Community United Church of Christ (St. Paul Park, Minnesota)
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:11-21
I’d tell you how great vacation was, but I don’t want to make you jealous. Javen and I just got back yesterday from more than a week in Montana. The occasion was my 15-year high school reunion, but the most important parts of the trip were visiting with my grandmother, aunt and cousins whom I rarely see these days.
Being in Montana, one can’t help but also notice the big sky and expansive scenery. On our last full day, Javen and I went with his folks to see Glacier National Park. This was a postcard-ready destination if there ever was one. Clear glacial streams, pristine evergreen forests, cool mountain air and jagged mountain peaks, each one higher than the last. We spent the day hiking and driving through Glacier, each turn of the road revealing scenery more stunning than before. By mid-afternoon, we were too glutted with nature’s riches to stop long and consider one more thing. So we drove past glacially-carved, pristine St. Mary’s Lake, and headed out the main eastern entrance to Glacier.
Once beyond the Park, we drove for almost an hour on narrow, winding roads to where we had made reservations that night: Browning, Montana. On our way, the scenery changed dramatically. Thick pine forests gave way to dry, dusty flatland with sun-scorched grasses, just a few cattle, and hardly a coulee to hide a stream in. There were only a few signs of human life—dilapidated mobile homes with old tires on the roofs so what shingles there were didn’t blow away, and rusted out pickup trucks of the same vintage as O.J. Simpson’s Bronco. Javen and I said to one another, “This is depressing.” Even the town’s name was drab: Browning, Montana. We didn’t realize when we booked the room that Browning is the largest community on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
Looking out the windows of the car that afternoon, we regarded the reservation with what the apostle Paul would describe as “a human point of view”. We saw poverty, scarcity and otherness. Each block of small homes we drove past was an occasion to tell ourselves that we didn’t belong here. We checked into our motel, which appeared well-maintained based on its surroundings. I’ve stayed in similar places before—independently-run family businesses that are humble but serviceable, perhaps one of the most reliable sources of income in the community. This place lacked the branding of a national chain and some creature comforts, but its caretakers put effort into maintaining it the best they could. Nevertheless, and “from a human point of view”, we decided we couldn’t spend the last night of our vacation in Browning. So we told a version of the truth that we were headed somewhere else and were ahead of schedule, got most of our money back from the motel, and booked it out of town.
I’m not sure what I would do differently next time, but what we did felt wrong. I know too much about racism and white western expansion to believe that places like Browning come about by accident. That reservation represents centuries of disinvestment in Native communities. Our own fear for self-preservation and comfort led us to take our money and leave, disinvesting further. That’s what white and class privilege look like—finding apparently good reasons to avoid poor and non-white spaces, escaping dis-ease and otherness for the comfortable ease of “people like us”. I’m sure that most folks in Browning do not want to live in the conditions that we saw. But the tilted scales of race and class mean that only some in America have a real option to choose something different.
What if it did not have to be this way? What if I had regarded the community of Browning through another lens? “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation”, Paul writes. “Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” This means that old seeking-comfort-in-sameness and separating-from-those-who-are-different doesn’t have to be that way. The Christian prerogative leads us in the opposite direction of white privilege. Christ leads us in facing and joining with that which is sorrowful, trusting that despite outward appearances, God has made all things new.
After all, isn’t that exactly what God did in the first place through the means of Christ? Christ is God’s ambassador, coming from the perfection of heaven to another space entirely foreign—this world that has so much suffering and loss. By the will of God and the power of resurrection, what appeared to be suffering and crucifixion for Christ himself (enduring the worst of human brutality and otherness to God) turned into the way “everything has become new”. Christ did that, reconciling sinful and broken humanity to God through the death and the resurrection which we share in him. In so doing, the apostle Paul writes, God’s victory has made wrongdoing into righteousness. We too are called to such a ministry of reconciliation. In Christ we are sent to go into spaces that are different, even fearfully alien, yet with trust that brokenness is being reconciled to God in every place.
This is not simple or automatic. You and I have experienced decades of cultural scripts telling us that reconciliation of broken relationships and sinful systems is not possible. Stay with your own kind, because you’ll just put your foot in your mouth if you go someplace you don’t belong. Republicans and Democrats are never going to get along anyway. The wealthy and poor are like oil and water—they don’t mix well. There’s always going to be animosity between the races. Men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Stick to your own side of the road. Keep your eyes on your own paper.
At its most devilish, this self-talk taps into appropriate regard for personal safety and blows up fearful anxieties far out of proportion. That discomfort in the face of the “other”, and the disparities it creates between communities, are signs of the same old sin that God has come to make new, reconciling in Jesus Christ. God has sent we who bear Christ’s name as ambassadors of that reconciliation.
I didn’t get it right in Browning, but I should have. After all, I had my own eyes opened to new possibilities by a member of this church who served as an ambassador to me. Several years ago, one of our gentlemen took me for a ride on his motorcycle. I’d admired his shiny machine for years, and finally accepted the invitation to go for a ride even though I’d never been on a motorcycle. It was perhaps the best 90 minutes I’ve ever spent in ministry! I got a tour of the backcountry around here, driving between sun-dappled corn fields, stopping by Bailey’s nurseries, and feeling the summer wind in our faces. Near the end of the ride we crossed the river into Prescott, entering the foreign territory of Wisconsin. What’s more, we pulled up and parked outside the No Name Saloon.
Now, your pastor has been to a fair number of bars, but I’d never been to a biker bar before. I felt all kinds of nerves washing over me: would I be safe? How should I act and what should I say? Would people judge me for being a non-biker? Did I have anything in common with the people inside? My host went in first and introduced me around, proudly declaring that I was his pastor—causing me to cringe a bit. We had a glass of something to drink, and the easy conversations back and forth helped me realize how unjustified my fears were. Each person there was warm, friendly and kind, welcoming me into a space that felt like an extension of their home. I’ve never been past a biker bar since that didn’t remind me of that day, and I’ll always be grateful to the ambassador from our church who helped me discover such unexpected connections.
Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor who helped the world grasp the full tragedy of that event, died yesterday. In one article remembering him, I came across this quotation that summarized his orientation to the world. “Life”, he said, “is not a fist. Life is an open hand waiting for some other hand to enter it.”
Isn’t that the way it is? Fear, division and misinformation can fall away when Christians act with courage and reach out our open hands across old social boundaries. As faith leads us across limits of judgment and perception, it can open fisted, fearful hearts so that we can truly see the image of God everywhere. Whether we are in a national park, a Native reservation, or a biker bar.
Let us pray: God of reconciliation, give to your people a peace that passes all understanding. Put aside all grievances and divisions, so that we might see you making all things new in Christ. Amen.
 Colby Itkowitz, “‘I still believe in man in spite of man:’ Remembering Elie Wiesel in his own inspiring words”, The Washington Post online, published July 2, 2016.