Sunday September 11-17 in Year A (Carr23)

Weeping TogetherAmy Carr reflects on mutual vulnerability and forgiveness in a changing climate.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday September 4 – 10, Year A (2023, 2026)
Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:[1-7], 8-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Our scripture readings this week point to an inescapable feature of existence that rests beneath the surface of the scenes of reconciliation in Genesis and Jesus’ call for unremitting forgiveness. Paul comes closest to naming that quality directly when he writes, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves” (Romans 14:7, NRSV). Instead, we are mutually vulnerable to one another before God in Christ. In contemplating this truth as it plays out among human beings, how might we grapple with the hard-to-absorb consequences of our mutual vulnerability with the non-human world as well? And what might it look like to extend forgiveness to those who want to block themselves off from recognition of our interdependence with the larger creation?

The closing chapter of Genesis seems a far cry from the cosmic beginnings of Genesis 1, where God orders chaos until the planet we know today comes into focus. We depart from Genesis with a chaos of another sort: the death of the patriarch, Jacob, who also bears the namesake of the people of Israel as a whole. After Israel’s burial in Canaan, Joseph and his brothers return to Egypt (Genesis 50:14). Without their father’s watchful gaze holding the siblings together, Joseph’s brothers are disoriented with fear that they will now face the consequences of their having unjustly sold their brother Joseph into slavery all those decades ago:

“Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did to him?’” (Genesis 50:15).

Their emotions come surging back as they did when they first realized that the official in charge of Pharaoh’s granary—the official who could give or withhold grain during a famine—was none other than the brother they had left for dead (Genesis 45:1-15). Joseph wept then, and he wept again now when his brothers begged that he “forgive the crime” they had committed against him (Genesis 50:17). They begged for forgiveness in the name of their father, as if their dad’s authority would be necessary to stay the punitive hand of the brother they had wronged. And only when they saw Joseph weep did his brothers themselves also break down and weep (Genesis 50:18).

The siblings recognized their mutual vulnerability to one another in this moment: their bond as family, but also the ways they bore the power of life and death over one another. Joseph “flips the script” his brothers had intended for him when he rises to the position of second-in-command beside the Egyptian Pharaoh, but he flips the script even more when he reads divine providence at play in their very trespass against him. After his brothers position themselves as “slaves” before Joseph (Genesis 50:18), Joseph places their own mutual vulnerability to being harmed by one another before God:

“Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones” (Genesis 50:19-20).

Joseph’s brothers hadn’t directly mentioned fearing for their “little ones,” but Joseph read straight through to the end of their fear: being cut off not only from their own lives, but from any future through their descendants. That is precisely what the death of Israel would mean, were it to extend beyond the death of Jacob himself. Joseph turns his brother’s recognition that their lives depend on Joseph’s good will into a recognition that God was an even greater trickster than Jacob, who had tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright. For here God has tricked Joseph’s brothers by working with their sin against Joseph and turning it into the unexpected means of the whole family’s survival amid a famine.

The line “their little ones” reminds me of the unexpected ending of the book of Jonah, where God reprimands Jonah for pouting because God chose to save Nineveh, the very people who had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, after Nineveh’s repentance. The very last verse of the book of Jonah turns attention away from people to the non-human residents of Nineveh, when God declares, “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11).

Maybe we can get sulky like Jonah when we see even repentant people get away without collective punishment for being part of a people complicit in committing great harm against others. Certainly some of us direct our angry incredulity at all those who do not know their right hand from their left in their denial of human responsibility for climate change. At the same time, we can be like Joseph’s brothers: afraid of facing the consequences of our own actions and inactions, individually and collectively, with regard to the warming and polluting of our planet.

Moreover, like Joseph’s brothers, we can live along with the facts of our corporate sin for a long time, only to have some particular death call forth our tears and fears in an overwhelming instant. That happened for me last week when I heard that an estimated 10,000 emperor penguin chicks died when the ice sheet they were born on melted before their waterproof feathers had grown in. So when plunged into the water, they froze or drowned. Because the emperor penguins depend on ice sheets rather than solid land, it is likely they will be “all but extinct by the end of the century.”

All of us concerned about creation’s well-being have moments like this, when a particular news story overwhelms us. And we don’t have the comfort of knowing that our persistent greenhouse-gas-creating use of our planet’s resources will somehow turn out to be a blessing in the long run. We do not see the face of Joseph (or do you?) when we imagine thousands of dead emperor penguin chicks, icons for all the creatures unnecessarily destroyed by human patterns of energy use and consumption. We meant them no harm directly, to be sure. Yet the future of their and our own species’ little ones is vulnerable to the destructive habits we have created for the sake of our own immediate well-being, even as we know we could do much—personally and through policy changes—to limit greenhouse gas emissions and other deleterious effects we have on the planet.

