Sunday, February 20, 2022
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany / Lectionary 7, Year C
Prayer of the Day
O Lord Jesus, make us instruments of your peace, that where there is hatred, we may sow love, where there is injury, pardon, and where there is despair, hope. Grant, O divine master, that we may seek to console, to understand, and to love in your name, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Genesis 45:3-11, 15 Joseph forgives his brothers
Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40
1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50 The mystery of the resurrection of the body
Luke 6:27-38 Love your enemies
Title: Telling the Truth: An Act of Love
If you are looking for a story with a happy ending, you probably want to steer clear of Genesis. Scan the highlights for a minute – (or is it lowlights?) – starts off really bad with the created couple attempting to overthrow the Creator and thus getting kicked out of a most perfect existence. Then their one son kills their other son. Followed by an ego-driven building project that goes dreadfully wrong (Tower of Babel), the Flood sort of ends happy with the rainbow, but an awful lot of people and creatures died in the process and there is a very drunk Noah in the end. Abraham’s faith is faulty at best. And then Jacob tricks his father and steals from his brother Esau. Laban tricks Jacob and forces him to marry someone he doesn’t love. This is a rape and bloody revenge. And then, finally, after 37 chapters of this, we begin the longest story told in Genesis that does indeed have a happy ending. Oh, it doesn’t start out great – sibling rivalry, kidnapping and selling into slavery, a father’s heartbreak. For many of us, it is one of the first great Bible stories we learned as kids. And if you’ve seen the musical – Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat – you know the story. This morning, our first reading offers us just the happy ending.
Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son out of the twelve, had been sold by his brothers to some slave traders. He ended up in Egypt. Thanks to his gift for dream interpretation, he has a meteoric rise in Egyptian society and suddenly finds himself as Pharoah’s righthand man. When famine forces the family back home to come to Egypt for food, the brothers are reunited. And, as we heard read, Joseph is forgiving of his brothers, seeing God’s hand in turning their evil deeds into something beneficial for the chosen people, the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – in spite of all those stories that have preceded this most happy ending.
Its very interesting to have this story read this month. A month designated by our nation as Black History Month. A history that cannot be explored without acknowledging the evils of slavery and its legacy that continues to plague so many and our nation in so many ways. At the second session of our synod’s online series that is observing Black History Month, an honest, and therefore, painful description of the institution of slavery was offered. Certainly not comprehensive, but effective for the study’s purposes. As a woman of African descent read of ancestors being torn from their families and their lands, robbed of freedom and life. I could not help but try to imagine what must it feel like for her to read these words. The ancestral grief, the heartache, the sorrow.
As a white listener, I was filled with shame for what was done by members of my race. I was mortified to think that people of European descent, who looked like me, who came from places that I love to visit, could create such a philosophy of supremacy that they could go throughout the world taking people, taking lands, taking resources as if other peoples where not people at all. It was hard to hear the truth. But that is the truth.
If I wanted to soften the blow of this truth, if I wanted to feel a little better about this country and its history of white supremacy and systemic racism, I could latch onto this happy ending story and say – “But God has turned what was evil into something good. Just look at all the cultural developments, look at the success stories lived by people of African descent, look at the quality of life enjoyed in this country compared to the developing nations on the African continent.” To engage in this kind of rationalization would be the all-time greatest example of rubbing salt in the wounds. Would be the ultimate in ignoring the truth. It would only amplify the white supremacy that needs to be confronted, confessed, and purged from ourselves, our society, our nation, and our world.
First of all, in the old story, it is Joseph – the wronged one, the once enslaved one – who is able to say, “God has used this for good.” It was not the brothers who reunite with slaps on the back and shouts of “Aren’t you glad we sold you into slavery? Cause we sure are.” And to be clear, in our story, we are the brothers. We are the Ishmaelites who bought and sold humans as if they were animals. We are the Egyptians who kept people enslaved and benefited from it with no regard for their personhood.
And it is only through truth telling around slavery, by facing the whole ugly truth of our nation’s past and looking honestly at the present expressions of its destructive legacy, that we can begin to hear what Paul is talking about when he writes to the Corinthians of death and resurrection. Yes, on one level he is addressing our physical death. But faith teaches us that just as baptism is a daily process of rising to new life through Christ’s resurrection; so confessing, facing the truth about the wrongs we have done against God’s reign, done to others and ourselves, is a daily dying to self and to sin, so that through the Holy Spirit we can rise to new life in Christ. It is why we stand at the font at the beginning of most liturgies to either give thanks for the gift of new life in baptism or, through confession, to drown our sinfulness. That splashing water is our call. It is telling us that it is safe to come and face the truth about ourselves before God. And having confessed before God, and heard again of God’s mercy expressed through a promise of forgiveness made known to us in Jesus the crucified and risen Christ, then we must go and confess to our siblings.
No, we don’t get to be Joseph and try to create a happy ending that is not ours to create. Instead, we are called to be disciples of Jesus, and to hear his really challenging code of living list (or do we call it the code of loving list?) and to live into it. There is no supremacy to be found it. There is no domination or power to be owned and exercised upon other people. Our call is to be merciful and humble, to be generous and to serve. To be forgiving and to work for peace.
Perhaps one of the most painful truths for me that must be told when we are telling the history of slavery, is that the enslavers were not just white and European – looking like me and some of you – but they were Christians like all of us. They also thought of themselves as disciples of Jesus, they read the same Bible. How did they miss this passage? How do we all miss the truth that Jesus calls us to live into? Maybe there are different answers for different people, but the ultimate answer is that we all fall short.
We certainly can’t live the life that Jesus is calling us to live by ourselves, by our own wisdom, by our own strength. We all have truths that we shy away from. We turn others into enemies, into less-than’s. We withhold even though we have more than enough. But God, who is defined by love and mercy, is merciful to us, loves us, forgives us, resurrects us. Not because we succeed at what Jesus is calling us to live, but because God is God. And so, God’s grace makes it safe to tell the truth.
When Jesus says “your reward will be great,” he is not speaking of some far off place, some future time. God’s reign filled with justice and peace, light and life, teaches us that when we live the life that Jesus is describing, when we speak the truth to ourselves, when we love even our enemies, when we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God; the reward is the spreading of God’s reign in our midst and even through us. And the reward is enjoyed not just for us but for all we encounter. Life has certainly taught me that when I judge others harshly, in turn it is with the same harsh eye that I judge myself. Jesus is not making threats of divine judgement. He knows how we condemn ourselves as we condemn others. And surely you’ve seen it, in others, perhaps in yourself, it is the one who has a hard time forgiving others that is most unforgiving of oneself.
The radical love that Jesus is calling us to live sure seems impossible. Owning up to our failures and our sins may – in the language of today’s political climate – make us feel uncomfortable. But God’s reign can only come when the truth is told. Remember – the truth shall set you free. So, in the presence of God who is love and mercy, we must speak the truth of where we have been and what has been done. With the compassionate heart of Jesus we must listen to the voices of those who have been and continue to be wronged. And with the help of the Holy Spirit, we must work, in love, for God’s reign of justice to spread. Now even if we are able to do this, I’m sure we won’t witness some glorious and transforming happy ending envelope our land or our planet – it is, after all still our broken world and we are still frail and faulty humans – but that peace that passes all understanding, just might grow in us and in those we encounter, and that will be enough for today.
The Rev. Mark Erson,