Fasting as Reconciliation

Acts 11:1-12
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying,  “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house.

A_Girl_in_the_River_The_Price_of_Forgiveness-232358981-large.jpgI recently heard the story behind the Oscar-winning short documentary this year. The film, entitled “A Girl in the River” tells the story of a young woman named Saba. When she was 18, Saba fell in love with a young man and decided to get married. When her family forbade her, believing the man to be too poor, she defied them and eloped with her lover.

I sorely wish that we couldn’t all guess what comes next, but the truth is horrifying. Her father and her uncle, believing their family disgraced by her decision, took Saba, shot her in the head, tied her in a bag, and threw her in the river. They did this to preserve their family’s honor.

But somehow, Saba survives. She escapes the fate of an estimated 1000 young women and girls who are killed for honor every year in Pakistan, and finds her way to a hospital, where they are able to save her life.

But there is more to this story. While Saba is initially able to hold her father and uncle accountable—they are accused and placed in prison for what they have done—ultimately Saba is faced with intense community pressure to pardon them. Despite saying that she will never forgive them in her heart, Saba is forced to offer public forgiveness, which frees her uncle and father and lets them return home, where they triumphantly declare that they are more respected than ever, and that, remarkably, they have forgiven HER for putting them in the position in the first place.

I am telling you this story because of two words: Forgiveness and Reconciliation. Sometimes it can seem as though these two words mean the same thing. And I think that this documentary, even with its coerced, forced definition of forgiveness, reminds us that forgiveness and reconciliation may be related, but doing one is not the same as doing the other.

So what’s the difference?

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I think we often imagine forgiveness as something like the picture to the left. It is most often solitary work. It is the act of letting go of something, of pardoning an offense. When it is genuine, forgiveness can be incredibly personally healing. It can allow us to move forward from a place of great pain. But ultimately, forgiveness is an interior process. It is for you.

Forgiveness is what happens in Luke  15 when the father races out to gather his wayward son in his arms. He chooses to let go of his anger, and to set aside the past, and in doing so he is free to embrace his child. In our reformed tradition, we sometimes say that it forgiveness is such a soul-shift that it is possible only by the grace of God. It is something accomplished in us by God’s power.

Saba’s story, however, reminds us that there is a shadow side to forgiveness that is purely individual–that when this kind of forgiveness is all that is required for healing, forgiveness can be coerced. People can find themselves under enormous pressure to “forgive and forget,” as the saying goes, because it is far easier to force one person to relent than it is to make a community change. Forgiveness, then, can become cheap amnesty for an offender, who can simply wait for his or her accuser to grow weary, or frightened, or traumatized by the process. This version of forgiveness can look, at its worst, like emotional blackmail. This sort of forgiveness is not forgiveness at all.

So that is forgiveness. What about reconciliation?

Take a look at the picture again and imagine for a second with me—what if there was someone else on the other side of the wall? Imagine—what would it be like to know that there is someone else swinging the hammer, someone else sharing the load, removing the barrier that divides you?

That is what reconciliation looks like. It looks like hammering at a wall, knowing that the other party is hard at work as well. It is a deeply relational, and therefore outward process. It is the business of repairing the damage that has been done to a relationship or relationships. Reconciliation is what happens when people—those who have been wronged, and those who have offended—come together to pick up the rubble of what was and see what might be built in its place. Reconciliation can only happen when the community joins together.

In the words of Lewis Smedes: It takes one person to forgive; it takes two persons to be reunited.

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What can this look like in the real world? One of the most famous cases of public reconciliation is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. Following years of apartheid, the entire country committed to a difficult and at times painful process of reconciliation. The commission, headed by Desmond Tutu, sought to bring healing to a broken community. It began with detailed, exhaustive research of the crimes. It continued with honest, unflinching testimony. It did not require forgiveness. Victims of gross human rights violations were invited to give statements about their experiences, and perpetrators could give testimony and request amnesty. The conditions for amnesty were: that the crimes were politically motivated, proportionate, and there was full disclosure by the person seeking amnesty. Nobody knew if it would work—but somehow, it did. Society healed. Communities came together. South Africa moved forward. Reconciliation.

