Thomas Leinbach
Congregational Church of Brookfield

Citizens of Heaven Above

My understanding of ministry is based in part on the idea that the church's purpose, its holy calling, if you will, is to be a place of refuge where all can find safety and acceptance, where we can learn how to regain our capacity to safely experience emotions, to imagine the pain of others, and to make reparations to those, in our alienation, we have harmed. In essence, our life in the church is all about restoring broken relationships - with God and one another.

This seems ever more critical today, for our world is increasingly a culture at odds, where conflict in relationships seems the norm, where acts of kindness too often seem few and far between. For example, just the other day an anonymous driver stopped to let me into an intersection. I commented to Linda, my wife, how pleasant an experience this was. Her response struck me. Isn't it odd, she asked, that we actually find it refreshing when a stranger does something nice for us? Shouldn't that just be the way life is? Why don't we at all times and in all circumstances seek to do kindnesses for one another - strangers included?

Yet you turn on the television and conflict is what you see. News shows, in fact, seemed designed for controversy. The standard set-up involves a person on one extreme arguing with someone on the other. Genuine dialogue is rarely sought, just argumentation and fireworks. It gets good ratings, I suppose, but think of what is lost. A civil exchange of ideas that seeks edification or consensus is simply out of the question.

Several years ago, Linda and I sold a house. And to be perfectly honest, it didn't go all that smoothly. In fact, whenever we would call, our realtor's voice mail message would say, "This is Mary Byrnes, your real estate consultant for life." We came to think she meant that literally!

The nit-picking and unreasonableness of the buyers more than once jeopardized the deal. In fact, the whole process of buying and selling a home has become so complicated and the documentation so stringent, that some realtors I've talked to say the fun just isn't in it any more. In our litigious society, there's no such thing as trust between buyer and seller. One realtor several years ago lamented that he could still remember the days when settlement involved nothing more than a handshake.

It is within this world of mistrust, conflict and strained relationships that the church finds itself. And because we all live in this same world, it's only natural that we bring it with us into our church life.

The sad fact is that the world has a way of permeating everything we do, including church, often in subtle and unseen ways. Therefore, we constantly must be on guard against its ever-present influence.

But just exactly how is this to be done? One clue is to be found in this phrase from Paul's letter to the Colossians. He writes: "[God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemptionů" We, the church, in other words, are those who have been reoriented away from sensibilities of the kingdom of this world, a world of brokenness, strife and envy, and into the kingdom of God, a place where things are done differently, where human expectations and human understandings are strongly influenced by the altering presence of the divine.

Several years ago, some friends of ours adopted a child from the former Soviet republic of Moldova. The process of adoption, by all accounts, was an odyssey, to say the least. Not only were there a seemingly unending amount of red tape to cut through, and the usual payoffs at every turn, but there was the arduous journey of several weeks duration to get to what can only be described as a very primitive, Soviet-style orphanage to claim their new, 18 month-old son.

Watching Christopher, who had spent his whole life in this decaying and impoverished institution thousands of miles from here, come to terms with life in affluent America among doting parents and within a warm, Christian family was striking, to say the least. Christopher was a spirited child, with boundless energy. But it was hard for him to adjust to life as it is lived here. He simply hadn't known anything of family life and, understandably, didn't know how to act within one. He would bound into a room, like a bull in a china shop, oblivious to the chaos he was creating, and blissfully unaware of the subtleties of gracious and love.

In a sense, we too are like that. Biblically speaking, at baptism, we are ushered into the courts of the royal king, unaccustomed to courtly life and unsure of how to act. We stumble and clumsily betray our unrefined ways, so conditioned are we to the vulgarities and brokenness of life lived beyond the castle's fortified walls and far from its rarified air and lightness of being. Into this world of perfect love and perfect grace, we bring our brokenness, our confusion, our hurt, our anger, our hatred and our fear. And into this perfect world we bring our ever-present need - for love, for acceptance and for understanding.

Rarely in our world do we see with absolute clarity the distinction between this world and God's kingdom. In part that's because here in the United States this distinction can get a bit fuzzy.

On two separate occasions, I have had the wonderful experience of traveling to the Dominican Republic as part of the same church mission project Jennifer was a missionary to, helping to build a hospital for Haitian immigrants, all of whom have come to work at substandard wages in the sugar cane fields that dot the landscape of the troubled and impoverished island of Hispaniola.

