Epiphany 7C, 2019
Genesis 45:3-11, 15
The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan
Last year I watched a short run, two season series on NBC called “Timeless.” The characters have time machines and are chasing each other around in history. It got canceled and I’m still on a cliff hanger wondering if they ever got back to real time unharmed! It really wasn’t very good, but I got caught up in that fantasy of jumping around through time. There are hundreds of such TV and movie storylines out there. And one theme is that the characters from the present must not interact with the people they encounter in the past or future lest they upset the “time-space continuum.” Whatever that is.
Some folks, like me, love the fantasy of playing with time. I guess we long to go back and fix things or go forward and see how things turn out. If you remember the “Back to the Future” movies, you’ll remember that they had a story line about a book of sports scores that one bad character used to cheat at gambling by taking it back in time and so he got rich that way.
Perhaps there are a variety of desires in the fantasy of leaving the present and going back or forward in time. I wonder why that is so appealing. Why do we have so much trouble with just living in the present?
One answer to the question is that we wish we could have a do-over and make different choices and avoid some of the regrets we carry with us now.
This weekend I decided to finally get around to a rainy day chore of going through some old storage boxes of old pictures and I came upon a stack of old letters. Between the letters and the pictures, I got caught up in remembering how things were in my relationships and aspirations back as far as 35 years ago!
As I prepared this sermon, I found myself realizing that I stand today on a sort of time precipice that might be a door to the “time-space continuum,” if this were a Sci-fi movie.
You see, today is the 20th anniversary of my ordination as a deacon. For 20 years I’ve served the church in ordained ministry. This month also is the first anniversary of when I was called as your Rector. This time last year I was going through the process of an interview with the search committee and vestry and I was asked to preach and lead a Eucharist service. I got to choose what scriptures to preach on for that service since it was outside of the discipline of preaching the Sunday lectionary.
So, I chose to preach on forgiveness. If you think about it, it is obvious why I felt the theme of forgiveness was needed at Grace. It still is.
Yesterday, when I was digging through those old letters, I found they lined up like a novel. Now, I didn’t have whatever letters I had mailed to Nancy and Barbara and other friends. These were responses to letters I had sent. And they were telling a story of what was going on in our lives at the time. And I realized that the characters in this story were living in a time before the rest of the story. And I knew the rest of the story. The story went through about a year and ended abruptly in mid-February. And I know now things like the fact that Nancy met her husband two weeks later. It was a powerful experience and I’m left bereft of the idea that letters of old have been destroyed and letters in today’s world, well, they’re no longer written.
At the bottom of the bin was a letter form a girl I knew when we were just 18 and freshmen in college. Romana had been courted a bit by David and so I told him no when he invited me out. But he told me that he and Romona had only gone out a couple of times and that it didn’t work out. So when he invited me again, just to go on a walk, I accepted. And we did just that. David and I strolled around the beautiful Emory and Henry campus on a beautiful Fall day in the early 1980s and Ramona saw us from her dorm room window and she was angry.
Ramona told lots of the other girls that I stole her boyfriend and she stirred up a whole group of kids who were giving me the evil eye and excluding me from social stuff over the next few weeks. This all culminated at a weekend church retreat, by the way. I was left standing alone in a corner, isolated, hurt and angry.
But yesterday, when I found her 35-year-old letter, I had forgotten all about all that. I had forgotten all about Ramona. What I did remember, before I opened that box, was the pain and embarrassment she caused me in her actions of telling lies about me and ostracizing me. I remembered that when I saw the return address on the envelop and the signature at the end. And I remembered next that I never spoke to her again. I remembered that our lives went in different directions shortly after all that so I guessed it didn’t really matter.
But I read the letter anyway, because I was reading my way through the whole box and was really amused with all of the letters so I decided to read each and every one. And this was fun. Until I read the second page of Ramona’s letter.
It was an apology. The letter was written from her home to mine during the Christmas break just after all that badness between us had happened that Fall. She wrote a carefully worded, kind, sincere, mature apology for her actions. And yesterday, I was floored reading a 35 year old apology that I never accepted.
When Joseph was confronted with his long lost brothers, at this point in the story, his brothers who had tried to murder him, he acted at first like he didn’t know them. Maybe he wanted to forget them and maybe he had tried for years to forget them. They didn’t recognize him at this encounter because they thought he was dead and he had only been a kid when they last saw him anyway. They were refugees of the famine, seeking a generous neighbor, seeking food for their families. They weren’t expecting to encounter their old, dead-to-them, little brother.
Joseph had been a big dreamer as a kid and his gift of interpreting dreams had gotten him where he was at this point in the story. Joseph is now second only to the Pharaoh himself. The path to this unexpected blessing was not an easy one.
