Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, February 20, 2022

YEAR C 2022 epiphany 7

Epiphany 6, 2022
Genesis 45:3-11, 15
1 Corinthians 15:35-38,42-50
Luke 6:27-38
Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Well, sometimes you love the assigned readings, and all the preacher has to do is amplify the obvious good news.  And sometimes the lessons are a minefield of potential bad theology and misunderstanding, destined to cause great harm to actual human lives, unless we pick them apart for context and bad translations.  Guess which one we have today?

I can tell you that the touchstone for getting these readings right is to think in terms of power.  Who has the power and what are they doing with it?  If we keep our eye on that perspective, we’ll get through this together.

So, let’s start with the reading from Genesis.  You’ll probably recognize this as the “happy ending” to the horrible and dramatic story of Joseph and his coat of many colors.  (Perhaps you’re familiar with the Worst Musical Ever, starring Donny Osmond.)  Before today’s reading picks up, Joseph’s brothers want to kill him out of jealousy, but instead they sell him to a group of Midianites passing through.  You know, standard big brother kind of behavior . . . but on steroids.

Joseph ends up in Egypt, where he gains a high position of authority because of his ability to interpret dreams.  A famine strikes the land, and his brothers come looking for food, having no idea that their brother is in charge of such things.  And then that’s where today’s reading picks up.  Joseph’s brothers come begging, their hats in their hands, hoping to be saved from starvation, and they come before Joseph, not realizing he is their brother, occupying this position where he can choose life or death for them—the very people who sold him into slavery!

And what does Joseph do with this power?  What would you do with this power?  I confess that what I would do with this power might not look anything like what we heard.  But Joseph chooses life, and forgiveness, and compassion.  He chooses to be merciful.  From his position of power, he chooses to restore the broken relationship with his brothers.  Those brothers sold him into slavery, and yet he says, “I will provide for you there . . . so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.”  Joseph does what a loving God would do, you see?  Though his once powerful big brothers meant nothing but harm to him, Joseph uses his power for redemption, and a second chance.

It’s a great story.  But the danger we have to watch out for is this:  Joseph says to his brothers, “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”  Which suggests his being sold into human slavery was God’s plan.  This is a very scary way to imagine God, and the world, because it implies human trafficking is sometimes a good thing.  And, I’m sorry, I just can’t worship a God whose plan is to have my brothers sell me as a possession so that I could later save their lives.  I think what’s going on here is just that Joseph has it all wrong, to be honest.  A much better summary of what happened comes a few chapters later, in Genesis 50, where Joseph says to his brothers, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good.”

And that gets us around to imagining God saying, “I can work with that.”  No matter what we do, no matter how little of ourselves we are willing to offer up to God, God’s starting point is, “I can work with that.”  That is the good news in this story.  Not that God convinces our siblings to sell us into slavery.  But rather, no matter what others might do to us, or no matter what evil we ourselves might do, God’s starting point is always, “I can work with that.”  Like maybe, although God didn’t get us into this mess, how do we move forward from this spot?  God is always looking forward.  God can work with this.

And then let’s look at the gospel reading, from Luke.  Lots of landmines in this little snippet.  On the surface, it sounds kind of like what we call The Golden Rule, right?  Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.  But this reading has been used—and is still being used—to oppress and abuse people for centuries.  It’s the justification some clergy present to keep spouses in abusive relationships, which can end up getting them killed.  It’s the justification for telling people to let others walk all over them, and remain meek and subservient to someone who abuses their power or physical strength. 

And that’s why we have to approach this reading with the same touchstone of power and how it is used.  The very fact that Jesus is talking about making the choice in these situations implies that you have the power to make that choice.  He is not speaking to people trapped in abusive relationships.  He’s not speaking to underpaid employees with no health insurance.  And the tip off is that he begins by saying, “I say to you that listen . . .”  This is not a message for everyone of every time and place.  This is a message for people who have enough power and self agency to decide how they are going to respond.  Someone with no power cannot even make the choices Jesus is describing.

And in fact, when paired with that first reading we heard about Joseph and his brothers, we might even consider how different this gospel reading sounds when Jesus is speaking to the ones with the power, the ones in authority, the ones who have the most options to do harm in response to harm.  Consider how differently we would hear this message if Jesus said, “If a child strikes you on the cheek, turn to them the other cheek as well.”  Or, “If your employee takes your lunch from the office fridge, give to them your soda also.”  It makes a huge difference in how we hear these sayings from Jesus.

But the absolute most important thing to get right here is that Jesus is not telling us to remain in abusive relationships.  He is not telling us to let people mistreat us, or to allow ourselves to be mistreated by those who have more power.  He is telling us that when we do have power, when we do have the ability to do harm to those who harm us, that is when we are to think of these words.  He is not talking to the poor and downtrodden.  He is speaking to the bosses and the people in charge.  He is speaking to those who have the power to make choices, and telling them which choices they should make.

And then there’s a huge translation problem in this reading as well.  The word we get translated as “credit,” is the Greek word charis, which means grace.  We get our word “charity” from this word charis.  When we hear Jesus ask, “What credit is that to you?” it sounds as if there’s some heavenly balance sheet with each of our names on it.  So like, “Love your enemies, so that you’ll get an extra credit on the good side of the ledger.  Once you’ve saved up enough credits, you can trade them in for this lovely pair of wings.”  That’s not how any of this works, thank God.

But back to charis, or grace.  The way this sentence is actually structured, Jesus is asking the question, “What is grace to you?”  And that changes everything!  Because now we can hear this as, “What is grace to you, if you love only those who love you?”  And, “What is grace to you, if you do good only to those who do good to you?”  And now it sounds more like Jesus is asking, “Do you even understand what grace is if you use it in a transactional way?”  “Do you really know grace if you live your life on a quid pro quo basis?”  In other words, we show grace when we treat others as God treats them.  Because here’s the killer line in this whole reading . . .

Jesus tells those that listen, “For God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”  Joseph is kind to his brothers, those ungrateful and wicked ones who sold him into slavery out of their jealousy.  God is still merciful even to those most underserving of mercy.  God is merciful to us, to you and me, undeserving as we are.

I encourage you to spend some time this week trying to answer the question, “What is grace to me?”  And then see if you can find ways to answer that question in how you treat the people you encounter in the days ahead.  When I remember that God is always merciful, “What is grace to me?”  And, however you answer that question, God can still work with that.  Because no matter what, God is always merciful.


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