Genesis 45:3-11, 15 (NRSV); Luke 6:27-38 (The Voice)


Cecilia Castell, "Unity is my Community"


There are few types of drama more painful and intense than family drama.

Maybe it’s the intensity of the emotions, the emotional and physical proximity of those involved. Perhaps there’s so much history, most of which never really gets resolved, that we can’t help but bring those into our present conflicts.

As my brother asks whenever we argue, “Why are you always bringing up old stuff?”

Why are we always bringing up the old stuff? Why do we hang onto the past, sometimes even clinging to it, refusing to let it go?

William Faulkner would tell us that it’s because “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Faulkner was probably right; the past forms the habits and patterns of relationships that guide how we deal with each other in the present. The deepest patterns, the pathways that have been cut the deepest, are in our family systems.

Sometimes these patterns are good and bear fruits of love. But in many families, there are patterns that need to be broken. There might be patterns of cruelty, forced and unhealthy competition, or a mindset that love is something to be hoarded or only shown sparingly. Sometimes these patterns are so deeply dug, the ruts on the path so deeply dug that getting out of them seems insurmountable.

But there is good news.

We can break those patterns; we can create new ways of being with each other that are based on mercy instead of cruelty, cooperation instead of competition, and abundant and overwhelming love instead of a mindset of scarcity. We can show the world that retaliation does not restore.

These changes are often phenomenally difficult; they take courage, compassion, and often a ton of support, and often therapy. Furthermore, these changes don’t involve fixing other people, but by the grace of God, fixing ourselves. Change in families happens when we correct our own destructive and retaliatory patterns of behavior. Doing this is not an easy fix, and perhaps not even a fix at all. Because breaking those patterns, doing the things that Jesus talks about in our gospel reading don’t fix other people, at least directly.

Loving your enemies won’t make those that hurt you treat you right or love you more. Becoming a better person than a bully won’t directly stop them from being a bully. That’s because one of the ultimate truths I have learned is that we can’t fix other people. Change is ultimately between a person and God.

What it can do- what we can do- is to demonstrate that new ways of being in the world are possible. Patterns of abuse are not our destiny.

Our first bible story today is a perfect illustration of this; It’s the story of Joseph, he of the amazing technicolor dream coat.

A Sunday School refresher on Joseph; he’s the beloved son of Jacob and Rachel. He was the golden child, beloved by his father. But he was also a bit roguish, a charmer, perhaps a bit over confident.

Joseph is the perfect example of something I learned while at my NGLI leadership conference earlier this year which has been incredibly helpful for me: No one, nor any group of people, is 100% a hero, a victim, or a villain. To assign someone completely to that category takes away their humanity, their sense of agency, and reduce them to an object in a morality play. All those categories really do is make us feel better about liking or hating someone.

Joseph is often a jerk to his half-brothers; not enough to justify them selling him into slavery in Egypt, but once again, not completely innocent.

Joseph, after some setbacks, is able to rise in the court of the pharaoh to becoming the prime minister, and he’s known especially for interpreting prophetic dreams. Most immediate to our concern is the one that the pharaoh has that ends up being about a famine.

Joseph encourages the pharaoh to stock up on grain, which saves the people of Egypt from starvation.

Two years into the famine, Joseph’s brothers show up to the palace, asking for shelter.

Some shenanigans ensue; Joseph never stops being crafty or having that trickster element to him, instead its used to figure out the intentions of his brothers, to see if they have changed and if so, how much.

Our scene, our reading today is the climax of these interactions, and perhaps of Joseph’s life.

Joseph faces down his brothers, who had acted with unspeakable cruelty so long ago, and reveals himself to them, and in doing so, forgives them.

We can tell that this is not an easy thing for Joseph nor is it immediate. This is something that Joseph had to work through. This scene doesn’t happen immediately.

I must note here that Joseph is in the position of power here; his brothers are not in a position to abuse him further. I do not want my words to be interpreted as giving free reign to abuse; that is not my intent.

