Sixth Sunday After Pentecost – July 21, 2019 – Genesis 45:1-15
One of the great gifts of this “summer of Joseph,” this sermon series and especially our youth production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat has been the ways in which they have brought this story from the book of Genesis to life for me. It has been such a gift. Until this summer, when I would study this text, the characters were generally faceless persons from a long, long time ago. Yet now, this is no longer true.
I realized while writing this sermon that for the rest of my life, even if I see other performances of this musical, as I read Genesis, Joseph will always look like Michael Schweiker does today. Pharaoh will always sound like Elvis, and he will always look like Connor McCluskey in a bedazzled white jumpsuit. Potiphar will always be a teenage Adam Smith, and Potiphar’s wife will always look and sound like Paige Mudd. Jacob will always resemble Andrew Bullock wearing a thick, grey beard. In my mind’s eye. Joseph’s brothers will always look and sound like our young people who played them, and their voices will always carry Virginia accents, with a little Cowboy, a little French, and some Calypso thrown in for good measure.
Oh, and any talking camels I encounter will always sound like Daniel Banke.
The images that accompany this story for me will forever be frozen in time, and future mental journeys to Canaan and Egypt will be journeys back here, to the sanctuary of Reveille United Methodist Church.
With that said, let us go to the word of God for one more story of Joseph and his brothers, this time using Genesis 45:1-15.
Some time ago, I noticed that so many of our prayer concerns at our 8:30 and 11:00 a.m. worship services revolve around physical health, and it has made me think of ways in which you and I can partner with God to be an integral part of answering these prayers by the ways in which we choose to live. I believe I have found an inroad for this, and I will share it with you now.
What would you say if I told you that there is a way to strengthen your immune system, help regulate your nervous system, decrease levels of depression, and decrease harm to your cardiovascular system? Before you answer, allow me to tell you this: the thing about which I speak in no way involves vegetarianism, the Adkins diet, jogging, the gym, aerobics, or the sold-on-TV contraption known as the Thighmaster?
Intrigued? So was I. In fact, so was (and is) Dr. Frederick Luskin of Stanford University, who created a project at Stanford to study it.
So here it is: the thing you and I have to do to achieve all of the benefits I just listed is to stop carrying around grudges and learn to actually forgive people. For all of the talk nowadays about the irrelevance of religion and Christian teaching and practice in the modern world, Dr Luskin and I beg to differ.
Dr. Luskin is the founder of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, and he said in a May, 19 2019 interview with the New York times “Whenever you can’t grieve and assimilate what has happened, you hold it in a certain way. If it’s bitterness, you hold it with anger. If it’s hopeless, you hold it with despair. But both of those are psycho‑physiological responses to an inability to cope, and they both do mental and physical damage.”
He went on: “The hopelessness shuts down and dampens immune response, leads to some aspects of depression. Anger can have immune implications, it disregulates the nervous system, it certainly is the most harmful emotion for the cardiovascular system. But you have this top point where something happened that I can’t really deal with, and often we do deal with it somehow, but unskillfully.”
That is the bad news. The good news, according to Dr. Luskin, is that these physiological symptoms can more or less be reversed by full forgiveness.[i]
Over two decades had passed since Joseph’s eleven brothers sold him into Egyptian slavery and told their father Jacob that Joseph, Jacob’s favorite, was dead, killed by wild animals. In this morning’s text, we are a long way from the dreamcoat and the prophetic dreams of the seventeen-year-old Joseph. Joseph began his stay in Egypt as a slave but would survive false accusations and years of imprisonment to ascend to be the pharaoh’s vizier, a man second in power in Egypt only to pharaoh, ancient Egypt’s version of a prime minister.
Despite Joseph’s amazing ascendancy to power, two decades is a long, long time to think about how you got to Egypt in the first place. In Genesis 37, Joseph’s eleven brothers become so jealous of his status as their father’s obvious favorite, so envious of what they perceive as his inflated sense of self based on dreams he had that no one could understand, dreams that foretold the deliverance of Joseph and his brothers that they plot to kill him, only stopping at the last minute because they realize they can rid themselves of him and get paid in silver if they allow him to live so that they can sell him into slavery.
Joseph carries this betrayal, this grudge with him from youth into almost middle-age, a betrayal that made him into a foreigner, a stranger in a strange land, a paradoxical orphan with living parents and a large family.
And now, famine has come to Canaan, and his family, including his brothers who betrayed him, are at risk of starvation. They hear that there is a possibility of available food in Egypt, and they go, completely ignorant of the fact that their own brother is the second most powerful person in the land.
The New York Times article continues: “Full forgiveness has four actions, according to Dr. Luskin. But before that, we need to recognize three things: 1. Forgiveness is for you, not the offender. 2. It’s best to do it now. 3. It’s about freeing yourself — forgiving someone doesn’t mean you have to like what they did or become their friend.”
Beyond that, Dr. Luskin says, we are to take a deep breath, slow ourselves down, and collect ourselves to “create a little distance between what happened and how you are going to react to it.” Next, he says to “Change your story from that of a victim to a more heroic story.” Finally, we should pay attention to the good things in our lives to balance the harm and remind ourselves that life does not always turn out the way we want it to.
It may be that they most wonderful aspect of the story of Joseph is how dramatically he deviates from what Dr. Luskin’s research shows. Joseph does not forgive for himself instead of the offenders. He does not do it right away, and he certainly does not do so to free himself. Despite all that was done to him, Joseph finds a way to reconcile with his brothers. Perhaps it is when he saw and recognized them in Genesis 42, or perhaps it was when, after such a long time in Egypt away from his homeland, he heard their voices speaking, speaking in Hebrew, his native tongue, the language of his youth.
