Election Sermon Series
Delivered by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson, priest-in-charge
Church of the Intercession, NYC
September 12, 2020
Texts: Genesis 50:15-21, Matthew 18:21-35
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
There is a long tradition here in the United States by both Christian and Jewish faith leaders of preaching special sermons as the date of a presidential election drew near. The first ones were preached before George Washington was selected unanimously by electors in the first presidential election of 1788-89. Perhaps the most memorable are the election sermons preached in 1860 and 1864 as the country fell into and then struggled through the carnage of our Civil War. Similarly, the Viet Nam War years called forth passionate preaching, but every four years since our founding many preachers have taken up the challenge to help their congregations put their particular time and that particular election into the context of Holy Scripture. The purpose is not to “preach an op-ed” from the pulpit, but rather to ground the events of the day in the context of the Bible, to “test the spirits,” as the First Letter of John advises us to do, in an attempt to find God’s voice in the confusion of torrents of agitated clamor , and in that way to discern the way forward for our nation.
We now have eight Sundays, including today, before Election Day 2020. So in that tradition I’ve decided to offer an Election Sermon Series: at least through the end of this September we’ll seek to illuminate an aspect of the current state of our country by the light of the Bible, using the readings of the day. Happily, our lectionary cooperates with this plan by giving us a clear theme on the next few Sundays which I’m going to use to give us a specific challenge to pray on week by week. I’m warning you that these challenges may be difficult to hear and even tougher to embrace – but Scripture is like that; if we’re honest, it often makes us uncomfortable.
So if that intro hasn’t driven you away, off we go. Today’s theme from our readings is very clear: it’s forgiveness, possibly the hardest thing that Jesus asks us to do throughout the gospels. Yet forgiveness is absolutely central to living a Christian life and it has roots in Hebrew Scripture. Our first reading today from Genesis is an astonishing, especially if we consider what has led up to it. Joseph had ten brothers who despised him – they hated him because he was their father Jacob’s favorite son, and they hated him because he had dreams about how he was going to rule over them, which he rather ill-advisedly told them about. Now, it’s one thing to be jealous of and annoyed by your bratty younger brother, but it is quite another to come up with a plot to trap him, strip him of his clothes, throw him into a deep pit, leave him there to die – and then take Joseph’s clothes, dip them in animal blood and present them to their father Jacob to convince him that Joseph had been killed by wild animals. That’s what his brothers had done. Joseph’s salvation was that his eldest brother, Reuben, had second thoughts, and convinced the other nine brothers to sell Joseph to a passing caravan who could then market him in Egypt as a slave. That way they could make a little money, be rid of their troublesome brother, and remain blissfully ignorant of his final fate.
We all know what happened next: in Egypt, after another betrayal that lands Joseph in prison for several years, he becomes the Vizier of Egypt – second only to Pharaoh in power. About thirteen years after they sold him into slavery. his brothers come to Egypt to buy grain during a famine. They meet and bow down to the man who is ruler over them (just as Joseph had seen in his dream), yet they didn’t yet know that that man is Joseph. Once they find out, they are amazed – and terrified that Joseph will take his revenge on them, which he certainly had both the means and the justification to do. So the brothers make up a story to try to save their lives, telling Joseph that their dying father Jacob had told them to tell Joseph to forgive them, which Jacob absolutely had not done. That lie wasn’t necessary – Joseph had forgiven his brothers long before they came to Egypt, in fact he was thrilled to see them when they arrived, despite their troubled past relationship. How could Joseph feel this way? Because he knew something that we often forget if we ever knew it in the first place: that God will use for good what is intended for harm, to further a plan that will save lives and souls. Joseph says to them:
“Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
Joseph had forgiven them. Such forgiveness runs counter to our nature; true forgiveness is only made possible by the grace of God, and that grace comes from knowing the mind and heart of God, which can be acquired by communing with God in prayer over time. We are all weak, every one of us; we all stand in constant need of forgiveness. We have all done things that are selfish, even evil, sometimes multiple times in a day – I know I do many things every day that are sinful and which hurt others; we are all prone to developing patterns of sin that we know are harmful but which we don’t have the strength to stop or change. But God tells us that there is a way to gain the strength to stop and change: forgiveness, both giving forgiveness and receiving forgiveness.
