Ministry of reconciliation OR Making friends | 19 January 2020

The first half of the audio is a historical reading of Mennonite Central Committee, and three members briefly telling of the MCC service experiences.  The sermon begins around the 17 minute mark.

Text: 2 Corinthians 5:18-20

Back in 2004, I had the opportunity to attend the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona, Spain.  Along with being happy to just be there, I was especially interested in how these different philosophies and religions would find common ground.  I attended seminars with titles like: “Middle East stories: The significance of the Holy Land in our Sacred Texts,” “A Buddhist-Christian dialogue on responses to environmental violence,” “Interreligious dialogue and non-negotiable dogmas.”  In between seminars there was plenty of time for random conversations with whoever I found sitting or walking next to me, most of them not Christian or American.

One of the things I remember most, now 16 years later, had nothing to do with theological dialogue.  It related to something we all had in common: We all had to eat.  There were plenty of options.  One of them was in a large tent by the conference center.  Every day of the Parliament members of the Sikh religion prepared, cooked, served and cleaned up a free lunch for everyone who wanted to eat with them.  Being a poor seminary student, I went every day.  So did many others.

As we learned, this meal had a name: Langar.  A langar is, by definition, a vegetarian meal Sikhs serve out of a community kitchen that is open to everyone, regardless of religion, race, economic status, etc.

At a large conference about religious cooperation and understanding, the langar enacted what those seminars with fascinating names, and pretty fascinating content, spoke of.

I must say, it’s eye opening to be on the receiving end of hospitality, to experience the whole thing from that side of table.  And let me tell you, ever since then, every time I have met, or even seen a Sikh, in person or on the screen, I have thought fondly of this meal.  The Sikhs are the people who offered hospitality and fed us from their kitchen, who treated us as friends.

As we’ve heard this morning, food, meals, “Bread, in God’s name bread” is at the heart of the origin of Mennonite Central Committee.  In this story, Mennonites were on both sides of the serving line.  Mennonites in Russia were starving during the Russian Revolution.  Mennonites in North America heard of their dire circumstances, organized a Central Committee, and soon were sending bread and clothes and tractors and people across water and land into those communities in need.

This did a couple very important things whose legacy continues up to today.  On the giving side, it brought together Anabaptists from different theological persuasions for a common mission.  Today Mennonite Central Committee US is owned by six Anabaptist denominations: Mennonite Church USA (that’s us), Brethren in Christ, Mennonite Brethren Churches, Conservative Mennonite Conference, Fellowship of Evangelical Churches, and Beachy Amish.  That’s a pretty wide tent.  A council for a parliament of (Anabaptist) religions.

On the receiving side, what began as Mennos helping Mennos, a family affair, very soon extended out to include those of many different religious and ethnic identities, much like that langar meal of the Sikhs who very literally had a big tent.

The biblical passage MCC has chosen to mark this centennial is Paul’s words to the Corinthians.  It includes this statement: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to Godself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”

This passage puts reconciliation at the center of God’s work and our work.

When Paul says, “All this is from God,” he really does mean “All this.”  Specifically, he had been talking about the new creation that takes place “in Christ” which is the biggest tent there is.  Creation renewed and rejuvenated through the outpouring of Divine grace and goodness leading to reconciliation.  “All this is from God, who reconciled us to Godself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”

The ministry of reconciliation is not just one of the things, it’s The Thing.  Kind of like in Harry Potter the Ministry of Magic is the thing.  That covers the whole project.  Everything falls underneath that as some kind of sub category of the larger work.  The Divine Spirit is the Minister of Reconciliation, thankfully less corruptible than the Minister of Magic.  We get to serve in all the different departments of the Ministry of Reconciliation.  Or, to put it more in muggle terms, God is the Reconciler-in-chief, and we’re the boots on the ground, cooks in the kitchen, hands in the garden, fingers at the knotting party.

I was interested to see that my trusty little New Testament Greek dictionary stirs another key word into the mix.  Under the definition of this word for reconciliation it says, “being put into friendship with God.”

Friendship.  Friendship as not just one of the things, but The Thing.

Like when Jesus said to his companions in the gospel of John, “I no longer call you servants, because the servant doesn’t know the master’s business”  You know, a servant-master relationship has these certain kind of dynamics that isn’t really what we’re about here.  Instead, Jesus says, “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I’ve heard from the Holy One.”

What if friendship with God and friendship with one another is The Thing, and what if friendship is intimately, definitionally – to create a word – tied up with this whole ministry of reconciliation thing, which is what we are to be about in this world.

I believe that one of MCC’s great gifts to the world right now, something we are all doing in our own way, is not just in its service to others, not just the bread and the comforters and the micro-loans and peace education, not just being on the giving side of the table, but in its making of friends.  It is not a small thing to have Americans making friends with Colombians and Chinese, Canadians making friends with North Koreans and Iranians, Mozambicans making friends with Ohioans, as was the case with Hilario who came through MCC to serve here in Columbus and worshipped with us for a while.

There is something deep in our evolutionary hardwiring that has us ask the question of any new person or group we encounter.  Is this friend or foe?  Is this person going to hurt me?  Is this group a threat?  Can I trust the leaders of this village?  Can I confide in this person?  Is there a chance this person could become a part of my people, those who I know are on my side if I need help?

When I say friend I don’t mean someone you want to hang out with on a Saturday evening or someone who looks at your vacation pictures on Facebook.  Not necessarily even someone you know really well, but someone with whom giving and receiving has formed a bond a lasts through time.

I like to think that the kind of faith MCC embodies has a similar effect of that langar meal that the Sikhs served.  An enactment of faith that forms substantive bonds of trust, a lasting sense of friendship which forms the primary way we think about one another and talk about one another.

So if someone talks bad about the Sikhs, I have a story to tell in which the Sikhs are the friends and not the enemies.  Those of you who have served in MCC have stories about friends you have made, often in places that others might view with skepticism or downright contempt.  You have stories.  We all have these kinds of stories, and it’s hard to argue with a story.

God is in the business of making friends in this world and so are we.  The ministry of reconciliation, the making of friends, is The Thing.  MCC continues to do this, now 100 years in.  God continues to do this, now 14 billion years in.  May God’s overflowing grace and goodness continue to guide us in the ministry of reconciliation, the making of friends.