God’s Rescue Mission

Magnanimity – what does this word mean? Noble, generous, great-heartedness, benevolence, extravagant kindness. These words came to mind when pondering today’s Scriptures from Genesis (45:1-11) and Luke (6:27-31). All I really need to say is that Joseph’s attitude, words and actions towards his brothers express vividly what Jesus says in today’s Gospel. What is that connection between Joseph’s actions and Jesus’ words? In order to see and appreciate that connection, let’s recall Joseph’s story, the context in which the encounter we hear about today takes place.

Avarice and greed, jealously and sibling rivalry, sex and politics, and ample conspiracy in the royal palace – all these juicy ingredients make up the story of Joseph and his brothers. By the time the story gets to chapter 45, Joseph has become the virtual ruler of Egypt. He has survived the murderous plot of his brothers to sell him as a slave when he was younger. He came to the attention of Pharaoh and was brought into the royal palace. He wins Pharaoh’s favour and rises in the ranks, again causing jealousy and scorn. Joseph resisted seduction by the wife of a powerful Egyptian, and is now in control of the country’s storehouses of supplies. And famine has hit hard, both in Egypt and in Palestine. In an ironic twist, Joseph’s brothers now stand before him begging for food for their families, begging for their lives. The brothers have no idea that it is Joseph, the brother whom they sold into slavery, that now holds their lives in the balance. Moreover, Joseph has caught them accused of theft. Given the brutal betrayal Joseph suffered at the hands of his brothers, he has every right to take revenge now.

But what does Joseph do? Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Joseph lived these words long before Jesus spoke them.

It was as difficult for the ancient people as for us to believe that God is at work in the dark and destructive moments of our existence. Too often it seems nigh impossible to taste grace and redemption in the dark. Then it’s only a small step to conclude that God is never present in human suffering and loss. And let’s be honest: what Jesus proposes might sound lovely, but deep down we “know” that it’s so darn naive and impossible. Even many committed Christians quietly think that notions such as turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, resist retaliation and revenge, are completely unrealistic in our violent world, dangerous even. The violent often crush those who do not retaliate. And yet, meeting violence with violence increases violence.

But then there’s Joseph. Before anything else, Joseph exemplifies
what it means to be God’s servant. In this moment of reckoning with his brothers, when their destiny is in Joseph’s hands – literally – Joseph stands as a powerful witness to what God’s grace can do in our lives. If we are left wondering what it means to follow Jesus’ upside-down commands to love our enemy, to forgive our persecutor, to give without recompense, to refrain from judging, look at, and listen to, Joseph. Realize what he’s been through, and really feel what is happening in this dramatic scene

How easy it is to regard Jesus’ words as impossible burdens or as pie-in-the-sky utopias rather than as our most powerful ally in the war of all wars: the war on the need for war and revenge. We might be less dismissive of Jesus’ commands if we realize that our survival as a people has not been due to our capacity to win wars, or crush our enemies. Rather, the survival of the human species is directly connected to our capacity to forgive, to show mercy and so to begin anew.

In the nineteenth century Abraham Lincoln reunited North and South “with malice toward none; with charity for all.” He opted for weapons of warmth and generosity over those of repression and vengeance.  In the 1960’s Martin Luther King, Jr. marched facing jeering and taunting, fire hoses and police dogs. He responded to threats of death and destruction with threats of peace and justice for all. In 1990, Nelson Mandela emerged from 27 years in prison for condemning Apartheid. To the surprise of many he called not for revenge, but for forgiveness and reconciliation. Many felt betrayed that he turned away from righteous anger, yet the world took note of such a powerful heart and mind.

This spring it will be 25 years since the Rwandan genocide. Approximately one million people were slaughtered over the course of 100 days for simply being Tutsi. The killers were not some outside group, but rather classmates, co-workers, friends, next door neighbours. In a country as community-based as Rwanda, this is highly significant. Forgiveness becomes way more difficult when you keep encountering the killers regularly at the market, at church, at school, on the street.

