August 16, 2020
Come Closer to Me – August 16, 2020
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So, today is Fr. Jeff’s last Sunday with us. After serving here these two years, he’s accepted a call to be rector of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Sayville, NY. I’m tempted at this point to link this turn of events to our summer sermon series, “What the Heck, Lord? God’s Presence in Tough Times.” Honestly, I am sad to see you go. I’ve truly enjoyed serving with you here. I’ll miss your creativity and energy and willingness to take on nearly anything. Beyond that, I’ll just miss you.
We didn’t plan it this way, but it’s quite fitting that today’s Old Testament reading happens to come up on Fr. Jeff’s last Sunday. If you’ve ever heard him teach in Discovery class, you know that the sacrament of reconciliation is one of Fr. Jeff’s great passions. And that’s what we get in this Joseph story: It’s all about reconciliation and the healing it brings.
Now, that being said, today’s reading loses a little something because we’ve skipped over a lot of material between last Sunday and this morning. Last Sunday, the brothers envy Joseph enough to sell him into slavery. This young dreamer thought he, the youngest, would be lording it over them in the future, and that didn’t go over so well with the brothers. So, we need to fill in a little to understand how dramatic today’s reconciliation really is.
OK – here are eight chapters in two minutes. Instead of killing Joseph, the envious brothers “just” sell him as a slave. He’s taken to Egypt, where not only is he enslaved but imprisoned falsely for two years. He interprets the dreams of two other prisoners, but the one he helps free forgets about Joseph until Pharaoh needs his own dreams interpreted. Joseph is summoned from the dungeon and tells Pharaoh his dreams mean seven years of bounteous harvests are coming, follow by seven years of famine. Joseph goes on to say Pharaoh needs a good administrator to steward the coming surplus and dole it out during the lean years. Impressed, Pharaoh promotes Joseph on the spot, making him the king’s right-hand man.
Meanwhile, off in Canaan, the brothers, their households, and their father Jacob are all starving; so, the brothers travel to Egypt to buy grain. They come and bow before Joseph, the brother they tried to kill. They don’t recognize him, but he recognizes them; and he launches an elaborate plan to imprison and enslave them just like they did to him. After all, the brothers, their father, and their households are now dependent on Joseph for their very lives. He could pull the string and have his brothers imprisoned or killed … but his heart melts instead, and we come to today’s reading.
But even here at the end, it’s not just a happily-ever-after little forgiveness story. Three things happen that give us some guidance for the places in our lives where we need reconciliation. First, in a situation where Joseph might have distanced himself from the people who hurt him, he chooses to get closer instead. Second, he tells them the truth, hard as it might be for him to say and for them to hear. And third, he moves out of the spotlight and sees that the story isn’t all about him.
So, about getting closer: It’s only half a verse in today’s reading, but it makes all the difference. The story begins with Joseph in his official role, the embodiment of royal power; and he says, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” (Genesis 45:3). But the scepter and the jewels stand in the way of his brothers recognizing him. They can’t make sense of it until Joseph says, “Come closer to me” (45:4). The brothers do, and they recognize Joseph for who he really is.
And that allows them to hear what comes next: the hard truth. He says, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into slavery” (45:4). He makes the blame explicit. And at this point, the brothers are completely vulnerable. Not only has the king’s right-hand man been accusing them of stealing from him, he now lets the second shoe drop – pronouncing them guilty of an earlier crime that’s much worse and much more personal. This is the truth the brothers have to hear in order to understand just how high the stakes are. Without knowing the depth of Joseph’s wound, they can’t appreciate what comes next.
And what comes next is Joseph making the turn to reconciliation. He could have had his brothers tortured and killed, but Joseph chooses to see the bigger story. He says, “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (45:5). That doesn’t change the brother’s betrayal, or Joseph’s enslavement, or his years rotting in prison. But it does mean there’s more to the story than Joseph’s personal suffering. Even a relationship broken this badly God can use to save life. And, Joseph says, that’s just the start. He’ll give his brothers and their families good land in Egypt, as well as the gift of resurrected relationship with him. The new relationship won’t always be easy. Reconciliation starts in a moment, but forgiveness can take years. Still, they’ve started down the right road.
Reconciliation is such hard work. It is so much easier, so much more comfortable, to live in the discomfort we know, the discomfort of distance and alienation. Given the Gospel reading we heard today, it seems like that may have been true even for Jesus.
Now, in this story of Jesus and the disciples and the Canaanite woman, you have to know the Canaanites weren’t just foreigners to the people of Israel; they were long-time enemies. Over the centuries, the Israelites had taken the Canaanites’ land and judged them for worshiping the wrong gods. They’d fought countless battles; and by Jesus’ time, the feud was still going on, at least emotionally.
