“A Heart Free to Forgive”

Scripture – Genesis 45:1-15

Sermon preached by Sudie Niesen Thompson

Sunday, August 20, 2023


Today, we return to the book of Genesis, which records the annals of the first forebears of the faith. In June we heard about the first of these ancestors when the Rev. Cindy Kohlmann preached about Abraham and Sarah welcoming three strangers under the oaks of Mamre. Since we have not been following the story through the summer, let’s take a moment to situate ourselves in the text. You may remember that, when God first called Abraham and Sarah, it was with a promise that they would be the forebears of a great nation. And, as the stories of Genesis unfold, we see this nation grow to include children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It’s a story full of drama — with twists and turns and trickery, including the moment when Abraham and Sarah’s grandson, Jacob, steals his twin brother’s inheritance.

Jacob goes on to father 12 sons with four different women. (I’ll refer you to chapters 29-35 if you’re curious how that went down.) The favorite of these sons was Joseph — the firstborn of Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel. If you don’t remember Joseph from the Bible, you might remember him from Broadway … This is the Joseph who received the “Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Your pew Bible actually calls the garment that Jacob gifted his son an “ornamented robe.” But “Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is way more fun. The gift itself, however, turned out not to be “fun” for Joseph … It drove a wedge between him and his brothers, who resented the fact that this braggart was their father’s favorite. So, one day, as the sons of Jacob were keeping their flock, the brothers stripped Joseph of his robe and sold him to a passing caravan for 20 pieces of silver.

That caravan took Joseph to Egypt and sold him to one of Pharaoh’s officials. It would seem his fate was sealed, but Joseph had a rare gift. He was an interpreter of dreams. So, when Pharaoh had a disturbing dream with seven fat cows and seven emaciated cows, Joseph predicted there would be seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh was so impressed that he promoted Joseph, setting him over the storehouses of Egypt to gather up grain during the years of plenty so there would be food during the famine. Sure enough, after seven years of abundance, famine came. And all the world — including eleven brothers from the land of Canaan — came to Joseph to buy food. So Joseph finds himself in a room with the brothers who sold him into Egypt. Hear now these words from Genesis 45:

~ Genesis 45:1-15 ~

What would you have done in my place? 

That’s the question Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal poses at the end of his essay, The Sunflower, which recounts an unexpected episode in Simon’s life.[1] While imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, Simon was taken to the bedside of a dying member of the SS. The man had been critically wounded in combat and his body was so heavily bandaged that Simon could not see his face. The wounded man spoke: “I am resigned to dying soon, but before that I want to talk about an experience which is torturing me.”[2]

The dying soldier went on to explain that he had joined the Hitler Youth, then volunteered for the SS when war broke out. He was assigned to the Eastern Front, where he found himself in a Ukrainian village the Russians had evacuated in haste. The town was almost empty. But, in one square, stood a huddled mass — the community’s Jewish residents. The soldier and his unit were ordered to dispense with this group of 300 terrified souls by herding them into a house and lighting a match. The horror that followed haunted this dying man. So, desperate for forgiveness, he’d asked the nurse to summon a Jewish prisoner to hear his confession.

“I know that what I am asking is almost too much for you,” the dying man pleaded, “but without your answer I cannot die in peace.”[3]

Overwhelmed by the account of this heinous crime, Simon sat in silence beside the Nazi’s deathbed. At last, he made up his mind. Without saying a word, Simon stood up and left the room.

What would you have done in my place?” he asks his readers. What would you have done?

Forgiveness is difficult even in the most ordinary of circumstances … Between partners who have broken each other’s trust, or between friends who have betrayed a confidence. The kind of forgiveness Simon was asked to offer that dying Nazi would have been extraordinary, indeed. Perhaps even impossible. Because there are some crimes that seem unforgivable. Maybe that are unforgivable, at least for the human heart.

That’s what makes the scene when Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers so remarkable. These men, too, had done something that seems unforgivable: selling their own flesh and blood into slavery, never to be seen or heard from again. Or so they thought …

The sons of Jacob committed a horrific betrayal of their brother. So, it’s no surprise that forgiveness was not Joseph’s first instinct.

When his brothers first appear in Egypt — an arrival described three chapters before today’s text — Joseph appears torn between his desire for revenge and his duty to feed the famished. Joseph first accuses the sons of Jacob of being spies, then demands they fetch their youngest brother, who’d stayed behind in Canaan. When the brothers return with Benjamin, Joseph sneaks a silver cup into his bag, then detains him for stealing. It’s not until Judah offers to take Benjamin’s place that Joseph finally tells his brothers the truth: I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?