We also see reconciliation, albeit of a different sort, at work in our Scripture today. In this case, the situation is a bit different—there is no obvious conflict. But in Acts 11, there is a problem: gentiles want to follow Jesus. In fact, they are like moths to a flame. This may not seem like a problem to you, but you must remember that the early church was a decidedly Jewish one. And so, when Gentiles begin asking to be baptized, Jewish Christians don’t know what to do about it. For a while they ignore the problem, perhaps wondering whether it might go away.

But then things get more complicated—gentiles start having visions, and reaching out to the apostles. And in our story today, the apostle Peter starts having visions too, and God starts telling him things that he never expected to hear—that gentiles are part of God’s plan. Gentiles even start experiencing the Holy Spirit, a classic sign in the early church that God is present, that something important is happening. This problem can no longer be ignored.

And in our Scripture this morning, Peter struggles. He is at a loss for what to do, even when his mind is filled with visions. God’s plan is just so different from everything he imagined. But ultimately, he takes what he has seen, what the disciples have experienced, back to Jerusalem.

It isn’t easy for him. Peter is greeted upon his arrival with criticism—“what are you doing with those people,” the church in Jerusalm asks. And so Peter explains all that has happened. Like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he lays out the facts as honestly and transparently as he can. He shares what he has seen, and he brings witnesses to confirm it.

And it is in that circle of trust that the church in Jerusalem finds itself in a new place: affirming that God has given even to the gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” Which is their way of saying that God has broken down the dividing wall that formerly existed between Jews and Gentiles. It is a new day.

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Reconciliation. It is what happens when insiders and outsiders, victims and offenders, sinners and saints, set down their weapons and reach out to one another. It is what happens when different people become ONE PEOPLE. A BODY. The body of Christ.

And when they do, the Body flourishes. Like the promise of Isaiah 43, God’s love is revealed. A reconciled world looks like Isaiah’s powerful vision, where the people can trust that God is with them, no matter what happens, because God has restored and reconciled them before. Reconciliation looks like new doors that open, and new directions to journey. New life springing from the rubble where the wall once stood.

Because love and reconciliation, at the end of the day, aren’t all that different. We seek reconciliation because we desire love, because we as created beings desire relationship with one another. And we who crave relationship must be willing to put in the work of reconciliation if we are to reap the harvest of love, peace, and justice.

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Ultimately, reconciliation is a gift that we can only give or receive in community. In fact it is God’s gift FOR community, an affirmation of Immanuel, God with us.

It is what it looks like when everyone wins. And it is something that we choose to do every day, by choosing relationship over isolation, choosing community over “my way.” It bears fruit as we find God along the pathway.

As we march ever closer to the cross, I invite you: Seek the way of God, which tears down walls and reaches across dividing lines. Follow Jesus, who broke the barrier between life and death, and find freedom in God’s embrace. For the road is narrow which leads to life, but it is paved in the peace, justice, and reconciliation of God.

Fasting In Forgiveness

Luke 15:11-32

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!  I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

There are a lot of questions that we can ask about this parable, but perhaps the first and most pressing, is this: who is it about?

Prodigal-Son-Pigs.jpgPerhaps it is about the younger brother. Certainly, most of us have a bible that labels this story as “The Prodigal Son,” or we learned it that way in Sunday school. And if this is a story about the prodigal son, or the younger son, then perhaps for us this is a story about someone who really screwed up his life.

It becomes a story about how far a person can fall. In the case of the younger brother, the answer is pretty far– not only does he wish his father dead, but he breaks ALL the rules when he is out on his own. Notice that Scripture is circumspect on what exactly he has done, but suffice it to say, it was “dissolute.” He runs hard to the bottom of the barrel, and he stays there, even after squandering all that he has, wallowing in self-pity and beyond the grace of God.

