Forgive and live, by Pastor Noel

February 23/24, 2019    7th Epiphany, C


      In case the only Joseph you know in the Bible is Jesus’ earthly father, let me tell you about the Joseph we heard about in the first reading.

      And, in case you wonder why we had that reading along with the Gospel for today—think forgiveness.

      Joseph was one of the twelve sons of Jacob, also called Israel after he struggled with an angel of God and prevailed. Israel means something like “wrestled with God and won.”

      The twelve tribes of Israel represent these twelve sons.

      Joseph was his father’s favorite. Jacob gave him a coat of many colors, or a coat with long sleeves, depending on how that’s translated. Joseph was a dreamer, and once he dreamt that all his brothers bowed down to him.

      They got angry, and plotted to kill him. When they were out with the sheep they were about to kill him when Reuben interceded. They sold Joseph into slavery to a caravan of traders, but put sheep’s blood on his coat and took it to Jacob and said that Joseph had been killed by a lion.

      Joseph ended up in Egypt. He was falsely accused and put in prison. Again he dreamt, and his dreams ended up saving him. He interpreted a dream for Pharaoh, and was released from prison and made Vizier, the highest official next to Pharaoh.

      Joseph predicted 7 years of plenty and 7 years of famine, and had storehouses filled to feed Egypt in the famine.

      The famine was not only in Egypt. Back home in Canaan, Joseph’s family were starving, too. His brothers came to buy food, not knowing that they were seeing Joseph.

      Joseph toyed with them for a while—not ready to forgive. He finally told them who he was, and brought the whole family to Egypt—to the land of Goshen.

      The Book of Exodus begins by naming Joseph’s family. It continues, “Eventually, Joseph, his brothers, and everyone in his generation died. But the Israelites were fertile and became populous. They multiplied and grew dramatically and filled the whole land.”

      And then, some of the saddest words in the Bible, “Now a new king came to power in Egypt who did not know Joseph.”

      No longer favored, the Israelites become slaves and thus begins the part of the story that leads to the Exodus and their 40 year journey to the promised land.

      What if Joseph had not forgiven his brothers? Would all the family have died of hunger? History would be very different without that loving act of forgiving.

      Joseph had forgiveness in his genes. His father, Jacob, tricked his father into giving him the blessing meant for the older son, Esau.

      That’s another fascinating story for another day.

      Jacob lived in fear of his brother, and ran away to another country. When he came home, he was still fearful.

      He heard that Esau was coming to meet him, so he sent the rest of his family along without him. He stayed behind for the night, and that is when he wrestles with the angel and has his name changed to Israel.

      He finally has to meet his brother, who “ran to meet him, threw his arms around his neck, kissed him, and they wept.”

      This sounds very much like the wonderful story Luke gives us called “the Prodigal Son,” or “A certain man had two sons.”

      Esau had every right to punish his brother, but he forgave him.

      Joseph, nephew and son, came to forgiveness naturally.

      But even if it’s in our genes, forgiving is not always our natural response.

      All too often our response is “I’ll show them! I’ll get even!” And so we retaliate, as if giving back the same nastiness that we got makes it even, or “all better.”

      God’s call to us is to be at peace.  As we read Scripture, we hear Jesus’ words to us over and over, “Peace be with you.” That is the peace we share here every time we gather. Not the hippie “Peace, man!” but the deep, abiding, life-changing peace that only God can give.

      The peace that allowed Esau and Joseph to forgive.

      One reason it’s so hard for us to forgive is that we have the wrong idea about forgiveness. We think that if we forgive we are saying that what happened was OK. We hear “forgive and forget” and we know that won’t happen, so we don’t even think about forgiving.

      Forgiving is about making ourselves healed and whole.

      Forgiving is me, or you, not letting what happened make us angry. That anger can make us emotionally and physically sick, so forgiving helps us be healthy.

      Forgiveness involves one person. Me. Or you.

      It is how we let go of whatever pain or anger or other negative feelings that keep us from being healthy.

      Forgiving can be a life-time journey. We cannot forget, but as we let go of the negativity it fades. What happened is not so present anymore. For some things this can take a life time of prayer and counseling.

      How can we forget and let go?

      Nearly four years ago a deranged young man went to a church in Charleston, SC. He sat with them in Bible study, and then started shooting, killing nine people.

      Very soon after, some of the folks who’d been there at Emanuel AME Church said they forgave him.

      And lots of folks said, “That’s crazy!” and “How could they do that?” Can they forget? No, but they can heal.

      They could do that because they didn’t want to be haunted and angry the rest of their lives. They weren’t saying that it didn’t matter. They weren’t saying everything was OK, or even going to be OK. They were saying that with God’s help they would let go of the evil. Find peace.

      When we hold on to the anger we are letting the other person or situation control our lives. It’s said that to not forgive is like taking poison and expecting the other person to get sick. But it just makes us sick.

      Work to have peace, instead.

      There is another step in forgiving that does include the other person. It’s reconciliation.

      This is going to the other person, telling them how they have hurt us. It’s about a conversation that will help them understand their wrong behavior. It’s about continuing that conversation to have the relationship made healthy.

      This is true if we’re the one who has hurt another. We go and ask them to forgive and have a conversation (or many) about repairing our relationship.

      That is even harder work that forgiving. Sometimes the other person won’t admit they hurt us, or won’t forgive us. Sometimes they are not available to have that conversation.

      Forgiving, letting go, praying for God’s peace every day, is the only way we can help ourselves be healed.

      There are other ways, like the Center for Reconciliation. Their work is helping our generation understand how previous generations did harm to people so that we can  live differently, and in God’s peace.

      This gospel reading from Luke sets the bar quite high for us to live as God’s beloved.

      That doesn’t mean we should ignore it. It calls us to recognize the forgiveness we have from God. Not because we are good, but because God is good and goodness.

      Not because others are good, but because God is good.

      To God there are no “others.” Just God’s beloved.

      All of us.

The Rev. Noel Bailey

The Reverend Noel Bailey was born in Providence, is now back in RI for the 4th time, and hopes that this stay is longer than some of the others. She was ordained Priest at St. Michael's, Bristol, in May 1988, More details