Sermon Seeds: Subversive Forgiveness
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (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
Worship resources for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost Year A/20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 15) are at Worship Ways
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Living psalms are here, scroll down:
Additional reflection on Genesis 45:1-15 by Brooks Berndt
Additional notes on Psalm 133 and Psalm 67
by Kathryn Matthews
Perhaps there are two tracks for a sermon on this text (or the second part of a two-part sermon that began last week): providence and forgiveness. The “why things happen the way they do” (or why bad things happen to good people) question, 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, 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, and the lectionary gives us only two snapshots from the longer narrative in these two weeks, but today’s text offers an amazing and moving resolution to the brothers’ awful crime. (In a Bible study setting, it would be a good experience to read the entire story, with its twists and turns that give more insight into the character of the brothers.)
The changes brought by years
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, 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 struggles…” (Preaching through the Christian Year A).
(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?)
An astounding offer
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, 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 the hand of God at work in his life. So that’s what all of that was about, he must be thinking.
The meaning of it all
God, as Joseph sees it, 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.
We recall, for example, that last week, Barbara Brown Taylor wrote that Joseph “listened to his life” to understand what God was about (“Listening to Your Life,” in Gospel Medicine).
God’s purposes are hidden
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 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.
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.
Hiddenness and seeing
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.”
Joseph’s 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!
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” (Texts for Preaching Year A).
An interpreter of life
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” (“Listening to Your Life,” in Gospel Medicine).
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 path…” (Gospel Medicine).
A pastoral note
A note: 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 very important, 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).
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” (The Threat of Life).
The expansive generosity of God
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, including a global pandemic, the “good trouble” (as Congressman and Civil Rights leader, John Lewis, would say) being raised in our streets, and a time of massive economic suffering. (That doesn’t even include the over-arching crisis of climate change and environmental damage.)
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. Who knows what powers and structures of hatred, violence and sorrow we might subvert, simply with the power of forgiveness?
A lesson for the community as well
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). What are the “stony roads” your church has traveled?
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, blessed and forgiven, forgiven and blessed. May it be so.
The Reverend Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
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.”
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, 21st century
“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 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.”
Additional reflection on Genesis 45:1-15: “Climate Change and the Church’s “Coming out Party”
by Brooks Berndt
One of the most poignant scenes depicted in the Bible is Joseph’s “coming-out party,” the moment when Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers. Until this time, they did not know that the person who had the power to bring the hunger of their people to an end amid famine was also the person they had once betrayed and sold into slavery.
In their encounters with him, they had not recognized their brother. The moment of revelation, however, isn’t simply confined to Joseph announcing his familial relationship. Joseph also reveals his calling: “God has sent me before you to preserve life.”
The church needs a coming-out party
Perhaps, the church is currently in need of its own coming-out party. Like Joseph in the face of a dire famine, we too have a climate crisis to face. And, like Joseph, I believe God is calling us to once again preserve life.
Whether we are talking about the devastation of a drought, a flood, or a climate-related threat to public health such as the prevalence of malaria, it is time to let the people of the larger world know that the church is there for them. In fact, God has given us a purpose in this time of trouble.
Congregations have already started
Some congregations have already begun their coming out party. They have done it through environmental recognition programs like Creation Justice Churches. They have done it through solar panels, community gardens, and divestment from fossil fuels. They have done it through marches and rallies. In all these ways and more, they have let the rest of the world know that they are there for them.
Indications show that the membership of the UCC is ready for a coming-out party. Earlier this year, a task force created by the UCC Board of Directors to identify future priorities for the denomination announced the results of two surveys that found climate change to be the number one issue for the church to address, according to respondents.
It would seem that the hearts and minds of many in the pews are ready for their churches to take bold and courageous stands on climate. It is now time to declare, “This is who we are, and this is how we are called to act.”
The Rev. Dr. Brooks Berndt is the Minister for Environmental Justice for the United Church of Christ.
Additional notes on Psalm 133 and Psalm 67 and a thought about the alternative reading from Isaiah:
by Kathryn Matthews
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.
What draws us together
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, “the blessing of life forevermore.”
This powerful human impulse, one might even say deep need, is at the root of our spiritual communities, where we seek meaning. And the call to nurture the possibility of reconciliation, whether it’s between brothers, generations or nations–even between humankind and the earth itself–is one of the primary reasons we seek to practice humility and the forgiveness it makes possible.
A renewed sense of what matters
When were 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?
How do we experience “being one”?
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?
Where are our precious oils?
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?
And a final thought, about the reading from Isaiah: Isn’t it amazing, how powerfully these words to speak to us today, about “foreigners” (of all kinds?) being welcomed by God onto God’s “holy mountain,” and in the “house of prayer”–not as outsiders but as joy-filled and accepted children of God, the “others” whom God will gather in, no doubt to the surprise of many?
Rather than keeping people out and judging them, the people of God are called to “maintain justice.” I have a feeling God is speaking here about justice and caring for the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our midst (the ones God keeps talking about throughout Scripture), not a law-and-order maintenance of justice.
Justice and caring for the sick, the vulnerable, the poor, for whom the prophet Isaiah and Jesus himself brought good news.
As much as I love the story of Joseph (and I do, with its theme of forgiveness especially), if I were not retired, I think I’d preach on the Isaiah text. In today’s climate, though, it would take some courage. If you have thoughts on this, you’re welcome to share them on our Sermon Seeds Facebook page.
For further reflection:
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.”
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.”
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
It is like the precious oil
on the head,
upon the beard,
on the beard
running down over the collar
of his robes.
It is like the dew
which falls on the mountains
For there God ordained
the blessing of life
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
that your way may be known
your saving power
among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you,
let all the peoples
Let the nations be glad
and sing for joy,
for you judge the peoples
and guide the nations
Let the peoples praise you,
let all the peoples
The earth has yielded
God, our God,
has blessed us.
May God continue
to bless us;
let all the ends of the earth
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.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:email@example.com)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”