Another Sermon on Forgiving


Rev. Dr. Douglas K. Showalter, United Church of Christ, Copyright 2004

Scripture: Genesis 37:18-28;45:1-15

Our two scripture readings this morning were taken from the life of the Old Testament figure Joseph. As likely you know, Joseph was a son of the ancient Hebrew Patriarch Jacob and his wife Rachel. Joseph grew up in ancient Palestine, near the town of Hebron, possibly 1800 years before Christ. To tell the truth, in his teen age years, Joseph was not the easiest person to be around. Joseph had grandiose ideas about his own importance, and he didn't mind boasting about that to others.

In his teenage years, Joseph was the youngest of eleven brothers. But the more Joseph trumpeted his own importance, the more it made his older brothers green with jealousy. Joseph was a dreamer. But, it didn't help Joseph one bit, to tell his brothers, that in one of his dreams, even the sun, the moon, and a host of stars [representing his brothers], bowed down before Joseph in obedience. Have you ever known anyone with a younger sibling like that?

To make matters worse, Jacob, the father, doted on his youngest son Joseph. And Jacob's preference for Joseph was painfully obvious to the rest of Jacob's children. As Genesis tells the story, this was a dysfunctional family in the making.

Jacob's older sons had to work for the family, herding flocks. But not Joseph! For Jacob saw to it that the "baby" of the family was spared from such labor. Also, as a sign of his parental favoritism, Jacob made a splendid coat for Joseph to wear–-the likes of which had not been bestowed on any of Joseph's older brothers. Every time Joseph wore this special coat with long sleeves, it fueled the jealous anger of his brothers, and it drove the wedge between them, even deeper.

Our first scripture reading this morning, finds Joseph out looking for his older brothers, who are tending the family's livestock in a far away pasture. The older brothers spot that detested coat, and Joseph in it, while Joseph is still at a distance--but coming toward them. Joseph is by himself and no longer under his father's direct protection. Realizing this, some of these older brothers quickly scheme to kill Joseph. But, in order to avoid having blood on their hands, one of the older brothers persuades the rest, to throw Joseph into a deep, waterless pit.

When Joseph draws near, his brothers suddenly gang up on him. They strip off Joseph's coat, and throw him into that pit. Joseph is stunned. He simply can't believe this is happening. He can't believe that his own brothers would do such an awful thing to him. We can imagine that Joseph is bruised and sore from his fall. We can imagine that he pleads with his brothers, to be freed from that earthen prison. Joseph's voice is filled with panic. He's only 17 years old. He doesn't want to be left to die, in that terrible, empty pit. Yet, the longer Joseph pleads, the more resolute his brothers become. They move off to the side, perhaps under a shade tree, to enjoy their lunch together. Joseph's pleading voice grows hoarse. His cries turn into deep, uncontrollable sobs.

Most of the older brothers are prepared to leave Joseph to his fate. But, then, they spot a passing caravan on its way, to sell goods in Egypt. Those older brothers negotiate with leaders of that caravan, to sell Joseph to them, as a common slave. The cruelty of these brothers is rewarded, by the 20 pieces of silver they receive, for selling Joseph. What a bargain! Not only did they get rid of their conceited young brother, they also got paid for it too! Those older brothers are all smiles, as they haul Joseph up from the pit, then watch as the slavers, force Joseph into heavy chains, and then lead him away. Young Joseph resists, but he is whipped and dragged. One older brother, named Reuben, did not take part in this sale. In fact, he is deeply grieved to learn of it. But then, even he joins the other brothers, in concocting a huge lie, to account for their younger brother's sudden disappearance.

These brothers dip Joseph's special coat, in freshly-killed goat's blood. Then they take that coat to their father Jacob, with the story that Joseph, his beloved son, might well have been devoured, by a wild animal. Of course, seeing that bloodied coat, Jacob believes their lie. Thus, Joseph is both sold into terrible slavery, and his very existence, is consigned to oblivion.

Now, I'd like to ask you a question. Suppose you were Joseph? Suppose people in your family suddenly turned on you, hurt you, devastated your life, then abandoned you to a cruel and terrible end? Suppose people you trusted, did that to you? How would you feel? Would you be shocked? Would you be numb with pain? Would you be angry? Would you feel diminished?

Given his inflated sense of self-importance, Joseph may not have been the easiest person to be around. As a 17 year old boy, Joseph had a lot to learn about life and the world. But even so, did he really deserve to be treated, so cruelly and cold bloodedly by his older brothers?

How would you feel? If you were Joseph, would you have been able to forgive your brothers? Would you have been able to forgive them, the day after you were sold into slavery?--a week after, a month after, a year or even several years after that event?

We Christians are taught that we should forgive other people for the wrongs they do to us. That lesson is enshrined in our Lord's Prayer, as each Sunday, we say: "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." Forgiveness is vitally important to us Christians. But, instead of being a moral command we need to step up to immediately– even as we grit our teeth--isn't there a certain timeliness to our forgiving, which shouldn't be ignored?

In years gone by, battered wives were often counseled by their clergy, to go back to their husbands and forgive them immediately. They were counseled to forgive, even when it seemed emotionally impossible to do so. And, even when it seemed unlikely that the battering would stop. In too many such cases, the victim was not safeguarded. And, the victim was made to feel guilty, if their forgiveness was not immediately forthcoming. In my view, with such counsel, the victim was abused not once, but at least twice.

What do you think? Is there any sense of timeliness to our forgiving, which we Christians should recognize–and make some allowance for?

Now let's pass to our second scripture reading this morning. Many years have passed since young Joseph was brought by that caravan to Egypt as a slave. During those years, and through various circumstances, Joseph has worked his way up, to become the second most powerful official in Egypt--second only to Pharaoh himself. Having predicted the great famine which now engulfs Egypt, and that region of the world, Joseph is now put in charge of distributing all the grain, which was stored up in Egypt to withstand that famine. Unlike neighboring areas like Palestine, which depend, in large measure, on passing rains, Egypt has the ever-flowing Nile river, to water its crops.

Up in Palestine the rains haven't come, as hoped. Many people are starving, including Jacob and his many sons. Finally, Jacob's family can take it no more. With money in hand to buy grain, Jacob's sons head off to Egypt, which is the veritable "bread box" of their region. In Egypt, Jacob's sons come before Joseph, the great administrator of Egypt's surplus grain. But, these sons do not recognize their brother Joseph. Neither do they have the slightest inkling that Joseph could possibly have done so well for himself, once sold into slavery.

The book of Genesis tells an engaging story of how Joseph "toys" with his unaware brothers for awhile, as they make repeated trips to see Joseph. But then, in this second scripture passage, Joseph finally lets the truth be known. As the passage says, Joseph cleared the room.

[And, he began to weep] so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. [Genesis 45:2]

Then, Joseph revealed his true identity to his shocked brothers. Presumably, Joseph's brothers were filled with guilt at this revelation. But, Joseph ultimately forgave his brothers, for the terrible wrong they had done to him, so many years before. Joseph forgave his brothers. He also invited them, and his entire family, to settle near Joseph, so they could all be reunited and provided for, in the midst of that famine. This passage ends with Joseph kissing all his brothers and weeping upon them.

From time to time, people have sought me ought as a minister, to ask if they must immediately forgive others when they have been wronged. Such a question presumes, that forgiveness is a state of being which can be turned on like a light switch, or a moral act which we can be summarily accomplished, like stuffing a $20 bill into a Salvation Army Christmas kettle. In my experience, human forgiveness is less an immediate state of being or a sudden moral act, than it is a kind of healing process. And real healing, as we all know, takes time.

How do I define true forgiveness? I define it as having real peace in your heart, regarding the wrong done to you. With real peace in your heart, you can remember the wrong, and you can still say that it was wrong. But, with such inner peace, the terrible feelings you had when you were hurt, do not come rushing back at you, whenever you happen to recall that hurt. With real peace in your heart, those terrible feelings are resolved. Also, the inner peace of true forgiving, allows you life to move on. You no longer claim that the person who hurt you, still owes you anything. However, if the wrong that person committed was criminal, then he/she may still owe a debt to society–-but not to you personally.

In my understanding, none of us can achieve such true forgiveness by ourselves alone. Rather, such inner peace is an amazing gift from God. However, we can seek such peace, by deciding that we want to be able to forgive--with God's help. Deciding that we want to forgive is a very important decision. But, it is a very difficult one for many people. Some people go through life, never getting even that far, concerning a hurt they have suffered. Instead, they cling to their hurt. But, to me, that decision to want to forgive is crucial. And, that decision is the first step in our journey to receive the gift of true forgiveness from God.

And, what does that journey consist of? In my experience, it's a faith journey, which includes such things as: prayer, having an open heart to God, talking with others about our feelings, and taking an inventory of our own shortcomings--and being sorry for them.

We can't control or anticipate exactly, when God's gift of true inner peace will come to us–-for a particular hurt in our lives. But we can seek that peace. And, we can try to prepare ourselves for it, spiritually. In my experience, when people sincerely seek that gift from God, they eventually do receive it.

Let's return to the question I asked earlier. When Joseph was first sold into slavery, could he have forgiven his brothers? My opinion is that Joseph probably couldn't have forgiven his brothers at that point. In fact, even several years later, Joseph may not have been able to have such forgiveness in his heart. Now, let's go back to the example of wives who are battered by their spouses. Contrary to some clergy in the past, I see two important priorities in such situations.

The first and immediate priority is to see that such a woman is in a safe place, physically and/or mentally. She should be in a safe place where she is no longer subject to such brutality. The second priority is that such a woman should be encouraged to build up the self-esteem, which may well have been taken from her, due to the battering. Once that second priority is worked on for a period of time, then it may be possible, for that individual to think seriously, about making a faith journey, which leads to God's inner peace of forgiveness.

In this list of priorities, why have I put the restoration of self-esteem, before forgiveness? Consider how young Joseph must have felt in that terrible pit. When someone close to us hurts us deeply, aren't we often stunned? Don't we find it hard to believe? And, don't we often feel as though we have been diminished? We wonder, how could this person I trusted, do such a terrible thing to me? And filling up with self-doubt, we may also wonder: am I really so unworthy a person, as to deserve such poor treatment?

When someone hurts us deeply, I think our self-esteem is often diminished. The balance of personal power between us and that other person is upset, as our side of the scale plummets. Like Joseph, we may be in the pit crying out in terrible pain. Yet, in sharp contrast, the person who hurt us [like Joseph's brothers] may be off somewhere else, enjoying their lunch--and getting on with their lives, as though nothing bad really happened.

In the course of my ministerial experience, I have sensed that it is terribly hard--if not impossible--for people to forgive when they are in such a pit. Instead of forgiving, what they seem to need first, is to build back their self-esteem. They need to restore the balance of their personal power, so they can feel good about themselves, and their side of the scale can be brought back to a normal level. When they are out of the pit, when they feel less vulnerable, and when they can have some hope for their future, then they are in a far better position to forgive, the person who hurt them. The simple fact seems to be, that forgiveness more often comes from a position of strength, than from a position of weakness.

And so it seems to have been with Joseph. Once Joseph built up his own life, and restored the balance, he was finally able to forgive his brothers. There seems to have been a timeliness to Joseph's forgiving. And, likely he could not have done it, soon after his enslavement.

I will end my sermon with a true story. I woman I know was married for 18 years, when her husband left her and her four children. This was a terrible blow. This woman was devastated, and she wondered what she had done to deserve such treatment.

The next ten years were a struggle for this woman. But, she gradually rebuilt her life. She went back to school to earn her teaching certification. She entered that profession, and finally began to feel good about herself again. The balance in her life was restored. And only then, was she really able to forgive her ex-spouse, from her heart.

As a Christian, I believe that forgiving those who hurt us is very important. It is important for us, so we can get on with our lives. It can also be important for others--including the person who hurt us. Yet, having said that, I also recognize, that forgiveness is really a healing process. Thus, there is often a timeliness to forgiving–-which we should make some allowance for, both in ourselves and in others. OUT OF THE PIT!

Rev. Dr. Douglas K. Showalter, Copyright 2004

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Last Updated on March 15, 2004 by mailboxRev. Dr. Douglas K. Showalter