Forgiveness and New Beginnings
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 24, 2019
7th Sunday after Epiphany
Genesis 45:3-11; Luke 6:27-38
One of the most remarkable stories of transformation in all of Scripture occurs in the character of Joseph as told in Genesis. Although today’s reading gives us a picture of him as gracious and wise and compassionate—it was not always so. Around the age of seventeen, even though Joseph is the “helper” of his older brothers in shepherding the flock, they hate him. Why? Because he brought a bad report of them to his father. In other words, Joseph is a tattletale. To make matters worse, Jacob loves Joseph more than any of his other children—a fact he broadcasts for all the world to see by giving Joseph a special coat—an outward symbol of favoritism that surely effects his brother deeply. And while the symbol effects Joseph’s siblings, it also effects Joseph, who grows into the persona of the precocious favored son of the family, strutting around in his special coat, sharing his dreams of superiority—dreams which imply that his brothers as well as Jacob will one day bow down before him.
One day, at the request of his father, Joseph goes to check on his brothers. In Shechem, a man finds Joseph wandering in the fields like a sheep without a shepherd. He can’t find his brothers. “They have gone to Dothan,” he is told. And that is where he finally catches up with them. They recognize him from a distance. “Here comes the dreamer,” they say. Quickly, they devise a plan to kill Joseph and his dreams along with him. But their plans change, and, although his brother, Reuben, tries to intercede, Joseph is sold for twenty pieces of silver to a caravan of Ishmaelites. Now what will they tell their father? Another plan is devised…a lie that will haunt them for years. Having stripped Joseph of his coat, they dip it in goat’s blood and send it to their father. Jacob recognizes the bloodstained coat immediately and assumes a wild animal has devoured his most beloved Joseph.
Of course, Joseph isn’t dead. In Egypt he’s sold to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials. He finds favor because, we are told—God is with him. But the favor is short lived. He is falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife and spends 2 years in prison. But even there, Joseph excels, becoming overseer of the prisoners, for we are told, the Lord was with Joseph. After a time, Joseph, the dreamer, interprets the dreams of two of the prisoners. And then, finally, he is called upon to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh himself.
You know the rest of the story. Ultimately, Joseph becomes the 2nd in Command in all of Egypt. He is instrumental in saving his father, Jacob, and his entire extended family from death by famine. Joseph’s dreams do come true. His brothers do come and bow before him, but they are sorely troubled when they learn that this ruler of Egypt is, in fact, their brother. They fear for their lives but Joseph reassures them, “Come closer to me…I am your brother…do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life…God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth…”
Joseph’s brothers did an unspeakable evil to him when he was just a young boy. But now, years later, when he has the perfect opportunity to get even, he turns the other cheek. More than that, he says to them, “Come closer to me…” With forgiveness in his heart, Joseph declares to his brothers that no matter what they might have intended, God used their actions for good… In the larger scheme of things, God has been working to preserve life. Most definitely, God has also been working on Joseph’s heart to help him bless even those who once cursed him. Mercy upon mercy. Grace upon grace.
It’s interesting that in Martin Luther’s study of the Joseph story, he saw Joseph as a Christ figure—betrayed, mistreated, handed over to death, unexpectedly revealing himself as alive, he offers forgiveness and a new beginning. Forgiveness and new beginnings are highlights of our gospel reading, set in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, a sermon in which Jesus is painting a picture of radical discipleship. It is important to remember that Jesus’ audience is not the crowd of people. Instead, his audience is the disciples, in other words, believers, in other words, the church.
Jesus continues to create a picture of what radical discipleship looks like: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…Do to others as you would have them do to you…Do not judge…Forgive…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.” Yes, this is what radical discipleship looks like and Jesus offers what might seem like absurd instructions to his closest followers. As one author puts it, “This is a clarion call to swim upstream.”
But is this really how we live? Do we swim upstream or are we more likely to go with the flow—behaving like those in the world who make no claim to be Christian? The very idea of forgiving someone who has wronged us, or someone we love, runs against our inclinations, for sure. How can we possibly pray for someone who has abused us or cursed us? Only by the grace of God! How can we possibly open our hearts and show mercy when no mercy is deserved? Only by the grace of God!
Sadly, Jesus’ admonition to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us has often been used wrongly by the church as a way of keeping the downtrodden, well, down. For instance, misguided religious leaders have insisted that women and children must stay in abusive situations because Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek. How ridiculous! Jesus is speaking to his followers—people who have already heard the blessings and woes—those who already know his love and are, day by day, being transformed by it. In no way is Jesus suggesting doing wrong to the least of these and getting away with it. To believe so is to miss his point, entirely.
Yet, no matter the circumstances, because of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, we can live lives of radical discipleship. We can learn to love the un-loveable. We can reach a place of forgiveness that brings us peace. The thing about refusing to forgive is that it keeps us tied to the past—it keeps us harnessed to something that will not let us go. In time, unforgiveness can be very costly. It can eat away at us like a cancer. But the coming of Christ into the world and into our hearts makes all the difference—in how we live, in how we speak, in how we respond—even to someone who has harmed us. No longer does our response to others depend on their behavior. In fact, our response may be diametrically opposed to how they behave. And we are free to choose to swim upstream because Jesus has shown us the way and the Spirit has equipped us to be merciful just as God is merciful.
Today is the last Sunday of Epiphany. Next Sunday we will celebrate Christ’s Transfiguration. Reflecting over the Season of Epiphany, we may recall the wise men followed the star to Bethlehem to see the holy child. Not only did they return another way, they returned transformed. In the words of one scholar,
What God has done in history, God has made real [in the lives of the wise men], so that their lives became the mangers in which Christ was born. The admonition of Luke to love even our enemies is not just a good idea where we try our best to make it happen. It is not a call to grit our teeth and make a resolution to be nicer even to those who are not nice to us. Rather, the call of Luke is to live in a way contrary to our human nature, a way that is possible only as we “live out” of a new power born from above.[i]
In time, Joseph comes to live contrary to his human nature. His heart is changed and he forgives that which might seem unforgiveable. Although he suffered tremendously because of his brother’s hatred, he treats them with love and kindness. In time, Joseph is blessed to be a man at peace with his past and with his present. Although we are given no specifics, along the way, Joseph was sure to have had doubts. Where was God when his brothers threw him into a pit? Where was God when he was unfairly imprisoned? Where was God?
We still ask, “Where is God?” when evil appears to be winning out but it would behoove us to remember things are not always what they seem. We may draw comfort from the story of Joseph, which reminds us God’s hand may be moving long before God’s hand is revealed. We may draw comfort from the promise of Jesus, “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 you lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Charles Bugg, Feasting on the Word.
*Cover Art “Beloved is Where We Begin” © Jan Richardson, used by subscription