Proper 19 (September 11-17)
Texts: Genesis 50:15-21;
FORGIVENESS: BECOMING AGENTS OF GRACE
Joseph’s Story: A Preview of the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah
Our First Reading this morning gives us the end of the story, many years after Joseph’s brothers have infamously sold him into slavery in Egypt. What Joseph says to his brothers I consider the Gospel-in-a-nutshell, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 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.” God can help us take bad, even horrible circumstances and turn them to good. The Gospel-in-a-nutshell
The Resurrected Jesus comes to his disciples on Easter Eve, all whom have betrayed and abandoned him, and says “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Implied in Jesus’s words is the same message Joseph gave to his brothers, “Do not be afraid! God has forgiven you, and so do I.” Humankind meant harm to Jesus on the cross, and God has turned it to good through the power of forgiveness. God has taken the horror of the cross and turned it into the power of new life.
To get a better sense of how much the Joseph story is the cross and resurrection, it’s worth a closer look at the whole Joseph’s story. So let’s fill-in some of the details between his brothers selling him into slavery and then Joseph forgiving them decades later. Jacob, Joseph’s father, who is also called Israel (meaning, “the one who strives with God,” Gen 32:28), had twelve sons by four different women — quite a story in itself! It all began when Jacob’s father-in-law tricked him. Cheated him, really. Jacob wanted to marry Laban’s daughter Rachel but had to work seven years as a sort of dowry. When the wedding day comes Laban slips other daughter, Leah, into Joseph’s tent, consummating the marriage. Jacob has to work seven more years to finally marry Rachel. So, after all that, Jacob really loves Rachel more than Leah. (Gen 29)
But in the ancient world there’s this important matter of wives bearing sons for their husbands. Leah bears Jacob four sons quite quickly: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Rachel gets jealous and gives Jacob her maid Bilhah, who bears him two sons, Dan and Naphtali. Leah gets jealous of that, and thinking she is done bearing children, she gives her maid Zilpah to Jacob, who also bears him two sons, Gad and Asher. Then, Leah herself has several surprise, later-in-life children, two more sons, Issachar and Zebulun — and, finally, a daughter, Dinah! It is at long last, after Jacob already has ten sons and a daughter, that we read that ‘God opens Rachel’s womb’ and she gives birth to Joseph and Benjamin. There you have it! The twelve sons of Israel (and one daughter!). (Gen 29-30)
But all this soap opera about child-bearing sets up Joseph’s story in an unfavorable light. Because Rachel was Jacob’s favored wife, Jacob strongly favors her first born, Joseph, which, as a young man, quickly goes to Joseph’s head. He’s pretty obnoxious about it! The ten older brothers get so sick of it that they secretly sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt, telling Jacob that he was killed by a wild animal and breaking his heart.
If you think Joseph’s fate can’t get worse, think again. While serving as slave to a man named Potiphar in Egypt, Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses him of attempted rape. In fact, it was Poiphar’s wife who kept coming on to Joseph, and he refrained. In anger, she falsely accuses of his coming on to her, and he ends up in an Egyptian prison.
This low-point for Joseph is finally the turning point. While in prison, he gets a reputation with other prisoners and the prison guards for correctly interpreting dreams. The Pharaoh hears about this and passes on a troubling dream to Joseph, which also turns out to have tremendous importance for the whole of Egypt. Joseph interprets the dream as meaning there is going to be seven years of great crops followed by seven years of drought. As reward, Pharaoh takes Joseph out of prison and makes him Secretary of Agriculture! Joseph is put in charge of getting Egypt through a terrible famine. Talk about a gracious turn-around from bad to good!
Due to Joseph’s management, there is a drought in Egypt but not a famine; he has saved enough food from the good years. Joseph’s family, however, experience famine where they live and come to Egypt hoping to survive the famine. One more twist to the story: after so many years, they don’t realize it’s Joseph when they see him. So Joseph tests them by retaining Benjamin, to see what they will do. His older brother Judah, repenting for what they had done to Joseph, is willing to give up his life for Benjamin’s, offering to exchange his life for his youngest brother’s. We read the amazing end of the story: Joseph forgives his brothers. In the words of Paul Harvey (long-time radio personality), now we know the rest of the story.
