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Receiving Grace: Seed of Forgiveness

Aug 17, 2014, Author:

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Genesis 45:1-15 — “If we do not transform our pain, we will transmit it.” – Richard Rohr

Tobias Kroll, one of our newer (and younger! members), has been a valuable addition to our congregation in leading worship and offering insightful messages as we support each other in our spiritual growth journeys. I got a chance to read one of his messages this week, because he sometimes includes them in his blog. (And if you haven’t visited Tobias’ blog, I urge you to ) And he invites interaction by leaving comments to provoke spirited discussion and debate, which would make his offerings even more valuable.

But here is an excerpt from that message on grace:

Bottom line, we cannot claim innocence. And we know that, deep down in our hearts. So …we condemn ourselves for being less than perfect. And this self-condemnation hurts: a burden of pain we carry around every day. And from this place of pain we lash out whenever we find someone who seems to be even more reprehensible morally than we consider ourselves. That’s what [the Apostle] Paul means when he says we are dead in the law. The law is made powerless by our pain.

This is why the law doesn’t work. All it does is invite sin. In fact, it creates two types of sinners: those who break it, and those who use it to put themselves above others. We know those two archetypes as sinners and Pharisees. But it is safe to say that both live within each of us.

Tobias goes on to describe how receiving grace and forgiveness for ourselves, as a free gift of Spirit, is essential before we are able to show grace and forgiveness to others. In a sense, it’s a corollary to the command to “love our neighbor AS ourselves” – for one who does not love self is incapable of loving others rightly. And one who feels the pain of not forgiving self, no matter how subconsciously, is incapable of forgiving. As humans, we are poverty-stricken spiritually: we cannot show grace to others until we have received it for ourselves.

And Tobias’s words are a great lead-in to our focus passage from Genesis. The Joseph story is actually a long one that begins back in Chapter 37: the stage was set then when Joseph’s own brothers sold him into slavery — slavery in Egyptand the story ends in Chapter 50, when he dies an old man, after a rich and adventurous life. Much happens in between, and the lectionary gives us only two snapshots from the narrative in these two weeks, but today’s text offers an amazing and moving conclusion to the brothers’ awful crime of selling their brother into slavery years before.

But before we dive into the narrative, I want to look at the text historically; that is, taking into account the historical and archeological scholarship about this text and its origins. In my OT studies with Eden Seminary, one course was about the history of the formation of the clan we call Israel. Archeologists who have studied the culture and times, believe that Israel was actually a collection of tribes who had suffered at the hands of the Egyptian empire’s enslaving hegemony. And these tribes who escaped Egypt’s domination, united for the sake of survival…and combined their stories of origins, weaving together, I guess we would say, an ecumenical heritage, discarding some stories and including others. And the characters in these stories passed down orally over the generations, became archetypal figures, forming a history and defining themselves in relation to God, from which they drew meaning and identity.

So going back to the Genesis story, we interpret it as a metaphorical narrative. As Christians, we shy away from calling the Bible stories myths, but in some ways, they are just that: stories that tell the truth about a culture’s experience of God, even if the details are not literal history. Was there an historical Joseph and his brothers? Or is this theological history of the legends and religious beliefs and moral compass of a heterogeneous group establishing a unified front?

In any case, our goal as 21st c. Christians is to find the enduring truths passed down through these stories, and figure out how they are our story as a seeking community and as individual seekers.

So why and how can this tale become meaningful to us? Does this story contain a universal spiritual truth, woven by masterful and yet unwitting authors who faced the same kinds of challenges and spiritual resources we experience?

I began with Tobias’ words about the power of grace received to free us from deadening guilt and enrich us to spend grace freely on others. This is the heart of the Apostle Paul’s message in Romans: we are all imprisoned in guilt, so that we might all be freed by mercy and grace. And this is not only talking about our relationship to God – it is as much about our relationships with one another.

This archetypal story of Joseph, betrayed and abused by his brothers for Joseph’s own missteps of arrogance and pride, after suffering years in the refiner’s fire of humbling submission to power, finally rises to power not only of position, but to the power of chiseled character. Having been humbled by servitude, shown mercy and grace by others in order to be restored, he knows what it’s like to feel someone’s boot on his neck. And, out of hard-won compassion, he will not do that to his brothers. He showers them with grace and forgiveness.

