Sermon: An Exercise in Love

Sunday, February 20, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
watch this service online (readings start around 16:11; sermon starts around 24:51)

In our first reading for today, we get this very small snippet of the story of Joseph.  But Joseph’s story is actually a LOT longer – it takes up over a dozen chapters of Genesis.  So we’re gonna start today with a bible pop quiz: What all do you remember about the story of Joseph?

[Joseph was one of the twelve sons of Jacob/Israel.  Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son, born to his favorite wife, Rachel, and Jacob gave him a super fancy coat, which – depending on your translation – was a robe with sleeves, a robe of many colors (even technicolors!), or a pretty pretty princess dress.  Joseph had dreams – one with sheaves of grain, one with the moon and sun and stars – that foretold that his brothers and family would one day bow down to him.  His brothers, already resentful of Joseph, decide they’ve had enough; so they beat him, strip him of his famous robe, throw him in a pit, and plan to kill him.  At the last minute, they decide to sell him into slavery instead and Joseph is taken to Egypt, into the house of Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard.  Potiphar’s wife tries unsuccessfully to seduce Joseph and has him thrown in jail instead, where he meets two of Pharaoh’s servants and correctly interprets their dreams.  Word of this eventually reaches Pharaoh, who has started having troubling dreams of his own – dreams in which big fat cows and plump ears of corn are swallowed up by ugly skinny cows and scrawny ears of corn.  Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream as a vision of what God is planning: seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.  Pharaoh makes Joseph his right hand man over all of Egypt and together they store up a buttload of grain during the seven years.  When the famine hits, they’re more than ready.  And who shows up on their doorstep?  Yep!  It’s Joseph’s brothers.  So our reading today is them finally being reunited.]

Phew!  A lot happens in Joseph’s story!  Even though he eventually ends up in a good place, Joseph spends so much of his early life suffering unbelievable cruelty and abuse.  The actual biblical narrative is pretty sparse on emotional content – the writer(s) of Genesis just kind of states what happened and then moves on.  But just imagine for a second the anguish that Joseph must have felt.  He was only seventeen years old when he was taken from his home.  Imagine the intense feelings of rejection, betrayal, fear, and just profound hurt that must have flooded through him when his brothers threw him into a pit, threatened to kill him, and then sold him off to strangers, never to see his family again.  It makes my heart ache just thinking about it.

And it’s clear in our reading from Genesis that all these feelings are still very fresh for Joseph.  It’s been over twenty years since he last saw his brothers (when they were selling him).  But in the chapters leading up to this reading, every time Joseph sees them he is so overcome with emotion that he has to excuse himself.  In fact, you may have noticed that our reading trimmed off a couple of verses from the beginning of this chapter, and they read:

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it.

Genesis 45:1-2

Joseph has a lot of strong feelings about seeing his brothers again – and it takes him a little bit to work through these feelings and compose himself enough to tell his brothers who he is.  But in the end, what wins out in Joseph is love.  And that turns this into a story of extraordinary grace.  

Joseph could have easily – and understandably! – chosen to make his brothers’ lives hell.  He was the second most powerful man in all of Egypt: he could have had them flogged or executed or imprisoned for life, or at the very least, he could have sent them home hungry.  (Actually, he does kind of mess with their heads a bit before telling them the truth.)  But instead of giving in to his hurt and anger, Joseph joyfully and tearfully embraces his brothers.  Joseph chooses love.  

Joseph’s actions in this story are a reflection of the incredible grace and mercy and love of God.  God is gracious and merciful to all humanity; God loves each and every one of us unconditionally, no matter who we are or where we come from or what we do.  And Joseph himself points toward God’s goodness in this story: rather than dwelling on the ways he was wronged, Joseph instead focuses on the powerful ways that God has managed to bring forth goodness, even out of these terrible circumstances.  I mean, it’s pretty easy to imagine God being pretty angry with Joseph’s brothers for the horrible things they have done to him – yet here God is, working through Joseph to rescue them from trouble and to keep them safe and fed.  God’s love and mercy and grace truly know no bounds.  

