This is a transcript from the September 27, 2020 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.
This week, I have been thinking. I have been thinking about the big story. I have been thinking about the death of an icon. I've been thinking about their death bed wish that was given. The confusion that's been caused. I've been thinking about the chaos that has ensued. The suspicion. I've been thinking about just the raw power grab on one side or the other and good reason to suspect the other side because neither has shown to be all that trustworthy. I've been thinking about all this because of course, I've been thinking about Jacob. Israel, Joseph. That's what you were thinking about right? If you're one of those people when you heard our passage this morning and began to see some of the connections to the headlines of our day, we could all be forgiven. The only problem is we probably didn't go deep enough because there are things that are in the story that aren't just on the outside circumstances, but much deeper rhythms that are in our life.
I think it was Mark Twain who said that "History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes." At least it's attributed to him. There are certain themes that just keep rolling in humanity. Aren't there? A song just never seems to change. The words here and the words there, but it just seems to keep coming back in the themes that we find in the book of Genesis, around Joseph. The things that we see in the scriptures, particularly in the early parts of the bible are meant more to inform us than tell us this is what it means to be human. This is the human drama. It just is going to keep going on and on, and on, and on until somebody changes the song, until somebody changes the verse. Joseph is one of those people who changes the song. He changes the verse. He gives it a whole new direction. Joseph is that person for whom everything could change with one decision. For himself, for his family, for the world and he does it. Anyone who wants to change the drone of the ongoing song, it just seems to never end and never change the way we deal with one another.
We'd do well to look at the story of Joseph. What do we know about Joseph? Well, Joseph was one of 12 sons of Jacob, also known as Israel. He happened to be the oldest son of Rachel. Jacob's favorite wife. He had four, and because of that, he was hated by his brothers. Not just that, but Joseph had this-- He was a dreamer. He had this habit of sharing his dreams with his brothers. Particularly at the expense of his brothers. His dreams seemed to have a rhythm and a rhythm to them as well. They keep coming back to the theme of at the end of the day, the part of the dream where Joseph was always being elevated and glorified, and his brothers all ended up serving and bowing down and serving him.
Not good in any family, in particular in Joseph's, at one point they'd had enough. They decided to get rid of him. First, they were going to kill him, and then they decided to be merciful and just sell him into slavery. Off he goes to Egypt where because of his own resilience and because somehow God is at work in Joseph's life. He keeps rising to levels of prominence and at each day, he is betrayed or an injustice is done and he sinks to the bottom again, and again, but he keeps rising. Something is going on in Joseph's life.
To the end of that in our story, he rises to the point of being the second only to Pharaoh in terms of his power in Egypt because he had accurately predicted that there was going to be a famine. It is the famine that brings Joseph's family and his brothers looking to buy grain because they don't have enough to eat. They don't recognize Joseph at first and Joseph does and there is this high drama. You may want to read all this on your own. Our part of the story takes place after that. It takes place after the fact that Joseph decided to reconcile with his brothers. To bring Jacob his father and his whole family to Egypt so they would be protected.
It now comes to our passage when Jacob dies. When Joseph's brothers realize that their father was now dead. They said, "What if Joseph bears a grudge against us and wants to pay us back seriously for all the terrible things we did to him?" They approach Joseph and said, "Your father gave orders before he died, telling us this is what you should say to Joseph. Please forgive your brothers' sins and their misdeeds for they did terrible things to you. Now, please forgive the sins of the servants of your father's God." What would you do? Some of us have experienced some terrible things. Most of us experience just the normal things. The normal wrongs, injustices of life.
The things that inform our life, shape it, and sometimes even help give us the strength that we claim for ourselves, but then there are those who have experienced hard things, terrible things. Sometimes unspeakable things. Here's what I've noticed though. Sometimes the people who have just experienced some of the normal bumps of life, some of the normal injustices, some of the things that were wrong, but somehow they stay with them. Somehow they don't just have these things. They aren't just informed, they are imprisoned by them.
They are in chains from these events. They never seem to move on. It becomes part of their identity. It becomes part of who they are. In fact, they don't just have these grievances, these grievances seem to have them. Into the point that for some people, it seems like they have just become a grievance. Then there are those people who have experienced some of the most horrific things that you could think of. Somehow, I don't know quite how that happens, but some of these people are resilient. Some of these people thrive in the midst of it. For some of these people and Joseph is one of those, these become a source even there of God's goodness and God's grace.
They see God at work. At least in Joseph's case, he is able to say, "Not only do I trust God, I trust God for my past. You intended evil, but God decided to use that for good." That means we get to start a new verse. We get to change the tune. I'm not trying to imply that this is easy. It's anything but. There are wounds that people carry that I can't even imagine. What I am trying to say, is that there is a way that some people find, Joseph may be one of those, to take some of the things that have been done, horrible things, wrong things, no argument of how terrible they are, and yet somehow because in that trusting, even those things can become a source of strength and of grace, and grounds to trust God even more.
