Stuck in the Middle of Lent: Joseph’s Brothers and the Forgiven, Unforgiving Slave

Genesis 50:15-21

Matthew 18:21-35

I walked into the robing room at First Lutheran Church the other day.

I had not had much reason to spend time in there over the last six months. We have been taping services earlier in the week and what in person worship we have shared in has been outside. On none of those occasions did I have reason to wear my alb.

I was to be officiating at a wedding this week-end, though, and went to get it to put it into a carrier to protect it for our travel to and from the wedding. I walked in and rolled the closet door open and there it hung, just as I left it so casually on that last Sunday in mid March. I caught my breath to see the purple stole still hanging around its shoulders.

In some ways, it seems a perfect metaphor for this time — that we are still ‘stuck,’ if you will, in mid-Lent.  For just as the purple stole still hung there in a lot of ways it seems as though we haven’t moved beyond it into the white of Easter, the red of the Day of Pentecost, the green of the long season after.  I am, it seems, still caught there in that season of deep repentance where the themes of Holy Week, in particular, resonate even now: the denial, the betrayal, the suffering, the death — along with the deep sense of foreboding at what can possibly happen next. And then it does. And then we sink into grief again.

I looked at that purple stole still hanging there and all it stands for on my journey now and I was taken right into the stories which are ours to reflect on this week.

Consider, for instance, Joseph and his brothers. Think of how fragile their peace must have been if as soon as their father dies they are back on their knees begging Joseph to forgive them once more. Without a doubt, they are ‘stuck’ back in their younger years. Caught still by their resentment of their younger brother, their collective selling him into an unknown (and worse) future, their lying to their father causing him unspeakable grief, their being laid low by famine, their need to beg to meet their most basic needs. They are stuck in that time before they encountered their brother again, before their move to Egypt, before forgiveness was spoken and lived into. They are stuck in a time of regret. Or of regret and guilt buried and denied.

Or think with me of the story Jesus offers now. Put yourself in the place of the forgiven, unforgiving slave. Even though he himself had been the undeserving recipient of forgiveness, in his heart he was still living in the time before that: back when the world was a whole lot more defined by a simple sense of “justice,’ if you will. His heart had not been softened by the gift which had been given him. So he was not able to extend that same generosity to another. And as a result? As the story is told today, he has, without a doubt, already fashioned a kind of torture for himself, not to mention what actually came next.

Joseph’s brothers, the forgiven, unforgiving slave in the parable, you and I, we find ourselves ‘stuck.’ Or at least, in some ways, I do. Or at least I think I do.

For this is also so.

Over these many months while my purple stole has hung in the dark waiting all this time to be replaced by the white one, the red one, the green one, the world and what you and I have learned of it and of ourselves has not actually stood still, has it?

I have been so grateful, for instance, over these last weeks to have had brief in person encounters with a number of our children. Almost without exception, it seems, they have grown physically taller, at least, and probably in a whole lot of other ways as well.

The world has not stood still since mid-March.

For this is so as well:

Ministries which have been ours to share have somehow kept going.

In spite of our inability to actually be together in one place, those for whom the passion runs deep have gotten the word out and managed to collect what is needed for hundreds of school kits for Lutheran World Relief and they are being assembled in small groups in people’s garages. And yes, we will meet our goal for several hundred quilts assembled and boxed to be sent all over the world, again with the work being finished mostly off site.

And yes, our mask makers responded to the call and put together cloth masks which wound up all over town, including on the faces of inmates at the County Jail.

No, indeed, the world and you and I have not stood still since mid-March.

And also this.

We could not do our first communion instruction in the usual way this time around. So learning kits were assembled and delivered and families leaned into the task of sharing and learning together. And when we met with the kids via Zoom last week, it was clear they had done the work. In fact, one in particular could not seem to stop sharing this certain truth which is such a wonder: that all of our good gifts come from God. All of them.

