Word For Word 11/21/18

Rev. Grant VanderVelden

Hooligans lit the fire in the first-grade classroom with a pile of textbooks. But textbooks apparently don’t burn very well. The classroom was destroyed, and the one next to it damaged, but that was all.

It was a Saturday evening, so the custodian called the principal at home to report the fire. When the principal arrived at the school, it wasn’t just the blackened remains of arson that made her sick. It was graffiti sprayed on the walls that truly turned her stomach: “No co-existence with cancer.” “Death to Arabs.”

The principal was an Arab, and her school was the rarest of things to be found in the heart of Jerusalem: a school whose students were 50 percent Arab and 50 percent Jewish. And on this dark night, she was in mourning.

“My first thought was, ‘Our dream is finished.’ Surely NO parent will want to send their children here anymore.”

When we start our earthly life, we think - perhaps naively - that if we are sincere and well-intentioned then, even if we made mistakes (as we all do), we will avoid making enemies – escape having anyone who so dislikes us so strongly that they ridicule us in private and shun us in public.

But then, one day, you wake up and realize that, as it turns out, you now have a list of folks with whom you were once friends but to whom you no longer speak.

With some of these people, a chance encounter at the grocery store triggers a nervous glance down at your shopping list or a fast juke into frozen foods to avoid the newfound foe you spot in the bread aisle.

Your chance encounter brings an ugly and uncomfortable reminder of how deep and wide the rupture is between the two of you. In those moments, there is no conversation - only sheer avoidance and icy stares.

Yes, it hurts, and yet, it happens. Rifts and gaps open up between friends and neighbors for all kinds of reasons. Those who once complimented now critique. Those who once thought well of you couldn’t possibly be any less charitable now.

Back in Jerusalem, as the principal stared blankly at her torched and vandalized school, all hope for what might be lay covered in soot and sullied with spray paint.

Opened in 1998 after months of careful planning, Hand in Hand school was an educational gamble in getting bitter enemies to exist together in some semblance of peace. The school was bilingual - the sounds of Hebrew and Arabic tongues echoed throughout its classrooms, hallways, gymnasiums, lunch rooms and playgrounds. All holidays were celebrated - or at least mentioned and discussed.

In fact, everything was discussed by teachers, students, parents, and staff alike: Every police barrier, every supposedly “protective” wall. Every kidnapping, every random beating. Every riot, every bombing. Every military offensive, every inevitable counter-offensive.

There was no political consensus about any of it, but there was a feeling - a hopeful feeling of possibility - that maybe, just maybe, things could be different. The principal sketched out their dream. “We are all here. We have to figure out a way to live together. They say we live in a bubble, but it’s more like a cauldron.”

The apostle Paul knew what that felt like. The church he’d planted in Corinth was filled with Corinthians dear to his heart, and though they were a feisty lot loaded with potential problems, Paul loved them. So how it must have hurt to learn that his reputation was being shattered in his beloved community.

After he’d left, some nay-sayers staggered into town and questioned Paul’s integrity. They challenged Paul’s credentials, claiming he had no right to call himself an apostle. They alleged Paul was a money-grubber and a charlatan whose motives were impure and whose so-called “gospel” was nothing but hogwash and heresy.

So, with gritted teeth, Paul writes the Corinthians to defend himself. Paul’s desire to clear his name combines with his effort to repeat the true Gospel and its centerpiece of reconciliation: By grace alone and because of Jesus, God has reconciled you to the divine self, and that work of reconciliation is now yours to continue. (2 Corinthians 5:17-21)

On that appalling Saturday night at Hand in Hand, parents rushed to the school as word of the arson and vandalism quickly spread across Jerusalem. At first, the emotionally shattered principal’s imagined fears were becoming reality. One parent told her that she was withdrawing her child from school immediately.

But in classic Hand in Hand fashion, parents and students gathered in the library for a conversation about what had just happened to them and their school. Arab and Jewish parents alike vented their fear, frustration and anger.

From a purely human point of view, it’s easy to see alienation among opposing groups and chalk it up to just the way life goes. It is what it is. One friend says the wrong thing to another and that’s that.

