Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig, “Reconciling Embrace.”
Scripture: Genesis 32:1-33:7
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Jennifer Davis Sensenig
12 November 2017
Genesis 32:1-33:17; II Corinthians 5:16-20; Genesis 27:1-38
Brothers, rivals, enemies, yet family. After Jacob deceived their father, Esau cried: “he has taken my blessing ” (27:36) and since old man Isaac didn’t know how to bless both his children, Esau was mad enough to kill. So their mother, Rebekah, helped Jacob escape and he lived with his Uncle Laban 20 years, married two of Laban’s daughters and had many children with them and their maids. There’s a story! But reconciliation between estranged brothers is the surprise ending for Jacob and Esau. In the end Esau embraces his brother. And Jacob offers gifts saying: “ take my blessing ” (33:11.)
Reconciliation is not easy. Reconciliation is a humbling practice, which exposes our self-centered approaches to life as self-defeating. The Bible’s theme of reconciliation begins behind history in the early pages of Genesis and extends to the culmination of history when all peoples, nations and languages are one diverse and glorious choir in Revelation. And yet, this theme of reconciliation–all through the Bible–is threaded through the lives of people–who make war and make peace, who harm each other and heal together. And for people reconciliation doesn’t come naturally. In group cooperation, sure. Competition? Maybe. But reconciliation (especially across groups) isn’t our birthright . We don’t emerge from the womb ready to reconcile. When relationships are broken we human beings do all kinds of things naturally. We seek soothing comfort from someone safe. We lash out against someone weaker. When relationships are broken we might fall into an abyss of shame as if it’s all our fault–even if that’s not true. We may deny the brokenness, believing that everything is just fine. Being reconciled to one another in love is not natural. It is as difficult and life-changing as learning to read and we all have a learning disability.
This week I heard a story second-hand about a Canadian man whose 20 year-old son’s life was ended by gun violence in a conflict over drugs. The father, a Christian pastor, went to meet the man who had accidentally killed his son, shooting through a door to break the lock and steal the dope in the basement. When they met, the father said to the young man: “I’m working on forgiving you. I’m not there yet. But I know Jesus and I know that Jesus helps us live the kind of life he lived. I’ll help you get to know him.” Reconciliation isn’t a technique, but an approach for responding to harm. It is lifelong learning journey. But as I said–we all have a learning disability when it comes to reconciliation. What is yours? What is your natural response when things are a broken mess? Jacob’s disability was pointed out to him by God and embodied in a limp.
Purpose of Jacob’s Story Cycle
The story of Jacob and Esau is about family conflict and interpersonal reconciliation between two. It is also about the whole people of Israel. Jacob, Israel’s ancestor and namesake is not a moral exemplar. He is naturally sneaky and deceptive. Jacob means “heel-grabber.” He’s not a big tough guy, but a man of the tents–who prefers to be safe and in control. And Jacob, not because he’s special, but just because, is someone who meets God now and again. So Jacob trusts God…sometimes…and then takes things into his own hands at other times. Biblical people told and re-told the stories of Jacob as self-critique, to admit their own disabilities, their own learning curve with regard to reconciliation. Israelites told and re-told the stories of Jacob to confess their natural and national tendencies to trust God…sometimes…and then take things into their own hands. Our faith ancestors told and re-told this story to embrace their true family, which went beyond their national borders to Edom, another name for Esau.
Jacob was re-named, Israel, which means God-wrestler. Israel isn’t the people of God by national success and centralization of world worship in Jerusalem. Israel is the people of God through wrestling and reconciling with God, with each other and across the division in the human family. I love Jesus because he was all in and gave us his life, story, teaching, wrestling, healing, blood, and spirit, not to circumvent our learning process, but to bless us, to give us a gift, an unexpected embrace, a ministry so that we might be reconciled through it all to one another and thus to God.
After another mass shooting this week. It’s easy for me to demonize gun advocates or the NRA. It’s easy for us Americans to fall into immobilizing fear or defend our communities and loved ones by arming ourselves. But God’s story, our story–the story Anabaptist peace church Christians tell and live as best we can–has a different plot. Mennonites have rejected revenge when relationships are broken, but often we have blamed others or blamed ourselves rather than being all in and pursuing reconciling love. But God can work with our Mennonite disabilities and teach us reconciliation in our families and in our country and world.
One thing that might help us Mennonites is the work of Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis who are co-chairs of a new Poor People’s Campaign, launching 50 years after the Poor People’s campaign championed by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The campaign addresses four issues, which are threaded through the American national story: systemic racism, poverty, the war economy and ecological devastation. These Christian leaders are authentically wrestling with God. They are trying to set the pace of nation according according to the needs of the children, the poor, the animals and the earth.
That Corinthians passage is so hopeful–new creation, everything old has passed away, everything has become new, we are ambassadors for Christ, we have the ministry of reconciliation! And that letter is so practical too, acknowledging how much we need to learn, how we are like ordinary clay jars–easily broken. Embodying the ministry of reconciliation is a distinctively Biblical way of understanding both the identity of Israel and the church. As spiritual descendants of Jacob and Esau and inheritors of this story, we contemporary Mennonites take our identity as ministers of reconciliation seriously. What if God embraces us with forgiving love and is ready to walk alongside us, even if we’re not ready?
What if Jesus, God’s reconciling presence today, restores us when we pursue violence rather than peace, racial division rather than one human family, private wealth rather than sharing resources for the common good, and domination of the earth rather than creation care? What if God’s story is told now through our lives and Christ’s reconciling work flows through us? We tell this story because we are the children, descended from ancient reconciling faith–and it’s a long journey ahead. So, here’s the ending…
Biblical Storytelling Genesis 32:1-33:17
Our theme music is “Jesus, I believe you’re near,” composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.
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