Genesis 33:1-15

Rev. Mark Feldmeir

A preacher is given a parrot as a gift from a parishioner, and it turns out that the parrot swears like a sailor.  Every word out of the bird’s mouth is laced with profanity.  The swearing goes on day after day, until one day the preacher finally snaps, grabs the bird by the throat, and demands that he clean up his language.  This just makes the parrot swear even more, so the preacher, desperate for some peace and quiet, throws the parrot into the freezer and closes the door.  The bird kicks and claws and thrashes, and then suddenly gets very quiet.  After a while, the preacher starts to worry that parrot is dead, so he opens the freezer door.  The remorseful bird calmly climbs onto the man’s outstretched arm and says, “I’m very sorry, I’ll clean up my language.  But can I ask you one question?”  The preacher says, “Sure.”  The parrot looks back at the freezer and says, “What did that turkey do?”

We call that a moment of clarity.  Something happens to you – a wake up call, a come to Jesus moment, and you walk away humbled, with a new perspective.

If you’ve ever had one of those experiences in life, then you can relate to Jacob’s remarkable transformation.  We’ve been following Jacob’s story of deception and deceit for the last four weeks.  He’s conned his brother Esau out of his birthright, tricked his dying father into giving him the family blessing that belongs to Esau, left town under the cover of darkness, and has now been on the lamb for twenty years – all the while amassing great wealth and power.

Jacob’s a liar and a thief, and Esau, the skilled hunter, is determined to track him down and kill him.  For twenty years Jacob and Esau are painfully estranged.  But the years of stony silence are at last interrupted when an angel ambushes Jacob on the shores of the Jabbock.  A violent fight breaks out, lasting the night and ending only after the angel thumps Jacob so hard he fractures his hip.  And that is Jacob’s moment of clarity.  For the first time in his life, he’s wounded and rendered helpless, and he experiences the kind of human pain he’s caused so many others in his life.

Jacob is finally ready to make some changes in his life, and to make amends with his brother, if only his brother will forgive him.

What takes place next in the Jacob and Esau saga is a feel-good story that every one of us can identify with, because each of us lives with various degrees of estrangement in our lives.  Some of it’s of our own making, some of it has come through no fault of our own, and most of it’s somewhere between the two.

Estrangement occurs whenever we drift away from God and lose our sense of divine connection; it happens whenever we experience disappointment and betrayal and lose our connection with the people we love; and it happens whenever we betray our own personal integrity, our character and principles, and we find that we’re suddenly “beside ourselves,” as they say – uncomfortable in our own skin.

Estrangement and separation is our common human condition.  Broken relationships are a universal experience.  And this brokenness takes a severe toll on our lives.  It clouds everything we do and everything we touch.  It pervades our waking thoughts and our subconscious motivations.  Wherever there’s a refusal to forgive, or a reluctance to ask for forgiveness, you’ll find various degrees of unhappiness and dis-ease and even disease – worry and anxiety and depression, heartsickness, even physical illness.

I read the story about a man named of John Plummer.  For 25 years, Plummer lived with the haunting images of the Vietnam War.  One image in particular haunted him the most.  It was a photograph of a nine-year old Vietnamese girl running through clouds of smoke and horror, fleeing her destroyed village after an American-led bombing assault.  Many of you have seen the 1972 AP News photograph and will remember that little girl – the napalm has burned off her clothes, her eyes are closed tight, her mouth is spread wide in terror and pain, her arms flap as she runs down the village road.

It was that photograph, etched permanently in his psyche, that haunted John Plummer.  In June of 1972 he had organized and ordered that bombing strike on Trang Bang in the waning months of the War.  There weren’t supposed to have been civilians in the village that day, but there were – most of them women and children.  As he was reading the military newspaper the following day, he saw the front page photograph of young Kim Phuc running naked on that village road, and the twenty-four year old Plummer fell to his knees and wept.

He tried to tell himself that he was just doing his job, that these things happen in war, but for twenty-five years he carried the burden and shame.  He spiraled into alcoholism and wrecked two marriages.  But eventually, he had a moment of clarity; he gave his life to God, went to seminary, and became a United Methodist pastor.  But he still lived with the guilt of that fateful day.

In 1996, in a chance encounter, Plummer met the child he had seen in the photograph.  She was now thirty-three years old.  Plummer had gone to the Vietnam War Memorial in D.C., where Phuc was giving a speech.  He knew then that he’d never have any peace unless he could talk to her.  After the speech he introduced himself to Kim, and confessed that he was the man responsible for her pain and suffering.

He said that in that moment she just opened her arms to him.  He fell into them, sobbing.  “I’m so sorry.  I’m just so sorry.”  She patted Plummer’s back with the arms that had been disfigured by burning napalm and seventeen surgeries.  “It’s all right,” she told him. “I forgive, I forgive.”[1]

We can’t talk about the hard work of forgiving others without first talking about the hard work of asking for forgiveness.  It’s the most difficult thing to do in life.  Why is this?

One of the earliest stories in the Bible gives us a telling clue.  The story describes the moment when human sin first enters the cosmos.  God says to the man and woman in the lush garden, “You can eat anything from any tree, except for that one tree in the middle of the garden.  Eat from that tree and you will die.”

But you know what happens.  We all want to do the one thing we are forbidden to do, and they can’t take their eyes off of that tree.  They can’t stop thinking about that tree.  It’s like a moth to a white-hot flame – irresistible.  And when they eat from it they immediately wish they hadn’t, because all at once they become painfully self-conscious.  Not just self-conscious about what they had done, but self-conscious about who they are.  For the first time in their lives, they see themselves as humans, weak and broken.  They see their nakedness and they’re ashamed, so they stitch together some fig leaves to cover themselves.

It’s one thing to be self-conscious about what you’ve done.  We’ve all been there.  We do something we wish we hadn’t; we mess up and we feel terrible.  We call this guilt.  It’s the painful sense of having done something wrong, but it’s an entirely healthy emotional response.

But sometimes that self-consciousness about what we’ve done wrong runs so deep into the human heart and psyche that we confuse the feeling of having done wrong with the more painful feeling of being wrong.  To know that we’ve done wrong is to acknowledge our guilt, but to believe that we are wrong is what we call shame.

The greatest obstacle to forgiveness and the reconciliation we all need is not our pride, but our shame.

Some people can live their entire lives never understanding the difference between guilt and shame.  Guilt says, “I’ve done something wrong;” but shame says, “There’s something wrong with me.”  Guilt says, “I’ve made a mistake;” but shame says, “I am a mistake.”  Guilt says, “What I did was not good;” but shame says, “Who I am is not good.”

The guilty conscience is a healthy response to our actions—is elicits in us a desire for atonement, to make amends, to correct a mistake or heal a hurt.  But the shameful conscience is a sickness of the soul that compels us to withdraw from others, like Jacob; or to hide, to cover ourselves, like the man and woman in the garden of Eden.  Rather than making amends and healing the pain we’ve caused, we direct that pain inward so that it hurts ourselves.  Modern psychology tells us that behind nearly every addiction and eating disorder; behind most of our workaholism, and much of our depression, anxiety, abusiveness, and broken relationships, is an inner voice that repeats the daily mantra, “Shame on me.”

How can we ever be at peace with others if we’re not at peace with ourselves?  When our healthy sense of wrongdoing is overshadowed by a destructive sense of wrong-being, we find ourselves estranged from others and from God and even from our true selves.

As a pastor, one of the most common questions I hear from people is, “How can I forgive someone who has hurt me terribly?”  My response is always the same: that to forgive someone, you first have to grieve the loss, the injury.  You can’t just flip a switch after being hurt and move straight to forgiveness.  You have to feel the loss, and name it, and grieve it, because genuine forgiveness is the fruit of grief, and sometimes grief will last a season or more before it bears the true fruit of forgiveness.  So grieve honestly.

But I also remind people that to forgive another person requires the assurance that God has forgiven you, a trust that God has accepted you without conditions.  To know that we can disappoint and distance ourselves from God, but we can never fall below or outside the inexhaustible web of divine love that holds the entire world together.  To be convinced, as the Apostle Paul said, “that there is nothing in life or in death that can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”  Nothing.

What the Jacob story teaches us is that, as human beings, we tend to see the world and others only in relation to our own needs, rather than in relation to God.  And when that happens, we not only inflict a lot of pain on others, but we bring a lot of loneliness and suffering upon ourselves.  But it does not have to be so.  It’s never too late to ask for forgiveness and start over again.

When Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming with his four hundred men, he bowed seven times, honoring his brother.  What would Esau do?  Twenty years of waiting for this moment.  Twenty long, vengeful years of imagining how he’d do it, what it would be like, the look on Jacob’s face just before the sword tore through flesh and bone and sinew, how good it would feel to finally balance the books.

Or was it twenty long, fruitful years of good, honest grief?

Esau ran up and embraced his brother Jacob, held him tight and kissed him.  And they both wept.  ‘I don’t need your gifts, Jacob.  I don’t need your camels or your herds or your servants or your promises of restitution.  I have everything in life a man could ever want, except the one thing I’ve been missing for twenty long years: my brother.’

Have you ever met Esau?  Maybe it’s time you did.


[1] “Fate Ties Two Lives Together,” by Anne Gearan.  Found at