Monroe Congregational Church, U.C.C.
February 18, 2001 - Pastor Diane Schmitz
The other night I heard my teenage son talking to his younger brother. "I remember when something like that happened to me," he said. He went on to relate a story from kindergarten where a boy in his class had done something mean to him. As I listened to his voice I heard within it still the pain of that sense of betrayal, the hurt of being treated unfairly, the anger in his voice as he talked about this enemy. Eleven years later the wound is still alive, a knot in his psyche that has not gone away.
This is not the first time he has related this story. Whenever storytelling among family or friends turns to tales of unfairness, he brings this same story up again. The depths of emotion he still carries about this incident always surprise me. It reminds me that when we are wounded and there is not healing, the wound tends to surface again every time we feel a similar sense of betrayal or pain.
Joseph, about whom we heard in our reading this morning, was only seventeen when his brothers, jealous of their father's love for him, originally conspired to kill him. One brother subverts the plot by suggesting Joseph be thrown into a pit and left there, instead of first being killed. Joseph is stripped naked and thrown into a pit with no water in it. Eventually, he is sold to traders who will take him to Egypt.
Many years go by before Joseph meets up with his brothers again. The entire region, including Egypt, is suffering a period of famine foreseen by Joseph. His brothers come looking for food and recognize that it is the powerful man before them is their brother. Surely they must have wondered how he would "repay" them for their earlier actions. But, Joseph surprises them telling them not to be distressed. He has come to terms with his history with them and reframes it in a way that suggests God has guided him along that path for a special reason. He tells them to go to their father and bring him there and adds, "Bring your children and your children's children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there." What a remarkable response.
What has happened to Joseph in these intervening years? After being sold into slavery, he found favor in the sight of his first Egyptian master and later was made an overseer. But then his master's wife falsely accused him of insulting her and Joseph was put into the king's prison. The Pharoah heard of his ability to interpret dreams and sent for him. Eventually Joseph was put in charge of the Pharoah's house and in command of his people. During these years Joseph must have wrestled with the betrayal by his brothers. He must have mourned how he was unlikely to ever see his beloved father again. He probably felt his God had abandoned him when he was put in prison, once again thrown into a pit. But, somehow in the midst of his long journey he was able to let go of his grief, bitterness and hate to move towards some sense of forgiveness and compassion that was able to bring healing to his wounds. It's likely he relied heavily on his God to guide him in that difficult journey. It's also helpful to remember that many years had passed before he saw his brothers again; time had given him space to work with his sense of betrayal. Because his wounds no longer consumed him he was able to receive his brothers with compassion and care.
Joseph is an example of the way God calls us to live as expressed in our lesson from Luke this morning. We are told that faithful people do not reciprocate; do not base their behavior on the actions of those who would victimize them. Jesus encourages those who feel victimized to take charge of their life situations by loving and giving back mercy.
This is a wonderful story but quite frankly Joseph seems way beyond the reach of what most people seem able to do in much less trying circumstances.
But, perhaps our lesson from this is to put our own hurts into some perspective. We can be inspired by this story and the words of Jesus to take some steps, even small ones, away from hate and bitterness towards those we see as our enemies.
It's easier to think of enemies on a grand scheme; those people who do "bad" things in larger arenas. But, if we're honest, we usually treat those people who have deeply offended us personally as enemies. Often they are our friends and family; their comments and actions have a special power to wound us deeply and our response out of our pain is most often to strike back and demonize them as our enemies.
(It is appropriate here to mention that some abusive behaviors are especially horrendous and the issue of forgiveness is a large and complex one beyond the scope of the few minutes we have together. Issues of repentance, justice and reparation are not separate from that process.)
But we all have ongoing experiences of people who have hurt our feelings, betrayed our trust, and caused us pain. Our tendency is to respond to them as enemies.
Listen to this story by Jane Vernnard:
A number of years ago I was complaining to a friend about a person whose behavior was aggravating me. Margaret listened, asking for details, clucking in sympathy. I talked about my feelings of being violated, misunderstood. I talked about the phone calls, the hostile words, and the irresponsibility. There was no doubt when I finished my tale that lines had been drawn and I was dealing with an enemy.
I felt such relief at having poured out my anger and hurt and sadness to such a compassionate heart. We sat in silence for a moment. Then Margaret said, "I will pray for you in this difficult time." I felt comforted by her willingness to take me into prayer and experienced a new peace about the situation.
