor?”
“16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view;” St. Paul, a city dweller and city traveler himself, writes to the divided church in Corinth, the very church he founded. Paul, a Jew and a Roman citizen; Paul, a Jew and a Christian; Saul of Tarsus and Paul of Jerusalem, and Corinth, and Rome, and Ephesus.
Paul who defies the easy binaries and Paul who too is a new immigrant and global citizen; Paul, who is in the middle of, yet again, another major disagreement with the Church in Corinth. It is this Paul who writes “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.” Maybe he’s trying to make amends with these disagreeable Corinthians. Maybe he writes it so he too will follow his own rule.
How hard it is in cities to regard no one from a human point of view! We’ve got all sorts of names for reducing complicated, multi-faceted human beings into one, incomplete, identity:
The tech bros,
The yummy mommies,
The new immigrant,
The gang bangers,
The Section 8-ers,
The old skool Somervillians,
and the priced-out Cantabrigians.
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view” Paul sets the high standard for a Christian life: We regard no one from our short-sighted, human point of view. We aim to see as God sees.
We who live in cities know just how hard this is. A hallmark of the city is anonymity, so many people we do not know and will never meet. It is hard to drop those single moniker identities of our human point of view for something more nuanced, more complex. Our challenge is to see the anonymous guy clipping his fingernails on the Orange Line not a weirdo but as a beloved child of God.
When at 3 in the morning, I wake up to the sound of garbage bins being knocked over because my drunk student neighbors fell into them, I confess, I do not see them as unique children of God. When I go out the next morning to find our recycling all over the road and discover a pile of human vomit on my crocuses, I do not think of my neighbor’s preciousness before God. But Paul says, for you who want to live in this Christian way of life, “we regard no one from a human point of view.” No one. Not even the neighbor who vomits on my crocuses.
And for Paul, it’s not just that we are tasked with seeing people differently, but as we see them differently, we have been given an enormous, momentous task: In verse 18, God “has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”
I’m sorry, what? God has given us the ministry of reconciliation? Has God met us? We’re a mess! Our cities are hopelessly segregated. We inherit division on top of division, on top of redlining and bussing and redistricting and urban renewal, on top of the foundational sins of enslaved Africans, layered on top of the seizure of land from the Massachusett tribe. The Boston Globe just this morning released a major study reporting our surge in income isolation, “with hundreds of thousands living in an economic isolation unlike anything in memory.” I can’t even be reconciled to my neighbor who won’t shovel his sidewalk safely enough, and God has given us the ministry of reconciliation? The alternative title for this sermon is “When God makes bad decisions.”
Why on earth would God entrust something so critical to us? Christianity’s foundational claim is that through the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our broken and divided humanity is reconciled, made whole, restored to the fullness of life abundant. Our brokenness isn’t our ultimate condition; our death is not the end of the story. God decides to give this ministry of reconciliation to a people who can’t reconcile over snow parking space savers?
We who live in cities have been entrusted with ministry of reconciliation, not in the abstract, but with our particular neighbors.
I think, I think the God who knows the number of hairs on our head is invested in the particulars. This ministry of reconciliation entrusted to us is not some cosmic, global reconciliation, but the reconciliation of particular people in particular places. I am not called to begin by reconciling North and South Korea, but begin by reconciling to my careless neighbor, my sister who didn’t take the recycling out again, my work colleague who seems like he hears only every 5th word I say, and the only high school friend who seems only capable of using Facebook for cruelty. This is reconciliation in the particulars. No reconciliation is possible if we do not first try to see as God sees. Reconciliation in this way is not broad and global, but tiny, local, particular, like the first green shoots of spring in that narrow band where the cement breaks open.
The theologian Miroslav Wolf sees God at work in this particularity of reconciliation. In his book Exclusion & Embrace, Wolf says that God is partial. “In a sense, because God is partial to everyone—including the powerful, whom God resists in order to protect the widow and the stranger. God sees each human being concretely, the powerful no less than the powerless. God notes not only their common humanity, but also their specific histories, their particular psychological, social, and embodied selves with their specific needs. When God executes justice, God does not abstract but judges and acts in accordance with the specific character of each person.” (222).
As Paul writes to the Church in Corinth, he gives these cranky Corinthians a new name, a new job description “Ambassadors.” In verse 20 he writes “ 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.” It is mighty hard to be reconciled to our odious neighbors if we are not reconciled to God. It is mighty hard to see others as God sees, if we cannot imagine ourselves as God sees us: worthy, lovable, precious, particular.
If you have taken the MBTA Redline into the city, all the way to Downtown Crossing, you’ve probably seen a Business Improvement District Ambassador.
Dressed in bright orange polo shirts & unflattering green windbreakers, these 40 women and men are stationed where the lost and lonely wander. It’s a city program to make the Downtown Crossing area a little friendlier and more manageable.
An out of town tourist wrote about the Ambassadors: “Hello, my wife and I just returned from a wonderful vacation to New England where we spent 5 days in Boston and a couple weeks in NH and ME. We just wanted to say how pleased we were with the assistance from Ambassador Michael. When we approached Michael for directions to the Common, instead of pointing the direction, he actually walked us there himself. We aren’t used to this specialized service. Please let him know again how happy we were with your organization and in particular, Michael.” In Particular. Larry from Pennsylvania was not left alone in the city, but helped, and not by just anyone, but “in particular, Michael.” Michael didn’t just point out the direction, “He actually walked us there himself.” And maybe that’s what it could be like for us to be Ambassadors of reconciliation too- to not just point out the way, but actually walk there ourselves.