The Reconciling Community
By Charles Rush
July 18, 2010
John 21: 1-21 and Lk. 15: 17-25
fore her death in 1997, the oldest living woman whose age could be verified with official documentation was a remarkable French lady named Jeanne Calment. On the occasion of her 120th birthday, they held quite a bash for her. Imagine that – 120! Makes Ann Joralemon appeared positively middle aged. A group of reporters asked her to what she attributed her long life. She said, three things. Number one, chocolate. Number two, olive oil. And number three, port wine. The last question of the day for Mrs. Calment was, “what is your vision for the future?” With a twinkle in her eye she said, ‘Very brief.’
brief indeed. I like our text this morning. Jesus teaches on the importance of
forgiveness during his life. He tells some parables about it. He actually
forgives a woman, reportedly caught in adultery in a big scene that caught the
attention of a wide group of people. One of the disciples comes to him with the
pragmatic question, ‘how many times must I forgive my brother?’ I think that
was a mistranslation. I think he meant, ‘my brother-in-law’, as
in, ‘Jesus if you knew him like I know him, there comes a time…’
Then you get some of the last words of Jesus from the cross, “Father forgive
them”, words that apparently made a deep impression on the Roman Centurions
guarding Jesus and the criminals that were being crucified next to him. And
then we get this resurrection appearance, a kind of final spotlight scene after
the curtain has dropped and the wider drama is over, a last parting thought,
and the subject is… forgiveness. I wonder if this was important to
know it is important and profound, but it is so different from the world that
we live in is it? Most of us are engaged in business that requires that squeeze
people pretty regularly and not the pleasant kind of squeezing either. There
was a recent episode of ‘The Practice’ where one of the partners in a small law
firm in Boston takes on a tobacco case for the mother of a teenager that cannot
quit smoking. We meet the deadbeat teenager who claims he is hopelessly in the
grip of tobacco and his mother at wits end with a load of bills from clinics he
has gone to try to quit that have failed, etc.. But what can a small law firm
do against the huge tobacco legal establishment? The young law partner takes
the case in order to try something never tried. She sues the law firm
protecting big tobacco on the grounds that they are suppressing evidence that
proves nicotine is addictive through an abuse of attorney/client privilege. The
partner from the law firm being sued is the sartorial professor at Harvard
where young partner doing the suing went to school. It is a show down of
professor and student.
professor meets his former student, explains that the case is preposterous, un-
professional, he tries to hire her, and when she refuses, he threatens to
squish her like a bug. So much for the chummy warm fuzzies of old alums…
the judge, the judge makes clear that he is unlikely to hear this case as
presented, especially given the enormity of any decision that would challenge a
precedent as established as attorney/client privilege, so the young lawyer asks
the judge to just personally review the situation, which he cannot legitimately
refuse, so he calls both parties into his chambers.
there, the judge explains why he will not try such a case and then he turns to
big law/big tobacco/big Harvard professor and says, ‘however, if I start
looking around in how your firm has deported itself and I find that
attorney/client privilege has been abused… and I am likely to find that it has…
I will not hesitate to bring criminal charges, do I make myself clear?
Now, why don’t the two of you see if you can work this out right now.”
law/big tobacco/big Harvard professor walks out and says, “$75,000- our final
offer.” His former student says to him, “$750,000 and I’ll be by at 3 p.m. to
pick up the check or it goes to a million tomorrow.” Hah! Gotcha, ya no
good, cheatin, thievin, lying bast…. Gotcha! Adrenalin surge, ego balloon… Cash
that check… Thank you very much. Boom. Some of us never so alive as that moment.
We love it, not me of course, but I’ve heard other people are like that.
a species, we do not easily get to ‘yes’ do we? Watch a couple of three year
olds on the play ground after a fight and there are many fights are there not?
