On Sunday, February 5, 2011, Elder Alan Stevens delivered a sermon on reconciliation while Pastor Tom Philipp was on vacation. Since recording equipment was not available, the text of the sermon is printed below.
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Many years ago, my first wife and I had a cat named K.C., kind of a non-descript gray and white so-called “American Shorthair.” K.C. was named after K.C. Jones, a guard on the Boston Celtics basketball team in the nineteen sixties, later coach, and now in basketball’s Hall of Fame. Most people, of course, assumed that K.C. stood for “Kitty Cat,” an impression that we did not bother to correct. K.C and I were estranged from one another for most of those years during which our lives overlapped. K.C. felt compelled to sharpen her claws on our furniture. Since my wife was adamantly against de-clawing, that option was out. I tried possible remedies various people would suggest, including strange chemicals and double sided tape placed on her favorite clawing spots, but found nothing that worked. In general, we would avoid each other, being in different rooms in the evening for example, and sometimes I would rush at her, yelling ‘BAD CAT’ when I would hear the familiar sound of ripping fabric. In my mind, K.C. had become the “Furniture Destroyer,” and in K.C.’s mind I think, I was the “Bad Guy Who Screams.”
But one day, a remarkable event occurred. I was in the habit of walking around outside our house to use a side entrance when I returned from work in the evening. And one evening, as I was doing this I encountered K.C. walking toward me in the opposite direction. We both saw each other at the same time and stopped. Obeying some impulse, whose origin still remains a mystery, I knelt down to the ground on one knee and spread my arms in a welcoming gesture. And to my amazement, K.C. trotted right up to me, purring loudly, and jumped into those welcoming arms. We were reconciled.
The Bible seems to be chock-full of stories about reconciliation. For Christians, the ultimate reconciliation story is Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. I chose a different story for this service, the Old Testament story of the reconciliation of Joseph with his brothers. As a young man, Joseph was seemingly fairly obnoxious. The youngest son of Jacob, he was his father’s favorite, a fact that did not sit well with his brothers. Joseph had dreams wherein both his father and brothers were bowing down to him, and he told these dreams to his brothers with apparent relish. One day his brothers found a way to rid themselves of Joseph’s irksome presence and make a buck (actually 20 shekels of silver) at the same time – they sold Joseph to a passing caravan headed to Egypt. But once there, Joseph prospered. He had a remarkable ability to correctly interpret dreams, and when he correctly interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, he rose rapidly to the point where he became Pharaoh’s right hand man – “in charge of all of Egypt.”
Many years after Joseph’s brothers had rid themselves of him, there was a great famine in the entire Middle East, and Joseph’s brothers journeyed to Egypt in search of grain. The story gets a bit complicated here, but at the end of the brother’s second trip to Egypt, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers in the passage we read today, which ends with Joseph embracing his brothers in a scene of reconciliation.
That reconciliation is similar in at least one respect to my reconciliation with K.C. Joseph, the person in a position of power, is the one who initiates the reconciliation. It is Joseph who, in a sense, gets down on one knee with outstretched arms.
Stories of reconciliation abound not only in the Bible, but also in our culture. There are many books and films whose theme is reconciliation. There are more books and films, or so it seems, about the lack of reconciliation – about the awful consequences in situations where reconciliation does not occur. My favorite of these (partly, I admit, because I am a big Clint Eastwood fan) is the movie “Unforgiven,” whose title says it all. Unforgiven, the best Western ever made in my opinion, won the Oscar for best picture in 1992. Set in a small town called Big Whisky, Wyoming in the late 1800’s, the plot begins when one of the prostitutes in the local saloon is severely cut by two customers who felt she insulted them. The local sheriff, “Little Bill,” played by Gene Hackman who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, attempts reconciliation in a very strange way – by asking the cowboys to give some horses to the saloon keeper since, according to Little Bill’s logic, it is the saloon keeper who is the loser since no one will want the future services of the cut prostitute. This enrages the women who pool their resources and offer a thousand dollar reward for anyone who will kill the two cowboys. The remainder of the film is the story of people seeking to earn that reward; among them a triumvirate of William Munny (that’s M-u-n-n-y, played by Eastwood), his best friend Ned (played by Morgan Freeman) and a young man calling himself the Scofield Kid.
