On Reconcilliation

Passage: 2 Corinthians 5:16b-21
Date: March 31, 2019
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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Every once in a while I wish I could go back in time and visit this congregation in Corinth, because reading between the lines of Paul’s letters, I sense a quirky, opinionated, faithful, fallible group of people who were trying to follow Jesus and not doing a very good job of it.

Oh, to have been there when Paul established the congregation! Or to have been there when they read aloud one of Paul’s letters, with comments from the peanut gallery about how he had abandoned them, how he had promised to visit but hadn’t, how he never kept his word to them.

What was it like when they had their potluck for the Lord’s Supper – did some people really get there early, eat all the food they brought, drink too much, and leave early, so that those who came later and couldn’t bring as much went hungry? Did they feel chastised when Paul wrote them that love was patient and kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude?

It’s no wonder Paul didn’t fulfill his promise to visit them again—they don’t exactly sound like the kind of congregation people would want to spend time with. The relationship between the great apostle and the Corinthian Christians was so fraught—miscommunication and mistrust led the way there, and by the time we get to these verses from today’s lesson, the relationship is all but broken.

So there’s a reality grounding this conversation about reconciliation. The relationship between Paul and the congregation in Corinth has broken down, and Paul knows it, and the Corinthians know it. We only get Paul’s perspective on this; we know he thinks the Corinthians are selfish and greedy and immoral because he tells them that they are. We don’t know if the Corinthians wrote him back or what they thought of him. Like I said, we might imagine a lot, reading between the lines.

Into the midst of all this conflict Paul encourages this struggling community, this community he himself struggles with, to be focused on the work of reconciliation. “Encourages” isn’t really the right word – Paul pleas with them, begs them even: be reconciled to God. Not just for my sake, and not just for Christ’s sake, but for your own sake, engage in this work. For the purposes of today’s sermon, and maybe beyond that, let’s say that reconciliation is the reunion of those who had been estranged.

We don’t know what happened to that community, if they heeded Paul’s pleas and sought an end to their estrangement, a reconciliation, or if they fell apart, or if they kept up with their divisive tactics like providing food for the rich and offering nothing to the poor and hungry.

I’ve been thinking a lot about hunger this week. Last weekend we visited my mother for a few days of spring break and we went to the fantastic Monterey Bay Aquarium. We were on a behind-the-scenes tour. Our guide was talking about a recent shark exhibit and was asked if the sharks got along. She said, in so many words, that all the animals got along just fine as long as everyone had enough to eat.

As we were traveling home and because of schedules, I skipped lunch and by the time we got home around 5:30, I was definitely hangry. Do you know that word, hangry? It’s what we used to call “low blood-sugar cranky,” a combination of being hungry and therefore angry: hangry. Whenever I get this way, I remind myself that a whole lot of people in the world live this way all the time: hungry but through no choice of their own.

I did some research about hunger locally. Portland Public Schools has some good information and I looked at statistics from elementary schools in our own backyard of north and northeast Portland. Of the 22 K-5 or K-8 schools in this quadrant, 10 have more than a third of their students receiving free breakfast and free or reduced-price lunch—that’s 1,665 children in our neck of the woods whose families experience food insecurity on a regular basis. In all of Portland Public Schools, 17,835 kids, or 36% of the student body, experience food insecurity. Is that okay? 

In the U.S. 49 million Americans struggle to put food on the table. Here hunger isn’t caused by a lack of food but rather the continued prevalence of poverty. More than 1 in 5 children is at risk of hunger. Among African-Americans and Latinos, it’s 1 in 3. 40% of food is thrown out in the U.S. every year, about $165 billion worth. All of this uneaten food could feed 25 million Americans. (https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-hunger-us)

Of course we see hunger not only on our back doorstep but all over the world. Across the globe, 1 in 7 people go hungry and yet 1/3 of all food is wasted. (https://www.foodaidfoundation.org/world-hunger-statistics.html) The issue is not that there isn’t enough food. Those who study these things find multiple reasons for hunger and food insecurity, including poverty, seasonal food shortages, war and other conflict, economics, policy, gender inequality, and climate change. (https://www.concernusa.org/story/top-9-causes-world-hunger/)

