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June 13, 2004

"The Truth IS Reconciliation" - June 13, 2004

Proper 6, Year C; June 13, 2004
Galatians 2:11-21; Psalm 32:1-8; Luke 7:36-50

When I lived in Scotland, I had a job that gave me the most vivid image I have of what the kingdom of God looks like.

It was the Cornerstone Café. The Cornerstone was a business started by Brother Basil, a Franciscan monk, who wanted to see what would happen in a business that really took seriously Jesus' more radical demands. Among other things, this meant that the Cornerstone had a policy that was very unusual in a profitable restaurant -- and the Cornerstone WAS profitable. When I worked there, I used to explain the policy this way to new employees:

"We have two kinds of customers: paying customers and non-paying customers. Give customers whatever they order, whether or not you think they plan to pay for it. Treat all customers alike."

The policy attracted quite a few homeless people as regular customers. Another policy attracted a different set of customers: there was always an excellent, hearty, complete, and healthy meal on the menu that could be bought for two British pounds or less -- the equivalent of about $3.50 or so at the time. That policy attracted all kinds of backpackers from all over the world who were trying to see the city on the cheap, and it also brought in a lot of low-wage clerks and cleaners from the many shops and offices nearby.

The Cornerstone's location brought in a third set of customers. The café was in what used to be the crypt of St. John's Episcopal Church, which is right in the middle of the prestigious city center -- right across the street from the Royal Bank of Scotland, and a block or so from the Scottish government headquarters in Charlotte Square. As a result, the Cornerstone was the best place for bank executives and government officials to get a delicious lunch on a tight schedule.

The free meals, the good prices, the location -- these are the rational explanations for how we all came together there, but I think there was something more too -- the spirit of a place built with Jesus at the center -- that did it. So all of these kinds of people, from the richest to the poorest, and from New York to New Guinea, were regulars for lunch at the Cornerstone. And all seating in the café was at very long tables and benches, like you'd find in a monastery dining hall, so it was impossible to isolate yourself at a table. A busy weekday would find every table packed, with all kinds of people sitting next to one another. You could look down a bench and see how they were seated -- banker, homeless, bureaucrat, student, ambassador, homeless, janitor, banker, backpacker … all gathered because the feast was there.

The sight of all of these people gathered at a table that honored all equally -- rich and poor, powerful and marginalized, and folks from all kinds of cultures and languages -- that's something I recall when I try to imagine what the kingdom is God is like, when I try to imagine the vast crowd from every nation gathered at the climax of history to cry "Holy! Holy! Holy!"

I know a lot of us have similar images from times we stepped out of our comfort zones, and into a place where we experienced the Body of Christ more fully because of the diversity of those gathered with us. We've seen it at the Winter Shelter, breaking bread with the homeless. We've seen it with the people of La Resurrection. It's not impossible -- it's what we were created for. But it's a rare thing for most of us to see that kind of community, isn't it?

It's rare because we have a natural human need to feel understood, to be with people who speak our language, get our jokes, understand our priorities. We like to be with people for whom some things "go without saying" -- there are some things everyone just understands. So when we have a choice, we get together with "people like us."

It's only natural. In a lot of ways, it's how we order our world. It's not just about whom we invite over for dinner, or for a day on the water -- though it's definitely about that. But this is a culture in which we value the freedom to choose -- perhaps above all else. We use our money and our power -- and in this community, we have a great deal of both -- to increase our spectrum of choices in more and more areas of life.

So now we don't just choose our friends. When we can, we choose our employers. But we don't necessarily want to live where we work, so to the extent we can afford it -- and for a lot of us, that's a very great extent -- we choose our neighbors.

As a result, segregation isn't a thing of the past. Many of us have the money and power to choose with whom we're in community, who is our neighbor, and we choose to live with people like us. We want to fit in with our neighbors, and we want them to fit in with us. It's only natural. Our kids go to school with the kids of people like us. They want to fit in too. And that's only natural. In party politics and church politics too, we look for opportunities to get together with people like us, and that can bring increasing polarization. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the extremes of just about any spectrum seem headed further and further away from each other. Is that what the world is like -- like centrifugal force, with everything spinning around in a way that pushes us further and further away from the center?

