Genesis 45:3-11, 15; Luke 6:27-38
In the past two years, our collective lexicon has gained many new words, COVID, social distancing, the great resignation, and have you heard the latest, the “Big Sort.”
John Burnett, a National Public Radio journalist, titled a report on Friday, “Americans are fleeing to places where political views match their own.” He writes, “America is growing more geographically polarized — red ZIP codes are getting redder and blue ZIP codes are becoming bluer. People appear to be sorting.
More than one of every 10 people moving to Texas during the pandemic was from California. In fact most came from Southern California while Florida was the second biggest contributor of new Texans. People seeking to find people and city that share their political ideology, either for progressive mindsets or for fleeing places with strict COVID-19 rules.
In truth, Americans have been sorting politically for years. The reporter didn’t consider the intended racial sorting, and the impacts of racism.
The Big Sort, similar to many other COVID-induced phenomena, has intensified the divide and self-created bubbles. The Big Sort is creating more extreme Americans with polarizing descriptions such “the one network’s” America or “the other network’s” America.” Social scientists have observed this growing trend and noted the increased tribalism along political and ideological division. It is no longer what we can solve together, and all about cheering for our side. Families, friendship circles, church communities have all been impacted by this Big Sort.
Here in our church, how have we been impacted by this ideological division? What are we missing from having diversity of ideas? How do we address it when division takes place in our own family and friendship circle?
Today’s scriptures begin with the stories of Joseph. It is a family so full of division that only a bible can tell it. Much can be said of the patriarchs of our faith. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. They are the pillars of our faith, and they are also broken people in ways that you may clutch your pearls reading about them. Or let out an audible gasp, “Did they really do that?”
Joseph was seventeen years old when he was sold into enslavement by his brothers, and throughout the entire Joseph story, one theme persisted, “The Lord was with Joseph.” He was sold to the captain of the Pharaoh’s guard, and there he advanced to be the overseer in that house. Refusing the advances from the captain’s wife, he was imprisoned in the king’s prison on false charges. The scripture doesn’t tell us how long he was in the servitude of the captain’s home and in prison, but it detailed an intriguing tale that would eventually place Joseph as the overseer of entire Egyptian empire, second only to the Pharaoh by the age of 30. For over 21 years, Joseph was an immigrant in a foreign land and, as I like to say, he spoke Egyptian with a Hebrew accent. Here is another example of “Immigrants…we get the job done!” (Reference to Hamilton the musical). Furthermore, he knew enslavement, and false imprisonment. More importantly, God was with Joseph throughout his trial and tribulation.
In today’s passage, this is actually the second time that the brothers have come before him to purchase food. During the first time, Joseph treated them as strangers and dealt harshly against them, and he even imprisoned one of his brothers. The second time, Joseph planted false evidence of theft, and threatened to kill Benjamin based on the trumped-up charge. The way over-the-top interplay was over two chapters long. At the dramatic conclusion, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and deals with them with mercy and forgiveness.
Again, Genesis is brutally honest with its characters and stories. Joseph’s initial behavior toward his brothers was full of bitterness, anger, and intimidation. Before waving the banner, “go Joseph, what a great brother he was to forgive them,” the writers of Genesis were frank with other humbling details.
Sibling rivalry and family dynamics are just hard. Even in the best of family situations, our worst impulses can surface, and our intentions can have unintended consequences. At worst, it divides the family for years or decades.
Our current national division on public health, political alliances, police reform, and host of relevant and sensitive topics are dividing families across the country. Churches are divided, too, based on their understanding of theology, choice of style of music and liturgy, and even the gender and orientation of their pastors.
We are treating those who may differ from us, no matter who they are to us, family or stranger, with enmity equal to enemies. Our rhetoric and social media reflect such emotions. Not only can we not come to an agreement or a middle ground, but now, we must also own, conquer, and dominate our opponents.
Responding to this division, we turn to Jesus’ teaching in Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Plain. For Luke, Jesus was not elevated and speaking down to the crowd, but he was at the eye level and speaking plainly to them. Jesus prescribes an ethic or ethos of generosity for Christian living in a hostile world. He calls his listeners to love their enemies, to bless and give even to those who curse and take from them. His disciples are taught to behave in a way considered imprudent by many, sowing generosity where nothing is expected to grow. Jesus rejects that advice that have been more common, that one should give to those who will respond appropriately. Even, as Jesus says, sinners do such things. Jesus challenges the listeners to a higher standard.
