The Face of Reconciliation
March 17, 2019
Genesis 33:1-10; John 20:19-23
In the book of Genesis, we have an epic length story about two brothers Jacob and Esau. Jacob steals Esau’s birthright. He gets an unjust, hugely unjust, inheritance. He takes the money and runs as far away from his brother as he can.
When he is old, he hears his brother is coming to see him and that he is bringing 400 men. His brother has become rich and now commands a small mercenary army. Scared to death, unable to outrun them this time, Jacob sends a huge retinue of gifts ahead to his brother Esau- hope against hope- that he can somehow appease Esau enough to spare his life.
These two brothers finally meet. Esau is not angry, not violent or aggressive. The brothers hug. Jacob says to Esau, “My brother, to see your face is to see the face of God.”
It is told in epic form because family is like that. We don’t get to choose our people. It is true that we can flee, live in alienation. But what we want most deeply in our spiritual and emotional lives is to be reconciled, to live in peace. And we know that without the divine mechanism of compassionate forgiveness, our extended people cannot live in harmony. The face of reconciliation is the face of God.
I’m not surprised that the Bible begins with sibling rivalries. Can and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his Brothers. I have six grandsons. Right now, they are short men, small problems. But I know they will soon be tall men, big problems.
In the tragic movie, “Legends of the Fall” we have something of a modern epic image of our human fallenness. At the very end of the movie, a Father and his two sons have a confrontation with the police far away from any one else. What they do won’t be seen. They have only their character to guide them.
One of the sons has committed a crime. In an instant, the father and the other brother have to decide if they will cover for him. Adrenaline is rushing, emotions flare all around. In a rash instant, they all fire their guns and kill the policemen. The three of them stand there, spiritually empty.
It is blind loyalty, blood loyalty. It is a skewed, perverted love, which is why it has no joy or celebration. These three are bound together from now on in their mutual guilt in a common crime. They will be ruled by guilt, haunted by guilt.
And they must mutually lie about this secret for the rest of their lives. It is the thing that will not be ‘spoken’ as Harry Potter described. And they will each go their separate ways. The criminal son will stay on the run for the rest of his life.
The older brother will create an alibi that puts him far, far from the scene of the crime. And, even if he could see his father regularly, he wouldn’t because the old man has become bitter. He lives a life of loneliness and longing for his son that is on the run from the law. Angry, cynical, perpetually hostile. Nobody that you want to be around.
Guilt, control, shared shame, shared disappointment, emotional isolation. It is a deep bond but it is entirely negative, like an albatross you would like to be rid of but you can’t be rid of. Family can be like that. You have to figure that it has been a main staple of human history if the Bible chose to depict the original family Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, and Seth that way.
The arc narrative of the teaching of Jesus is that God wants us to become reconciled. And this remains the most profound challenge of our collective life, to learn to live towards reconciliation.
The Gospel of John sums up the message of Jesus by saying “I wish that you all were one, just as I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30). Jesus says “Love one another as I have loved you. By this, others will know that you are my disciples because you love one another”. (John 13:34)
In the Gospel of Luke, the center of his message is given in three parables in Luke 15. Jesus says “The Kingdom of God is like”… A poor woman that loses a coin- it is a piece of jewelry that women wear on the scarfs that go over their head- and she is so happy when she finds it.
No, better yet. The Kingdom of God is like a Shepherd that loses and sheep and is so happy when he finds it…
No better yet. The Kingdom of God is like a father that patiently waits for a lost child to return. And when he sees that child returning after a long time in alienation, he runs down the road and hugs that child like you cannot believe and throws the biggest party… Because my child was lost to me and is suddenly found.
God rejoices in reconciliation like that.
So in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches the disciples a prayer, the prayer we say every week. And we pray, “Forgive us our mistakes, as we reflectively forgive the mistakes of people around us.” We are literally praying, “God forgive us to the degree we are forgiving.” It is a plea of sorts, “May we reflect Your forgiveness.”
And when the disciples tried to pin Jesus down, pretty much like my grandsons. “Okay, we got the general idea. But you don’t know my brother. Seriously, how many times do I have to forgive this guy? Like 7”…
And Jesus responds that we simply need to cultivate a disposition towards reconciliation in everything that we do. “No, I tell you, forgive them 70 X 7 times.”