Forgiveness as a Life-long Journey — Living into a World of Grace
So what wisdom can we glean from this amazing story of forgiveness? First, I’d like to make a connection with the previous two weeks when we focused on a politics of suffering violence. Forgiveness is a form of suffering violence: Joseph was willing, in the end, to absorb the harm his brothers did to him and not return it as vengeance when he got the chance. He saw how God was turning it into a situation that saved many people’s lives. He saw God’s grace of turning harm to good and chose to work along with it. To do so, he had to be willing to suffer the violence without returning it. His brother Judah has a role here, too: Judah is willing to absorb Joseph’s potential violence in order to save Benjamin — for which he becomes the namesake for the great and storied people known as Jews.
Again, this is the just like Gospel: Jesus absorbs the harm of human violence and God turns it into salvation for many, for all who come to see forgiveness as the way to peace.
So let’s take a moment again to embrace the message of forgiveness that God might make us part of the good. All of us have moments in our lives, big and small, where someone betrays us and wounds us. We can let that fester into a heart that strikes out and wounds others. We can let cruelty turn us into cruel people. Or we can let forgiveness become the reality by which we live that gives harmful things the potential to turn to the good. It can open us to crossing our usual boundaries of Us vs. Them into being people who respect and care for others, who love all people. In short, we can live lives of grace. Think about people who suffered the terrible violence of abuse as a child: how many find ways as an adult to help those who also suffered abuse? They take intended harm and intend good, helping to save the lives of others.
So a second point of wisdom is to see that forgiveness typically is not one single moment in which one person apologizes and the other accepts. In fact, forgiveness doesn’t even require the person who harmed us to apologize. We can choose, with God’s help, to live our lives in grace, rather than bitterness, no matter what the person who harmed us does or doesn’t do.
Third point: Neither does forgiveness follow simple formulas like Peter seems to ask for in the Gospel. He wants a certain number of the apologize-and-forgive scenario. A formula to follow. Jesus answers his seven times with seventy-seven times, indicating that this goes far beyond such things . . . leading Jesus to then tell a parable in which a king offers his servant to step into a wholly different world of grace where unforgivable debts are forgiven.
This, then, is the major piece of wisdom to glean from all this. Forgiveness isn’t just an isolated event. It’s a worldview, a lifestyle, an attitude of grace that we progressively live into, as we find forgiveness, healing, and grace in their own lives. Joseph experiences forgiveness as a process over many decades. He is gradually living into a different world, a world of grace. Forgiveness generally doesn’t happen overnight. It was years before Joseph saw his brothers again. If he had had a chance to confront his brothers just a year after they sold him into slavery, do you think he could have forgiven them? It wasn’t until grace had found him that he was able to forgive.
So Forgiveness is a lifelong process. It is stepping into another world, into God’s world of grace. God in Jesus is willing to take on the betrayal and hurt intended by our sin and turn it into the good of a world of grace, a world where debts are forgiven instead of kept or returned in revenge. It is a world in which the circle of violence is broken. Unless you choose not to live in that world like the servant in the parable. And . . .
Agents of Grace: People Who Live in the World of Forgiveness Help Save Lives
So, brothers and sisters, our life together here at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer is about choosing together to live in God’s world of grace. Despite a broken world around us, we strive to live in a community of grace and forgiveness. We live in the community of the church in order that we might find the grace to absorb the betrayals and hurts in our lives. That means we must avoid the mistake of the unforgiving servant in the parable. The way we treat each other here needs to always be about forgiveness as the ever-present potential to heal our disagreements. We live in a community with the cross as its center, constantly reminding us of how Jesus absorbed the betrayal and woundedness and death in order that God might be able to turn it to good. We forgive because we are forgiven. So we strive to see how in the world God is taking harm intended and instead intending it for the good. We strive to work with God.
Which brings us to the very last insight, one that guides us for navigating this perilous moment of both a pandemic and the effects of global warming. Remember that a big part of the Joseph story is that he rose to a position in which his gracious spirit was able to save many lives during a famine. We now face global crises together. In a democracy we who follow Jesus are able to be part of working for good. We are able to take even the hurts in our lives and have them fuel lives of grace. We are able to be part of efforts to make sure that everyone gets through this pandemic together. Perhaps it even gives us the inspiration for working together better in this nation, so that God can take all the harm being done and, with our help, intend it for good. Heaven knows, this nation needs people of grace — agents of grace — to help lead it. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer,
Racine, WI, September 13, 2020