Much like Joseph forgiving his brothers, Rwandans were not just forgiving a stranger, but a neighbour, a friend, who had harmed them irreparably. Over the years since that awful tragedy, the people of Rwanda are rising again. Many of the victims acknowledged that the process took time, and it was not easy, but eventually they learned how to resist hatred, revenge and resentment, and instead developed the capacity for mercy. Many perpetrators were moved to regret their heinous crimes and found the courage to ask forgiveness. One Rwandan woman used the compensation money she received for her husband’s death to help feed and support the man who killed him. Another man was shocked when released from prison after 10 years to find his wife living with the widow next door, whose husband he had murdered. The two women had been supporting each other during his time in jail. Thanks to such heroic acts of mercy, Rwanda is rebounding and building a new future of hope for its children’s children.

Only a few weeks ago, here in our own province, we were privy to the heart-breaking victim impact statements of the Broncos families who lost their young loved ones or had their sons’ lives forever scarred by enduring injuries from that terrible crash nearly one year ago. We heard words of forgiveness from many a parent, words laced with unspeakable grief and pain. And yet, these parents are choosing forgiveness as the only road to healing, liberation and restoration for both the countless victims, their loved ones and for the bus driver, a young man who will now live the rest of his life with the death and injury of so many on his conscience.
To err is human, to forgive is divine.” “Do onto others as you would want them to do to you.” These are not empty slogans. They are the most profound statements of how God’s life reaches into our lives, and makes us his own. The greatest measure of any civilization still boils down to the same thing. The same thing in Joseph’s time, the same thing in Jesus’ time: how well we give, how well we forgive and how we lift up the lowly.

Magnanimity – extravagant generosity, big-heartedness in the face of adversity, evil, sin, and violence … Very soon we will be entering the Lenten season. Every year Lent calls us to reflect, to repent, and to forgive. Every act of repentance and mercy towards one another is spiritual money in God’s bank of redemption and grace.
Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 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.
Be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful.

Joseph and countless others right up to this day show us in word and deed that this command of our Lord truly does lead to life in abundance and into the freedom of God’s Spirit. AMEN

Homily preached on Sunday February 24, 2019
Genesis 45:1-11, 15, Luke 6:27-38
The RC Lectionary had 1 Samuel 26:2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-25 instead of Genesis 45:1-11, 15 as the first reading. However, the theme and message are identical, and match those of the Gospel, which was the same.

Seventy-seven Times?!

This Matthew 18 stuff is hard, really hard …

What do you do when your friend gives you a gun? For Roger, this was easy: he used it. And he says that if he had the chance, he’d use it again. Roger’s entire life has become consumed by one unquenchable desire: avenging his daughter’s death. Sarah was out on her bike when she was hit by a drunk driver. She died almost instantly. The driver was sent to prison for manslaughter. But that wasn’t enough for Roger. He borrowed a gun and when the driver was released years later, he shot him, fully intending to kill. Now the tables were turned, and Roger found himself charged with attempted murder, facing the possibility of a similar long prison sentence. I asked him if squeezing the trigger and watching the man collapse in agony made him feel better. “No,” he said, “Only killing him could have made me feel better.”

Thus begins a little book entitled Why forgive? It is full of stories, horrific stories of pain and injustice suffered by ordinary people like you and I. But the book is also full of hope, illustrating vividly the life-giving power of forgiveness, and why “to err is human, to forgive is divine.” Its message is a huge challenge in the face of the world’s horrific injuries inflicted daily by terrorists, armies at war, ethnic conflict, as well as by tragic accidents, disasters and disease, alcohol and drug abuse, family violence, sexual abuse etc. etc.

With the mind of an accountant, adding and subtracting offences and pardon, Peter asks Jesus: “How often do I need to forgive the one who wrongs me?” With the mind of God, in the business of unbridled mercy, Jesus gives an outrageous answer: “Seventy-seven times seven.” In other words, there’s no end to the need to forgive…

The Bible is full of admonishments to forgive those who injure us. We know that – it’s ingrained in our minds. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray “Forgive us our debtors as we forgive those who sin against us.”

We’re good church folk – we know we “should” forgive. We recognize the importance to let go of hurts and resentments. However, most of us are really good at telling others to forgive. When it’s our turn, it can often feel impossible to extend heartfelt forgiveness.
Believe me, recently I had another opportunity to practice this — it was mighty hard. And to be told that we ought to forgive can actually make things worse. We might heap a whole bunch of guilt onto ourselves, simply adding to the anger and vengeful feelings instead of helping them disappear.

