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By The Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger
Some years ago Bill Cosby did one of his many great comedy routines about his growing up years in Philadelphia.(1) He recalled a snowy winter day, enough snow on the ground for a really good snowball fight. So he and his friends had one.
Now, if you grew up in an area where snowball fights are a common winter occurrence, you will know that there are certain unwritten rules about what is allowed and what is not. For example, you did not put a rock in the center of your snowball, because that could kill somebody; you did not throw solid ice at somebody for the same reason; and you did not throw slushballs at people because that would make them all wet and force them to quit playing and go home. Common rules anywhere in the world for a kids’ snowball fight. And those were the rules in effect on this particular day in Cosby’s neighborhood in Philadelphia.
Only somebody broke the rules…Junior Barnes. He came up on Cos and got him right in the side of the face with a slushball. It stung; it melted all down his clothes; it broke the rules. Bill cried out, “Hey man, you hit me with a slushball,” but Junior Barnes just laughed and ran off.
Bill’s friends gathered round and said, “Hey, now you’ve gotta get HIM.”
“Yeah…I’m gonna make me the biggest, wettest, sloppiest slushball in the world and I’m gonna get Junior Barnes…gonna get Junior Barnes. Oh, Junior BAR-R-R-NES…Junior BAR-R-R-R-NES.” But Junior Barnes didn’t come back that day, so Bill’s avenging shushball had to wait…and wait…and wait…and wait.
July! The hottest day of the summer. Ever since that day of the slushball, Bill had done everything he could to make Junior Barnes think that the two were the greatest of friends: he played with him; he laughed at all his little jokes; all the while plotting what he was going to do to get even. You see, Bill had KEPT that slushball he had made and put it in his mother’s freezer to wait for the opportune moment.
Now it had arrived. He and Junior Barnes were sitting on the Cosby’s front steps and Bill said, “Junior, how’d you like to have a nice orange soda? Heh, heh, heh!”
“Yeah, man, that’d be great.”
So Bill went in. He opened up the freezer door, ready for the glorious moment…but the slushball wasn’t there…his mom had thrown it out. Cos was crushed. His revenge was ruined. So he went out and SPIT on Junior Barnes. Pay back time.
A fellow went to the hospital to visit his partner who had been taken strangely ill and was near death. Suddenly the dying man began to speak. “John,” he said, “before I go I have got to confess some things and get your forgiveness. I want you to know that I robbed the firm of $100,000 several years ago. I sold our secret formula to our competition, and John, I am the one who supplied your wife with the evidence that got her the divorce and cost you a small fortune. Will you forgive me?”
John murmured, “That’s okay, old man. I am the one who gave you the poison.” Pay back time.
If there were ever anyone who had an excuse to look for a pay back time, it is the man we read of in our Old Testament lesson, Joseph. As you recall from your earliest Sunday School days, young Joey was his father’s favorite son, a bitter enough pill for his brothers to swallow, but the boy did everything he could to rub their faces in it, and the result was that his fed-up siblings took matters into their own hands and sold him into slavery. (And you thought YOU had a dysfunctional family!)
The Midianites who bought the boy were on their way to Egypt where they would soon sell Joseph once more, this time to a man named Potiphar, the head of Pharoah’s security force. Joseph did well, under the circumstances, eventually being placed in charge of Potiphar’s entire household, an incredible honor for a slave. But Potiphar’s wife had her own ideas about honor – she tried to seduce the young man, and when he refused her advances, she yelled RAPE!!!
Now Joseph is in jail, once again the victim. But here again he prospers, gaining the respect of fellow prisoners and guards. Eventually two of the Pharaoh’s servants find themselves behind the same bars where they all become friends, a scenario that (after a few dream interpretations) would eventually lead to Joseph’s release.
To make a long story short, the Pharaoh had an eye for talent and made our Hebrew hero the Prime Minister of Egypt – from the jail house to the penthouse. Not bad for a bratty kid who had been sold into slavery by his brothers!
Now a famine settles on the Near East. Jacob tells his sons to go to Egypt to buy some grain. They do and in the process meet Joseph — only they do not know it is Joseph. It happens twice. Finally, Joseph reveals his true identity. The brothers are shocked and rightly scared – PAYBACK time! But Joseph does not do that. In fact, he stuns them with these words we heard a moment ago:
“Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.”
The story goes on. The brothers go back to Canaan and tell their aged father that Joseph is still alive. He cannot believe it, but eventually they convince him to come to Egypt with them. He makes the trip and is reunited with the son he had given up for dead so many years ago. Then he meets the Pharaoh who offers to let Joseph’s family settle in for as long as they like. The family moves to Egypt and lives in peace there for many years. Finally Jacob dies at the ripe old age of 147.
