NRSV GENESIS 45:1-11
45 Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. 2 And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. 3 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.
4 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. 5 And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 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. 7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 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. 9 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. 10 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. 11 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.’
NRSV LUKE 6:27-38
27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 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. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 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. 35 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. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
37“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 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.”
We have been here before: The story of Joseph being reconciled with his brothers; Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, especially the part where Jesus says words that have echoed through the centuries in almost every religious tradition: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”
They are familiar words. And as usual with familiar words, that familiarity can be a blessing and a curse. Because we have been here before, we have found ourselves wiggling out of the tightness they might give us, a tightness that might lead us to live differently. Like the times when we hear the words, “love your enemies and pray for those who do harm to you,” and then moments later someone cuts us off in traffic, or someone says something that embarrasses us in a public venue. Then we do not want so much to pray for them as to do something physical with them.
We have been here before, and as much as we would like to wiggle away from their impact upon us, we know that these words ring a solid truth. We know we are supposed to forgive people, that holding their sins over their heads only hurts ourselves. We have seen all those nice memes on the internet about how withholding forgiveness only punishes ourselves. We have, perhaps, experienced the joy of giving to someone without expecting anything in return (even though we may harbor some internal grudges that make us wonder what they are really doing with what we have just given them). We know that it is important to let go of the gavel and be reconciled to someone. We know all that.
But that doesn’t make following through on these familiar, powerful words any easier. Maybe because of their closeness we know how tough they can be. We know they are not just nice, sweet words for us to show off how holy or nice or loving we are. Yes, they are words that Christians have exhibited when we are at our best. But unfortunately they are also words that have been twisted by Christians when we have been at our worst.
They are words that have been used by well-meaning – I hope – church leaders to tell a woman, or a man, to stay in an abusive relationship, rather than to view themselves as a child of God who does not deserve to be treated so harshly. They are words that we use in our heads when someone demeans us, or slips in an unpleasant memory that we wish would be forgotten. They are words that we cling to when we tell other people of a different racial and ethnic tradition to just get over past injustices, move on and don’t dwell on the unpleasant past.
They are words that we can use to gloss over an assortment of bad behaviors and actions. But they can also be words that are heard only one way. It is tempting for us to think about all of those nasty people out there who have offended us, who have hurt us, who have made our lives difficult. They stand condemned, or so we may think when we hear these words. But then the tables get turned around when we realize that I have said the unkind word, I have committed the unkind act, I was the one who made someone else look bad or feel uncomfortable. Then they are not words to be used as weapon against someone else. They may be words that indict us.
They are familiar words. They are words that affect all of us, at different times in our lives, in different parts of our lives. That’s part of their familiarity. That is also part of their discomfort. We hear them from Jesus himself, so we know we cannot blow them off. We know that just as he calls on us to go above and beyond in our treatment of others, we have not always done that, or we have come up with all kinds of reasons not to do that. Or we have done those things which make these words even more powerful because we have been the enemy, we have been the persecutor.
But these words of Jesus – and the actions of Joseph toward his brothers – are not meant only to keep us wallowing in our sense of sinfulness, our sense of stuckness. Yes, we have all messed up, we tell ourselves that all the time and we are reminded of it every Sunday. Got it. But if we are not careful we can stay in that sense of being stuck and messed up, and forget that these words were given to the disciples of Jesus – that includes us, folks – to serve as a wake-up call, and a compass by which to redirect ourselves on the journey of life. Rather than keeping us stuck in the quicksand of our brokenness, these words are meant to get us on the way of faithful living.
But we have to come close. We cannot keep these words at distance. Because these words call on us to come close to those around us. To come close to our enemies. To come close to those who have a nasty word for us. Come close to those who have shown us up. Come close to those we have had a grudge with for years. Come close to those times when we have oppressed and exploited, and remember that in coming close to us in crucifixion, Jesus the risen Christ has given us resurrection, a new way to live.
Come close, but not only in your brokenness. Come close to the mercy of God, which frees you to come closer.