The result of hunger, and its related poor nutrition, is devastating, especially for children.Children who are malnourished experience stunted growth and developmental disability. Hungry children are not able to learn. Good nutrition for pregnant mothers and for children up to age five is critical for health later in life, yet one out of six children—roughly 100 million—in developing countries is underweight, and one in four of the world’s children is stunted. In developing countries the proportion can rise to one in three. (https://www.foodaidfoundation.org/world-hunger-statistics.html)

I struggle to reconcile these bleak statistics with my own all-too-easy access to healthy food which I can afford, but I know we’ve come a long way from those simplistic childhood messages about cleaning our own plates because there are starving children on the other side of the world. Maybe the question is an earlier one or a deeper one: how much are we to care about the well-being of our brothers and sisters and kin around the world?

There are many ways to answer that question; we are not void of resources. For those of us who gather in a church on a Sunday morning we might look to our faith, to stories in scripture, or to theology to answer that question. It’s possible that our friend the apostle Paul might have something to say here in his second letter to the Corinthians. What does it mean to care about our neighbors around the world in light of these words:

“We regard no one from a human point of view….”
“If anyone is in Christ, there is new creation….”
“In Christ, God was reconciling the world to God’s own self….”
“Our trespasses are not counted against us….”

Friends, there is good news here, and this is the good news: God’s work of reconciliation, the work of reuniting those who were estranged from God, is already done, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We are now living the new creation; we have already been made new, and our trespasses are not counted against us. You might say the war has already been won; there’s just some clean-up work to do.

After any war, there is clean up to be done: debris to be managed, negotiations to be had, and the work of rebuilding community where there had once been sides, allies and enemies. That takes considerable effort; that requires seeing the former enemy as a new neighbor. It requires new vision, seeing through lenses that are more god-like than human.

In human history, there has been a tendency to see the poor or the hungry or the outcast as less-than, as somehow deserving of their situation. Paul would criticize that point of view; Jesus would too. If anything, seeing poverty in our midst, acknowledging that 17,835 children and youth across Portland are food insecure, should step up our efforts at reconciliation. 

As a reconciled people, as new creations, how might we be ambassadors for Christ to these children or to children who face malnutrition worldwide? It’s so easy: we feed them. And it’s so complicated: we have to figure out how to get food to those folks, when war and economics and politics and natural disasters get in the way. So here are some things you can do:

You can donate food to places like Northeast Emergency Food Program or Mainspring. You can participate in Grace Meals with other folks from Westminster and sign up to do that at the Mission and Service table during coffee hour. You can donate money to the Oregon Food Bank because they are able to stretch a dollar pretty far.

You can pester your elected officials to set aside adequate funds for things like SNAP, commonly called food stamps. Families who are doing the hard work of moving out of poverty often find their benefits cut in that crucial transition and slip back into poverty for lack of adequate support.

And because we are encouraging letter writing this Lent, there are letters you can write that could affect global hunger and malnutrition. Bread for the World is a nonpartisan, Christian nonprofit that works to end hunger in the U.S. and worldwide, and every year they promote the offering of letters. This year they are encouraging letters to elected officials to vote for bills that will fund programs that promote global child nutrition.

And we’re making it easy for you. After worship, during coffee hour in the Great Hall, there are tables with sample letters, with stationery and envelopes, with the address of the Portland and Vancouver area U.S. representatives and Oregon and Washington senators. All you need to do is sit down, write a letter, and address the envelope. We’ll even pay for the postage. If you don’t have time this morning, we have little cards with instructions of how to go online and e-mail your elected official.

Do you remember what our tour guide said about sharks? When all the animals had enough to eat, everyone got along. We are more than mere animals; we are, in fact, new creations. We see hungry people, our neighbors, and if we really want to reconcile with them, if we really want to end the rifts between us, maybe making sure everyone has enough to eat is a good place to start. 

Gandhi once observed, “There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” Perhaps in taking up the work of feeding people, and eliminating the barriers that prevent food from getting to people, we will not only reconcile with the hungry but reconcile with God as well. Or, as Pope Francis said, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. This is how prayer works.” May it be so.