Welcome to this post that includes part of Sunday morning worship from Digby Baptist Church. This weekend not only is the worship Bulletin available, but also our Fall Newsletter. Videos from the service are posted Sunday afternoon.
SERMON: Forgive the Crime: or Dolly Parton and a Coat of Many Colours. Genesis 37:2-8, 17b-22, 26-34; Luke 6:32-36.
When Myra read Jesus’ words about doing good to enemies and loving those who hate you, I wondered again about Joseph. Joseph and his coat of many colours. And how, after he had been kidnapped and sold into slavery by his brothers, he could and would forgiven them, all those years later. Later, when Joseph had real power, in Egypt, and his starving brothers needed help.
I had Rob read excerpts from the saga of Joseph and his brothers. Starting with the dreaming boy and his coat of long sleeves, or coat of many colours, as it is sometimes translated.
But I want to begin with another coat of many colours. At least, with the woman who wrote the song and sang the song. Dolly Parton. Because this sermon is about forgiveness.
Stay with me, for a minute.
A few weeks ago I happened to hear a bit of a podcast called, of all things, Dolly Parton’s America. Yes, there is a podcast series – nine episodes – all about Dolly Parton, and her place in American pop culture. Parton is, I find, quite a highly esteemed figure in the world, and for good reason. She has a special, gracious way of being good to most everyone, and welcoming all sorts. She’s a great unifier, as the podcaster, Jad Abumrad, puts it.
So, there was this moment at the Emmy Awards just three years ago. Dolly was reunited with Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda to present an award. (They were in the movie 9 to 5.) And, as all guests do, these three get to banter at the mic for a few minutes before the official opening of a letter and giving an award.
That whole awards show that night had been a lot of bashing of the current US President, with Tomlin and Fonda carrying right on with the attack.
Dolly Parton does not like this. She never likes this. She just refuses to play the politics game.
In the podcast interview she says: that whole night everything was just bashing Donald Trump. It doesn’t make any difference how I feel about him. I just thought… why does it all have to be about politics?
“Well, you could have upheld him, you should have said somethin.” I thougth, ‘No, I shouldn’t have said nothin,’ cause if I’d said anthing about Trump, anything good or bad, or if I hada said anything, say this or that, I’d a got booed outa that house, I’d a probably been up there on my own. I wasn’t interested in that; I wasn’t going to say something good or bad , what I thought or felt. I just knew I wasn’t playing that game. Anyway, it’s just scary. No matter what you say – is wrong.
Another interviewer ask Dolly: When you’re in a room and everyone’s attacking this man – Trump – because of your story of forgiveness, does it almost make you feel like you want to protect him?
What was your feeling?
I wanted to say, “Let’s pray for the president. Why don’t we pray for the President, if we’re havin all these problems.” But I thought… that won’t work either.”
Those words of Dolly’s really make the podcaster think. They struck Jad Abumrad like a ton of bricks.
He concluded, Oh I get it. Her stake in the sand is that she will not cast anyone out.
Yes, while there is a business logic here, Abumrad concludes, this is also a spiritual stance, this is an ethos she has chosen. And it is undeniably one of the reasons she can have the fan base that she has; because everyone feels safe at a Dolly Parton concert.
Here is a famous musical artist, interviewed and studied for months, surely. And these interviewers find her to be a person whose story is forgiveness, and who takes a spiritual stance not to pick on anyone or kick anyone out.
Ever felt that safe with someone? I hope you have. Let’s get back to the Bible. How safe did Joseph’s brothers feel, with him, just after their beloved father had died and been mourned and embalmed?
In the final chapter – of Genesis, not to mention in the saga of Jacob’s twelve sons – Joseph’s eleven brothers come to him beg for mercy and forgiveness from their brother, the prime minister of Egypt. Thinking he would still have revenge upon them for what they’d done, even their dying father, Jacob, had advised them to plead for mercy now.
I find the little steps in this final drama are not only poignant, but powerful and instructive. It is a lesson in forgiveness. Watch how Joseph deals with the plea to forgive them.
Recorded in verse 17, Joseph wept. He “wept when they spoke to him.” What were his feelings, do you suppose? Yes, he’d really put his brothers to the test when they’d appeared, during the famine, in Egypt. But now he had welcomed them, had them move to Goshen in Egypt, lock stock and barrel. They were settled and even privileged immigrants in the land. Thanks to the high standing of their young brother, Joseph.
How sad! Joseph must have thought, that they still feared his power and his retribution. How sad! he must have felt, that they still sensed they were unforgiven. How sad! he must have felt, that his brothers may have thought they were favoured only because their father was still alive, and now he was dead, they might be in trouble. How sad! he must have felt, that even his father feared he would still pay back his brothers for what they’d done to Joseph.