So how do we response to such intense emotion and feeling? Is Jesus encouraging a passive response when he says, “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” Should the faithful allow evil deeds to flourish, not only against oneself but against others?
Jesus’ paradigm of the kingdom of God has already come for God’s people. The teaching is often counter-intuitive. If you want to gain the kingdom, you must lose it first. Here again, Jesus is teaching his disciples and us to take on the identity of this inbreaking kingdom of God. When facing evil, move from compliance to resistance. The power that comes to this resistance to retaliate or seek for revenge is mercy and forgiveness.
Now we need to take extra care in interpreting these two passages especially with the reality of power and those who wield such power.
As we see in the Joseph story, Joseph stands before his brother with the might of the entire nation at his disposal to punish his brothers for the enslavement, imprisonment, and painful abandonment for the last twenty-two years. He has the choice to revert to the old pattern of violence, but instead he theologizes to assert God’s role: “it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you” both in v. 5 and v. 7. He frames his brothers’ harmful actions within the larger context of God’s salvific work.
The theological reframing by Joseph – that the harm inflicted by his brothers was actually part of God’s bigger plan to save many lives – has both dangers and benefits as Hebrew professor Justin Michael Reed of Louisville Seminary writes:
In terms of its harmful consequences, a theology like this has been, and continues to be, used by those who see the slaughter and enslavement of millions of Africans as part of the larger plan from God to spread the gospel and save souls. One apparent danger of this theology is how it implicates God as a cause of extreme suffering and seems to justify something as inhumane as slavery. Although some Black Christians have adopted this theology in the past and present, others reject it, and still others argue that the text presents something more nuanced. They argue that God’s will for the greater good does not justify the evil actions and intentions of people. These Christians note that, by the end of Genesis, Joseph has not forgotten or forgiven how his brothers “intended to do harm to me” (literally “devised evil against me”) and God will be the judge for that offense (Genesis 50:19–20). Since people interpret Joseph’s God-talk in this passage in ways that justify or come close to justifying slavery, this is a text that must be handled with great care.
In terms of the clear benefits of Joseph’s theology, one can see that it allows Joseph to have a non-violent interaction with his brothers who harmed him. Joseph invites his brothers to live with him, and this reunification brings together the family that will eventually develop into an entire people in Egypt.
While this is generous, Joseph is not perfect saint. In the conclusion of the famine, by Joseph’s preparation and design for grain storage system, Egypt in the Genesis account of history becomes the superpower and eventually enslaves poor nations and their people in exchange for food. (How appropriate that we just talked about the hunger offering this morning for people facing insecurity?) In addition, as a formerly enslaved person, Joseph was part of the perpetuation of enslavement system.
Did I not say we need to handle these passages with special care? Handing this passage with special care reminds me of the wisdom of Annie Dillard’s counsel: when we go to church we should wear crash helmets, receive life preservers, and be lashed to the pews in case God shows up.
Beloved siblings in Christ, God is here among us. Let us open our hands to receive and offer the teaching of Jesus.
Returning back to Luke, Jesus reorients us to mercy and forgiveness in place of retaliation and vengeance. “Love your enemies, do good those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” and it sums up in v. 36, “Be merciful just as your (creator) is merciful.”
This is a vision for the kin-dom of God for all people of God. Jesus embodies the generous healing, restoration, and hope in a beloved community we can labor together to build. We are walking from the world of old pattern into the kin-dom of new pattern. Retribution is the old-world order, and the new world order is generosity and grace. We also must take note of the traditional power many of us hold and the denial of power from generations of people, especially in the lives of Black, Indigenous, and Brown people.
Beloved siblings in Christ. I say again, God is here. What does a life of mercy and forgiveness look like to you? Not intellectually, not hypothetically, not conceptionally, but practically, personally, and communally. Our country, our cities, and our communities are on the Autobahn of Big Sort and division. In light of our year-long theme of “Belonging,” where can we realistically and tangibly break the old pattern of retaliation and vengeance, and set on path of mercy and forgiveness as we offer to one and another, and as we receive from each other?
With God’s help, come Lord Jesus, we can. Amen.