What does it mean to love our enemy? What is God really asking of us? These are important questions to ask during these days of fractious debate and conspiracy theories, when it seems as if we have lost the ability to listen to one another– even ourselves. Families are divided; friendships have been broken. This week a protestor was interviewed who reportedly felt so strongly about not being vaccinated that he had claimed to have chosen to stand by this position rather than be allowed to visit his 9-year-old daughter who was dying in hospital; instead he was protesting for “his freedom.” Whether or not this was true, he felt it was a reasonable position, even a sympathetic one. But of course, most of us hear that and weep for the daughter. How do you love such a father? When a small group of people are disrupting the lives, the property, the income, and the freedom of the majority, how can we love them? We aspire to Joseph’s example in our first lesson. As we know, Joseph was envied by his brothers for the favouritism they felt their father had shown him. Rather than get over it, however, they conspired to sell him into slavery and left him for dead. Years passed, and Joseph turned this dysfunctional family act into a strength. He chose not to be consumed with bitterness and thoughts of revenge, but with God’s guidance, looked forward to what he might accomplish with the life he had. This turned out to be quite a bit. Joseph became a kind and good leader. Then one day, his brothers appeared before him. They assumed, as they had earlier, that Joseph would use his power to destroy them. Instead, he forgave them and welcomed them back into his life. If that story feels fantastical, it may be because we are holding on to regrets, to slights we are finding it hard to forgive. But ultimately, I don’t think the point of that story is the moment that Joseph forgave his brothers; that was just the natural end to the choice he had made much earlier. That choice was to let go of his anger, of thoughts of revenge, or even hate; and focus on what he wanted to be in life and what he wanted to accomplish. Joseph chose to love God and to love himself, and in doing so, he was able not only to welcome his brothers, but even to give them land and make them successful. He was able to love his enemy. This is a reminder to us: loving someone who has truly wronged us is not a quick fix; it doesn’t happen overnight. Joseph’s journey took years; he grew from a boy into a man and found his place in the world. Did he feel anger sometimes? Did he dream of revenge? He was human, wasn’t he? But he chose to live more above the line; he chose to love himself and to extend that love to those around him; he practiced forgiveness long before he saw his brothers again. If forgiveness is the art of seeing that people, while not perfect, have value, then Joseph practiced it until it was the natural choice. I say this because I know that for many of us, wrongs run deep – indeed, the story of Joseph may trigger thoughts of family or friends who have been unkind or cruel in your own lives. The first lesson may leave the impression that the journey of Joseph was swift and easy; but we know, of course, that it was the opposite. But by not focusing on the past, by deciding who he wanted to be in the future, he found his way to forgiveness. Perhaps, in these times of conflict, both personal and societal, we also need to ask, who is our enemy? In Joseph’s case, is the enemy actually his brothers, or is it the envy that poisoned them? Is the enemy the protest downtown -- the people -- or is it the brokenness in our society that makes people feel they can’t belong, the ignorance and intolerance that foster hate and racism? If those things are the true enemy, then our focus, like Joseph’s, must also shift: what future do want, and how - having vanquished these enemies of envy, ignorance, and intolerance – shall we create it? Even so, the instruction from Jesus in our gospel smarts a little: so if someone punches me, I turned the other cheek so they can punch me again? If someone steals my coat, I am to give him my shirt? What foolishness is this? Yet, what is Jesus really saying? He is reminding us that aggression, when met with aggression, leads only to more aggression. When we have the choice – the option to walk away – we should take it. But Jesus goes one step further – he gives us the great challenge. If we love the ones whom we see as family, that is good, but nothing special; of course we love them. We must also love those we see as beyond the pale, those who hassle and disrupt our lives, those who cause us pain. The reason lies with Joseph, who had decided to live a Godly life, and who, when his brothers came, was able to forgive them. That failure to forgive would not only have dragged Joseph down; it would also have prevented him from accomplishing great things. The loss would have been two-fold: Pain for Joseph; and the absence of grace in the world. Joseph’s brothers, having been forgiven, have the same chance now – to let go of the past, and live a new future. That is the circle of the gospel. So Jesus was not burdening us; he meant to release us. The message is there in his famous line: “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” It is spelled out for us: when we forgive, we are forgiven; when we give, we receive; when we do not judge, we are spared judgement. This is a lifelong practice; a goal to which we all must aspire. When we live up to it, as best we can, we spread the gospel circling all around us. Amen.
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