Now it is just Joseph and his brothers. Again they fear pay back time – with Jacob gone, brother Joe will be free to take his revenge. So they tell Joseph, “Oh, by the way, before Dad died he told us to tell you to treat us kindly.” Uh huh.
Listen to Joseph’s gracious response: “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.(2)
The world could use a few more Josephs, couldn’t it? It is pretty mean out there, and people can be incredible.
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Down in the part of the country in which I lived for years, millions of people are tuning in for the NASCAR race from Daytona today – the Super Bowl of racing, they call it, and one of the sport’s most coveted crowns. Richard Petty, probably the best known stock car racer of all time, holds the record for the most victories in the Daytona 500 – seven times he has won that race, and one came with the most bizarre finish imaginable. Going into the last lap, Richard was running 30 seconds behind the two leaders. All at once the car in second place tried to pass the No. 1 man on the final stretch. This caused the first car to drift inside and force the challenger onto the infield grass, and slightly out of control. The offended driver pulled his car back onto the track, caught up with the leader, and forced him into the outside wall. Both vehicles came to a screeching halt. The two drivers jumped out and quickly got into an old-fashioned slugging match. In the meantime, third-place Petty cruised by for the win.(3) As I say, it is quite a world out there.
Suddenly that world hears a familiar voice: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” Are you listening, Joseph? “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
As one commentator has it: “Jesus’ teaching is not a scolding. And it is not a little romantic lesson in feeling good about everybody and acting silly. It is rather a rich, evangelical statement that there is more to life than our capacity to contain it all in our little moral categories, whereby life is reduced to a simple set of black/white, yes/no moral choices. For, says Jesus, if you reduce your life to the simple practice of loving your friends and hating your enemies, of being generous only to those you like and trust, and resistant whenever there is a risk, what’s the big deal? Anybody can do that. Any thief, any sinner, any atheist, any deal cutter, anybody who can count and remember and keep score can do that. But you, says Jesus, are not part of that pitiful bunch of frightened people. You know more and you know differently, and you have freedom to act differently. You know about the larger purposes of God [just like Joseph], and you are called to act concretely as though the purposes of God really did make a difference in your life…”(4)
The last words of that lesson from Luke bring it all together: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
Nice words. Hard job. We would rather NOT forgive the drug-crazed thugs who mugged our grandmother on the way home from the market. We would rather not forgive the drunk driver who ran over our little boy. Sigmund Freud understood – he said, “One must forgive one’s enemies, but not before they have been hanged.”(5) It is a dog-eat-dog world out there, not a dog-forgive-dog world. Pay back time!
Someone has suggested that these sermons from Christian pulpits about forgiveness should include some instruction as to how to go about it. Good idea. Here are some points from the literature of one of the Twelve-step programs:
1) Write down in black and white the reasons why we are angry with (someone)…Writing clarifies emotions which have been confused and buried in us, sometimes for years. Also by setting down our grievances in black and white, we place a boundary around them. Our grievances are only so big and no bigger. The hurt had a beginning and it can have an end.
2) Consider “giving away” (telling) what we have written to some trusted person. Consider symbolically releasing the hurt, such as by burning or tearing up the paper.
3) Pray. Pray for willingness to forgive. And pray for the person who has wronged us, daily, asking God to bless them with good things we want for ourselves. If we keep praying for them faithfully, sooner or later our feelings will change. When our feelings change, when we find ourselves being sincere in asking God to bless our former enemies, then we will know we have forgiven them.
Pay back time. Yes, our first reaction when someone has done us wrong is probably that of Bill Cosby to Junior Barnes. As a flesh-and-blood victim of a horrible crime, Joseph had all the reason in the world to look for his chance. But there is a better way. Joseph knew it. And we know it.
Do you need to forgive someone? “To forgive is to put down your 50-pound pack after a 10-mile climb up a mountain. To forgive is to fall into a chair after running a marathon. To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that prisoner is you. To forgive is to reach back into your hurting past and recreate it in your memory so that you can begin again.”(6) Then that ancient spiritual takes on a wonderful new meaning: “Free at last, Free at last. Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.”
1. Bill Cosby, Revenge, Sound Recording, (Burbank, CA : Warner Bros. Records W1691, 1960)
2. Gen 50:20-21
3. Source Unknown, ChristianGlobe Network, Inc, 2001, www.esermons.com
4. From a sermon by Walter Brueggemann quoted by Jim Gorman, via Ecunet, “Sermonshop 02 18 01,” #27, 2/14/01
5. Quoted by Philip Yancey, “An Unnatural Act,” Christianity Today, 4/8/91, p. 36
6. Lewis Smedes, “Forgiveness: The Power to Change the Past,” Christianity Today, 1/7/83, p. 26
Copyright 2001, David E. Leininger. Used by permission.