Chain of Forgiveness
September 28, 2014
This morning’s Scripture reading is the last from the book of Genesis that we will hear. Next Sunday we – and the Gateway groups that are forming – will encounter the book of Exodus, which begins with an ominous warning, “Now a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.”
But we do know Joseph – the favorite and spoiled son of Jacob, sold into slavery by his jealous older half-brothers. Taken to Egypt by the slave traders, Joseph uses his gift as an interpreter of dreams to climb through the ranks of power. He reaches the height of power as Pharaoh’s chief of staff, in which position he saves Egypt from famine by anticipating it and stockpiling grain to be used in the lean years.
Israel had no visionary leader, so its people – including Jacob and his sons – suffered from the famine. They travel to Egypt asking for help, not realizing that it is their own brother who has so wisely managed Egypt’s resources. Joseph recognizes them, however, and puts them through a series of deceptions, manipulating them and causing them a great deal of trouble and consternation.While he has learned to govern a country, he has not learned to govern his owndesire for revenge.
The scene of reconciliation that Vicky read for us comes right after an eloquent and extended speech by one of Joseph’s brothers, Judah. Judah was the brother who had the idea many years before to sell Joseph into slavery. Not a generous idea in and of itself, but one that saved Joseph’s life, for the other brothers had planned to kill him.
Now, in the chapter before our reading, Joseph carries out the last in a series of deceptions, framing his younger brother Benjamin, for stealing his silver cup. Benjamin is Joseph’s full brother, the only other child of Jacob and his beloved, now deceased, wife Rachel. Benjamin is innocent of the theft, but Joseph accuses him, claims him as a slave and offers to let the other brothers go free.
But Judah will not abandon Benjamin. In a moving speech, he describes how he swore to their father Jacob that he would bring Benjamin back. He tells Joseph that their father has already lost one beloved son, and that if he loses another, he will die. Judah then offers himself as a slave in place of Benjamin: "Now therefore, please let [me] remain as a slave to my lord in place of the boy; and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the suffering that would come upon my father" (44:33-34).
It seems that Judah and the other brothers have changed over the course of the story. Gone is the intense hatred they once held for the favored son of their father. There is no hint that they envy or hate Benjamin for the special place he holds in their father's heart. They bear the guilt of what they did to Joseph. Now, they have repented and are determined to save Benjamin.
And it is this change of heart, and the compassion they show for their elderly father, that moves Joseph to reveal himself to them. “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” Too dumbfounded to speak, the brothers stand dismayed. “I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life…. It was not you who sent me here, but God.”
Finally the brothers are able to absorb this stunning revelation. Joseph weeps loudly, embracing Benjamin and then kissing and weeping over his other brothers. He urges them to fetch their father Jacob and return to live in Egypt where he will care for them. Joseph is able to forgive because he can look back at the suffering in his life and see, now, how God has worked through it all to bring good – for him, for his employer and his adopted country, for his father and brothers, and therefore for the future Israel.
And I have a problem with that.
Because I have heard too many stories of suffering made all the worse because someone has tried to cheer the sufferer up with some version of Joseph’s words. “It’s all for the best.” “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle.” “You’re very special, God chose you for this burden.”
Based on my experience, I am confident that such statements never help. Even though the intentions are good – and they almost always are – the words are hurtful. Telling someone that their suffering is somehow intentionally caused or allowed by God may not only fail to provide comfort, it can add to the suffering.
I have heard myriads of stories like this, enough to convince me that no one has the right to declare God’s intentions to someone else who is in pain.
On the other hand, I have also heard myriads of stories – and have told them myself – about looking back on one’s own pain and suffering and finding God’s hand in it. “It was awful, I wouldn’t wish it on anybody,” the cancer survivor says, “but I learned so much – about life, and God, and myself.” “I would never have chosen this,” says the fired employee or the widow or the parent of a child with autism, “but I am a much better person because of it.”
So here’s my rule of thumb: only those who have experienced the suffering can say of their own situation that God intended it for good. No one else has the moralauthority to say that. Joseph can look back at his life story, full of misfortune and tragedy, and he – and he alone – can say “I see God in this. It was not my brothers who sent me here, but God. What they intended for evil, God intended for good.”
It is Joseph – and Joseph alone – who can forgive those who harmed him and begin the process of reconciliation. No third party has the moral authority to insist that the victim of evil forgive the perpetrator. But when the wounded one is able to reflect upon his or her situation, see how God can bring good out of evil, and therefore offer forgiveness, true peace abounds and God’s kingdom grows.
It seems to me that every day over the last few weeks has brought us news of evil in the world that seems unforgiveable. The videos and photos of the execution of journalists by the group calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS) have made the breadth and depth of evil painfully clear. Is there anyone who has looked at them and not felt the desire for revenge? And we cannot even begin to imagine what the victims themselves and their families must be feeling. To preach forgiveness in this situation seems ignorant and foolish, even callous.
So it is essential to hear and remember this truth about forgiveness: it does not mean denying the hurt.