Indeed, I believe Jesus wants us to excise our abusive relationships; eliminating the leverage points they can use to dominate us. Why else give a shirt along with a cloak? Jesus does not call on us to repair our abusers, to heal them, or even continue to work, or tolerate their abuse. Forgiveness is not for the benefit of the abuser. It is a tool for healing the abused, for moving and growing beyond our pain and trauma.

We hear this process of healing in Joseph’s words, the words of someone who is trying to heal from his trauma, trying to, assure himself that this is the right thing to do, that he should not continue the easy and usual pattern of cruelty, enslaving his brothers as he had been enslaved.

And he does it.

He ensures that the pattern which has destroyed his life would be ended with him.

This is a miracle as much as any prophetic dream; the ending of cycles of violence.

We cannot but imagine the nights that Joseph spent toiling as a slave or in prison, cursing his brothers in the depths of his heart, imagining what his life would have been like if they had acted differently, dreaming of the kindness his brothers could have showed him.

This is a living example of Jesus’ teaching in our gospel reading, which contains that Golden Rule, in our translation rendered as “Think of the kindness you wish others would show you; do the same for them.”

Joseph is able to imagine a new way of being a family together, not with love being dribbled out in small measure, but love that is abundant.

He does not portion out kindness and mercy in drips and drops. Joseph could have given them some grain and sent them on their way and been perfectly within his rights. But this is Joseph the dreamer. Instead, he gives them a sizable territory beyond anything they could have needed, or would have been politically useful for him. This is extravagant love; overflowing love and abundant.

One of my favorite lines in this translation of the gospel message, and the reason that I chose it instead of the more traditional NRSV, is that Jesus asks us not just to love our enemies, but to do good without restraint, to lend with abandon and not expect anything in return. There’s an extravagance of giving that we are called to as a reflection of God’s love for and to us.

Friends, Neighbors, children of God, the story of Joseph and this gospel remind us that we are called to mercy, to justice, to love in extravagant and abundant ways, reflecting God’s love for us. If we are to err in the ways we love, let them be errors of loving too much, not too little.

Don’t get me wrong, this is hard work. This is soul searching and gut wrenching work that we have to do, to identify and correct the patterns in our lives that do not lead us toward God. But it is the work we are called to do. Work we must do, for we are bound together, surely as Joseph and his brothers.

Amen.


Jeremiah 17: 5-10; Luke 6:17-26

Nathaniel Mokgosi (South African, 1946–), “Come, ye blessed . . . ,” 1980. This linocut is one of ten in a series on the Beatitudes. Source: Christliche Kunst in Afrika, p. 274


Though the world assail me, I shall not be moved, Though the world assail me, I shall not be moved, like a tree, that’s planted by the waters- I shall not be moved.


If you grew up listening to country, gospel, or blues in the house, that’s probably the version of the song inspired by our Jeremiah text that you recognize. This was an intensely popular country gospel tune in the first half of the twentieth century; everyone from the Million Dollar Quartet, of Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis to Ella Fitzgerald sang a version, and it’s still being recorded today. Rhiannon Giddens sings a beautiful version of it.


Fighting for our Freedom, We shall not be moved, Fighting for our Freedom, We shall not be moved, like a tree, that’s planted by the waters- we shall not be moved.


If you grew up with either protest songs or folk songs in the house or on the streets, that’s probably the version of the Jeremiah text you know. Over the course of the 20th century, it was adapted into a secular labor and civil rights song, sung by Pete Seeger and the Staples Singers, but most prominently by thousands of workers striking for their rights, by black and white Americans fighting for civil rights, and Mexican and Chicano protestors in the Spanish language version, No Nos Moveran, popularized by Joan Baez.


Some folks might try to argue that one version is more genuine or more correct than the other, but I find that to be a false dichotomy. That’s because the song has its origins not in a hymnal, diligently composed and committed to sheet music like so many of our wonderful hymns and tunes we sing in church, but in the African American Church tent revivals in the American South.