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus embodies this disposition throughout his confrontation with the political and religious authorities during the last week of his life. He knew that his life was in danger. He knew that he was likely to be arrested.
He goes to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray for clarity on what to do in this difficult situation. We don’t know what he prayed entirely. But, he said, “O God, Father/Mother, forgive them. They know not what they do.”
And even as Jesus is dying on the cross, suffering unto death, he offers a word of forgiveness to the criminals that are to his left and to his right. And he tells them. We shall be together in heaven, so to speak.
And in the resurrection, where the disciples are given some clarity on the meaning of the things that they have just been through. What is the point of it all, Jesus blesses them by breathing the Spirit upon them? And he says to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, so also I am sending you.” When He had said this, He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.” (Jn. 20:21-23)
What is out there ahead for you all? I don’t know and you don’t know either, but take with you a disposition towards reconciliation. Figure out how to repair what is broken. Figure out a way to include everyone.
We are getting better at understanding the dynamics of real reconciliation. This week, I heard an interview with Danielle Sered who runs Common Justice in Brooklyn and the Bronx. They deal with violent crimes and their victims.
If all parties agree to be in the program, you follow an alternate way to serve your sentence. By the way, she reports that 90% of the victims want to participate in the program. That is a big endorsement that they are on to something more holistic.
Curiously, Danielle reports that our prison system at present makes very little room for actual reflection or change.
But in this program, you have to admit to your crimes and be willing to reflect on what you have done. Probably the most important dynamic that she describes is that this process needs to be steered by the victims themselves.
It turns out that victims want to have their unanswered questions posed to the perpetrator. They want to understand what they were thinking and why they were so wanton in their disregard. And they have many personal questions about how the event unfolded like it did.
More than that, of course, as we saw so movingly in the ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ Commission in South Africa, the perpetrator has to hear from the victims about how they have suffered and what has been taken from them because of the violence that the perpetrators committed.
The perpetrators have a chance to absorb the pain that they have caused others. After that they have a chance to respond, to acknowledge what they have done, take responsibility and apologize.
After that the victims are asked to reflect on what it would take to make things right again. Sometimes there are things that they wish could be done but won’t but with surprising frequency, there are concrete things that the perpetrator can do to help achieve some healing.
Interestingly, most of the time, the criminals actually want to do the very things the victims ask of them. And these specific gestures of healing are written into their sentence. The advocates of “restorative justice” as it is called, point out that this is a much richer form of moral accountability.
It encourages a deeper reflection. It is personal and it is the victims that structure the direction of healing. So it promotes much greater responsibility.
Also, the advocates suggest that it is much more likely to produce actual character change that reduces violent crime when felons are reintroduced to society. We are giving them a structure for genuine repentance designed to change their behavior going forward.
We need reconcilers dealing with criminals in our society because we need reconcilers at all levels of our society.
We need reconcilers in our families. We need reconcilers in our community organizations. We need reconcilers in our workplaces. We sure as hell need them on our Town Councils, in Trenton, and in Washington, DC. You don’t have to be a Rocket scientist to know that we are living through some genuinely dangerous trends around us.
Just a couple days ago, we had an angry young fascist kill 50 people in 2 mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. He tried to use social media to spread a sense of fear and terror across our globe in a macabre political act to further racial and religious division.
We’ve had these acts every few months for 19 years now. They make clear that we have an urgent social need to empower reconcilers, to multiply reconcilers, and to structure our social life together in a way that promotes reconciliation.
This is the challenge of our time. And each time you celebrate diversity. Each time you make small changes in your life to be intentionally in relationship with people that are really different from you- to be real neighbors, to become friends, to develop community.
Each time you reach out, you are transcending the fear and the xenophobia that breeds hate in our era.
I’ve often wondered what the world would look like if the word “Christian” was synonymous with ‘reconciler’. Every time a fight broke out, someone would ask, “Is there a Christian in the room?” because we were experts since our faith was a reconciling way of living in this world. Alas, Creed won out over Character. And so, in our history too many times we simply reflected the values of the world around us rather than transform them.
But God wants for you to be a reconciler. God wants you to know yourself as you really are. God wants you to be honest with yourself. God wants you to accept yourself as God loves all of us. The world is tinged with grace and you are a work in progress.
God wants you to live in peace and concord with people around you and when things are broken to put them back together to the degree you are able in all humility. When you fix what is broken, you, especially you, can be the face of God for someone else. Amen.