Posted by: smstrouse | February 24, 2019

Forgiveness is D#%m Hard Work

A Sermon for Epiphany 7

We’re going to do something different today. Our first reading from Genesis is just a snippet from the saga of Joseph. We never get to read the whole story in church because it’s a long one: chapters 37-48. But it’s an important story, foundational to Jewish and Christian history. So – I’m going to give you a fairly brief synopsis, then when we get to the section assigned for today, our lector will take over. Then, I’ll come back in to finish up with Joseph and bridge immediately into the gospel text, which is another selection from Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. OK? So, here we go. 

Joseph and That Technicolor Coat
UnknownJoseph was the son of Jacob and Rachel. Jacob, patriarch of the Hebrew people (remember when we talk about “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?” That Jacob), had twelve sons and at least one daughter, by his two wives, Leah and Rachel, and by their slaves Bilhah and Zilpah. The twelve sons would become the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Now Joseph, who was born in his father’s old age, was Jacob’s favorite. One day Jacob Susan_Govatos_Josephs_Dreams_smpresented him with a beautiful long coat of many colors, which caused envy among his brothers. Then, when Joseph was seventeen years old he had two dreams. In the first dream, as Joseph and his brothers gathered bundles of grain, their bundles bowed down to his. In the second dream, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars bowed down to Joseph. These dreams further angered the brothers. One day, Jacob told Joseph to go out to his brothers, where they were tending their sheep. Seizing their chance, the brothers threw Joseph into a pit. A short while later they spotted an Arab caravan passing the scene, and they sold Joseph to the traders. They put goat’s blood on Joseph’s coat and showed it to Jacob, who therefore believed Joseph was dead.

Way Down in Egypt Land
Joseph was eventually taken to Egypt, where he was sold to Potiphar,the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. He later became head of Potiphar’s estate. However, Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, which he refused. Angered by his running away from her, she made a false accusation of rape, and Potiphar had Joseph thrown into prison.

The warden put Joseph in charge of the other prisoners. Soon after, Pharaoh’s chief 61BBYVZ8N3Lcupbearer and chief baker, who had offended the Pharaoh, were thrown into the prison. While there, they both had dreams, which Joseph interpreted: the chief cupbearer would be reinstated in his position, but the baker would be hanged. Joseph asked the cupbearer to ask Pharaoh for his release from prison, but the cupbearer, once back in his position, forgot all about Joseph. Two more years went until  Pharaoh himself had two troubling dreams. In the first, seven thin and bony cows were eating up seven fat, beautiful cows. In the second, seven withered ears of grain were swallowing up seven good ears.

Pharaoh’s advisers were unable to interpret these dreams. Then the cupbearer finally remembered Joseph, and Joseph was summoned. He interpreted the dream as meaning that there would be seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine, and he advised the Pharaoh to begin storing up surplus grain. Impressed by Joseph’s wisdom, Pharaoh appointed Joseph as his prime minister, second only to himself, and put him in charge of getting ready for the years of famine.

Meanwhile, Back in Canaan
The famine had already begun back in Canaan, where Joseph’s family lived.  Hearing that there was grain in Egypt, Joseph’s brothers went there to buy food from the prime minister, not realizing that he was their very own brother. Joseph decided to use this opportunity to see whether his brothers were truly sorry that they had sold him. He made a plan that would test his brothers’ determination to save their youngest brother Benjamin from the elaborate plot that he set up. The brothers passed the test, and Joseph finally revealed his identity to his brothers.

And this is where today’s reading picks up . . .
Joseph said to his brothers, “It is I – Joseph! Is my father really still alive?” The brothers could not answer, so dumbfounded were they.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” When they had come closer he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. Please don’t rebuke yourselves for having sold me here. God sent me here ahead of you so I could save your lives. There has been famine in the land for two years, and for the next five years there will be no tilling and no harvesting. But God sent me ahead of you to guarantee that you will have descendants on earth, and to keep you alive as a great body of survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God! God has made me Pharaoh’s chief counselor, the head of his household and governor of all Egypt. Hurry back to our father and  give him this message from Joseph: ‘God has made me governor of all Egypt. Come to me here at once! Do not delay. You will live with me in the territory of Goshen: you, your children, your grandchildren, your flocks and herds, and all your possessions. I will provide for you here – for the next five years will be years of famine –so that you and your children and all that you own will be spared from destitution.'”
Then he kissed his brothers and weeping over them, and then he and his brothers talked. (Genesis 45:3-11, 15)

The End
Following this reunion, Jacob and his family settled in Egypt. This series of events serves as the backdrop for Israel’s ultimate enslavement in Egypt and the subsequent Exodus.

Luke 6:27-38
Now with this back story in mind, we read the gospel, the continuation of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain:
“To you who hear me I say: love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you. When they slap you on one cheek, turn and give them the other; when they take your coat let them have your shirt as well. Give to all who beg from you. When someone takes what is yours, don’t demand it back.

Do to others what you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit does that do you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. If you do good only to those who do good to you, what credit does that do you? Even ‘sinners’ do as much. If you lend to those who you expect to repay you, what credit does that do you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to other ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full. Love your enemies and do good to them. Lend without expecting repayment, and your reward will be great. You’ll rightly be called children of the Most High, since God is good even to the ungrateful and the wicked.

Be compassionate, as your loving God is compassionate. Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you’ll be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you: a full measure – packed down, shaken together, and running over – will be poured into your lap. For the amount you measure out will be the amount you’ll be given back.” 