Our faith, much like the faith that birthed I Shall Not Be Moved, has its origins not among the comfortable, but among people suffering from poverty and persecution. In those conditions, people needed both individual strength and collective hope. But even if that doesn’t describe us perfectly, we all need something to get us through the day, and to help us imagine a better tomorrow.


Indeed, it would be easy for us to try to confine Christianity into a little box consisting only of individual and personal faithfulness or Jesus as a secularized totem for collective liberation, but I think that would be unwise and untrue. Jesus’ words are both personal and political. The Kingdom of God is inside us, and, Jesus said he came to set the captives free.


True fact: Slave owners would sometimes literally cut out the book of Exodus from the Bibles they allowed near their black slaves. Harriet Tubman earned the nickname Moses, because she liberated hundreds of enslaved folks, including leading an armed raid during the Civil War which freed 700 slaves.


Yes, allowed. For a country that prides itself of freedom of religion, freedom of expression, life in the American South for Black folks was often one of inhumanity and terror. The threat of physical violence through the lash, the gun, or the noose was ever present, from the era of slavery, and beyond. African Americans and their sympathizers felt it through the brutish power of the Klu Klux Klan, the gentility of the White Citizens’ Councils, and state backed power of the local sheriff and his posse. Even if they couldn’t sing it aloud, we know in their hearts they were dreaming “Fighting for our Freedom, We Shall not be moved.”


For Black Christians, an atomized, individual version of Christianity that did not challenge the economic, political, and racial power structures was the only acceptable one in the eyes of the powers that be. But as white folks did not venture into a black church, they didn’t know what was happening behind those church doors on the Sunday morning hour.


They were not aware that black Christians were reaching back to an ancient Christianity that was founded not only on the individual suffering of Jesus, but was invested in their collective liberation.


Our first reading, from the prophet Jeremiah, tells us that endurance, that rootedness requires a source to nourish and replenish it. Deserts are hard for us to conceive of here in Miami, squished between the bay and the everglades, but I’ll do my best.


My ancestral land through my father’s side is in Southern Colorado in the high desert of Costilla County. 9,000 feet up it’s still mostly agricultural, poor farmers ekeing out a living with cattle and some crops. Near the irrigation ditches, the acequias, the trees grow big and strong as anything out east. The roots sink in and the soil, enriched by generations of plants, is beautiful and holds on and nourishes.


But imagine those tall oaks in a scrubland, where there is no water to hold the soil together. They might survive for a time, but in the first storm, they would be blown away as dust in the wind.

Yet it is those who are most immediately and visibly vulnerable to the storms of life that Jesus blesses today. Our gospel reading for today is from “The sermon on the plain”, closely related to but distinct from the more famous “sermon on the mount”.


In a rebuke of the prosperity gospel, that pernicious strain of Christianity that tells people that the wealth is a reward of faith, that the poor are so because they are faithless, Jesus does not say “blessed are the billionaires”, but blessed are the poor. It is not #blessed are the Instagram successful, the great wide receivers, or the movie stars, but blessed are those who weep. It is not blessed are those who have perfect families, but blessed are those who mourn.


What are we to make of this apparent contradiction? I believe Jesus is reminding us that our rootedness, our endurance, the ability to run the race and not be swept away comes not from our inner strength alone or our wealth, but our connections to our God and to one another. Our most important resources cost us nothing but our love.


Whether the whole world is assailing you or you’re fighting for your freedom, I pray that we be like the song; like a tree, that’s planted by the water, we shall not be moved.

Amen.

Isaiah 6: 1-13, Luke 5: 1-11


Some of the most regretted words in the Bible are “Here I am, Lord”.

Often they’re said in moments of transcendent awe; Isaiah, cleansed from his sin through a purifying fire, being brought before the throne of God, with 6 winged seraphim surrounding the throne chanting holy holy holy. Yet his prophetic mission, the task given to him by God is not an easy or kind one; it’s that Isaiah’s society is so ruinous, so corrupt, so out of touch with God’s will that from this rotten tree, be allowed to stand is a stump, a holy seed.

