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Sermon for October 21, 2012

Faith in the Public Square: The Meaning of Public Life
We have this task of reconciling people to God. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to God’s self, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And God gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making an appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. 2 Corinthians:18b-21
If you want to undermine American democracy, here’s my advice: Stifle dissent. Eliminate tension. How do you do that? Actually, it's already being done for us by fear mongers and haters, by  dividers and conquerors who make the political arena so abusive that many citizens want nothing to do with it.

We don’t have to jail or torture people to stifle dissent.  Here’s what we do. Start by making citizens so distrustful and dismissive of each other -- especially of those who are "different" in their political/religious/philosophical convictions or their sexual orientation/ ethnicity/race -- that the power of "We the People" dissipates as we tear each other apart instead of confronting democracy's true antagonists.

Get citizens to think of their neighbors as “those people.” Encourage citizens to express anger without insight. Create a civic emptiness that non-democratic powers, like big money, are ready, willing and eager to fill.

If you want to undermine the power of the public square, send people shopping at the mall. Really. The public square used to be the place where strangers would interact freely with each other.  Our word public is related to the word pub – the public house – the place where a cross-section of the community can be found sharing news, circulating gossip, discussing local issues, listening to music or talking sports. The community weaves itself in the public square.

In the 1960’s, Americans defined civil rights in the public square. Americans marched in the streets. Close your eyes and try to imagine the civil rights protests of the ‘60s happening at a mall. What power does a street demonstration have when no one is on the street to see it? Malls are private commercial enterprises that have one goal: to get consumers to spend money.  Yes, strangers gather at the mall, but there are limits on how many can gather and what they can do. The mall supports only non-controversial activities. Beggars and homeless people are banned from the mall. Explicit political activity is forbidden. So are soapbox orators. In my younger, zealous, Evangelical days, my friends and I used to go to the mall and persuade shoppers to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. We would approach unsuspecting bargain hunters with Gospel tracts, and start faith conversations with a lot of talk about hellfire and judgment scattered in. Let me tell you first hand that mall security does not approve of this. The mall is designed to minimize face-to-face encounters with other’s ideas and dreams, with their disappointments and passions.

I’m picking on shopping, but it’s not just about the mall. We see the decline of public life all around us. When I say, “public life,” I’m talking about places where strangers mingle, face-to-face; places where citizens can connect with  dignity, independence and vision.

I agree with Parker Palmer, who in his book Healing the Heart of Democracy, states, “The most important thing ‘We the People’ can do to restore democracy is to restore the venues and vitality of public life that we have opportunities to participate in on a daily basis” (108).

The truth is most people are good and decent. They want the best for themselves and their families. Most people have good morals and values. But let’s be clear. Public good doesn’t automatically flow from private virtue. Just because a person is an upright citizen does not mean he or she will serve the cause of justice. Good people do not always challenge the status quo. Moral people do not always take that which is merely legal and make it more ethical as well. Upright people do not always speak truth to power or take personal action against that which keeps us from living into our fullest potential for the common good.

We are individually held to account for our personal acts of charity or the lack thereof. We are responsible for how the actions we take influence our society in its treatment of the "least of these.” The stranger. The outcast. Those who are lost. Those who are struggling. Commitment to the poor and disadvantaged among us is a critical part of Christian social teaching. A Christian public social ethic invites the community to overcome every form of exploitation and oppression. We not only alleviate the most urgent needs in society, but also uncover the roots of evil and propose initiatives to make social, political and economic structures more just and humane.

When I think about the meaning of public life for Christians, I turn to this passage in 2 Corinthians. Our job is to be reconcilers. Ambassadors. That's what the author of 2 Corinthians tells his church friends. He says; the reason Christ came to us is to show us how much God loves this world, how much God wants to bring people closer to wholeness, and closer to one another. He says; think of yourselves as ambassadors entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation. Think of yourselves as the ones who build the bridges and do the work of healing. Use the power of Christ's love to connect people in ways deeper than words.

