United Church of Christ

Subversive Forgiveness

Sunday, August 16, 2020
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 15)

Focus Theme:
Subversive Forgiveness

Focus Prayer:
Holy One of Israel, covenant-keeper, you restore what is lost, heal what is wounded, and gather in those who have been rejected. Give us the faith to speak as steadfastly as did the Canaanite woman, that the outcast may be welcomed and all people may be blessed. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Genesis 45:1-15

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.

All readings for the week:
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

Focus Questions:

1. From a story that stretches over many chapters, why do you think the lectionary lifts up this passage?

2. With whom do you identify in this story? Why?

3. How do you interpret Joseph's interpretation of these events?

4. What lessons might we learn about Joseph's attitude and actions toward his brothers?

5. Is your life "larger than you imagined"? What would that mean?

Reflection:
by Kathryn Matthews

After hearing last week's story about the brothers of Joseph selling him into slavery, we might note two themes in this later episode, which brings some satisfying closure to the story of Joseph, or at least a pause: 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, 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…."

(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.

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."

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." 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."

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, "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."

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."

Forgiveness and joy

A word of caution from scholars: It would be easy to use this story as an example for us today in our family relationships, but sensitivity to the suffering of those who have been injured or damaged is also important. However, a 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 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

Hank 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…." 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 do so as individuals, too, each of us in our own life, forgiven and blessed. May it be so.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles and additional reflections) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.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."

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."

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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