And then Margaret added, "I will also pray for her."
My heart lurched, my head reeled, tears welled up behind my eyes. I felt betrayed. Margaret was my friend. I wanted all her prayers. I wanted nothing for my nemesis. She didn't deserve attention or kindness or prayers. I was right, she was wrong. I wanted to preserve the cloak of righteousness I had wrapped around myself.
I knew that if I let Margaret's willingness to pray for my enemy touch my heart, I would no longer be able to hold on to my anger and self-pity. I would have to move into a new relationship with this woman and with God.
I was so far from praying for the one who persecuted me that I wanted no one else to pray for her either. I wanted her cut off from me, from Margaret, and from God. I wanted to be right, with God on my side. Margaret's kind and gentle words, "I will pray for her as well," pulled the rug out from under me and I was forced to look at where I stood.
Looking at where we stand with those encounters that have hurt us can be a difficult thing. There is a rawness to them from which we want to protect ourselves. So we harden our hearts against them for our own protection and survival. We close ourselves down to be safe. We give fuel to our anger and let it build a wall between us and the other person.
These are normal reactions. Jesus did not say to not be angry or to not feel hurt. He knew people well enough to know what was in their hearts. What he did tell us is to not remain in our pain and despair - to not stay stuck in our hatred. He encourages us to go beyond, to go farther - to pray, to do good, to give back, to show mercy, to love. He tells us that our model for this is not the behavior of other people, but God: "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful" reminding us that God is kind even to the ungrateful and the wicked.
This is difficult work. It takes time. We have to rely on a power other than our own. We have to remember out own experience of God loving us even when we screw up. We have to let go of expectations about how our gestures will be received.
But, most importantly, we have to just try. We can start by having our first action be prayer; a prayer seeking an appropriate way to show love to someone whom we feel has harmed us. Sometimes we are so angry we don't even think we can pray. We have to begin where our hearts are rather than where we think they should be. God is big enough to handle it all. If we are fearful, we need to take that to God. If we are filled with a sense of revenge we need to lay that in God's hands.
Another thing to realize is that when we become truly vulnerable in our prayer about another we are forced to see that the enemy is within us, as well as without. There are aspects in the "other" that mirror aspects of ourselves we do not wish to see. Sometimes that brings us face to face with the reality that we do not love or accept ourselves; or that we do not really believe God loves us just as we are.
What might it be like to take those dark places within us of which we are ashamed and love them, bless them, pray for them. To not judge or condemn them; but to forgive ourselves as God forgives us. Sometimes I think that's the hardest work, and perhaps the most important; for we are told to love our neighbors as ourselves. When we can admit that we've said and done things we regret, that we've hurt others out of our own pain we can have more understanding of the actions others may have taken against us. Only when we can love and accept ourselves will we be free to risk loving others in difficult times and accepting their mistakes.
If we risk taking steps through our pain, even blundering, imperfect, steps we create the opportunity for movement to a different place. Our hardened hearts will soften and we will be better able to understand and live God's love for all people.
It is something that is attainable; others have shown us the way.
A few weeks ago when I was in Berkeley I listened to Elias Chacour, a Palestinian priest with intimate personal experience of religious conflict. As a Christian in a region where Christianity is a minor faith he has created a unique situation of loving one's enemies. Chacour opened a unique College there where Christians, Moslems, Jews and Druze live, study and build a common future together. In the midst of daily violence and hateful rhetoric about enemies, these people struggle to live out peace and love for one another.
We hear stories of how siblings have reconciled and how people estranged from one another for years have found a peace with each other.
Following these words of Jesus not easy and there are no guarantees of outcomes in how others will respond to us. But, we remember that God gives even to those who reject God's love and keep trying.
If we don't try our pain will grow and become a rigid force in our lives. It will take up space where God could be flowing. Our spiritual health and our relationship with God depend on our being willing to risk being good to those who have treated us badly.
Carter Heyward says: "We are not automatic lovers of self, others, world, or God. Love does not just happen . . . Love is . . . a willingness to be present to others without pretense or guile. Love is a conversion to humanity - a willingness to participate with others in the healing of a broken world and broken lives."
May we strive each day to heal such brokenness by loving as God would have us love, even when it is difficult. Amen.
**Story about Margaret from Intercessory Prayer: Praying for Friends and Enemies by Jane E. Vennard.