Genesis 32:22-33:11; 50:15-21
Brian McLaren wants to talk about the difference between rivalry and reconciliation with the scripture passages that we heard this morning. I’ll just be honest with you up front. I don’t want to talk about reconciliation. And I’m not sure rivalry is the best word for the antithesis of reconciliation. Maybe that works in the story of Jacob and Esau, but that seems too limited to me. I can think of a number of ways to describe broken relationships: a falling out, cut off, estrangement, divorce, betrayal, enmity, distrust, resentment, hatred. I don’t want to talk about reconciliation because I have carried so many of those other feelings in my heart. Of all the Sundays that I’ve preached, I have the most stories for this Sunday from my own life—and I can’t tell you any of them because it wouldn’t be fair to the other parties. Of course in my versions the other persons would be at fault and I could be perfectly snarky—except in the stories where I am at fault and my own shame gets in the way.
So I’ll share something I learned this week at the Bishop’s Gathering of the Orders in Yakima. Every year our Bishop calls a three day meeting of clergy and lay people serving churches as pastors. We are a diverse group of people who read the Bible through many different cultural and theological lenses, who have different life experiences from which to draw in ministry, who have varying degrees of experience, whose first languages are English, Spanish, German, Dutch, Tagalog, Samoan, Tongan, Japanese, and more. The purpose of our gathering is collegiality along with some continuing education. It really is wonderful to see our friends and colleagues whom we seldom see because of distance and our commitments to our local churches. Unfortunately, we usually divide into cliques and geographical, language, or theological groups and spend our time with the people with whom we have the greatest affinity. But tension has been growing among us for a number of years over the issue of gender minorities serving in ministry and now same sex marriage. In fact, some of us have brought charges against others of us, starting the supervisory process that can lead to church trials and the loss of credentials as we have seen in other conferences. We are supposed to be a covenanted people bound by mutual care and accountability because of our call to serve the church. But we have become distrustful of one another with some on both sides of the issue feeling betrayed and fearful.
The Dean of Boston University, Dr. Mary Elizabeth Moore, a deacon in the United Methodist Church, led part of our continuing education. She invited us to consider part of Jacob’s story that comes before the part we heard this morning. We know that Jacob deceived his father, Isaac, and cheated his brother Esau out of his inheritance and blessing, and that Esau was so angry that he made plans to kill Jacob. Jacob fled to his uncle Laban who lived a great distance away in Haran. There Jacob was cheated by his uncle who promised his daughter Rachel’s hand in marriage to Jacob if he worked for seven years, only to substitute his older daughter Leah on the night of the wedding. Jacob was then allowed to marry Rachel, but another seven years labor was required. Laban was as underhanded in his dealings with Jacob as Jacob had been with Esau. In the chapter just before our first reading Laban chased Jacob to retrieve what he believed Jacob had stolen from him. Mary Elizabeth Moore cited the covenant that Laban made with Jacob, the one that says, “The Lord watch between me and thee while we are apart,” as a promise not to harm one another, claiming God as their witness because they could not trust each other.
Jacob’s first covenant in his rivalry and broken relationships was to do no harm. Sometimes in broken relationships, that is as far as we can safely go. First we have to be safe. We may need to live separately, to observe distance and ask God to keep watch between us. That may mean that I have to leave reparations to God, but if I am to be safe, then I need to remain at a distance or limit contact. I can only work on myself, to learn my life lessons, and to hopefully grow in grace. I know how hard that is! I have vented my anger to a third party, and worked on my own responses, and I know how hard it is to let go, to forgive, to move forward with grace. I want to be clear that sometimes safety is all that we can work toward and it will have to be enough to trust God with our broken relationship.
But sometimes, over time, grace wins. Jacob learned about himself through experiencing Laban’s deceit. Jacob’s deceit and vying for power, and the resulting distrust and fear of retribution from Esau made Jacob look hard at himself and the scriptures tell us that he spent a terrible night wrestling with God, refusing to let go until he received a blessing, and leaving the encounter forever humbled. As frightened as Jacob was of Esau, he made his best effort to demonstrate his repentance. The miracle in the story is Esau’s forgiveness. We don’t know how Esau arrived at his change of heart, perhaps it was Jacob’s demonstrated repentance and vulnerability. We do get to hear how Jacob experienced the profound grace of forgiveness and reconciliation when he tells Esau, “For truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”
Grace broke through in Yakima when one of our colleagues spoke to our gathering with obvious emotion saying, “You are my church. I came here to be with you.” Grace broke through when we shared conversations around tables and named the things we need to talk about. Grace broke through when we each named one thing we would commit to doing to improve our connection. Grace broke through when we shared bread and wine in communion, looking in each other’s faces and seeing the face of God.
Jesus tells the story of a Samaritan, a hated enemy of the Jews, who stopped to help a man beaten at the side of the road when his own religious leaders walked by on the other side of the road. When we recognize our common humanity even in our enemies, grace can break through. We can lay aside our fear and distrust so that we see the other’s real need. It is not too late to see the face of God in those from whom we have been estranged. In Jesus’ parable, it is the hated Samaritan who models God’s love. Grace is possible. Reconciliation is possible.
But it takes some wrestling with God to see our own part in the breaking of the relationship and participation in God’s grace, whether offering or receiving, or simply being willing to be open to grace. We have all been on both sides of estrangement. We have been hurt and we have caused hurt. We can hang on to our rivalries, estrangements, anger and resentment, or we can choose grace. I can tell you from experience that taking that one small step of being willing to be open to grace is enough to unleash a flood of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. It is like seeing the face of God. As we offer grace and seek reconciliation, our own faces reflect God’s image.
God’s grace is that powerful!