Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 11th, A + D 2011
Genesis 50:15-21 and Matthew 18:21-35
(Before the service, I announced that a foster child who had been with my family for a year is no longer with us.)
Last Sunday I talked about my resolve to deal straight up with the elephants in the room, that is to not sidestep or ignore difficult issues, but to risk addressing them, trusting God and His Word to pick us up when we fall, and bring us through in faith, to the other side. God is faithful, He will do it. And so here we are, a problem right before us, in this specific instance a broken relationship, and not some relationship involving people out there, absent sinners we can objectify and turn into a painless parable, but rather a broken relationship involving me, your pastor, and other people that you know and love, including a child. Lord have mercy upon us.
The details of the broken relationship before us are not for public dissection, which would serve no good purpose, but would do great harm. Nor, for the most part, do I intend to dissect them privately. It is what it is, the outward form of the problem speaking loudly and clearly enough. But there are some painful features that every broken relationship tends to share, realities about life under the cross, as well as the lies of Satan, and these we need to talk about, at least a bit, that God might give us understanding and peace. Because all of us have at least seen a broken relationship, and most of us have suffered one.
To announce my broken relationship to you this morning and then ignore it in the sermon would not be the evangelical thing to do. That is, it would not be the Gospel, good news thing to do, to inform you of a problem, a struggle, a great sadness, and then fail to apply God’s Word to it. In the days following the attacks of September 11th, 2001, preachers talked about this terrible, evil tragedy, for the sake of pointing hurting people to Christ. And so, Lord willing, I will preach about broken relationships today, while there is one publicly before us, preaching so that the Holy Spirit might touch us and heal us, and give us strength for the coming week, as we all go back to our relationships, and try to live them out as Christians.
We should, and do, receive our greatest joys from our various relationships. At the same time, we receive our greatest hurts, for there are, sadly, many damaged and broken relationships in this sinful world, like failures between husbands and wives, that take the joy out of life, and all too often end in divorce. There are estrangements between parents and children, brothers and sisters, hurts and offenses and struggles to forgive that spoil our relationships with the people we want most to love. Lifelong friends, business partners, next-door neighbors, politicians and constituents, pastors and parishioners, every human relationship carries the potential for failure, because sinful humans are involved in them. And all too many of them do fail, at least by human standards.
Relationships fail because of human sin, and we all contribute. Sometimes one party is overwhelmingly responsible. Sometimes circumstances beyond our control are the determining factor. But usually we all contribute enough selfishness, impatience, and failures to love and serve so that the responsibility for the problems in a relationship is shared by all involved.
Without excusing sin, it is also true that sometimes the right way forward is for a relationship to end, or change drastically. Such a decision should not be made lightly, because relationships are gifts from God. But it may be a prayerful decision that has to be made, when it becomes clear that God is not laying out a path for the relationship to continue. This is not a license for any of us to divorce our spouse or reject our friend or dump a business partner, just because we find the relationship difficult now, the other person not so pleasing as before. We are to work at our relationships, seeking reconciliation. But even after forgiveness wins, sometimes the relationship cannot continue, at least not in the same form as before.
The decision about whether to keep a relationship going or let it go is to be based on your original calling to serve your neighbors in relationships. A decision to end the relationship is rightly made with the good of the other people involved foremost in mind. For example, the pregnant woman who is unprepared to care for her child, and so gives her baby to be adopted, is loving her child in an amazing way, even though loving her child means not continuing in their original relationship. She’s doing the right thing, and should feel good about her decision, even though at the very same time it is difficult and painful, the pain multiplied as Satan whispers in her ear, “How could you?” But God says, and we should echo, “Well done, you have put the good of your baby above your own wants and desires.” “By placing for adoption, you have loved this child, this neighbor, whom God has given you to serve.”
This example of placing a baby for adoption is helpful, because we are reminded that the fact a relationship ends, even due in part or in whole to our sin, does not mean that the relationship did not have value, or that God did not call you to that relationship. As a Christian, God calls you to serve your neighbors, and places you in relationships, long term and short term, so that you have neighbors to serve. If you have a relationship which on your part is not intrinsically sinful, if the relationship you are in is not coercive or designed for evil, well then you may know that you have been called to that relationship by God, simply because you find yourself in it, for God has prepared in advance your good works, the ones He wants you to walk in.
There is no parent-child relationship formed outside of God’s will, every conception being His work, no coffee breaks for the Almighty, no accidental babies. There is no neighbor moving in next door to you without God’s foreknowledge. Likewise, if to pay your bills you have sought and been offered a job at McDonalds, you may be sure that putting on your uniform and serving up tasty fries to your customers is pleasing to God. Sometimes the good in a calling can be hard to see, but trust that there is good, because the God who calls you is good.
