Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sunday Sermon

Pentecost 18/Genesis 5:15-21 (mostly)

One of the favorite TV stations at our house, Turner Classic Movies (or TCM), offers a once a week program simply called: "The Essentials." Every week they run a different movie that they consider to be one of the great ones: Sometimes it’s The Wizard of Oz, sometimes Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or To Kill a Mockingbird. They call these movies: "The Essentials" – the movies you just have to know, the movies you just have to have seen if you want to call yourself a movie fan at all. Afterward they have a discussion about just why it is they claim that this movie is one of the "Essentials." It might be the acting or it might be the story or it might be the theme – but for one reason or another, they believe this is a ‘must-see’ movie.

The Essentials. It seems to me, reading this week’s readings: the story of Joseph and his brothers, the story of Peter and Jesus, and the unforgiving servant: these are, after all, the essentials. These stories point to what is most important in our faith. It might be the stories themselves: after all, the story of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is famous not just to regular church-goers, but to all kinds of people, thanks to that popular musical. This story has family rivalries, it has intrigue, it has romance and reversals of fortune: as some might say, all of the essentials to make a good story. And the story of Joseph take up a huge chunk of the action in Genesis, starting in chapter 37 and continuing all the way until the end of Genesis, at chapter 50. It’s one of the essential stories of our faith. And the story of the unforgiving servant, while not quite as famous, also has all of the elements of a good story, especially if you know a few extra details about it: if you know, for example that the debt forgiven the first servant was on a par of about a million dollars. If you can imagine that someone had wracked up a credit card debt of about a million dollars, and then they were told that this enormous debt was totally forgiven, totally cancelled out – then what a shock to hear that the next thing they did was knock on their neighbor’s door and demand the $100 owed. In fact, when I put it that way at a Bible study the other day, I heard an audible gasp. (Don’t you think that might have been the original intention of this parable?) Yes, this parable has all of the essentials of a good story: drama, complicated characters, surprise ending.

So maybe it’s the stories themselves that make them "essentials." Or maybe it’s the theme of today’s lessons. After all, the theme of both of these stories is the same, isn’t it? It’s all about forgiveness, and forgiveness, for us, is one of the essentials of our faith. Think about it. It’s really what our faith is all about, isn’t it? Every week we ask God to forgive us for things we have done and things we have left undone. Every week we hear that God fully forgives us all our sins, and sends us out in the name of God’s son and in the power of his love. Every week we also pray together the Lord’s prayer, with its kind of scary petition: "forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us." As a Bible study participant said last week about this large and important word: Forgiveness: so difficult, and so necessary.

So difficult and so necessary: that’s what we see in the essential stories of forgiveness we hear this week. It’s not just the theme that is so important, and it’s not just the stories, but it’s the way forgiveness is and is not practiced. And that’s the way it is in our lives as well. We play out stories of forgiveness every day, in large and in small ways, in our private lives and in public debates. We play out not forgiving in wars fought and in political grudges held, and in family squabbles that continue over generations. And we play out stories as well of amazing forgiveness: Amish families that forgave their daughters’ killer; a Mennonite couple who pleaded for mercy for a murderer; a well-known wife who forgave her husband’s infidelity. Why did she do it? People wonder, some questioning her motives. Forgiveness: so difficult – and so necessary. The stories of our lives and the stories from the scripture tell us both these things.

So difficult to forgive: That’s the first lesson we learn today. Real forgiveness is no easy matter, especially if we have been really hurt, really sinned against. I consider the story I have told before, about the woman I knew whose son was beaten up by two older boys. They stole $2 from him – his fireworks money – and left him laid up with a severely broken leg all summer. It might have been easier to forgive them if they had attacked her instead of her son. So difficult is it to forgive, especially if we have been really hurt, really sinned against. Consider the story of Joseph, one of the essentials of our faith. We hear today only the end of the story, but it’s a story whose beginning goes back many years: do you recall who Joseph was? The favorite son, he received that special coat, that special present from his father.

