Preaching 7th Sunday after Epiphany

February 15th, 2022

We could say our three texts work in reverse – although who’d dare to preach on all 3? The Gospel shares the words of the one who articulates a vision of reality almost as radical as he himself being, in our Epistle, the actual miraculous resurrection from the dead – and it is that miraculous reconciliation between God and humanity that assumes the earthly plane in the impossible, if anything more miraculous reconciliation between terribly estranged people.

Genesis 45:3-11, 15. The whole Joseph story matters, not merely its climax in chapter 45. But to pass over “He could no longer contain himself… He wept so loudly his sobs were heard throughout the house”? A puzzle. This text is, to me, the theological high watermark of the Old Testament and perhaps even the entire Bible. 

No biblical story narrates the grief, time, joy and miracle of reconciliation as powerfully as the drama of Joseph.  The emotional intensity of the climax in chapter 45 is intense, and you have to let it be intense, and feel it in your bones; let the story take your breath away or they won’t feel it either.  The Egyptians overheard Joseph’s sobbing in the next room; people in the pews had best hear it in the sanctuary.  The weeping and embracing are just astonishing, and so beautiful – and I can’t help at some point racing ahead to the riveting moment when Joseph is reunited with his father; “he fell on his neck, and wept on his neck a long time” (Gen. 46:29).
You can’t just plop down in chapter 45 either; the backstory matters. Without over-explicating every detail, the preacher has to pick up where the story begins, in chapter 37, with a pathetically dysfunctional family, Joseph’s dream that was from God but felt like sham arrogance, the brothers’ cruel dispatching of him and then the wretched way they shattered their father’s heart, Joseph’s rise, and then fall, and then rise in Egypt.  Don’t assume people know the story, but then don’t expend twelve minutes retelling it either.  Urge your people to read it at home.

To focus on chapter 45 I wouldn’t spend too much time on Joseph’s character – which isn’t really the point.  He has considerable brilliance, and a moral compass we do not see often in our days.  But that would be to moralize a theologically robust story. The shock of God’s way comes when the famine compelled the brothers to go down to Egypt, the breadbasket of the world. In a stunning plot twist, it was Joseph from whom they had to ask for food. He would give them far, far more. Naturally they didn’t recognize him; but he recognized them. After dallying with them a bit, he dismissed his entourage from the room, let loose long pent-up emotions, gathered himself, dried his tears, and revealed his secret: “I am Joseph, your brother.”
When I preach on this, I let the emotion drip, I leave time for it to flow around the room and into the souls of people.  His next words?  “Is my father alive?”  Again, in a pre-cell-phone era, he did not know, and hoped against hope; the brothers, who had despised father and brother, had to feel the gut-wrenchingness of his question.  Mind you, the Bible doesn’t tell us how they felt!  So we have space to find our own emotions from our own life stories in there somewhere – without reading in so much you don’t hear Joseph’s story any longer.  The brothers had to be stricken with shock, horror, guilt, trepidation, remorse.
But how did Joseph deal with those who had treated him and his father so cruelly? His words must have taken light years to sink in: “Do not be distressed; don’t be angry with yourselves because you sold me here. For God sent me here to preserve life” (Gen 45:5). Even after the glorious reunion with his father, and then even after Jacob’s death, Joseph said the most remarkable thing: “Do not be afraid. You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, so that many people should be kept alive” (Gen 50:20). Joseph forgave; he cast their common, broken life into the hands of God’s larger intentions. Testimony to God’s miracle – in the big story, but then also in Joseph’s gentle disposition.  Who is capable of what he just said to them?
Notice the brothers weren’t given a “second chance,” another crack at getting it right. They never got it right; they never made up for what they had done. God did not depend on any attitude change among the brothers. God quite simply used the evil they perpetrated and transformed it into good.

1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50 contains what preachers read at the graveside – fittingly so. Theologically, we might wonder how much we Christians acknowledge bodily death, and thus bodily resurrection, with cremations and inurnments often before the funeral service proper. Paul doesn’t blush over the idea of a deceased body – which for him isn’t just reality but the palpable precondition of resurrection! I’m not sure if the sermon is the best time to help our people understand that Christianity isn’t about the immortality of the soul, but the resurrection of the body – not a resuscitation, but a resurrection, a transformation of the body, which is still and always a body, a “spiritual body,” not one or the other.

