Preached at Reedwood Friends, Jan. 6, 2013
Genesis 3, 4, 27, 32, 33
When Ken invited me to preach during Peace Month, he laid before me all the options—World Peace, the end of racism or sexism or prejudice of any kind, or reconciliation between persons. I actually believe all peace begins in the individual heart, that a heart at peace cannot hate or disparage or belittle or slander or badmouth another person, group of people, or nation. So I chose the topic I think is most important, and also the one I am always working on.
As a child, like many or most children, I felt unjustly treated, shamed, bullied, and lied to. As a result, I conceived a huge passion for justice. My favorite Bible story was the sudden justice delivered to Ananias and Sapphira when they lied to the Holy Spirit and Peter and dropped dead. But as I grew up and recognized some of my own unjust, shaming, bullying, and deceptive actions, I became more of a fan of mercy. As GKChesterton wrote, “For children are innocent and love justice; while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy” (On Household Gods and Goblins, 1922).
As the wise writer Jeremiah wrote, “The human heart—i.e. “the seat of internal processes, including both feeling and thinking, as well as dreading, ruminating, aspiring, and so forth” (Dr. Joel Hoffman, “Five Bible Images You Probably Misunderstand,” Huffpo)—what we might more accurately call the self—is is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). Or as Bob Dylan wrote, “Heart of mine, so malicious and so full of guile, Give you an inch and you’ll take a mile.” Or as Jesus pointed out, “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies; these are the things which defile us, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile us” (Matthew 15:19-20).
There are two responses that will make the rest of this sermon hypothetical rather than useful. One is resisting this point. My self isn’t desperately wicked, my self isn’t malicious and full of guile, my self is not the seat of all those awful sins. I have some good qualities! But this is a serious problem in the way of a peaceful heart. If we have never noticed that a large part of our internal processes are self-justifying, we will not ever ask ourselves why we need to justify ourselves, and we will not ever see that we might at some time have done something despicable and harmful to another person. St. Paul writes to Timothy about those who speak lies in hypocrisy, having their consciences seared with a hot iron (2 Tim 1:3). We can for a long time avoid an accurate self-understanding that includes our potential for evil.
Another unhelpful response is yes, I am a terrible person and there is no hope for me. St. Paul writes to Titus about those whose conscience is defiled, which means it is unhelpful in sorting things out, and that lovable apostle St. John writes, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” Sometimes our consciences are poorly trained and either let us off the hook too often or keep us on the hook too often. Neither is helpful. We need to submit our consciences to the guidance of Jesus, who promises to lead us into all truth, and who can retrain our consciences.
So the first step to a peaceful heart is an accurate self-understanding, which includes submitting our consciences to examination by Jesus and living into the repentance and discipline Jesus prescribes. Let me encourage you to let down your guard and invite Jesus to examine your selves, your consciences, your hearts. Then please be obedient to what he prescribes for you to do.
A second step toward peace is laying down our swords. A vivid bad example of a heart not at peace is provided by the interpersonal conflict between Cain and Abel. Here is the whole story from Genesis 4: Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and bel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”
Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who came upon him would kill him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
This conflict seems to have existed without Abel knowing about it. Both brothers offered the fruits of their work to God, and God accepted only Abel’s. God tells Cain, “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” And, as the saying goes, the proof was in the pudding. The reason why God accepted only Abel’s offering is made clear when Cain throws a fit. Instead of looking inside himself to see what might have made his offering unacceptable, Cain solves the problem more primitively and eliminates the competition.
A question for us to consider is this: Is there someone in my life who stands between me and my goals or hopes? Does the person who stands between me and what I want actually represent something inside me? A fear, a shame, an unwillingness to risk?
I recently had to confess to a close friend that I had blamed him for years for an action he took that I believed stood between me and my goals. I had to admit that what really got in my way was my own ambivalence and fear. It was much easier to blame someone else.
As a woman in a patriarchal culture, I have wanted to blame men in general and specific men in particular for the fact I have not achieved my dreams. I was brought up short in this pattern by a young woman who said, “My real barriers are inside me.”
Another step toward peace is laying down our shields. Another vivid bad example of hearts not at peace comes from Genesis 3. Just after Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God comes to visit them as usual. They are hiding in the trees and have become afraid because they are naked, as Adam says. When God asks Adam, “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat,” Adam answers: “The woman whom you gave me to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Adam manages in this statement to admit what he did but blame both Eve and God for his disobedience. When God asks Eve, “What is this that you have done?”, she replies, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” She also admits what she did, but she passes the blame on to the serpent. The serpent is speechless.
More questions: Is there someone in my life I blame for the fact I have made mistakes or strayed from the right path? Does the blame I place on another person allow me to avoid confronting my own contribution to the conflict? Does blaming someone else help me to avoid shame?
