45Then 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. 2And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. 3Joseph 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.
4 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.5And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6For 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. 7God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8So 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. 9Hurry 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. 10You 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. 11I 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.” 12And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you.13You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.’ 14 Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. 15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
Last week was the pits. I could be talking about our journey with Joseph – hearing about his near brush with death at the hands of his very own brothers, how they threw him into a pit instead of following through on their idea to kill him, only pulling him out to sell him to the first group of traders passing through. Joseph was a dreamer, but his dreams were but a fantasy at the point of our scripture passage last week. And so we thought together about the ways that our lives end up in the pits every so often as well, how even the most devout and faithful among us can feel trapped, overwhelmed, or lost.
But there were other things about last week that I could refer to as well. Let’s start with the death of one of America’s most beloved actors: Robin Williams. He was a man who brought light and joy to oh-so-many and his death seems to have had a deeper impact than most. Robin Williams often played the role of a man who transformed lives through joy and laughter. So it’s shocking for us to discover that even though he brought joy light to so many, he experienced his own share of darkness through deep depression. Some of us know that experience all too well. For some this hits too close to home. The pits.
And then there’s the news coming out of Ferguson Missouri, yet another death of an unarmed black teenager and the anger and unrest of the community there, Questions about racism and injustice…or we could mention the escalating violence in Gaza and the spread of Ebola in Africa and…
It’s enough to cause us to stop and ask, why? Why do things happen the way they do? Why do bad things happen to good people, why does depression hit so relentlessly? why does racism still exist and why is there so much violence in our world? why?
Joseph must have been asking that question as he walked away from his brothers the day they sold him, beaten and shamed, into slavery. Now, it’s true that Joseph wasn’t exactly a most beloved hero at this point: a tattle-tale and a braggart, the spoiled youngest son in a large family. But as we follow Joseph’s story, we learn more about him in Genesis 39: that he is handsome and successful, rising to the position of overseer over his fellow slaves. Joseph’s piety shines through when he refuses Potiphar’s wife’s advances and is subsequently imprisoned on false charges of sexual assault.
In chapters 40 and 41 we learn that Joseph is skilled in dream interpretation, and when given an opportunity to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, he wisely advises the Pharaoh to store up 20% of the harvest for the next seven years to prepare for 7 years of famine. Joseph quickly becomes Pharaoh’s second-in-command: “Thus Joseph gained authority over the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 41:45)
Imagine Joseph’s surprise when, in chapter 42, Joseph’s brothers show up on his doorstep in Egypt. Facing starvation in Canaan, his brothers arrive in Egypt to buy some of the grain stored up there. As the second most powerful man in Egypt, in control of the largest known food supply during that time of famine, Joseph recognizes his brothers instantly, but they do not recognize him. Instead of the moment of forgiveness we might expect at first sight, Joseph is still angry. He manipulates his brothers at first: pretending not to know them, accusing them of spying, throwing them into jail for 3 days and holding their brother Simeon hostage in Egypt as the other brothers return to their father in Canaan.
It would be difficult to overstate Joseph’s position of power in this story; anyone who wants to eat must come to Joseph. He hoards the grain, and he decides who may purchase it and at what price, at a time when all the world is riddled with famine. Once powerless at the bottom of a pit, outnumbered by brothers who hated him, Joseph now gets to decide who will live and who will die.
There’s a part of us that understands his desire for revenge, isn’t there? The tables have turned, his dreams have become reality, and Joseph finally has the upper hand. He could easily send his brothers away without food, to toil the land and still starve. He could easily have all of them thrown into jail with just the flick of a hand, to spend their days in a pit of their own. And for a few chapters, Joseph does mess with them. So he’s not the spotless hero of the story that we might assume.
But in chapter 45 something shifts in Joseph. Perhaps he has yet another dream, or maybe the realization just hits him suddenly. Whatever the cause, Joseph decides to reveal his identity to his brothers this time, in a tearful reunion woven with forgiveness and care.
“Come closer to me.’” he says in verse 4, “And they came closer. He said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.5And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6For 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. 7God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8So it was not you who sent me here, but God;”
“So that’s what all of that was about,” Joseph must be thinking. God had sent him to Egypt so that, years later, he would be able to help fulfill God’s plans for the chosen people whose survival would be threatened by famine. Somehow Joseph realizes that the hardship and struggle, the pain and grief of losing his family, have led him to a place where he is able to bless others. He tells his brothers not to worry or feel guilty, for he can see God’s hand at work in his life. Pastor Walter Brueggemann calls this Joseph’s transformation, a hard-won understanding that God has been at work well beyond him. Brueggemann imagines that Joseph says,
“I became aware that my life was more than the sum of my little fears, my little hates, and my little loves. My life is larger than I imagined.” In a big, really big moment, Joseph cries out and weeps loudly. He embraces his brothers in a moment of forgiveness that would have stopped time.
And that is where Joseph turns from spoiled tattle-tale manipulator into a maturing young man.
We call them God-sightings here at Good Shepherd: places and times where you can see and feel God at work in your life, no matter what else may be happening around you. We teach our kids (and by doing so, we teach ourselves) that God is always with us, always loving us, always offering grace, working for good and healing and hope. We teach and we remember that even though there are pits and pit-stops, there is always hope. Even when there is a lot of darkness, there is always at least a pin-prick of light.
There is a scripture passage that is often remembered in times of struggle: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11) It’s a passage I love that brings us great hope when we are uncertain – the knowledge that God is always with us, working for good in our lives. It reminds me of Joseph’s realization that all of his pain and struggle was leading him to a place of prosperity. That God had a plan all along, and all of the bad was necessary to lead him to the good.
