As we look to our fourth birthday and annual service of recommitment to the faith community, what exactly are we called to do and be? (Listen.)
Next week, it’s Sanctuary’s fourth birthday; and, as we do on our birthday every year, next week we will renew the congregation. Those who are willing will pledge to journey together as the body of Christ for another twelve months, and commit to some simple attitudes and practices which help knit us together. These include gathering to wrestle with life in light of the Scriptures and to pray; to eat, sing, work and play together; to practice hospitality and support the congregation; and to seek justice, reconciliation, wholeness and peace in every sphere of life.
Of course, thanks to COVID some of these practices are a bit tricky right now, or are taking a different shape: nevertheless, they remain important to the life of faith. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, which unites us across time and space, we are still gathering, if electronically and in prayer; we are still wrestling with the life of faith; we are still seeking justice, reconciliation, wholeness and peace; and we are still committing to these practices because we seek to walk together in love with Jesus Christ.
For this is what it means to be the church: to gather around Word and, when possible, Table because when we do these things, Christ has promised to be with us. We gather to be healed by this presence and to be woven together in love. We gather to be formed into a sign of the kingdom: a place where we learn to love not just families or friends or people like us, but each person we encounter; a place where God’s Word writes love upon our hearts; a place where that love is nurtured and grows and finds all sorts of ways to express itself.
So what is this love like? We catch a glimpse in tonight’s story.
Joseph had every reason to hate his brothers. They envied him so much that they threw him down a mineshaft, then drew him up and sold him to slave traders who were heading into Egypt. Because of his brothers, Joseph had been enslaved, and then was in prison for years. And although he eventually became a big man in Egypt, he is still in exile: he is still a very long way from his father’s home.
Now his brothers have come before him. It’s been years. A lot has happened, and they no longer recognise him. He even has an Egyptian name. And Joseph has a choice. Can he trust them with his true identity? If he doesn’t, they will never have even the possibility of real relationship; if he does, they might treat him with further falseness, further contempt. His brothers might still be driven by old envy, old desires, old history. He doesn’t know.
Joseph takes the risk: he decides to trust. He reveals his identity, but his brothers are trapped in their history: they panic, and they cannot speak. In the face of their dismay, Joseph continues. He refuses to blame his brothers. Instead, he says God arranged everything: for his brothers’ actions meant that Joseph was able to save the nations from starvation. He begs his brothers to let go of their self-hatred and distress; he offers them gifts and a place to call home. He weeps over them, and kisses them, and finally his brothers relax and are able to speak.
In this story, Joseph shows great freedom. He makes no claims on his brothers, except that of love. He shows no bitterness or resentment; he doesn’t want them to be punished. In fact, he tells his brothers not to be distressed or angry with themselves. Joseph opts out of the cycles of violence and retribution. Instead, he acts on his own terms. This freedom enables him to grant forgiveness to those who hurt him; it allows him to show generosity to those who took everything he had; it lets him offer a home to those who sent him away from his own home; and it leads to reconciliation.
Joseph isn’t perfect: there’s plenty of trickery before this story, and plenty of problems afterwards. But he shows how anyone who journeys with God can act freely and generously. He demonstrates what it is to be Christlike; he shows his brothers what it is to love.
Like Joseph, not one of us is perfect, and yet, like Joseph, we too are called to the work of reconciliation. For we are the body of Christ, and his Spirit is with us: and so we are to be Christlike. Like Joseph, like Jesus, we must be vulnerable, trusting one another with our deepest selves, forgiving one another, and allowing past hurts and old wounds to be healed. Like Joseph, like Jesus, we must love freely, without expectation of reward or return. Like Joseph, like Jesus, we must care for those around us and offer them a space to call home. And like the brothers, we are called to accept with joy the generosity and grace which are showered upon us as we are formed into the people of God.
So next week, let’s commit to one another freely and wholeheartedly. Even when we cannot gather physically, let’s keep connecting by other means: phone calls, texts, emails, Zoom. Let’s keep reflecting together on the Bible and our lives; let’s keep praying together, encouraging one another, and supporting one another. And let’s keep seeking justice, reconciliation, wholeness and peace, both between us here at Sanctuary, and in every place we go. Amen. Ω
A reflection on Genesis 45:1-15 given to Sanctuary on 16 August July 2020 (Year A Proper 15) © Alison Sampson, 2020. Image credit: Catherine Cordasco on Unsplash. You can read our congregational commitment here.
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