Written by Steven Liechty
Sunday, August 17, 2014
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Bold Moves/Offering Forgiveness
Holy One of Israel, covenant-keeper, you restore what is lost, heal what is wounded, and gather in those who have been rejected. Give us the faith to speak as steadfastly as did the Canaanite woman, that the outcast may be welcomed and all people may be blessed. Amen.
Then 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. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph 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.
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. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither ploughing nor harvest. 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 thereósince there are five more years of famine to comeóso that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.' And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here." Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin's neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
All readings for the Week
Genesis 45:1-15 with Psalm 133 or
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 with Psalm 67
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28
1. From a story that stretches over many chapters, why do you think the lectionary lifts up this passage?
2. With whom do you identify in this story? Why?
3. How do you interpret Joseph's interpretation of these events?
4. What lessons might we learn about Joseph's attitude and actions toward his brothers?
5. Is your life "larger than you imagined"? What would that mean?
Reflection by Kathryn Matthews Huey
After hearing last week's story about the brothers of Joseph selling him into slavery in Egypt, we might notice two themes in this later episode in the story: providence and forgiveness. The "why things happen the way they do" (or why bad things happen to good people), and the utter grace and healing power of forgiveness: both are powerful, powerful things at work in this text and in our lives as well. In the story of Joseph, these two tracks converge beautifully.
That story is actually a long one that begins back in Chapter 37, when the stage was set with Joseph in a caravan, on his way to Egypt, and ends in Chapter 50, when he dies an old man, after a rich and adventurous life. Much happens in between, and the lectionary gives us only two snapshots from the narrative in these two weeks, but today's text offers an amazing and moving conclusion to the brothers' awful crime.
If last week's reading ended in despair and sadness, today's reading will eventually overflow with joy. However, at its beginning, when the brothers have returned from fetching their younger brother (at Joseph's command), they must be exhausted. All of these men have changed since they parted, as Gene Tucker describes them: "A spoiled brat becomes a mature man who is generous and compassionate. The vigorous and aggressive brothers of chapter 37 are seen in chapter 45 as bent with age and the effects of their struggles."
This "mature man" offers forgiveness that is astounding in its freely flowing abundance. Even Joseph himself is overcome, in fact, and he weeps so loudly that the Egyptians outside the room, all the way to Pharaoh's house, can hear him. The twin themes of providence and forgiveness are heard in Joseph's first words to his brothers, once he has revealed his identity in the simple statement that must have hit them "like a ton of bricks" (the text says that they couldn't respond because they were so "dismayed," but "dumbfounded" is better): "I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt" (45:4b).
Joseph's brilliant insight
Right away, Joseph tells them not to be distressed or worried or even guilt-ridden. One has to wonder just what was going through their minds; by now we have some sense of these men, and they're not the most illustrious ancestors! In effect, his reassurance indicates his forgiveness, but it also points out why that forgiveness comes so easily to him, for, in a brilliant flash of insight, he sees God's hand at work in his life. So that's what all of that was about, he 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 the famine (and God had made promises about this people being numerous as the stars!).
Joseph explains to his brothers why things had to happen the way they did--or how they turned out well in the end--and then he gets right to the celebration. Go back now, fast, and get our father, he says, and come back here with your families and all your possessions, and make Egypt your new home so that I can take care of you in the hard days that still lie ahead. Joseph's compassion and joy seem to know no bounds.
Was all of this "God's will"?
As much as we appreciate Joseph's deep and positive faith, and as much as we see the purpose of the long Joseph story as explaining how the Israelites went to Egypt, we might want to linger a bit on his theological reflection on God's will. Last week, Barbara Brown Taylor wrote that Joseph "listened to his life" to understand what God was about. Walter Brueggemann, on the other hand, says that he not only listened but also watched: "Joseph, man of faith, takes a second hard look at his life. He is willing to host the hidden, inscrutable, unresolved purpose of God for his life that is beyond his control....[and] trust a purpose for his life that is larger than his own horizon." Brueggemann writes of the "hiddenness" of God at work in our lives, the "something hidden, inscrutable, playful, and unresolved" that requires trust in God's purposes even when we can't see or understand them.
Life, we hope, is not random and without meaning or purpose, but it's not always easy to perceive what is really happening around us, or why. In the big picture, though, it would be easy to say that God, like some divine puppeteer, made the brothers do something evil (in order to accomplish something good later on), but that claim would diminish our human freedom and responsibility. (Joseph, after all, reminds his brothers in his first statement ñ in case they've forgotten ñ that they were the ones who sold him into slavery.) Or "post-moderns" may say that Joseph was just reading into the events and putting his own spin on them.
