Sermon for February 20th

First Reading       Genesis 45:3-11, 15

Second Reading Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40

Gospel Reading Luke 6:27-38

Sermon: “Loving and Forgiving is Hard”

The Old Testament reading this morning only gives us a snippet at the very end of a difficult journey. So, rather than us reading most of 9 chapters in Genesis, I thought I would spend some time now before the reading, just telling you his story so that you’ll be ready to hear this remarkable scene and understand why its such an important illustration for the gospel lesson we’ll hear a bit later. So here goes – 40 years of history in just a few minutes:

The story begins with Joseph’s father Jacob and his struggles with his brother Essau. Issac sends Jacob off to his uncle Laban to find a wife and not incidentally to get him out of Essau’s reach. You might also recall the story about how Jacob fell in love with Rachael, and agreed to work for 7 years to be allowed to marry her. At the wedding he was shocked to find out that he had actually married Rebecca’s older sister Leah instead. So he worked for another 7 years to marry Rachel as well. All of this matters to Joseph’s story because it was Leah who started churning out boys right and left while Rebecca had none, She even went so far as to give her handmaiden Bilhah to Jacob and had a couple of sons that way at least. Finally, years later, she had Joseph and as to only son of his favorite wife, he started out life spoiled rotten. Eventually the family returns home, reconciles with Essau and Rachel has one more son – Benjamin but tragically dies after giving birth.

Jumping on ahead a few years, we find Joseph 17 years old and still his father’s favorite son. His dad gave him a fancy coat and often sent to check up on his older brothers as they herded the family flocks, often bring back a bad report of them. To make matters worse, Joseph tells them of dreams he has had symbolizing that his brothers and even his step-mothers and father would bow down to him. To say that they resented him is to put it mildly! They hated him so much they couldn’t even speak civilly to him. So on one of these check up trips they decided to get rid of him. They would have just killed him outright, but Reuben, the eldest brother, convinced the rest to just dump him in a dry cistern. Judah, then got the bright idea to make a little profit on the deal by selling Joseph off as a slave to some Midianite traders that were passing by and just tell dad that some ferocious wild beast had killed him.

But God had plans for this spoiled brat. He was sold to an Egyptian official, Captain of Pharaoh’s guards no less, named Potiphar. Over the course of time, Joseph proved himself honest and very capable. He ended up running Potiphar’s entire household and all his business affairs. Unfortunately for Joseph, Potiphar’s wife took a lustful interest to him and relentlessly pursued him as a lover. Joseph rejected her advances till one day, he slipped out of her clutches by leaving his cloak behind as he left. In order to get revenge for the rejection, she yelled rape and Joseph was thrown into prison.

Joseph must have been something special, because even as an imprisoned slave, he was noticed, this time by the prison warden. Over the course of time, Joseph ends up running the prison! After a while, two of Pharaoh’s servants – his wine steward and his head baker displeased Pharaoh and were thrown into the prison as well. They each had confusing dreams that God gave Joseph the ability to interpret. The wine steward was to be restored, but the baker was to be hanged. And so it was, but the wine steward forgot all about Joseph – until Pharaoh had some confusing dreams as well. It was only then that Joseph was remembered and brought before Pharaoh. Joseph was able to tell Pharaoh the meaning of his strange dream about 7 fat cows being consumed by seven starving cows and 7 fat ears of grain being eaten by 7 blighted ears. There were to be 7 years of abundant crops, followed by 7 years of terrible drought and famine.

Joseph was now 30 years old when Pharaoh put him in charge of all of Egypt, subject only to himself, so that he could prepare the country to survive what was to come. Joseph wisely had storage built and the abundant crops stored systematically during those next seven years so that they might survive the 7 years of famine yet to come.

This brings us nearly up to date and ready for the last phase of the story. Now Joseph is likely about 38 years old. Its been 21 years or more since he had been sold as a slave. A lot has happened and a lot has changed for him.