When someone seeks our forgiveness for something, we will have emotional reactions. Just as our Holy, loving God does. Like the heart of God, Joseph weeps when his brothers plead for mercy. Of course he will have mercy!
Joseph said, ‘do not be afraid!’ There are those famous Bible code words again. Do not fear. There is good news. In a sense, that says it at. All will be well. The answer is ‘yes,’ even before it was asked.
I think of New Testament words of forgiveness, about Jesus. From Romans 5: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Before we knew what we were doing wrong, before you and I were even born in history, Jesus did things for us. Forgiveness for real wrong and crime and faults and nastiness. Today the Spirit of Jesus keeps saying, ‘Do not fear! I am already forgiving you.’ It’s continuous action: cosmic.
Back to Joseph and his eleven brothers. Basically, Joseph said, ‘I’m not God.’ “Am I in the place of God?” Joseph sees what was done with the disaster his brothers brought upon him, how God took that where the brothers never intended. God is in charge of this whole family project, Joseph believed. The Almighty can make mighty good things happen out of personal disasters and nastiness and jealousy. ‘I’m not God, and I’m not going to punish you for what you did, all those years ago.’
Think about it: our need to punish others, for them to get their due, might be smaller than God’s need to bless those people, and use the things that happened for God’s own new project. What the Master can do with the disasters around us, and inside us, can be beyond our best expectations.
But notice, Joseph acknowledged his brothers had intended harm. “Even though you intended to do harm to me…” he says. He does not minimize what they had done or not sweep the wrong under the carpet. Does not say, ‘Aww, it wasn’t that bad, really. You didn’t mean to. It’s so long ago, after all.’ It was wrong. It was bad. It was intentional. It did hurt.
It did harm. It is remembered. Yet it can be forgiven. Or, maybe better to say, they can be forgiven.
Paying attention to ‘the crime’ is important if real, true forgiveness is to happen. And it is needed in those places where we need to forgive ourselves. One of the steps needed is to see it for what it is. We can’t say, well, ‘I wasn’t that bad.’ Then, the only forgiveness we might get could be just as shallow. And incomplete. No wonder we have those beautiful words in James 5, ‘confess your sins to one another, and forgive one another, so that you may be healed.’
Then, Joseph saw God’s good activity amid this. The evil his brothers had done, back when they were young, the Creator took and molded into something better, years down the road. “God intended it for good, to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today,” said Joseph, in his one way of explaining it out loud.
You and I have our own ways of explaining how our Saviour does good things amid the bad. Some of our phrases are not that great.
Someone dies, and we say, “God needed another angel to watch over us.”
Some friend gets seriously ill, and we say, “But things could always be worse.”
Some young person rejects Christianity and leaves the Church, and we say, “Oh, trust and pray for them, and they will return to the Lord.”
We can see the good work of God amid the trouble, the saving amid the sinning. Let us work at better and more gracious ways to say it. To give God the glory. To explain the hope we have that the Spirit is working all things together for good.
Back to Genesis. Notice, Joseph made a commitment to care for his brothers and family. ‘So have no fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Joseph responds with action; he does something when his brothers plead for forgiveness.
Notice that Joseph never says, ‘I forgive you.’ Perhaps he should have, but perhaps he did not have to say that. He renews his personal and professional commitment to take care of his large family. They have a generous place to call home, in Egypt.
I think we see from meaningful experience how true forgiveness comes with action, not just words. We apologize for something rude we said in public to a loved one. We get forgiven, but that loved one still brings up our rude failure, from time to time. We don’t feel forgiven yet, do we? Or, the person who is pardoned for shoplifting, but always still sees in the shopkeepers eye that lingering suspicion. It is not full forgiveness yet, is it?
Deep, healing forgiveness gives a generous freedom to the one who had offended. It is grace. And the feeling is profound.
One of Charles Wesley’s hymns sings, joyfully,
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
my chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
Consider how to give someone freedom when it’s time for you to forgive that person. Christ will help you, Christ who said, ‘Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Love your enemies.’
Finally, the Genesis 50 conversation is summed up when we read that Joseph spoke reasonably and kindly to them. Verse 21 ends, “In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.”
Some of us think we speak kindly. ‘Other people are rude, but never me!’ Well, I know this is not true of Jeff White. There is more for my heart and soul to learn, so I can speak more reasonably and kindly, when someone has hurt me, or others.
A crime is a crime, a sin is a sin. The time comes to speak from the heart of Jesus, words of forgiving kindness. With many things Joseph used that day, with his brothers, we can speak with one another. We engage emotionally. We dispel fear. We keep God in God’s place. We take the offense seriously. With the Spirit we see the big picture. We take action to show forgiveness. We speak kindly.
Amid this, our Redeemer will truly set us all free.