Reading today’s lesson from Genesis is like coming across a long-running soap opera for the first time when the final episode is airing. If you’ve never sat down to read the whole story of Joseph, you have missed out on the oldest novella known to humanity. Starting in chapter 37 of Genesis with the story of the coat of many colors, the passage we heard this morning is the melodramatic denoument when Joseph’s half-brothers, the older 10 sons of Jacob, discover that the Egyptian potentate who has been making them jump through all sorts of hoops is none other than the little brother they once sold into slavery.
It’s remarkable that Joseph is able to reveal himself with no bitterness to the brothers who once wanted to kill him. Joseph sees God’s hand in the whole story, from his arrival and imprisonment in Egypt to his rise to power and consequently his ability to rescue his family from famine and preserve intact God’s promise to their ancestor Abraham.
Joseph returns the hatred of his brothers with generosity. There’s an obvious link to the Gospel, where Jesus says we are to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us. And it’s a lesson in how we are to reflect on our own lives. We may not see God’s presence in events while they are happening to us, but only long after, when we can look back and see the subtle arc, the long game of God’s grace working in the world and in our lives.
When my last parish engaged a company to create a photo directory, one of the freebies that we received was a poster-sized picture of someone’s idea of Jesus. If you got up really, really close to the poster, you could see that the picture was created by combining thousands of tiny images of parishioners from the directory. Close up, all you would see were the tiny portraits, but when you stepped back a few feet you could see the whole picture, the whole body of Christ.
In a similar way, if you take any given passage from Scripture you may see one small detail of the history of God and God’s people, but when you step back to look at Scripture as a whole you can discern the overall theme of the God who loves us and remains faithful to us despite our many failures and failings.
I have to confess that Joseph has never been one of my favorite Biblical heroes. His arrogance and superiority as the spoiled son of the favorite wife almost justify the actions of his older brothers. And even here, as we come towards the end of his story, we still see glimpses of that arrogance: while he graciously forgives his brothers, stripping away the trappings of his office to demonstrate his sincerity, he also makes clear how much power he now has over them.
If you read on to the end of the story you will see how he reminds his brothers, tongue in cheek, not to fight amongst themselves in their journey back home to collect their father. Nevertheless, we see genuine love and genuine forgiveness here, and there is no doubt that it is Joseph, as flawed as he is, who makes possible the continuation of God’s ancient promise to Abraham. He saves his people by doing good for those who did evil to him. Somehow Joseph finds the grace to rise above any desire for retribution or revenge, and because of that grace, the great story of salvation can continue.
That story isn’t simple or straightforward. As you read on in Scripture you will come across innumerable episodes of cruelty, abuse, betrayal, and plain bad behavior. Even into the New Testament there are plenty of clues that God’s people keep getting it wrong. Take Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, for example. Have you ever wondered why it was necessary for him to instruct them about what love looked like? Or why, in the passage we just read, he pushed back so strongly on the nature of the resurrected body? If the Corinthian Christians had got all these things right in the first place, there would have been no need for letters.
That first letter to the Corinthians begins with the acknowledgement of how unnatural and illogical God’s love is: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing … For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1Cor. 1:18, 25).
In the Gospel we heard today, Jesus pushes us to go beyond what seems reasonable or fair. He asks us to love the people who hate us, to repay evil with good, to forgive the unforgiveable. This is hard stuff. If it came naturally, Jesus wouldn’t have to tell us to do it.
Forgiveness is a mysterious and powerful symbol of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom. It’s a deeply subversive and defiant act, in a world that operates on a transactional basis where you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, and where you reap what you sow; in a justice system that demands that the transgressor must be not only prevented from reoffending but also hurt and humiliated as their victim was hurt and humiliated. When we sign on as followers of Jesus, we sign on for something that the world doesn’t understand, a different way of life, a Kingdom way.
How did those people in Charleston find the strength to forgive Dylann Roof for shooting their loved ones in church? How did the people of South Africa keep their commitment to truth and reconciliation after the end of apartheid? How did Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams rise above their grief and anger to found the Peace People in Northern Ireland? I can guarantee you that these actions didn’t happen without some agonizing spiritual struggles and sharp criticism from the world. But in the end, these faithful people drew deeply from the bottomless well of the love of God, they took seriously the words of Jesus, they treated others as they hoped others would treat them, not as they themselves had been treated. And by liberating themselves from the shackles of hatred, they made a difference in the world.
Earlier this month, someone vandalized the Pride Plaza in Hillcrest and a week later someone opened fire on a restaurant on University Avenue. We are all outraged and horrified by these acts of hate. At the emergency town hall meeting that St Paul’s hosted on Wednesday, we heard over and over the fear that these acts engendered, and we heard over and over a determination to remain strong as a community, to be united and mutually supportive, to keep moving forward in spite of our fear. And we expressed our gratitude to the law enforcement personnel who hold the perpetrators accountable.
What will be our Christian response to such crimes? Surely it is to be generous, loving, inclusive. To refuse to give in to fear but to keep our doors and hearts open. To continue to celebrate each person’s God-given identity whether it be L,G,B,T,Q, or straight. To reach out to those in need or on the margins. To speak up for justice and peace in our world. To work for effective treatment of mental illness and for common-sense gun laws. And yes, to pray for those who wish us harm. This is prophetic ministry – to live as if the Kingdom is already here, whatever the indications to the contrary.
Jesus gives us a list of straightforward instructions for living as God’s people: love, bless, do good, pray, give, forgive. These are unconditional instructions. They don’t come with asterisks or small print. They don’t come with expectations of being loved, blessed, etc in return. God’s economy isn’t a transactional economy, it’s not based on exchanging one good for another but on a generosity model: give freely of yourself, as God has given freely for you.
Keeping score is exhausting: it drives us into a mode of scarcity and anxiety. Instead, Jesus offers us the freedom of giving without expectations, of blessing those who don’t deserve it, of forgiving those who aren’t sorry. To live like this is to receive the abundance of a love that we have done nothing to deserve, a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, overflowing its boundaries into the world. For the measure of love we give will be the measure of love we get back.
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges
February 24, 2019