Sermon Seeds: Be Holy
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany Year C
Genesis 45:3–11, 15
Psalm 37:1–11, 39–40
1 Corinthians 15:35–38, 42–50
Worship resources for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany Year C, Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, are at Worship Ways
Special preaching reflection for One Great Hour of Sharing by Mary Schaller Blaufuss
Genesis 45:3–11, 15 and Luke 6:27–38
by Kathryn 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” (“Taking a Second, Painful Look” in The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann; it’s also in The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power and Weakness).
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
Perhaps there are two tracks for a sermon on this text: 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 elegantly converge.
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 a moment here, however important, from the longer narrative of Joseph and his family troubles, but our 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. Also, in preaching this text, commentators suggest reading verses 1-15, so this reflection will include those as well.)
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 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 weighed down 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 (“Listening to Your Life,” in Gospel Medicine).
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.” 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 (“Taking a Second, Painful Look” in The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness).
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” (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).
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 word of wisdom
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).
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” (New Proclamation Year C 2000-2001).
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 (Preaching the Gospels Without Blaming the Jews).
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.
Reflecting God’s own image in the world
Scholars agree that the basis of Jesus’ teaching about loving everyone, not just those who love us, is the universal, unconditional love of God for all of God’s children. (Ironically, religious people seem to have a lot of problems with that idea, especially in living it out, if not accepting it intellectually.) Stephen G. Ray, Jr., notes that “Jesus is not suggesting simply an ethical system, but rather a way of being in the world which reflects the ways that God is in the world.”
If we humans are created in the image of God, then we too should reflect love and mercy and compassion, for that is the face of God. On the reverse side of human history, Ray reminds us that “behind every enactment of enslavement, lethal oppression, and genocide is the conviction that the perpetrators are in some way enacting a morality conferred by their god’s inclination and desire for the world. Those who are slaughtered and oppressed are reducted to a tableau on which the image of this god is drawn” (Preaching God’s Transforming Justice Year C).
What kind of god/God do we worship? What picture of God is “drawn” by our actions and attitudes, our beliefs and practices as individuals and as communities of faith?
Not a checklist for good Christians
N.T. Wright’s reflection on this text cautions us against seeking a “a new rule-book, a list of dos and don’ts that you could tick off one by one, and sit back satisfied at the end of a successful moral day.” Instead, Jesus offers “an attitude of heart, a lightness of spirit in the face of all that the world can throw at you. And at the centre of it is the thing that motivates and gives colour to the whole: you are to be like this” because that’s what God is like – again, because you are reflecting the image of a loving, merciful, abundantly forgiving God.
Wright recognizes “that large sections of Christianity down the years seem to have known little or nothing of the God Jesus was talking about. Much that has called itself by the name of Jesus seems to have believed instead in a gloomy God, a penny-pinching God, a God whose only concern is to make life difficult, and salvation nearly impossible.”
The good news Jesus preaches is that God is not at all like that! And if we, and all around us, knew and loved the God of grace and love and tender mercy, and if we all strove to embody that same kind of love, rejecting violence, refusing to count wrongs, sharing generously all that we have, taking care of one another – just imagine what the world would be like (Luke for Everyone)!
A fuller image of God
At least two commentators draw our attention to an underlying richness to the image of this loving God: Dianne Bergant notes that the Greek word used by Luke in describing God as “merciful” is “closely akin to the Hebrew word meaning ‘compassionate’ (rahûm), the attitude of loving attachment a mother has for the child of her womb” (Preaching the New Lectionary Year C).
Michael Card also explores the words used by Luke here in reminding us of God’s grace to all people, even the “ungrateful and evil”: “That statement explains the life and motivation of Jesus. It explains grace. It describes hesed: that ancient Hebrew word that appears 250 times in the Old Testament and is translated by King James 14 different ways.” According to Card, “The translators of the King James had to invent a new word – ‘lovingkindness’ – to try to render hesed. It is linked linguistically to the Hebrew word for ‘stork,’ because the stork was regarded as the best mother in the animal kingdom” (Luke: The Gospel of Amazement).
Sometimes, when I read reflections such as these, I am so moved, and I wonder how our faith – including our religious practices and their effect on the world – might be so much more tender and all-inclusive if we expanded our understanding of God in this way.
This is about action, not feeling
However, many scholars also note that Jesus is not commanding or exhorting or inspiring his followers to feel differently: this is about how they act toward their enemies and those who have hurt them, not how they feel toward them. I agree, but I also have experienced a change in feeling after acting in a specific way.
It’s possible that generosity, for example, even when you don’t feel like it, leads to greater love and commitment to someone, or “something,” like one’s church. When I worked in stewardship ministry, I often shared how much more I loved my church after I gave to support its ministry, not unlike the way one loves one’s children (or grandchildren) even more after caring for them, day in and day out.
The story of Joseph illustrates this truth as well: when Joseph recognizes and forgives his brothers, he is profoundly moved and weeps loudly. It comes from his heart, the same place from which grace and mercy flowed toward his brothers.
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. When he tells them to think “larger” than that, he tells them why: “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” (“Taking a Second, Painful Look” in The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann).
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.
The Rev. 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
“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.”
Luke Timothy Johnson, 20th century
“The ‘golden rule’ of ‘do as you would want done’ is not the ultimate norm here, but rather, ‘do as God would do’.”
Genesis 45:3-11, 15
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 plowing 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 he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40
Do not fret
because of the wicked;
do not be envious
for they will soon fade
like the grass,
like the green herb.
Trust in God,
and do good;
so you will live in the land,
and enjoy security.
Take delight in God,
who will give you
the desires of your heart.
Commit your way
trust in God,
and God will act.
God will make your vindication shine
like the light,
and the justice of your cause
like the noonday.
Be still before God,
and wait patiently;
do not fret over those
who prosper in their way,
over those who carry out
Refrain from anger,
and forsake wrath.
Do not fret–
it leads only to evil.
For the wicked shall be cut off,
but those who wait for God
shall inherit the land.
Yet a little while,
and the wicked will be no more;
though you look diligently
for their place,
they will not be there.
But the meek shall inherit
and delight themselves
in abundant prosperity.
The salvation of the righteous
is from God,
who is their refuge
in the time of trouble.
God helps them
and rescues them;
God rescues them
from the wicked,
and saves them,
because they take refuge in God.
1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
“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.”
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org)
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.”