When we approach the texts today, it’s helpful to remember that Joseph’s brothers once beat him, threw him into a pit, sold him into slavery, and then faked his death so they could lie to their father about what they had done to him. Joseph had decades to nurse his grudges, and he had the power and impunity to deal with his brothers in any way he saw fit: according to the Genesis story, in Egypt Joseph was the law. So, when Joseph says he forgives his brothers, we’re not talking about a little thing, or a simple thing. These men, jealous of the love their father bore for him, envious of the gifts that God had given him, beat him, threw him into a pit, and sold him into slavery and cut off any effort his father may have made to rescue him and restore him to the family. That’s what Joseph forgives. The story of Joseph is a good story, because it’s not about the little things we do to one another, or daily insults we pass around, but about the things that really drive us: envy, hatred, fear, and finally, at the end and running hidden through the entire story, love.
Forgiveness is not a little thing. It never is, even when we employ it on the smallest of offenses. Forgiveness is the most powerful thing in heaven, the impetus of the incarnation and perhaps even the shape of the new creation in Christ Jesus, through whom the kingdom of God has come. And since it is greatest power in heaven, it is therefore the most powerful force on Earth, because it comes from the same place as the very forces of creation: the love of God, which blesses anything it touches with its attention. But forgiveness is also only possible in the wounds of life, in pain. This is why the forgiveness of God comes on a cross. God’s own forgiveness comes not only from above, but from within human life. And it costs everything dear and precious to God, just as it costs us to forgive.
So, if God gives up his Son for us, then we must know that forgiveness is never little, not even in the smallest of wrongs. How many times should I forgive another member of the church? As many as seven times? “Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy times seven.” Jesus, is, of course, warning his followers not to try to prescribe forgiveness, but to teach them that their lives will bear the shape of forgiveness through its constant practice. He means to say that a disciple will never be done forgiving, just as God never tires in forgiveness and reconciliation, but rather delights in mercy and the fruits of steadfast love. But this life, this way of living, is necessary because the world that is shaped not by forgiveness, but by sin.
Yesterday was the anniversary of the Birmingham bombing of 1963, in which four little girls were murdered at church. They were murdered because their people wanted to exercise their basic rights, and to be recognized as full citizens of this country. Today is the anniversary of a speech by a young white lawyer named Charles Morgan, given to an all white business club the day after the bombing. He said, “A mad, remorseful worried community asks, "Who did it? Who threw that bomb? Was it a Negro or a white?" The answer should be, "We all did it." Every last one of us is condemned for that crime and the bombing before it and a decade ago. We all did it...Each citizen who has not consciously attempted to bring about peaceful compliance with the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States, every citizen and every school board member and schoolteacher and principal and businessman and judge and lawyer who has corrupted the minds of our youth; every person in this community who has in any way contributed during the past several years to the popularity of hatred, is at least as guilty, or more so, than the demented fool who threw that bomb.” Needless to say, this speech did not go down too well. His audience did not want to see little girls killed; but on the other hand, it did not want to admit its own complicity in their deaths.
I believe this is a great example of the sin of the world, which in our liturgy we sing of Jesus taking away. Now Charles Morgan had nothing but bitterness to levy at the churches of Birmingham in his speech: for him, the churches and their mealy-mouthed platitudes and their concern for the “image” of Birmingham made them the worst offenders of all, the guiltiest of the guilty. They wanted to use forgiveness as a cover for their way of supremacy and exploitation, instead of heeding God’s command to be an instrument of healing and truth. Of course, this is also not wholly true: the African-American church must have been working for justice, or else it would not have been bombed. Still the call of the church the Jesus challenge to the church, to be the community of reconciliation, and the people who constantly search for ways to forgive, is a better path. The past, as we know, isn’t even past, and the healing of God must come not only from above, but within life.
Forgiveness, since it is God’s desire, is not only encouraged, but demanded of Christ’s followers. God not only expects it, God requires it. Matthew, in his typically intense and straightforward way, lets us know that we will be judged on it. Paul also tells us that we will be held accountable, not merely to our neighbors, but to Christ himself when he comes in glory to judge the living and the dead. Yet Christ’s accounting differs from the world’s: rather than judging the management of debt, it’s fulfillment, or interest, or profit on it, Christ wants to check if we have forgiven it and let it go. Our lives, therefore, are not lived according what we owe and what we are owed: they are lived according to the love of God that frees us from account.
“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living…each of us will be accountable to God.” This is the life shaped by forgiveness, the life that disciples lead. God has freed us from sin and death, and our responsibility is to live like we are free from those things, and to act to others as if they, too, can be free. God has let us also become forgivers and freers. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack