Genesis 32: 22-33:11
A miracle happened to all of us on the way to worship this morning. Most of us drove here and we evidently survived. Since most people obeyed the speed limits (give or take ten miles per hour), since most people took their turns at stop signs and waited for lights to turn green, getting here probably was not a Mad Max kind of demolition derby, I hope. If you think there’s nothing miraculous in that, that its all just a matter of human nature and innate goodness, try driving in Miami, Rome, or Lagos, Nigeria.
I’m exaggerating a bit, but hopefully you get the point, that when life works, it works because of covenant. Some of these covenants are explicit, like getting married. Some are even written, like getting a drivers’ license. Some are more implicit, like getting clean water out of our faucets, or light whenever we flip a switch. The simplest covenant is the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And we depend upon covenants for things we often take for granted, Life is covenant. This is not just logic; the fact of covenant comes from the very nature of God, the God of the Bible, who is called “the God of the covenant.” He created and sustains our highly interdependent universe by means of covenant.
But human covenants can be fragile things. Just ask people who grew up with abusive parents or siblings, or who have experienced divorce. Or victims of crime, terrorism or oppression. Yet, by the grace of God, broken covenants and relationships and even broken people can be restored. The technical word for this restoration of broken covenants, broken relationships, and broken people, is reconciliation. One word that stands out from the sabbatical I just took, that unites and defines much of what I did and learned and want to carry forward, it is just that: reconciliation.
Reconciliation was the theme and subject of my three weeks at Eastern Mennonite University for the Summer Peacebuilding Institute. I hope that over the years to come I will not be the only one from this church to attend that program. In both courses I took, I had my breath taken away many times by glimpses of the scope of God’s labors to bring and to restore harmony to the world, beginning with the very act of Creation itself, when God spoke harmony into the chaotic waters of this planet’s birth, and this interdependent web of life that makes you and me possible began to emerge. Every other major step in the history of salvation involved the restoration of harmony in at least two relationships: between people and God, and between people with each other, simultaneously.
To understand what I mean by “reconciliation,” however, do not confuse it with other worthy concepts, like “conflict management” or “negotiation” or “compromise” or even “peace-keeping,” like when the African Union sends soldiers to Darfur to protect refugees. Those all may have their place. But reconciliation is to all these things like what the Milky Way is to Christmas lights, or the Pacific Ocean to a bathtub.
Reconciliation means literally putting something back together that used to be together, that is, conciled, one and the same thing, before it got all busted up. It is the singular work of God, for God is One, nothing is unharmonious or broken in God’s nature. We speak of God as Trinity, so yes, relationship, harmony and community are rooted in the very nature of God. But the divine Trinity is a unity of relationship. Beyond that, its just as mysterious to me as to anyone else.
God is love. God loves everyone equally passionately, even when they hate each other equally passionately. In the Gospel of Re-conciliation, through Jesus Christ, the mediator between God and humanity, God has already done everything necessary to accomplish and to demonstrate his con-ciliation toward us and among us.
We, however, struggle, trying to hold different parts of ourselves and competing values and our world together, as the recent flap over the debt ceiling limit in Washington showed. We just scraped by this time, but often we fail. The wars around us reflect the wars within us and are rooted in them. We constantly need RE-conciliation.
And yet, occasionally we get brief, inspiring glimpses of deeper unities that lie underneath the surface veneer of our differences and disputes, as happened to a German-speaking Mennonite from Moundridge, Kansas. Not able to avoid the draft during World War II, he became a medic, so that he could put men back together, rather than killing them. His fluency in German made him able to treat and comfort both American and German wounded soldiers, often together in the same hospital tents.
God’s constant, insistent work of reconciliation most powerfully appears to me in Jesus, his life, death, resurrection, teachings and person. But a story from his Bible, the Old Testament, also demonstrates this ministry of reconciliation into which God has called us. Its the story of Jacob and his twin brother, Esau, getting back together after nearly twenty years of separation.