Now, at this point in the story, I want to say, “Okay, hold everything. Of course Joseph could be generous, he had become second in command of the Egyptian empire, his story was now all roses and sunshine…. That doesn’t always happen in real life. Many people get stepped on repeatedly… and are still asked to forgive even before they have been restored and made whole.”

And it would be too easy to use this as an example for us today in our family relationships. Hank J. Langknecht cautions us that “encouraging victims to see ‘God’s plan’ in the abuse perpetrated on them is irresponsible pastoral care. Sensitivity to the suffering of those who have been injured or damaged is paramount, but the larger arc here is one of extravagant, freely given forgiveness that seems to give Joseph as much joy as it gives his brothers relief.” That BUT bothers me. That  BUT is a mountain to climb…a climb that in the Joseph story took decades. There is a MOUNTAIN of work that must happen between this sensitivity to the suffering of the abused…and “the larger arc…of freely given forgiveness” that brings joy.

That work, that climb, that larger arc…to my mind must happen BEFORE the joy and freedom of forgiveness. For the sake of brevity, certainly not thoroughness, I would offer three things that must happen before the BUT in that quote.

  1. The abused must find relief or a place of safety. We have women’s shelters for that purpose. We remove kids from their homes if they are being victimized. In this archetypal story, Joseph was removed from the reach of his brothers, and from death, by traders who carried him to Egypt.
  2. The abused must be restored to full humanity through counseling and emotional, economic and spiritual support. The abused must be made whole again, empowered to love themselves enough to set boundaries and establish the self-respect, the self-love, to stand on their own. Joseph was restored…and his power and wealth may be metaphors for the power and wealth of self-respect, resources and self-love…so that the abused gains emotional and spiritual freedom.
  3. Abusers must be made aware of the damage they have caused, the debt of confession they owe (whether paid or not), and the refusal of the abused to return to the status quo. Joseph’s brothers were driven to their knees by the revelation of what they had done; they, now, were humbled and became receivers of grace, that they might become givers of grace themselves.

Only then can that transitional BUT, that restoration, that “larger arc” leading to forgiveness and joy, become reality…. But it can… and it does, though not nearly as often as it should.
And it’s not magic; it’s not even God sending a dove or a miracle healing. It took guts. Barbara Brown Taylor wrote that Joseph “listened to his life” to understand the Spirit-led journey of recovery. Scripture alone cannot make sense of our lives. We can look for our life’s patterns, seek true self-awareness and honesty, not be afraid of mistakes but use them to grow. Psychologists say most humans have a drive to know their lives have meaning. A few weeks ago, I talked about the difference in finding meaning, like it’s out there …and forging meaning – which involves managing our responses to events by learning from them, taking proper care of ourselves and making decisions based on our highest values. Many of us react to events, but the wiser among us respond with careful thought and healthy goals.

That meaning we forge is a fruit of the God-spirit within us. A spirit/mind that opens our eyes, comforts our hearts and steels our wills in the face of being thrown into the pit. Never to deny or minimize the harm that has been done to us, but always to forge ahead rather than play the victim.
And that God-spirit, Barbara Brown Taylor says, is not some external puppeteer, but is more like an artist, “like one of those genius sculptors who can make art out of anything.” For this kind of artist, “Nothing is too bent to be used – not even tragedies, not even bad decisions, not even plain human meanness.” Joseph, she says, is “a living work of art.” And so are you…and I.
God is not some deux ex machina that descends onto the stage like in ancient theater. Rather, that divine image within, that Christ spirit, that capacity named in other religions to escape the prison of self-centeredness and guilt…is grace. Grace that says we are accepted and forgiven even before we fall. We stumble, so what? We are neither better nor worse than anyone else…for we are all debtors to grace. And it’s only in being humbled enough to receive that grace… that we are safe and secure enough to offer it to others.

As individuals, as a church and as a nation, we are the injured and the injurer. We are the sinner and the Pharisee. We are Joseph and his brothers.

May that spirit of grace bring peace to us all.