No one is ever forgiven in Unforgiven. The cowboys are not forgiven by the prostitutes. Those seeking the reward are not forgiven by Little Bill. It is in fact Little Bill who is the main character in the morality play taking place within Unforgiven. It is Little Bill who has the power, including the power to initiate reconciliation, but there is no forgiveness in Little Bill. And at the end, Little Bill is not forgiven by William Munny. In the climactic scene, Little Bill, lying wounded on the saloon floor, says that he doesn’t deserve to die. Munny (Eastwood), very much the Old Testament vengeful God in this scene, says “deserve’s got nothin to do with it;” then kills him. There is only death, loss; no forgiveness, no reconciliation, no one on bended knee with welcoming outstretched arms.
We need not look to films and books of course. I am sure all of us have some personal experience of reconciliation, or the lack of it. Children become estranged from parents and their siblings, friends from one another, partners divorce. When reconciliation does not occur, sometimes we think that it should have been possible, but sometimes we think that the separation is for the best – that some impediment stood in the way of reconciliation that was impossible to overcome. I am a child of divorce. My parents separated when I was 14. I remember praying that the divorce would not occur, but it did. In this case, the impediment was mental illness. My father was manic-depressive. In what we called his “highs,” the manic periods, he would quit his job, take what savings existed to fund his current get-rich scheme, and disappear for weeks on end. There were lots of attempts for cures, including electro-shock treatments, but nothing worked. And at some point, my mother could no longer stand living with the highs, and they were divorced.
In the film Unforgiven, the impediment was money. Little Bill believed in and perpetrated a mercantile system of justice that treated all people as objects. What makes Unforgiven a brilliant film are the many allusions to this. The climactic scene has a dual meaning. Those who live by money (m-o-n-e-y) die by Munny (M-u-n-n-y). Little Bill’s essential error is to assume that by distributing justice as if were merchandise, by assigning monetary values to people, that some sort of equitable system will result – that fairness will exist. But, as Eastwood says, “deserve’s got nothin to do with it;” fairness has nothing to do with Little Bill’s values.
Sometimes it seems that impediments to reconciliation could and should be overcome, and sometimes we are left little recourse other than praying for God’s grace. This brings me to today’s New Testament reading – the ultimate story of reconciliation, the reconciliation of God to the world.
All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them….
This is heavy stuff, theologically speaking. Mankind, so goes the theology, estranged themselves from God by Original Sin. Oh, that apple! In order to be reconciled to the world, to mankind, a sacrifice is needed. That sacrifice is Jesus, by whose death the sins of mankind are forgiven. This is the theology of The Atonement.
Now I must admit that I have never understood the Atonement in any sense whatsoever. That’s because all I know about reconciliation is what K.C. taught me. I have a simple mind that does not go beyond an image, metaphorical at best, of God on bended knee with outstretched arms, telling me that I am forgiven.
When you look up the Atonement on the Internet, you find that there are, in fact, many versions of that doctrine. Two of the most popular are the “ransom” version and the “satisfaction” version. In the ransom version, Christ’s life was given as a ransom for mankind. Victory over Satan consists of swapping the life of the perfect Jesus for the lives of the imperfect mankind. In the “satisfaction” theory, the insult given to God by mankind’s original sin was so great that only a perfect sacrifice could satisfy the insult and Jesus, being both God and man, was this perfect sacrifice. And, of course, there are many other versions of the Atonement. One rather unfortunate version, in my opinion, is that of John Calvin, the founder of our denomination. Calvin claimed that Christ’s atonement was limited to those predestined for salvation.
But, as I said, I never understood the Atonement, in any version. Perhaps because there was no sacrifice involved when I knelt down on the ground with K.C. those many years ago. My offer was freely given; there were no strings attached. And, as I said, all I know about reconciliation is what K.C. taught me. It is surely simplistic, or even silly, to relate a theological concept to my relationship with a cat. But I cherish that image – God on bended knee, with outstretched arms, saying, “Come. It’s OK. Whatever “it” is. You are forgiven.” Simplistic, but enough I think. So I do not apologize for the fact that, for me, the concept of reconciliation, and my memory of K.C., will forever be intertwined.