A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

Sunday, February 20, 2022

By: Amelia McDaniel, Lay Associate for Christian Formation


Almost 19 years ago to this day, I was visiting a church in Georgetown. We had just moved to Alexandria and I was out visiting churches are in the area. I remember it was a lovely place, the sermon had been engaging. Things went south for me at the prayers of the people though. Because, the prayers included a special prayer at the death of Fred Rogers, beloved children’s television icon and Prebysterian minister. I had missed the reports about his death in the news that week.

As the priest talked a bit about Mr. Rogers, the tears started flowing down my face. I’m sure that my pew mates thought me odd, because these weren’t some little handkerchief appropriate tears, they were big and fat and drippy. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t end up going to church there because I made a spectacle of myself. Although as I looked around I wasn’t the only one wrecked, I was just soppier.

I was born just four years after Fred Rogers began his groundbreaking television show for children. I spent my entire childhood with Mr. Rogers as did many in my generation. His show happened to come on just around the time my father would get home from work. I was sent to the den to watch Mr. Rogers and my parents had time to catch up with each other after the day. I loved him. I loved his sweaters and the trolley and when he showed movies on Picture Picture. Mostly I loved the way Mr. Rogers made me feel as I sat in my family’s cozy little den before dinner. When he said “you are special” he was stating the deep truth of faith, that we are beloved. He dealt with hard topics for children and adults alike – death, divorce, war. He showed us through his interactions what it looked like to love your neighbor. Mr. Rogers quietly went about teaching generations to respect the dignity and worth of every human being. And his friendship and guidance to adults throughout his life demonstrated that his message was not just for children.

Looking back, I can see that my big, fat, drippy tears came from believing down deep in my heart that Mr. Rogers was indeed my friend and that he not only liked me, he loved me. Turns out that feeling had nestled itself in my heart for all those years. You should have seen the mess I made of myself a few years ago when I saw the Tom Hanks movie about Fred Rogers, It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. I haven’t been back to that theater either.

Turns out Joseph who we hear about today was no stranger to being a weeper either. The Old Testament reading this morning ends with Joseph weeping and hugging on his brothers. The brothers who years and years before had become so hateful and undone by his big talk about how much he was favored by their father and how special his dreams were that they ripped off his fancy coat and threw him in a pit. The ones who are responsible for him getting sold into slavery in Egypt.

Now his brothers have shown up in need of food for their tribe since a famine had spread across the land. They don’t recognize Joseph, who managed to survive and eventually come to great power in Egpyt.

But this piece of the story we hear this morning is the conclusion. This is the second time these brothers have appeared before him. The first time he was mum about his identity. Joseph 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. 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.

I wonder about the interior conversations Joseph had with himself while they were away. How did he navigate all of this? The wide range of emotions he must have had to see his brothers – fury, rage, love, regret, sorrow. 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 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.”

Joseph wept, big, fat drippy tears too. He wept so loud that all the folks around him heard it.

And in today’s portion of the narrative, Joseph reveals himself. He tells his brothers to come closer, and then he says to them – it’s me.

With a mercy that is hard to fathom, He tells them to go home and get his father and their families and their flocks and to come make a home with him in Egypt. The story closes with Joseph kissing his brothers and weeping upon them. And then they talked to each other.

I wish the narrative included what they talked about. Fred Rogers said, “Anything that is human is mentionable and anything mentionable is manageable.” Certainly there was so much to talk about here. There was a lot to mention and manage. But God’s mercy flowed through Joseph and his brothers. With God’s grace things that were beyond broken were made into something new.

Mercy, forgiveness can occur without words, without long conversations too. Parents can forgive children that never forgive them back, children can forgive parents who never acknowledge a hurt. People can forgive those who are long dead who have harmed them.
But to name wrongdoing, to name an evil done to one another. To mention wounds out loud so that it can be managed is a powerful experience.

Writer Shannan Martin says of mercy…
Mercy…brings us face-to-face with our shadow selves. [Mercy] drags us back into the light of each other.

I sincerely doubt that the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers was neat and tidy and that the repercussions of all that had transpired cropped up for the brothers again and again. But they were brought back into the light of each other. Something new was made that day through mercy and forgiveness.

Joseph’s story of extraordinary work of God’s mercy is coupled in our readings today with Jesus’ extraordinary, seemingly impossible teaching in today’s Gospel. The kind of mercy Jesus speaks of here is so opposite what we learn from so much of day-to-day life. Love my enemy? Turn my cheek? He speaks of a sense of mercy for others that does not come naturally, for me at least. Jesus is mentioning a lot about being a human that I do not find particularly manageable at all.
Then, Jesus says that
God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.

Part of me wants to throw up my hands when I hear that and say then what’s the point in being good?
And besides I’m not sure how I can possibly love my enemy anyway. I’m still working on loving my neighbor.

But Joseph and his brothers remind me of why this is both possible and true.
With God’s grace what seems impossibly broken can be made new. When we are held up in the light of one another God’s mercy shines.

And truth is that as much as I’d like to deny it, I’m probably a whole lot more like Joseph’s brothers in need of mercy. I am an enemy to someone, I am sure. I stand in need of God’s mercy far more often than I share it.

God is forever calling us in closer and revealing mercy upon mercy, even in the midst of what seems impossibly broken. And it is in striving to believe that God is present with us AND the ones we see as enemies that we get a glimpse at the wideness of God’s mercy that circles around us all.

Fred Rogers did not speak expressly of God or his faith in his programming, but he definitely preached the Gospel. He honored for children and adults alike the remarkable effort it takes to grow in love. At the close of each show, Mr. Rogers sang. “I’ll be back when the day is new. And I’ll have more ideas for you. And you’ll have things you want to talk about. I will too.”

And I believed him. As an adult now, this sounds an awful lot like what mercifully God says to me. Each day in God’s wide mercy, we are offered the grace be in conversation with God and to grow in love. And this makes me weep too.