At this time, the famine is bitting hard and not just in Egypt, but over in Canaan too where Jacob and his 11 remaining sons lived. Jacob hears that there is food to be had over in Egypt and sends his ten older sons to buy food. Just imagine what Joseph must have thought when they were brought before him and he recognized them. Joseph himself was dressed as an Egyptian official and the brothers thought him long dead – so they had no clue who he was. What happens next is a bit confusing. After questioning them carefully about their family, Joseph accuses them of being spies. Is Joseph getting revenge or is he testing them to see if they have changed?

What would you have done? Here they are – the ones who nearly killed themselves and then sold you off as a slave, expecting never to see you again. They are completely in your power to turn away empty handed, to imprison or to kill without consequence. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth perhaps? Or is there a possibility for grace here? Does Joseph need more information first?

Well, Joseph seems to feel more testing is required to know how things stand. What he does is to keep Simeon as a hostage and demand they produce Benjamin if they ever want any more food from him, but yet he sends them home with full sacks grain and even secretly returns their money as well. His brothers haven’t forgotten their foul deed either. They are feeling VERY guilty and are convinced that this trouble must be God’s way of punishing them. Eventually the extra food is consumed and they must face a return to Egypt or starve. Jacob desperately resists sending Benjamin with them – he is the last link to his lost love Rebecca. But after much discussion and Judah pledging his own life for Benjamin they set off for Egypt.

This time, Joseph sends them to his own house for lunch, Simeon is restored to them and they find themselves seating in age order with Benjamin given a huge portion. They are sent off with as much grain as they each can carry, again with the money secreted away in their sacks. But this time, Joseph has his silver cup placed in Benjamins sack as well. Once they are sent off, Joseph sends his guards to arrest them and search for the “stolen cup”. They are brought back to Joseph who tells them that Benjamin must now be his slave. Judah then tells Joseph that if Benjamin doesn’t come back it will likely kill their father and Judah offers himself instead. This seems to be what Joseph needed to know. Now, they understand the consequences of their actions on their father and do not despise Benjamin as they had done him – Judah even offered his own life for Benjamins. Joseph is overcome with emotion and tells all the Egyptians to leave the room. It is at this very point that our reading for today begins….

(Scripture readings)

What Jesus asks of those who follow him is hard. It goes against our very nature… and perhaps that the point – against our nature, but in keeping with God’s nature. As Jesus said: (Luke 6:36-37 NIV) “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. [37] “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” These verses challenge us just as much or more than the blessings and woes we read last week.

Early on in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” one of the characters asks the local Rabbi if there was a blessing for the Czar, to which the Rabbi, after a long pause says “May God bless and keep the Czar…. Far away from us!” That is not the kind of prayer Jesus is talking about for our enemies. He is instead talking about basic kindness. We are asked to actually bless our enemies, to do good things for them, to give without expecting anything in return, even ….gasp…love them! In this way, we show ourselves to be the children of God. Impractical, even foolish you say? A great way to be taken advantage of and pushed around? Well, maybe not…

An NPR story caught my ear this past week. This past week has apparently been designated Random Acts of Kindness week. For more than 20 years, the nonprofit Random Acts of Kindness has been spreading just that: kindness. The president of the group, Gary Dixon, talked about why kindness is important: “We provide materials. We provide hundreds of ideas. It’s very powerful. It can change enemies into friends, you know? It changes how you feel about yourself. He said, obviously, kindness makes people happier and reduces stress levels, but said one case in particular sticks out to him. Tom Tait, who was formerly the mayor of Anaheim, Calif., challenged the Anaheim School District to do a million acts of kindness. And so they did. And they did a comparison to the months before, you know, 12 months before that, and they had reduced their incidents of bullying in half by simply doing a million acts of kindness. By the way, kindness is not restricted to only one week a year.

