Riverside United


Learning to Love (Week Two)

Preacher: Rev. David Exley • Scripture: Genesis 50:15-21

Our United Church creed speaks of a God, “who has come in Jesus—the Word made flesh—to reconcile and make new…” At the heart of our faith tradition is the belief that God’s desire is to work toward the reconciliation of all creation. Reconciliation quite literally means “to bring back together.” And so, it’s fitting that today we focus on a passage of scripture where a family—in this case Joseph and his brothers—are brought back together. In the reading, one of the important things we must see is that we witness not just a physical reunion of this estranged family but we also see the fading away of old grudges. We see a family that is renewed (made new) in the midst of their grief following the passing of their father.

Rev. Bruce Lee did a wonderful job early last month of exploring a significant portion of the Joseph narrative from Genesis. We heard how Joseph was sold into slavery as a result of the incredible tension between he and his siblings. Joseph then takes a journey where he finds himself as one of the lowest and the least (during his time in prison) and eventually to a place where he is at the height of power in Pharaoh’s palace. Bruce reminded us that there is guilt that each side bears when it comes to their relationship. This closing chapter in the story of Joseph and his brothers gives us a glimpse of what reconciliation looks like through the lens of our faith. Joseph’s father (Jacob) passes away. Immediately, his brothers are filled with fear about Joseph retaliating against them for their sins (for selling him into slavery). In this moment of panic and fear they decide to tell Joseph that it was his father’s dying wish to have him forgive them. They truly believe that the only thing standing in the way of their brother exacting revenge against them is the commands of their father. Instead, we see the love of God rise to the surface in this moment of forgiveness and grace. Joseph immediately begins to weep and his brothers follow suit. In the midst of the sadness and pain, God begins to renew their hearts and minds. When they presume that Joseph will demand some sort of punishment for them, he says, “Don’t be afraid. Am I God? You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it.”

Through this story we learn that God’s love is on display whenever reconciliation interrupts retaliation.

Years ago, when I was just starting my ministry career, I experienced a summer of conflict like nothing I had ever experienced before in my life up until that point. I was in my early twenties, so it’s not surprising that this was a new experience for me. As a United Church camp director working with a team of senior staff I found myself at odds with my assistant director. For reasons I cannot fully explain the two of us just didn’t seem to click. We barely survived the summer together as we attempted to navigate through our various differences. At the end of the summer there was a fair bit of hurt felt on both sides. And, while I don’t remember much related to the conflicts we endured that summer, I’ll never forget the night my (now former) assistant director called me on the phone to apologize for what happened that summer.

I didn’t even realize it, but my heart had become hardened by this strained relationship. Amazingly though… All it took to soften my heart was a few simple words from this former colleague—a simple, but difficult, step in the direction of reconciliation. The seeds of faith that had been planted within me from a very early age instantly began to bloom, and the once hardened ground within me softened enough allow the seeds of God’s love to grow once again. Words cannot fully capture that feeling that overwhelms us (and takes over) when God’s grace and love are on display. The walls of division within us instantly come crumbling down… the weight of the world seems to slip off your shoulders and the sun begins to shine again.

God’s love is on display whenever reconciliation interrupts retaliation.

It’s easy in this life to forget what God’s love looks like and feels like. But, the moment we remember what true love looks like (and feels like) is the moment when we are made new once again… where we find ourselves back in the presence of God again… where we see God’s dream once again. This is actually a subversive act. Because this world would have us believe that forgiveness only goes so far, that love has its limits, that fear is too strong a force to resist, that revenge is too tempting for us to not move in that direction. Our world would have us carry around the weight of pain and shame forever… but God has other plans. Love is a subversive act because it seeks to do something that this world wants us to avoid—it invites us to see the value of others. And, not just those who we hold in high esteem (that’s easy) but those who have wronged us or done damage to us. Love is a subversive act because it guides us to that place where we see that the world doesn’t revolve around us; Loving as God loves is a subversive act because it reminds us that when our personal happiness and well-being is placed ahead of everything else, we lose.

God’s call to all creation is to re-member the power of love and reconciliation. But, far too often, we remember past wrongs. We remember those times when others have failed us. We remember tension and feelings of betrayal. We neglect to remember the power of love and our need for connection and renewal. The world is rooted in God’s love. In the beginning… there was love. And then the weeds began to grow in the garden—the weight of other things pried us away from that place of light and love. Our goal as people of faith is to spend every waking moment working for reconciliation. To resist the powers of this world that tell us it’s okay to be disconnected and dismissive of one another and to work toward things that unite and renew us as God’s beloved people.

A few months ago Betsy and I watched this beautiful episode of “Queer Eye” on Netflix. If you don’t know the show, it’s a wonderful makeover show where five amazing gay men help other men and women transform themselves (both the external and the internal).

In this particular episode they spent time with a black man named Wesley from Kansas City. Part of Wesley’s story is that he was shot by another black man in an altercation that took place in his young adult years. The shooting left Wesley paralyzed from his waist down. During the episode, they actually found the man who shot Wesley and, with his consent, they set up a meeting for the two of them to talk and to work toward healing and wholeness. If you haven’t seen this show, I can’t recommend it highly enough—particularly this episode.

When Wesley meets Maurice (the man who shot him) at a local coffee shop, Wesley actually goes so far to say, “thank you” to him. He takes time to listen as each of them remember their side of the story and work toward developing empathy for the other. At the end of their time together, Wesley says to Maurice, “I don’t even feel any bad energy from you…” Maurice responds with a smile, “I was about to say the same thing…” Then Wesley says this, “We’re two black men and we’re doing something THEY don’t want us to do… and that is forgive each other and also uplift each other.”

God’s love is on display whenever reconciliation interrupts retaliation.

When we consider what love looks like, it’s images like this (stories like this) that should rise to the top. No matter what history we have with one another, it’s possible for us to be brought together by God’s grace and God’s love. When we re-member who we are (beloved creatures of a gracious and caring God) we will see the walls of division and hate come crumbling down.

If Wesley (a man who has to live the rest of his life in a wheelchair) can forgive—if he can show the world what reconciliation looks like—what’s stopping us? Amen.

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