It’s like some say, “everything happens for a reason…”
But, really? REALLY? Is that the truth, or is it just something we tell ourselves to make sense of nonsense?
Is there really a reason that Michael Brown in Missiouri and Trayvon Martin in Florida and so many others were killed out of racism and fear? Is there a reason mental illness plagues some so severely that they cannot bear to live another day? Really, the hatred of Joseph’s brothers was a necessary part of God’s plan? God couldn’t have found another way, a more peaceful way, a more loving way to get all of us where we need to be?
If you can’t tell, I don’t buy it. I don’t buy the platitude that “everything happens for a reason,” but I do believe that despite all of the *explitives* that happen in our lives, despite the sin of racism and inequality and unfair judgment on those who are ill physically and mentally, despite it all, God is ultimately weaving a story of hope, shining a light into the darkest places of our lives.
That is the God I know -- not the puppeteer pulling strings up in the sky, but absolutely the one holding our hand as we cry, wrapping us closely when we feel lost, when we can barely make sense of what is happening around us.
It is important that we remember, even as we read Joseph’s declaration of God’s guidance, that God is not the one causing us pain. Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way: "No one explained it to him, but he could see God's fingerprints all over the place." God isn't a puppeteer, making things happen. God, Taylor says, is more like an artist, "like one of those genius sculptors who can make art out of anything." For this kind of artist, "Nothing is too bent to be used – not even tragedies, not even bad decisions, not even plain human meanness." Joseph, she says, is "a living work of art.”
As I thought and prayed about this week’s sermon, my thoughts and prayers were often side-by-side with those for all that is happening in the world around us.
(Paint a dark purple arch) I thought about Joseph’s time in the darkness of the pit, and then thought about the darkness that Robin Williams, and all who know the suffocating shadow of despair, experience. I thought about how isolated Joseph must have felt, and then how isolated those in the grip of depression feel – even when they’re surrounded by people who love them deeply. I thought about how important it is that there are people willing to reach down into the pit and help: counselors and pastors, friends and family. And I thought about how important it is that we stop the stigma of depression and start encouraging one another to take care of our mental health in whatever way is right for us.
(Paint a blue arch) And as I thought and prayed about Joseph’s relationship with his brothers, I couldn’t help but think and pray deeply about the violence and strained relationships in Ferguson, Missouri, where an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by police. News reports of police in riot gear and armored vehicles, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into peaceful protests filled the airwaves. Questions abound – did racism fuel the injustice in a changing community where a majority of citizens are black, but the police force is primarily white? Clearly relationships are strained there, as in so many of our communities across the nation. Brother against brother, sister against sister. Instead of protecting and trusting one another, we are oh-so-quick to judge and fear that which is different. What can we do to mend such brokenness?
(Paint a green arch) And then as I thought and prayed about the abundance of resources that Joseph controlled – the largest supply of food in the region at a time of famine – I thought about how those in privilege often control the largest share of resources in the world. My prayers shifted also to the Ebola crisis in Africa and how news reports that the greatest contributor to the spread of the virus is inadequate healthcare resources. They don’t have enough trained doctors, not enough hospitals, and most disturbing of all, they don’t have enough GLOVES! The virus is spreading rapidly because the doctors and nurses caring for the sick do not have such a simple item as latex gloves to act as the crucial barrier between themselves and the virus. Can you imagine – we have an abundance of gloves here in the united states – how is that even an issue?
The darkness and isolation of pits and depression. The grief and fear of broken relationships then and now. A global inequality of resources – food, water, medical equipment—that could save lives if only more fairly distributed. What, in God’s name, do we do with all of it?
(Paint a yellow arch) We pray. We pray, and we listen, and we learn, and we pray again. And then we put our creative, compassionate, faithful hearts and hands to work in mending that which is broken, healing that which is hurting. If you know someone who is depressed, or you are in the grip of depression yourself, seek help. Find a friend, or a pastor, or a doctor you trust and be the courageous person you are – ask for help. And as you hear stories of inequality and racism, broken relationships and violence, listen well to the stories told by those who are different from you. Learn from them. Try to understand. Do your best to build new relationships of trust, starting with those around you today and extending outward. Give what you can, share what you can, love as best you can.
The common denominator in all of this, the story of Joseph and his brothers and all the news reports that concern us so greatly, the thread of truth that weaves in and through and ties it all together: it’s that relationships matter. (Paint an orange Arch) We are not isolated individuals floating around in the world. What you experience affects me, and what is happening around the world needs to matter to us.
Because it matters to God. And God is already there, working with the brokenness, all that is bent and worn, to sculpt it into something beautiful. To redeem and to renew. The good news in our scripture this morning is that if Joseph is a living work of art, sculpted and blessed by God despite his faults and failures, there’s hope for the rest of us too.
(Paint a Red arch) Hope that we, too, might be able to look at the mess of our own lives and still see glimpses of God’s grace.
Hope that even in the midst of our pain and broken relationships, we might also be able to offer the kind of forgiveness that reconciles and renews. Assurance that even the most complicated and confounded of us can be led by God into the future that God most desires.
I’d like to close with another quote by Pastor Brueggeman: "When we live according to our fears and our hates, our lives become small and defensive, lacking the deep, joyous generosity of God." However, "[l]ife with God," Brueggemann writes, "is much, much larger, shattering our little categories of control, permitting us to say that God's purposes led us well beyond ourselves to give and to forgive, to create life we would not have imagined"
In the midst of the darkness, there is always light. In the midst of pain, there is always hope. And rainbows are God’s artistic promise that all can, and will, be redeemed in the end.