Sunday, February 24, 2019
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany Year C
Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 2)
O perfect Love, whose compassionate power transforms sin into health and temporal dust into eternal glory: grant us a gracious faith, so that like Joseph, when he was sold into slavery, we may face our trials with confidence, and become a blessing to friend and enemy alike in Jesus' name. Amen.
Genesis 45:1-15 and Luke 6:27-38
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, "Send everyone away from me." So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?" But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, "Come closer to me." And they came closer. He said, "I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither ploughing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, 'Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children's children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there--since there are five more years of famine to come--so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.' And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here." Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin's neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
"If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
"Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back."
All readings for this Sunday:
Psalm 37:1ñ11, 39ñ40
1 Corinthians 15:35ñ38, 42ñ50
1. How do you define "Providence"?
2. How do you respond to Jesus' command to "love your enemies"? Is that possible?
3. Do you think reciprocity is a good measure for interactions?
4. What are the "categories of control" in your life?
5. What is the "largeness" of your life?
by Kate Matthews
The great Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, has preached a wonderful sermon for this Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, that, in a sense, puts the story of Joseph (son of Jacob, and brother of many) in conversation with this week's passage from Jesus' sermon on the plain--that is, the part where we are told to love our enemies and to do good to those who harm us. Here, the lectionary has beautifully combined sermon and vibrant illustration, one from each Testament. As Brueggemann says, Jesus is exhorting us to "Do what Joseph did."
When we hear or read what Brueggemann calls the "four abrasive imperatives" to love, do good, bless and pray for the enemies who harm us, we may find them impossible. We may consider them unfair, unjust and maybe even "unhealthy." And yet, and yet...rather than struggle with them as "imperatives," we might embrace them as promise; after all, how well is the world of rigid reciprocity really working out for us?
First, the story of Joseph
We note two themes in this short passage, this episode that brings a measure of satisfying (and surprising) closure (or at least a pause) to the story of Joseph: providence and forgiveness. The question of "why things happen the way they do" (or why bad things happen to good people), and the utter grace and healing power of forgiveness: both are powerful things at work in this text and in our lives as well. In the story of Joseph, these two tracks elegantly converge. (Note: reading the entire story of Joseph for this Bible study is highly recommended.)
That story is actually a long one that begins back in Chapter 37: the stage was set then when Joseph's own brothers sold him into slavery, in Egypt of all places, and it concludes in Chapter 50, when he dies an old man, after a rich and adventurous life. Much happens in between (plenty enough for a Broadway musical, in fact), so the lectionary is giving us only a moment here from the longer narrative of Joseph and his family troubles. Still, our text offers an amazing and moving resolution to the brothers' awful crime.
The changes brought by years
We step into the story of Joseph "mid-stream," after much despair and sadness, with all seeming to be lost, but of course things have turned around for Joseph, who sits at the highest levels of power and security, unlike his brothers, who basically are reduced to begging and desperate hope. However, today's reading will eventually overflow with joy.
As the scene opens, when the brothers have returned from fetching their younger brother (at Joseph's command), they must be exhausted. All of these men have changed since they parted, as Gene Tucker describes them: "A spoiled brat becomes a mature man who is generous and compassionate. The vigorous and aggressive brothers of chapter 37 are seen in chapter 45 as bent with age and the effects of their strugglesÖ." We have to wonder: did the brothers think of Joseph over the years, and of what they had done, and feel weighted with guilt and regret?
Joseph is a very different man
This "mature man," Joseph, eventually offers forgiveness that is astounding in its freely flowing abundance. Even he is overwhelmed, in fact, and he weeps so loudly that the Egyptians outside the room, all the way to Pharaoh's house, can hear him.
The twin themes of providence and forgiveness, then, are heard in Joseph's first words to his brothers, once he has revealed his identity in the simple statement that must have hit them "like a ton of bricks" (the text says that they couldn't respond because they were so "dismayed," but "dumbfounded" is probably closer): "I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt" (45:4b).
A flash of insight and meaning
Right away, Joseph tells them not to be distressed or worried or even guilt-ridden. One has to wonder just what was going through their minds; by now we have some sense of these men (especially Judah: see chapter 38), and they're not the most illustrious ancestors we might choose!
In effect, Joseph's reassurance indicates his forgiveness, but it also points out why that forgiveness comes so easily to him: in a brilliant flash of insight, he sees the hand of God at work in his life.