We sure have heard a lot of talk about Ambassadors lately, haven’t we? While the incident in Benghazi, Libya is being thrown around as a political weapon, I think something’s getting lost. In the debate over whose fault it was that American diplomats and soldiers died, neither candidate spends a lot of time talking about the character of Ambassador Chris Stevens, a person who really built connections and worked for healing.  Let’s not forget the human life at the center of all this, the life of someone who always lived as an ambassador.

Ambassador Chris Stevens' family created a website which they hope will not only share his story, but which will inspire others to live as he lived. Here is man whom both Hillary Clinton and John McCain called friend. He spent his life committed to the idea that people could be brought together, that East and West could build bridges of understanding. There’s a beautiful picture on the website of Chris Stevens and an Arab man laughing together. Go to the site and read the testimonials that Americans and Libyans, Israelis and Saudis have posted.  One Libyan man wrote, “Chris Stevens was loving to all people, there were no restrictions on his visa.”

Another wrote, “With sadness we grieve, and we shed tears, we will achieve your vision if it
takes one hundred years." Person after person, with names like Hassan, and Anne, Austin and Mahmud, David and Ibrahim, grieve and thank God for someone who made them feel significant. Each one witnesses to the power that one life can have, one life passionately committed to connection, to understanding, to true ambassadorship.

You are ambassadors for Christ, Scripture says. To you is entrusted the ministry of reconciliation. Surely Chris Stevens' life was something like this. And all of us here in this place? We too are called to live something like this, too. Our faith moves us to build better relations between individuals, between families, between ethnicities and nations. We, too, are called to build a better world with God's help. The work of reconciliation begins when we restore the public square and reclaim the meaning of public life.

A healthy public life engages the stranger in the public square. As Christ’s ambassadors, we say, “Come back. There are no strangers in the American experience. There are no strangers in our public life. We are building a community of reconciliation where all can participate equally and fully. We may not agree. We do not have to. Our strength is how we engage one another in our diversity.”

A healthy public life recognizes those on the margins of the public square. We say, “Come back. God’s love for you has nothing to do with your economic status, or where you live, or what you do for a job, where you come from or what you believe. We are building a community of reconciliation where outsiders are not a threat.

It’s not about changing “those people”. There are people who say, “Sure, you can have your share of our commonwealth, but first you have to become like one of us.” That’s not reconciliation. That’s called exclusion through assimilation. No, reconcilers and ambassadors meet people on their own terms and invite them to join together in lives of wholeness an peace. It takes wisdom. God’s wisdom. Wisdom that is  pure, wisdom that’s peaceful, wisdom that’s gentle, wisdom that’s willing to yield, and full of mercy, without partiality or hypocrisy.

When Chris and I were invited to Silver Spring as I was interviewing to become your Sr. Minister, we stayed in a city-center hotel. In between meetings and meals, we explored the Downtown Silver Spring area. It was a bright, beautiful October day. As we sat by the fountain, we saw people of all nations walking by. People of different generations interacted with each other as they enjoyed the sun, the farmer’s market, and the good vibe in the air. At one point, a young boy approached a stranger, an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair, and they began to talk and laugh as the boy’s parents looked on. It was beautiful. It was such an idyllic urban tableau, we accused the Search Committee of hiring actors to express the greatness of Silver Spring. I know that the tableau we experienced had its flaws, but it demonstrated the possibility and promise of strangers coming together. That’s the power of the public square. That’s the meaning of public life.

A healthy public life engages in the challenging and vexing work of citizenship, especially as we debate basic principles of how best to carry out the unique calling that is America’s. And so, I close with the plea of our greatest president, delivered at the most perilous time in our nation’s history. Abraham Lincoln’s words are still needed today:  “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Sources:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/parker-j-palmer/a-season-of-civility-religion-and-public-life_b_1641933.html
http://www.greenfieldhillchurch.com/2012_Sermons_files/Christ%27s_Diplomats.pdf
Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy, pp.94-117.
http://www.rememberingchrisstevens.com/

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