Genesis 45:1-15; Romans 11: 1-2a, 29-32
Witherspoon Street Presbyterian
17 August 2014
“A police force that does not represent the entire community cannot serve any in the community.” That was the lesson drawn by the chairman of the policing board in Northern Ireland when the decision was made to deliberately diversify the recruitment of new officers. A nation with nearly 40% identifying as Roman Catholic had a police force that was almost exclusively Protestant. And as a result, many in the Catholic communities of Northern Ireland regarded the police as an occupying force, a tool of British oppression, the enemy, and in the minds of some―a legitimate target. It was hard not to think about that discrepancy between police and civilians when watching the news from St. Louis this week. “A police force that does not represent the entire community cannot serve any in the community.” A population that is mostly black, with its law enforcement almost exclusively white? That doesn’t look like Ferguson’s police force, does it? It looks like someone else’s.
Now I cannot speak with much authority on the situation in Missouri. Neither am I really an expert on the peace process in Northern Ireland. But having lived there for seven years, I do know what a huge step they made towards peace when they took extraordinary efforts to ensure their police served the entire population―and not just one segment of it. Through affirmative action, they evened out the numbers of Catholics and Protestants on the force. They set up independent commissions to oversee the whole operation to make sure abuses and allegations were handled properly. They changed the name of the very British sounding “Royal Ulster Constabulary” to the more perfunctory and wonderfully bland “Police Service of Northern Ireland.” And while some were skeptical, they have over the last fifteen years not only reassured those who had come to distrust the police, they have also successfully replaced a deep source of division in that country with something that everyone can get behind. Because the great majority—Protestant and Catholic—wanted peace. The people as a whole—Loyalist and Republican—wanted justice. The province of Northern Ireland—British and Irish—wanted a fresh start. And by starting with those common desires, they found something that could unite people across the bitterest of divides.
As our scripture for this morning suggests, such healing is indeed possible and need not be so rare, for there are common threads to our humanity that span the divisions between us. There are still ties that have the power to draw us closer to one another. Paul reminds us in Romans, that each of us—regardless of who we are and what we have done or not done—each of us depends on the mercy of God. So at least we have that in common: we have all fallen short. Putting it one way: none of us is God. Putting it another way: we need to cut each other some slack. We aren’t all that different from one another. Indeed, as Genesis suggests, even those who seem strange and alien to us can turn out to be our closest kin.
The brothers of Joseph have no idea who he is. They are in for a surprise. Driven by jealousy, they had beaten young Joseph, stripped him of his precious coat and left him for dead. Later enticed by greed, they sold him into slavery. But years later, desperate and hungry, they have come hat in hand to Pharaoh’s steward, not knowing that this is the boy they gave up for twenty coins. The one they now need is the one they pushed away. But when he finally reveals himself to them, Joseph does not push back. He tearfully pleads, “Come closer to me.”
It is a beautiful line of scripture. “Come closer to me. I am your brother.” It is a moment of grace and redemption, but also of reckoning. It is a moment of true reconciliation. For in Joseph’s act of mercy, he forces his brothers to confront their sin. This is the brother they betrayed; the one they gave up. Yet Joseph is reaching across the years of separation and animosity to reclaim what they still have in common: “I am Joseph, your brother—is my father still alive?” No longer is this a stranger standing in their midst. No longer is this a foreign prince distanced by wealth or class or race or status: this is their kid brother, who knows the same father they know, who knows them better than anyone else does, who knows them better than they would like…yet who wants to draw closer to them, who wants to close the gap of their separation, who wants nothing more than for them to come and be with him, to be safe and secure and happy. “Come closer to me. I am your brother.”
The Broken Body of Christ
For Christians, that moment of recognition, reckoning, and redemption in the Joseph story echoes the recognition, reckoning and redemption in seeing Jesus on the cross as both the brother we have betrayed and the God who reaches out to us in mercy. “Come closer to me,” Christ says, “I am your brother.” The reason we worship Christ is that Jesus shows us who God really is and what humanity should be…in the very moment when our own humanity is identified as wicked, sinful, undeserving, and when God is revealed as humble, gracious, and redemptive. The cross is both salvation and condemnation, the cross is where we see why none of us deserve the mercy that we are all being offered. Or as Paul puts it: “God has imprisoned all to disobedience so that God may be merciful to all.”
Such an understanding of reconciliation allows us to recognize each other as brothers and sisters—across racial and social and political divides—we are kindred by way of our common sinfulness, we are brethren in our unity through Christ. Those who believe in the Lord cannot judge one greater than the other for all fall short of God’s glory; yet no one can be judged unredeemable for God has extended mercy to all.
Well, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But as we know from Northern Ireland, Protestant Christians and Catholic Christians can deny their common bond and allow hatred and fear and judgment to separate themselves one from another. As we know from American politics, progressive Christians and conservative Christians can fixate on our differences rather than on our commonalities. As we know from this most segregated hour of the week, black Christians and white Christians and brown Christians and Pentecostal Christians and Baptist Christians and Lutheran Christians can continue to emphasize what distinguishes us rather than what unites us.
Places of Healing
There are exceptions. This church, for instance. And I’m glad to report that what has taken place in Northern Ireland over the last decade or so also provides a great deal of hope. In that overwhelmingly Christian but alarmingly sectarian province, some of the war zones of religious and ethnic hatred have become places of true reconciliation. Moments of gracious mercy have forced some to confront their own sin. And when people have had the courage and grace to look beyond superficial differences and religious categories, they have seen fellow sinners and fellow believers, kindred with Christ in common, and found true brothers and sisters in their midst.
We, too, in America (in Princeton), with all our divisions and all our reasons for pulling back from one another, can still be surprised by our underlying connection, the brother in our midst, our shared faith, our common cause. We can come to see how each of us has pushed away the one we now so desperately need. Brother and sisters each approaching with hat in hand. Brothers and sisters hearing him say, “Come closer to me.”
Being able to see ourselves as broken but loved people allows us to make room for others who are also broken but loved, who are also part of a big messy family, who are not enemies or threats or rivals, but kindred living together. This is where our faith becomes the basis for reconciliation in our relationships with one other, in our relationship with God, in the ongoing healing of our nation. This is where we find the courage to integrate our society at all levels. This is where we find the grace to draw closer to one another. And it turns out we are already closer than we may wish to admit—in our common sinfulness, in our genetic make-up, in the unmerited love we each receive from our one true father, who is still alive.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God: Amen.
For more statements and sermons by Presbyterian leaders go to PCUSA’s vice-moderator’s website HERE.