There are no unforgivable sins at Katz’s Delicatessen, the New York City institution whose slogan is still, many years after the Second World War, “Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army.” Which is not to say that it’s a particularly friendly place to eat. The men who work the counters are famously surly.
Tonight is the Oscar Awards—you may remember that restaurant scene in “When Harry Met Sally” with Estelle Reiner’s line: “I’ll have what she’s having.” It brings down the house. That scene took place in Katz’s.
I used to go there in high school with my buddies. One of my friends, who knew all of the unwritten rules of Katz’s, told me that I had to order their world-famous Reuben sandwich. A mountain of corned beef on rye, swiss cheese, sauerkraut, homemade mustard—there was nothing better than a Katz’s Reuben, he assured me.
And so I stepped up to the counter, looked the surly counter man square in the eye, and with great confidence said: “I’ll have a Rueben.” The look on his face was one of sheer horror. He turned to the guy next to him, and yelled: “How about that? This guy wants a Reuben.”
Then, he yelled out loud enough for everyone in the restaurant to hear: “Hey, everybody, our friend here would like a Reuben.” I turned to my friend who had told me about Katz’s world-famous Rueben sandwich, and he was doubled-over in laughter. I knew that I was in trouble.
All eyes were on me. The man walked around the counter and proceeded to escort me out of Katz’s. When we got out to the sidewalk, he explained that this was a Kosher deli, and they don’t mix meat and cheese. He told me I could come back in if I apologized and ordered a pastrami on rye.
By now, he was laughing, enjoying my discomfort. With a penitent heart, I apologized and was re-admitted to Katz’s, where everyone welcomed me back to the fold with applause. After telling my friend that I was going to get him back, I waited for my pastrami on rye and now, the counterman couldn’t have been more friendly.
He gave me free samples as he sliced the meat for the ridiculously large sandwich. We made small talk about sports. I was back in Katz’s good graces. Bygones were bygones . . . we were reconciled.
Perhaps you’ve heard the saying: “Change is good, now you go first.” The message we hear in our readings today is this: “Reconciliation is good—now you go first.” I appreciate these words because they’re honest about how hard reconciliation is. The truth is that it’s hard to take that first step towards those whom we’ve hurt, or those who have hurt us. Reconciliation is difficult work, but it’s good and holy work, and you and I are called by God today to have the courage to take the first step towards those from whom we are estranged.
Let’s begin with Joseph. Joseph of the Technicolor Dreamcoat, Joseph the Dreamer, Joseph the insufferable little brother who has the gall to tell his parents and siblings that he had this amazing dream that one day, they would all bow down to serve him. Imagine what you would say if your child or sibling said that to you—you’d probably respond like Joseph’s brothers and throw him into a pit.
Like so many stories in the the Book of Genesis, the story of Joseph and his brothers is all about family members trying to get along with each other. While we so often sentimentalize family life in our culture, the truth is that not easy for us to get along with people, even people in our own families.
Some define family and home as the place where they have to take you in, but as a priest, I have to tell you, I’ve witnessed many families, including my own extended family, where that just isn’t true. If you’re family is like mine, you can point to that person or people who have been cut off by others, exiled, thrown into a pit.
And here’s the thing: sometimes those Josephs deserve it. They’ve ordered the Reuben and broken the unwritten codes of the family, bringing shame and humiliation to the house. They’ve manipulated and abused the trust of their loved ones too many times to be trusted.
And so it’s fair to ask: if we can’t even reconcile with our family members, those whom we are supposed to love and care for, what hope is there for us to reconcile with enemies who are strangers?
The story of Joseph and his brothers can answer this question and give us hope. Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt, he rises to become Pharaoh’s right-hand man, and Joseph’s visionary leadership helps Egypt be prepared for famine. When all the surrounding countries are suffering, Egypt has enough grain to feed its own people and sell the surplus to its neighbors.
That’s how Joseph is re-united with his brothers. They come to Egypt to buy food that they can bring home to their families. It’s been so many years since they threw their brother in the pit, they don’t even recognize Joseph when they are in his presence. It’s like the moment in the parable of the Prodigal Son when the elder brother says to father: “Your son went off to far land and squandered everything you had.”
The father, heartbroken, looks at his elder son and says: “He’s not ‘my son.’ He’s your brother.” In his estrangement, the older brother doesn’t recognize his sibling. He refuses to acknowledge that they are in relationship with each other and because of that, both of their lives are diminished.
In our story this morning, it’s Joseph who takes the first step towards reconciliation. He says to his brothers in words saturated with sorrow and grief, but also with hope and forgiveness: “Come closer to me.” How many times have we wanted to say that to people with whom we are estranged?
