New Dimensions

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9/11/11; Genesis 50: 15-21, Matt 18: 21-35

A sermon preached by Rev. Jane McBride, First Congregational Church of MN, UCC

This week, I came across a striking story from the book The Pearl is in the Oyster by Marilyn Cram Donahue. A blogger summarizes it this way: “[the author] tells the story of a neighbor who had ritualized her resentment. Whenever a visitor came for a cup of tea or coffee, she would pour the drinks and then reach for an old and battered plastic sugar bowl. Then, apologetically, she would tell her story of the beautiful bone china bowl that her mother had owned, but that her sister had taken when her mother died and they divided up her possessions. She had never forgiven her sister, and had turned her bitterness into a daily routine that kept it fresh and growing.” (http://sacredise.com/blog/?p=1034; John van de Larr, September 5, 2011)

To forgive or not to forgive? Is that really the right question on a day like this? Forgiveness almost seems like an obscene suggestion as we remember this important anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Will it look like we are condoning the evil that has been done, or forgetting the pain of the victims? What if we never receive an apology, if the behavior doesn’t change? Are we simply opening ourselves up to be hurt again? When it comes to forgiveness, I think we tend to ask what it might cost us to forgive. But the story about the woman with her sugar bowl and her daily nursing of an old wound also asks us to also consider: What is the cost of not forgiving, not being forgiven? What happens to us, and to our world if we don’t practice forgiveness?

Today’s scripture from Genesis explores the complexities of forgiveness. Remember? Jacob had many sons, but loved Joseph, his youngest, the best. He gave Joseph a long robe with sleeves (the many colored coat of lore). In Joseph’s wild dreams, his brothers, and even the sun and moon and stars, bowed down to him. No big surprise that Joseph’s brothers hated him, that one day they beat him up, threw him in a pit, and sold him to slave traders.

As a slave in Egypt, Joseph worked his way into power through his skills in dream interpretation. Eventually, he became chief advisor to Pharoah himself. Many years later, Joseph’s brothers traveled to Egypt seeking food in a time of famine. The family was reunited and an uneasy peace settled in. Today’s scripture chronicles the shift that occurs in family dynamics when Jacob, their father dies. The brothers start to worry that Joseph will now seek revenge. So they ask for forgiveness for their crime of selling him into slavery. This request seems motivated more by fear than by a genuine sense of repentance. And we suspect that they might have made up the deathbed instructions from Jacob, that Joseph should forgive.

As for Joseph, it’s not clear that he ever does truly forgive his brothers. It’s impossible to know whether his tears in this moment express rage or love. We do know that Joseph rejects his brothers’ offer to be his slaves, which could be his way of refusing to let them off the hook. It’s as if he is saying: “nothing you can do now will change what you did to me. That’s not a transaction I accept” His promise to provide for his brothers and their little ones is generous, but could also be his way of maintaining power over them. We could argue that both Joseph and his brothers remain stuck, that they cannot break free from the same old patterns of destructive behavior that created their alienation in the first place.

Forgiveness gets to be so complicated, so tangled. We return wrong for wrong, slights and misunderstandings and debts pile up in lifetimes and over generations and across continents, until it is hard to know where forgiveness would begin or end. And yet, in all that tangle, scripture suggests that God is at work. Joseph asks his brothers “Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as [God] is doing today.” What is God up to in the midst of human evil? Commentator Timothy Cargal suggests a bit more nuanced reading of the way in which human activity and God’s activity interrelate in this text. “God”, he writes, “is neither directly nor indirectly responsible for the plan to sell Joseph into slavery; rather, God actively engages what they have done so that ultimately it has a redemptive rather than destructive result.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 4., p. 55)

Speaking of language, the words translated as forgiveness in both Genesis and Matthew carry the root meaning of “release” Marjorie Thompson writes: to forgive is to make a conscious choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be… Forgiveness means the power of the original wound’s power to hold us trapped is broken.” (Marjorie J. Thompson, “Moving Toward Forgiveness,” Weavings, March-April 1992, 19.  Forgiveness is a release to God. Like Joseph and his brothers, our attempts to ask for and offer forgiveness are flawed. In fact, we may not really be capable of forgiving; Rather, it is something we allow God to do through us and in us.

In 1985, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ (that is our national gathering) voted to declare the UCC a “just peace” church. “Just peace” is a movement to which local congregations commit themselves in a grassroots kind of way. First Church joined this movement in The “Just peace” movement counters the idea that there is such a thing as a just war; it seeks a world without war, a world in which we resolve our conflicts non-violently. As a “Just Peace” congregation, we believe that injustice is a root cause of violence, and that by addressing inequities of power and resource we are helping to create peace. Because forgiveness is a release of vengeance, it is, by definition, a non-violent response to injustice. Yet the process of forgiving is not passive – in fact, it makes room for God to act, to create justice, to reconcile, to make the situation right. Forgiveness is crucial in our journey as a just peace church.

The parable from Matthew teaches us that those who follow Jesus, forgive. Period. This parable is demanding, that’s for sure. It ends with harsh words. But that sense of hyperbole is part of the point. I imagine Peter’s tone to be a bit smug…. How about if I forgive as many as seven times? (Seven is symbolic in the scriptures, of perfection). Peter offers Jesus a perfect practice of forgiveness. And Jesus pushes the conversation into the realm of the absurd. Multiply perfection by 11! Not only 7 times must you forgive, but 77! And while Peter is still scratching his head, Jesus launches into a parable that exaggerates even more. The servant is forgiven ‘ten thousand talents’ – An impossibly large amount to owe, or to forgive. This parable is not meant to be read literally; it is a grand hyperbole that should sharpen our conscience and awaken our spiritual imagination. This parable jolts us into remembering that crucial truth: that any capacity we have to forgive, to release those who have harmed us, ultimately comes out of our own experience of being forgiven, of being released into the vast, boundless, perfect mercy of God.

Is forgiveness the right question as we remember 9/11… and Guantanamo and Abu Gharib, Afghanistan and Iraq? I believe that it is – that maybe it is the most important question of all. The question really is, will we release one another into God and into a new dimension of life together? Or will we hold on to our old patterns, like that woman bringing out, in an endless cycle of pain, resentment and revenge, the battered sugar bowl? Over the past few years, the UCC has been using a slogan for the Neighbors in Need offering (our “just peace” offering): Imagine: another world is possible. Imagine: letting go of our wounds is possible. Imagine: reconciliation of broken families and unjust policies and oppressive systems is possible. As we join now in a litany of prayer for peace in our world, let us imagine. Amen.

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One Response to “New Dimensions”

  1. Kathy Haskins Says:

    What an excellent sermon. One I definately need to keep in mind. I tend to think of myself as a forgiving person, but I know I keep parameters around how forgiving I am, and unless I have braced myself for something I saw coming and agreed in my mind in advance to forgive, I know I have a hard time forgiving unless the “offending party” seems truely repentent. This sermon was a lesson for me….I only add to the violence unless I forgive, and hurt both myself and the other. It is more food for thought on the Sunday Taize service we had at Pilgrim Point–“I am good to the good and I am good to the non-good, for Life is goodness. I am faithful to the faithful and to the non-faithful, for Life is faithfulness….” I wish I could remember the rest of the quote, which was important to the meaning.

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