Our diocesan convention began this last week. Usually it’s in November, one or two days of business meeting and community check in for our whole New York diocese. But this year, of course, is different, so this last week was the kickoff to a process that will stretch over the next two months, virtual style. Nothing better than a two-month-long convention! Actually the first installment wasn’t bad, truly. And it ended with a wonderful gospel song that somehow I had never heard before. How did I miss this one? The chorus goes, Let your little light shine, shine, shine…’cause there might be someone down in the valley trying to get home.
There it is: the new mission statement and theme song for St Michael’s Church. Let our light shine so that others can come home. I’m loving it. An essential reminder that what we do together, we do for the world. When we get this one right, we’ll be in the new Jerusalem indeed.
One way we do that is right there in today’s readings, which all point relentlessly in the direction of forgiveness. From Jesus’ over-the-top parable in response to Peter’s question, to Paul’s letter schooling us not to pass judgment on one another, to the Genesis reading laying out in story form what that forgiveness looks like – the theme is inescapable. As people of faith, we are to forgive.
It’s pretty explicit in the gospel. Peter kicks it off by asking Jesus, how often do I have to forgive? You get the feeling this isn’t a hypothetical question. Like, If another member of the church – who is wearing a blue shirt and whose initials are A and S – sins against me, like they cheat me out of some money in a business deal, for example – and they’ve done this a whole lotta times before and I don’t know why I keep letting them do that – how often do I have to forgive them? Surely last time was the last time, and now I can sue them and throw them in jail? Hypothetically speaking?
Why, no, says Jesus. You’re not to forgive just seven times – try seventy-seven times. And then he tells the parable about one slave who owes an astronomical amount to his master but is forgiven, who then turns around and won’t forgive this wee little amount someone else owes him, and there it is, plain as day: remember how much God has already forgiven us and do likewise.
Maybe now you’re mentally combing through a list of grievances you need to work on forgiving. Members of our own family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, public officials, maybe even God. We’ve probably heard all the psychology of forgiveness too, how it helps us to let go of the hurt others do to us, how forgiving is not the same as condoning what happened, how forgiveness takes time and can’t be rushed. How there are some things that we can’t really forgive, that we have to give to God for healing instead. There’s a whole barrel of sermons in there about how each of us in our lives learns to forgive, and what that forgiveness can do. But this is not one of those sermons.
Instead I suppose I’m thinking a lot about our church, St Michael’s in particular and the whole church in general. I’m thinking about the ministry of forgiveness, of reconciliation, that the whole church has to offer the world. This seems like a light that people are looking for. Our world is a long way from forgiveness and reconciliation. Pick a few examples: Those who support the President vs. those who are adamant for change. NYC vs. our mayor. Public health officials vs. business leaders. Those who want to find a safe home for the homeless, off the streets and out of harm’s way during a pandemic – vs. those who worry over the safety of their own home and streets. Anyone who thinks that their particular planned activity will be safe and ok, vs. all those tasked with enforcing the regulations to keep the community as a whole safe and ok. And all of us living through this pandemic, most of us untouched by the virus, some of us recovering from sickness, but all of us alive when so many have died. There’s a forgiveness necessary there too. The public silence that followed the 1918 flu pandemic, at least in the historical record, might show how deep that shame and blame goes.
So leaving aside the parable, I’m more interested in that story of forgiveness in Genesis, Joseph and his brothers. In some ways it’s just the happy ending to the long Joseph story, but actually, it’s every bit as over-the-top as Jesus’ parable. The context is that father Jacob has just died, leaving behind his many sons and grandsons. Everyone now lives in Egypt, because Joseph’s brothers have moved their families there to escape famine, and to profit from Joseph’s success in Egypt. But there’s still the lingering memory of what they did to their little brother all those years ago, selling him into slavery out of envy and irritation with him, and then lying to their father that he was dead. Everyone has tearfully reunited, but now that the patriarch Jacob has died, the brothers worry that maybe Joseph will want to take revenge on them at last. So they come and lie to Joseph too, telling him that dear old Dad wanted to be sure to say that Joseph should forgive them. These brothers, it seems, have not changed one bit from that cruel, cowardly act of years ago. They’re every bit as self-serving as they were then, and as far as they’re concerned, their brother Joseph is merely their personal cash cow.
Joseph would be right to kick them to the curb. I showed mercy on you before for our dear father’s sake, but now that he’s gone, I’ll treat you like the scum that you are. But instead, he weeps, they weep, and he says to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good…So have no fear.’ What an amazing speech. He names their criminal intent – there’s no ‘I know you didn’t mean it’ here. There’s no sign of their growth and rehabilitation either, so he doesn’t waste his time pretending there is. But at the same time, he refuses to react to it, instead putting it in God’s hands. God’s already made applesauce out of you bad apples, so why revisit the past? Let’s move on. And so they do. Do the brothers deserve it? No. Have they all done work to ensure this will never happen again? No. But this is in God’s hands, Joseph says, and there it can stay. Here, in other words, in the very first book of the Bible, is a story of grace – of gift undeserved, given freely. The way of Jesus that we are called to journey.
And despite their terrible tendencies, these brothers all become the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel – this family, full of betrayal and Christ-like forgiveness, is the founding family of God’s chosen people. Yet another band of problem people, chosen by God to show us how to live – see the disciples too, for another example. Almost seems like God has a message there somehow.
What if that kind of grace were our light to shine to the world? The grace that does not make light of or gloss over the wrong that is done – but that trusts God to work all things for good, as is promised. That says to our history, racist violence has been done and built into our system, and it is wrong. That says to our present, some have too much money and power, and some have none, and it is wrong. That says to our creation, we have exploited and harmed the earth for too long, and it is wrong. That says to our community, we have turned our back on one another too often, and it is wrong.
And yet even so, even with all that has been done, and the evil that has been intended, we trust God to keep working for good. We don’t need to grow weary or cynical. We don’t need to despair that we can’t put everything to rights ourselves. We don’t need to fear that all is lost. ‘You intended to do harm,’ Joseph told his brothers, ‘but God intended it for good.’ God is working – and calls us only to do our part in that greater work. We let our little light shine to be part of God’s great light – because there is someone who is stuck and lost and alone in the valley who needs to see that light to come home. They are our neighbor. And that is our job to do.