Even his road to redemption is questionable—scripture says “he came to himself” one day, and realized that he would get better treatment as a hired hand for his father than his current living conditions allowed. And it’s difficult to tell whether his “turning” is heart-felt our not—he rehearses his lines to the point that it is difficult to tell whether he means them or not. Like Rubio, he repeats the same lines over and again.

If this is a story about the younger brother, then in some ways it is a story about injustice, about the unfairness of this world—you can be a horrible person, and still come back.

So maybe this isn’t a story about a younger brother. Perhaps instead is it a story about an older brother?

18prodigalson.jpgIf this a story about the older brother, then he doesn’t come off much better than his reckless sibling. Of course, the older brother is the good kid. The righteous kid. The one who does as he is asked and doesn’t complain.

But he is also harsh, even unwilling to embrace his broken brother on the way home. Notice, the older brother doesn’t have a problem with his brother coming home—he simply objects to the party. He objects to the embrace of the wayward son.

“Sure, let him come back,” the older brother seems to snarl. “Just make sure he does it on his knees. Make him beg for it. Make him pay for his mistake. Don’t ever let him forget that he is the one who screwed up.”

If this a story about the older brother, it becomes a story then about the limits of fairness—you can do all the right things for all the right reasons, and you might still live your life watching someone else get all the attention. You might find yourself bitter, and frustrated, sitting in the dark beyond the disgrace of the party. You might find yourself stewing over the fact that forgiveness just isn’t fair enough for you.

But is there another way to read this story?

Perhaps we should look at the text itself. Jesus said, “There once was a father who had two sons.” Ahh!!! Perhaps this is a story about a father!

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And if this is a story about a father, what do we learn that is different?

We learn a lesson about what lavish, profligate, limitless, offensive grace looks like. We learn about a father who does not keep score—he doesn’t ask what the son did on the way out the door. He doesn’t have conditions on the threshold. He simply embraces. Fully. And not just embraces, but celebrates. Even a scoundrel son.

Recall that it is that celebration that offends the older brother. But how then is this father disposed to his dutiful son, who never left, who never denied, who always did as he was told? He is lavish with his compassion. He does not deny the older son’s struggle. He does not tell him he is wrong. He simply reminds him: we have to celebrate, because something lost has been found. Someone dead is alive.


 

It is easy to forget this when we feel as though we are being passed by. Easy to start keeping track, to start ranking folks—who deserves what they have, and who does not? Who worked for it, and who is coasting on the hard work of someone else? Especially when we feel like the older brother.

But the father will have none of that. The father doesn’t care. Because what truly matters is communion. What truly matters is the reason for rejoicing: a house united with itself. A tear mended. A wound healed over.

We who sit in this church are likely to relate to someone in this story—but the truth is that each of us have both brothers within us. For there have been times where we were dutiful, righteous, and did the right thing. And there are times where we have felt beyond grace. There are times when we have fallen so far afield that we wonder whether anyone would care what happened to us.

Too often we allow people to starve out there in the cold. Or worse, we leave ourselves out there alone, because we feel ourselves unworthy. We cannot imagine that anyone is watching the road for the slightest sign of our return. We cannot smell the fatted calf roasting on the pit. But each of us have received lavish, undeserved grace. Each of us have been embraced by someone, at some point in our lives, when we felt we did not deserve it. When we feared we were beyond reaching.

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Our call, therefore, is to embrace one another. In this church. At this table. In our walk with Christ—we are called to embrace, and to be embraced. To love, and to be loved. To forgive, and to allow ourselves to be forgiven.

To remember, that the God who claims, the God who sent his Son to dwell amongst us, loves us and forgives us not after determining whether it is fair or just, but because God yearns for us to be in communion with one another.