A few years ago, I came upon an article that I’ve been thinking about ever since. The writer’s grandmother, JoAnn, had been living with Alzheimers, and the disease brought about some strange changes in her. Some of her other physical ailments began to heal, her disposition got brighter, and while she used to carry sharp anger in her heart, that began to melt into a glistening gentleness. As the writer put it, JoAnn simply forgot to be angry.
Now you and I know, that’s not always how it goes with Alzheimers. But it made me wonder. What if this kindness was actually JoAnn’s true self? In all that gets lost, what if some part of her truth was found?
The story gets better. JoAnn and her daughter Jessica had been estranged for many years. A bitter feud left each of them fiercely devoted to the project of not speaking to each other. The article’s author is Jessica’s son, JoAnn’s grandson, and as JoAnn’s Alzheimers progressed, the day came when her husband conspired with his grandson to arrange a visit between Jessica and JoAnn.
As you can guess, Jessica was not on board. Not at all! So her son did what he had to do and asked for this visit to be his birthday present. And if you’re thinking he guilted Jessica into it, you’re right. Still, she could have refused. Instead, there was something in Jessica that decided to give it a try because —Who knows?—maybe this time, things will be different…
When she arrived at the airport, JoAnn’s husband said: “Look, JoAnn. It’s Jessica.” JoAnn answered: “Isn’t that funny. That’s my daughter’s name too.” Then JoAnn took Jessica’s hand, her eyes shining with kindness. “Tell me about yourself, darling, I want to know everything about you!” And that’s when the fury in Jessica’s heart began to melt.
All through the visit, these two stumbled into a new tenderness. When it was time for Jessica to leave, JoAnn said: “Thank you for coming… I want you to know that I know we’ve never been close. And I know that’s been mostly my fault. I’m not sure how much time I’ve got. But more than anything, I want to have a shot at spending it with you. It’s so important. After all, Jessica, we’re sisters.”
“Close enough, Mama” said Jessica, tears running down her face.1Leleux, Robert. “A Memory Magically Interrupted.” The New York Times. March 20, 2009.
So often in peacemaking, the work begins with remembering. We have to look back at what happened, and acknowledge the harm, and remember in order to repair. This story shows a whole different path! Who would have guessed that forgetting to be angry could be a catalyst for reconciliation! So JoAnn’s Alzheimers gets a lot of credit for ending this mother-daughter feud, and that’s lovely. But I’ll tell you. What really fascinates me is the choice Jessica made.
Something in her decided to give this visit a chance even though she thought she was being lured into trouble. Even though her heart was lined with armor, something in Jessica opened her imagination to the possibility that —Who knows?— maybe this time, things will be different…
Today we’re continuing the summer series called Why Church? These days, people don’t go to church because everybody else is going to church. It’s not just the normal thing to do. So what does the Church have that the world needs? I’m thinking it might be this… I think it’s the same shimmering curiosity that got Jessica on the plane. It’s whatever led her to believe that, sure, this might be a disaster… but what if it’s not? What if we have to find out because —Who knows?— there might be a miracle.
In the scripture Marissa read, Paul’s writing to the church in Corinth, and this congregation was thick in the mess of a conflict. I don’t know for a fact that church members were refusing to speak to each other like the old JoAnn and Jessica, but I’d sure believe it.
Here Paul is painting a picture of what salvation looks like. And it’s this: It’s God reaching out to this violent, damaged world then saying, I love you, and I miss you, and I want to try again. We could heal what’s broken between us.
The whole thing starts with a familiar refrain: Jesus died for us. But Paul’s not saying, You had better agree with this if you want to be saved. Paul says, Jesus died for everybody, therefore everyone has died to sin. By dying, Jesus changed what death is. By finding new life in Christ, that’s going to change us, and that’s scary! I mean, we already know who we are. We know the armor that’s lining our hearts, we know our sin, we know why it’s there. So if you’re hearing this as a threat, you’re not wrong.
