Genesis 45:1-15;50:18-21 and Colossians 3:12-17
We’ve spent three weeks now talking about what forgiveness is not, naming for ourselves that forgiveness is about freeing ourselves— not the person who did something to us, and exploring what to do with our anger and the other things that keep us from forgiving. We’ve talked about how it is that we are all connected and that in order to forgive we need to be able to see the humanity in one another. But what happens when the person we can’t forgive is someone we used to be close to or always wanted to be close to? What does forgiveness look like with people we are “supposed” to love?
Our Bible story from Genesis this morning tells a story of siblings— a story of brothers. Joseph, son of Jacob, is one of twelve sons. He is the baby of the family. And the Bible tells us that Jacob loved Joseph because he had him as a son when he was already old. I can imagine Jacob was quite a different father to Joseph than he was to the oldest ones. The oldest ones are already married and having grandkids, so this one, his youngest, is more like a grandchild. And rather than dealing with their pain and working through all of this with their father, they instead seek to take revenge on their baby brother. There is so much pain in this story as Joseph lauds his favored status over his brothers; as they turn to jealousy and hatred to deal with it, and then as Joseph is sold into slavery by his own kin— the ones who are supposed to watch out for him. What a burden this must’ve placed on the entire family and extended families as their choice set off a landslide of grief by their father, who thought he was killed by a wild animal, and the lives of secrecy they led to cover up what they had done. How lost and alone Joseph must’ve felt as he was taken to a new country and dealt with everything from crazy employers to time in prison. Little did Joseph know, little did his brothers know, that there would be a chance for reconciliation years later.
In fact, if you do go back and read the story (and I encourage you to do so, it’s only a few chapters long), you’ll find that Joseph didn’t act in wisdom and patience and grandeur when he first saw his brothers. Instead, Joseph plays a game with him. Remember our circle of retribution? Joseph plays right along. He makes up elaborate things his brothers have to do to receive the grain to take home to their family. He plays tricks on them, scaring them into believing that they may all be put in prison. He comes up with an elaborate rouge to get them to bring the youngest brother, Benjamin, back to meet him— his one full blood brother, the one he would’ve been closest to. And all the time the brothers keep saying to themselves, “remember what we did? God is punishing us now.” But it’s not God that’s punishing them, it’s Joseph. And it is when Joseph sees his brother Benjamin face to face, it’s when he sees the fear in his brothers’ eyes, that Joseph realizes he doesn’t want to play this charade anymore. He thought he wanted retribution. Instead, he realizes that he wants his family. And he forgives them on the spot.
Tutu says in The Book of Forgiving that telling your story is how you begin to take back what was taken from you. And that we know we are healing when we are able to tell a new story. Joseph tells his brothers a new story. This is not a story in which God punishes them for what they did to their brother— that is the story they’ve been telling themselves. In Joseph’s version of the story, God has taken what the brothers meant for evil, and has turned it into something amazingly wonderful— putting Joseph in a position to save not only his brothers from famine, but the entire nation of Egypt and all the nations around them.
This is Joseph’s new story— the story in which he is no longer a victim, but a hero of his story. A story of survival, of resilience, of trusting in God’s grace. Joseph gets to a different place where he is able to forgive them, not for them, but for his own freedom. And we see this in the second part of the passage we read. The two passages sounded the same— Joseph offering his brothers forgiveness and retelling the story— but he does this at least twice in the Bible. He does this once when he first reveals to them who he is; and then he does it again after their father dies and the brothers are sure that now he will get his revenge. Joseph’s brothers have a hard time trusting that the cycle is broken. As is often the case, forgiveness needs to be offered and received many times, if not aloud, than at least in our hearts.
Søren Kierkegaard wrote that, “Jesus says, ‘Forgive, and you will also be forgiven’ (Matt. 6:14). That is to say, forgiveness is forgiveness. Your forgiveness of another is your own forgiveness; the forgiveness you give is the forgiveness you receive. If you wholeheartedly forgive your enemy, you may dare hope for your own forgiveness, for it is one and the same.”
Giving and receiving forgiveness is the same practice from a different vantage point. When you practice one, you practice the other.
I want to show you a TED talk that Leslie Blodgett & Colaine Roepke gave a couple of years ago. They call it their forgiveness experiment.
Two sisters. Lots of pain. And yet they’re willing to live in the present and try each day to let it go— to forgive one another and themselves. As Lily Tomlin once said, “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.”
In Leslie and Colaine’s story, we can see the things that Tutu’s Book on Forgiving has been sharing with us: that forgiveness is not easy; that it’s not a one-time deal; that it takes work to be released from the cycles that we create of hurting one another and being hurt; but that it’s also freeing to forgive— it’s healing— it’s about taking back your own power. Leslie and Colaine were able to tell their story together— which I’m sure is a very different story than they were telling a year before that; they named their pain; they saw the humanity in each other; and for them, it made sense to try and restore the relationship they once had. That doesn’t always make sense, and we’ll talk about that next week, but it is important to recognize for yourself what you want out of forgiving. You can’t change the other person by forgiving them, but you can allow God to transform your life when you take the steps to live in the way of forgiveness.
One step at a time. And the good news is, Christ is walking with us every step of the way. God wants us to live lives of wholeness, love, and peace. One step at a time.
Resources Cited/Consulted: The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu The Plough Daily Dig online