Sermon at the Evening Service on the Last Sunday after Trinity 2019
We are called to be reconciled to one another.
The Reverend Dr Tony Kyriakides Priest Vicar
Sunday, 27th October 2019 at 6.30 PM
Behind this Abbey Church, outside Parliament and around College Green, ordinary people have been demonstrating and hurling abuse which has overflowed from verbal onslaughts into physical intimidation. While, ostensibly, the cause of this dissension and divide has been laid at the door of Brexit, it is far more complex than this country’s future relationship with its European neighbours.
Admittedly, Remainers and Leavers have become deeply entrenched, each furious that what they voted for has not been delivered and each seeking to attribute blame. More worryingly, the 2016 UK referendum challenged the heart of the Westminster model of government by legitimising popular sovereignty as a new democratic norm, straining the relationship between the people and parliament. Parliament has been portrayed as ‘the enemy of the people’, with the Prime Minister, himself, claiming that ‘If parliament were a laptop, then the screen would be showing the pizza wheel of doom. If parliament were a school, Ofsted would be shutting it down. If parliament were a reality TV show the whole lot of us would have been voted out of the jungle by now.’
A few weeks ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury reminded us that there is no single Christian view on Brexit and, in disagreement, ‘we must find better language... that helps us remove the bitterness and prioritise each other’s dignity and humanity.’ Today, on the front page of a national newspaper, the Archbishop speaks once again about the use of language and, in a rare rebuke of a sitting Prime Minister, denounces the use of ‘inflammatory’ language which runs the risk of pouring ‘petrol’ on this nation’s divisions over Brexit, a nation that is now ‘quite broken’.
The Church is all too familiar with the catastrophic and, at times, violent consequences of schism and, frequently, her different factions (East and West, Catholic and Reformed) have failed to be reconciled despite the fact that reconciliation is central to a life underwritten by the gospel. In other words, humankind reconciled with God through the sacrificial life of Christ, the one who takes the place of the ‘other’ and transforms the wrath of vengeance into the mercy of forgiveness (de Gruchy). This, in turn, we, as followers of Christ, are called to model as peacemakers striving for reconciliation with one another. If you want a manual for reconciliation, look no further than Matthew’s gospel where in three of its chapters (five, six and seven) we have the beatitudes as well as reflections on anger, retaliation, love of enemies, making judgements and much more.
Given the political schism of Brexit that has divided families, friends and communities, how might relationships be restored and the integrity of communities re-established?
An iconic story of reconciliation can be found in the book of Genesis between two brothers, Jacob and Esau. Their reconciliation takes place against a backdrop of Jacob’s subterfuge and his betrayal of his brother twenty years earlier, when he had stolen Esau’s birthright. Esau furious at his brother’s deception had made murderous threats against Jacob which forced the hand of their mother, Rebecca. She had been complicit in Jacob’s fraudulent behaviour, and now she sent Jacob (clearly her favourite son) to live with her brother Laban where Jacob was received with great warmth.
Fast forward twenty years later and it is a very different story. Jacob has accrued livestock and property and it is this prosperity that strains the relationship with Laban and Laban’s sons, and, subsequently, reveals how devious Laban can be. Both in giving his daughters in marriage to Jacob and in transferring livestock to him, Laban shows that he is not to be trusted. Enough is enough and, commanded by God, Jacob sets out for his ancestral home, Canaan, without telling Laban.
This, of course, is not without its own risks for he will have to pass through Edom, territory that belongs to his brother Esau. After their long estrangement I doubt whether Jacob would have relished the prospect of meeting Esau. Having usurped Esau’s inheritance and blessing, would Esau carry out his threat to kill Jacob?
‘Jacob went on his way, and God's angels met him’ (Gen.32:1). What might the angels have said to Jacob? No matter for perhaps it was the encounter itself which motivated Jacob to think long and hard on that relationship with his brother; to acknowledge his scheming, his deception and his manipulation in order to repent of his wrongdoing. It was a metanoia moment, a New Testament word that means much more that repent but rather a transformative change of heart, to face a new direction, to turn towards the light.
For us, this evening, what might we learn from such a reconciliation?
First, that deceit can never be the basis of a healthy relationship. Trickery enabled Jacob to get on in the world. That was how he gained his father’s blessing and increased his wealth in dealings with Laban. Yet, Jacob was also the victim of deceit and ended up with a wife he didn’t really want or love. Relationships, which are intent on deception and manipulation, can only be harmful and destructive.
Second, that dishonest conduct is not without consequences or, as Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians, ‘you reap whatever you sow’ (Galatians 6:7). Jacob was deceitful, he married into a deceitful family – perhaps you recall that when Jacob escaped from Laban, his wife, Rachel, stole household objects belonging to her father and refused to confess that she had taken them – and his children proved equally deceitful (for as adults they sold their brother Joseph into slavery and lied to their father about what they had done). Toxic patterns of behaviour tend to be mirrored not only by family members but by others with whom we work most closely. Modelling right behaviour, demonstrating trust, generosity, humility, and openness creates a foundation for building healthy relationships and a strong community.
Third, as Jacob nears home, he has a growing awareness that he cannot control all that happens in the world, despite his best (or worst) efforts. After a restless night in which he wrestles with God, Jacob demonstrates a sincere desire to be reconciled to his brother. Jacob knows he had done wrong and now he knows he has to make it right. He has to take the first step. We may think that time heals all wounds, but it only moves the pain below the surface where it can fester and damage future relationships. No matter how much he might repent of past actions, Jacob may not be accepted and embraced by his brother.
In this situation, though, God has been working in Esau’s life. The previously humiliated brother has not become bitter. He has not wasted his life, ruminating about how things might have been different had his brother not deceived their father and made away with his birthright. Instead, Esau has got on with his life, perhaps making peace with God for the mistake of so easily trading his inheritance for a bowl of soup. Whatever, Esau gladly welcomes his brother Jacob, and from this there is the simple lesson that we should avoid bitterness (no matter how richly deserved), offer forgiveness, and seek reconciliation if we want to live in a community of wellbeing.
Like Esau, God has come to us through his Son, Jesus Christ, embracing us, calling us sister and brother, and reminding us that as God has forgiven you and me, we, in our turn, are to forgive those who have hurt us. More than that: just as God has reconciled us to himself, so, too, we are called to be reconciled to one another.