Finding Reconciliation in Front of a Park Bench

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ParkBenchAn elderly gentleman was walking in the park one afternoon. He grew tired from his daily journey and sat down on an old, green park bench. As he was sitting there he looked up and saw before himself a family. The two children in the family were creating quite a scene. The little girl was yelling at the top of her lungs: “That’s mine. Give it back.” The little boy who was next to her yelled back, “It’s not yours. I had it first!” The man thought, “Oh, I’ve seen this before…sibling rivalry.” But then it got a little worse. “I hate you,” she yelled. “Oh, yeah, well I wish you were never born!” he responded. Before long these two were really going at it, yelling insults back and forth. They were screaming and fighting. It made this man a bit uncomfortable. You know it can be quite unnerving to be in such close proximity to such tension. And do you know what this elderly man did next? I guess it shouldn’t surprise you. He got up from there and walked away. He decided he needed to get as far away from that “family” as he could get.

Let’s be honest about something. It’s not always easy to get along with our brothers and sisters, is it?  Adults may try to fool themselves into believing they can get along with anyone, but kids are more honest.  A Sunday school teacher was discussing the Ten Commandments with her class of five and six-year-olds. After explaining the commandment to honor thy father and thy mother, she asked her class this question: “Is there a commandment that teaches us how to treat our brothers and sisters?” Without missing a beat, one little boy answered, “Thou shall not kill.” He gets it! Sometimes getting along with our family is difficult work, isn’t it?

Maybe that’s what led Paul to write these words to the Corinthians all those years ago…

When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels—to say nothing of ordinary matters? If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goes to court against a believer—and before unbelievers at that?

In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and believers at that. Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. 1 Corinthians 6: 1-11

What do you suppose happened that caused Paul to write this? Have you ever wondered that? It seems a bit out of place, doesn’t it?  Just before this section, Paul talks about “church business”—expelling the sinner.  Just after this section, Paul discusses sexual immorality. But sandwiched right here between these “church issues” is this business about taking someone to court. Why this excursus about lawsuits? What do you suppose happened? Corinth was an urban city. Perhaps one of the church members owned a building there that he rented out to people. Maybe one of his Christian brothers was renting his apartment and was behind on rent. I can see how that might lead to a lawsuit. Or, maybe a certain sister was a dressmaker. Maybe one of her Christian sisters refused to pay for the dress she’d made. I can see how that might lead to a lawsuit, can’t you? I can see how any of these issues might have led to some conflict: sides formed, names called. Before long, the name calling stops and then, just silence! There’s nothing worse than coming into a family and hearing only silence—a sure sign that something has gone wrong! Maybe this wasn’t an excursus at all. Maybe this issue is really at the heart of Paul’s message to the Corinthians. Maybe this is really at the heart of God’s message to us.

I can see something like this happening in our world. Did you know that in the mid-19th century, there were many court cases which pitted Christians against Christians? As Christian denominations split before the Civil War, there were many property disputes. Who owns this building, the southern Baptists or the northern Baptists? Who owns this piece of land, the southern or northern Methodists? Churches of Christ never divided over the issue of slavery or the Civil War. At least, that is what some of our leaders claimed. They, in fact, pointed to our unity as a sign that we were really the true Church of God! I would argue, however, that we did in fact divide. Our division came a little more subtly and slowly—and may have been even more damaging. We saw the aftermath of that division in 1967.

In that year, African American members of Churches of Christ sued white members of Churches of Christ over their blatant racism. The entire story began a few years earlier, in the 1940s.  African American members of Churches of Christ raised money to build a school in Nashville. Their goal was to build a credible school on par with David Lipscomb College.  They raised money, they sacrificed, they purchased property, and they established the school. In its first few years, it ran into financial trouble, and white members of the church stepped in to help. But they also took control—changing the make-up of the Board of Directors from ten African American to six white and four African American.

In 1967, the white dominated board closed the school, sold the property, and put money into a scholarship fund for African American students at the only recently desegregated DLC (which desegregated a decade after the Supreme Court’s mandate to do so).  African American members of Churches of Christ responded immediately. One African American leader called this move the “grab of the century.” He wrote, “Whites came in under the guise of paternalism and grabbed our school.” African Americans wanted the money to, at the very least, go toward Southwestern Christian College—the only other African American school in Churches of Christ. A lawsuit was filed.  Interestingly (and regrettably), the federal record of the lawsuit lists as the plaintiffs: “Black Members of Churches of Christ.”  And the defendants are listed as: “White Members of Churches of Christ” This lawsuit did more than separate the few people involved; this lawsuit divided African American and white members of Churches of Christ for over 40 years.

In 1999, the administration of ACU saw the division that had existed for all of those years, and they set out to reconcile with their African American brothers and sisters. They hosted a closed-door meeting between African American and white leaders. I’ve talked to some who were present at that meeting, and they all described it as very tense!  At one point, they talked openly about that court case. The question was raised: “Why were African American’s so resistant to attend David Lipscomb College?” One man’s response:

“For all those years you refused to allow any of us to attend your school, then you took by force and against our will one of the only rallying points we had, let it be swallowed up in your multi-million dollar operation and then you say to us, “You can come over here and be like us now. We still don’t particularly value your culture and history and the way you live, and act, and worship, but you can come over here with us, as long as you just do like we do.” Can you understand the resentment expressed at this act?”

Brother against brother; sister against sister. Yes, this court case did more than divide a few white and African American Nashvillians in 1967. I think I know why Paul was so concerned about this issue. Such infighting can destroy lives and the church, and it can even do more than that!

Our divisions repel the world, but the opposite is also true. Our efforts toward unity stand out in a world like ours. I believe our efforts toward reconciliation have the power to help a fallen world stand up again. In case you haven’t noticed, racism causes a lot of division in our country. In recent weeks, this issue has dominated the headlines once again. How can the church help in times like these? I’ve thought a lot about that one question, not just in recent weeks, but over the last few years. Here is what I’ve come up with. It may sound a bit simplistic to you, but here you go: We could start simply by forming relationships—one at a time.

If you are white, do you have any meaningful relationships with African Americans? If you are African American, do you have any meaningful relationships with whites? What effect could that friendship have on you? What effect could that friendship have on your family? What effect could that single friendship have on your community? Physical distance breeds suspicion and fear, but real meaningful relationships based upon mutual respect and love have the power to cast out all fear.

An elderly gentleman was walking in the park one afternoon. He grew tired from his daily journey and sat down on an old, green park bench. As he was sitting there, he looked up and saw before himself a family. He was particularly taken in by a brother and a sister. They were playing together. They were laughing together. He could tell they loved one another. An interesting thing happened: others began to join this brother and sister there in front of the park bench. First, another little boy came over to play with them. Then, a small girl who had been playing all by herself joined them. Before long, the yard in front of the bench was filled with children laughing and playing together. Their joy, their love, was contagious. And do you know what this elderly man did next? I guess it shouldn’t surprise you. He got up from there and walked closer to this family—this family made up of adopted brothers and sisters, this family made up of young and old, this family some people call the church.

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