A sermon preached on February 20th, 2022 based upon Genesis 45:3-11, 15 and Luke 6:27-38 entitled, “Snap Shots in the Story of Our Homecoming.”
Our Gospel reading comes from Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. This section of teachings of Jesus is unusual in that most of what we encounter in the Gospels are stories – stories involving Jesus or stories Jesus himself told.
In what I am about to read we hear what is perhaps the most challenging thing Jesus ever said – essentially a law for those of us who would follow in his way.
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.
If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.
If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Luke 6:27-38)
Jesus makes it crystal clear that if we are to follower in his way we must seek to embody the extraordinary love that characterizes God’s love for all people — a love not just of friends, but of enemies as well. We must be willing to forgive those who have done us harm.
He gives us this law and yet on our own, keeping this law is essentially impossible. In relation to people who have truly caused us great pain, the wounds within powerfully resist making this move.
Sure, we could in obedience to Jesus mouth the words “I forgive you” to our enemy, but to actually let go of the hurt, the resentment, the desire for revenge, well that’s another matter altogether. We simply don’t have that kind of control over our hearts.
Having acknowledged this, I want to return to the point I touched on briefly at the outset which is that what we call the “Gospel” – the truth Jesus came to reveal comes not primarily as a law or even a set of teachings – it comes to us as stories – the stories of Jesus and his love – his ministry, his death, his resurrection as well as the stories he told.
We all have stories to tell regarding our own lives. Whether we recognize it or not, each of us are on our spiritual journey, and the stories we tell at various points along the journey reflect our understanding – usually quite limited, sometimes altogether misguided – regarding what our journey means.
The stories we find in the Gospel offer us insights regarding how to interpret the meaning of our own stories.
Consider, for instance the different stories the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable would have told regarding his life at different points on his journey: as he leaves behind his father’s house, then later as he finds himself penniless and despairing in the far country, and finally as he is astounded by his father’s love as he is welcomed back as the lost son who has come home. As we consider these varied stories we are invited to reflect upon the experiences of our own lives, and challenged to reconsider the story we tell that interpret what we have experienced.
Or consider the different stories the disciple Peter would have told as the story of Jesus evolves – his growing confidence as he witnessed Jesus’ successful ministry in Galilee – the looming danger he would have felt as they approached Jerusalem – his despair and self-contempt when Jesus was arrested and crucified – and then the altogether different story he would tell after experiencing the resurrection and Pentecost.
The stories we tell change over time, and hopefully with the leading of the Holy Spirit deepen in the truth they tell.
I want to turn now to our reading from Genesis.
The appreciation that Jesus had for the power of stories comes from the fact that he was a faithful Jew. Although there are quite a few commandments in the Hebrew scriptures, the faith of the Jewish people is primarily expressed through the great stories contained in their sacred texts.
One of the most intricately told of these stories is the one about Joseph, and our reading this morning comes from a snapshot at the climax of his journey.
There is a connection to our Gospel reading: this particular snapshot describes the moment when Joseph was able to embody that extraordinary love of which Jesus spoke. He forgives his brothers who truly had been his enemies, having done him extreme harm in his youth.
Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for 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. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.
Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay.
You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have.
I will provide for you there–since there are five more years of famine to come–so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’
And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him. (Genesis 45:3-11, 15)
Frederick Buechner is one of my favorite authors. He was raised up without any belief in God. Buechner describes in one of his books how he came to believe in the reality of God when as a young novelist he experienced his like as an unfolding story. When you begin reading a novel you trust that the story is heading somewhere, that the story lines aren’t merely aimless. To be a good story the plot always involves obstacles to overcome, challenges to meet. The meaning of the various plot lines of the story aren’t fully revealed until you reach the end of the book. Buechner felt the same things were in play in his life – that there was an unseen author involved in moving the story forward.
I’ve felt the same sensation in my life. In our snapshot of Joseph life, he seems to have the same perception.
We live the story of our life moment by moment, which is to say snapshot by snapshot. The challenge we have is that each particular snapshot along the way can’t really be understood on its own – that is, without all the moments that preceded it, and for that matter without an understanding of where the story is headed.
Imagine if you had been a palace servant who was able to witness the snap shot we just heard from Joseph’s life. You know only that this Joseph holds a position of great authority and has used it to do a great deal of good in this world – implementing policies that are keeping thousands from starving to death. You glean that these men who stand before him are his brothers – that they did Joseph some sort of wrong in the past – but that this Joseph is a man of such noble, magnanimous character that he is able to let bygones be bygones. He clearly loves his brothers and is happy to be reunited with them.
Our understanding of what we have witnessed would be accurate but incredibly limited without knowledge of the backstory – the long journey that brought Joseph to this moment of magnanimity.
Imagine that you could then go back in time to witness certain earlier snapshots.
First snapshot: A teenaged Joseph – the youngest son of a father who has pampered him – encouraged him in believing the world revolves around him. He is gifted but arrogant — a spoiled brat – hardly a noble character.
You witness the resentment of his brothers reaching a boiling point in which they first consider killing the brat, but resist this urge and decide instead to sell the kid into slavery. You witness Joseph undergoing a deeply traumatizing experience – one in which his psyche is deeply wounded.
Second snapshot: A couple of years later. Things it seems have gotten even worse. Joseph is locked in an Egyptian prison cell. His original arrogance has long since been humbled. In deep despair, Joseph views himself as cursed.
A third snapshot: By a mysterious turn of events a strange God-given talent – his ability to interpret dreams – suddenly leads to the parting of the dark clouds that have hovered over Joseph’s life. He leaves the prison cell to work as Pharaoh’s right-hand man. He is aware that this is not his own doing – that he has been the recipient of a blessing – and in gratitude he devotes himself to making a positive difference in the world.