So, this Canaanite woman comes out and starts shouting at Jesus to heal her daughter. Remarkably, given what we know about Jesus, “He [does] not answer her at all” (Matthew 15:23). In fact, the disciples urge him, “Send her away, because she keeps shouting after us” (15:23). But I imagine Jesus looking at her, and knowing the situation just isn’t right, and wrestling with the call he’s heard – that he “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” not to people like her (15:24).
Then, like Joseph with his brothers, the Canaanite woman makes the hard choice to come closer. She takes the risk to come right up to Jesus and ask him to save her little girl. And the first words out of Jesus’ mouth are pretty insulting, though surely he didn’t mean to hurt her. He says, “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (15:26). And the woman comes back with truth that not even Jesus can rebut. She says, OK, maybe we are dogs, at least in your eyes. Maybe our lives don’t matter. “Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (15:27). And Jesus, stung a bit, relents; and he heals the woman’s daughter. He chooses to enter into this moment of reconciliation, revealing God’s love that crosses the boundaries even of violent history. When this outsider comes close and speaks her truth, Jesus listens. And in that moment, God’s heart beats stronger than ever.
If you know Fr. Jeff, you know one of his gifts is an ability to hang in there when the emotional situation gets fraught. I just want to say that out loud. Fr. Jeff, even when you know the other person won’t agree, you’re great at looking that person in the eye, and speaking the truth you know, and staying in the game even in the face of difference. That disarming love changes things. In fact, it changes life for people on both sides of disagreement, because both people go away with the holy humility of learning that their truth is incomplete. And, trust me, your ability to live out that kind of reconciliation will be essential as you move into a rector’s office.
Hanging in there when we’re tempted to pull back – that’s also essential for the rest of us. We’re making our way through uncharted territory right now – as a nation, as The Episcopal Church, and as St. Andrew’s. Part of that is about the pandemic, and part of that is about race. For generations now, we’ve let race be the elephant in our national living room. Now, like the Canaanite woman, people who’ve known for years that Black and Brown lives matter are bringing that truth into the light and “shouting, ‘Have mercy on [us]!’” (Matthew 15:22). The Episcopal Church is fully on board that train. You can see it in nearly every post that comes out from Episcopal News Service and from every meeting of the House of Bishops. I believe that’s right. I believe it’s right for people who look like me, and faith communities who mostly look like me, to learn from the experience of those with whom we haven’t typically built relationships and ask, “What do we need to do differently?” That’s what starts us on a journey of reconciliation, despite how hard it is to hear someone else’s truth.
And, at the same time, regardless of which “side” we’re on: Anytime we know we have the “right” answer, we’ve got to build relationship with those who would give a different one. I’ve had several conversations recently with people in this parish family who feel they can’t speak their truth about racial justice, or violence in our city, or policing, or incarceration, or education. They feel they won’t be heard because they question the dominant narrative. I want to say to them, “Of course you can do that here; of course you’ll be heard” – but my wishing doesn’t make it so. Instead, if we want St. Andrew’s to be an environment where we can talk about the various elephants in our living room, we have to do the work to make it that way.
We wouldn’t be the first followers of Jesus to struggle with this. Imagine the unreported conversation among the disciples and Jesus around the fire that night, as they thought about what they’d seen and heard from that Canaanite woman. You know they were trying to make sense of what the Canaanite woman had to say – that even though they saw her as a dog, God’s justice demanded she receive Jesus’ healing power, too. And as they talked, trying to sort out their own feelings, what do you suppose Jesus did? Don’t you imagine he encouraged the conversation? I can’t see him shutting down his friends for saying the “wrong” thing as they tried to make sense of what they’d always thought about Canaanites versus what they’d seen and heard that day.
OK, then, take it one step further. What if the Canaanite woman wanted to become a follower of Jesus, too? The story is silent about what happens after this reading, so we don’t know what became of her. But what if she joined the many, mostly unnamed, women who journeyed with Jesus? Wouldn’t Jesus have wanted that hard conversation to keep going? Wouldn’t he have wanted his followers to listen to each other? And wouldn’t he have wanted it to go uncomfortably deep?
“Come closer to me,” Joseph said to the brothers who’d tried to kill him. “Lord, help me,” the Canaanite woman said to the Savior who first told her she wasn’t one of his kind. Given the temptation to shut someone off or to shut ourselves down, choose instead to come closer. It will be the harder choice. But, then again, reconciliation always is.