What we do have, however, is a recognition that our mutual vulnerability within and across species is set within the body of Christ: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living” (Romans 14:8-9). In Joseph’s stead, the crucified and risen Christ is accompanying with intimate yet vast attention to all that is touched by the incarnation of God in Jesus. The body of Christ encompasses those dead emperor penguin chicks, as well as those of us humans who are still alive and bickering about the right and wrong ways to do things—right down to, in our day as in Paul’s, whether or not to “eat only vegetables” (Romans 14:2).

Knowing that the fullness of creation’s story is set within Christ like a gem within a wedding ring, however, does not mean relinquishing the habits of daily repentance and mutual forgiveness. The Christian life is a livable paradox: we see that all is and shall be well only within the power of God, yet how we work through the nitty-gritty of the earnest present always matters, too. Christine Helmer and I write about this in chapter six of our book coming out in fall 2023, Ordinary Faith in Polarized Times: Justification and the Pursuit of Justice,

“How might the process of justice-seeking embed a constant return to justification by faith in Christ? How might we navigate the process of justice-seeking within the baptized body of Christ in a capacious orthodox-seeking way, rather than a heretical way of demonizing those with whom we disagree within the body of Christ? And how do we live with the tilt and whirl of being decentered in good ways—as we acknowledge what we had missed seeing or hearing, as we are called into account for the how as well as the what of our justice-seeking team-playing?” (Amy Carr and Christine Helmer, Ordinary Faith in Polarized Times: Justification and the Pursuit of Justice. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2023, p. 230).

Thus Paul redirects the attention of those in the early church who were judging one another amid their disagreements about what to eat and whether or not to observe special days. He does so in two ways: by pointing out that the intention of each of them is to eat or observe “in honor of the Lord” (Romans 14:6); and by reminding them that the One before whom they should make their argument (and listen for a response) is actually God. We “will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Romans 14:10); “each of us will be accountable to God” (Romans 14:12). Paul manages to send a double-edged message: everyone involved in the debates with the integrity of conviction is truly trying to honor God; and everyone should still be open to thinking and seeing in new ways, as each of us ponders our lifeways before God.

In our gospel reading in Matthew 18, Jesus offers a parable that challenges those of us who commit ourselves to climate care to ask ourselves what mercy means for those we believe should be held to account for their climate denial or their indifference. Perhaps some of us feel like the forgiven slave: freed through our baptism into Christ to loosen our preoccupation with our own complicity in climate crisis, and able to direct our attention instead to personal, congregational, and policy-related work on behalf of the environment. But in our mutual vulnerability to one another, we can find ourselves wanting those still not doing their part to be held to the expectations of the law: “Pay what you owe!” (Matthew 18:28). Do the right thing! There is no time to waste.

In frustration with climate change deniers, some of us can surely identify with Peter: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” (Matthew 18:21).

Jesus’ response—”Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22)—has been pondered from subject positions that offer resistance to Jesus’ command: from the point of view of those who have been sexually abused, tortured, beaten by a spouse, subjected to low-grade to acute racism. From such spaces, we might point out to Jesus: “The parable you tell speaks about forgiving those who have sins of omission, and perhaps through no fault of their own. Forgiving those who are failing to be able to meet our debt obligations could be taken as a critique of a whole system built on economic exploitation of the most vulnerable.” Why even call them sinners who need to be forgiven?

All this is vital to bear in mind. Yet those of us who ally with climate activism might practice less resistance and more humility before Jesus’ commandment to forgive. Such humility could pose a question to our fellow slaves to consumption who do not pay their own debts to society by joining the environmental movement: why is there such denial and indifference about the human causes of climate change?

Forgiveness is multidimensional and a process to work through, even if we recognize reconciliation as its finale—a finale so clearly visible in the image of Joseph and his brothers weeping together in relieved acknowledgement of all the truths between them, and in a renewed commitment to care for one another and their little ones. Maybe those of us anxious to restore creation can work backwards from this image of reconciliation to stretch into one dimension of forgiveness available to us even when faced with the hard of heart: making space to journey with one another enough to ask someone why some among us are in either active denial or a state of silence about climate concern. Is it because they are fearful, distrustful, overwhelmed? Is it because there is a potent pull of a narrative that is more emotionally satisfying?

Perhaps this sort of giving-space for one another itself a dynamic of forgiveness—something we can try to do with those we know in our congregations and communities. Is this practice more generative than denunciation—even as we flex our prophetic voices in other ways with regard to policy-making and seeking to elect those we believe are most attuned to serving the common good?

“The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…. [The Holy One] does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is [God’s] steadfast love for those who fear [God]…. As a father has compassion for his children, so the LORD has compassion for those who fear him” (Psalm 103:8, 10-11, 13).

Seventy times seven, we are to forgive. Perhaps we cannot begin to stand before this commandment from Jesus unless we recognize our mutual vulnerability in every direction. We can then sorrow with the emperor penguin chicks who should be flourishing far from our sight but instead are no more. And we can search for the face of a neighbor in those we know who seem unwilling to pay their debts to creation.

Originally written by Amy Carr in 2023