February 24, 2019
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
Genesis 45:3-11, 15 Luke 6:27-38
A couple of years ago, our Diocesan Synod passed a resolution mandating Indigenous Awareness education for all clergy and candidates for ordination. This action was taken to begin moving the diocese toward fulfilling the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, specifically the calls directed to the churches. Quite a large group from St. Peter’s took the course when it was offered last fall. I wasn’t able to participate at the time, so I’m about half way through the course now.
Reconciliation is at the heart of the Christian message. In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul writes, “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself…entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Cor. 5:19). “God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). We’re going to hear those last words again just a couple of weeks from now on Ash Wednesday. Reconciliation, then, is the framework for God’s activity in the world and our activity as Church.
The reading today from Genesis is a story of reconciliation. Now, to understand what is happening here, we need to know the whole story of Joseph. It’s found in chapters 37 and 39 through 50 of Genesis. We’re probably familiar with Joseph’s “coat of many colours”, or “long robe with sleeves” as it’s also translated, that his father Jacob gave him – a very unwise display of favouritism that came back to bite the whole family. We may remember that Joseph dreamed big, so big that it put him at odds with his brothers and even with his father. Visions that his whole family would bow down to him were too much for his jealous brothers, and even for the father whose favourite he was. As when Cain murdered Abel, as when Jacob himself fled from Esau’s vengeful wrath, it seemed another fratricide was in the making. The brothers’ murderous jealousy is thwarted by the oldest, Reuben, who persuades them to throw Joseph into a pit instead of killing him, secretly planning to come and free him later. Reuben’s good intentions are also thwarted when Judah, the fourth eldest, suggests they could make some quick money by selling Joseph to some passing Ishmaelite traders. Unbeknownst to the brothers, the Ishmaelites take Joseph to Egypt and sell him as a slave to Potiphar, an officer in the court of Pharaoh.
Fast forward, and Joseph’s dream has become reality. He is second only to Pharaoh, but his path to success has been long and difficult – false accusations, imprisonment, then correctly interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams that leads to his freedom and ascent to power. His gifts of administration have made Egypt the “breadbasket of the world” during a seven-year famine. The whole world comes and bows before him in search of food. Among them are Jacob’s remaining sons – except Benjamin, the youngest. Joseph recognizes his brothers immediately, but he has changed so much that all they see is a powerful Egyptian official. The reconciliation between them covers four chapters of the thirteen that tell Joseph’s story. Oh, Joseph exacts some private revenge. He toys with the brothers, setting tests and traps for them. I think he does it to see for himself if they are at all sorry for what they had done to him, if they can take responsibility for their actions. And indeed, they do. Not realizing that Joseph can understand their language, they say to each another, “Alas, we are paying the penalty for what we did to our brother.” Reuben speaks up and says, “Did I not tell you not to wrong the boy? But you would not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.” (Gen. 42:21-22). The final evidence of their repentance comes when Judah offers himself as a hostage for Benjamin, so that their youngest brother is free to return home to his father. The reconciliation can begin; the weeping Joseph reveals himself to his brothers.
In a world so divided by hate and violence, what does this story tell us about reconciliation? First, that it can happen even in the worst of circumstances. Although his brothers committed an unspeakable act of evil against him, Joseph has come to grips with his suffering and is able to forgive. A word of caution here. Too often, there is premature pressure to forgive when a wrong has been done. After all, it’s what good Christians do, right? Try telling a survivor of abuse that “everything happens for a reason” and see what kind of response you get. Only the person who has been wronged has the right to say, “It’s all right. I forgive you.” No one else can say it for them.
Secondly, reconciliation means facing and telling the truth. “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.” For reconciliation to be possible, truth must be told; responsibility must be accepted. “You did this.” Truth-telling makes it possible to move forward. “And now”, says Joseph, “do not be distressed or angry with yourselves…God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest.” Joseph speaks the truth, not only about the past, but about the reality of the present and the future. There can be no healing unless and until the wounds of the past are named and their effects on the present and future acknowledged.
Third, Joseph does his part to make things right. No longer the arrogant teenage dreamer, he sends for his father and promises that he will take care of his whole family. Reconciliation involves actions as well as words.
Fourth, and finally, reconciliation involves recognizing God at work. Joseph understands that everything that happened has brought him to this moment, made reconciliation possible, and made it possible for him to save many lives: Egyptians, his family, and in nations beyond. God is the author of all reconciliation.
