Sunday, August 14, 2011

Unlikely Reconciliation: Genesis 33:1-17

Sermon Text from Today

I have always found it strange that when you purchase a new car you begin to see that car everywhere. The same is true when you have twins (as my wife and I did in April), you begin to recognize them everywhere. What once seemed to be such a rarity begins to become a common observation. In fact, last weekend my wife and I were at our family reunion and Amber commented, "Have you noticed how many twins there are here?" So I looked around and, much like when I feel like every other car is a 2006 CR-V, I began to see all over the place- double strollers. And we compared ours with theirs. What worked better, side by side or front and back? What wheels were able to endure the Knoebels gravel terrain the best? Who else looked like they were carting around a mini circus? Did they look as crazy as we felt? All in all, we recognized that our story was not as uncommon as we may have first thought. Then I look at the text I am preaching, twins again. And as I have said before, I hope Noah and Lily's story does not follow the same sort of path, or at least require the same sort of encounter, as today's text. For it is indeed a story of unlikely, at least unexpected, reconciliation that stems from a history of deception, distrust, and conflict.

If you have followed this summer's series on Genesis, maybe reading the stories in between at home, you may be well aware that Genesis, i.e. the book of beginnings, is everything but a clean text. Instead, the narratives that make up the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures and the story of Israel, i.e. what we call the Old Testament, is complicated, twisted, seductive, racy, and would be rated TV-14 if the ancient writers would have followed our cable parental codes. And remember, Genesis was the story that was told from generation to generation by the Jewish people about their beginnings, their history. These stories are often difficult to comprehend, especially those that concern the patriarch Jacob. Jacob, the younger twin brother to Esau and the offspring of Isaac and Rebekah, has moved through not one, but two plots of deception, graciously aided by his mother, so to claim for himself the birthright and blessing of not only his father, Isaac, but also and especially of God. He demands to be the called, chosen, and elected. And the narrators of Genesis claim that God's hand is at work in and through it all.

We come to today's text and, like a criminal on the run, Jacob is on the move and has discovered that his deception could be reasonable cause for his brother Esau to post WANTED signs throughout the Transjordan region. He lives in fear and anxiety, constantly looking over his shoulder for a vengeful Esau, and goes to great lengths en route to Canaan, the land promised to his ancestors, to defend and protect this blessing. In just a chapter earlier, we also read of Jacob's offering of a prayer, as Gordon Wenham notes, mixed with "faith, fear, and doubt" (291).[1] It is a prayer that looks all too familiar, maybe you have prayed one similar, God, although I may not be worthy, deliver me in my distress, fear, and uncertainty.

Jacob's prayer, though, is not his final move. Instead, unsure if God will be faithful, he sends a contingent of his fleet to investigate Esau's camp, and should they encounter the feared twin, they are to assure Esau that Jacob comes bearing gifts, a "present", an offering of atonement to make apparent amends. While this fleet marches ahead, Jacob stays behind, wrestles with a divine agent, and once again demands a blessing, this time not from Isaac or Esau, but from God. In this dramatic aside, Jacob's hip is displaced and his name changed to Israel, meaning "struggles with God." These are new marks of the patriarch's struggle with faith, fear, and doubt. Yet, Jacob presses on towards Esau, limping in anxiety and trembling in uncertainty.

This is where it gets messy. It has often been suggested that Jacob is questing for reconciliation because he has been convicted of his errant ways in the past and humbled by his encounter with God. We have often heard that Jacob is longing to make things right between himself and Esau, genuinely transformed. Jacob is the good guy? Maybe this is the case? But I also wonder, while Jacob may appear to long for amends to be made, does he expect it, i.e. is it an unlikely and risky reconciliation? Jacob expects nothing short of a frontal attack from his brother and so maybe his offerings and posture of surrender are actually further attempts to protect, defend, and secure the promise and blessing? And when he draws near to his twin brother he charges to the front of the line and is prepared for the worst, hoping for at least a partial pardon, so he can then get on his way.

Then we read of Esau's posture and response, which, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, may sound somewhat familiar. The one who had been slighted, deceived, and displaced, offers an unlikely response to the deceiver: prodigal grace and uncommon embrace. The text reads, when seeing Jacob in the distance, bowed in surrender and submission, "Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept." Can you hear the echoes? Jacob, much like the younger son who has demanded then spoiled an inheritance in Luke's telling of Jesus' prodigal parable, approaches with a rehearsed plan of protection and preservation in the guise of surrender and submission, only to be welcomed by an unlikely and uncommon reconciliation.[2] Like Jesus' prodigal in Luke, Jacob is greeted, a la the father in the prodigal parable, by a once-perceived obstacle and enemy running towards him not to attack, condemn, confront, or shame, but instead to make right what was once a broken relationship. And through the actions of Esau and the father, Jacob, the prodigal son, and you and I witness the very face of God.

