Proper 15 A 2011
God happens when forgiveness is given and received.
Genesis, the great first book of the Bible, concludes with the tale of Joseph and his brothers. It’s a story of family dysfunction, pride and jealousy. If you remember back to your Sunday School lessons, Joseph is his father’s favorite, and Dad even gives him that fancy coat that even got a Broadway musical named after it, “Technicolor Dreamcoat” and all that. Joseph’s brothers have about all the Joseph they can stand, so they trap him, sell him as a slave, and fake his death back home. But Joseph does OK as a slave, going from prison to a position of power and wealth in Egypt. That’s when the brothers show up, hungry and needy and begging food because of a drought and famine. They don’t recognize the powerful Egyptian official, perfumed and dressed in fine fabric and gold with his hair tricked-out Egyptian style as their brother.
If Joseph had taken this opportunity to work some revenge on the bros, nothing heinous, just a little roughing up, God himself would have called it just. He does throw one of his brothers in the clink for awhile, but hey, he’s only human. If Joseph had at least yelled at them, vented his feelings as our psychologized age would put it, Oprah would have sat and held his hand and affirmed him, and Jerry Springer would have egged him on. Instead, Joseph puts down any rage and pain and bitterness he still has and simply cries and asks about Dad. Genesis is a book full of miracles and spectacle, but the greatest miracle in that book is this moment of sheer grace and forgiveness. Something new is possible because of Joseph’s moment of reckless forgiveness. It is the moment, as one writer puts it, where God happens, where grace and forgiveness and new life and a story worth telling breaks into the world.
The Bible and Christian tradition speak constantly of forgiveness, but it is the least-practiced Christian principle in my opinion. Perhaps it is forgiveness that Ghandi had in mind when he famously said that he liked Jesus, but he had never met a Christian, one who put Jesus’ teachings into actual practice. Our surrounding world usually does not practice forgiveness. More often what we see is grievance and revenge. Just a few days ago the news claimed, with a certain sense of relish and the rightness of things, that the military had “taken out” the Taliban members responsible for shooting down the helicopter with 30 personnel on board. As I read that grim P.S. to a sad war story, I wondered if we were meant to feel somehow good about “taking out” those people, as if things had been put back in their proper order. I for one did not feel anything of the sort. Even within the wall of the church, forgiveness is often sadly absent. Instead of whole-hearted forgiveness, I have seen grudges, quiet resentments, and disguised anger simmer between people all too often. What will sometimes happen is that someone will drift away from the parish, often thinking words like “hypocrites” to themselves, rather that offer and receive forgiveness with someone who has angered or slighted them.
It’s not about being a doormat, letting people off the hook for their words or actions. It’s about acknowledging their actions and our own, and letting God make a new beginning. Where there is no forgiveness, we are all kept in the same prison, and God cannot happen, God cannot make hope and new life.
And God happens when old boundaries are crossed.
Today’s Gospel tale is a startling one, because it puts not only the disciples but Jesus himself in a unflattering light. The mission to proclaim the Kingdom of God has begun, full of outrageous hope and energy. But just when things are building up, something or someone happens that faces the disciples and Jesus himself with long-held prejudices. A foreigner, a Canaanite woman, cries out to Jesus, “son of David”, for mercy for her daughter. It’s embarrassing and irritating both—doesn’t she get it? This is Israel’s salvation, this is the Lord and heir of David who is restoring the ancient kingdom of Judah and Israel. No foreigners allowed, especially this woman.
But she will have none of it. She brushes past the hostility of the disciples and of Jesus’ inclination to simply pass her by and comes close. Jesus still attempts to deflect her with a proverb about dogs, not very flattering. But she meets that head-on and bandies words with him. We will never in this life penetrate the inner life of Jesus the Christ, but it seems like something changes in that moment not only for the woman but also for Jesus himself. “Great is your faith!”, and from Jesus there is no higher praise. And God happens, in that awkward moment where Gospel mission and racial and gender prejudice all had raised their heads. A child is healed.
God happens in our world in these ordinary yet astounding moments, when hate and resentment and prejudice are put aside and hands reach across great divides, when forgiveness or at least the possibility of forgiveness is grasped. We put aside the cold comfort of revenge or grievance or the cruelty of keeping someone or a whole people in a box of our making—“she’s always like that”, “what do you expect from THOSE people?”—and instead reach out in honesty and hope. And that is where God happens, where the Gospel finally makes sense, where all those lovely words like “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” become more than comforting traditional words and come to world-changing life.
The ancient hermit Antony the Great, who spent decades in solitude, once startled people who came to ask him the way to salvation. He said, “My life is with my brother.” Like Antony, our lives are with our sisters and brothers, within the walls of this church, and beyond to the world. It is in that unromantic and messy arena of resentment, grievance, and the possibility of forgiveness that the Gospel becomes real. It is in that human arena that God happens.
*phrase not mine, regrettably, but taken from the book by ++Rowan Williams of the same title