Friends drift apart. Romances break up. Marriages shatter into pieces.

In congregations, corporations and communities, people come, and people go. Some folks like each other; some can’t stand each other. Happens all the time. It’s the same all over.

In 2016, you voted for Trump; they voted for Clinton. This year, you voted for Reynolds; they voted for Hubble. And suddenly, a little black circle drawn with a Sharpee pen in a voting booth secures the border between us and them. Suck it up, cupcake!

But the Gospel screams God’s thunderous “NO!” to that kind of casual dismissal of alienation.

Contemporary theologian Miroslav Volf once wrote that, in God’s kingdom, it cannot be just impersonal forces of evil that are done away with. It cannot be just the entire creation that is reconciled with its God through Christ. NO! It has to get more specific than that.

Before we can all dwell happily together in the peace of God’s kingdom, there needs to be real reconciliation between earthly enemies. Perpetrators and victims must embrace. Those who have lived in conflict need to have that conflict put away if there is to be peace.

It’s not just the lion and the lamb that need to learn to curl up next to one another but all of us who have lived as the human equivalents of lambs and lions in how we have treated each other.

There can be no peace in God’s kingdom so long as there is anyone there who would just as soon cross over to the other side of a street in order to avoid you.

To be reunited with former friends and estranged family members must be our hope and our work - even as we also hope for other things, like a day when sickness and cancer will be no more.

But even as, for now, we are not done with tumors, so also for now we also may never be fully reconciled with everyone.

Sometimes it’s sinful stubbornness that blocks the fixing of things. Other times, the jagged-edged wounds are simply too deep and too raw, and our efforts to be kind are rebuffed or just make matters worse.

The sad reality is that there are times when there isn’t a blessed thing we can do to repair our broken relationships. Still, that doesn’t mean we stop trying. We are the bearers of God’s healing grace with the Holy Spirit living inside us.

Of course we don’t treat each other like pieces of meat! Of course we don’t ever think that broken relationships are no big deal. No! We are caught up in the grip of God’s cosmic reconciliation in Christ.

Jesus died so that fractured relationships, dysfunctional families, lost friendships, and ruptured social circles can be restored.

The result of this cosmic reconciliation is that we now look at everything differently. We look at everything and everyone through the lens of reconciliation. We’ve been appointed ambassadors of reconciliation to invite others to believe in Jesus and thus find themselves in a good relationship with God.

But it’s not just about the vertical relationship between our Father in heaven and his people on earth. Being caught up in God’s reconciling salvation is supposed to change everything on our human, horizontal plane, too.

Try and remember all that as you gather with friends and family this Thanksgiving holiday.

Give thanks not just that Christ has reconciled you with God and made things right between you and the Creator.

Give thanks also for the gift of the Holy Spirit, who gives you the courage to make things right with those folks you avoid at the grocery store, with those folks who always seem to be starting fires in your life, with those folks who graffiti-up your soul and spirit, with those folks sitting on the other side of the political aisle - maybe even the friends and family sitting across from you at the Thanksgiving table.

For the sake of each of us, Jesus laid down his life - something worth no less than eternal life. And in return, Jesus demands that our earthly lives be lived for the sake of our oneness with each other.

Maybe it all sounds like fantasy.

But back in Jerusalem - in the spiritual heart of the Promised Land, fantasies apparently DO trump reality. Because in the midst of the hard conversation that night at Hand in Hand School, the parent who planned to pull her child out was reminded of their common, hard-to-imagine dream.

“There is no place else I would want my child to be,” she shared as talking things through drained the swamp of anxiety and alienation.

A Hand in Hand student then asked if there would be school on Monday.

“Yes,” the principal said. “And there will be homework.”

And on Monday, when the school doors re-opened wide for both Arabs and Jews, the students scrawled some graffiti of their own:

“We are not enemies,” read one sign. “We continue together without hatred and without fear.”

May it be so. Amen, and amen!

Rev. Grant VanderVelden, First Presbyterian Church
Doctoral Student at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary

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