The Gospel of Christ???
Oh, boy! There is so much packed into that sermon; we could take it line by line and get a Unknown-2long sermon and discussion out of each one. These are some hard sayings. I can’t count the number of conversations in my church in San Francisco around the exhortation to “give to everyone who begs from you.” A friend told me about a Facebook friend who posted her philosophy of life: “I don’t care who they are, what race, religion, sexual orientation, rich or poor; if they’re nice to me, then I’ll be nice to them.” That’s probably more in line with how most of us operate than Jesus’ “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Or as I saw this week: “Tweet unto others as you as you want them to tweet you.”

Thing 1
Maybe the first thing to say about these teachings is that they’re largely ignored. They’re either dismissed as totally naïve and impossible to live by or agreed to in principle, but forgotten as soon as they bump into a real-life situation.

Thing 2
The second thing to say about this part of the Sermon on the Plain is that it’s a dangerous text, one which has often been misused in the past, especially by the church. It became a word preached to slaves in order to keep them in their place. It’s been used to send victims of domestic violence back to their abusers. But Jesus did not intend his words to be weaponized against the oppressed. He did put it out there as a vision of the ethics of the realm of God, the reality in which we live, and move, and have our being in the here and now. And no doubt he knew very well how impossible his words would sound, both to his followers then and to us now.

Now, since this gospel is paired with the Joseph story in Genesis, it seems natural to focus in on the part where Jesus tells us to love our enemies, to do good to those who harm us, and to forgive. Maybe Jesus was remembering the story of his ancestor as he said those words. In any event, he seems to be telling us: do what Joseph did.

It’s About Forgiveness
Unknown-3These are all sensitive subjects. Take forgiveness. As author Sue Monk Kidd wrote: “People, in general, would rather die than forgive. It’s that hard.” I always wonder about the process that Joseph must have gone through in order to be able to forgive his brothers. What went on between the lines of the story? He was 17 when he was sold into slavery and 30 when he became prime minister to Pharaoh. We know that forgiveness is often, maybe usually, a process. Even those who immediately grant forgiveness have to still do the hard work that will come.

In 2006, a gunman entered a one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, PA and shot 10 young Amish girls, killing five and then killing himself. People around the world were astonished that the Amish immediately expressed forgiveness toward the killer and his family. There was also the perception (totally mistaken) that granting forgiveness meant they were able to quickly get over the tragedy. But a year after the shootings, Jonas Beiler of the Family Resource and Counseling Center reported that members of the community suffered from nightmares, some were still startled by the sound of a helicopter overhead. Survivors, including some of the older boys who were let go by the killer, wondered if somehow they could have stopped the massacre. Some of the schoolchildren suffered from emotional instabilities, which therapists working in the community expected to go on for several years. But, Beiler said, that because the Amish could express forgiveness, they were better able to concentrate on the work of their own healing.

And right there, I believe, is the key to these teachings. They’re not meant to be easy. We are meant to be challenged by them. We have to wrestle with them and work at them. Ten years after the Nickel Mines shootings, Aaron Esh Jr, now 23, still struggles with the memories. He says that despite the Amish’s legendary powers of forgiveness, it’s a struggle to stay constant. “You have to fight the bitter thoughts,” he said. Another mother of one of the girls killed that day said, “It’s not a once and done thing. It is a lifelong process.”

So, how do we work on our own processes, especially in those places where bitter thoughts reside?

How Does Forgiveness Happen?
First of all, it’s not something that anyone else can make you do, either by quoting Jesus to you or trying to make you feel guilty. To be forgiven and to forgive are always gifts of grace that come from some place beyond ourselves. It is your process. Nor can anyone else tell someone who has suffered evil at the hands of others that God is bringing something good out of it. No one else could say to Joseph, “God has brought you here.” He had to discover it for himself. If it is going to happen at all, victims have to discover for themselves that God has somehow created something new out of their suffering, that out of their survival God’s grace can even provide something that someone else will need.

We can learn from Joseph that his decision to not keep score against his brothers created the possibility of a new future for himself and his family. Otherwise they would all still be controlled by and captive to the past. Can we begin to, at the very least, be open to the possibility of giving up the scorecard? Is there anything good that has come out of a situation of suffering at the hands of another?

I was asked once whether, if given the chance, I’d go back and change my life so that times of suffering did not occur. I thought really hard about it. What a blessing that would be. No painful memories, no residual fears or hang-ups. But I finally decided that, no, I wouldn’t change my past in any way. Distressful as it may have been, it is part of who I am, has contributed to my resilience, and has enabled me to have more empathy for others going through similar situations. So I can agree with commentator Barbara Brown Taylor who said, “When Joseph looked at his life, he didn’t see himself as a victim. He did not see a series of senseless tragedies. He saw a lighted path.”

I doubt very much that Joseph saw that lighted path as he lay at the bottom of the pit or in the traders’ caravan. Perhaps we can remember his outcome and hold out hope when our process is still in the pit, so to speak.

Perhaps we can hear these hard teachings of Jesus, not as imperatives, but as a promise forgivenessthat God will be with us in the process of forgiveness, all along the way – from a faint glimmer of a possibility that forgiveness could happen, to openness to the spirit of healing working within us, to the desire to let go of the person or persons who hurt us (for our sake, not theirs), and maybe (but not necessarily) to reconciliation.

The promise is that all through the process, we can breathe in the “deep, joyous generosity of God,” and allow our lives be transformed – opening our hearts and minds and lives to the healing purposes at work in each beloved child of God, in me, and in you.






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