Texts: Exodus 15: 1-18; Matthew 18: 15-20
It goes without saying that the two most difficult times for families are weddings and funerals. Those are the times when we are usually put into close proximity with people we had not chosen nor normally would choose to be with on a regular basis. As one pundit quipped, we choose our friends but get stuck with our families.
And when the wedding or funeral is over, we remember why it is we really don't like certain people in our family not to mention that fact that there are old hurts resulting in long suppressed anger that we've never been able to let go of. Most of the time at these occasions, we are polite on the surface while harboring our anger, anxious to have the event end so we can get on with our lives. We get stuck in our own inability to not just forgive the other for the hurt caused us but in our own inability to move beyond and to forgive ourselves for our anger.
Although we usually think about choosing a church much as we choose our friends, churches also take on the quality of family structure. Church sociologists, the people who study churches and how they function usually call smaller churches, like Old First, family structured while calling larger churches community structured. However, in every community, there are smaller groups, which act much like families, so larger churches often have many of the divisions, albeit on a different scale, than smaller churches.
We think of smaller churches as allowing for greater closeness between members and to a certain extent that's true. Realizing that people function best when in a small group, megachurches and many large evangelical churches have what are called “cell groups,” so that congregants do not get lost in any kind of anonymity. But whether large or small, the ritual we practice called “Sharing God’s Peace,” is an important part of worship, symbolizing forgiveness and reconciliation, not just with others, but also with ourselves, in the community of faith.
Reconciliation and forgiveness are quite different. Reconciliation involves healing between previously – for the lack of a better word – warring parties. War involves more than battles between opposing armies; it also involves the violence between and within societies. Sometimes that violence is openly expressed; at other times, it is disguised. But in most, if not all cases, that violence comes from fear of the other, those people we believe are outside our net of care. Once open violence was common against blacks, Catholics, and Jews in the South; now there is disguised violence in the new so-called “voter ID” laws designed to exclude those who might shift a balance of power.
Beyond its social significance, reconciliation has a deep spiritual dimension which is grounded in our belief as Christians. This morning's Gospel text is just one example of the importance of reconciliation. Forgiveness and reconciliation are central themes in the Gospels.
In the Sermon on the Mount, we are told that before we can bring our gifts to the alter, we must first be reconciled with each other. And this morning's text, written in the context of a developing church community when this Gospel was written, now totally separate from the synagogue and Jewish worship traditions, lays out a process wherein the offended and offender can be brought together through a reconciling process.
Reconciliation is different from forgiveness and involves several phases. We'll call the first phase the genesis phase. During this phase a shift in power occurs, either within a society or between individuals. Calls for reconciliation during this phase are early, distant alerts about the challenges of the future. This was true when the bishops of Chile called for reconciliation in 1985 while Pinochet still held power; it is true today in Palestine through the efforts of such groups as Peace Now because the Israelis are still an occupying power.
The second phase is that of transformation. This happened when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 or when Mandela was released from prison in 1990. At this phase, those in power have lost their grip and events can transpire quickly. Sometimes it is a new government; sometimes, a death within a family. Reconciliation at this phase is experienced as the possibility of reconciliation, something more than the mere pronouncements earlier. The shift from the first phase to the second is not always smooth. In fact, it is usually gradual and bumpy, reflecting our basic unwillingness to let go of power. As a nation, we are witnessing this in places like Wisconsin or Alabama.
Then comes the readjustment phase. During this phase, there is the attempt to consolidate and hold onto the changes that have taken place, but at the same time the new must constantly check back with the old, disempowered but not totally defeated powers for reactions. During this phase there is social instability, a rise in common crime, and chaos. This occurred in Afghanistan when the Soviets withdrew: warlords fought for power. In spite of the Taliban hold, the situation has not changed much.
In this readjustment phase, reconciliation can no longer afford to be abstract. People want to get on with their lives, but find it difficult to do so. Some even question whether reconciliation is worth the effort because the new reconstructing society appears to be impotent in punishing wrongdoers.
At the same time, there is a yearning to be free of the haunting memories of the past and the sufferings of the present. Desmond Tutu in his approach to reconciliation in South Africa understood this so well. Instinctively, from his Christian perspective, he knew social reconciliation had to involve individual reconciliation or it would not work.
Tutu understood that reconciliation, as the work of God, involves restorative justice – not the punitive justice we practice as a society as a mask for vengeance. Contrast the reading from Exodus with the reading form Matthew, at first, we thrill as did the early Israelite tribes in the story of freedom created to explain God's blessing on their liberation from oppression. Exodus speaks to us today as we ask how do we deal with forces that would destroy us and the civilization we have created?
Central to reconciliation is the willingness to sit face to face and work it out nonviolently. What do we do with organizations or groups that butcher anyone seen as not supporting their drive to power? How often we have seen videos of family members begging for the lives and freedom of their loved ones.
Events such as the horrific murders or the kidnappings of young girls in Nigeria or Putin's aggression against Ukraine make us wonder whether there is any hope for reconciliation between power thirsty groups and their victims. Our faith teaches us that in the end, that ultimately God will prevail. In the words of “Ein Feste Burg,” “the body they may kill; God's truth abideth still.” Although we personally may not have the power to deal with ISIS, or Boko Haram, or Putin, we do have power to bring change and reconciliation within our own society. We can influence what happens here in America through social and political action.
When Tutu created the reconciliation commission in South Africa, he called it the Truth and Reconciliation Commission because he knew truth telling was essential to asking for forgiveness and bringing about reconciliation. Legislation in states like Florida banning the importance of truth telling regarding racism only exacerbates anger and diminishes opportunities for community reconciliation. Healing will take time.
Whether personal or societal, we all need to acknowledge our sins and ask for forgiveness in order to share God's peace with each other. Then are we ready to share the bread and wine symbolizing the love of Christ Jesus.
Let us pray: We come to you, O God, so that your love as shown through Jesus of Nazareth may be manifest in us. Bring us to true reconciliation in our society, with each other, and within ourselves. In the name of the One who teaches us how to live, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.