This is how it goes. “He hit me first.” “But he has my truck”. “But he won’t
let me ever drive the truck.” “But it’s my truck.” “But he hit me first.” “But
he has my truck.” All right already. Then in steps earnest Mom with a
spiritual break through. “Now boys, can’t we just share?” And the answer is,
“No”, unless there is threat of major force that will be lowered. “Boys,
don’t make me take this to your Father.”
love those internal grudge lists. It appears that almost everyone has them.
They are lists of justification, lists designed to protect our
self-interest, lists that for the most part actually keep us from getting to
yes, even if they are legitimate.
Moyers went to the West Bank recently and did a very thoughtful show on the
impasse there. Talk about grudge lists. Essentially, it is a land dispute and
who has more right to the land. The scholar Thomas Sowell has said that native
arguments of origin are inherently suspect because someone was there before
your people too. I can’t think of a better case to make his point that the West
Bank, an area that has been fought over by the ancestors of the present
generation for- literally the last 3,500 years.
interviews some guy from Brooklyn that moved back to Israel thirty years ago
and started a small settlement near the biblical site of Shiloh. Shiloh is one
of the first places that the Israelites stopped when they crossed the Jordan
into the Promised Land in the Bible. They made a stone altar there. Indeed,
even today, you can see loose stones on the ground, the foundations of the wall
of the ancient city.
years ago, no one was much interested in this real estate and it is not an easy
place to make a living today. And who can blame a guy who wants to renew
himself spiritually, who wants to reconnect with his people and his identity?
Well that was then, but this is now. And the little settlement grew, more
people came, some of them had children and now it is houses upon houses full of
very religious people that want all the rights afforded to Jews living in
Israel, even though they are living in the West Bank.
you point this out to the guy that started it, he says, God gave us this
land in the Bible- an argument designed to stop all rational discourse.
You either believe it or you don’t. If you don’t, you are not a Jew. And if you
are a Jew, you can’t completely discount it. They ask him if the Palestinians
have a right to a homeland. He says, they already have a homeland. It is
interview some of the guys from Hamas, all covered up in head scarves. They
explain that the Israelis have taken their homes and are expanding their
settlements and that they will never cease their jihad against Israel until
they have a right of return and a right to her own homeland.
a few of these homes that have been taken are in Israel proper- not the West
Bank, in Israel. They were originally abandoned in 1948 when the Palestinians
joined with 7 other Arab nations in a war to eradicate the brand new state of
Israel and the people leaving them thought the Arabs would win a quick war and
they would return. Alas they lost. Israeli citizenship was granted to
Palestinians that did not leave, about 12% of the population of Israel proper,
but the exiles were not allowed to return.
to them that the map of Europe was redrawn after World War One and World War
Two, some Germans were permanently exiled from Poland, etc., etc. and they say
that Israel is unjustly occupying not only the West Bank but also Israel. This
is an impasse and they tick off a very long list of humiliation and deprivation
that they have endured. This list is so long that even polite interviewers have
some of the religious among them say jihad justifies not only endless war but
also a war that does not distinguish between combatants and civilians.
Opinion is divided among them as to whether suicide bombers are actually ‘holy
martyrs’ or not but they are unanimous that this is not only legitimate
as a form of attack, they plan to continue and expand it at every opportunity
because it works and it demoralizes the Israeli’s.
correspondent from CBS Bob Schaeffer, who covered the region for decades calls
the present situation the ‘low point’ of the last century and extremely
delicate not only for the parties involved but for all those like the United
States that are being asked to help negotiate a détente.
lists are long, and this capacity for list-making justification runs deep in
humans. I was reading a book on the origins of culture this week and the
current estimate points back to the formation of humans as tool-makers and
therefore culture producers 2.5 million years ago. This 3,000-year-old spat is
just an instant in time in our broader context. And there appears to be
something almost hard-wired into our dispositions that makes overcoming it very
points the way toward healing our lists. Peter denied him three times just
before Jesus was tried and put to death. Jesus doesn’t describe for Peter just
how weak he was. Jesus doesn’t go into a lengthy explanation of how to be
strong in a difficult situation. Instead, three times he asks Peter if he
loves him. And the way the story is written, somewhere between the
second and the third time Jesus asks Peter this question, it appears that a
light went on in Peter’s head, spark jumped gap, and he got it. We are
called to become a reconciling people. We are the people of reconciliation.