Brueggemann speaks not only of hiddenness, but also of God's ability to "see before (pro-video)" and provide, or act, in ways that are mysterious, wondrous, and good: we might say that Joseph has undergone a conversion, and indeed Brueggemann attributes this to Joseph's new and hard-won understanding that "God has been at work well beyond him." His theological reflection is about God at work in his own life, but in ways much greater than we often use to measure providence. 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, and I decided to embrace the largeness that is God's gift for my life." Words to live by, in any story, in any century!
A really big moment
This is a big moment, really big, and Joseph cries out and weeps loudly. He seems to feel no anger at his brothers, but only joy at being able to provide for them and the father they share, and the younger brother he loves. He also feels gratitude and awe for God's hand at work in his life. James Newsome says that "Joseph's virtual collapse in the presence of his brothers reveals his awareness of God's role in his life as much as it reveals his humanity."
It seems that this dreamer has learned to interpret more than his dreams, or perhaps he's learned to recognize a dream of his waking hours: to be reunited with his family, and then to use his power for good. Barbara Brown Taylor says that Joseph saw a pattern in what was happening in that palace: "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."
And the beauty of this living work of art lies in his exuberant forgiveness of brothers who resented him and showed him no mercy when the shoe was on the other foot. When they had power, they ignored his pleas for mercy (they remember doing so in 42:21), but now Joseph is in power, and he freely chooses reconciliation. When Joseph looks at his life, however, he doesn't see himself as a victim, Barbara Brown Taylor says: "When he looked at his life, he did not see a series of senseless tragedies. He saw a lighted path."
Forgiveness and joy
It would be easy to use this as an example for us today in our family relationships, but sensitivity to the suffering of those who have been injured or damaged is paramount. However, a larger arc here is one of extravagant, freely given forgiveness that seems to give Joseph as much joy as it gives his brothers relief (as forgiveness often does). Brueggeman describes this kind of freedom and joy and the creativity unleashed by them: "When we live according to our fears and our hates, our lives become small and defensive, lacking the deep, joyous generosity of God." But "Life 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."
Hank Langknecht suggests a communal interpretation of this story, challenging the community of faith to "reflect on the ways in which God has sustained and prospered it even through stony roads, human brokenness, and bizarre ironiesÖ." If we as a people see ourselves as both injured and injurer, both blessed and forgiven, perhaps we will be able to help one another do so as individuals, too, each of us in our own life, forgiven and blessed.
An additional note on Psalm 133 and Psalm 67
For ancient Israel, the image of oil, precious oil, running down over the head and beard and even the collar of the high priest ("Aaron") is a richly sensuous description of the profound joy experienced by a community that has found common ground, common identity, common purpose, and has risen above disagreements, division, and past hurts. So is the image of "dew," especially in the arid climate in which the psalmist lived. The Genesis story of Joseph tells of reconciliation and reunion that are so powerful, so longed for, that Joseph weeps "loudly" on the neck of his brother Benjamin, a different kind of anointing, perhaps, with tears instead of oil, but just as precious, just as costly, nevertheless. Looking to the high priest as one who stands before God for the whole people, the psalmist sees a sign of unity and of bonding together, of communal wellbeing rather than individual good fortune. Perhaps it's possible to pursue one's spiritual life alone, but through the ages our natural inclination seems to draw us toward others for support, encouragement, inspiration, and a sense of accountability. We share our stories, break bread together, grieve together, and, as this psalm recalls, rejoice together in the sure knowledge of God's good blessings.
What are times that your church experienced a dramatic moment of unity, the memory of which may inspire you to a renewed sense of who you are as a community of faith? What are the experiences and feelings that Joseph and his family, and the people of the psalmist's time, share with your church, in its time and place? Does your congregation think of itself as a family of faith, with a need for unity, even if that requires reconciliation and healing? In what ways does the United Church of Christ experience unity and rejoice in all that we share? How can we go beneath the basic facts of our history to recognize the divisions and conflicts that have always existed, not just in our present day, but in every occasion of growth and every courageous step? What are ways that the Stillspeaking God may be calling us to find and rejoice in our unity, in our common ground, our common identity, and our common purpose? Do we look first for what unites us, or for what divides? As we read about our ancestors in faith celebrating in the extravagance of God, what are the precious oils, the extravagances that we might offer up in celebration of every moment of reconciliation, healing, and joy?
For a preaching version of this reflection (with book titles), go to http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/august-17-2014.html.
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For Further Reflection
Mother Teresa of Calcutta, 20th century
"If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other."
Marian Wright Edelman, 21st century
"Whoever said anybody has a right to give up?"
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
"All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen."
Richard Rohr, 20th century
"If we do not transform our pain, we will transmit it."
St. John of the Cross, 16th century
"In the evening, we will be judged on love."
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