False accusation in response to his repeated rejection of Potiphar’s wife’s sexual advances had put him in prison and favor with the prison wardens had put him in charge of the prisoners. Correctly interpreting the dreams of a baker and a cupbearer moved him from prison to the palace. His wisdom interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams and his gift for administration made Egypt the “breadbasket of the world” during a seven-year famine. Through all of this, it is important to remember, Joseph always credited Yahweh with these blessings.
Joseph had been their father’s favorite when he was a kid and he was given that special coat of many colors, as you remember. His bothers, jealous of this favoritism, had sold him into slavery where he had not only survived but prospered.
So, at this point in the story, the entire region, including Egypt, is suffering the seven-year period of famine foreseen by Joseph, and, two years into this famine, the brothers come looking for food.
The part of the story we have read today is a speech by Joseph once he finally reveals himself to them. It is filled with the emotion of the reunion. When Joseph says who he is, the brothers are “dumfounded” by fear and unbelief. Will Joseph, who now is so powerful, repay them with what they did to him and have them killed? The brothers quickly learn what we, the readers know already - that instead, he will choose to forgive them.
So, today I want to lift up again for you, as I did a year ago, the unavoidable Christian commandment to forgive our enemies.
This is very difficult. And it is very tricky.
First of all, we have to identify who our enemies are. Maybe that means recognizing not evil foreigners but folks in our lives whom we have spitefully cut off because they angered or hurt us. Folks like me and Ramona. I didn’t even remember her. What might have happened if I’d been more accepting of her repentance? What might have happened if I’d been more repentant too?
Forgiveness is tricky. We think we forgive when we really don’t. We don’t forgive when we thought we did. Or, we stay angry and can’t forgive because the other party is not repentant. That’s the hardest scenario.
Jesus says, forgive them anyway.
As we prepare our hearts for Lent this year, I invite you to take a long hard look at our need for forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation in the relationships of the people in our lives.
To begin some of that pondering, hear these words from my colleague Rev. Penny Nash:
Penny reminds us that “We begin the Eucharist during the season of Lent saying, ‘Bless the Lord who forgives all our sins.’”
“We need this reminder as often as possible - every day would not be too often to hear that God forgives all our sins. My experience,” says Penny, “is that many of us are not sure we believe that God forgives all our sins and, furthermore, that most of us need to learn how to forgive ourselves as well. We carry around these heavy loads and can't put them down for fear of being selfish or being careless or being an even bigger sinner than before.”
“There are many reasons why we don't trust that God forgives our sins We may imagine that a God who forgives must be too soft to really be God. Certainly, we think, a holy God cannot countenance or abide unholiness and so we imagine a mighty and stern God always on the lookout for us missing the mark. And then holding it against us.”
“Sometimes we don't understand the nature of forgiveness. We may think that if we forgive someone (who seems unrepentant that) we are saying that what they did wrong - what they did to us - was ok. That it was ok to hurt us, it was ok to cheat, it was ok to lie to or about us. We decide that the only way we will forgive is if the person does about a million things to convince us that he or she is really. really sorry, and perhaps we will require some kind of restitution, and even then we may not actually forgive them. Because otherwise we're saying it was ok for them to do what they did. And then they get off the hook somehow.”
“And then we impute this line of reasoning upon God. And then we can't grovel enough, and even after we have groveled and said the confession every Sunday and perhaps even participated in the Rite of Reconciliation with a priest who has, in God's name, absolved us, we secretly fear that God is still holding our sins against us.”
“But this is not how it works with God. (And not how it should work between us, either.) Forgiveness does not mean that the sin was ok. We still have to live with the consequences of our sins. We have to repent, to learn from our missing the mark and try to change because of it. Forgiveness means not carrying that grudge around, not letting someone else's stuff clog us up inside (someone once called it "no longer renting space inside me to someone else's toxic junk"). Letting go means not letting something fester and hold us back from health and wholeness. God forgives us because God wants for us to be able to be what God made us to be. And God did not make us to be crushed under a load of guilt and misery.”
“Christians claim that what we know about God is what we have seen in Jesus Christ, who died for us while we were yet sinners. Jesus came to reconcile us to one another and to God. He said, I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly. That means, we have to learn how to forgive and we have to learn how to accept forgiveness. That is a truth that will set us free.”
So, my brothers and sisters, as we enter into Lent this year I ask you to ponder these questions in your hearts: Where is the famine in your life? In the life of this parish? Who are our brothers and sisters who are hungry and have come to us for help? The ones who apologized, the ones who didn’t? With whom do you need to practice forgiveness? And most of all, can you really practice the Golden Rule? “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, (can you) offer the other also?; and from anyone who takes away your coat (can you give also) your shirt? (Can you) give to everyone who begs from you?; . . . (Can you really) Do to others as you would have them do to you?
Yes. Yes. Yes you can. Because God first loved us. Because God first forgave us. Because God sends us letters from throughout all of time to remind you that this is the life for which we were created.
So, “Bless the Lord who forgives all our sins. God's mercy endures forever.”