The opening verse of Psalm 133, as we have heard it this morning is, “Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!”
Sometimes it may actually feel as if we are living this way – in unity with our sisters and brothers. At other times it may feel more like an aspirational statement – something to be longed for.
How we see it – as reality or aspiration – may reveal a lot about the state of our personal and communal relationships. For example, today we’ve heard the story of Joseph’s reunification with his brothers. In isolation this story seems to reveal a tearful and long-sought reunion among brothers, but if we recall last week’s story of threatened murder and ultimately enslavement, we know this story had a beginning filled with resentment and hate.
Frankly, Joseph was a spoiled and pesky little brother, the only son of Rachel – Jacob’s favorite wife. Thus there was probably some jealousy on the part of his older half-brothers, and there was certainly hate on the part of those half-brothers whom he had ratted out to Jacob because Joseph didn’t approve of how they handled the flock.
What may seem to be minor insults or annoyances escalated in his half-brothers’ un-brotherly imaginations into resentments that cried out for violent retribution. Acts of violence were only narrowly averted by the intervention of the two oldest brothers; the result was Joseph’s enslavement first to his second cousins the Ishmaelites and then to the Egyptians.
Yes, Joseph was able to transcend the circumstance of his slavery, and ascend to power by his God-given wits and ability to interpret dreams; but he also seems to have retained his natural and nettlesome inclination to mess with his brothers in their distress during the famine. It’s a wonder that his brothers weren’t ready to throw him in the pit all over again once he revealed his identity. Perhaps their restraint speaks to their own maturity and growth over the intervening years as they wrestled with the nagging guilt of their behavior. Or perhaps it speaks to the potential for healing and restoration over time, which in this case it may have been about ten years. Whatever the case, a loss that seemed unrecoverable and unforgivable is redeemed and made whole again through the aspirational desire for God’s love in human affairs.
There is similar story of insult and injury that with time and aspirational persistence also resulted in reunification and reconciliation. It is the story of an institution, whose motto is the name of the 133rd Psalm, Ecce, quam bonum! In 1857, the same year that the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Dred Scott decision, which in essence sought to legitimize the institution of slavery, Sewanee: The University of the South was founded by clergy and lay delegates from Episcopal dioceses across the south as the fabric of brotherly unity within the United States was being torn asunder over the issue of slavery. Thus, it seems ironic that the university’s motto invokes the ideal of brothers living together in unity.
Perhaps, in the founders’ narrow thinking, they thought of their union in small and select terms, as is often the case when human beings come together. We are too often exclusive rather than inclusive. Yet when, at the end of the Civil War, Sewanee lay in ruins with little prospect of realizing its once imagined glory, the seed of reconciliation came from an unexpected place when it was planted by their brothers from the north. The Episcopal Church extended the hand of peace to its southern brethren reunifying the Church, and through the quiet philanthropy of northern Episcopalians Sewanee survived. But this isn’t the end of the story.
For the next 150 years, Sewanee – like much of the south – struggled to reconcile its reality with the aspiration of, “Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!” For much of that history it was only realized as a rather isolated and incomplete reality; for the most part it remained aspirational. Yet with time and periodic acts of intentional courage by determined followers of Christ, Sewanee began to transcend the bonds of culture and began to reveal its potential for healing and reconciliation. It is not yet fully realized, but it has moved forward from entrenched resistance to intentional aspiration seeking reconciliation.
Both Joseph’s story and Sewanee’s story reveal that healing and reconciliation don’t come naturally or easily but take time and intentionality in pursuing the way of the cross. To the extent that unity is opposed by any party it is very difficult to achieve, and opposition must be met with non-violent pursuit of the way of the cross if we are, with God’s help, to affect a change in the opponent that makes room for naming the hurt and listening to each others’ stories.
This just happens to be the story of Jesus’ journey to the district of Tyre and Sidon, a region and people traditionally hostile to Israelites; a place where an abundance of mistrust and the demons of prejudice abide. What a wonderful place to teach his disciples the expansiveness and inclusivity of God’s mercy for all people.
It is in this place of mistrust and prejudice, that a woman recognizes Jesus’ ability to heal, to drive out demons, and restore her daughter to wholeness. It is the other – someone unlike us – who recognizes the possibility for something new and different. Courageously, in the face of mistrust, this woman calls out to Jesus. Unfortunately it is the disciples, Jesus’ followers who, like us, think too narrowly – who can’t imagine something new and different. The disciples would have her go away. Then, as if mimicking the disciples’ disdain, Jesus seems to rebuke the woman, but I like to think he is delivering a slow pitch that he knows she will hit out of the park. And boy does she!
The Canaanite woman, in her need and desire for compassion is able to see across the divide of mistrust and prejudice and recognize the possibility of mercy and healing on the other side of the divide. For a moment, aspiration yields to reality and this woman has the courage to ask for what she wants and is not disappointed. The divide between the other and the disciples is not healed, but in its breach – in this act of faith – they begin to see each other in a different light and room is made for other non-violent breaches.
For us, as disciples – the followers of the cross – the challenge of these stories is for us to name our biases, our presumptions, and prejudices; to be open to seeing in them something about ourselves we haven’t noticed before. This may be hard to do, but we must try because the present reality of hostility and hate will not begin to change unless we risk breaching the barricades that divide us by pursuing the love of Christ and trusting in God’s mercy.
What demons hold us back from taking such risks? Be they fear, be they harm or hurt that we have suffered in the past, offer them in sacrifice as you come to this altar to be fed and healed by Jesus Christ, and recall that your baptismal covenant calls you, with God’s help, to “… strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”
Expanding the circle of our unity is not an aspiration, it is part of our baptismal call.