“A Primers Guide”
February 24, 2019 – Epiphany 7 – Year C
Rev. Sang Chul Lee, Past Moderator of the United Church of Canada in the 1980’s, was a Korean who in the 1940’s was a high school student in Manchuria living under Japanese occupation. He was forbidden by the Japanese to learn the Korean language in school and so private language classes were held in a church basement. Someone reported this activity and one Sunday morning he and some others were arrested by the police and put into a cell at the police station. He spent 2 weeks in jail where he was subjected to daily torture and questioning concerning the Korean independence movement (which he in fact had no connection). A few years later, shortly after WW 2, he was travelling along a road and encountered a group of people resting by the side of the road under a tree. One man was sitting apart from the group and facing away, but even from behind Sang Chul Lee recognized him as the one who had beaten him. He was momentarily seized with anger and was sorely tempted to grab a stone, hit him, and kill him with angry shouts of revenge. But it was only a momentary thought because he quickly realized that he couldn’t strike back at this man. Sang Chul Lee related that “as I approached him, he recognized me and was obviously frightened. I told him I was tempted to strike him but couldn’t because this is the time we have become free of colonialism, so it is a time for celebration.” At this, the man fell on his knees and begged forgiveness.
The account in Genesis is the climactic moment in the long story of Joseph and his brothers. It is a moment when Joseph resists he temptation to return the evil that his brothers did to him. Instead, he reaches out to forgive them. He assures them that although their intentions were evil, the results were beneficial because of God’s mercy, and he was now in a position to save their whole family from starvation.
He is no longer burdened with the need for revenge. With God’s help, the miserable deeds of the past have worked out for the good. They all experience the embrace of forgiveness.
Family reunions aren’t always fun. Sometimes they don’t live up to (or down to) expectations. The one in today’s story about Joseph and his brothers did not live down to expectations, once the brothers knew they were dealing with the brother they had betrayed. They had every reason to expect that vengeance would be wreaked upon them. What saved the day for them was that Joseph was able to credit God with turning into good all the evil that had befallen him. That, and the ability of the family to talk to each other, turned a disaster into a celebration.
In a little town in central Europe, “Jacob the tailor” felt that he had been mistreated in the synagogue. And so, he withdrew from the community and isolated himself from his friends and neighbours. Weeks went by until, finally, the rabbi called on him. After a polite greeting, there was a heavy silence. Then the rabbi said, “Let’s sit in front of the fire.” So, the 2 men sat in complete silence. An hour or so later the rabbi picked up the fireplace tongs, pulled out a coal and placed it on the hearth, away from the fire. Still no word was spoken. The 2 men just sat and watched the glowing, burning piece of coal become darker and darker, until finally it was black and cold and dusty with ashes. A few moments later, Jacob the tailor spoke. “I understand,” he said. “I’ll come back to the synagogue.” Not a word had been spoken, but the point had been made: We withdraw from the community, we isolate ourselves from our neighbor, and we die. We need one another.
In Jesus’ time the rich and poor were separated by privilege and opportunity and, like now, often pitted against one another. After assuring the poor and hungry of God’s blessings and warning, the rich and satisfied of God’s judgement, Jesus does not exploit the existing tension between the 2 groups. Rather, he begins to teach his disciples about the dangers of judgment and the treatment of enemies.
Conventional wisdom of the day saw the best course as doing harm to one’s enemies and good to one’s friends. Conventional wisdom of our days says little different. But Jesus’ words to his disciples asks them to resist the way of retaliation and vengeance and walk a path of love. Love involves acting in a way that resembles God’s character – merciful, forgiving, and generous to all. It is about acting in the integrity of what one believes.
There is a story about Gandhi. A Hindu soldier came to him, utterly distraught and guilt ridden because he had smashed in the head of a Muslim child during one of the riots.
And Gandhi said to him. “I know a way out of hell. You must adopt a Muslim child and raise him as your own. And as a Muslim.”
God’s love and mercy will be revealed in the end. There will always be injustice. There will always be tough or “desert” times. There will often be deep wounds and ugly scars. But through all the rivalries and jealousies, hatreds and cruelties, hurts, sorrows and disappointments that can seem to overwhelm human life, the scripture texts of today tell us that forgiveness is possible and mercy can be experienced. God’s way is the way of mercy – to love in the face of hate, and thereby overcome and transform hatred’s infectious destructive power.
Resisting evil without using evil means has always been a dilemma for Christians. God’s way of mercy is one that we find very difficult to understand and trust. We live in a world where raw hatred and brutal violence are practiced and preached by many as easy antidotes to the pain and confusion of our times. Learning to love those whom we perceive to be our enemies has never been more important than it is in our world today. May we, in our families and in this congregation, dedicate ourselves to practising this way of mercy and forgiveness – this way of love for the enemy. There is no telling how powerful the results could be
Nelson Mandela, the great leader of the people of South Africa tells the powerful account of his country. “It was repugnant in 1993 to think we could sit down and talk with those people (the Africaners), but we had to subject the plan to our brains and to say, “Without these enemies of ours, we can never bring about a peaceful transformation of this country.” And that is what we did. The reason why the world has opened its arms to South Africa is because we were able to sit down with our enemies and say, let us stop slaughtering one another. Let’s talk peace.
It is hard for us to imagine that the world could be transformed simply by sitting down and talking with one another. This account of the people of South Africa give us hope and serves as an example for all the world. Living with sensitivity and understanding of others is in part what Jesus instructed.
Try to imagine the newspaper headlines if each of us committed ourselves to this kind of radical love. The Penticton Herald might well proclaim, “Subversives attend Penticton United Church”. I for one would be proud if that label fit me. You see, it would mean that I really was risking in my lifestyle as a follower of Jesus Christ.
I want to bge more like the young girl who one day went to her mother to show some fruit that had been given her. “Your friend,” said the mother, “has been very kind.”
“Yes,” said the child. “She gave me more than these; but I have given some away.”
The mother inquired to whom she had given them.
She answered, “I gave them to a girl who pushes me off the path, and makes faces at me.”
When asked why she gave them to her, she replied, “Because I thought it would make her know that I wish to be kind to her, and she will not, perhaps, be so rude and unkind to me again.”
Such action is the beginning of the kind of life changing behaviour that Jesus describes. That is what is needed in Venezuela and Haiti. It is what is needed in the Middle East. And it is what is needed in your home and mine. May it be so. Amen.