Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 9/14

          When the gospel text ends with “And in his anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.  So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart,” when the gospel text ends that way, “Praise to you, O Christ,” doesn’t seem to be the most appropriate response.  “Lord have mercy,” might be more like it because forgiving from the heart means what you probably think it does; that you really forgive someone such that life returns to whatever it was before, no grudges, no strings attached; the slate is wiped clean.  Forgiving from the heart implies sincerity and genuineness that isn’t just a word but that carries over into action.    

          Easier said than done; maybe we can do it sometimes for some things, but not always.  In fact, we might argue that there are some things that don’t deserve forgiveness or perhaps we say, “Maybe God can forgive them, but I can’t.”  Imagine if you’d lost a loved one in the events of 9/11 that we thought about again this past week; could you forgive from the heart those who masterminded those attacks?  According to this parable of Jesus that’s what we’re called to do or else we’re handed over for torture until we can forgive.  Praise to you, O Christ??

          To follow up on something Joy said last week, forgiveness, like love, is something that God takes very seriously.  And yes, that is both good news and bad news.  We’re glad to know that God forgives us.  We like to hear verses like those in today’s Psalm, “You have not dealt with us according to our sins, nor repaid us according to our iniquities.”  Thanks be to God for that!   The word of forgiveness at the beginning of worship may not have great meaning every week, but I’ll bet there are some weeks when it has tremendous meaning, it’s just what you need to hear along with “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people, for the forgiveness of sin.”  That’s the good news about forgiveness.    

          From today’s lessons though, it’s clear that forgiveness is not just the work of God; it’s our work too and according to the gospel parable, when we don’t share in this work, God’s judgment is harsh.  That’s the bad news because it doesn’t take much to recognize that we don’t always do it and so our failure to forgive another person also becomes a sin against God because it places both of those relationships in jeopardy.

          Biblical forgiveness always has to do with reconciliation, with the restoration of relationships, relationships between people and relationship with God.  It’s close and it’s personal in other words.  That word of forgiveness at the beginning of the service restores us to communion with God.  When we forgive another person, from the heart, it restores that relationship, making it what it should be. 

In that sense, forgiving the perpetrators of 9/11 or, another example, for Jews to forgive the perpetrators of the holocaust are a different kind of forgiveness because it’s not a close, personal relationship we’re talking about.  In cases like that forgiveness is done more for the sake and the health of the forgiver allowing them to get on with life without being consumed by hatred or a lust for revenge against a faceless offender.  It’s still important and it can have to do with relationship but more in the sense of making a new relationship possible by the removal of obstacles.  Biblical forgiveness though, is more personal.

          Today’s first lesson is a story of forgiveness.  It’s the end of the Joseph saga that comprises the last 14 chapters of Genesis.  But it’s not just the end of those chapters, it’s also hearkens back to the first chapter of Genesis, the familiar account of the seven days of creation and God’s verdict that what he has created is “good,” in fact, “very good.”  Following that statement all the way through the Joseph account you have stories of less than perfect people who put God’s verdict of “very good” to the test.   But God’s grace always overrides the missteps of fallen humanity.

          Joseph was a dreamer and the story starts with him sharing his dreams with his brothers, dreams of them out in the field binding together sheaves of wheat and the sheaves of his 11 brothers bowing down to his sheaf, dreams of the sun and the moon and 11 stars, bowing down to him.  Joseph was a dreamer, but to his brothers he was a spoiled pain in the neck so they sold him to some Arab traders headed for Egypt where Joseph became a slave.  Meanwhile the brothers took Joseph’s many colored coat covered with blood to father Jacob and told him Joseph had been eaten by a wild animal; you remember the story from Sunday School.

          You also remember that Joseph wound up prospering in Egypt, essentially becoming Pharaoh’s prime minister, interpreting his dreams and in light of those dreams effectively planning for a coming famine so that not only did Egypt have enough to eat, but people from surrounding countries came as well, hoping to buy food, among them, the brothers of Joseph. 

          They didn’t recognize him but Joseph recognized them and in their lack of recognition Joseph did play a few mind games with them but he also provided for them and there was a degree of reconciliation.  But when father Jacob died, the brothers got scared, thinking, “With the old man out of the way, now he is going to get back at us for what we did.”  They knew they were at his mercy, they knew they needed his forgiveness, but still, in typical survival mode, first they lied, telling Joseph that Jacob had said that he should forgive them.  The text says that Joseph wept and then the brothers wept and fell down before him…and thus the dream Joseph had those many years ago was fulfilled and the ball was now in his court.

          He handled it pretty well, because what follows are two of the most important verses in the whole story, maybe in the whole Bible.  “Do not be afraid,” he says.  Nothing special there except when you realize that these are the words that are used throughout the Bible when people feel frightened or endangered or confused. In the New Testament alone think of the words of the angel to Mary and to the shepherds and to those at the tomb on Easter morning.  Think of Jesus’ many admonitions to his disciples not to be afraid; significant words.

          Then, “Am I in the place of God?” Joseph asks.  It’s an interesting response.  Joseph is not God.  Judgment belongs to God and God alone yet how often we are ready to play that role but here Joseph acknowledges the proper order of things.  God’s call to Joseph and to us is to forgive, not to judge and Joseph is aware of that even if he never offers forgiveness in so many words but maybe that’s to emphasize that the actions of reconciliation is more important than just saying, “I forgive you.”  Forgiveness from the heart is reflected and implied in action.

          Then verse 20; “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”  God intended it for good, and thus ends this story, thus ends the book of Genesis.  At the beginning of Genesis God declared creation “good.”  At the end of Genesis, God’s intention for the good of creation is again affirmed.  That is God’s overriding purpose and part of the path to that purpose is the forgiveness that restores the community and all the relationships within the community. 

Another thing about this Joseph story is that unlike many Old Testament stories, there are no miraculous interventions on the part of God, no theophanies where God appears to individuals, and yet God is at work throughout it all and isn’t that more like our experience?  In the midst of things it can be hard to see God’s plan or purpose; sometimes it takes years as was the case with Joseph and his brothers.  But God intended it for good as he worked in and through the characters in the story.

          We are called to forgive as Joseph did but we also keep in mind that it is in response to God’s act of forgiveness and in Jesus’ parable today he goes to absurd lengths to illustrate the scope of that forgiveness.  The first slave in the story owed in the neighborhood of two billion dollars in today’s money which is absurd because how could a common slave rack up a debt that large?  When sentenced he begged for time and said he would pay it all back which is also absurd because how much time would he need?  But most absurd of all is the master’s response when he says, “Forget it. I’ll write it off.”  That’s the nature of God’s act of forgiveness made known to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  It’s absurd, and it does call for a response because God intends it for good.

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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