Yet, this reconciliation does not appear to last long, as the twin brothers ultimately part ways when Jacob refuses to travel "alongside" Esau; the older brother in Jesus' prodigal parable refuses the father's celebration of a once dead, and now alive lost son. The world around us, and maybe our own circumstances, are not fully right and good. Even today, the economy has been downgraded, the housing market still struggles, budgets are tight, wars and rumors of wars flood the airwaves, jobs are diamonds in a rough, and you and I may experience a wide range of other pressured experiences of anxiety and conflict. Again, reconciliation of our lives, let alone the whole world often feels unlikely and unfinished at best.

When I read today’s story my heart wants to celebrate with Jacob. But are his motives twisted? I want Esau to be the hero. Yet, despite his efforts, Jacob and Esau still part ways. This narrative is instead a reminder that reconciliation is hard, complicated, often unfinished and incomplete, and maybe unlikely or uncommon. But disciples of a crucified and resurrected Christ pursue it nonetheless. We believe, through the life and work of this unlikely Messiah, that the day will come when Esau will travel alongside Jacob; the older brother will enter the celebration of his younger prodigal brother; the lion will lay down with the lamb; wars will cease; crying will be no more; God will make a dwelling among all of us in a new and universally reconciled creation. And this is our story handed down to us. We call it the gospel..

Many of you are aware, and may have read about through the various blog posts, the recent pilgrimage our youth took to Tegucigalpa, Honduras. We traveled as listeners and learners and were blown away by the many stories shared about how Christians in Honduras longed to live into the unlikely, maybe an unfinished, reconciliation of God.

There was the Micah Project. Their director, Mike, had begun an outreach to the street kids in the city. These kids, for a wide variety of reasons, have been orphaned by their families and forced to call the streets their home. The youth often turn to yellow-glue as the drug of choice to connect them to a false sense of community and bring temporary relief to their pain. The Micah Project brings these boys in, offers them a place to call home, reconciles their addictions, and provides them an education that trumps the national average of fifth grade. In fact, many have gone on to college and become teachers. Lives are transformed by those who are living into an uncommon and unlikely story of reconciliation.

We also learned about Association for a More Just Society. Their director of communications, Abe, spoke to our group about the efforts of their ministry to enter into difficult and dangerous environments to pursue peace in violent neighborhoods, abusive homes, and corrupt political systems. However, they also have advocated for the reconciliation of a corrupt education system that has placed money and power over the development of Honduran youth. If you read through their website, they have experienced many victories, both large and small, because they live into a gospel story of uncommon and unlikely reconciliation, even though their work is unfinished.

Still more, we spent the entire week in community with youth from a Presbyterian church in Teguc, Peña de Horeb. They live under a simple confession: desañando tu futuro bajo la voluntad de Dios (designing your future under the will of God). They long to bridge the gap between what they believe to be a gospel of peace and the present realities of struggle, violence, and injustice around them. They shared of their hopes and dreams to be the people of God in Tegucigalpa and beyond, because they believe in an uncommon and unlikely Messiah named Jesus who is in the process of designing an alternative future in Honduras and will eventually reconcile the whole world.

I can see the same in our youth who gave up a week to learn of these stories, to partner with Honduran youth, and dream together about how to not only pursue reconciliation in Teguc, but also back home in Philadelphia and West Chester. Imago Dei Youth have their eyes and ears tuned into an unlikely and uncommon reconciliation. And, like Esau, many run towards it.

There may be a few Esaus among us, even some Jacobs, as we do not expect reconciliation. Yet, when the story of God's quest for reconciliation becomes our story, we begin to take notice of the uncommon and unlikely signs and symbols of an already and not-yet hope unfolding around us in Honduras, Pittsburgh, D.C., Mexico, Philly, and West Chester. Even more, when we embrace the prodigal story of reconciliation and peace as our own, we begin to live into it with regularity. Where and how is God calling you to do just that, to pursue unlikely and uncommon reconciliation?

If you flip to the front of your bulletin you will read a quote from a source you may find to be uncommon and unlikely, the PCUSA Book of Order, i.e. Part II of our denominational constitution. In its section on "The Church and Its Mission," it states our reconciliatory call better than anything I have said previously, "The church of Jesus Christ is the provisional demonstration of what God intends for all of humanity." (PCUSA Book of Order, G- 3.0200). May we live into this provisional demonstration this day and every day. And may reconciliation then cease to be so unlikely and uncommon.

We are reminded today that as we are a people who pursue reconciliation, we only do so because we are covered in God's grace that has gone ahead of us in Jesus.  Reconciliation is difficult, and will sometimes be left unfinished.  yet we still hold on hope for the day to come when the whole world, to include you and I, will be reconciled in the new creation.  Until that day, le us live as God's provisional demonstration.

[1] See Wenham's commentary on Genesis in the Word Biblical Commentary Series
[2] This contrast is credited to Ken Bailey's and his work in Jacob and the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel's Story. The image from this post appears on the cover of Bailey's excellent contribution to Christian theology and biblical scholarship.

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