August 20, 2017
All Saints’ Church
And He Kissed All His Brothers
In 1941, German Nazi soldiers occupied my family’s village in western Lithuania. My grandparents and three aunts lived a simple, agricultural life hardly different from their ancestors. As ethnic Lithuanians, they had lived for generations directly alongside Poles, Russians, Germans, and Jews. These groups conducted business with one another and lived in relative peace, although, as the War revealed, it was an uneasy and superficial peace.
My grandfather disappeared soon after the Nazis took control of their area. My family assumed—correctly—that like many able-bodied Lithuanian men, he had been kidnapped by the occupying force. While he never spoke directly about what happened to him, we all basically knew that he was forced to work as a slave in a factory producing weapons for the German military. You can imagine why he might not have wanted to talk about that.
We all grow up with family stories. These are the stories I grew up with. This is just one of many. There were stories of unspeakable violence and loss. Stories of witnessing tragic death and genocide. Because they were stories of trauma and powerlessness, they were only told in hushed voices, or once the brandy bottle had been passed around the holiday dinner table one too many times. And of course, my family stories did not have nearly the tragic endings of other less fortunate families during that time.
This morning, we hear another family story, from the Book of Genesis. Like my family story, it’s not a happy one. Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him and his dreams, so they threw him in a pit and sold him into slavery among the Egyptians. Alone and enslaved in a strange country, Joseph used his intelligence to climb the ranks of Pharaoh’s government. We are fortunate to hear the story of reconciliation this morning, when Joseph’s brothers come to him seeking food during a time of famine. Remarkably, Joseph embraces the same family that persecuted him, and we hear this beautiful line: “and he kissed all his brothers.”
Like Joseph’s story, most tragic family stories last decades—even generations—before they get to the moment of joyful reconciliation. I don’t tell my own family stories for many reasons, and I’m hesitant to tell them even now. First, they are not my stories. I grew up in a comfortable Midwestern suburb, not a refugee camp as my aunts and uncles and father did. These stories belong to my brave relatives who suffered through them. Second, like Joseph’s family story, it’s one full of shame and hardship. It’s hard to tell, and even harder to listen to. Next, my relatives who lived through these stories were and always will be my heroes. They never bragged about what they did because heroes don’t boast about their accomplishments. And finally, my family came to this country to leave this dark past of slavery, war, and terror behind.
Which is why I have no choice but to share these stories now. When my relatives emigrated to America, they came to the country that had defeated fascism and Nazism. This week, we have watched the spectacle of white supremacist neo-Nazis demonstrating openly in Charlottesville and killing an innocent counter-protester. Then, I watched in disbelief and horror as the president of the country that defeated the Nazis in 1945 said there were some “very fine people” among them.
I never believed when I was ordained that I would have to say this in a sermon, but here we are: white supremacy is counter to everything in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It stands against everything Jesus lived and gave his life for. The Christian Church must never capitulate to white supremacist terrorists, neo-Nazis, or fascists. We will resist to the end, and we will succeed in our resistance, because their agenda opposes everything that is good, virtuous, and godly. This is not a Republican or a Democratic statement. It is a Christian statement.
There seemed to be some confusion this week about what the terrorists in Charlottesville were demonstrating for. So let me quote from their web sites and statements to the media. They want to establish an “ethno-state” for whites only in America. They believe the white race—whatever that is—is under attack, so they demand the separation of races. They will not say how this could be accomplished, but all you have to do is look to what their Nazi forebears did in Germany to connect the dots. And yes, of course, they hate Jews and want to be separated from them—by any means. They are hungry for a civil war, which they believe they as the superior race will win so that their fascist white state can begin.
There is no equivalence between this demonic agenda and the actions of the counter-protestors in Charlottesville. The counter-protestors demonstrated strength in the face of terrifying racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia. They were not trying to provoke a conflict, but to stand up for what was right. And one of them, Heather Heyer, lost her life in the struggle. May God rest her soul.
Charlottesville is now part of our American family story. It is a dark chapter, and how it ends will depend on how we demonstrate our Christian faith. Will we stand idly by as we see blasphemy in the streets? Will we as Christians condone hatred tacitly, with silence and non-action? No. Absolutely not. We are the children of God, and we will never allow another child of God to suffer abuse or hatred. We are sisters and brothers of Jesus, who commanded us to love our neighbors. We are the spiritual descendants of Joseph, who, once justice had been done, kissed all his brothers.
We are stewards of the Gospel of reconciliation. It is a long road from here to there, and it is a road that can only be traveled with faith. The destination can only be reached once hatred has been vanquished. But we have a vision, and our vision is more powerful than the dark vision of the other side. Our vision will prevail.
If you have been wanting to do something in the face of this horror, you have made the right choice by being here this morning. This parish church is a Christian communion of the saints. We are the Body of Christ, the beloved community. We come here to acknowledge that we all belong to God—and to one another—with no exceptions. We come from different countries, different races and backgrounds, and we welcome everyone. The stronger this place is, the weaker the darkness will be.
Joseph kissed all his brothers. At all Saints’ Church, we offer the kiss of peace to one another, grateful for all God has done for us.
When I looked at the faces of the white supremacists, I saw lost boys. They looked like young men in search of meaning and community. Their spiritual homelessness has made them dangerous, and their weakness has made them cling to a false and hateful ideology. The community of hate they have created is weak gruel, but at least it is something to make them feel better about themselves. I will struggle against them, but deep in my heart, I pity them. Maybe if they turned to a place like this when they needed it, none of this would have happened.
I believe there will come a day when we can offer even these, our brothers, the kiss of peace. That day is not today, and it may not even come in my lifetime. Like Joseph’s brothers, they must come on their knees to those they hate and abuse in penitence and contrition and beg forgiveness. But without the vision of a world in which we can offer a kiss of peace to all our sisters and brothers, we have no vision of hope.
We are a people of hope. We are a people of faith. We are a strong people, and our God will give us all we need to persevere. However you see someone else marching, remember to walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God. Whatever hatred you witness, remember that Jesus tells us to love God and love one another above all else. No matter how dark things get, hold within your hearts a kiss for each of your brothers and sisters in faith that the God of us all will one day draw us together in justice and peace. Amen.