A Reading from the Book of Genesis (45:1-15)
Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
1 Oh, how good and pleasant it is, *
when brethren live together in unity!
2 It is like fine oil upon the head *
that runs down upon the beard,
3 Upon the beard of Aaron, *
and runs down upon the collar of his robe.
4 It is like the dew of Hermon *
that falls upon the hills of Zion.
5 For there the Lord has ordained the blessing: *
life for evermore.
A Reading from the Letter of Paul to the Romans (11:1-2a, 29-32)
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew (15:21-28)
Jesus went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
On May 25, 1977, 20th Century Fox released a film that would begin one of the most successful franchises in all of entertainment. At that time, the film was called simply “Stars Wars”; later, its producers added the subtitle “Episode IV: A New Hope.”
I can remember our older son, Matt, being thoroughly wrapped up in the original trilogy when he was in elementary school. And those who have been around here for a number of years know that Mark had the same fascination with all six episodes when he was that age. Now, even though the two of them are 28 years apart in age, both of them are looking forward to next year’s release of an Episode VII.
One of the key moments in the original three films comes when two of the central characters, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, recognize the fact that they are brother and sister; in fact, they are twins. That theme of siblings who grew up separately but whose lives converge is one that continues to fascinate people. Over the years there have been many stories in the media about real people who were siblings, separated at birth, but who eventually learned about their sister or brother and who managed to reunite after many years apart. Sometimes, depending on where they had lived over the years, there is speculation about whether they might even have passed each other on the street, not recognizing the close bond between them, not recognizing that this person was, in fact, their brother or sister.
Sometimes it is not easy to recognize the fact that someone else is in fact your brother or sister. That seems to be the challenge faced by key characters in all three of today’s readings.
Our first reading is the conclusion of the Joseph story that we began last week. Ten of Jacob’s sons had sold their spoiled little brother, Joseph, into slavery in Egypt. Joseph eventually rose from being a prisoner to being a powerful man in that country: second to Pharaoh alone. In a time of famine, his brothers had come down to him to buy food to feed their families back in Canaan. They had appeared before Joseph, but without recognizing him, and he had put them through a series of trials. But now, in response to his brothers’ recognition of the terrible thing that they had done, and in response to Judah’s offer to become a slave in the place of their youngest brother, Benjamin, Joseph can continue the ruse no longer. He breaks down in tears and utters the words that will change the entire story: “I am your brother, Joseph.” Up to that point the differences in their roles and in their power, as well as the evil act that had separated them long ago, had prevented them from recognizing him as their brother. Now at last they could see him and themselves in a completely new way. No longer was he someone who was either below them or above them. No longer was he someone who had been sold into slavery and could well have died during the ensuing years. No longer was he a powerful ruler over Egypt, who held their lives in his hands. Instead, he was simply their brother, Joseph.
A similar thing happens in our gospel reading. Jesus comes into pagan territory, into what is now Lebanon. There he encounters a Canaanite woman whose daughter is seriously ill. In a response that has made Christians terribly uncomfortable for centuries, Jesus at first rejects her plea, even resorting to what was then an all-too-common insult from Jews to non-Jews: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But this unnamed woman stands her ground. For the only time in the gospels, Jesus seems to have met his match. And he is forced to recognize that this pagan woman is, in fact, his sister and that he must help her.
Finally, in our second reading, Paul is dealing with a reversal in prejudice. Not too many years earlier, Jewish Christians had resisted accepting non-Jews, or Gentiles, as equals in the new community of faith. But now that the Emperor Claudius had expelled all Jews from Rome and only non-Jewish Christians remained, this remnant was apparently looking down on Jewish believers. In writing to them, Paul very forcefully insists that God has clearly not rejected the Jews. Instead, the apostle calls on the Christians in Rome to recognize that Jews and Gentiles alike are all their brothers and sisters.
Like the characters in all three of these readings, we sometimes find it hard to recognize that the people around us are, in fact, our brothers and sisters, fellow children of the one God. We tend to keep our distance from those who appear to be different from us, associating mostly, or solely, with those who look like us, who act like us, who live more or less on the same economic level that we do.
When we do that, we make it easy to dismiss others and to categorize them as “one of those people.” “They are poor because they aren’t willing to work. They are rich, and so they don’t care about people who are not as fortunate as they are. They are in our country illegally because they don’t care about our laws and want us to take care of them. They are having trouble in school or in life because their parents don’t care about them.” And on, and on, and on.
But the message of our readings, the message of God, is that they are us: that all of us – rich or poor, educated or uneducated, native or foreign – all of us are sisters and brothers of one another, and children of our one God.
It’s not always easy to see that. It’s not always easy to look into the face of another and to recognize the face of a brother or sister. And some people make that recognition even more difficult. I have used before an expression that Mother Teresa used to use when she had met and had to deal with an especially difficult person; she would say simply, “I have just met Jesus in a distressing disguise.” In all honesty, there are a lot of those distressing disguises around. But we, too, need to be able to see through them.
In just over a week, St. Mark’s and our four partner churches in this neighborhood will be beginning the 13th year of the Kemp School Community Partnership. Over the years, I have often told people about the transformation that I have seen take place, not only in the children that we serve, but also in our volunteer tutors themselves. Often, when they begin their work, they talk about what had happened that week with “the children at Kemp” or “those children at Kemp.” But it isn’t long before their terminology and their approach changes. It isn’t long before they begin to talk about what we are doing and need to do for “our children at Kemp.” And that’s the point where their ministry really comes alive: when they recognize the fact that, no matter who their parents might be, these children are in fact our children.
A key to all of our service to the people of this community is coming to recognize that all those whom we serve are, in fact, our brothers and sisters, that all these children whom we serve are, in fact, our children. And it is only when we reach that point that we are truly ready to do God’s work as God would have us do.