One night, after a long day's work, a friend and I decided to go to the city square to take in the sights and sounds of La Romana, a fairly good-sized city by Dominican standards. No sooner did we sit down amid the carnival-like scene of people dancing to the incessant beat of blasting radios, and amid the colorful carts selling ice cream, fruit and all manner of things, than we were accosted over and over by street hustlers who wanted to know if we were interested in, of all things, a date!

Due to the language barrier, we were hard pressed to give them an acceptable response, at least as far as they were concerned. Finally, in frustration, and after repeated attempts, my friend and I decided to show them our wedding rings, thinking that surely this would explain our lack of interest. All, alas, to no avail. Our only option was to get out of there as fast as our feet would allow.

It was only later that I figured out what might have stopped them dead in their tracks. All we would have had to tell them was that we were Christians.

For you see, in the Dominican Republic, there is, generally speaking, a stark contrast between Christians and non-Christians. In Dominican life, it is common and largely accepted that men regularly cheat on their wives and that drunkenness and other forms of vice are just part of the way things are.

When these same people become Christians, however, that all changes. Christians do not drink, do not smoke, do not cheat on their wives. They are known to be industrious people who are often schooled by the churches for the better paying jobs. The pastors, in fact, are known to be extremely vigilant in attempting to protect their flock from the ravages of the surrounding decadent society. Christians, as such, are largely understood within Dominican culture to live by a completely different set of standards, and the contrast is as obvious as it is startling, even to the casual observer.

In our country, though, it's not always that easy to tell. After well over three hundred years of Christian influence, our culture exhibits evidence of kingdom values seamlessly intermingled with secular, worldly ones. The contrast is simply not always all that obvious. Life here can take on an almost gray tone, with no readily observable distinction between that which honors God and that which does not. The world and the kingdom co-mingle and interconnect, leaving us often, and perhaps to a surprising degree, unclear about either.

Which brings me back to relationships - and to the ways in which we as Christians are to be in relationship. There are ways in which we honor God in our relationships and ways in which we do not. And in our increasingly strident and unsympathetic age, it is not difficult to lose sight of the positive ways in which God seeks for us to be in relationship. We unconsciously mirror the world around us and forget that we are called to a different s standard - a kingdom standard - as citizens of heaven above.

This, of course, does not mean that because Christianity is essentially about relationships, we shouldn't speak our minds or address issues of common concern. Certainly Christianity does not require that we suppress all questions of truth and righteousness just so that we might get along. Seeing an injustice or witnessing a discernable wrong should not require that we keep our mouths shut just so as not to rock the boat.

And that is because no relationship can remain healthy for long when issues of fairness and morality are ignored. Peace without justice, after all, is merely another form of injustice. Take, for example, any married couple. If a husband or wife chooses to act with disregard for his or her spouse, without honoring certain boundaries and moral considerations, that marriage hardly will be the kind Christianity demands. Similarly, if such injustices are never discussed and/or addressed because neither party wishes to rock the boat, such a marriage will hardly succeed, by any standard, Christian or otherwise.

No, truth and righteousness must be an integral part of any healthy relationship, because what we do in our relationships matters. And if what we do does not honor the relationship we have with God and each other, then these issues simply must be addressed. The key, however - and this is critical - is that this must be done in ways that reflect the values of the kingdom rather than the ones we witness everyday out in the world. It is to this that we must commit ourselves as the church.

By way of contrast, consider two stories I heard a while back. One was a news item on the radio about a town in New Hampshire that decided to end the time-honored New England tradition of the town meeting form of governance. The reason? Every time they came together, all they did was fight!

The other story comes from a friend who told me about a large, thriving, predominately African-American church he had started attending. At the men's Bible study, he told me, intense arguments routinely take place about various and sundry issues. But at the end of the class, to his utter amazement, they all hug each other and walk away the best of friends, feeling strengthened and edified!

The latter approach suggests a great opportunity for the church today. For it is only in and through God's grace that the differences that normally set us at odds with one another can become the occasions for deeper understanding and a strengthening of the bonds that exist among all Christ's disciples.

In Colossians, Paul reminds the church that though in the past they were formed by the world, thinking and acting in ways at odds with God's purposes, now, due solely to God's mercy - and not their worthiness - they had been set free in Jesus Christ, given the wondrous gift of unmerited forgiveness, and bequeathed an entirely new relationship with God and each other. Together they were bound to a community whose sole characteristic is that it is made up entirely of those similarly forgiven and similarly blessed.

Remembering this and living it out is one of the greatest gifts we can offer our disparaging and strife-ridden world - providing an attractive alternative to the fractious humdrum of everyday life which routinely deadens and demeans this precious but all too fragile life God has given us - a life, mind you, that is far too short to waste. Amen.