The paradigm of forgiveness, of course, is Jesus himself, who knew as he was dying on the cross that even he could not enter heaven with unforgiveness in his heart, so he forgave his murderers even as they were murdering him. And just as he healed people of sickness by forgiving their sins during his earthly ministry, Jesus gave us his final teaching on the power and necessity of forgiveness as he forgave the sin sick world from the cross.
Of course we are not Jesus, so are we similarly compelled to forgive? If you’re like me, today’s gospel will make you cringe, but we must turn to it anyway. If we had our way, we would happily set limits on forgiveness – we love developing policies like “three strikes and you’re out” for those who trouble us again and again. As we continue here, we must do so with care: we are not talking about permitting ourselves to be abused, nor are we suggesting denying the consequences of sin – remember that Adam and Eve’s very first sin in the Garden of Eden is met with God by severe consequences, including an eventual death sentence and expulsion from the Garden. No, we’re not talking about granting permission to sin, rather the gospel is addressing our attitude towards who we could call a serial sinner, with whom every single one of us would likely lose patience. Yet Jesus resists our desire to set a limit on forgiveness. When he says that we should forgive not 7 times but 77 times – other translations say 7 times 70 times, or 70 to the 70th power – those are just other ways of saying there’s no limit to forgiveness. Think about it: if there was a limit, every one of us would be in serious danger of placing ourselves beyond the cap, so to speak, of receiving God’s forgiveness, and God could never let that happen.
So what does all of this have to do with our country right now? What does forgiveness have to do with our upcoming election? I must admit that I’m not is a forgiving mood right now, and think that we would be hard-pressed to find many souls among us who are right now interested in forgiving those with whom they disagree or who they perceive as a threat. Our climate today is not one of compassion, empathy, tolerance and forgiveness; rather it is one of judgment, cancellation, conquest and demonization.
This is all very short sighted, for a very practical reason: whichever side wins the election, the losing side is going nowhere – we will all still have to find a way live with each other. Despite our ardent desire to do a victory dance on the remains of our vanquished opponents, they won’t be eliminated the way we imagine they will be. And while we are struggling towards an imaginary total victory, we are forgetting what Joseph knew: that God accomplishes God’s purposes sometimes through cooperation, but more often despite opposition, even working through those who appear to us as mortal enemies. The Bible is filled with examples of attempts to stop God’s plans and failing. Again we look at the gospels and Jesus: we all denigrate Judas for his betrayal and bemoan Jesus’ Jewish and Roman opposition, but could any of them stop the resurrection? No – and you can argue that in fact their opposition was necessary to enable the resurrection.
Well, I warned you. I warned you that these Sunday messages leading up to the election would be uncomfortable, and this one is. But the Bible is unambiguous from beginning to end – we are called upon to forgive, without precondition, without promise of future change from those who we forgive, and without limits. Joseph and Jesus show us that the road to healing is paved with forgiveness, and if we need anything right now, it’s healing. So our challenge for the next week is to ask Jesus for direction on who and what to forgive, and then for the grace and strength to do it. These times must be not only about suffering, but about healing.
The wounds to our bodies and spirits make it so hard to forgive. I along I’m sure with many of you are angry, frustrated, and fearful. We might say: But what about 9/11? But what about racial injustice? What about the criminal mishandling of COVID-19? What about our dreadful political landscape? Jesus understands our feelings of grief, fear, anger, frustration, suffering. But forgiveness is not about what we are feeling or what we feel like doing, it’s not about emotions. Just as Jesus asks to love our enemies while not necessarily feeling love for them but by making a decision to love them, he asks us to forgive when it goes against everything we are feeling, even when it offends our sense of justice. Jesus gives us forgiveness not as a means of capitulation or weakness, a white flag of surrender to those who harm us, but as a source of strength so that we may conquer in partnership with him through healing. This is the only sustainable way to build a future for ourselves and our country; all other methods are doomed to eventually collapse despite what may seem like victories in the moment.
My prayer for all of us – and for all of our fellow Americans – is that God give every one of us the grace to make the hard decision to forgive others as we have been forgiven by God, and in so doing to help lay the foundation for healing, justice, and peace in our collective national future.