Don’t you see, says Paul. If anyone is in Christ, all creation is made new. Everything old has passed away. Everything has become new! God is reaching out to us through Christ and, wouldn’t you know, the LORD goes and forgets all of our trespasses. Totally loses count!
And there’s good news: It is not the case that God is wiping out all of the sinning people and replacing us with a whole new set of perfect people. That’s not it. We’re still us even as we are being transformed by Christ. This means the splendid impulse that makes you you and that makes me me, that is not our sin. It’s as though, by being made new in Christ, we become even more ourselves.
Even when this makes us forget to be angry.
Even when this leads us to entertain the notion that this time, things could be different.
Paul is calling on the Church to be ambassadors of reconciliation, just as we ourselves are reconciled with God through Christ —just as we are saved. Paul is calling on the Church to take up the mission of peacemaking. You’re still you, and I’m still me, and what if we could start over? That’s not just wishful thinking or fanciful naivete. It’s the brave choice to imagine what seems impossible. If you want to know where peacemaking begins, it’s with this imagining. And what if this imagining is exactly where the Church shines…
The last time we worshiped together in this room was March Fifteenth, Twenty-Twenty. We were just getting into the Year of Caring and Service. Chase Norris from Clock Inc was the first speaker in our Wednesday Lenten series; he was followed by Linda Guebert and Rhonda Hill from the Parish Nurse program. We were planning to welcome other community leaders who would help us imagine how we could be the hands and feet of Jesus in Rock Island. Then everything shut down.
We used to think, we’re not a church that’s technologically sophisticated. We used to say, the world might change around us, but we’re German, and stubborn, and we’ll always meet at the corner of Twelfth and Twelfth, and we’ll never break our traditions. Then everything changed— even us.
I would not have guessed that we were this flexible! If you told me two years ago that we’d be having a successful congregational meeting entirely by Zoom, I would not have been convinced. (I also would have said, Tell me, what is a Zoom?)
These days, we might be feeling the gravitational pull to put everything back to March Fifteenth, Twenty-Twenty. I get this urge! We just want to pick up where we left off, and get back on track, and leapfrog over the last eighteen months like it never happened. But the truth is, the last eighteen months have changed you, they’ve changed me, now we get to choose what to do with this change…
Instead of thinking that July Eighteenth, Twenty-Twenty-One is the day the church goes back to normal, it might be more accurate to recognize: This is the day when Church of Peace United Church of Christ is starting over. And if you want to know exactly how Church of Peace is about to be transformed, me too! That’s why I’m here.
At the heart of peacemaking there’s the question that goes: This time, what if things could be different?
We used to know who we were as Church of Peace, and we weren’t wrong, but now there’s room to ask, what if there’s something more? Where there used to be rigidity, now there could be tenderness. Where there used to be certainty, now who knows?
I’ve shared this before, but I love these words from Bishop Yvette Flunder. In writing about this same church in Corinth that Paul was addressing, she drew this conclusion: “We can hope and believe that those who say cruel things today will say kind things tomorrow. We can wait for each other. I must bear with you, and you must bear with me… for we are all the body of Christ, and we can wait for each other.”2My great thanks to Dr. Benjamin Ledell Reynolds for sharing this quote from Bishop Flunder on his Facebook page.
We know people can change —even us. This is what it is to be saved.
A mother loses her memory and gains a daughter, a daughter gives up her armor and gets her mom back. Who would have guessed!
If you’ve seen the world lately, then you know, all of creation is desperate for people who will lift our imaginations above the standard story of injury getting answered by retribution, who will take seriously a possibility of peacemaking. This is not pretending that everything’s fine when it isn’t! It’s saying the division is real, the hurt is real, violence has been our go to, but look, there’s a new path opening before us and who knows. This time, what if things could be different?
“Now is the day of salvation,” writes Paul. The moment of new beginning is now. The people who have come to see a new possibility are in this room. May God give blessing to our coming back to life.