Luke 6:27-38. When Jesus commands, it’s all love, all beauty, all hope. “The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes” (Ps 19:8). Jesus dares to dream we might just become perfect in love in this life – a Methodist, if I’ve ever seen one!

Jesus’s invitation to Love our Enemies could not be more shocking, radical, and unsought in our day. We are proud of our rage. We feel quite entitled to our anger – which weirdly feels like goodness, which reveals how very far we have strayed from the way of our Lord. Our rancor is rooted in idolatry: as I’ve said repeatedly for years now, today’s idolatry is our political ideology, which induces fear and anger, proving it is not of God. Love your enemies. Do not judge, or pity, or criticize, or demean, or avoid them. Love them. Preach this constantly. “Give to anyone who begs.” But how? Via donations to helping agencies? What do we give? Spare change? Or simple kindness? I’ve seen several saints in my lifetime who knew how to handle the random beggar on the street. You don’t avert your gaze. You don’t plunk down a dollar. You stop, ask What’s your name? How might I pray for/with you? 

The Golden Rule may be Jesus’ least Jesus-y and yet most popular, most American saying. But it’s not a tit for tat deal. Jesus invites us to dig deep into our need for kindness, for mercy, as the simplest motivation to be kind and merciful to others.

“Expect nothing in return” (verse 35) is huge, and underrated. Christian blithely say You get so much out of helping others! As if it’s a deal for us, like the old Kingdom Assignmentscheme of investing some money for God. What do we expect for the good we do? At least some gratitude, right? Or for the recipient to get it together? Can’t we understand how such giving isn’t really giving at all? Vaclav Havel, former president of Czechoslovakia, said “Hope is the ability to do something simply because it is good, whether it stands a chance of succeeding or not.” Or of giving us whatever we seek for ourselves, like gratitude, feeling good about ourselves or the difference we’re making in the world.

Not judging: should be easy, since we’re no good at it, and it’s not our responsibility! In all of Jesus’ admonitions here, “It is not merely social reciprocity, but self-transcending gratitude for the mercy of God” (David Lyle Jeffrey). And that pithy proverb in v. 38, “Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over”? My grandmother used to say that. I wonder what it meant, and how it felt to her? It’s okay for the preacher to leave this question dangling.

A whole sermon or a lifetime of sermons could dwell on Mercy in Luke 6. Pausing over this is haunting, and hopeful. Name it, and every listener realizes I never get much mercy. I never give that much either. Let me close with an excerpt from my “Merciful” section in my book, The Beatitudes for Today: How distant is “mercy” from all the ad campaigns with which we are peppered?  They curiously pander to me, saying “You deserve only the best mattress,” “You deserve a new car,” “You deserve a week in the Bahamas.”  These billboards do not know me, but they drive me away from mercy, which has nothing to do with deserving. We are so practiced at self-justification, at rationalizing and explaining.  We feel entitled.  I’m owed a good life, and if I don’t get it, I get busy blaming somebody.  And so mercy is a stranger.  Even when we talk about heaven:  Mr. Jones, an elderly do-gooder at the Church dies; and what do people say?  “If anybody gets into heaven it will be Mr. Jones.  Look at all he did!”  And we never find ourselves inside the circle, kneeling, embraced by the loving arms of the Father; we stay outside, spectating, looking in, never knowing mercy.

What is mercy?  Think back over your life.  Mercy is not something we define so much as something for which we cry out in desperation.  A kid is about to pound the daylights out of me on the playground – and what was I required to say out loud? “Mercy.”  A terrible, horrible mistake has been made, smashing a well-arranged life, and your regret is so intense, no strategy can extricate you from the mess, and the only cry left to make it “Mercy.”  You gaze at the crucifix, and you keep looking, letting it nestle jarringly down into the marrow of your self, and finally you get it, and the only plea you know you must make, but that you can make, is “Mercy.”