Joseph probably felt that way as he reveals himself to his brothers. You might wonder why they didn’t know who he was; certainly something could have tipped them off, the way he held his head, the gestures with his hands. But it had been a while. Many years, in fact. Plus he was speaking Egyptian to them the whole time, using an interpreter to disguise who he was. Now he is in tears, speaking in Aramaic to them, the language of his youth, the language they shared in common. He asks how Dad is doing, showing that though they had kicked him out of the family, he never got that memo. He was still concerned about the father they all shared. Through everything, he was still connected.
And then he asked them to come closer. When he does that he shares with them something he learned, something that probably took his whole life to learn, because it usually takes us a whole life to learn it, too. He says that what you all meant for harm God took it and turned it around for good. It’s the ultimate in living out what Richard Rohr has termed, “Everything Belongs.” Everything – the good stuff and the bad stuff, the freeing and the manipulating, life and death, hope and despair, our most noble deeds and the things we would like to forget, God takes the whole thing and works through it so that people are reconciled, lives are spared, and generations preserved. God does not let our waywardness or sinfulness or brokenness get in the way of eternal love moving for freedom, love and wholeness.
When they did come closer he shared with them all that was going on, all that was going to happen, and gave them instructions to go back home, pack your things, and tell Dad he is coming to a place where I can keep an eye on all of you, an eye you will need because this famine isn’t have done with us yet. Come closer, Joseph said.
When Jesus continues his Sermon on the Plain – the sermon on the level place, the tough place, the broken place, the place where we all live – he starts off by saying: “But I say to you that listen…” In other words, come closer. Come and be open to what I have to tell you. Come and listen carefully because this is not the way the world usually works. This is countercultural stuff. This is revolutionary stuff. This is as hard as it gets stuff. This is the kind of thing you will stake your life on because the other way, the way that hasn’t really worked very well, is the way the world usually works – the way of vengeance, of ‘don’t get mad get even,’ the way of sticking it those who have stuck it to you. Instead, Jesus says, try being merciful. After all, the God who created you is merciful. The God who has put up with you is merciful. The God who has worked through all of your messed up ways and misplaced words is the God who is merciful, to you and to all of creation. So turn the other cheek, give to those without expecting anything in return, do to others as you would have others do to you.
At the heart of all of this is God’s mercy. Not ours, but God’s. Joseph saw that. Jesus taught and lived that. When we experience God’s mercy it comes in reconciliation – turning people from enemies into friends – and forgiveness. Forgiveness is not easy and it is not quick. It takes time, it takes effort, it takes struggle. And for some of us, it takes years before we can be free of the shackles we thought belonged to someone else, but then one day in a moment of divine revelation we found them on our own legs and hearts. Nadia Bolz-Weber writes about that kind of forgiveness and reconciliation:
“Maybe retaliation or holding onto anger about the harm done to me doesn’t actually combat evil. Maybe it feeds it. Because in the end, if we’re not careful, we can actually absorb the worst of our enemy, and at some level, start to become them. So what if forgiveness, rather than being a pansy way to say, ‘It’s okay,’ is actually a way of wielding bolt-cutters, and snapping the chains that link us? What if it’s saying, ‘What you did was so not okay, I refuse to be connected to it anymore’? Forgiveness is about being a freedom fighter. And free people are dangerous people. Free people aren’t controlled by the past. Free people laugh more than others. Free people see beauty where others do not. Free people are not easily offended. Free people are unafraid to speak truth to stupid. Free people are not chained to resentments. And that’s worth fighting for.”
Come closer, Joseph said to his brothers. I say to you that listen, Jesus says, invitingly. Come closer, closer to God’s Word and Presence which is all around you, which is all within you. Come closer so that you can come closer to that child of God who lives within you, and embrace that one with forgiveness and love. Come closer so that you can come closer to others, but especially those others you would just as soon be far away from. For they may be the ones who have the most to teach you about a God who comes closer. Amen.