Simon Peter, James and John sons of Zebedee invite a wandering rabbi onto their boat after a hard night of prodigious work and little reward. This man tells them to try one more time, and although they have their doubts, they obey. These men, tired, hungry, overworked, and underpaid, see a miraculous haul of fish so great, blessings so astounding that the boats themselves start to sink. They give up all they own- including the two fishing boats, to follow Jesus.

Being called by God is no easy thing; the sacrifices are many, and the rewards are often meager. Yet I believe that this is a call that we all feel at some point, even if it is expressed in different way. It could be in the conversation of a high school or college student about what they want to do that will make a difference in the world. It may be in a midlife crisis about the meaning of work, career, or even higher minded churchy words, like vocation or calling.

I think it’s worth it for us to have those conversations here in church; economists tell us that we’re amid “the great resignation”- nearly 4 million Americans quit their jobs in December. This is one of the highest numbers in decades. Although some of that is due to economic conditions, I think a large part of it has been a reconsideration due to the pandemic and other factors about what it means to have a meaningful life, to work for the common good, for us Christians, how do we say “Here am I, Lord” with integrity?

Part of what we’re coming to realize is a truth that although Jesus never said it explicitly, is implicit in many of his parables and teachings; things that we might unfairly call economic issues, issues around work and wages, should be thought of first and foremost as moral issues. Not that being wealthy is a sign of righteousness any more than poverty is a sign of immorality, but that the way we interact with our money is central to issues of right and wrong.

After all, what is the root of all evil? Not money itself, but rather the love of money, especially when it supplants or supersedes the love we ought to have for our neighbors, friends, and family, and the love we ought to have for our God and God’s creation.

But what does our Bible have to say about work? The first we should consider is John the Baptist’s advice to tax collectors and soldiers who came to be baptized alongside Jesus. John the Baptist told them that they were not to bully, intimidate or steal from the people. They were to do their jobs fairly, not taking as they might, lining their own pockets with money from the poor that they could bully or intimidate, but instead live quiet and peaceful lives.

This particular theme of stealing from those who are due their just wages continues throughout the new testament; James, Jesus brother or cousin, has some of the harshest words in the bible for employers and bosses who steal wages from their employees and workers, accusing them of taking part in the murder of Jesus, telling them “that the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure, you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.“

Dang James, tell us how you really feel.

But what about for most of us that aren’t bosses, who aren’t managers? What about those of us who are trying to discern if we should stay in backbreaking restaurant work or move to an easier but boring office job?

Well, the Bible actually isn’t as helpful as you might think on this; or well, it doesn’t actually seem to regard choice of work as a moral issue. Indeed, in Jesus’ ministry, he interacts with everyone from the religious elite to the houseless, and pretty much every one in between on an equal moral footing. It reinforces the simple fact that, contrary to what our culture wants to tell us, our dignity does not come from our work. We are moral beings, vessels of love made in the image of God no matter if we’re a doctor, a pastor, a fast food worker, a barista, a construction worker or even a lawyer.

That’s because our dignity comes from the fact that out of the dust of the earth we were made, created in the image of God, and one day we will return to our common destiny, to the earth, to the awaiting arms of God. Yes, Simon Peter, James and John leave to follow Jesus, leaving behind their boats and families to become full time disciples and apostles, but being a part of the twelve does not set them above anyone. Frankly, they spend most of their time following Jesus confused and a little bumbling.

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, two of the three disciples who follow Jesus in today’s Gospel, Peter is crucified in Rome, and James dies in prison. Even Isaiah’s mission is not one of gentle and easy preaching, even in a time of great prosperity; indeed, the seed of hope for Israel is not found in the flourishing of the tree, but in its stump.

Whatever you are thinking about work and its place in your life, remember this: always be fair and honest; pay others what they are due and ask for no more than what you are due. And always always, always, remember, that your dignity and humanity come not from your work, but from God’s love for you, from our common origin in the dust, and in our common destiny in the arms of God.

Amen.

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