It is possible to work for years to come to terms with admitting what I contributed to an estrangement—what I did wrong, in other words. I can pray for justice, work to forgive, apologize for what I can see I did wrong, and still feel that the other person blames me for everything, and this is not fair or just. I have to admit that I am still more interested in being heard than in listening, that I want to explain why it isn’t my fault, or at least isn’t all my fault, and I want the other person to admit his or her errors of judgment and behavior also. Can I move into actual reconciliation? Not with my shields up.
I knew a married couple who fought bitterly over their understanding of the grace of God. The first accused the second of believing she was saved by good works and the second accused the first of believing that once he was saved, he could behave any old way. Underneath this theological argument were two people disappointed in each other and disappointed in their marriage who were fighting each other to avoid admitting any disappointment with themselves. Failing to be a good spouse was too shameful to be looked at squarely. After years, their hearts softened and with the help of a counselor, they could lay down their swords and shields, accept grace from God and each other, and extend grace to each other. Their essential characters are not changed, but their demeanor toward each other is so vastly different it is like a miracle.
More questions: Is there someone in my life who has failed to measure up to what he or she should be or believe or do? Is it possible that my disappointment with this person masks some sort of disappointment with myself?
And now, a good example of brothers laying down their swords and shields that starts off, of course, bad.
Genesis 27, 32 and 33 tell the story of twin brothers, Esau and Jacob. They were nothing alike, and seemed to be struggling for top dog status even in the womb. Esau is famous for trading his rights as first born to Jacob for a bowl of soup, and Jacob is famous for cheating Esau out of his blessing as first born by deceiving their blind father Isaac. Add into all this the fact that the dad favored Esau and the mom favored Jacob. And that Esau was a man’s man while Jacob could hardly grow a beard. Trouble everywhere.
Esau’s original response to Jacob was this, “Soon my father will die and then I will kill my brother Jacob.” Esau felt like Cain, that if he could simply remove the competition, he would regain all he had lost of God’s blessing and his first-born rights. He blamed Jacob for all he had lost, even though to an outside observer, he seemed pretty careless with his birthright and maybe should have partly blamed himself.
Their mother heard of Esau’s threat, called Jacob in and warned him. “Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you. Flee to your uncle’s and stay awhile until your brother’s fury lessens, until his anger turns away and he forgets what you have done to him.” So Jacob took off. Jacob’s essential trickster character remained constant through his time with his uncle, and he became rich at his uncle’s expense. God told him to go home, and he and his wives and children and servants and animals took all his property and started for home.
As he neared home, he began sending messengers to Esau, announcing his arrival and reporting back to him how Esau took the news. They told him, “Esau is coming to meet you with four hundred men.” Jacob was scared. It sounded to him like a fighting force. He split up his wealth so that at worst he would lose only half. He sent presents ahead to Esau of herd after herd of livestock with space in between. He prayed for God to protect him from his brother, and in that prayer he said to God, “I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant.” This prayer reveals that at long last, Jacob is telling the truth about himself to God, a truth that he may have been avoiding his whole life by clawing his way to wealth and position through hard dealing and deceitfulness.
That night, Jacob wrestled bodily with God. Symbolically, this is the same wrestling match that he had been engaged in his whole life. When the Spirit he was wrestling puts his hip out of joint, laming him for life, this was the same limp he had been covering for his whole life. God blessed him with a change in name, symbolizing a new view of himself, a change from “Cheater” or “Supplanter” to “One who strives with God” –a change from “low-life” to “full human being.”
In the morning, Jacob saw Esau approaching. He knew he had done Esau wrong, and he approached him as a supplicant, bowing seven times. And here is the surprise. Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.
Who knows what process Esau went through to move from wanting to kill Jacob to welcoming him home like the father welcomes home the prodigal son in the parable told by Jesus. It is clear that Esau no longer feels himself held down by Jacob’s tricksy manipulations. The yoke of anger and hatred has been broken off his neck. He is forgiving, even to the point of allowing Jacob to try to make things right by giving him gifts. As my daughter Liz pointed out to me, Esau is the first example of an outright forgiveness in the Bible.
More questions: Is there someone in my life who makes me feel inferior? Is my conflict with that person standing in for admitting my own sense of worthlessness, my shame at somehow not measuring up? If I just admit the truth about myself to God, what does God say to me?
Here are the signs that my heart is not at peace: I am competing for attention, blaming others, judging and criticizing others, and cheating to get ahead.
To have a heart at peace means that I no longer am acting in my own defense. I have wrestled with God, admitted to God my worst stuff, accepted that God values our relationship because God values me, not my innocence, not my perfection, not my achievements, not my rightness, not my religious devotion. God values you and me, knowing full well how easily we make mistakes, how easily we slip into self-justifying and blaming others, how easily we try to cover up for ourselves. God values us and loves it when we get honest and open and accept God’s love without trying to earn it. God loves us because God is love. And there is enough love for all.
Pray for justice when you are in conflict with another person. If you pray for justice, God will be help you be just, which involves seeing both the other and yourself more clearly. And then lean into the help Jesus gives to repent and forgive.