There is a phrase that I don't like much that gets used a lot including in churches. It's the phrase, "There is a reason for everything, everything happens for a reason." First I don't think that's true. Two, it's not really in the bible, and three, it's not very helpful. It tends to put God on the problems side of things. As if God is the one who's causing this because God has this grand design. Rather than being able to say as with Joseph what you intended for evil, God intends now for good. It's not that everything has a reason, but that there is nothing that happens that God can't redeem. It's really the saying that Paul says thousands of years later when he says, "Listen if God is for us, who can be against us?" It doesn't matter what life throws at us, what other people throw at us, what evil we go through. If God is for us we can trust ourselves to that God. It's almost as if Joseph understood that in trusting. What Joseph is doing is, he's not just releasing his brothers from this past, he's releasing himself as well.
It's almost as if he is agreeing with what Lewis Smedes would later say about forgiveness. That when you forgive someone you are letting someone out of prison and it is you. When we don't forgive, then we have become chained to that event. We have become chained to our past and it is we who aren't free. The invitation that comes from Joseph this day is that there is a different way. We're going to take a moment to reflect on this. As we do in this music, this new song of grace. I want you to think in your own life. What are the events that have changed you?
The unjust ones, the hurts, the wounds. The things that have shaped your life and maybe even right now chained them. What would it mean to walk out of that prison? What would you have to let go? Who would you have to forgive? What would it mean if you don't? God is at work. Can you trust that God is at work in you? Can you trust God, not only for your future but can you trust God with your past? Because when you do, you change the song. You move to a different verse. You start a song of grace.
God is at work. Can you trust that God is working in you, maybe through you? But more than that, God is at work. Will you work with God? That's what this passage shows us, it's not only a trusting of God, but it's a working with God. A determination to be part of what God is doing. When we say that we trust God, it is not an invitation to passivity, as if now it's all up to God. It is really an invitation to a new vocation. A vocation of compassion. A vocation of the generosity of God. That's what Joseph is doing. His brothers come and ask for forgiveness and they are worried and his response is so telling. He says, "Am I God? I'm not here to judge. You don't have to worry." He said, "I will take care of you and I will take care of your children", and he spoke to them reassuringly.
What an amazing picture. I think Joseph may be one of the very first people in the Bible, if not the first one, who seems to catch what God is up to and wants to be a part of that and gives himself to that and it makes all the difference. Can you imagine his family, if he had chosen otherwise? Can you imagine his own life, the imprisonment and the going around and around with the same old verse, the same old song, the same old way of dealing with pain and suffering. Instead, it changes the world.
I'm a fan of Richard Rohr particularly, the insight that he had when he said, "We all have pain and we all have suffering and when it comes, we have two choices. We will either transmit it or, we will transform it." There is no alternative. We will either pass it on. We will push back. We will give it to somebody else or, we will take and somehow transform it and the way we transform it is, somehow to embody, embrace it and let it work for good.
"Which you intended for evil, God intends for good and I'm going to work with God on that." says Joseph. The compassion, it seems to me, is that part where you could do this. You have every right to do this, but you instead chose to do that for the sake of somebody else. Around here, we talk about the habits of hope and one of the ones that we know very well is that, the habit of gratitude. We start, what is something you are grateful for and the habit. The daily habit of either in the morning or in the evening, what are five things for which you are grateful or, if you really want to go crazy, do it at both times [laughs] but here's another practice along that same line that I have found terribly helpful for me and I'm offering it to you today. It is the habit of recognizing where God is at work in your life, and it is particularly where you recognize the spirit of God.
Where it is beginning to emerge and this week, to recognize where you see the compassion of Christ being worked out in people's lives. Albeit imperfectly, it's there. It is those times when somebody could have paid someone back, but instead they chose to pay something forward. It is when they could have avoided something, but they chose to engage, to stop and listen. They didn't have the time. They didn't have that, but they chose anyway to be there. They could have played it safe, but they chose to serve and not protect. When you see that, I believe you are seeing the compassion. You are seeing the path of Joseph. You are seeing the path of the beloved because, every time we do that, we are somehow witnessing that. We believe that we are beloved and we are coming from a different place but we are giving someone a great gift.
When he talked about being on the path of the beloved, the great calling, the great thing that we have by our birth but we also grow into it, the great gift that we can give someone else is the gift of their own belovedness, and we do that when we act with compassion. We are on the path of the beloved. God is at work. This week, how will you work with God?