“Come closer to me. Don’t walk away. Don’t leave. Stay here. Let’s work this out.” Joseph says this to his brothers because there is still a part of him that it’s in that dark pit. Yes, he lives in a palace. He’s wealthy and powerful. People really do bow down to him just as he dreamed so many years ago.
But there is still a part of him behind bars, a piece of his heart that is still in chains. Until he reconciles with his brothers, he can’t be truly free. “Come closer to me,” he implores, meaning: “I can’t stand this distance between us any more. Let me look you squarely in the eyes again and recognize you as my brothers.
Reconciliation is good, now you go first. Joseph has that courage to take the first step towards the healing of his broken relationships, a move that Jesus encourages in our Gospel story today. We’re still in the midst of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, which is Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. We talked last week about how plains in the Bible represent places of human mortality and frailty, of broken relationships and unresolved conflict.
It’s right there, in the middle of the world’s brokenness, that Jesus tells his disciples and the crowd gathered around him: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” Out of all of Jesus’ teachings, I think this is the hardest one for us.
He’s telling us to do something outrageous, something that doesn’t make any sense at all. We are to love even those whom are completely unlovable. Jesus tells us: It’s easy to love the lovable, it’s easy to love those who follow all the rules, do their fair share, never complain, are always on time.
It’s not so easy to love the kid who comes into the restaurant and orders a sandwich that breaks the rules. But God calls us to love even him, which doesn’t mean you can’t tell him the truth: “You can’t order that sandwich here!” Boundaries still matter. Reconciliation always starts by telling each other the truth and maintaining healthy boundaries.
But once the kid apologizes, you not only welcome him back in, you shower him with grace, with free samples and mountains of delicious food. Now, I know what you are thinking: what if the kid doesn’t apologize? Or what if the man behind the counter doesn’t welcome back the kid with open arms? These are good questions.
Jesus is a realist about human nature. He knows how hard the work of reconciliation is. He knows how much it costs to love the unlovable, but Jesus never counts the cost. Even on the hard wood of the cross, Jesus refuses to count the cost. He offer himself fully. His whole ministry is love poured out on behalf of those who don’t always deserve God’s mercy.
Sinners, criminals, tax collectors cooking the books, you name it, Jesus welcomes them to the table, giving them free samples and more food than they either asked for or deserve. That’s what God’s mercy is all about.
As recipients of God’s lavish mercy, we aren’t called to fix the world or do anything heroic. We are simply called by God to take the first step towards reconciliation with others and see what happens.
It’s in that reconciling spirit that St. John’s is undertaking several ministries right now. While we started the effort to build a memorial to men lynched in Leon County, we have now been joined by some twenty community partners. Work on that project is going well.
Last week, our young people returned from a Civil Rights Pilgrimage to Selma and Montgomery, and Mtr. Abi is currently planning a similar adult pilgrimage. These ministries are undertaken not to blame, shame or to judge others. Jesus cautions against that approach in our reading today. They are undertaken with the idea that we can’t move forward to a hopeful future of racial reconciliation until we have told the truth about the past.
When my sons came home from the pilgrimage, they shared: “Dad, we study lynching in history class, but we don’t spend much time on it. We had no idea how widespread it was and how it was used to intimidate all African-Americans.”
Just like Joseph and his brothers, there is always a part of us who remains in prison unless we face the truth of our past. Some of you may be saying: “I hear you, but I wasn’t even alive then. I didn’t lynch anyone.” Part of the facing the truth of the past is seeing how, to paraphrase William Faulkner, the past isn’t even past. We still live in a world in which racism is endemic. Racial reconciliation is not old news—it’s the work of every generation to break down the walls that separate us.
On a lighter note, but also a serious one, St. John’s is also partnering with our brothers and sisters at Temple Israel to slice pastrami for the Jewish Food Festival. As many of you know, volunteers from Temple Israel help us with the St. John’s Market. At first blush, this may look like no big deal: two congregations reaching out to each other in friendship. But if we go a little deeper, we remember and confess that the church has long been a source of antisemitism in our world.
In the earliest days of the church, the church was an exclusively Jewish organization. It was only later that Gentiles like Cornelius the Centurion and others were admitted. Much of the conflict in the early church had to do with religious laws, like not eating meat and cheese together as part of the kosher dietary customs.
Jews and Christians had a really hard time eating together at the same table. That’s why the partnership with Temple Israel is an example of real-world reconciliation. Both of us have taken the first step towards each other and said: “Come closer.” At the upcoming Jewish Food Festival, the whole community will come together at a banquet table of joyful generosity.
That is the future that God holds out to you and me today. That’s where we are headed. But today is the day to have the courage to take the first step towards healing the broken relationships in your own lives.
Reconciliation is good—now you go first!
A sermon preached by the Rev. David C. Killeen at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL, on February 24, 2019.