And then, Joseph and his brothers talk. Reconciliation is not finished with apology and forgiveness. There is ongoing work to do if they are to become a family again.
We can also look at our gospel reading through the lens of reconciliation. This passage is a continuation of last week’s reading, Luke’s version of Jesus’ core teaching called the Sermon on the Plain, or the sermon on the level place. In her annual report last week, Donna observed that, in contrast to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, here Jesus stands on a level place, among the people, and calls for a radical overturning of the world’s standards. Today’s passage continues with Jesus’ description of what the new order, the Realm of God, looks like. It is a template for life in the Kingdom of God, a portrait of that Kingdom.
If you read it again, you’ll see that this passage is full of verbs. Love. Do good. Bless. Pray. Give. Love again. Lend. Be. Forgive. These are all actions, and we are commanded to take them. What is our response? Maybe we think, “Yup, I do all these things. I’m doing pretty well.” Or perhaps we think, “Oh, I don’t even come close. I have some work to do.”
It’s a mistake to read the Bible simply as a rule book or guide to life. Jesus is not just an ethical teacher who says, “You know, being selfish is really not good for you. You should try to be more generous.” And we say, “Yes, got it.” Jesus is transgressing social norms here – norms that his time and culture held about patronage and who deserves what from whom, about masculinity and honour and protecting one’s virtue, about power over others. It’s one of the reasons he was killed, because he represented too great a threat to the established order. The church is likewise called to transgress the norms of our time and place – norms about who is better and who is inferior, about gender roles, about what defines honour, about power over others. And like Jesus, we can be sure that we will meet with resistance and rejection.
Even more is at stake, though. This passage is centered theologically on the second-last verse: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” All the things Jesus tells his followers to do: loving our enemies, doing good to those who hate us, blessing those who curse us, praying for those who abuse us, offering the other cheek, giving to everyone who asks, lending without expecting anything in return, refraining from judging and condemnation, forgiving – by doing these things we imitate God’s character; we model who God is; we put God’s mercy into practice. This is not an instruction to be nicer than everyone else. The Church will lose if we think our mission is just to be an ethical voice in society. We are to proclaim the Gospel – this is who God is. This is the character of the God of the universe. And out of that proclamation flow ethical and moral consequences.
The stakes are high. The question is, will the Realm of God advance? Will we, by our acts of mercy, help the promised future to become a present reality? On the level place – in the midst of daily life – living our faith in daily life – we are called to take on and to display as a community the character of God. God’s promised future of mercy and love breaks into the present by our practices, when we extend mercy and when we receive mercy from others. That’s what the exchange of the Peace is about. It’s not an opportunity to exchange social greetings or catch up with each other – that happens before and after worship. The Peace is an event of reconciliation, in obedience to Jesus’ injunction, “If you are offering your gift at the alter and remember that a brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift and go, first be reconciled.” And as we model and practice reconciliation within our community, we also model and practice God’s mercy to and for the world.
Reconciliation is at the heart of the Christian message. It is at the heart of what we do when we are faithful to our calling as disciples and as a community of faith. It is why the church must respond to the TRC Calls to Action. Notice that the TRC is not “The Reconciliation Commission”. It is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Reconciliation demands that the truth be told, heard, and accepted.
Recently, I came across a quote by Senator Murray Sinclair on the CBC website. In an interview on the radio program The Current, he said that the overwhelming response of Canadians to the testimony of Residential School survivors was “How did we not know this?” There are some who still don’t know, and some who don’t believe it. And Senator Sinclair said, ““The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” We should be pissed off, and sad and dismayed and ashamed of what was done to Indigenous people by our government and our churches, at what continues to be done to Indigenous people by the child welfare system. Acknowledging the truth can free us to move toward reconciliation. It is essential for the good of the church and the good of our country, for the health of the church and our country, for the transformation of our church and the structures of our society, that we work toward reconciliation: between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, in our homes, our communities, our church, our parish, wherever we see or experience injustice. And it’s hard. Reconciliation is hard, hard work. It is a process, not an event. And the one who has been wronged is the one who gets to set the pace, who gets to say, “I forgive you,” or “I need more time.”
“Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves,” says Joseph. “Father, forgive them,” says Jesus. “Be merciful, as your Father is merciful.”
God of kindness, interrupting our vicious cycles of resentment and revenge, teach us to walk the way of forgiveness beyond all accounting, and to love the gift that has no measure, through Jesus Christ, who died for all. Amen.
Steven Shakespeare, Prayers for an Inclusive Church