Text: Genesis 45:1-15
It’s that time again. Students and teachers are headed back to school very soon. I hope our families with school-age children have had a good break unlike what one family experienced. Summer vacation was over and Little Johnny returned to school. Only two days later his teacher phoned Johnny’s mother to tell her he was misbehaving. “Wait a minute,” Mom said. “I had Johnny with me for three months and I never called you when he misbehaved!”
Some of our families have kids who will be heading off to kindergarten. This can be a stressful time for parents and kids, but tears are more likely to be shed by the parents than the children. The kids are ready for discovery and bring all their energy and creativity with them from the very first day. For example, a kindergarten teacher was observing her classroom of children while they were drawing. She would occasionally walk around to see each child’s work. As she got to one little girl who was working diligently, she asked what the drawing was. The child replied, “I’m drawing God.” The teacher paused and said, “But no one knows what God looks like.” Without missing a beat, or looking up from her desk, the girl replied, “They will in a minute.”
Our text for this mid-August Sunday gets us close to the climax of the long and sometimes sordid tale of Joseph, son of Jacob and grandson of Isaac. Remember him? If you’re from my generation or older, he was the boy with the coat of many colors made especially for him by his father—although our translation describes it only as “a long robe with sleeves.” If you’re a bit younger, he was the kid in the musical about a “technicolor dreamcoat.” A few weeks ago Nancy’s notable sermon on gay marriage included the story of how Joseph’s father Jacob worked seven years for his beloved Rachel, only to be tricked by his father-in-law who gave him her sister Leah instead. Well, today’s text is a continuation of that story. Jacob finally received Rachel as his wife and she bore him two sons, Joseph and Benjamin, late in his life. He had ten older sons by Leah and two household maids. Because Jacob loved Rachel so much, her child Joseph was adored as well and became his father’s favorite son. As a young boy Joseph had a dream that his ten older brothers would bow down to him. Since he didn’t have sense enough to keep the dream to himself, he wasn’t very popular with the other boys. In fact, he may have been what we would call a spoiled brat.
Finally Joseph received so much favoritism that his brothers grew tired of it and decided to get rid of him. So they sold him into slavery and told their father a wild animal had eaten him. They even went to the trouble to kill an animal and put its blood on Joseph’s clothes for proof of his demise. Not exactly a happy family, this one. But as biblical stories often do, this tale has a surprising outcome. Joseph winds up a slave in Egypt. But he does well and becomes successful, then is unfairly imprisoned. As foreshadowed earlier, he has a gift for interpreting dreams. The pharaoh hears about the gift of this prisoner; Joseph accurately interprets a dream that predicts a major famine; and he winds up in the court of the pharaoh. By the time the famine arrives, Joseph is assistant to the pharaoh overseeing the kingdom. He has control of all of its stockpiles of grain and his brothers are about to starve to death. So they travel to Egypt and find themselves in front of their younger brother begging for food. When Joseph reveals his identify to his brothers, they are both shocked and afraid.
This family anchors the story of our faith. Yet in contemporary terms, it is quite dysfunctional. Trickery and treachery seem to be around every corner. But this should feel familiar to us. Dysfunction, trickery, and even treachery are all around us these days. Even if our loved ones are pretty healthy, our congress is even more dysfunctional than Joseph’s family. Politics trumps the common good at every turn. Our N.C. General Assembly is following a national game plan to dismantle protections for the environment, women’s health, gay marriage, freedom of the ballot box, and just about everything else many of us hold dear. But at least we have some input here because we can exercise our right to vote for these people…or not. In addition to our own American mess, we’re also in a time of global dysfunction. With the desperate condition of the economies in places like Greece and Spain; unrest in Syria; starvation in Somalia; seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and riots in London of all places, we can feel overwhelmed. Each troubled situation impacts schizophrenic markets, which impact the prices we pay; the income we earn; the retirement accounts that await those of us who are lucky enough to have one. Life is just really heavy these days and it’s easy to feel helpless about the unending crises we see in the news. Yet it’s our task to respond to the heaviness and anxiety in our world as people of faith who care about others and long for a just world.
In 2004 author Robert Fulghum wrote a now much-beloved book entitled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Remember his advice? It included things like: Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush. Very good advice, all of it. If everyone followed the rules we teach five year-olds, our world would be a different place. This morning in addition to Fulghum’s kindergarten agenda, I want to suggest that at least some of what we need to know right now we can learn from Joseph. See what you think.
First rule: grow beyond your wounds. Joseph is an extraordinary example of this. As I noted earlier, he didn’t start out as someone you would want to emulate. But the spoiled child became a mature man who was generous and compassionate. By any measure, his brothers betrayed him in a despicable way, selling a teenager who was very attached to his father into slavery in a foreign country. In his day, he was unlikely to survive and certainly could have no expectation of seeing his family or his homeland again. What his brothers did was the height of cruelty. And yet over the years of separation from all he held dear, Joseph grew up emotionally and spiritually. He learned to go beyond his own self-interest and narcissism. He also learned, it seems, to forgive. By the time his brothers appeared in pharaoh’s court, Joseph had let go of the past and opened himself to new possibilities for a future with his family.
Now, to be sure, Joseph is powerful and totally in control when his brothers show up to ask for help. That’s not the way it works for most wounded souls—and we all fit that category to a greater or lesser degree. And yet his position provided the power to respond to his brothers’ betrayal with hatred and vengeance. It’s fair to assume that he could have had them killed and suffered no repercussions. But he did not. He chose not to act out of old wounds he could have nursed along for decades. In the words of Bruce Epperly, Joseph set their treachery behind him to “widen his circle of care to include those who had betrayed him.”