A final snapshot, a couple of years later. In another peculiar turn of events, his brothers turn up in Egypt in search of grain having been brought there by the famine that has plagued the land for two years with no end in sight. Joseph recognizes them, but not surprisingly they don’t recognize him. The old wound inflicted by his brothers’ cruelty surges back into consciousness. It is as if Joseph suddenly is that terrified youth who youth from years earlier finding himself sold into slavery. A strong desire rises inside him to hurt his brothers the way they hurt him, and for a time he gives expression to this desire, jerking his brothers about in a way that causes them to feel very much afraid. A war is going on inside Joseph. He could easily have his brothers executed, but something holds him back from doing this.
An awareness emerges that through all the twists and turns of his story – all the toils and snares – God’s grace has been at work, seeking to bring about blessings that extend well beyond himself. As the hours past, Joseph moves through his darker feelings to come to a place where he can choose love instead of hate.
What can we glean from Joseph’s story in relation to the command of Jesus that we are to love our enemies?
Well first, that the ultimate destination to which our story would lead us is to arrive at a place in which we possess the heart of Christ – where we can love and forgive even those who have wounded us most severely.
It’s important to know our story’s destination, and it’s foolish to expect ourselves to have already reached the goal. The journey that leads us to our ultimate destination must be travelled – the full story matters. When reading a novel, we can’t begin at the end. We need to resist the temptation to give the final interpretation of our lives prematurely.
In spite of our inevitable doubts, our faith is that ultimately grace will lead us safely home.
I once heard a snapshot from a woman’s life told by a pastor who encountered her in the darkened halls of a hospital as she travelled between one room belonging to her husband who had suffered a heart attack and another belonging to her son who had crashed his car rushing to the hospital.
“I’m not going to jump to any conclusions about what all this means,” she said. “Who knows what God may bring out of this?”
All things work for good, said the Apostle Paul, for those who love God. Which isn’t to say God causes the bad things we experience, but rather that if we give God room to work, in time good things come out of the things that wound us.
It also seems important to consider what all this means in our relationships to one another.
I read a moving column this week by Frank Bruni entitled, “Doctors Said I Might Go Blind. It Helped Me See More Clearly.” He described his experience of dealing with a sudden loss of eyesight and his doctor telling him that it wouldn’t be getting better and that it was possible that in time he would go completely blind. The best he could hope for was that it wouldn’t get worse.
The experience shook Bruni to the core. He was aware however that outwardly he didn’t look different to people – he still appeared to be a highly successful writer who seemingly had no great travails to his life.
He described how the experience led him to see the people around him more clearly – to take note of the unseen burdens their life stories had led them to carry. As his own struggle led to a great vulnerability, people in turn became more vulnerable with him, allowing him see beyond the surface appearance to things with which they too were struggling.
Bruni began fantasizing about people walking around with sandwich boards that gave a brief synopsis of the burdens they carried. For instance, the sandwich board of one woman he knew would read, “Single parent, child with special needs, nowhere near enough help.”
Bruni noted that if the woman’s colleagues knew this about her story, they “would rightly find her ability to hold down a full-time job and her unflagging professionalism in it not just admirable but heroic. They’d instantly forgive her any tiny lapses of memory, any fleeting impatience, because they’d understand what a miracle it was that the lapses were only tiny and the impatience merely fleeting.”
A couple of other sandwich signs Bruni imagined from the unseen struggles of people he knew were these: “Road accident, broken bones, reconstructive surgeries, can no longer fully feel a kiss.” “Debilitating headaches, near-constant shrieking in ears, frequent thoughts of suicide.”
Again, that old truth: “Be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”
It makes a difference how you view a person in the snapshot presented to us of a person we encounter — particularly when that snapshot presents a not so appealing self – if we know something of the wounds they have experienced in life.
Perhaps the greatest privilege I have as a pastor is that I am allowed to hear more of peoples’ stories than others typically get to hear. I’ve been allowed to hear of times in which they were wounded, but along with that I witness an often hidden graciousness.
One of the things I’ve come to believe is that if we could have the opportunity to hear in great depth the story of pretty much any other person, we would find ourselves moved to love them.
I remember back in one of the little country churches I served before coming to Parsippany 33 years ago there were two women who really didn’t like each other. Some sort of conflict arose between them in the Sunday School, the details of which I have long forgotten. They were enemies who felt disrespected by the other.
Both of them, however had shared parts of their stories they did not commonly share. I knew that one — a single mother had been raised by a terribly abusive father, both emotionally and physically — carried with her the wounds of his abuse. The other: well, her father had murdered her mother, and then taken his own life. She carried such a heavy burden of grief, as well as her own experience of abuse by the father.
I thought to myself if I could only tell each of these women something of the story of the other, their hearts would soften, but to do so would have betrayed the confidentiality with which I was entrusted. I was left to imagine a way that the story could proceed – that somewhere down the road, in this life or the next, the two women could experience the safety to share with one another the journeys that brought them to the present, and in the telling of their stories – like Joseph with his brothers — they would fall into one another’s arms recognizing at last their long-lost sister.
There is holiness in the sharing of our stories. When someone with tenderness give us space to tell our story as best we know how to tell it, there is opportunity for grace to enter the story. The very act of telling our story and having that story lovingly heard brings some bit of healing.
And the way we tell our story changes as we experience grace. We catch something of that ultimate destination, that home of grace and welcome where finally we recognize we really are connected by love in our deepest depths through the one who gave us life.