Deep inside, don’t you crave mercy? to be loved despite your craziness, to be handled tenderly?  And don’t we need to be tender, merciful, forgiving to others?  We are such hard, tough, cool, smooth, crusty people – but how sad, how tragic.  Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.  We are not very open to mercy, and so we are not so merciful, and so we receive no mercy.  Jesus anticipated this Beatitude would have to be reflexive – just as he did when he taught the disciples to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Forgive as we forgive; the merciful shall receive mercy.

How hard is it to be merciful?  Mercy is not doing nothing.  The Greek word eleos suggests the connotation of pouring out, the way we might pour out a flask of oil.  Mercy is a pouring out.  Mercy is when I unscrew the lid on what is precious to me and pour it out on you.  I may not think I have all that much to pour out, but the merciful pour anyway, thinking only of the wounded one who needs the healing balm of mercy.  Noting how beleaguered Jesus’ listeners were, Bonhoeffer adds, “As if their own needs and their own distress were not enough, they take upon themselves the distress and humiliation and sin of others.  They have an irresistible love for the downtrodden, the sick, the wretched, the wronged, the outcast, and all who are tortured with anxiety.  No distress is too great; no sin too appalling for their pity.  If any man falls into disgrace, the merciful will sacrifice their own honour to shield him, and take his shame upon themselves.  In order that they may be merciful, they cast away the most priceless treasure of human life, their personal dignity and honour.  For the only honour and dignity they know is their Lord’s own mercy, to which alone they owe their very lives.”

This wisdom bears repetition, and much reflection.  The merciful are far less interested in their own honor than in mercy; their only honor is mercy.  The merciful do not get tangled in a thicket of who deserves what, or calculations of whether their mercy will be productive or not.  The merciful are merciful because they have received mercy from the same Jesus who said “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”  Bonhoeffer saw the heart of this thought:  “Only he who lives by the forgiveness of his sin in Jesus Christ will rightly think little of himself.  He will know that his own wisdom reached the end of its tether when Jesus forgave him.”

Mercy eludes those who are shocked and mortified by sin or suffering.  The merciful get so absorbed in God’s mercy that they see sin and suffering differently.  The merciful are never offended by anything, for they have lost interest in sin, so fascinated are they by God’s mercy.  The Beatitudes truly are a ladder.  For it is only the poor in spirit who can be merciful.  Those who mourn know more keenly than anyone else how to be merciful.  The meek have no reason not to be merciful.  Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness understand that mercy is the food and drink.

“Merciful” is not just an inner attitude, although it is an inner attitude.  “Merciful” is something you do.  You plan to get busy being merciful, but then you are prepared at a moment’s notice to let the schedule be shredded, for like that Good Samaritan, you see somebody beaten up by the side of the road, and instead of guessing why he’s in the pickle he’s in, instead of being so ultra-responsible as to be punctual for your next meeting, you are merciful.  Otherwise we live merely in earshot of Jesus, and never get close to the one who said, “Blessed are the merciful,” the one who was and is Mercy itself.

How revolutionary!  How liberating!  Mercy frees me from self-centeredness.  Pouring myself out of my own ego trap is the way to joy.  Wendy Farley put it pointedly:  “Liberation from the tedious weight of one’s own miserable little ego is not necessarily self-sacrificing but can be profoundly fulfilling.”  Mercy frees me from the need to “fix” whatever is wrong.  Mercy is able quite simply to love, to be compassionate, whether the hurt is curable or not, whether the wrong can be righted or not.  Mercy can just stay with the one in need of mercy.

And in mercy, I show respect, I shed dignity on the one whose self-respect and sense of dignity have been shredded.  Mercy does not spout forth all the answers.  Job’s friends are not very merciful friends, for they pontificate theologically about the presumed causes of his suffering, when really he needed friends to weep and sit in the dirt with him.  Mercy has no need to justify or explain.  Mercy never trivializes suffering with trite explanations of “why.” Mercy listens, gets inside the other’s skin, letting the tears soak into your own shoulder.  For as we show mercy, and receive mercy, our hearts are purged and we are awestruck to glimpse some purity inside.

About the Author

James C. Howell

James C. Howell has been senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church since 2003, and has served read more…
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