It all makes sense now
So that's what all of that was about, he must be thinking. God had sent him to Egypt so that, years later, he would be able to help fulfill God's plans for the chosen people whose survival would be threatened by the famine. After all, God had made promises about this people being numerous as the stars!
Joseph explains to his brothers why things had to happen the way they did--or at least how they turned out well in the end--and then he gets right to the celebration. Go back now, and hurry, get our father, he says, and come back here with your families and all your possessions, and make Egypt your new home so that I can take care of you in the hard days that still lie ahead.
Joseph's compassion and joy--and his generosity--seem to know no bounds. He does, however, like to send his brothers on road trips. Perhaps it also provides them time to think about what they've done.
Trusting in a larger purpose
As much as we appreciate Joseph's deep and positive faith, and as much as we see the purpose of the long Joseph story as explaining how the Israelites went to Egypt, we might want to linger a bit on his theological reflection on God's will. Barbara Brown Taylor has written that Joseph "listened to his life" to understand what God was about.
Walter Brueggemann, however, says that Joseph not only listened but was willing to see, and "to host the hidden, inscrutable, unresolved purpose of God for his life that is beyond his controlÖ[and] trust a purpose for his life that is larger than his own horizon." Brueggemann writes of the "hiddenness" of God at work in our lives, the "something hidden, inscrutable, playful, and unresolved" that requires trust in God's purposes even when we can't "see" or understand them.
God can see what's coming
Life, we hope, is not random, and not without meaning or purpose, but it's often a challenge to perceive what is really happening around us, or to understand why it's happening. In the big picture, though, it would be easy to say that God, like some divine puppeteer, made the brothers do something evil (in order to accomplish something good later on), but that claim would diminish our human freedom and responsibility. Joseph, after all, reminds his brothers in his first statement--in case they've forgotten--that they sold him into slavery.
Or "post-moderns" may say that Joseph was just reading into the events and putting his own spin on them. Brueggemann, though, speaks not only of that hiddenness, but also of God's ability to "see before (pro-video)" and provide, or act, in ways that are mysterious, wondrous, and good: we might say that Joseph has undergone a conversion, and indeed Brueggemann attributes this to Joseph's new and hard-won understanding that "God has been at work well beyond him."
His theological reflection is about God at work in his own life, but in ways much greater than we often use to measure providence. Brueggemann imagines that Joseph says, "I became aware that my life was more than the sum of my little fears, my little hates, and my little loves. My life is larger than I imagined, and I decided to embrace the largeness that is God's gift for my life." Words to live by, in any story, in any century!
Gratitude and joy
This is a big moment, really big, and Joseph cries out and weeps loudly. He seems to feel no anger at his brothers, but only joy at being able to provide for them and the father they share, and the younger brother he loves. He also feels gratitude and awe for God's hand at work in his life. James Newsome says that "Joseph's virtual collapse in the presence of his brothers reveals his awareness of God's role in his life as much as it reveals his humanity."
It seems that this dreamer has learned to interpret more than his dreams, or perhaps he's learned to recognize a dream of his waking hours: to be reunited with his family, and then to use his palace-power for good. Barbara Brown Taylor says that Joseph saw a pattern in what was happening in that palace, that is, "he could see God's fingerprints all over the place."
God isn't a puppeteer, making things happen. God, Taylor says, is more like an artist, for whom "[n]othing is too bent to be used--not even tragedies, not even bad decisions, not even plain human meanness." Joseph, she says, is "a living work of art."
Freely choosing to reconcile
And the greatest beauty of this living work of art lies in his exuberant forgiveness of brothers who resented him and showed him no mercy when the shoe was on the other foot. When they had power, they ignored his pleas for mercy (they remember doing so in 42:21), but now Joseph is in power, and he freely chooses reconciliation.
When Joseph looks at his life, however, he doesn't see himself as a victim, Barbara Brown Taylor says: "When he looked at his life, he did not see a series of senseless tragedies. He saw a lighted pathÖ."
Living a larger life
Brueggeman describes this kind of freedom and joy and the creativity unleashed by them: "When we live according to our fears and our hates, our lives become small and defensive, lacking the deep, joyous generosity of God."
However, "[l]ife with God," Brueggemann writes, "is much, much larger, shattering our little categories of control, permitting us to say that God's purposes led us well beyond ourselves to give and to forgive, to create life we would not have imagined."
An expansive view of our lives
I love the expansive way Brueggemann writes of our lives and of the generosity of God. The fear and even terror being nurtured in us these days makes us want to shrink and withdraw rather than breathe deeply of God's grace and mercies. Perhaps that is what trust requires of us, no matter how things appear at the moment.
