A homily I gave at St. John’s Episcopal, Lakeport, CA.
A wonderful thing about reading the Bible is to be challenged by it, grappling with what doesn’t fit in one’s world view, when it conflicts with the way one wants things to be said and resolved. Notice I’m using third person here. I could say “you”. But in reality I need to say “me”. There have been times I’ve put the Bible down because I’ve taken what it says literally; my Southern Baptist background colors my perceptions. I often feel I can’t trust God, that I don’t want to believe in God, or at times even don’t believe because how could all that is Holy, all that is perfect, be so egotistical and cruel to throw people into Hell? Especially since God has some seemingly impossible standards to live up to.
So when I read the passages for today, a familiar wall arose. Since I’m trying to become a preacher, I suppose I’ll have the opportunity to scale many more walls as I wrestle with looking beyond the literal, beyond a God I’ve projected as one to fear. To learn, instead, to find the Holy Spirit within and discover She is love. God is love, but that doesn’t mean God needs to be “nice,” or that Jesus doesn’t have to hit us over the head with a verbal two-by-four to wake us up from time to time. And this week, we’re awakening into the nature of real forgiveness.
In the Old Testament reading, Joseph of the Techno-Color Dream Coat fame is older, his treasured multi-colored coat a memory that stirred envy and downright nastiness in his older brothers. They sold him into slavery and lied to Jacob, their father, telling him that Joseph was dead. If anyone had a case to not “get over” what was done, it’s Joseph. He does have his touche moment by pretending to keep the youngest brother Benjamin as a hostage, but by doing so he gets the Israelites to safety. Being in Egypt is temporarily good for them. Though things go south fast in the first verses of Exodus, they have survived and have a future as a people thanks to the fidelity Joseph shows to his family.
Today’s story brings the book of Genesis to a close, and in it Joseph demonstrates some Christ-like behavior toward his brothers who seem to still be scheming. Joseph has told them they are forgiven, but they don’t believe it. When Jacob dies, they grow paranoid. What if he still holds a grudge and wants revenge? “We’d better grovel,” they tell themselves. And what does Joseph do when they commence to grovelling? He cries, just like he did when they first arrived and did not recognize him. Does he cry this second time because his brothers have been unable to receive his forgiveness? Is he just tired of the drama? I have no idea, but when they offer to be his slaves, he abides in love and says, “Do not be afraid,” echoing Jesus’ frequent command. And then he asks, “Am I in place of God?” Joseph has done his Earthly work; they are in God’s hands now. Perhaps seeing Joseph’s tears, they finally understand and the weight of their guilt lifts from their shoulders because by being forgiven they can forgive themselves.
The scope of the Bible leads us in one direction, despite however meandering the stories flow within it: our limited perceptions are challenged and we are asked to do the hard work of letting go in love, over and over again, as often as we need to; for some aspects of our lives this may be a lifetime’s work. To forgive not only others, but ourselves as well, and to trust that God has forgiven us.
The discussion between Jesus and Peter about how often we must forgive sounds pretty academic as it starts off. Maybe it’s just me, but does Peter act like he’s trying impress Jesus? Look, Jesus, I get it…we need to forgive a lot…7 times! Good try, Peter, but let’s try again. Not 7, but 77. Whenever certain numbers appear in Bible, 7, or 12, or 40, we know that these are symbolic. Jesus was not giving Peter a recipe for forgiveness…there is no magic number that we need to forgive, keeping track of the exact number of attempts we have made. The number seven in this passage represents an ongoing spiritual discipline, the never-ending search in our hearts for peace.
Some wrongs done to us can be let go of without too much struggle. But there are other wounds, the ones that hurt to the depths of our souls that others have cause because they were suffering or were simply not aware of the toxicity of their words and actions. Some of us have been hurt by people who have taken pleasure in the wounding. Maybe something in childhood has impeded our ability to be true to ourself as adults. Maybe we feel God has wronged us, taken someone too early that we cherished, and we can’t understand why this child, this young person, this mother or father has died. In these situations, it is impossible to forgive seven times and be done with it, even seventy times seven.
At the end of his conversation with Peter, Jesus turns personal and talks to all of us. The father will hand you over to the fires of Gehenna…the trash heap outside of Jerusalem…where you will burn forever. I’m talking to you, are you listening? This is my two-by-four: forgive or you will burn in Hell.
I’ve often closed the Bible at moments like this, too much of Dr. Bob’s haranguing sermons from Central Baptist in Anaheim filling my ears. How could I ever be good enough? How could I ever forgive enough? But aren’t we already in hell, and doesn’t every day feel like an eternity when we’re eaten away by anger, beating ourselves up with self-pity and regret, putting salt on our wounds and reliving our betrayal over and over?
In writing to the Romans, Paul asks the members of the church to forgive what they see as extreme grievances, some thinking the others were dishonoring God by what they ate, insisting upon or ignoring practices that defined who was a Jew, or for this group, a true follower of Jesus. Like Joseph, Paul reminds his readers that God is the judge, not us. We are not to condemn someone else because she doesn’t vote like us, believe in gun control or not, marry whom we think he should marry. To love each other as a community, as Christ’s Church, we must forgive each other for not measuring up to our personal values and standards of piety, even as our judgments rise up time after time.
Forgiveness is a continual practice, a prayerful awareness we must be vigilant about, even when we feel it’s impossible, even when we’re convinced that the beliefs of others are wrong. This isn’t easy stuff. This doesn’t mean we need to be in relationship with someone who will continue to harm us, nor that we must be nice and never challenge one another, but we can ask for the Holy Spirit to lead us toward dialogue, reconciliation, and communion. We do this again and again, until layers of pain and resistance release, until one day we find we are able to breathe deeper into the darkness of our hearts, to cool the smoldering trash heaps that blind us from becoming more whole, healed, entrained with the sacredness of our lives, present with ourselves and each other in the love of Christ Jesus.