Several years ago now I had a conversation with a parishioner from one of the other three parishes I have served over the years. In that conversation she told me that she wanted to let me know that she was sorry for not having done enough to support me during my time of ministry in that parish, and that she had felt badly about it for years. I was shocked. I saw it very differently. I had always felt very supported by her during my time in that parish. I told her just that and said I hoped she would lay her burden down then and there. We parted renewed in our sense of appreciation for each other and the time in ministry we had shared, and that blessed interaction has stuck with me ever since.
I was reminded of it again this week as I read our first lesson, from the book of Genesis. At the outset of the reading Joseph’s brothers are worried, because they are in dire straits. Nearly starving due to the famine in their homeland, and having come down to Egypt where there is food aplenty, they find that the one Egyptian official who can give them relief is none other than their brother Joseph, whom they sold into slavery years before. So they begin worrying among themselves, saying, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?”
It is a difficult thing to come face to face with someone you fear may bear a grudge against you, whether your wrongdoing was real, as in the case of Joseph’s brothers, or imagined as in the case of my former parishioner who made amends to me.
In Joseph’s life story we can see the transformation that needs to take place for each of us if we are going to embody the forgiveness God calls us to throughout our scriptures this morning. A journey that includes coming to an expanded view of ourselves and others. If we read back into this story of Joseph and his brothers we will see that his brothers’ actions in selling him into slavery and telling their father he was dead were unquestionably wrong. While their actions may have been indefensible, their frustration with their prideful younger brother, which led to those actions is understandable. To say the least, Joseph, as a young man did not show finesse when telling his brothers about the future he was perceiving in his dreams. What sibling likes to hear that one day in the future they are going to be bowing at the feet of their brother?
If we did not know the outcome of this story, the prevailing tone of the present day world might lead us to expect this story of Joseph and his brothers will end with Joseph exacting revenge and triumphing over his brothers who indeed were now required to bow before him.
But that is not the way this story ends. Joseph who once was a proud young man has grown into a much humbler older man. His response to his brothers’ fear that he will take retribution is to say, “Do not be afraid! 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 he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”
This story can encourage us to reflect back on our lives a bit to earlier chapters. As I think carefully about my younger self I can see with the clarity of hindsight how both my strengths and shortcoming were woven into the fabric of my life and relationships. Maybe you have had similar moments of self awareness. Seeing our strengths is edifying, while recognizing our shortcomings can be very humbling. Thankfully, the good news of the Gospel of Christ is that God loves us fully and unconditionally and has already forgiven us for all our wrongs and shortcomings. Yet so often it seems we have a hard time accepting and trusting that radical love and forgiveness.
In a book of meditations I read daily, this entry came up this week – it begins with the well-known quote from Alexander Pope:
“To err is human; to forgive divine.
If I am unable to accept the fact that people make mistakes, am I not rejecting them as human beings? Even more to the point: does my inability to accept my own failings cause me to see myself as not measuring up?
For my own peace of mind, I need to forgive even the most damaging transgressions; but forgiveness of others can only come when I have learned to forgive myself.
For Today: I pray for a forgiving heart and the willingness to let go bitterness.”
If any of that rings true, there are prayerful actions we can take to move us toward greater forgiveness of ourselves and others. First we can put pen to paper and list anything we feel guilty about or ashamed of, things which we do not feel fully forgiven for. Second, we can be greatly helped by finding a trustworthy person to share this list with, because sometimes, like my friend I spoke of earlier, we are carrying burdens that are not really ours. A trusted and wise friend can help us tease out what our responsibility is in various complicated situations. Third, once we have discerned the things on our list that we are truly responsible for, we can intentionally take them to God in prayer, asking God to hold them and help us to experience and relax into the full and absolute divine forgiveness that Jesus assures us of. Fourth we are ready to make amends for anything that we are responsible for – and there is wonderful wisdom out there about how to pursue such amend making – if you want direction, I would be willing to share what I know.
These are simple, but not easy actions to take, and of course this is an ongoing process. The more we practice this process the more we will discover about ourselves and about God. As we reach for self-forgiveness, we become more able to be ministers of that same forgiveness for others. Then we are woven more fully into the tapestry of grace and love which God is weaving for nothing less than the redemption of this world. It begins with the personal but can powerfully ripple into our corporate and societal interactions. What could our world look like if our governing policies were rooted in a sense of forgiveness? I believe God holds that vision for our world! May God bless us with all we need to be partners in bringing it to pass! In Christ’s name. Amen+