And who knows? That unleashed creativity may be exactly what's needed--God's timely gift--to deal with the crises at hand. Also, of course, considering what power we have, and like Joseph, using it for good: not for ourselves, or for revenge, but for the good of all. If we as a people see ourselves as both injured and injurer, both blessed and forgiven, perhaps we will be able to help one another to do so as individuals, too, each of us in our own life, forgiven, blessed and holy as well.
An ancient call to love
Renita Weems reminds us, then, that Jesus' words in that sermon on the plain that we've been reading these past weeks are rooted in the ancient wisdom of his people, who valued "rising above personal animosities and doing what is in the interest of the community, which sometimes involves absorbing hurt rather than returning it." She notes that, while Jesus of course came to meet the pressing needs of the people, feeding and healing them just as we are taught to do in our own day, his purpose is even larger, comprehensive, we might say, for he "comes to invite us into a totally different valuation of ourselves and of each other. He invites us into imagining with him a new community."
And this is a community of people who trust God and God's goodness and generosity enough to let go of our own little systems of right and wrong, fair and unfair, whenever we have the opportunity to forgive, as Joseph did so long ago. Just imagine how justified he might have felt in getting revenge on the brothers who had sold him so cruelly into slavery.
Living in God's way of peace and love
Ronald J. Allen and Clark M. Williamson also note that "Jesus' teachings do not...invalidate the teachings of Judaism, but show how to put Jewish insights into practice every day to witness to the new world" of God's way of love and peace, justice and abundance. "Responding in kind multiplies brokenness, says Jesus," a failure to live up to God's dream of restored relationships and abundance for all.
That abundance is about more than material goods; it is expressed in mercy and forgiveness that flow freely through God's own generosity and grace.
You know better than the world around you
Walter Brueggemann closes our reflection as well, as he imagines Jesus encouraging and inspiring his followers (including us, today), when they are tempted to strike back, to even things out. He tells them to think "larger" than that: "You know more and you know differently, and you have freedom to act differently. You know about the large purposes of God, and you are called to act concretely as though the purposes of God really did make a difference in your life."
Like Joseph so long ago, we can choose freely between a mean-spirited and vengeful counting of wrongs, and respond in kind, or we can breathe in the "deep, joyous generosity of God," as Brueggemann calls it, and let our lives be transformed--opening our hearts and minds and lives, individually and communally, to God's purposes at work in this world that God loves so well.
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Mother Teresa of Calcutta, 20th century
"If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other."
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
"All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen."
Richard Rohr, 20th century
"If we do not transform our pain, we will transmit it."
Mary E. Hanks, Winter's Past, 21st century
"My gut feeling says he needs a second chance. Like we all do."
Krista Tippett, Speaking of Faith
"Truth can be told in an instant, forgiveness can be offered spontaneously, but reconciliation is the work of lifetimes and generations."
Rachel Naomi Remen, 21st century
"Wounding and healing are not opposites. They're part of the same thing. It is our wounds that enable us to be compassionate with the wounds of others. It is our limitations that make us kind to the limitations of other people. It is our loneliness that helps us to to find other people or to even know they're alone with an illness. I think I have served people perfectly with parts of myself I used to be ashamed of."
St. John of the Cross, 16th century
"In the evening, we will be judged on love."
Dorothy Day, 20th century
"We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community."
Jean Vanier, Community And Growth, 20th century
"One of the marvelous things about community is that it enables us to welcome and help people in a way we couldn't as individuals. When we pool our strength and share the work and responsibility, we can welcome many people, even those in deep distress, and perhaps help them find self-confidence and inner healing."
M. Scott Peck, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace, 20th century
"The overall purpose of human communication is--or should be--reconciliation. It should ultimately serve to lower or remove the walls of misunderstanding which unduly separate us human beings, one from another."
Marcus J. Borg, The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith, 20th century
"God wills our liberation, our exodus from Egypt. God wills our reconciliation, our return from exile. God wills our enlightenment, our seeing. God wills our forgiveness, our release from sin and guilt. God wills that we see ourselves as God's beloved. God wills our resurrection, our passage from death to life. God wills for us food and drink that satisfy our hunger and thirst. God wills, comprehensively, our well-being--not just my well-being as an individual but the well-being of all of us and of the whole of creation. In short, God wills our salvation, our healing, here on earth."
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