1st Reading: Genesis 50:15-212nd Reading: Romans 14:1-12
When I was 4 or 5 years old, my babysitter refused to play my favorite board game, Babar The Elephant, with me because I was a sore loser. If I didn’t win, I would burst into tears. She was probably 13 or 14 years old, so she didn’t know you were supposed to let the little kid win. And I didn’t know that it wasn’t about winning. It was about the playing of the game, the spinning of the spinner, the counting of the moves, and the conversation that happened in between that mattered. I didn’t realize until I was an adult and lost in Chinese Checkers my mom, as she relished the victory, that I came by my competitiveness naturally, either by genetics or learning or both, from her.
In our house we don’t make that big a deal out of winning. Maybe it is a flaw in our thinking that everyone can win. But win or lose, we can always take something from the experience. The problems is that so often we think winning is the point, when actually it is learning from the experience that is most important.
For Joseph’s brothers, winning was most important. They were bigger than him, so they should win. He was getting too big for his britches, having dreams about them bowing to him, and that’s the reason they sold him to the Egyptians. So then when they end up in Egypt during the famine, having to beg for food and assistance, they are surprised at how much Joseph has been winning and how he doesn’t punish them for what they did to him. Now that their father has died, you’d think they’d be mourning and caring for each other in their grief. But they still think the game is about winning and they are afraid Joseph will crush them—punish them for what they did, give them what they deserve.
Joseph knows that it isn’t about winning, it is all about relationships. Maybe he knows this because he’s been at every point in life. He’s been the favorite son. He’s been at the bottom of a pit his brothers dug for him. He’s been separated from his family. He’s built a new family. He’s been a slave. He’s been a trusted advisor to the Pharaoh. He’s had dreams that got him in trouble. He’s had dreams that helped him. And he’s had dreams that helped a nation prepare for famine. Through everything, God brought good out of hardship. Joseph knows his brothers wronged him on purpose. They could never repay him for what they did—the time with his father that he missed out on, especially. But Joseph knows that it would bring him no pleasure to ruin their lives. So they weep together like the family they are, out of sadness for what was lost, out of relief for the mercy that Joseph shows, out of joy at having found each other, at the new life they will have together going forward.
For the Romans, too, it was hard to believe life wasn’t about winning. These are the folks that bring us the Olympic games, and the marathon. They are competitive. So now there are a whole bunch of them trying to live this new religion where they are all equal and they share things in common. Some of them have different customs around eating. For a community that centers itself around a table and eating, Holy Communion, this is difficult. This isn’t really vegetarians verses meat-eaters, like it sounds. In their day, some didn’t eat meat, because most of the meat when it was butchered, was offered to idols first. So, unless you slaughtered it yourself, you couldn’t be sure it hadn’t been offered to idols. And if someone saw you eating meat offered to idols, they might think you worshipped that idol. It’s something that’s hard to relate to today, but it was a key problem in the early Christian community.
So there are different customs around food, including the Jewish dietary rules. There are different holidays celebrated. One isn’t more right than the other. You can’t win enough points by following laws to make God love you. God already loves you. Instead, whatever rituals you follow, do it in a way that honors God. Remember to be faithful to God in whatever you do. Don’t use it as a wedge to divide you and make winners and losers. Instead may your rituals and holidays join you to God and each other in the body of Christ.
Peter, too, was trying to figure out winning and losing in this Kingdom of God that was coming. How many times should he forgive? How should he keep score against someone in the community, a brother or sister in Christ? How would he know he had won the forgiveness award?
So Jesus told a story about keeping score. The first slave was losing big time. He owed millions of dollars—more than he could have ever repaid. His owner had every right to sell him and his family to recoup some of his expenses. But he is merciful. He lets this be a learning experience. However, the slave doesn’t learn from it. Someone else owes him ten bucks. Instead of being merciful, he threw him into prison. He was home free, but when he threw the other slave in prison, he got himself thrown in prison. It is almost as if the act of not forgiving holds us in a kind of prison. We let it eat at us. We can’t seem to let it go.
The unforgiving slave used his power to hurt someone else. He thought he made himself the winner. But he was playing the wrong game. He thought the point was to be more powerful, but instead the point of the game was to get along with others, to be kind, to treat others how he wanted to be treated, to build community. The point of the game was to forgive.
It is true, we owe everything to God. If we were to try to pay God back all that we owe, we’d never repay the debt. If we ever tried to make up for all the wrong we’ve done, we’d never pay the bill. But Jesus is merciful and he says our debt is paid. Now, how can we ever demand payment from anyone. Because of the forgiveness we’ve received, it is our job to forgive. In fact, this week I heard someone call church a “forgiveness factory.” In this place we let people know they are forgiven, and we inspire one another to forgive, and we live in community where we must forgive one another from our hearts in order to be the body of Christ.
There’s been a lot of talk about the boy who lit the gorge on fire. People are sad about the damage to some of our sacred Oregon sites, places of beauty and peace, ruined for our lifetimes. People are angry about what he did. No matter how much he paid, he could never undo the damage he did. There is no number of dollars that one can place on what has been lost. There is no amount of community service or replanting he could do to make up for that mistake.
Some have accused stupid teenagers. Some have said, “He’s not one of us, he’s from Washington State.” We have said, “In my day, kids didn’t run wild like that.” We’ve said a lot to separate ourselves from him, to say he’s not like us. But that boy is one of us. He needs us and we need him. He is part of our human community. We’ve done stupid things in our lives. We’ve done dangerous things. And we’ve all contributed to the dry conditions in the gorge with all our burning of fossil fuels that are changing the climate. He is a child of God. We are children of God. And we’ve all got the rest of our lives to learn from this. God has already made it clear, we all owe God everything and our debt is paid. We are forgiven by God. So how do we forgive this boy? How do we forgive ourselves? And how do we learn from this experience? How do we go on in a new way? How does accountability and judgment fit into all this?
Since I’ve become a mother, I’ve often thought of God’s perspective. I could keep score of every diaper change, every meal cooked, every nightmare where I got up to rock my child back to sleep, every time I said “Eat your dinner,” every item of laundry, every trip to the doctor, every dollar spent and so on. But that’s not the game we’re playing. We’re learning. We’re growing. We’re making memories. We’re building each other up, because we belong to God who is loving. Because God made us to be loving rather than winning. When my son grows up, whether he lights a fire in the gorge or wins the semester achievement award or both, we can be forgiven and forgiving, part of the human family, part of the body of Christ.
God has given us everything, every mountain and tree, every blue and smoky sky, every good or bad night’s rest, every memory with family, every meal, every moment. We could waste it all trying to win. Or we can enjoy each other. We can and must forgive to set ourselves free. God has set the example and done the most forgiving. Now let us look at each other as brothers and sisters and find new life in a new way, the Kingdom way.