Or, perhaps it was because what overcame Joseph was in the end and through it all, he knew these people were his family, his flesh and his blood, just as his brother Judah remembered in chapter 37 that Joseph was his flesh and blood, and used this memory to save Joseph’s life so that Joseph could go Egypt, secure his power, and ultimately, as is the case in today’s text, save his entire family’s life.
In this morning’s text, upon finally revealing himself to his brothers, Joseph sees the divine meaning and purpose behind all he has endured, and he proclaims, “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 with that, finally, after eight-and-a-half chapters of Genesis, God returns to the story, and Joseph sees, as do we, that God was present in this story all along, preserving this family, this messed-up family that is as messed-up as families can be, so that these twelve sons could live and become nothing less than the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel.
I have said from this pulpit before that my life and ministry have shown me that revenge is never as good as you think it is going to be. It just isn’t. God does not call God’s people to the twin virtues of forgiveness and reconciliation simply because they are righteous. Instead, we learn in today’s text and ones like it that forgiveness and reconciliation are Christian virtues because in the end, they are simply the better option, better for our hearts, minds, spirit, even these physical bodies, and certainly better for our families, communities, churches, and our world.
Just as is the case in the story of Joseph’s father Jacob reconciling with the fraternal twin brother Esau, who Jacob betrayed, or as is the case in Jesus’ beloved parable of the Prodigal Son, forgiveness and reconciliation will always require abundant measures of grace, for our forgiveness of others, as is the case with God’s forgiveness of us, is never about what is earned. It is about what is granted, which is why the one word you will never hear in heaven is deserve. Grace simply does not operate that way, and when we ignore this, we will find ourselves carrying someone else’s burden, even drinking someone else’s sour wine, all until we learn to let things go.
I do not find it to be a coincidence that our production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat occured when it did. You and I have lived through some of the ugliest, bitterest, most divisive days of my almost half-century on this earth. And yet, in the midst of this polarizing division, in the midst of our famine of kindness and unity, God gives us this beautiful story of Joseph; of vice, virtue, betrayal, forgiveness, and reconciliation, where the very worst of human nature is overcome, and flawed people, people flawed like you and me, discover a way to remember who they are and whose they are, to work things out such that all are blessed and everyone gets out alive.
It is story of hope, told to us by this emerging generation, already utilized by God for nothing less than the transformation of the world.
It is not uncommon for people to tell me how worried people are today about the state of our nation and world, and particularly how divided we are as a nation, how everything seems to be falling apart. I hear this from people who are young and have lived through less, and I hear this from people who are old, who have lived through a great deal. I find myself in the doldrums over the state of our nation and world more than I care to admit.
As a college student, I studied American history with the original intent of teaching it at either the high school or college level, and lately, I have found a new appreciation for the gift of the study of history and how it can inform how you and I can and, I daresay must live in the present and future.
Fifty years ago, in 1969, as the turbulent decade of the 60’s drew to a close, racism and racial tension were rampant in our land. The year prior had witnessed the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator and Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy. In our land, murders were at an all-time high, more per capita than today. There were devastating riots and fires in urban areas, leading to a belief that our cities were in an unescapable decline. Between January 1969 and April 1970, there were more than 4,000 domestic terror bombings, killing 43 and causing more than $21 million in damage.[ii]
It was the year that witnessed the inauguration of the ultimately doomed presidency of Richard M. Nixon. It was the year of the Stonewall riots. It was a year of nationwide protests. It was a year of the disastrous war in Vietnam. At the time, commentators would remark that our nation had not been so divided since the Civil War.[iii]
Yet on May 25, 1961 President John F. Kennedy, in a speech before Congress, challenged our nation and its leadership to “commit itself to achieving the goal, before [the] decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” And eight years later, fifty years ago last night, we did it. The moon.
Even in the midst of division, even in the midst of betrayal, even in a time when the future is uncertain and everything in the present is falling apart, God is still God, and we are still God’s people. Reveille is still God’s church. And this God of lost causes and impossible circumstances comes into the midst of the greatest of our challenges calling us, beckoning for us to come together over and above all of today’s dividing lines. For although the things to which God is calling us may seem to ask too much because they seem to be impossible, God’s word remains, and God’s word reminds us that nothing is impossible with God, and this God of grace and glory is calling you, calling me, calling us to be what Dr. King called “co-workers with God,” this God of eternal possibilities.
It is what, in a time of famine, in a time of suffering, betrayal, and bitter division that Joseph saw in today’s text: the hand of God acting in the midst of human history, working through imperfect people like us, working to make the wrong right, the broken whole, the divided unified, so that all God’s children may have enough, and all God’s children may be blessed, as our God re-calibrates our belief and our understanding of just what is indeed possible.
On September 12, 1962 in a speech given at the Rice University football stadium, President Kennedy said this, “We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon…We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”[iv]
There are things God is calling us, you me, and God’s church to do, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, and God’s work of reconciliation definitely falls into the “hard” category. Yet, here is always hope: there is an old Anglican prayer I love that is part of the daily office of the Book of Common Prayer. In this prayer, you pray this: “We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us.” And only after you have prayed that sentence do you pray the one after it: “We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.”
God is with us, even when things are easy, and God is with us, even when things are hard, even in the world-changing, life-saving work of reconciliation. God’s hand is at work in the midst of things seen and unseen. As the old hymn says:
“This is [our] Father’s world:
O let [us] ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the Ruler yet.
This is [our] Father’s world:
Why should [our] hearts be sad?
The Lord is King: let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let earth be glad!
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.
[i] “Let Go of Your Grudges. They’re Doing You No Good” by Tim Herrera, May 19, 2019, The New York Times.