Here the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35) has something to teach us. Jesus tells an incredible story of the king who forgave one servant an impossible debt. But then that servant turns around and refuses to forgive a fellow servant who owed him a debt much smaller than the one the king forgave.

At first hearing, the servant’s behaviour is shocking. Why does the servant, having been treated so generously by the king, immediately act so ruthlessly toward his fellow servant? The king is justified in his harsh retaliation. But upon deeper hearing, this parable should make us blush… We often treat one another in similar fashion.

When the forgiven servant hears that his debt is forgiven, he shows no appropriate response. Scripture does not tell us whether he rejoices, whether he gives thanks, whether he celebrates with wife and children who are spared imprisonment. All we learn is that on the way out he refuses … the plea … of a fellow servant. That creates a very serious gap in the story. That gap makes a very important point. The servant clearly has not “experienced” the king’s forgiveness. We already hear that in how he approaches the king. His debt is beyond any reasonable ability to pay — 10,000 talents represents more than the wages of a day labourer for 1,000 years! Yet he says, “I will pay you everything” – how naïve can you get? The servant thinks that he is dealing with the king on the basis of justice. What he receives but never grasps is the king’s mercy.

God is in the forgiveness business, but we have a hard time forgiving each other – and even ourselves. A Chinese proverb describes this human inability to forgive rather bluntly: whoever opts for revenge should dig two graves. God is not stopped from forgiving us because we are unforgiving towards each other. But there is a link between our experience of God’s forgiveness and our capacity to forgive another sister or brother.

Forgiveness is quite different than justice or retribution. That is what Jesus is trying to teach us. The first servant keeps thinking in terms of justice, and fails to realize he has received mercy. Mercy is a divine gift which transforms the heart. God deals with us, not on the scale of justice, but by granting mercy. A heart transformed by God’s gift of mercy is set free to offer mercy to another in turn.

Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu was chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Tutu says to forgive goes beyond unselfishness: “To forgive is a process that does not exclude hate and anger. These emotions are all part of being human.” Tutu  continues, “You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things; the depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger.” Tutu stresses that, “When I talk of forgiveness, I mean the conviction that you can come out the other side a better person.”

Hatred comes in many forms; the great hatred of 9/11, civil and ethnic conflicts, suicide bombings in major world cities. Apart from world-scale events of evil, there is a lot of small stuff we sweat every day, small stuff needing the healing touch of mercy: We suffer painful family relations. We feel unjustly treated at work.  A friend deserts us, or betrays us. A teacher judges our son or daughter wrongly. A pastor abuses our trust…

We must not take these actions lightly for they affect the health of the world. In the same way, however, we must not take Jesus’ call to forgiveness lightly, for it too affects the health of the world.

One of the first things Anglican priest Dale Lang did after the fatal shooting in a Tabor high school, quite a few years ago now, was to forgive the boy who killed his son. “ If you can’t reach that place of forgiveness, then you’re going to get stuck in that place of anger and bitterness ,” said Lang. Dale Lang still travels the country sharing his tragic experience of loss and his call to mercy. A number of years later similar words were spoken by another father whose son, an RCMP officer, was killed in the Mayerthorpe ambush on a farm: “If I let hatred for my son’s murderer eat my heart, I would become another victim of the shooting,”

God is in the forgiveness business in and through Jesus. In Ephesians 1:7 Paul writes, “In him [Jesus] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the richness of his grace.” Paul later reminded the Christians at Ephesus, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you.” Paul asks the Romans (14:10), and us: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Why do you despise your sister or brother? We will all stand before the judgment seat of God.”

The last paragraph in the book Why Forgive?  reads as follows: Forgiveness is life-giving power. It frees us from every constraint of the past, and helps us overcome every obstacle. It can heal both the forgiver and the forgiven. In fact, it could change the world if we allowed it to. But too often we stand in its way, not daring to let it flow through us unchecked. With God, we hold the keys to forgiveness in our hands. And we must choose whether or not to use these keys – every day.

With the mind of an accountant we ask: How often did you say, Lord? With the mind of God Jesus answers: Seventy-seven times seven … Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

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