Epiphany 7 – February 20, 2022
Gen 45:3-11, 15; Ps 37:1-12, 41-42; 1 Cor 15:35-38, 42-50; Lk 6:27-3
“And Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph; is my father yet alive?’ But his brothers could not answer him, for they were troubled at his presence.” (Gen 45:3)
OH, they were troubled. Here they were, eleven men, come into Egypt to seek food at a time of famine, only to be confronted with the stark fact that the man who controlled the food was their own brother, whom they had sold into slavery. “Troubled” does not begin to describe the welter of emotions which must have been in their hearts: fear, desperation, shock, and, deeper than any of those, shame — the abiding shame of having done evil to one to whom they owed only good. Yes, they were troubled, troubled at his presence, for his presence was a living, breathing reminder of their sin.
Today our siblings to the south, in the Episcopal Church, remember another freed slave: a man named Frederick Douglass, whom some have maintained was the greatest man to have emerged from American soil. Born into slavery, separated from his mother as a child, Douglas learned to read in secret and discovered the power of words. He escaped at the age of twenty and headed north, becoming the foremost orator of his day — which is saying something, for that was an age of giants. He traveled all over the Northern states, England, and Ireland speaking against slavery, staying one step ahead of those who would re-capture him, until his friends raised money and purchased his freedom. For the rest of his life, he troubled the land, refusing to allow them to believe in their own innocence. He reminded them, “No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.” Joseph’s brothers may have felt that chain, gazing upon their brother’s face, and have realized at last that their own liberty was false as long as the injury of unfreedom remained unhealed.
We’ve heard a lot about freedom in the last few weeks — enough to raise the question of what, exactly, “freedom” might be. The stories of both Joseph and Douglass point to the truth that freedom is more than an absence of legal bondage. The freedom we have been given, the freedom of Christ, is a spiritual freedom as well as a legal one. As such, it is bought with a price: the price of our freedom is truth and love.
There are people who would make it less. There always have been: people who would pass off the cheap, cut-rate substitute of self-will for the true freedom of Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it “cheap grace,” writing, “Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toil of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on our selves….[It] is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
But, wait a minute. Bonhoeffer’s words beg the question: If we can have grace without burdens, if we can have freedom without the cross, why not seize them? Wouldn’t that be living the dream? The question, of course, is which dream. Liberty to do what we want when we want, however we want, is the dream of a toddler, not of a mature human being. Maturity: there’s the word. Because the goal of Christian faith is not to remain children, but to grow into our humanity. To become what God made us to be.
That’s why Bonhoeffer condemns cheap grace: because in setting ourselves free (from custom, from common decency, from moral contraint, from any kind of accountability), we find a form of liberty which does not set us free. It may feel good for a while, but it is futile. Those who embrace it do not grow. The forbidden fruit which, at first, tasted so sweet begins to lose its savor. We reach for more and more, cramming it into our mouths, only to find that it tastes like ashes. We sense the emptiness of our lives, and wonder, “Is this all there is?” Is this all there is?
No. No, it is not all that there is, because in Christ we see the lines of a true freedom. Jesus outlines it in today’s Gospel: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:27-31)
In these few words, Jesus lays out the one road: the road which destroys unfreedom: the freely-accepted burden of love. Look again at Joseph and his brothers. While his brothers stand silent and troubled, unable to look on Joseph’s face, Joseph himself is free of constraint. He does not approach his brothers as enemies, although they were. He speaks to them only plaintive words of love: “Is my father yet alive?’
Is my father yet alive? Those few words contain the deep hunger of his heart: the yearning for home, the love for family, the desire to belong. It is a phrase which might resonate for us right now, wondering whether the world we love, the people we love are still out there. Whether we will reclaim what we loved in our lives, or whether the pandemic has snatched it away. Whether we have a home to return to — and what kind of home it might be.
Joseph speaks those words and lays his heart bare to those who have harmed him, and when they stand in silence, he does more: he meets them more than halfway. “You intended it for evil,” he says, “but God intended it for good.” Joseph takes that heavy yoke of shame and shatters it with a few words of grace, drawing back from the sordid human reality he has lived to see the greater, divine reality which surrounds it. He comes to his brothers without enmity, proclaiming, “God sent me before you to preserve life.”
To preserve life. That’s what we’ve been doing these last two years: taking burdens upon ourselves to preserve life. Not only our own, not only the lives of those we love, but also the lives of strangers, the lives of aliens, and — yes — the lives even of those who have done us harm. This is the capacity Christ gives us by grace: to lay down our lives for one another. It is the opposite of toxic individualism, the endless self-assertion which claims rights without obligations. And it is the golden thread of grace which runs through the heart of creation: God’s self-sacrificing love finding its answer in our own. This is the plumb-line of creation, which remains the same even when outer forms are passing away.
Without that plumb-line, we become frightened when the world seems to go out of kilter. Without that plumb-line, our fear leads us to lash out and act out and blame others and point fingers, and do anything — anything! — other than lean into what is good and what is true. There is a danger for us here: not only the danger of joining those who act in such ways, but also the twin danger of losing our own peace and conviction. Friends, our peace is what is guarding our hearts, so that we, too, do not fall into the abyss of fear and envy. René Girard reminds us of the danger of rivalry: in demonizing those who do not share our values, we take on the very characteristics we condemn.
No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck. That goes for us, too, when we are tempted to bind others to their sins. To see them in the worst moments of their lives and to assume that’s all they will ever be. But it is our task, our work in Christ, to recall them to their better selves. Confronted with his brothers’ shame, Joseph gives them a way out of it, just as Christ gives us a way out of our sins. Bonhoeffer writes, “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Christ. …It is costly because it condemns sin, and it is grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son…and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.” We can be bound by the chain of unfreedom, or we can freely put on the bonds of love. That is our choice. In this, as in so much else, “the measure we give will [truly] be the measure we get.” (Luke 6:37)
The writer Madeleine L’Engle said, “The greater the circle of light, the greater the perimeter of darkness.” And there are dark forces moving in this world right now, forces which yearn, if possible, to take away the light we shed. They yearn to sow division and acrimony and to take away our ability to act as one people. In the face of such darkness, we who follow Christ need to hold our lights high. In the face of disorder, we need to embrace discipline. In the face of indifference, we need to model mutual care. In the face of hatred, we need to show love. Not the namby-pamby, Hallmark-channel kind of love, but the love which is strong enough to call people — and ourselves — back to truth. The love which moved Frederick Douglass to trouble the land, not only to free his own people, but to free those who held them in bondage. St. Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery….For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus … the only thing that counts is faith made effective through love.” (Gal 5: 1, 5-6)