After the Birth Pangs: Reconciliation

November 15th, 2015

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

I met a man the other day named Philbert. It was an unexpected meeting. I was going to lunch with a friend, and he emailed and asked if he could bring along Philbert. I said sure. It turns out Philbert is a priest from Rwanda. He was born in Burundi in a refugee camp. His parents had fled there in 1959 during the violence that sparked as Rwanda became independent from Belgium, so he grew up in this camp. He had no passport, no country of association.

There was an Anglican Church there to which Philbert’s family belonged. He was a good student and at the age of 29 won a scholarship to study theology in England. He took it and traveled there with his wife.

In 1994, as he was approaching graduation, war broke out in Rwanda. Hutus slaughtered Tutsi. Philbert, though he had never set foot in Rwanda, felt God calling him to go there and start a ministry of reconciliation. He asked his wife, and she said, “Do what God is telling you to do.” This irritated Philbert. He wanted her to make the decision. She was wiser than that. God’s call persisted, so he picked up after graduation and with no job and few contacts moved to Rwanda.

Philbert did what priests do: he went to see the Bishop, who was less than helpful. He asked Philbert who sent him. Philbert said God. He asked Philbert if God told him, the Bishop, that Philbert was to do something else, would Philbert listen to him? Philbert said no, that God had put a calling upon his life to create a ministry of reconciliation in Rwanda. The Bishop said that Rwanda was not ready for reconciliation. Philbert said God thought differently. That conversation was successful only in isolating Philbert from the Anglican Church in Rwanda. For 18 months Philbert and his wife, and now his young daughter, lived off the charity of friends in England.

But Philbert did not give up. God had put a calling upon his life, and he trusted God. Even as wars with the Bishop raged, famine threatened his family, and earthquakes of insecurity and uncertainty rolled through his mind, Philbert trusted God. God had put a calling upon his life, and Philbert believed that the setbacks and trials and tribulations were nothing more than words of false prophets. Philbert believed what Jesus said: “Beware of those that lead you astray.” Because there will be wars and rumors of wars; there will be earthquakes and famines, but this isn’t the end, it is the beginning. It is the beginning of the birth-pangs.

Philbert climbed up on the shoulders of Jesus, and he looked out over the battlefields; Philbert climbed up on the shoulders of Jesus and he looked beyond the walls of nations and kingdoms; Philbert climbed up on the shoulders of Jesus, and he saw over the rubble of earthquakes and the desolation of barren fields. From the shoulders of Jesus, Philbert saw the promise that God had put before him; it was the promise made by Jesus, seen in his life, and sealed by his resurrection. It was the promise of reconciliation.

The apostle Paul says it this way in his second letter to the Corinthians: “All this is from God,” he writes, “who through Jesus, reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18). That is what Philbert saw: the ministry of reconciliation. That was the calling God had set upon his life, and it is the calling that God has set upon each of our lives. And I’ll go further; it is the calling that God has set upon Epiphany Parish.

Jesus could have done anything. He could have ruled the world. He could have cured all diseases. He could have irradiated all hunger. But he didn’t because that is not why he came. Jesus didn’t come to rule over us. Jesus came to invite us to something bigger! Something with longer lasting impact! That is to be reconciled to God and reconciled with our neighbors.

Reconciliation is what can follow wars, battles, earthquakes, and famines. Reconciliation is what can come after the birth pangs. Reconciliation is the child. It is what can be born in the aftermath of adversity and human brokenness. Jesus came to reconcile us to God, and us to each other. He set reconciliation in motion, and now it belongs to us, the church.

It is our mission to raise the child of reconciliation to heal a broken world. Reconciliation is the child of the Church and it thrives when we own our broken history, when we learn to live with difference, and when we seek to create a common peace. Reconciliation lives and thrives when we heal history, live with difference, and create a common peace.

That is what Philbert did, and in this way built a ministry of reconciliation in Rwanda. It is a called REACH, and I look forward to inviting him here to Epiphany one day to tell us his story.

As a result of his success Philbert has been invited all over the world to talk about reconciliation because, as he told me, reconciliation works the same whether it is between Hutus and Tutsis, black South Africans and white South Africans, Muslims and Jews, husbands and wives, parents and children, students and professors, police and young black men, bishops and clergy, and even bishops and bishops.

Philbert gave me an example. He was in Boston visiting a friend, and while there he was introduced to Bishop Tom Shaw, who is now deceased. As they were visiting suddenly the Bishop made an abrupt turn in the conversation, as if a light bulb went off in his mind. He looked intently at Philbert and asked, “Philbert, since you have been able to create reconciliation between the Hutus and Tutsis, maybe you can help me.” Philbert said he swallowed hard. Bishop Shaw was formidable, accomplished, and some might even say, holy. “I’ll try,” Philbert replied.

Bishop Shaw went on, “There is this Bishop I can’t stand. She drives me crazy. What should I do?” And Philbert replied, “Forgive her and love her.” Bishop Shaw said, “That is a hard thing, Philbert.” And Philbert said, “Yes, it is a hard thing.” But it is what Jesus did for us, and it is what brings reconciliation to the world.

Philbert didn’t go to Rwanda knowing that it was love and forgiveness that brought about reconciliation. He went because he trusted God. And what he learned as he witnessed Tutsis and Hutus coming together is that love and forgiveness reconcile the world. And it is a hard thing, but it is the only thing. It is the most important thing. It is what Jesus, the son of God, chose to do: to love and to forgive. That is what reconciles us to God and us to one another.

And that is the mission of the church. It is what our new Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, talks about all the time: heal history; live with difference; create a common peace. That is the mission of the church, the mission of reconciliation.

Today is INGATHERING Sunday. It is the day we bring our financial pledges and prayers to the altar. And if you are wondering what is next at Epiphany, now that we have restored this campus (almost), well, know this: now the real work begins. Now we climb up on the shoulders of Jesus, and we look out beyond the wars and battles in our own lives. We look from the shoulders of Jesus beyond the famines of our spirit and the earthquakes of our misplaced anxieties. We look out at a world desperate for reconciliation. That is where we are going: to do the work of Jesus.

We seek to heal history. We seek to live with difference. We seek to create a common peace. We seek to nurture this child of the church, reconciliation, born from the birth pangs of suffering and adversity, and wherever we find it, there is opportunity for reconciliation. This is the Jesus Movement. We are the church. This is our mission.

You know how I know we are ready? Because I predicted that while we were not worshipping in the church during construction, attendance would drop. But it has gone up since September. I predicted that this environment, here in the Great Hall, would be inhospitable to newcomers. I was wrong on that count as well.

We are ready, because during the adversity of construction, you didn’t focus on the wars, battles, famines, and earthquakes. In the midst of this hot mess, you climbed up on the shoulders of Jesus and looked out beyond, to the mission of the church, and by your actions you said, “That is where we are going.” So that is where we are going. We are going to be the Philberts of Seattle.

What does that look like? I don’t know exactly; you tell me! It may have something to do with racial reconciliation, or work in prisons, or work with Muslims and refugees. It may mean a greater commitment to Princess Basma Center in Jerusalem, or the work of REACH in Rwanda. There is no shortage of need to reconcile us to God and us to one another. It may need to happen in homes, between husbands and wives, and parents and children.

But wherever it takes place it will require two things: love and forgiveness. And it will be hard, and it will be the most important, rewarding work you ever do. It will be the work you tell God about when you see God face to face. It will be what you thank Jesus for when you see Jesus face to face. It is what he brought to us, after all, and shared with us, and invited us into this ministry of reconciliation between us and God and us to one another.