Now that is a nice feel good story, but what about life in general or really severe cases of abuse. Is Jesus saying that we are to be idle victims or allow others to be abused without comment? No, of course not. We are in fact urged to seek Justice and to lift up the down trodden and the helpless. As the Psalmist says this morning however, there are some things that are above our pay grade. Things like vengeance and retribution. None of us knows the whole story and none of us have entirely clean hands in most matters. Only God knows all the circumstances and only God knows the depths of one’s heart; therefore it is only God who is ultimately able to righteously judge and bring evil to an end. Furthermore, the Psalmist assures us that God is faithful and can be trusted to do just that. (Psalm 37:1-5 NRSV) “Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers, for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb. Trust in the LORD, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security. Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act.”

This is where the story of Joseph brings us such insight. Even after all he had gone through, Joseph was able to express love to his brothers, to feed them and to provide a new home for them. Joseph does in fact exactly what Jesus is saying in the Sermon on the plain. Luke 6:27-28 NIV “… Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” Jesus does not say that that is how it will be someday when the Kingdom of God is finally established on the earth. He gives these words to his followers as rules for everyday living, here in this crazy, sick, broken world of ours. What Joseph did was not easy, it was gut wrenchingly hard in fact. Let’s also admit that God had arranged things so that Joseph came to have some really large advantages.

First of those was that he was very much in control. His brothers were completely at his mercy. Now the worm has turned, so to speak. This takes the element of risk and vulnerability out of the situation. But it also is a moment of temptation for Joseph to yield to temptation and exact vengeance for himself. What if it hadn’t been that way? What if Joseph were still vulnerable to them? This situation might be very real to some folks you know. What’s the difference between forgiving and just signing up for more abuse? There is definitely some discernment called for. For Joseph the time was right and God opened his heart to the possibility that things could be different with his brothers.

The other thing going for Joseph was that his brothers knew they had done wrong. Not only that, but they had not repeated the hatred with Benjamin that they had vented on Joseph. Joseph was very careful to find that out before he revealed himself. True reconciliation requires two willing parties. Note that a formal confession and request for forgiveness is not reported in the story. Yet Joseph doesn’t hesitate to mention their crime. Its right out in the open and is not ignored or swept under the rug. This too is necessary for true reconciliation. Those times when we are forced to deal with an unrepentant person who has wronged us are a sore trial on our faith. In those times we have to rely desperately on the power of God to keep the poison of hatred from eating us alive and allow God to work until the right time is brought about.

Joseph didn’t have to forgive his brothers. He didn’t have to … but he did because he saw the hand of God moving through his life. It was easier for him to be gracious to them because he saw that God had been gracious to him.

He was not a very sympathetic character in the first of the story was he? A spoiled brat, favored, arrogant and insensitive. Yet God put him on a course mold him into someone better and to have him exactly where he needed to be at precisely the right moment to provide a place for the small time of Jacob to grow into the nation of Israel. None of that could have happened if Joseph had been a surly slave in Potiphar’s house, or a resentful prisoner, or a vengeful brother seeking to settle an old score with his brothers.

There is an epilogue to the story of Joseph and his brothers. It comes after Jacob has died and the brothers are fearful that his death has removed the last restraint on Josephs revenge. Genesis 50:15-20 NRSV tells us:

[15] Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” [16] So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, [17] ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. [18] Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” [19] But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? [20] Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.

Joseph understood that God was in ultimate control and that he had been guided and shaped according to the plan of God.

There is a saying we probably need to get rid of: “Forgive and Forget” it is said. That is not Biblical friends and it is not possible or helpful. We are told to forgive and to love even in spite of what has been done. Joseph did not forget, but he did forgive and act in love as God planned. What God asks of us is to remember the grace given us – in spite of our faults and sins and failures – to remember that the very son of God died for us so that we can live as children of God. From that point of view, its much easier to Forgive as we have been forgiven, to be merciful since we have received mercy. We do not desire to be judged and condemned for our shortcomings, therefore we leave those things to God and to God alone. God has a plan. Our part is simply to obey and live as God’s children should – in obedience and gratitude. Let us remember and do likewise.