Jacob, you may remember, had stolen both his twin brother’s birthright and blessing, as the first-born of the two. After so many years of mutual deceit and growing distrust made it impossible for Jacob and his family to stay with his father-in-law, Laban, Jacob has nowhere to go but back to Canaan, where his very angry, vengeful brother, the one who vowed to kill him for his trickery, awaits him.
On the night before Jacob is to cross into Canaan and take his chances with his estranged brother, knowing that his brother and lots of big, scary armed men are awaiting him, Jacob spends the night wrestling with an angel, who represents God. The next morning, Jacob is shocked and thunder-struck that he has “seen” the invisible God, face to face, and has lived to tell the tale.
This all-night wrestling match has long stood, in Jewish and Christian tradition, as a picture of the soul coming to terms with God, oneself and others, confronting and disposing of all the excuses and denials and layers of self-serving self-justifying self-delusion that keep us trapped in attitudes and actions that break up ourselves, our relationships and our world. The term for this wrestling is “repentance.” Repentance is the first of the three R’s of reconciliation.
The second R is responsibility, that is, taking responsibility for that which we alone can do to repair the breaches and bridge the gaps between people. So many relationships remain stuck and broken because one or both parties are waiting for their adversaries to first take responsibility and repent, or they are trying to make them take responsibility and repent.
“I’ll turn toward her if and only when she turns toward me. But God forbid that I should be the first. That would display weakness. That might justify my adversary, instead of me.”
As though we even had the power, or the responsibility, to make somebody else repent and reconcile.
If such relationships stay stuck in such an impasse, then surely another relationship also suffers: our relationship with God. Because the greatest commandment, Jesus said, has two parts: to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. God does not offer us the luxury of a living, loving relationship with himself for very long, without nudging and pushing us toward others, especially others with whom we want most NOT to have a relationship, or to restore a broken relationship. But we reject this person, this relationship, at the cost of rejecting God, the Lover of our souls.
So, instead of staying stuck forever, waiting for someone else to take responsibility, even if we have some measure of truth on our side, that they are being irresponsible, that they have hurt us, God’s peacemakers stop placing blame and start taking what responsibility they can to do what they can to reconcile with someone else, knowing that even if the adversary does not respond, or respond in kind, at least we are doing what we can to be reconciled to them, to God and to our selves. Someone has to be first, and that’s what Jesus calls disciples for.
Like Jacob, going forth to meet his angry and estranged brother. He did not wait for Esau to turn toward him; he turned toward Esau, even when all the signs said that Esau was still mad enough to kill him. And thus he took responsibility. So the second R of Reconciliation is responsibility.
But Jacob did not come empty-handed. He sent ahead of himself gifts of livestock. We could see this as just a ploy, typical of a shyster and trickster, to open up another escape hatch from the consequences of his actions. Just as likely though, is that Jacob is making restitution. Esau is effectively getting back some of the birthright and blessing that Jacob had stolen. Restitution is the third R of Reconciliation. Without this third step we have not really repented, nor have we really taken responsibility.
Restitution is not just about undoing damage or restoring stolen property. Its about restoring that most precious of commodities: trust. Which is exactly what Jacob is hoping for when he says to his brother, not once, but twice, “Keep these gifts, to show that I have found favor with my lord.” Some translations say, “that I have gained your trust.”
We do a lot of that in the course of carrying out our every day covenants: restoring or maintaining trust. Spouses may call or text each other during the work day just to check in and see how things are going, but really to say, “You can trust me to be thinking about you, that I care about you, even in your absence.” Or when we pay our bills, fulfilling our part of a covenant, in the back of our minds may also be the desire to prove to someone that we are trustworthy, even if mostly to ourselves.
Back to Jacob and Esau. Its when Jacob and Esau can finally embrace, that Jacob says, for the second time in the story, that he has “seen” the invisible God. “Seeing your face,” he says to his brother, “is as seeing the face of God.”
This is extremely important, saying twice that he has “seen” God. This is in the very Bible that tells us in no uncertain terms that the Supreme God and Lord of the Universe cannot be seen with human eyes, certainly not on human terms, never in the form of a human-made image, like an idol of gold, silver or wood. Or plutonium. The God of Jacob shows up when he wants, as he wants, on his terms, and if there’s anything in common about his appearances, it is this: that they always involve some sort of reconciliation, both with himself and among people. God breaks into conflicts and deadlocks so as to unmask the denial and self-justification that separate us, such is his coming in judgment. But at the same time he comes to give us do-overs, chances to get it right this time, such is his grace.
As he did for Jacob. This was not only a breakthrough in his relationship with his injured and estranged brother, by the way. It was a breakthrough in salvation history. Without it, the family of Abraham would have died off in a fatal family feud, and with it, perhaps even the faith of Abraham. So I say it again: every breakthrough in salvation history is also a breakthrough in estranged and broken human relationships.
These are some of the thoughts that seized me while I was at Eastern Mennonite University last May and June among students from some of the world’s worst headliner hot spots, like Syria, Kenya, Sudan, Northern Ireland and Guatemala. And I’m going to try and apply this stuff to….. Minnesota?
That was before the government shut-down, by the way.
But as we talked about conflicts in Lebanon or Palestine, I kept hearing a still, small voice asking me, “What about you? What about your family? Your church? Your closest personal relationships?”
That got me thinking about time that I would soon have with my family of origin once my classes were done. What about some family relationships I have neglected? And have I not engaged in some defensive detachment, some passivity about my responsibility for the implied covenants that come with being part of any family?
So in one encounter this summer, I surprised a close relative by fessing up to my long history of detachment and withdrawal, apologized for it, and committed myself to doing better by her. She began to cry and said that she would not wish for her twin sons any of the distance or disengagement that has happened within her generation of family.
Right: Why should we expect our kids to be any more grown up or responsible than we, their parents, were? I authorize you to ask me about such relationships any time, because I now understand that I can be no better for this church family than I am to my own family, even my family of origin. I hope to do a Boundary Waters trip with those same twins next summer, by the way. Fortunately, they get along a lot better than the young Jacob and Esau ever did.
So don’t be surprised if, in the course of my post-sabbatical ministry, you hear more about reconciliation. As I preach through the Gospel of Mark this year, I will come back to that theme quite often, because it is a very powerful perspective on the gospel and what the New Testament calls “the ministry of reconciliation.” Reconciliation is God’s ministry, first and foremost. Its what he does; based on his very nature. But since God is too good to keep such a good thing to himself, he shares this ministry of reconciliation with us.
So much of what we do as a church can also be considered as reconciliation. In worship and in stewardship, we are restoring to God what is his, by way of honor or substance, that we so often want to steal for ourselves. Evangelism is for reconciliation’s sake, as are the best acts of service and charity. Christian education is about learning to live in reconciled relationships, and about reconciling our heads and hearts with truth.
To close, I invite all of us to examine ourselves and our own relationships and look for any relationships or persons with whom we need to do the work of repentance, taking responsibility and making restitution, the restitution at least of re-establishing trust. And not only to do that as soon as we can, but to make it a lifelong orientation, a way of life.
If you feel at times that God is distant, that your relationship with God is not as it could be, as I do sometimes, yes, it helps to heighten our prayer and deepen our devotion and read our Bible more. We rarely get too much of that. But also look to see if something is blocking your relationship with someone else that might also be blocking your relationship with God. You might find, as I did this summer, that freeing up some of those cold, neglected or broken relationships might also free up the sense of God’s presence and peace.
Now, reconciliation does not mean that we will always agree on everything, nor that we even should agree all the time. It does not mean that everything will always be smooth, easy and “nicey-nice.” After their reunion, Esau and Jacob still went their separate ways, to different places and to different faiths, for Esau abandoned the same God whom Jacob saw in their encounter. But it does mean that we carry out our covenants with the kind of commitment to each other’s good that says, even in the most serious of disagreements, I would rather die for you than damage, dishonor or destroy you. You know, like Jesus did.
As hard as that may seem, I can guarantee this from the experience of Jacob and myself: that in this hard but sweet labor of repentance, taking responsibility, and making restitution, whenever needed, we, like Jacob, will “see” God. For that is where the God of Jacob shows up. Its what God does, you know, the God of Jacob.
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