As I said at the start of the service this morning, I am speaking at an event in our grounds this Thursday, arranged by Fremantle Council, about my work in India to help combat modern slavery. I can’t think of a single thing more important than ending the buying and selling of humans. It is that thing that I will never stop working for – the thing I would go to prison for, if I thought it would help – the thing I might even die for. And I won’t talk much about my adventures in India, or the stories of the precious women and children I met there, because I want you to come on Thursday night, but I can’t help being reminded of those people and their plight, when I hear this morning’s first reading.
Today we only get the ‘happily-ever-after’ bit, but Joseph’s full story is one of favouritism, bad parenting, jealousy, murder attempts, human trafficking, lies, false imprisonment and eventual redemption – God sent me here to preserve life, Joseph tells his slave trading brothers. Or, as one of my favourite bible verses later says, what you intended for harm, God intended for good. And Joseph kissed his brothers and wept with them, and they talked together.
Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, faked his death, separated him from his beloved dad, he was tricked, imprisoned, forgotten about and then, when they are reunited, Joseph kissed them, wept with them, and talked with them. It’s almost like he heard Jesus’ teaching from today’s gospel reading, some 6 or 7 centuries before he said them.
Loving his enemies, doing good to those who had hated him, blessing those who had cursed him, freely giving to them, choosing not to judge but to forgive. And Jesus tells us to do likewise. It doesn’t make for easy listening, does it?
At best it sounds like an impossibly hard task, good but almost entirely unattainable. At worst it sounds like allowing others to abuse us, walk all over us, a real wet response. But I don’t think either sound like the Jesus I believe in.
And as I reflected on that, so I remembered the first visit to the brothels, while I was in Mumbai – full of imprisoned and trafficked women, like Joseph, and full of those who were buying and selling them – like Joseph’s brothers.
I kept a journal while I was there and one particular day I wrote this…
I’ll never forget stepping into the first brothel and seeing the women; a diverse mix of young and old, loud and silent, laughing and staring, fully clothed and almost naked. Instantly I loved these women. Instantly I could see they are children of God and that God’s image is clearly stamped on them; they weren’t the dirty, cheap, slur on society they are often painted as…
And then I saw the men. And I despised them.
They made me want to scream: How dare you touch these beautiful women and think you can buy them? How dare you mar the image of the creator in these precious children?
Then the challenge from God began.
“They are my children too” God said.
“They are made in My image too”
“My image is marred in them, but it is not destroyed”
“They are my children and I love them”
Last Thursday I shook hands with the first pimp I have ever knowingly met. I looked at him – he was small and polite. He asked me my name, in English. I told him my name, in Hindi, and asked him his. Kasim.
…And all I kept thinking was “you buy and sell women and children for sex”.
And God kept saying to me “can you see Jesus in Kasim?”.
And the truth is, to my shame, I couldn’t, but maybe this is what Jesus means when he says love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return…bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…Do not judge. Forgive…
Love them because they are also beloved of God
Do good because everyone deserves that, even those we think don’t
Bless, pray, give, forgive.
Not because we are better but because everyone is our equal, everyone is made in the image of God and bears God’s image in their very soul. And because doing these things is good for us and God always wants what is good.
Withholding blessings, prayer, and refusing to forgive is bad for our hearts, souls and bodies and how can we hope others will encounter the gift of love God has for all people if we refuse to love, or if we set conditions on who or how much?
Jesus calls us to such a high standard of living, not as a to-do list for God to love us, but so we might live more freely, just exactly as we are created to. And that others might too.
We work through the deep and difficult work of forgiveness so we are released from carrying and holding resentments that hold us captive.
We strive to love our enemies because otherwise we are poisoned and drawn into a life of harming others.
We do good to those who hate us, not to encourage behaviours of hate, but because we are committed to counteracting them.
And these responses are God-given because they change us. They reorient us. They place us right back into the truths of who we are: God’s beloved children…just like our enemies.
Ultimately these acts, which may seem defeatist and disempowering, centre us in a powerful place of knowing who we are, and who God is. When we act in these ways, these counterintuitive ways to how the world works, we claim truths about God, ourselves, and how God calls us to respond towards others.
We love because we are loved
We love others because they are also loved
That’s really it
How tough it is, what a life’s work it is, but the alternative doesn’t bear considering.
In the Kingdom of God, the alternative doesn’t even exist. Amen.