How did Joseph do this? Because he was able to see God at work in his misfortune. Now this is not the same thing as God causing his misfortune. I’m not sure what Joseph believed about God’s will and all that. But it is clear that Joseph did believe that in spite of the reprehensible activity of his brothers, what happened to him became a vehicle for sustaining the life of his family. In the words of Walter Brueggemann, Joseph took a second hard look at his life. He was willing to trust a purpose for him that was larger than his own horizon. Says Barbara Brown Taylor, Joseph embraced the largeness that was God’s gift for his life.
This is not an easy thing to do. Yet it is essential in stressful times like these that we bring our healthiest selves to our lives and relationships. Fear of an unknown future, anxiety about how we will provide for ourselves and our families, even grief over the disappearance of the safety net that protects our society’s most vulnerable are all taking their toll on us these days. And that fear, anxiety, and grief can easily remind us of old wounds and bring out the worst in us. When stressed, we tend to revert to what feels comfortable—and what feels comfortable to me is sometimes not my best self. Just ask my family and co-workers! So in this globally anxious time, let’s try to follow Joseph’s example by maturing beyond whatever was hard in the past to face the future openly. Let’s set a goal of creating a “wider circle of care” in these days. God knows the circle of people who need our care grows bigger and bigger every day.
Second rule of Joseph: do everything you can to preserve life. One of the very best ways to deal with stress is to move outside oneself to give life and hope to others. Joseph accepted that preserving the life of his family was his job. He did not have to do it. He had every reason not to. Although this long story doesn’t include a lot of God language, it seems Joseph knew that the preservation of life was more than a casual task. It was his life’s sacred purpose.
We hear a lot about people who are “pro-life.” By definition, “pro-life” means one is “for life” – in favor of life. One would assume that means life in all its forms…not just before birth but afterward as well. Not just human life but all life on the planet. Not just kind, generous, healthy, sweet-smelling life but life that isn’t so kind or generous, that isn’t healthy. Life with an odor is still life. You could argue that Joseph’s brothers fit the latter category. They were terribly cruel toward Joseph and Jacob their father. But Joseph was truly pro-life. In addition to saving his family, he helped the pharaoh prepare for a seven-year famine so that the Egyptian people could survive. One of the most powerful verses in the bible is found in the first chapter of Exodus. It comes after the rest of the story about Joseph’s reunion with his beloved father. It says, “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” This was the beginning of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt that led to the calling of Moses to lead his people to freedom. Joseph preserved life and when he was gone, his life-giving force was perverted into a death-dealing menace from which the Hebrew people had to escape in order for their life to continue. In these anxious days, let’s look for ways to support and preserve life.
Third lesson: reconcile if you can. It isn’t always possible or even the right thing to do, but we don’t try hard enough to reconcile with others and or perhaps even with ourselves. In July I attended the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America’s Peace Camp where the theme was “So You Must Forgive.” Rob Voyle, an Australian Anglican priest turned psychologist, was our guest teacher. Reconciliation, says Rob, is the work of love in the world. It’s not the same as forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn’t require the participation of the person who has wronged us. Forgiveness is about me. We have a mandate to forgive in our gospel. But Jesus didn’t mandate that we reconcile with others because we can’t do that alone. Reconciliation requires another person’s participation. We can forgive persons who have died, but we can’t reconcile with them. And Rob offered those of us at Peace Camp another provocative idea: we should not reconcile with people who do not share our core values. We can and should forgive them; we are called to love even our enemies; but he suggests that we should not reconcile in every situation. In fact he quipped, “Loving your enemy means wishing him or her well, but you don’t have to be the “well”. Forgiveness is about the past; reconciliation is about the future.
Joseph was able to reconcile with his brothers because he forgave them. He wished his past had been different, but he made peace with the fact that he couldn’t change it. And he could see how God had used his past to create a new future. God didn’t cause the harm done to him, but still used it for good. Says Barbara Brown Taylor, Joseph was able to reconcile because he seemed to understand that God is 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 such, he did his best to reconcile with his brothers and it worked. It would work for us more often than we think if we tried. Let’s try.
Final rule of Joseph, and this comes from a different Joseph: Keep your sense of humor. This rule was written by Joseph, my dad. I’ve told you before that he had an amazing repertoire of squeaky clean jokes, many like this one: The roundest knight at King Arthur’s round table was Sir Cumference. Groaners they were, at least most of them, and he had one for every occasion. One of my most vivid memories of him was when he’d say, “Did you hear the one about…” One of the regrets of my life is that we didn’t write them all down. Daddy had a terrific memory (which I did not inherit) that helped him remember his jokes, but they were a manifestation of his awareness of the humor in life. The world is full of tragedy. Life is very dark for many people, and I do not wish to make light of the pain. But Joseph Tamsberg taught me, or certainly tried to, that a sense of humor goes a long way. It helps us grow beyond our wounds; it preserves and promotes life; and laughter can even be a tool in reconciliation.
In this era of high anxiety and apprehension about the future, it helps to remember that nothing is too bent for the artist God to use in bringing love and justice to our world. It also helps to follow some basic rules as we try to be loving, reasonably calm people. These rules are simple to state but often hard to embody. Our chances of living them are increased substantially if we do it in the company of a caring community of people who share our core values. Good company really does matter when we are trying to do hard things. So as you reflect on the lessons we can learn from Joseph, don’t forget kindergarten rule number 13: When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.