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“The Only Thing”
Sermon on Genesis 45:1-15
20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Of all our favorite stories, the story of a reunited family may be near the top of the list. The story of Joseph and his brothers has all the right ingredients: the long-lost brother overcome with emotion, the others hesitant and wary, struggling with their guilt, the reconciliation in which they embrace each other with tears and joy. A family stuck in recriminations, guilt, and bitterness becomes unstuck, and the future is open. It’s a dream of redemptive life come true.
It took a long time to get there, though. This family has had to put behind it the abrasive, taunting, and self-aggrandizing behavior of the little brother Joseph and the sheer murderous treachery of the older brothers. You’ll remember that they got their revenge on Joseph by dumping him in a pit and leaving him for dead until some slave traders came along and delivered him to Egypt to serve in the royal guard. When Joseph meets his brothers years later, we can only imagine how much rage, fear, and fantasizing about revenge he has had to work through, and how much bitter remorse the brothers have been carrying around with them.
Expressions of remorse and regret are rare these days. A writer named David Paul Deavel has noted a trend observed by his ethics professor wife in her tenure at a Catholic university. She has typically asked the students what they would like to be able to say about themselves at the end of their lives. Some students will express wishes having to do with virtue and character – they would like to be known to others and to themselves as having tried to be a good person. Increasingly, though, the main thing the students want is to be able to say “No regrets.”[i] This is the kind of answer we’ve come to expect from celebrities, who seem to have tremendous powers of excusing themselves from behavior most of us would consider dishonorable, mercenary, cruel, or caddish. But now college students enrolled in ethics courses aspire to the same capacity for endless self-forgiveness. It is part of our culture’s stubborn and persistent denial of the existence of sin and its painful effects.
Joseph’s brothers have more self-awareness than that. They well know the magnitude of what Joseph is forgiving. We might expect Joseph to have spent all those years plotting his revenge – and it is true that after recognizing the brothers he does string them along for a while before revealing his identity – but when he and his brothers are brought face to face a second time, he can no longer maintain the deception. In the end, he chooses to deal with his brothers by means of forgiveness, and in so doing releases his whole family from its paralysis in a past of grievance and enmity.
Forgiveness, of course, is the central Christian attitude and the central Christian practice, but it is in many ways the most difficult one. Small slights and injuries are easy enough to forgive, but when they are repeated over and over again by the same person, we want to ask, as Peter does in Matthew’s Gospel, “How many times must I forgive my brother or sister?” And most of us have suffered singular deeper injuries that are not easily dismissed. True forgiveness, after all, is not the same thing as saying, “It doesn’t matter, I’ve already forgotten it.” True forgiveness is for situations when it really does matter, when a real injury has been done and it can’t be readily fixed. True forgiveness involves a real cost to the injured party: a cost that one is willing to assume in order to restore the relationship. True forgiveness is saying, yes, this really does matter, I really have been hurt, but I value our relationship so much that I don’t want it to be lost or poisoned; therefore I forgive you.
Looked at this way, forgiveness is as much a matter of the will as a matter of the emotions. It is a decision not to be mired in the past but to open up the future.
Ultimately, forgiveness is a decision to deal with each other on the same basis that God has dealt with us. It’s part of the mystery of divine grace that God chooses to deal with us by means of forgiveness, because it could have been otherwise. God could have chosen to relate to us by rewarding our fine moral qualities, our faithfulness in prayer, our high level of understanding, or our diligence in service. That would make life extremely strenuous for all of us, and sooner or later every one of us would fail. So it is a good thing for us that God has chosen to deal with us through forgiveness, or our case would be hopeless. It is better for God this way, too: as New Testament scholar William Countryman has said, “God [can’t] build a future” with us on “the basis of our good deeds.” God can only build a future with us on the basis of God’s forgiving love.
When I was recovering from my recent minor surgery, I read a story by Lorrie Moore entitled “Terrific Mother.” The main character is a woman named Adrienne, who has had a tragic accident: she lost her balance while holding a friend’s baby and the baby was fatally injured in the fall. After the accident, Adrienne retreats to her apartment for seven months and talks to practically no one. The friend’s words of forgiveness mean nothing to her, as she is unable to forgive herself or see any way forward in her life. She finally reluctantly marries her fiancé and goes with him to an academic conference in the Italian Alps. Throughout the visit, her new husband tries to get close to her, but in her misery she keeps moving away. Through a series of experiences during their stay in Italy, she begins to open up to herself, to feel and to cry. But a sense of being forgiven eludes her. She “began to think generally of forgiveness, how much of it was required in life: to forgive everyone, yourself, the people you loved, and then wait to be forgiven by them. Where was all this forgiveness supposed to come from? Where was this great inexhaustible supply?” Finally, one night, in something like a vision, she turns to her husband and says, “Please, forgive me.” “Of course,” he whispers. “It is the only thing. Of course.”[ii]
It is the only thing. That is a true statement. Forgiveness is all there is. It is the only way we can live in the world. To ask for forgiveness is to say we have regrets, that things have not turned out the way they should and we have something to do with it. It is to acknowledge, as the old prayer of confession says, that we have “done things we ought not to have done,” or failed to do what we ought to have done. To bestow or accept forgiveness is to say that those regrets do not have to define us or determine the quality of our relationships going forward. It is to say that regrets can be put in their place, that they can cede territory to something different, something better, so that a way forward can be found.
Forgiveness in the Christian sense is something much deeper than the kind of therapeutic forgiveness that is recommended to us by popular psychology. The therapeutic model says that we forgive in order to be released from the burden of our anger, recriminations and sense of powerlessness at the hands of the person who has injured us. Joseph did not forgive his brothers for therapeutic reasons. Nor did he excuse them, saying that since by God’s grace it had all worked out to the good, they should all let bygones be bygones. He simply forgave them, and the family had a future together again.
We forgive because that is how God has dealt with us. If we have trouble forgiving, it may well be because we don’t really believe we are forgiven.
All forgiveness involves a cost to the one doing the forgiving. Forgiveness always means letting go of something – our rights, or the righteousness of our cause, or even the strange pleasure of a sense of outrage and injury – for the sake of relationship: our relationship with others and our relationship with God. Forgiveness is how the world is held together.
It is the only thing.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
August 16, 2020
[i] David Paul Deavel, “Regretfully yours: Leaving perfection to God,” at christiancentury.org/article/2009-09/regretfully yours.
[ii] Lorrie Moore, “Terrific Mother,” Collected Stories (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2020), 466-503. Originally published in The Paris Review.