Rev. Danielle K. Bartz September 17, 2023
Genesis 50:15-21 ‘A Few Thoughts On Forgiveness’
All the lectionary texts for today revolve around one very important topic: forgiveness. As I begin my reflection, I want to acknowledge that the Church universal, over its long history, has often abused the idea of forgiveness, and much too often used the command to forgive as a weapon to maintain the power of the privileged over the abused, neglected, and enslaved. As a member of the Christian clergy, I publicly repent for this history. I want to say clearly from the beginning that the Christian call to forgive does not mean that one must forget the hurt done to them. Further, forgiveness must always include accountability and justice. Forgiveness often means the enforcement of boundaries that maintain emotional and spiritual well-being. And, most importantly, God holds as Beloved everyone – all those seeking forgiveness, all those seeking to forgive, and all who are not yet ready. God’s love is not given in exchange for anything – God’s love is absolute and steadfast. So, as I reflect for the next couple of minutes about the mandate to forgive as it is outlined in our scriptures, I do so holding to all that I just said, using it as a base upon which everything else I say is built upon.
The examples in our scriptures to call upon believers to forgive one another are too numerous to count. Many of the ancient laws and stories throughout the Old Testament have forgiveness as a central feature. The teachings of Jesus – indeed the Lord’s Prayer which all Christians are encouraged to say – speak explicitly about the need to forgive. And Paul, in his letters responding to conflict in the early Christian communities, calls on people to forgive one another time and again. So, there is no argument to be made other than that as Christians we are to always strive to forgive.
Of all the lectionary texts that were offered today about forgiveness, I have chosen to focus on the Genesis story about Joseph and his brothers because it feels the most relatable. It deals with complicated family systems and history, tears flow freely, and, I believe, it includes accountability for wrong done. As we all know, to seek forgiveness and to offer forgiveness is never devoid of emotion, it is usually messy, and it doesn’t wipe away painful memories. The story of Joseph and his brothers has all of that.
So, a recap of their story because I am sure there are many here who do not know it well. Joseph was a much-loved son of Jacob. And Joseph’s brothers were jealous of what they thought was Jacob’s favor of him over them. You may recall, from either the Bible or Broadway, that Jacob presented Joseph with a ‘technicolor dream coat’, a resplendent gift that the brothers were so envious of they seethed in anger. One day, when Joseph traveled to check on his brothers, they plotted against him, threw him into a well, and later sold him into slavery and told their father that he had been eaten by wild animals.
Joseph was sold to an Egyptian who was in the household of the Pharaoh. After a series of events, he interprets the dreams of the Pharaoh, who was so impressed with him, he gave Joseph a position of great power in Egypt. In fact, he was second in power only to the Pharaoh and so had control over the lives and well-being of everyone. In the meantime, Jacob and his other sons remain in Canaan where there was a great drought and famine. The brothers travel to Egypt to seek help from the Pharaoh. They do not recognize Joseph, but he recognizes them. Eventually Jacob and his sons immigrate to Egypt, they all recognize Joseph, and the brothers worry that Joseph, in his position of great power, will retaliate against them for the horrible things they did to him. When Jacob dies, who the brothers thought to be a buffer against Joseph’s wrath, they go to Joseph, lie to him by saying that Jacob with his dying breath, commanded Joseph to forgive them. And there is much weeping – Joseph weeps when his brothers recognize and acknowledge him. And his brothers weep when Joseph offers them mercy and assures them that they will be provided for in Egypt.
I should be clear that is a very abbreviated version of the entire story, not even detailed enough to be considered a Cliff’s Notes telling. It is a fascinating story, one that many scholars believe may be historical fiction – an exaggerated story of historical people filled with drama and lessons that would intrigue people for generations. If you would like to explore the story more, a quick commercial, I have decided to do a Bible study series on it which will start in a couple of weeks.
But, back to Joseph and his act of mercy and forgiveness for his brothers who had hurt and abused him. And, of course, holding onto all that I said at the beginning about the Church Universal’s long history of using the command to forgive as weapon to prolong or justify abuse. That moment as described in today’s text between Joseph and his brothers – when everyone came away weeping, is one that holds in it the fundamental need for accountability and mercy to be held together – to be held as equals in the task of forgiveness. Further, I read in here a reminder that, at times, to forgive and be forgiven is deeply painful work, and that pain must be held as sacred, that God remains close to those who are pained and grieving. And nowhere does Joseph say that he will forget all that was done to him and that he and his brothers will start their relationship fresh and new – because we all know that is impossible.
While the story doesn’t say this, so we must use our imaginations, I feel that it is likely that Joseph remained careful around his brothers. Yes, he provided them mercy and safety, but he probably also, at least I hope, maintained a boundary that would ensure his own well-being while providing for theirs. On a practical level, and I don’t say this to be flippant, I feel certain that Joseph avoided being in spaces with his brothers that felt unsafe, like for instance, around wells.
The act of mercy and forgiveness Joseph showed to his brothers came with it accountability and I hope that his brothers were able to acknowledge the harm they did to him and offer sincere repentance. They didn’t start new – with an impossible task of wiping away all their complicated history. But perhaps they all were able to start again from a point of pivot, a pivotal place, a place where all agreed to work to shift the patterns of behavior that led them to that place. And by doing so, they were continuing a legacy that sought to disrupt cycles of abuse. Because, if you remember, their father – Jacob – also had a long, painful conflict with his brother Esau. But, what everyone feared would be a moment of violent conflict was in fact a moment of repentance and forgiveness. Another pivotal place of reconciliation that held as sacred all that had happened before and the possibility of what could happen next. Because, as Joseph says in our scripture for today, his act of forgiveness was meant to be one that added to the furtherance of God’s Kingdom, ensuring the continuation of the people of Israel. Because, no matter how often or atrociously we all mess up, God’s plans for God’s creation continue despite us. And in the long history of humanity, we can see the arc bending towards justice.
My Beloved Community, we are called upon to forgive one another because the furtherance of God’s Kingdom is one in which accountability and mercy are held together in a sacred dance that honors the spark of the divine that exists within each of us. To forgive is not a relinquishing of autonomy and self. To accept forgiveness is not an abdication of responsibility. To forgive and be forgiven is an act of devotion to the God whose face is best reflected when we all seek to live harmoniously with one another in equal measure. Humanity has not achieved this yet, but just as in the story of Jacob and his sons, each generation is moving forward together to break the cycles that hold us back from that harmony. And so, each day, we have a choice – to step into that dance of accountability and mercy. There are days when we are not able to do so and God holds us tenderly until we are ready. And there are days when the dance of accountability and mercy is one that is so vibrant and beautiful we all seek to join in – and God joins in that dance. Amen.
Just and Merciful God, your creation of us was an act of joy and love. We carry within us that joy you have in our existence and the love you hold us in. For all of this we give you great thanks and it is in that spirit of gratitude that we come before you in prayer.
We fully acknowledge God that your call upon us to forgive can be a difficult one, and there are times when we are not able to fulfill that call. During those moments, remind of us your grace and care, give us your steadfast courage, and a reminder that you walk alongside us no matter where our journeys may lead. And when we are ready to seek a place of reconciliation, be with us as a tangible reminder that you call us all Beloved and seek for us lives that are safe and healthy.
As we open our hearts and spirits to you God in these moments of silence, speak to us in ways to lead us to be your disciples…
Good and loving God, for all that you have done for us and for all that we have yet to experience, we give you thanks. We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, our example and guide and teacher and friend along the way. And we pray now in the way he taught…Our Father…