What is it that finally frees Joseph to forgive his brothers? Psychoanalyzing this biblical figure — or any character we come to know only from the page — is an exercise in futility. But, in this case, there are some details that invite us to imagine factors that lead to Joseph’s change of heart.

I imagine his current circumstances play a role. Joseph’s rare gift led to rare privilege and power in the land he’d entered as a slave. The household of Pharaoh has not replaced the home of his childhood. (Joseph’s concern for his father makes that clear.) But I think his position may have eased the pain of his past; thriving in Egypt may have been an antidote to the trauma of betrayal.

Perhaps, Joseph has also been shaped by early memories. He was a young boy when his father sought out his estranged brother. Jacob, you’ll recall, had cheated Esau out of his birthright. So, as he’s returning to his homeland some twenty years later, he was — understandably — concerned that Esau would receive him in anger. Instead, his brother ran to meet him. Esau embraced Jacob and fell on his neck, weeping. Perhaps Joseph remembers that tender reunion, when his wronged uncle welcomed his father with generosity and grace.

Maybe it was Judah’s offer to take the place of Benjamin that inspired Joseph to reveal his identity. The 12th-century Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, said that the mark of a truly repentant person is this: When faced with the opportunity to do the same harmful thing again, that person makes a different choice.[4] So it is with Judah: When faced with the opportunity to let another brother languish in slavery, he offers up himself instead. Maybe witnessing Judah’s apparent repentance facilitated Joseph’s own transformation.

I imagine all these factors eased open the door to forgiveness. But, ultimately, I think Joseph’s personal experience of grace is what frees him to offer his brothers the same grace. Time and again, the storyteller reminds us that God is with Joseph … showing him steadfast love, even in the depths (39:21); gifting Joseph with powers of interpretation (40:8, 41:37); helping him forget the hardship of his father’s house (41:51). Even here — as he finally speaks his truth — Joseph praises God for sending him before his brothers to preserve life.

It’s important for us to pause to make sure we understand Joseph’s claim. Because his statement — “God sent me here” — could be interpreted to mean that God caused Joseph’s suffering, that God caused his brothers to sin in order to place an agent of provision in Egypt. Joseph knows the fault lies with his brothers. After all, he tells them: “Do not be angry with yourselves because you [because you, my brothers] sold me here …” Joseph knows that the crime of his brothers caused his suffering. He also knows that God works in the midst of suffering to bring about healing and wholeness and hope.

That is exactly what God does in the life of Joseph. God does not betray or forsake Joseph, as his brothers did, but remains with him … sustaining him in sorrow, equipping him for the moment, raising him out of the pit so that Joseph might be an agent of transformation. And, it seems, God’s grace transforms Joseph, too. Having received mercy, he now offers mercy to his brothers. And this act of compassion transforms a broken family into a family restored.

You see, compassion begets compassion. Mercy overflows into acts of mercy. It’s one of the things that frees us to forgive others and to seek forgiveness from others … It is by God’s grace, and through the grace we experience in community, that we are able to move toward healing and reconciliation and wholeness.

I recently listened to an interview with Megan Phelps-Roper, who grew up as a member of the Westboro Baptist Church.[5] You know this congregation — it’s famous for spewing hateful rhetoric and protesting all manner of things in all manner of places, including — most egregiously — funerals. As far as I can tell, that congregation’s witness is devoid of compassion or mercy or grace — except for its own members.

Megan Phelps-Roper left the Westboro Baptist Church a decade ago. It was not logic that won her over; other people’s persuasive arguments fell on deaf ears. She did not leave because of shame. In fact, when people tried to shame her church, Megan would just double-down. No, the thing that led to her change of heart was the curiosity and concern and compassion of others. She found these things on Twitter, of all places. When she’d tweet Westboro’s claims, kind-hearted souls would respond, “Tell me how you came to believe this,” or even, “This must be really hard for you.” That compassion invited her into another way of seeing the world, another way of being in the world. It invited her transformation.