Without a doubt, though it may sometimes seem so, the world and God’s people who inhabit it, have not stood still since the middle of March. (For that matter, I am certain I am only scratching the surface with the examples offered above. What might you add? What have you seen or felt or experienced?

  • At the same time? I cannot get away from the fact that this does seem to be an extended season of deep grief at all that is wrong with the world.
  • It is a time of going further than perhaps we ever have before in terms of what we comprehend of how the world actually works — too often hindering the growth, even the survival, of so many undeserving ones.
  • It is a time of recognizing the deep long standing inequities which seem to be built right into systems within which we live.

Indeed, by God’s grace it is a time of growth in understanding that you and I are often much like the forgiven, unforgiving slave. We have been given so much. Why do we still withhold these remarkable gifts from others? Not only in the grace of forgiveness, but in so many other ways as well.

At the same time, perhaps this is also a time for us to imagine ourselves in the company of Joseph’s brothers.

  • Forgiveness is already ours.
  • Easter has already come.
  • And the fire of Pentecost is already burning in our hearts.

Indeed, like those brothers so long ago, it surely could be so that we have only forgotten this for a time.

Oh, maybe it is simply ours to let grace fully embrace us and change us (as the brothers needed to do, as the unforgiving slave was first called to do) so that you and I can move past the alb hanging in the closet with the purple stole around its shoulders and receiving and accepting all these powerful gifts of God somehow get on with sharing these gifts with all the world.

For yes, this is a dark time. And yes, many of us, myself included, have a lot of growing to do in terms of understanding the meaning of all of this.  But at the same time? The world is not actually standing still and we are surely called to live fully in it as it changes and grows. Differently than ever before, perhaps, but still in it all.

Shaped by the wisdom of Lent, yes.

Joy-filled by the promise of Easter, to be sure.

And always empowered by the fire of the Spirit of Pentecost.

Always.

As for Joseph’s brothers, the world had shifted and changed for them with the death of Jacob. No doubt it was essential that they hear the promise of forgiveness once more.

And as for the forgiven, unforgiving slave, perhaps you and I also need times of such stark reminder of what we have been given so that we might also share with the world. Sometimes one person at a time as the man in the story did not do. Oh, while I hate to say it, perhaps we do need times when our “Lents” go on longer than usual so that we might emerge more sure than ever of what and who we are called to be and do.

For whatever else may be true, the promise is that this time will not be wasted. Not in God’s economy and because of God’s generosity, not with any one of us. and perhaps by God’s grace and power, through us, for all the world. And oh, may the day come as it did with Joseph so long ago when you and I will also say and shout this truth: “God intended it for good.  Or at least that God used it all for good!” (Genesis 50:20)

May you know the wonder of this promise deep down in the days to come.

Indeed, may this somehow be so for us all.

  • Do you hear these marvelous stories as I do today? Can you see how all of these were ‘stuck’ in a time before they allowed grace to fully embrace them?
  • Have you felt yourself ‘stuck’ in this strange new season? How has this been so for you?
  • How might we hear the promise once more that God’s gifts have already been extended to us, that we have already received them? What difference might that make for how we continue to encounter a time like no other?

 

2 comments

  1. Alaire Willits says:

    thank you. I began new appointment in a UMC congregation…prior pastor was full-time, I’m 1/2 time. Over 2 months, I’ve learned, they are stuck…and probably have been.
    There’s a lovely Lenten display in the corner of the sanctuary…and no one is moving it. Now – I’m going to ask it stay – what a fantastic illustration to suggest where/how we’ve been stuck…and hopefully can move forward. As you illustrated – they’ve done some things, quite out of their character, actually, that are true signs of being the church.
    So – you’ve given me a bit of patience… God bless!

    • Janet Hunt says:

      Alaire, I love the image of the Lenten display still in the corner of the sanctuary. What a powerful reminder and gift to you and those you serve. God Bless You in this new season, whatever it holds!

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