September 13, 2020
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
This morning I am going to focus on the passage for today from Genesis, about Joseph and his brothers. As you may recall, Joseph is the eleventh son of Jacob. Joseph is Jacob’s favorite, and Joseph’s brothers really resent that.
When the brothers get the chance, they kidnap Joseph and sell him into slavery in Egypt. Amazingly, Joseph ends up becoming the second most powerful person in Egypt, after interpreting the Pharaoh’s dream, predicting seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Thanks to Joseph, Egypt stockpiles enough grain during the years of plenty to see them through the years of famine.
When the famine hits, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt in search of food.
They end up presenting their case to Joseph, but they don’t recognize him.
Joseph eventually reveals himself to them and persuades the whole family to move to Egypt, where Joseph takes care of them.
Today’s reading takes place about 17 years later, when Jacob dies. Now, the brothers fear that Joseph will finally retaliate for what they did to him. But he doesn’t. Instead, he continues to take care of them.
At first glance, this passage seems to be about Joseph’s forgiving his brothers.
But that’s not how I see it. Joseph doesn’t actually forgive them in this passage, he forgave them five chapters earlier, in Genesis 45. When he revealed himself to his brothers in that passage, Joseph explicitly said, “do not be angry with yourselves for what you did to me.”
And yet, in today’s passage the brothers seem to think that Joseph treated them well only to please his father, and now that Jacob’s gone… watch out!
So why do the brothers fear Joseph’s retaliation? Because they feel guilty.
They’ve never asked Joseph for forgiveness, they’ve never asked God for forgiveness, and they’ve never forgiven themselves. This story is about the brothers’ need for forgiveness.
In the last few weeks here at Seekers Church, we were reciting a line in our Confession that said, “when we hear the story of Joseph, we want to see ourselves as Joseph, rather than his brothers.” As I prepared this sermon, I took this line seriously: I need to look at myself not as the injured Joseph who magnanimously forgives, but as the guilty brothers who have wronged him.
As most of you know, I look for personal guidance not only to the words of Jesus but also to the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon. One of my favorite sayings from AA is this one: we don’t think ourselves into a new way of living, we live our way into a new way of thinking. What this says to me is that change doesn’t start in my thoughts and feelings, it starts in my behavior. Once I start acting differently, eventually I will discover that I am thinking and feeling differently. This may not be true for you, but I know it holds true for me.
The twelve steps have a lot to say about forgiveness. Very briefly: The steps ask us to identify the ways in which we have hurt others, to confess our wrongs, to become willing to change, to make amends to the people we have harmed.
From the twelve steps I’ve learned that the word “amend” doesn’t mean “to apologize” or to say “I‘m sorry;” it means to change. What I need to change depends on the nature of the offense. For example, if I stole money, I need to repay it. If I hurt someone who has died, I might help others with similar needs.
“But isn’t this about getting the other person to forgive you?” you may ask. I’m not denying the value of being forgiven – believe me, I really want others to forgive me. But I don’t make amends in order that others will forgive me – I do it for myself, to clear my own conscience, to free myself from guilt.
Such is the case with Joseph’s brothers. Clearly, they need to make amends to Joseph.
What do the brothers do? First, they say to Joseph, “in his last hours, our dying father begged for you to forgive us all the wrong we did to you; and, by the way, we worship the same God as our parents.” Apparently, they feel so guilty that they can’t ask for forgiveness themselves – they need to invoke the name of their father and even the God of Abraham. Then, they fling themselves down before Joseph and offer themselves as his servants. (This scene reminds me of the parable of the prodigal son – the black sheep of the family comes home, repents, and asks to become one of his father’s servants.) The brothers (and the prodigal son) feel so guilty that there’s no single action that can equal their offense. Instead, they offer themselves up to the one they have offended – they surrender their lives to the will of their new master.
How does Joseph respond when they offer their amends? He says, “don’t be afraid – I am not God, I am not here to judge you or punish you. God is the only one qualified to judge, and God used your actions for a good purpose.”