- Joseph heard Judah acknowledging the hurt their father had already experienced and would experience again if Benjamin was to be taken from him.
- Joseph saw that Judah was willing to sacrifice his freedom for the sake of his father’s well being.
- Judah is the first to break the chain of violence and revenge by his recognition and acknowledgement of his father’s suffering.
- Now Joseph can admit to his own pain: he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it.
Some try to apply forgiveness like a bad paint job – attempting to apply a cover upcleaning the surface first. Forgiveness can be imposed as a command: a shallow, hasty, ill-thought-out dictum that produces no lasting result but simply pushes the pain farther into hiding.
True forgiveness does not deny the hurt. In fact, it requires that we are honest withourselves and others about the depth of our actual feelings.
Nor does forgiving mean forgetting. Maybe small indignities can be excused and forgotten, but major assaults cannot be – nor should they be. Those acts that leave us reeling with psychic pain, the personal events that cause us to ache with loss andgrief, the social forces of oppression that crush the human spirit – forgetting these is not possible….nor is it desirable.
Asking Americans of African or Native American descent to forget the way their ancestors were treated is only another act of European American oppression. Asking Jews to forget the horrors of the Holocaust would be the first step in replaying those horrors. Blow intentionally rendered to crush the vulnerable – like the public humiliation and execution of western journalists by ISIS -- cannot be forgotten.
But they can be forgiven.
Because forgiveness is making a conscious choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment…however justified that judgment may be. It is the choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for retribution…however fair such punishment may seem. It is not a forgetting of the actual wound, but a breaking of the power that remembering the wound holds over us.
Because -- as anyone who has hung on to their pain for a long time can testify – the wound inflicted by another all too quickly becomes a self-inflicted injury. We nurse our suffering until it takes on a life of its own. Our pain becomes our prison,keeping us from living full, joy-ful, lives. Until we release our offender from condemnation – not the offense, but the offender – we ourselves cannot be free.
The old adage is true: revenge is the poison we drink, expecting our enemy to die.
True forgiveness is not easy. It’s costly, both emotionally and spiritually. It takes time, and prayer, and effort.
Rev. Marjorie Thompson says that “Forgiveness constitutes a decision to call forth and rebuild that love which is the only authentic ground of any human relationship. Such love forms the sole secure ground of our relationship with God as well. Indeed, it is only because God continually calls forth and rebuilds this love with us that we are capable of doing so with one another. Thus, to forgive is to participate in the mystery of God’s love.” It is really the case that ‘To err is human, to forgive, divine.’ Genuine forgiveness draws us right into the heart of divine life.
Which is exactly why Joseph, having forgiven his brothers for their crime against him, could see how God had used that act of evil, and the suffering Joseph had experienced because of it, for good – to preserve life.
It is why Joseph – and only Joseph – could say to them “It was not you who sent me here but God.”
I don’t know about you, but I am not ready to forgive ISIS. I’m still nursing that anger, and can feel within myself the desire for revenge.
But I know that I will need to something about this before my sense of hurt and anger becomes a prison into which I have sentenced myself. While I cannot extend an offer of rebuilding love to the members of ISIS, I can offer it to my Muslim American neighbors. Surely they must be hurting even more than I am: like me they are wounded by the horrible executions of journalists; unlike me, they watch this evil being done in the name of their beloved faith and religious tradition. Unlike me, they can expect to deal with discrimination and violence exacted against them as part of an apparently endless spiral of vengeance.
Maybe I – maybe we – can take a small step to break that spiral and build a bridge of love, in the name of God.
In two weeks, on Saturday, October 11, from 9:00 AM – 2:00 PM, the Islamic Society of Greater Lansing, our neighbors to the north on Harrison, are hosting an Open House. My guess is that the planning for this Open House started long before ISIS hit the mainstream American news media. But timing is everything. Now we have a chance to build bridges in our community; now is the time to build bridges in our community – bridges of understanding and mutual respect that havea chance of withstanding assaults of hurt and evil. I’m planning to attend; I hope you will too.
Perhaps there are other places in your life where you can break the chain of hurt and revenge and replace it with a chain of forgiveness. Not by forgetting the pain or minimizing it, but – like Judah - by acknowledging its breadth and depth. And – like Joseph - recognizing how God is transforming it for good.
Rolf Jacobson, Karoline Lewis, and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brainwave #188, August 14, 2014.Posted August 07, 2011 on WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=199
Anna Grant-Henderson. Genesis 45:1-15, Pentecost 14. Available at UnitingChurch.org.http://otl.unitingchurch.org.au/index.php?page=gen-45-1-15
Kathryn Schifferdecker. Commentary, Genesis 45:1-15. Preaching This Week. Posted onWorkingPreacher.org, August 17, 2008. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=121
John C. Holbert. “Revenge is Sweet? Reflections on Genesis 45:1-15.” Posted on Patheos.com on August 11, 2014. http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Revenge-is-Sweet-John-Holbert-08-11-2014
Marjorie Thompson. “Moving Toward Forgiveness.” Weavings. Vol 7, No.. 2. Mar/Apr 1992.