It’s not at all surprising, then, to see this reading from Genesis paired with our gospel reading from Luke.  This reading picks up right on the heels of our gospel reading from last week, as Jesus continues his “Sermon on the Plain.”  And in his teachings, we hear Jesus preaching about this same grace and mercy and love.  He exhorts his followers not just to love one another, but to love their enemies: to do good to them, to pray for them and bless them and treat them with kindness.  Anyone can love the people who love them, Jesus says, or do good to the people who do good to them – but true discipleship means loving the people we find hardest to love.  Jesus sums this teaching up with a well known bit of wisdom – the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Jesus doesn’t stop there, though.  A few verses after Jesus exhorts his hearers to follow the golden rule, he takes it a lot further; he tells his followers: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”  Now that is way beyond the golden rule.  It’s not just “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”; this is “Do unto others as God would do unto them (or as God would do unto you).”  That is a tall order!  This is the same God we were just talking about – the God whose mercy is unlimited, whose grace is unfailing, whose love is unending and unconditional.  That’s what Jesus is calling his followers into.  Jesus calls us to love one another – to love our enemies – as God loves.

That kind of love takes practice – and that’s exactly what I want to do today.  

Just go with me on this for a minute.  I want you to close your eyes, and picture someone you really, really dislike.  It might be someone you know personally.  It might be a particular politician or other public figure – someone you just can’t stand, someone who gets under your skin, who does things that just make you furious.  Imagine that person standing or sitting right in front of you – and think about something they’ve done that really made you angry.

Now, in your mind, take a step and stand beside them.  Whatever the situation was, whatever they did that made you angry, try to see it from their perspective.  How could you interpret their actions or motives in the best possible light?

Look at this person and wonder: What do they love?  What are they afraid of?  What do they hope for?

Look around this person and see: Who are the people who love this person the most?  Their spouse?  Their parents?  Their kids and grandkids?  Their dog? Whose heart fills with joy whenever they see them?

Try to look at this person as God looks at them.  How would God see them?  What are their gifts?  How might God be working through them or calling them to use their gifts?

Finally, take a moment and pray for this person.  Pray for their good.  Pray that God will watch over them and keep them safe and give them whatever it is they need.  

(And when you’re ready, you can open your eyes again.)

How did that feel?  How do you feel toward that person now?

I’m gonna go ahead and guess that one short exercise was not enough to significantly change how you feel toward someone you really dislike.  But guess what!  Regardless of how you feel, you just loved your enemies.  You did it!  The truth is, you may never feel warm and fuzzy toward that person the way you do toward your friends and family – but love is not a feeling.  Love is an action.  Love is a choice.  Love is much more than just a feeling.  

It’s just like Joseph in our first reading.  Joseph, as we’ve already established, had a lot of feelings about seeing his eleven back-stabbing brothers standing there in front of him – and I’m guessing that a fair number of those feelings were neither warm nor fuzzy.  But Joseph chose to show them love: Joseph chose to forgive them and to do good to them and to take care of them.  

Now, to be clear, if you’ve been abused or hurt by someone, I’m not suggesting you embrace that person or welcome them in with open arms.  It may not be safe to do so – I mean, you’re not the governor of Egypt, with that kind of power.  But you can still pray for that person and entrust them to God’s care.

And that is precisely what I want each and every single one of us to do (it’s your homework for today!): Whoever it is you were thinking of, I want you to pray for that person, by name, every single day this week.  (Ideally for longer than that, but let’s start with a week.)  Pray for their health and wellbeing.  Pray that God watch over their loved ones and keep them safe and healthy.  Pray that God be with them to bless them and to guide them.  

Do unto others as God would have you do unto them.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.  And never forget that, even when you struggle to choose love, God will never – ever – stop loving you.

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