It’s easy, it seems to me, to hear and sometimes even enjoy the stories, song, and poems of our scriptures. And there’s nothing wrong with that—unless, of course, we stop there. But, to paraphrase Elton John (of all people), the Word of God is “not just pretty words to say.”
Not that the words aren’t, in fact, pretty. Sometimes they’re even beautiful.
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, for example.
Righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
And still, as beautiful as those images are, they are not just pretty words to say. They are not just pretty words to hear and savor for a moment and then get on with our day and our lives.
The words of scripture are both comfort and challenge, both gift and invitation, both aspirational and inspirational, both promise and commission.
And so it is that this morning I want to lead us beyond the pretty to the practical. Beyond the poetic to the possible.
And so it is that I want to invite us to not only delight in beautiful images of the realm of God but also to consider how we might help make them real.
If it’s true, for example, that unchanging, unwavering love and faithfulness are going to meet up, I’d like to know when and where. Because I want to crash that party.
And if righteousness and peace are going to kiss each other, I absolutely want to be there. I want to know the cumulative joy of a thousand wedding kisses compressed into one unforgettable, never-ending moment.
But there’s more to it than even that.
What if the place where love and faithfulness meet is not somewhere out there, but right here, within us? What if we don’t so much experience the kairos time when righteousness and justice kiss each other, but are called to help create the conditions for that kiss, and for the long embrace that follows?
How do we make space for these holy, life-and world-changing encounters to happen within ourselves, and within our church? What would that look like?
Well, I’m not going to pretend there are any simple answers to those questions. Nor will I suggest that that the process is easy, straightforward, or quick. Instead, it seems to be the work of a lifetime. It seems to be the direction in which we are called, as individuals and as church, to be moving all the time.
Hard as it is, Love calls us to move in the direction of humility and forgiveness. Scary as it is, Love calls us to move away from our own ways, grievances, and divisions, and toward mutual restoration, reconciliation, and unity.
And if we are paying any attention at all, God’s mercy and grace— occasionally expressed in the real circumstances of our lives—will help nudge us in the right direction. Though there may be some weeping along the way, and it may take a very long time.
Consider, if you will, the story of Joseph and his brothers.
It is one of the longest and most complicated tales in our scriptures, beginning in the 37th chapter of Genesis and continuing through the 50th. It involves a huge cast of characters, not a single one of whom is blameless. Jacob, the family patriarch, sets the stage for violent conflict by playing favorites; Joseph, the then-youngest and favorite son, makes matters worse with his arrogant behavior; and then the other 11 sons sell Joseph into slavery and tell Jacob his pride and joy was killed by a wild animal. So heartless is their deception that they soak Joseph’s coat of many colors in blood and then present it to their devastated father.
Which is to say: Everyone in this story behaves badly. No one is without reproach. They all carry some measure of grief, guilt, and pain.
Which is to say: They aren’t so different from us.
Every one of them is in a world of hurt, whether or not they’re facing it. And every last one of them is in need of mercy and grace, forgiveness, hope, and a new start.
Years pass. Life happens. Everyone’s fate seems sealed: Jacob as the ever-grieving father; his 11 older sons forever guilty; Joseph always and forever cast out and abandoned, a foreigner without a home. Under the darkness of night, each one wrestles with demons he himself created. Then, at break of day, each one carries on, living as if everything is fine, doing what must be done.
Joseph, for his part, has landed in the house of Pharaoh. After no small amount of suffering and sabotage, his gift for dream interpretation and his head for administration have made him Egypts second in command. Thanks to him, Egypt is sitting on vast storehouses of food during a global famine.
But back in Canaan, Jacob and his 11 older sons—plus a new youngest, Benjamin—are watching their food supplies dwindle to nothing. Things get so bad that they travel to Egypt to buy grain.
Their journey brings them to a meeting with Joseph—only they don’t realize that Egypt’s secretary of food is their lost-lost brother. Joseph, however, does recognize them, and instead of telling them who he is, proceeds to trick, jail, abuse, and generally take advantage of their need. Once cast out of the family and considered dead, Joseph now has power over his family. For an entire chapter or two it seems as though Joseph will continue manipulating his brothers for years on end.
For a while it looks as though there will be no healing of the deep and lifelong wounds they have inflicted upon each other, but that, instead, both sides of this tortured family will continue to live out of their past wrongdoing, their ongoing brokenness and pain, and their fears about the future. Truths will go unspoken, grievous wrongs will go un-repaired, and nothing will change.
But then, finally, something breaks the impasse. Joseph has played a series of tricks on his brothers, and now he threatens to hold Benjamin, the baby of the family, hostage. It is only after the the older brothers fall at his feet in anguish, saying their father couldn’t survive the loss of his youngest son, that Joseph’s heart begins to soften. A lifetime’s worth of grief wells up in him—grief for himself, grief for the father who continues to suffer because of the spiteful wrongdoing of his sons, and perhaps even a little compassion for the brothers who had wronged him—and Joseph starts weeping and wailing and can hardly stop.
And then, finally, he reveals himself to his brothers. For the sake of their father. For the sake of the youngest among them. In the hope that, at last, the pain he has carried for so long will be healed. In the hope that, at last, he will know himself to be part of a family.
And so it is, with Joseph weeping uncontrollably and his brothers dumbfounded, that steadfast love and faithfulness meet at long last. So it is, with the brothers reconciled and their long-suffering father soon to join them, that righteousness and peace finally kiss each other, and the world is made new again.
So it is that we, too, can become a holy meeting place. When we stop playing games to avoid feeling pain and, instead, make space for healing, compassion, and connection, we can become the place where love and faithfulness meet. When we lay down our power our privilege and open our hearts to the pain of others, when we ask for forgiveness and work to make amends, then we can have a front-row seat when justice and peace kiss one another in love and joy.
It is hard work, this making space for the realm of God to come into being. Even in the story of Joseph and his brothers, there is more work yet to do. It has not until Jacob has died and the 11 brothers again fear Joseph’s revenge, that they come asking for his forgiveness for their cruelty so long ago.
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet someday,the psalm says. This is God’s dream for us and for the world.
May that meeting happen in us and through us, individually and together. It may be a private meeting, something that happens entirely within us, the healing of a private wound or the forgiveness we offer ourselves—and still the power of that meeting will give us the courage to create space for other meetings and healings.
Justice and peace will eventuallykiss, the psalm says. This is God’s promise.
So may we be the ones who bring them together—within us, through us, and all around us.
May we be the ones who ensure that these are not just pretty words to say.