God is the judge, not you or me or Joseph. In that case, does God require us to “make amends”– to do some sort of penance – before God will forgive us? In other words – is God’s forgiveness conditional or unconditional?
I always thought God’s forgiveness was UN-conditional; all I have to do is ask.
But preparing this sermon has led me to a different conclusion. God’s forgiveness is CONDITIONAL, but it’s not conditioned on “doing penance.” God’s forgiveness is conditioned on my forgiving others. I see this in the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. It doesn’t say “forgive us AFTER”, it says “forgive us AS”. Both parties are forgiving at the same time.
I think that’s the message of the parable in today’s Gospel reading. In this parable, an official owes the king a huge amount of money. That person asks the king to forgive the debt, and the king forgives it. Then, this same official refuses to forgive the debt of someone who owns only a few cents. As a result, the king withdraws his forgiveness.
The king represents God in this metaphor, but I don’t think it means that God will punish me if I don’t forgive others – I think it means that If I don’t forgive others, then God’s forgiveness simply isn’t available to me. It’s not possible for me to receive God’s forgiveness while I’m not forgiving others. When I think about it, I realize it’s true: when I’m holding a grudge, I can’t feel God’s love and forgiveness.
Today’s Gospel begins with Peter asking Jesus how many times we must forgive others. Jesus replies, not seven times but seventy times seven – in other words, an endless number of times. Jesus is not asking me to forgive some of the people some of the time, but ALL of the people ALL of the time, and to do it from my heart.
I now envision forgiveness as something flowing through a closed loop system, flowing through God, through me, and through others. Anger, blame, and guilt are like cholesterol in my arteries. If I’m angry or feel guilty, it impedes the flow of forgiveness. Over time, the impediment gets bigger and eventually creates a complete blockage, cutting me off from forgiveness and love.
The first time I experienced the real power of forgiveness was in the 1980s, with a friend. This friend always had problems with money. At one point, he asked to borrow a sizable amount of money from me, for a specific purpose. I agreed to lend him the money. He used it for a different purpose, and didn’t repay it.
I actively carried a grudge for over a year. I really struggled with it – I was in the right, he was in the wrong, I kept telling myself. Eventually I could see that I was making myself miserable. I decided to forgive him and write off the debt. With God’s help, I was able to let go of my grudge. Today, this friend and I love each other.
But forgiveness, I’ve learned, does not require me to forget. Forgiveness is not the same thing as trust. I forgave my friend for not repaying the money I loaned to him, but I will not lend him money again – if I want to help him with money, I do it as a gift, not a loan.
Now I need to talk about my own wrongs, and I can’t do that without talking about judgement. Both the story of Joseph and the passage that Teresa read tell me that it is not my job to judge others– judging is God’s job.
I confess that I have a bad habit of judging people and finding fault with others.
I understand that, subconsciously, this is my ego attempting to make me “better than” by making you “less than.” This is one of my major shortcomings.
It is NOT the person I want to be. I really don’t want to be better than you or worse than you, I want to be ONE with you.
When I judge others negatively, I hurt others, often without realizing it.
I also hurt myself — my emotional walls go up, separating me from you and cutting me off from God’s love and forgiveness. When I let go of my judging thoughts, God’s love can flow through me, and I can love and forgive others.
To those of you whom I have hurt as a result of my negative judgments: I confess my wrongs, and I ask for your forgiveness. To make amends, I seek to listen to you with an open mind and to respond to you with a loving spirit. For me, this is the “mind of Christ in me.”
Today is the beginning of the Seekers’ annual Season of Recommitment. Celebration Circle has given us some questions to reflect on during this season, and I intend to do that. In addition, as I consider whether to recommit as a member of this Christian community, I need to ask myself: am I willing to forgive EVERY member of the Seekers community, including myself? Am I willing to join this community’s network of forgiveness and love?
My answer is Yes. Yes, for the coming year I will commit to Seekers Church as a spiritual community where I will believe in each of you, I will love you imperfectly, and I will forgive and be forgiven.