This understanding of callings and relationships as gifts from God, given to us so that we may serve our neighbor, is called the doctrine of vocation, the teaching that God calls us into the various roles we play in life, in order that through us, God can serve the world. A right understanding of vocation sets us free, free to live, in several ways. First, it is very good to know that God is actively working for the good of His creation, even still today. Even more, Christians know the God who calls them into earthly relationships is first and foremost the God who called His Son Jesus Christ into the relationship as the Savior of sinners. Your first call from God is the call to new life in Christ, by the forgiveness of your sins. You have been saved by grace, through faith, a free gift from God, and so now you are ready to start living out the life of good works for the neighbor which God has prepared for you. You serve your neighbor in love not to earn God’s favor, but rather your service to your neighbor is the joyful fruit of the incredible good news that God has loved and served you by freely giving Christ, His forgiveness and His life, to you. Freed in Christ from the need to earn God’s love, you now have Christ’s love to share, with the neighbors that God gives you, in the relationships He prepares for you.
This primary relationship with the Lord is what kept Joseph going, all those years. His relationship with his brothers was all messed up, Joseph the slightly arrogant favored son never failing to irritate his brothers with his privileges, his special coat of many colors, his strange dreams, ten of his brothers eventually plotting to kill Joseph, stopping just short, selling Joseph into slavery instead. Joseph, a slave in Egypt, sank lower and lower, became weaker and weaker. But Joseph’s faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and his father Jacob never died, and in that faith he was always receiving new opportunities for relationship, new neighbors to serve, and serve well. Joseph understood these opportunities were gifts from the Lord, and so he served. Even as a slave, he served.
Eventually, Joseph’s excellent service to his neighbors paid off, and he was made second in command to the Pharaoh. But when his own brothers come to him to beg for food during a famine, Joseph struggled with the desire for revenge. But God led him to forgive his brothers, and bring his whole family to live securely in Egypt, broken relationships restored.
Then comes today’s reading from Genesis, years later, when Jacob their father had died. We should understand Joseph’s brothers, for we know how hard it is to believe you are truly forgiven, that your offense is truly forgotten, especially when you’ve done something really bad to someone who now has the power to pay you back. This doubt led Joseph’s brothers to fear revenge from Joseph after their father Jacob had died. Perhaps now with Dad gone, Joseph would make them pay for their earlier sin. So they made up a story to try to protect themselves.
But there was no need, for Joseph had no real power to take revenge. Joseph had plenty of earthly power, but as a believer in the God of all grace, he had gladly given up all his power to avenge himself, and out of his faith in the Lord he forgave his brothers. Joseph knew the sin that was in him, and in his brothers, but by God’s grace He also knew that the Lord could and would overcome the sinful acts of humanity, even working through the consequences of evil for the eventual good of His people. The terrible things done between the sons of Jacob were truly evil, but what they had meant for evil, God meant, and God used, to bring about good. Joseph knew the character and the promises of the true God, who overcame the evil of the brothers, in order to provide for all the family. This same God has overcome the evil of every brother, indeed every person on earth, by the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
God made Joseph weak, in order to work strong things through him, for the good of God’s people, and for the good of the whole world. That’s how God works through relationships. We in our sinfulness want to use people to make ourselves happier, stronger, richer, more popular. We are even taught that struggles are opportunities to improve yourself, that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But in relationships, God instead teaches Christians to be weak, to serve, to even suffer, so that people can begin to see the character of God through the struggles of Christians in service. When I am weak, then I am strong, for then God must take over. When you make a mistake in your relationships, do not seek to power through, do not pretend to be able to overcome sin and its consequences by your own strength. Instead, when you fail, confess your weakness to God, and your neighbor, and learn to depend on Christ all the more.
The way of Christian vocation is the way of seeing your relationships as a calling from God to serve, without a guarantee of happy result in your lifetime. We all want happiness in our lives, and we are free to seek it, and God often gives us much happiness. But we serve one another not because we think it’s all going to work out, but rather we serve because Christ has first served us. There is a loss of control in this, a necessary acknowledgement that the results are not in our hands. To give up this control is scary, but it is true, and, to our surprise, it is also good news. For we give up control because God has told us He is in control. We dare to be weak, because God has exercised His strength from the place of greatest weakness, from a cross outside Jerusalem, where Jesus, God’s Son, was broken. Jesus was broken, in order to heal your relationship to God, and your relationships with others, by His blood-bought forgiveness for all sin.
There is no salvation in our earthly relationships. Instead, right along with our joys and hopes, also come sin and struggle, because we sinners are involved. There is no salvation in our earthly relationships, but there is forgiveness for repenting sinners, because Jesus was called to this earth to become the Savior of sinners. When you struggle, God may call you to keep going, or to move into a different relationship with the same person, perhaps only to pray, or to support from afar. This is God’s call. But His first concern is repentance and forgiveness, forgiveness for you, and for your loved one, and for you and your loved one to forgive each other. The master really did forgive the unpayable debt of the wicked servant. Joseph really had forgiven his brothers for trying to kill him, and selling him into slavery. And God has this same unlimited forgiveness for your sins, forgiveness unlimited because it is based in the blood of Christ, God’s Son, who died and rose for you.
When you struggle in your relationships, confess your sins, those you know, those you suspect, and those you don’t even recognize. Confess your sinfulness and ask God’s mercy, for He will forgive you, every time. Confess your sins, and God will give you forgiveness, forgiveness for you, and forgiveness to share, in the Name of Jesus, Amen.