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.

Midwives of Life

I’m no great TV fan and don’t watch a lot of shows. But there’s one show that has stolen my heart: Call the Midwife. This BBC series portrays the lives and work of midwives, some of whom are vowed religious sisters, helping mothers bring new life into the world, often in precarious circumstances in working-class London in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. These midwives have a lot in common with their predecessors, Shiphrah and Puah.

It is quite amazing that the Book of Exodus opens with the witness of midwives. The story of Joseph and his family is now several generations later. Scripture itself tells us that the collective memory is fading: Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph (Ex. 1:8). This new king, Pharaoh, now has enslaved the Israelites, forcing them into hard labour with little reward. But as usual with corrupt leaders, he fears the very people he seeks to control. And he wants to oppress them more fiercely.  Enter our two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. Pharaoh instructs them to kill all baby boys born to the Israelites. (Exodus 1)

What Pharaoh doesn’t realize is that these two women pose a much greater threat than any of the baby boys! For Shiphrah and Puah are clever. Shiphrah and Puah fear God more than they fear Pharaoh. These midwives serve a God of life, by ushering new children into life – literally. Shiphrah and Puah defy Pharaoh’s orders and let all the children live, male and female. Their courageous defiance puts their own lives at risk.

It’s hard to imagine that kind of courage. It’s hard to imagine the subversive effort it can take to bring life into the world when you are aware of just what a dangerous place the world can be. And yet these women fought back against Pharaoh, and fought against the despair of forced labour, and they brought children into the world. They brought new life into a world bent on life’s destruction.

What kind of courage does it take to give and protect life, in a world full of landmines? For the Israelites, when they were slaves in Egypt, just being born a Hebrew baby boy was a death sentence. Just being born a certain ethnicity—Hebrew— and being born a certain gender, a boy, meant that Pharaoh was going to try and kill that child.

Even today there are plenty of children being born into life-threatening situations. There are plenty of mothers and fathers worried sick about their beloved sons and daughters for the simple reason of being born in the wrong country, in the wrong neighbourhood, the wrong skin colour, or the wrong religion.

Being born a girl in China is the worst thing in the world. The well-known female Chinese-born filmmaker and novelist Xiaolu Guo wrote about this graphically in her memoirs Once Upon a Time in the East. A girl in China is likely aborted before birth or sent away into foreign adoption. Muslim mothers, black mothers and Indigenous mothers share the same fear as the Hebrew women in Pharaoh’s time. They fear raising children in a society that sees their sons as a threat, and their girls as sexual prey. Cntinuing racial and religious prejudice compels mothers of Muslim, African American and Indigenous children to have to give their children “the talk:” how to respond if a police officer  pulls you over for no apparent reason. How to deal with racial slurs and sexual innuendos; how to remain respectful despite your anger because you know you are being targeted just because of the colour of your skin or your religion. Proctor & Gamble caused quite a stir recently in the US with a new TV ad that features “The Talk” that women of colour have to have with their children.

Even today the world is full of Pharaohs, forces and situations and people that threaten our kids, our daughters and son of every colour and religion, of every ability and gender. Every child and vulnerable person deserves the heroic intervention and help from midwives such as Shiphrah and Puah. These two women were radical in their zeal to bring forth and protect life without playing favourites. They refused to collude with injustice and oppression, and used their wit to save lives. God blessed their courage and fearless witness by ensuring Scripture would remember them by name.

And guess what? Shiphrah and Puah’s act of civil disobedience changed history, and that is the second miracle in the story. Neither of these women likely thought of themselves as game-changers in history. But they were, just by being faithful, by following the promptings of their hearts, by heeding the call of their conscience. For one of the boys saved was Moses, the one who lead the Israelites out of Egyptian captivity, the one  who delivered God’s law to the Israelites and brought them to the promised land. And it all started with two women willing to say “no” to injustice!

What’s more, Moses owes his entire existence to several courageous women who secured his safety: his mother, who stared down her own fear and hid him in a basket on the river. His sister, likely Miriam, who watched from the shore to see what would become of her baby brother, and stepped forward at the right time. And, to shame Pharaoh’s lame oppressive power, Pharaoh’s OWN DAUGHTER, the princess, who found Moses, took pity on him, and hired his mother to nurse him! Trust women to weave a conspiracy of life! While Pharaoh was busy killing baby boys, it was the women, including his own daughter, who schemed to save life! (Exodus 2:1-10)

This coming week school begins again. Teachers, children and parents enter another year engaging with an ever increasing diversity of children and families, some very different from what we are familiar with. And there are plenty of ways children become targets because of differences in abilities or background or ethnic origins. There are plenty of mothers and fathers out there, worried about how their children might be treated. There are plenty of parents afraid of sending their children into the world because of the proverbial landmines.

God knows we need the kind acts of millions of people to help secure a healthy future for our children’s children everywhere. We are all, women and men, called to be midwives of life. Despite the darkness in the world, never underestimate the effect one small act of love can have in a child’s life. We never know when we might be standing up to a Pharaoh and saving the life of the world’s next Moses.

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