Fourth Sunday After Pentecost – July 7, 2019
Audio will be here.
Today is week two in our sermon series titled “Joseph: Vice, Virtue, and the Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Last Sunday, we explored the topic of jealousy. Today, we examine the story of the betrayal of Joseph by his brothers.
To recap: the story of Joseph begins in the thirty-seventh chapter of the Old Testament book of Genesis. Joseph is the son of Jacob (also called Israel), and he has eleven brothers. Earlier in this chapter, Jacob has made it clear that, of all his sons, he loves the seventeen-year-old Joseph the most, evidenced by a beautiful coat of many colors that he gifts Joseph and none of his brothers. After receiving the coat, Joseph has two dreams that apparently signify that one day, all of his brothers and even his parents will bow down before him. Joseph shares his dreams of superiority, infuriating everyone – especially his eleven brothers. To see just how infuriated these brothers are, I give you this morning’s text from Genesis 37:17-28:
From a literary standpoint, this morning’s text is essential, for it is what gets Joseph from his home in Canaan, where the bad stuff happens, to Egypt, where the good stuff happens, which we will begin to explore in next Sunday’s sermon, wherein we will examine the virtue of generosity, and again the following week when we conclude with a sermon on reconciliation.
The decision I made when designing this sermon series to completely disconnect the topics of betrayal and reconciliation was quite intentional, as too often, we Christians move quickly from the former to the latter. What I hope we can do this morning is to dwell amidst the discomfort of betrayal for a while, so that when we do explore reconciliation, we can give it the full attention it deserves, knowing full well how difficult the hard work of reconciliation can be.
When your life’s vocation is preaching, stories quickly become your stock and trade. When I was new at this, I would peruse printed compendiums of sermon illustrations trying to find something, anything to help me convey the point of my message. I quickly learned that the problem with writing this way is that half of the illustrations in these books are campy, and the other half are untrue. Today, I look back on some things I said to my congregations decades ago and I wonder what I was thinking, as I regard the work of a much younger man.
There is a story I used to love to tell that I will no longer use, and the only reason I am telling you this story this morning is because it accidentally illustrates what is wrong with it as it operates to show just how quickly Christian thought can leap from betrayal to forgiveness:
After World War II, Dutch Christian Holocaust resister Corrie Ten Boom made a ministry of traveling to churches around Germany and preaching messages of God’s forgiveness to Germans, perhaps the most hated people in the world at that time. Corrie Ten Boom had been a prisoner in the Ravensbruk concentration camp, and her sister had died there, both sentenced for the charge of hiding Jews from the Nazis. After the war, one night, immediately after one of her talks, a man approached her and extended his hand. She recognized him: he had been one of the cruelest guards at Ravensbruk, and now he stood before her, a converted man, hand extended, asking her forgiveness.
In her autobiography The Hiding Place, she says that in that moment, she prayed to God, saying in her heart that all she could do in that moment was to extend her hand and take his, but that God would have to supply the feeling of forgiveness. In her telling of the story, God did, and she was able to forgive him that night, in her words “with all of her heart.”
The last time I used that story in a sermon was almost exactly a year ago, and even then, I used it will all sorts of caveats. The problem with it, I fear, is that it is far too tidy, a picturesque, Thomas Kincade-painting, saccharine version of Christianity, the kind of story that makes reconciliation look easy, a forgiveness-at-all-costs, ends-always-justify-the-means story that negates just how complex humans, human stories, and human emotions can be. I do not mean to criticize Corrie Ten Boom, but I do worry about what this story communicates, especially to victims of violence and their families.
Her sister died in his concentration camp. Could we not at least be a little sympathetic had she spat in that Nazi’s face, if she honestly just was not there yet? Did not this former guard not expect the kind of “cheap grace,” grace without true repentance Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned us about?
In this morning’s text, Joseph’s brothers seriously overreact to his behavior in the earlier verses. He was not without fault, but in the end, all he did was accept a gift from his father and announce to his brothers two (two) dreams that he had, and that was all that it took for them to decide to do him in. So inflamed are his brothers, so great and vicious is their anger towards him that they decide to not only punish Joseph but to break their parents’ hearts in the process. If ever there is a story in scripture of the punishment outweighing the crime, this would be it.
If bragging about yourself to your siblings was a capital offense, my brother would have done me in forty years ago.
Last week, we explored the problem of jealousy and how to address it, but this week is, in many ways, altogether different. Joseph’s brothers (save Reuben, who did not want him dead, just shoved in a cistern) are not merely jealous, they are out of their minds with rage, well into their plot before they are at least able to remember that this is their own flesh and blood they are talking about. In today’s text, they even admit that this is merely about Joseph’s dreams, dreams that they could not yet know foretold the story of their own deliverance.