And Joseph, he also had those dreams, those dreams of his where he was the master and all of his brothers were bowing down to him. And he told those dreams to his brothers. Can you imagine how they felt? You probably can. And yet you probably can’t imagine what they did: they actually conspired to have him killed – that’s how much they hated him. They were going to kill him, but instead they decided to sell him as a slave. He probably thought he would never see is father again. How do you forgive something like that? So difficult – and yet so necessary.
But why? Just why is it that forgiveness is so necessary? You can hear many reasons from many different people. The self-help people will tell you that it’s about your own mental health. You must forgive others, not for their own good, but for yours. If you don’t forgive, you will end up bitter and angry and alone. Your grudges will end up hurting you more than they could ever have hurt another person. And perhaps that is true, but that’s not the main lesson we learn from Joseph’s story. It’s not the reason that forgiveness is so necessary.

A number of years ago, I used to get my hair cut up near my parents’ home in Fridley. The woman who cut my hair was a German woman, who had emigrated here as a child. We used to have lively discussion of about her childhood, her life, her family now. One day I came in wearing a green "Lutheran World Relief" T-shirt I had gotten. She saw it and gushed, "Lutheran World Relief! I love Lutherans! They gave me my first pair of shoes." She had been a young child in Germany just after the war; she had been a refugee, and had been shown kindness by the Americans who had defeated them. She got her first pair of shoes from her enemies.

That’s the way it was just after World War II, when the Allies decided that instead of punishing their enemies, they would reach out with kindness, with food, with service. They helped rebuild the cities of their former enemies. It was called "The Marshall Plan," and the idea was to help turn enemies into friends. For the sake of the future, for the sake of peace, for the sake of the world, we forgave, and we turned instead to what could be in the future.

This is what Joseph does as well. Instead of dwelling on past wrongs, he decides to dwell on what can be in the future. He reassures his brothers that he no longer bears a grudge and he promises them, ‘I will provide for you and for your little ones.’ He promises to feed and clothe and sustain his brothers and their children– to forgive them not only in words, but with his actions. And why does he does this?

Probably the most incredible thing that Joseph says in this story is this. He says to his brothers: "Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people." You intended it for harm, but God intended it for good. Really, what an amazing statement. Joseph does not deny the reality of the evil that they had done to him, but he believes in something else even more. He believes in God’s future – both for himself and for his family: maybe, who knows? Even for the world.

For let’s remember who this family is. This is the family who will become Israel, the people who will later on, be rescued from slavery in Egypt, and brought into the promised land. This is the family that will become a sign of God’s loving purpose for the whole world. This is the family that will bear a special responsibility to bless the world, as it was promised to Abraham, "I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing." This is the family of Kings David and Solomon, the family who heard the words of the prophets, the family who first learned of God’s mission to the world. "You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good, to preserve a numerous people."

How is it that Joseph could say words like this to his brothers after all those years?
We can speculate of course, about all the hard times Joseph must have suffered. He had many years to speculate on just why his brothers had come to hate him. We can speculate that perhaps he became more humble than he had been, more willing to see himself not just as favored son, but also as a man in need of mercy. Suddenly his brothers are bowing before him, just as his dreams have always told him they would, and instead of gloating, he understands, suddenly understands something. His dreams were never about him, and about his greatness. His dreams were really about God’s mission, God’s mission to preserve the people, and God’s mission to love and bless the world. "You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good, to preserve a numerous people."

Forgiveness: so difficult, and yet, so necessary. In fact, it’s one of the essentials. And so God sent his son to heal our broken lives, to cover our sins, to love us forever, to forgive us and to give us a future with hope. But you know it’s never just about us – because God is sending us on a mission of forgiveness as well, setting us free to be agents of forgiveness in the world.

Because forgiveness is one of the essentials: like bread and wine, water and words. Difficult, but necessary for life.


Border Explorer said...

Your words went right to my heart. This is beautiful.

FranIAm said...

I am sitting here crying... wow Diane, this is a great sermon.

One day, I assure you, one day I will hear this from the pews.

Thank you so much.

"PS" (a.k.a. purple) said...

"We play out not forgiving in wars fought and in political grudges held, and in family squabbles that continue over generations." awesome examples that people can identify with. Thanks for posting this sermon, Diane.

RevDrKate said...

Another good one, Diane!

LawAndGospel said...

Thanks for these great words. Having worked at the hospital yesterday, this was a great way to reconnect.

Lindy said...

One of your best, Diane. Essential reading. Thank you.