would think that Church would have become adroit in this are but we aren’t a
whole lot better than any one else. Given the importance of forgiveness in the
teaching of Jesus, you would think that if a couple got to an irreconcilable
impasse, they would cry out “is there a Christian in the house?” We would be recognized authorities on healing
impassable situations. But we aren’t.
fact, there is no fight quite as feisty as a church fight. We had a joke in the
South when I was growing up. What do Baptist’s call a church fight when half
the people get so mad they leave and start a new church? They call it
Missions. Every town in the South has a 1st Baptist Church.
Almost all of them have a 2nd Baptist Church, not too creative I
admit. But in almost every case, 2nd Baptist was started ostensibly
as a mission but the real reason was a small group of people couldn’t stand
another small group of people and they started their own church.
turns out that actually living the life of reconciliation is very difficult
spiritual work. That is because it is not about forgetting lists. It is
really about healing them. The older brother in the parable of the
prodigal son is unable to engage in healing. He wants to hold on to a grudge, as
only a brother who is in the right can do. But the Father in the story
points in a different direction. He doesn’t discount the older son’s sense of
honor or tell him that standards don’t matter. It is not some mushy/gushy “I’m
okay-You’re okay-We’re okay together.” Instead, the Father encourages
the Older Son to open up to celebrating reconciliation. What is wrong with
really wanting reconciliation, really hoping for reconciliation, cultivating an
ethos of reconciliation? The spiritual life is all about healing. That is
really the key.
Ellerby was married young and got pregnant right away as was the custom for her
generation. Unfortunately, rather late in the pregnancy she miscarried. She was
not really prepared for what would happen next. She found herself more
emotional, more deeply sad than she would have imagined she should have been.
She withdrew into herself and found it hard to leave the house.
young husband did not understand what was going on and was frightened by her
sorrow and did not know what to do. He tried to do the manly thing and just
work harder, longer and provide, figuring that time would work this out. He
didn’t understand women.
needed him to come rescue her from her solitude but the more she withdrew the
harder it was for him to deal with and the more he left her alone. This got
worse and worse for several weeks into months and eventually one day, Martha
made an appointment to see a lawyer. Maybe this relationship was a mistake. We
just couldn’t have known but it is just a mistake.
went to see the lawyer and he was running behind. She sat out in the waiting
area, thinking, envisioning the future. She began to feel in her stomach that
she had no idea what she would do next, where she would go for any length of time,
or what would happen and the more she thought about it, the more confused she
became. Finally, she stood up, went to her car, drove around for a while and
eventually went home.
husband was there and he asked her where she had been. She told him and she
told him about the confusion. He sat down and said nothing for quite a long
time. He was not an articulate man. These moments were not easy for him.
he said to her, “I want to love you and I want you to love me. I want to
make you happy… What do I need to change?” It was a moment of break
through. Eventually she was able to tell him a few things. Eventually, he was
able to change some things.
likes to tell that story occasionally, these days it is usually around the
baptism of one of her great grand children. She tells it, I think, to remind
the rising generations that even relationships that start with great romance
reach a point of impasse before they can go to a deeper level and getting to
that deeper level requires work, grace, and forgiveness all around.
husband died a few years ago. Just before his funeral she said, “He never
was able to give me everything I needed from him emotionally. It was not a
perfect relationship. But he gave me enough. And after I came to really understand
the way he was raised and what his family was really like, I suppose he changed
about as much as he could have, given his circumstances. And I guess that is
really the most we can ask of one another.
that the art of marriage is not just marrying the right partner, it is being
the right partner. It is being a healer, a reconciler, pruning and developing
the best in each other’s character. When we do that, our spouse will say of us
what Mark Twain said of his wife. “Wherever she was, there was Eden.”
Brothers and sisters, heal someone today. God gave you the power. Amen.
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