Over a decade ago in another church, I decided to preach a sermon series on forgiveness as well as teach an evening Bible study on the topic, and in the Bible study, as my congregants began to know and trust one another, we learned that everyone was there for a very specific reason. Everyone, it turned out, was deep in a cistern, in a dry pit, waiting for a “Midianite” to come and pull them out.
Not long before the study began, members of the church’s United Methodist Women, as an act of what is commonly called “restorative justice” decided to provide items to local men who were in prison: socks, pencils, notepads, and the like.
The week after this was announced in worship, a woman in my church emailed me to passionately question why our church was engaged in such ministry. “Prison is supposed to be hard. It is supposed to be unpleasant. These people harmed others. Why on earth are we making things any easier for them?”
It turned out that her family had experienced one of the most horrific crimes imaginable, one that permanently altered the trajectory of their life, present and future. Looking back, I can say that knowing her, as well as her allowing me to be her pastor, was one of the very best things that has ever happened to me. Through her life and vulnerability, she taught me that when one is dwelling in the deep, dry, pit of betrayal, it is very, very, difficult to pull yourself out and more often than not, you simply cannot do it alone.
If we are honest with ourselves, if we truly pay attention to the words, our Lord’s Prayer can be a difficult prayer to pray, especially when we arrive at the point that reminds us that God’s forgiveness is inexorably linked to our forgiveness of others. In the one prayer Jesus taught his disciples to learn and emulate, our Lord reminds us just how important it is for us to look deep inside of ourselves and face, address, deal with those memories we are carrying around in scrapbooks in our hearts, scrapbooks sometimes well-thumbed and sometimes in a pristine state because it is simply too difficult to even open to the first page.
And yet, that Lord’s Prayer, the prayer we will pray as we gather at our Lord’s Table reminds us of just how woven together our life with each other is with our life with God, how the health of one affects the health of the other – how when we neglect the health of one, we neglect the health of the other. In these situations, it can be so easy for us to tell ourselves that the betrayal perpetrated against us is somehow exempt from God’s mandate to forgive and reconcile, or just as dangerously, we tell ourselves that we have forgiven when we actually have not, believing, as it were, that we have obeyed the letter of God’s law, even when we cannot or will not obey it in spirit.
To this, I remind us, remind myself, that our God is a God of grace who loves and accepts us even when we are not the ideal finished product, even when we are but works in progress such that when we confess to God that we cannot make the full journey out of our betrayal, God mercifully honors the single step made in faith, honoring the effort all the while.
When I was a seminarian at Duke, I studied theology under the legendary professor Thomas Langford who once told us the story of a woman who went to her priest and confessed, “I have tried, and I have tried, and I simply cannot forgive my husband for the things he has done to me.”
To this, the priest wisely replied, “God can forgive even your inability to forgive.”
Anyone who thinks that one legacy of the Protestant Reformation is that we have done away with the practice of going to confession has never sat in my offices over the years, and I am sure the same true of my colleagues of all denominational stripes. Over the course of the past quarter-century, I have spent time dwelling in the dark corners of the hearts and minds people I am charged to serve, and these holy moments have taught me many, many things, about people, about God, and what it means for us to claim to believe in a God of mercy, grace, love, and redemption.
One of these things I have learned is this: give me honest anger, give me honest bitterness, even honest hatred and doubt, over false piety any day of the week. If you are telling your priest, or anyone, what you believe he or she wants to hear, you very well may be saying the same thing to God, the God who, as we say in one of our funeral prayers, “knows our needs before we ask and our ignorance in asking.”
In other words, if you have been harmed, wounded, or transgressed, tell God the truth. Tell God what you really feel, eschew the simple, pat answers, the low-hanging fruit of cheap and easy or fake forgiveness always there for the picking, for God already knows what you feel, and the almighty God of all creation already knows what you really think. The road from betrayal to reconciliation is often narrow, long, winding, and rocky, and our God does not simply wait for you at the end of the path. Our ever-patient God sojourns with you from Canaan, to Egypt, and all the way back home.
In just a few minutes, we will gather at the Lord’s table, where all are welcome and there is a place for all of God’s children. Come forward to receive this meal, this foretaste of heaven just as you are, even all of you imperfect, suffering, works in progress. Come if your heart feels forgiven, loved, and free. Come if your arms are full of the complex emotions of betrayal. Come and leave those burdens behind, or not, only know that whatever you do, God meets you at this table and then goes from it with you, patiently, lovingly, come what may.
Come to the table. Come as you are, even with all of the complex feelings and emotions and beliefs that comprise life on earth. Come and encounter the living God who shares and bears the burdens of this life. Come.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.