Sermon Seeds: Bold Moves/Offering Forgiveness
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 15
Genesis 45:1-15 with Psalm 133 or
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 with Psalm 67
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28
Additional notes on Psalm 133 and Psalm 67
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Bold Moves/Offering Forgiveness
by Kathryn Matthews Huey
Perhaps there are two tracks for a sermon on this text (or the second part of a two-part sermon, beginning last week): providence and forgiveness. The “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, powerful things at work in this text and in our lives as well. In the story of Joseph, these two tracks converge beautifully.
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, into slavery in Egypt, and the story ends in Chapter 50, when he dies an old man, after a rich and adventurous life. Much happens in between, and the lectionary gives us only two snapshots from the narrative in these two weeks, but today’s text offers an amazing and moving conclusion to the brothers’ awful crime.
If last week’s reading ended in despair and sadness, with all seeming to be lost, today’s reading will eventually overflow with joy. However, at its beginning, 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 struggles…” (Preaching through the Christian Year A).
This “mature man” 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 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”): “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt” (45:4b).
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, and they’re not the most illustrious ancestors! In effect, his 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 God’s hand at work in his life. 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 (and 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 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 generosity – seem to know no bounds.
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. Last week, Barbara Brown Taylor wrote that Joseph “listened to his life” to understand what God was about. Walter Brueggemann, on the other hand, says that “Joseph, man of faith, takes a second hard look at his life. He is willing to host the hidden, inscrutable, unresolved purpose of God for his life that is beyond his control…[and] trust a purpose for his life that is larger than his own horizon” (“Taking a Second, Painful Look” in The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness). 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.
Life, we hope, is not random and without meaning or purpose, but it’s not always easy to perceive what is really happening around us, or why. 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 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” (The Threat of Life). Words to live by, in any story, in any century!
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” (Texts for Preaching Year A).
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 power for good. Barbara Brown Taylor says that Joseph saw a pattern in what was happening in that palace: “No one explained it to him, but 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, “like one of those genius sculptors who can make art out of anything.” For this kind of artist, “Nothing 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” (“Listening to Your Life,” in Gospel Medicine).
And the 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 path…” (Gospel Medicine).
It would be too easy to use this as an example for us today in our family relationships, and Hank J. Langknecht cautions us that “encouraging victims to see ‘God’s plan’ in the abuse perpetrated on them is irresponsible pastoral care” (New Proclamation Year A 2008). Sensitivity to the suffering of those who have been injured or damaged is paramount, but the larger arc here is one of extravagant, freely given forgiveness that seems to give Joseph as much joy as it gives his brothers relief (as forgiveness often does). 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” (The Threat of Life).
Langknecht suggests a communal interpretation of this story, challenging the community of faith to “reflect on the ways in which God has sustained and prospered it even through stony roads, human brokenness, and bizarre ironies…” (New Proclamation Year A 2008). 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 do so as individuals, too, each of us in our own life, forgiven and blessed.
For ancient Israel, the image of oil, precious oil, running down over the head and beard and even the collar of the high priest (“Aaron”) is a richly sensuous description of the profound joy experienced by a community that has found common ground, common identity, common purpose, and has risen above disagreements, division, and past hurts. So is the image of “dew,” especially in the arid climate in which the psalmist lived. The Genesis story of Joseph tells of reconciliation and reunion that are so powerful, so longed for, that Joseph weeps “loudly” on the neck of his brother Benjamin, a different kind of anointing, perhaps, with tears instead of oil, but just as precious, just as costly, nevertheless. Looking to the high priest as one who stands before God for the whole people, the psalmist sees a sign of unity and of bonding together, of communal wellbeing rather than individual good fortune. Perhaps it’s possible to pursue one’s spiritual life alone, but through the ages our natural inclination seems to draw us toward others for support, encouragement, inspiration, and a sense of accountability. We share our stories, break bread together, grieve together, and, as this psalm recalls, rejoice together in the sure knowledge of God’s good blessings.
What are times that your church experienced a dramatic moment of unity, the memory of which may inspire you to a renewed sense of who you are as a community of faith? What are the experiences and feelings that Joseph and his family, and the people of the psalmist’s time, share with your church, in its time and place? Does your congregation think of itself as a family of faith, with a need for unity, even if that requires reconciliation and healing? In what ways does the United Church of Christ experience unity and rejoice in all that we share? How often do we go beneath the basic facts of our history to recognize the divisions and conflicts that have always existed, not just in our present day, but in every occasion of growth and every courageous step? What are ways that the Stillspeaking God may be calling us to find and rejoice in our unity, in our common ground, our common identity, and our common purpose? Do we look first for what unites us, or for what divides? As we read about our ancestors in faith celebrating in the extravagance of God, what are the precious oils, the extravagances that we might offer up in celebration of every moment of reconciliation, healing, and joy?
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.”
Marian Wright Edelman, 21st century
“Whoever said anybody has a right to give up?”
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.”
St. John of the Cross, 16th century
“In the evening, we will be judged on love.”
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.
How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there God ordained the blessing,
the blessing of life forevermore.
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Thus says the Lord:
Maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be revealed.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
and hold fast my covenant —
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.
May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make God’s face to shine upon us,
that your way may be known upon earth,
your saving power among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide the nations upon earth.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.
The earth has yielded its increase;
God, our God, has blessed us.
May God continue to bless us;
let all the ends of the earth revere God.
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.
Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28
(Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”)
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.