The evidence that we are a deeply divided society abounds.The killing of Trayvon Martin released rage and exposed again the wounds that racism causes. Complex issues of personal morality became grounds for polarizing political rhetoric rather than an occasion for thoughtful conversations that welcome diverse perspectives.
"Given the rancorous, polarized blue-state/red-state society in which we live, what could be more prophetic, more countercultural, than to model reconciliation?" asked H. George Anderson, former ELCA presiding bishop, during his 2006 Hein-Fry lecture. It remains ever so true in our still polarized, partisan society.
I believe that we as the ELCA are called to the prophetic work of reconciliation. We are a church that is a catalyst, convener and bridge builder.
This is not our work, but rather it is God's work to which we bear witness and in which we are called to participate. "For he (Christ) is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us" (Ephesians 2:14).
Pilgrim Lutheran Church in Lexington, S.C., is serving as a bridge builder of understanding. They have an entire portal on their website dedicated to resources for understanding other religions. Pilgrim's site states: "Religious diversity is emerging as the dominant American social issue. Ignorance in this area is not bliss."
Being a church that is a catalyst, convener and bridge builder means we are called to commit ourselves to sustained conversations in which participants witness to the truth of this faith, gain a deeper understanding of the convictions of one another, and work together for peace and reconciliation.
I recently participated in an interreligious dialogue with His Excellency Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt, and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C. Toward the end of the dialogue, the moderator asked each of us in two minutes to state what "the non-negotiables" were in our faith. I encourage each of you to reflect on how you would articulate the heart of the Christian gospel in a few minutes, then engage with others in such conversations. In so doing, you will be a bridge builder and convener.
I pray the intense responses we witnessed to George Zimmerman's actions and Trayvon Martin's death will not be momentary, but will engage us in important conversations about racism and the barriers we erect. Will we have the courage to confess our sins of racism? Will we have the faith to trust God's reconciling word of forgiveness in Christ? Will we remember there are Trayvon Martins in every community? Will we stand by the commitment we made in the ELCA social statement "Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity and Culture"? That commitment was to "model an honest engagement with issues of race, ethnicity and culture, by being a community of mutual conversation, mutual correction and mutual consolation."
In our ecumenical relationships, we have built bridges through our full communion relationships and involvement in the World Council of Churches and the Lutheran World Federation. Because of those relationships, we can begin to imagine new possibilities to serve the gospel and our neighbors.
It is understandable, but not acceptable, to turn inward by becoming preoccupied with our own survival, especially when resources diminish and membership declines. That is the time to be a catalyst, convening other congregations, partner institutions and agencies, and with evangelical imagination consider new possibilities to witness to the gospel and engage in God's work of restoring and reconciling communities.
Anderson concluded his lecture by recalling how Paul in his letter to the Ephesians urged the early church to live together in a culture that separated Jews and Gentiles, revealing to everyone that the wall of separation had been torn down. There was reconciliation in Christ that overcame all the old polarities. Anderson said, "Just as the church had that role in the first century, so we as Lutherans in the ELCA may have that role for the 21st century. We can be that voice of prophetic truth, a sign of grace, a beacon of hope, and a source of healing for our culture." Amen. May it be so, Lord.
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers