Readings: Genesis 50:15-21
I don’t know how many of you would admit to watching Eastenders? It oscillates between being utterly annoying and tedious to totally gripping, as it has been of late, with the plot woven around the shady character of Max Branning reaching its climax. Having been made scapegoat for the killing of Lucy Beale and wrongly imprisoned, he re-surfaced on Albert Square apparently willing to forgive and forget the whole sorry episode. The chilling reality, however, couldn’t have been further from the truth. Behind the scenes he has been plotting his total revenge upon everyone who failed to speak out or stand by him, including his own daughters. The consequences are catastrophic ruin all around. If you haven’t seen it you can still get it on i-player!
This may be a work of fiction but soap operas do play out stories that reflect human behaviour in reality. Revenge is common. Equally, thankfully, so is forgiveness. In all the appalling acts of terror experienced in recent times, from Berlin to Barcelona, from Manchester to Westminster, we have witnessed people prepared to forgive terrorists who have killed their loved ones. Acts of atrocity are not atoned for by further acts of violence. We can become eaten up with bitterness and the desire for retribution or we can let go and move forward.
In our first reading, Joseph has a lot to resent his brothers for. He was sold into slavery by them, because they were jealous of the favour shown to him by their father. They would have murdered him but for their reluctance to actually have his blood on their hands. However, the fate they condemned him to was little better than murder, for no slave is able to do as they wish. It was because of Joseph's favour in the eyes of God that Joseph was able to prosper in slavery. After many trials and tribulations, including more than two years in prison for an offence he did not commit, he rose to the position of being at the right hand of Pharaoh and was charged with the task of keeping Egypt safe from seven years of drought and famine.
Joseph was most terribly wronged by his brothers. And yet, many years later, when hunger brought them into Egypt, he forgave them. He provided richly for them, saying even then, that God had a purpose in allowing them to sell him into slavery, for it made it possible for him to save them and all his people in their time of need. Joseph was given the grace to see beyond the pain to the gain. The grace to see that while evil was done to him, God was able to use that evil for good.
Often for us that is a really difficult thing. We can't see anything good coming out of the harm that others have done us. We can't bring ourselves to forgive. We carry the wounds of the past with us; we remember the hurt done us. We think of what might have been, rather than looking at our life as it is now and seeing the hand of God in it to do good for many, and from that point of view, forgiving the harm done to us by few.
In the gospel reading, Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive those who have sinned against him. Jesus gives his famous answer: "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven times". In other words, we should always be ready to forgive. Jesus illustrates this with a parable about how the Kingdom of Heaven is like a King who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. One of these servants, even though he is forgiven a massive debt by his master, fails to be equally forgiving of a fellow servant who owes him a small debt. When the master discovered what had happened, he treated the unforgiving servant just as he had treated his fellow servant.
Then comes the punch line: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Alarming. Alarming because most of us find it difficult to forgive. Alarming because, it seems the forgiveness we finally receive depends on the forgiveness we give.
Yet, God loves and forgives us, even before we even ask. His forgiveness is total and unconditional. He calls to us to open our lives to him and to accept that love and forgiveness. In order to forgive, we need to surrender our judgement to God and keep praying with earnestness the prayer that Jesus taught, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us". Or, “As You have forgiven us our sins, help us to forgive those who sin against us”. But for us, forgiveness is often a process; sometimes, it may take a long time to forgive from the heart when the wounds go deep.
Sin is sin, and we have a right to be angry about it. We should be angry about it. Sin is always wrong. It is always bad. It always hurts someone. But the problems begin when we hold onto all that hurt. There is an emotional container inside each of us that can overflow. Most negative emotion stems from hurt. Hurt turns to anger. It we hang on to our anger it turns into resentment, then bitterness, then hate, then fear, then guilt and then stress. All this pours out of our emotional cup into health problems, destructive tendencies or addictions.
Yet, the incredible news is that, while sin always hurts, its power to hurt ends when forgiveness is applied to it. Forgiveness is the key to emotional healing. Work to let go of your anger at those who sinned, not only by remembering what God has done for you, but also by remembering that, in the end, God is the only one who has the right to render judgement. Forgiveness means that we must forever surrender the idea that we are judge.
Sandwiched between these key texts on forgiveness, the Romans passage may seem rather random. This is not a commentary on vegetarianism but to do with the issue of eating meat offered to idols, which vexed the early believers. Paul’s point is that they are not to pass judgement on or despise those who, in good conscience, either eat or refrain from eating such food. There are more important things at stake.
We are individually accountable to God, who has forgiven us. Sin no longer has the power to harm our relationship with God. Instead of turning his face away from us as we deserve, God turns to us. God turns to us, in pain, in tears, and finally in death itself. He forgives us and calls us and empowers us to live as ones who are able, like Joseph, to save many lives. As ones, who like Jesus, are able to bring the word of life to those who are in darkness and the word of love to those are perishing because of their lack of it.
To conclude in prayer, using the lyrics of the Graham Kendrick song:
O Lord Your tenderness
Melting all my bitterness,
O Lord, I receive your love.
O Lord, Your loveliness
Changing all my ugliness,
O Lord, I receive Your love,
O Lord, I receive Your love.
Revd Lisa Cornwell