It looks that way sometimes -- but appearances can be deceptive. We see the truth of what the world is like -- the truth of who made the world and what for, and where it's headed -- in places like the Cornerstone Café, and the Winter Shelter, and La Resurrection -- in places where we're brought together by something that runs deeper than our differences, by our shared hunger for something more. It happens in places like St. Martin's.

It happens especially in places like St. Martin's, specifically because of the friction we experience, challenging though it can be sometimes. I thought of that friction when I read the epistle for today, from Galatians 2. We're tempted to think of the early church as a place where everybody agreed on everything, where everyone spoke the same language. But they didn't. They were from different cultures, and they had some very different ideas about how God wanted them to live in community. Sometimes, the conflicts in churches that Paul founded got so serious, and so seriously nasty, that Paul had to say, as he does in 1 Corinthians 11, "if you're going to behave this way at the Eucharist, you may as well stay home and eat there." And I'm not talking about conflicts between heretics and true believers; I'm talking about conflicts between good people who sincerely think they're doing right, and sincerely think the other person is very wrong. I'm talking about conflicts like the one between St. Peter (called "Cephas," "the rock," in the reading) and St. Paul. We get Paul's side of the story in Galatians 2, but I'd be willing to bet Peter would tell a different version. Hearing only one side of the story -- and generally being a bit of a Paul fanatic anyway -- I'm inclined to say that Paul sounds like he's making all the right points.

But who sounds right when you have only one side of the story is beside the point. If their views were contradictory, whom would you want to kick out of the church -- Peter or Paul? Who wants to host the "apostolic smackdown," the reality show that eliminates disciples one by one as they make mistakes? These quirky, cranky, deeply flawed guys are rightly called heroes of the faith -- and I call them that not because they were always right, but because they lived in their relationship with one another what we as Christians believe the world God made, the world God loves and sent his Son to redeem, is really like.

God's world is not a galaxy of bodies spinning further and further away from a dying star, because God -- the living Creator, the Redeemer who rose from the dead, and the Spirit who breathes life through Creation -- is alive, and is at the center of it all.

If I may use a more mundane image, the world is more like a washing machine. It's always in motion, which can be dizzying at times, but the truth is that at the very center is God the Agitator -- living and moving and active, drawing what's at the margins in toward the center and what's in the center out to the margins. There's a lot of friction in that process. That's how laundry is transformed.

We need one another in that process. We need every Peter and Paul -- and the Marys as well. Wherever you are on your journey of faith, we need the truth of your testimony. As the old song goes, "if you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus, who died to save us ALL." Because we were not set in community to agree with one another, but to love and forgive one another, that we might serve as agents of reconciliation for the world. The more different kinds of members gather as the Body of Christ, the more fully we are equipped as a community to show the world who Christ is.

We have a chance to do that -- to participate actively as agents of God's reconciliation -- every time we exchange the Peace, and every time we gather around the Eucharistic table. When we do that, we experience God's reconciling love.

We have a chance to do that in places like the BRIDGE meeting this Thursday evening, where hundreds people of faith from all over Anne Arundel County will talk about a policy that, like the policies Brother Basil established to put Jesus at the center of the Cornerstone Café, can make this county a place where all of those who offer their gifts to the community -- teachers and police officers and others who make our community work -- can afford to live here themselves. We can choose to make our set of neighbors look more like the set of those whom God loves. When we do that, we have a chance to glimpse God's justice, which is "the corporate face of God's love."1 When we glimpse God's justice and God's love, we experience those moments of transcendent wonder, the kind that makes us want to shout "Holy! Holy! Holy!"

Our community is not a dinner party, where someone coming in to the feast who doesn't fit our idea of "people like us" is seen an unwelcome interruption. We worship a God who welcomes the stranger. We know we're due for a fresh demonstration of the kind of extravagant love we see when we view no one as beyond the boundaries of God's love, no one as unwelcome within the boundaries of our communities, and no one as uninvited to the Eucharistic feast.

Thanks be to God!

June 13, 2004 in Luke, Ordinary Time | Permalink

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