Some years later Megan found herself at a conference listening to the mother of one of the children who was murdered at Newtown. In the wake of that tragedy — when the whole country was lamenting the loss of these precious lives — Westboro Baptist Church had threatened to protest the funerals. They said the suffering of these families was punishment for the nation’s sins. As Megan listened to this grief-sick mother tell her story, she realized the extent of the harm her congregation had caused. So she asked someone else at the conference if she could speak to this mother. She didn’t want to impose; she didn’t want to dredge-up painful memories. But the mother of this child agreed to talk with Megan, and she received her with generosity and understanding and grace. I don’t know enough of the story to know if this mother forgave the people of Westboro Baptist Church. But, to hear Megan tell it, the compassion this woman showed her freed her to forgive herself. And to recommit herself to doing as much good as possible in this world.

Yes, compassion begets compassion. Mercy overflows into acts of mercy.

Forgiveness is a tricky thing. It’s a challenging thing. Joseph’s story reminds us of that. Simon Wiesenthal’s encounter with the dying Nazi certainly testifies to that. Forgiveness is not something we can demand from others; it must be the choice of the one who’s been harmed. If we forget this, then forgiveness itself becomes a tool of harm that can be used to excuse bad behavior or deny justice or interfere with healing. Rather, forgiveness must flow from the heart of those who feel truly free to forgive.

And, still, it is a virtue we strive to practice. And it is a virtue we are able to practice because we, too, have experienced grace. After all — as we are reminded week after week after week — this is the good news of the Gospel: In Jesus Christ we are forgiven.

Imagine what would happen if we let the mercy we have received overflow into acts of mercy. Especially in this deeply divided world, where brothers still turn against brothers and sisters betray sisters and siblings are estranged from each other. In this world where our first instinct is to dismiss or degrade or dispute. What would happen if we chose compassion? If we chose forgiveness? If we chose grace? We just might find that God is working through us, too, to be agents of transformation.


Prayers of the People

Gregory Knox Jones


Eternal God, the creative energy of the universe and the dynamic power of love, we give you thanks for the gift of life and for the gift of a new day. May we live this day with eager eyes and a welcoming heart, so that we may be fully awake to its opportunities and challenges, its familiar routines and lurking surprises. May your Spirit stir within us a feeling of excitement to discover what blessings this day will award us.

Loving God, we are grateful for loved ones and friends who infuse us with joy and laughter, who comfort us with sympathy and compassion, and who gladden us with kindness and thoughtfulness. The ties that bind us to others not only make life worth living but carry us over troubled waters and magnify our celebrations.

Yet while others enrich our lives, they also complicate our lives. On good days they spark our happiness, but on off days they ignite our anger. Some days we yearn to embrace another, but other times we desire to inflict emotional pain.

Lord, we beg for your forgiveness for the times we are less than our better selves; for those days when we allow hurt feelings or ill will to grab hold of our wheel and steer us into mischief; especially for those days when we are obsessed with evening the score.

Gracious God, forgiveness can be very hard, and at odds with the feelings burning within us, but may we be ever mindful of the dangers lurking within the desire for revenge. The cycle of retaliation can quickly spiral out of control, breaking bonds and inflicting cuts too deep for thorough healing. May we remember the times we have not acted out of goodwill and needed the mercy of others and may we recall the power of forgiveness to heal and to restore. Reconciliation can be extremely demanding, but also so very sweet. Relationships that have died can be resurrected.

Mighty God, this day our hearts are heavy for the people of Maui whose lives have been thrown into turmoil by the devasting wildfires that swept their island. We pray that those who have lost loved ones may be comforted by friends and supported in the trials they continue to face as they attempt to rebuild their lives. May your Spirit infuse them with the determination to endure their loss, the assurance that you walk the painful path with them, and the hope that their loved ones are alive in your heavenly realm.  We ask your forgiveness for our part in overheating the planet, causing death and misery for millions. May we take the necessary steps to rectify our abuse of your creation.

Now, even though we have said this prayer hundreds of times, let us say each word as if Jesus has just taught us for the first time, saying: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.”



[1] Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness (New York: Shocken Books, 1998), Book 1.

[2] Ibid, 27.

[3] Ibid, 54.

[4] As summarized in: Nadia Bolz-Weber, host, “Forgiveness and Reconciliation with Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg,” The Confessional (podcast), July 21, 2020, The Confessional with Nadia Bolz-Weber (nadiabolzweber.com).

[5] Nadia Bolz-Weber, host, “Megan Phelps-Roper, Former Member of Westboro Baptist Church,” The Confessional (podcast), April 21, 2020, The Confessional with Nadia Bolz-Weber (nadiabolzweber.com).