By: Amelia McDaniel, Director of Children’s Ministries
One evening deep into my teenage years I sat in the club chair in the den with my father, bewailing some grave injustice that had befallen me. I’m pretty sure I had already exhausted my mother and had not gotten the answer I wanted. So he was my next victim. For the life of me I cannot remember what exactly I was so mad about. I do remember that I had copious tears and snuffles and probably some wild gesturing.
Then Dad said something to me that has stayed with me for over 30 years. “Are you really going to put that rock in your backpack? Carry that around?” To my teenage ears this statement was odd enough that I stopped and heard him. “Why haul things around that you simply don’t have to?”
He was right of course. Carrying the extra weight of anger and hurts and guilt and grudges is simply dead weight. I’d like to tell you that from that moment forward I have lived a life free of all extra rocks in my backpack. Of course that is far from true. Struggling with the weight of human hurts and forgiveness are not one and done battles. It takes a whole lot. Just look at today’s readings.
From the Old Testament we hear the story of Joseph revealing himself to his brothers who have shown up in need of food for their tribe since a famine had spread across the land. Let’s remember these are the brothers who years before ripped off his fancy coat, threw him in a pit and then sat down to eat lunch while the talked over exactly how they were going to get rid of him. They hated him, the one they perceived to be their father Jacob’s favorite, the one who had crazy dreams. And while they were debating some traders came by and solved their problem for them. Off Joseph went, out of their hair.
And now years later here they are before him and Joseph says to them…
Now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here…”
I cannot believe his generosity? Where is his righteous indignation? Where is the rage that he quite frankly deserves? From this statement it appears that he is free of any kind of rocks in his pack about what these idiot brothers of his had done to him.
But this piece of the story is the conclusion. This is the second time that these brothers have appeared in front of him. The first time he was mum about his identity. He listened to their plight. Then he accused them of being spies. He told them that they had to leave a brother with him and show up the next time with Benjamin, the youngest brother, the other son of Rachel and Jacob. But he did give them the food they needed and he secretly had his servants tuck the money they had offered back in their bags. He knew the famine would go on and I guess he figured that they would show up again. He’d test them to see if they would show up with Benjamin the next time. My guess is that he also had to take some time to figure out just how he was going to handle this.
I like to think that Joseph chewed on this in the time they were away. I know I would struggle and moan and sit in a chair and tell somebody how mad I was. Joseph had managed to make a successful life for himself in Egypt, rising to a place of power and honor through his service and ability to interpret dreams. He clearly had not let bitterness and anger completely fill his life. But, the appearance of his brothers had to have forced him to do some thinking and soul searching.
The famine does go on. And in today’s story the brothers have arrived again with Benjamin in tow. And this time Joseph can bear it no longer and he reveals himself. The lines just before where today’s story begins are…
“Then Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him; and he cried, Make every one go out from me…And he wept aloud, so that the Egyptians heard it and the household of Pharaoh heard it.”
To really imagine that scene breaks me a little. Joseph weeping, wailing really. It’s me. Me the one you threw away. Here I am.
How on earth did the brothers receive this news? How on earth could they possibly bear to receive his love?
The story closes with Joseph kissing his brothers and weeping upon them and the scripture tell us that “after that his brothers talked with him.” How amazing is the work that God can get done with us humans?
The writer Ann Lamott says that “Earth is forgiveness school” and does this story show the truth in that. Joseph somehow had worked it out in his human heart and found a way to forgive the unforgiveable. It could not have been easy, but he chooses to see how their actions have become a blessing. “God sent me before you to preserve life.”. Joseph’s act of forgiveness is an extraordinary example of what God has made us capable of. What would this story have looked like if Joseph had not been able to forgive the unforgiveable? Our story, the story of God’s people is in part a product of this act of forgiveness. Joseph figured out a way to place himself and his past in the context of a bigger story that was happening all around him. And he could see God’s love at work in the midst the colossal mess of his exceptionally dysfunctional family.
Jesus gives us some pretty specific action plans on how to live a life free of rocks in your backpack in today’s gospel. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, turn the other cheek. Remember that God loves even the ungrateful and wicked. Treat others with that same mercy that God has given to you. All of this sounds a lot like what Joseph was able to do. But, most days I find when I am faced with shoving some more rocks in my backpack or living this way, I shake my head and think… please oh please Lord, you cannot be serious that this is how I am supposed to live right?
Because what is being asked of us in the gospel seems right near impossible. Who on earth can love their enemy, Turn the other cheek. Share everything you’ve got. And the Golden Rule sounds great. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Except the truth is we have a hard time treating our own selves the way we want to be treated, much less treat others that way.
I sometimes just simply want to go ahead and haul around my stupid heavy backpack, full of all my righteous indignation. And then God has to go give me Joseph as an example. Or the people at Emmanuel AME in Charleston who went and sat with Dylann Roof who days before had gunned down their own family members during a Bible study. Or the Amish mothers and fathers of Paradise, Pennsylvania who stood with not in protest but in love at the funeral of the very man who had taken their girls from them and then they helped to provide for his widow and children. Or the remarkable stories of forgiveness that Bishop Desmond Tutu helped facilitate through the Truth and Reconciliation
These big stories remind me that with practice and effort forgiveness is possible. But, when I look close in at the lives of people around me I marvel. In another iteration of Earth being Forgiveness School, Lamott has also said…. Earth is forgiveness school, You might as well start at the dinner table. That way you can do the work in comfortable pants. And If Earth is forgiveness school, family is your postdoctoral fellowship. We are all students in this school. Tonight there are parents who will ask their children to forgive them because they messed up big time. And there are children, the grown kind, finding ways to forgive their own parents who never had the words to ask to be forgiven. There are couples making their way to the counselor’s sofa. There are phone calls, difficult ones that have been long delayed, being made. There are people all over opening up their big backpacks and taking care of what’s been shoved in there over the years.
At the conclusion of the Gospel, Jesus gives some pretty clear ways that we can avoid stuffing our own backpacks too full. They are like the posted rules for this Lamott’s Forgiveness School…
Do not judge, and you will not be judged… Don’t judge others and amazingly you won’t notice or care if others expend energy judging you.
Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned…. Forget about condemning other’s mistakes, you are mostly likely going to need a pass from some pretty gargantuan mistakes someday too.
Forgive and you will be forgiven…. Practice forgiving others so that you can really be able to feel the gift of being forgiven.
The measure you give, will be the measure you get back… Give a full measure. Do the Bob Heatherington. Show Up. Lean In. Stay strong. And then, you will see just what an overflowing measure you have already been given.
From what I’ve learned so far in my own studies at Forgiveness School is that as much as I want to sit in a club chair and moan and wail at Jesus about how hard this all is, he reminds me that my dad was right. No need for extra rocks in my pack. God’s love is at work in the world and you and I have a part to play in it, better to have light packs for that journey.