Faith In Real Life Blog
ACCOUNTABILITY: AN OPPORTUNITY TO BUILD BRIDGES
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
November 17, 2022
15 Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” 16 So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17 ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20 Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. 21 So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
Luke 15:25–32 Genesis 50:15–21
25 “Now his elder son was in the field, and as he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command, yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your assets with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ ”
These are two contrasting stories about forgiveness. As presented, they illustrate the difference between a willingness to seek and offer forgiveness and an unwillingness to do so. Each story is a slice in time. We do not know the rest of the story but the consequences of our choices are exposed.
The story of Joseph and his brothers is an ancient story of sibling rivalry. Joseph was the favored child and his brothers are jealous. They accoust him, fake his death and sell him. Now years later, Joseph has become a powerful man in Egypt and his brothers need help because of the famine in the land. They are told by their aging father to go to Joseph, beg for his forgiveness and to seek help. They are understandably anxious. ““What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?”
This is the predicament of any of us who seek forgiveness. We expect anger; we fear retaliation. Most of us do not readily seek forgiveness. We are far more likely to justify ourselves, avoid contact and keep our guilty knowledge hidden. But that makes for some very awkward family gatherings. Some grievances lead to divisions in families that are never reconciled and extend into the next generations. If there is ever to be genuine reconciliation, forgiveness must be sought and accepted. That requires a two step process, We must be willing to specifically acknowledge what we have done. Blanket requests—’please forgive any harm I may have caused’—do not cut it. Or, much worse, “I’m sorry you felt hurt, please forgive me.” Seeking forgiveness is risky, embarrassing business.
As a child, we would play baseball in the street. This meant any number of baseballs landed in the neighbors yard. Running to field the ball, I ran right through a neatly trimmed flower bed. I didn’t even notice until the neighbor started yelling at me. I ran. In fact, all of the children scattered like leaves in the wind. Unfortunately, my parents witnessed the whole thing and told me I had to go back to that house and apologize. I did not want to go. But wanting to be accountable and being willing to be accountable are two different things. I’m pretty sure Joseph’s brothers did not want to go either. They went for the same reason I did. Their father told them to. In truth, many of us confess only because we are told to. And that is not a bad thing. It is the only way to learn that being accountable can be an opportunity rather than a penalty.
The motive does not matter but the first step to building a bridge that allows for new connections is accountability. That does not mean it will work out as we might wish. Forgiveness requested does not equal forgiveness given. But there is virtually no chance there will be reconciliation and/or new relationships if we can not find a way to be accountable. In Joseph’s story, he humbly accepts his brother’—though he had been grievously harmed—with the words: “Do not be afraid, Am I in the place of God?…In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.”
We need to be accountable when we know we have diminished or harmed another. That is plenty difficult but at least we usually have the self awareness to speak to those times. We usually know when we are impatient or rude to our friends, spouses or children. We can often see on the faces of those we love when our words or attitudes have been hurtful. But out of ten occurrences, how many times do we apologize? How much more often do we excuse our silence or bad behavior and even get indignant if we’re told that we have hurt another. (‘You’re just too sensitive’ or ‘I thought that would just roll off your back’ or ‘I wouldn’t be this impatient if you hadn’t done…’)
Far more difficult is facing our accountability when we harm or diminish another unintentionally or even unawares. But if I fall into you and throw an elbow into your broken rib, I will cause a world of hurt. Even if our actions were accidental or unintentional, we can still cause harm. if you want to build a bridge, acknowledging that harm rather than minimizing it is still necessary. That is much harder when we feel divorced from the sins of the father. But, as long as we believe it is not ok to gain advantage at the expense of others, we have to recognize the systems that do precisely that. We may not be able to correct the sins of the past but we should not deny that we benefit from them. At the very least, such knowledge will lead to humility and increased mindfulness.
The point of accountability, or in Christian language, confession, is at least two fold. First, when we confess, there is an opportunity to experience grace. There was great joy when Joseph’s brothers confessed to him. Joseph responded humbly and kindly. That certainly doesn’t happen all of the time but when it does, it is wondrous. In our second story, there was great joy when the younger brother was accountable for his selfish entitled choices. The same is true in our lives, In FIRL (Faith In Real Life) , Emily H. recounted a time she had intentionally excluded a friend. Even though she had felt justified, when she realized the hurt she had caused, she named her behavior and apologized. It took courage but it provided an opportunity for joy rather than self righteousness and/or guilt. That is what God offers. It is a bridge God builds to us and a bridge we are called to build toward others.
Second, accountability provides an opportunity to self correct. If we have nothing to confess, we will not see the need for correction. In our second story, by all conventional secular standards the older brother was wronged. He had a ‘right’ to be angry. But God does follow our rules. What he could not see was that he was guilty of the very attitudes he could indict his brother for. Both of these boys felt and acted entitled to their father’s wealth. That is certainly the social convention but they were each laying claim to money they had not earned. Both wanted to control the flow of money rather than wait for the father’s choices. For most of us, it is much easier to imagine being in the older brother’s shoes. It is not fair that our goodness and fidelity would not count more than a brother’s profligate living. But those are social conventions and certainly do not reflect the real world—nor God’s kingdom. There is an enormous disparity in wealth. Are we seriously claiming that is fair? Or that we deserve such largess. The father could just as easily leave his money to a philanthropic organization—or to his cat. His children did not have the right to decide how he would share his money. As much as we deny it, we want the world (and God) to operate on terms we consider just.
We use the word ‘deserve’ all too easily to justify what we want. There is a ‘self care’ movement that seeks to justify taking time for yourself because ‘you deserve it.’ That is ridiculous. I am all for self care. I actively encourage it—BUT not because we deserve it. Literally billions of people do have the option to work less than 60-80 hours a week in order to survive. To be in a position to have such discussions is a sign of privilege not of entitlement. When we insist upon lack of humility and entitlement, we separate ourselves from the father every bit as much as the younger brother. We refuse to join the party. We self exclude. We lose joy. The only antidote is to come to our senses and be willing to be accountable for our self serving attitudes.
In FIRL, we were far more likely to discuss our difficulty offering forgiveness than facing our need for forgiveness. But we cannot sustain forgiveness and we cannot know the joy of the Father’s love unless we recognize our need for forgiveness. That requires courage, self reflection and accountability. It is the doorway to grace and means by which we can become closer to God and each other. Practice building those bridges.
Let it be so