August 17, 2014
What would you do if a person from your past showed up at your doorstep needing help? However, this isn't just any random person that you once knew. This is a person who made your life miserable. This is the bully who chased you on the playground, or extorted your milk money from you. This is the mean girl who called you nasty names; that girl who seemed to sense whatever it was that you felt most self-conscious about -- your skin, your weight, your hair -- and torment you about it. What would you do if that person came to you, desperate for help?
I have a mean girl in my past. I would like to believe that if she came to me needing help in any way that I would be true to the faith I profess. I would like to believe that I would help her without question or retaliation. I would like to believe that I would forgive and forget. I hope that I have matured enough, both in age and in my faith, to see her not as a mean girl but as a child of God. I would like to believe that if I am able to see her through that lens, that I would help her.
BUT. If this former mean girl happened to show up at my door, and she had, I don't know, aged badly, I wouldn't cry.
I probably shouldn't admit that, but it's true. It would be challenging not to break into a victory dance in celebration of Karma if the girl who made my life so miserable once upon a time looked as bad as she once made me feel. Perhaps I should take a lesson from Joseph in this last passage that we read from Genesis. His brothers, the same brothers who hated him, stripped him of his beautiful coat, threw him in a pit, and sold him into slavery to traders heading to Egypt, now appear before him needing his help. What does Joseph do? He forgives them. He is overcome with emotion, and weeps so loudly that Pharaoh’s entire household hears him. His brothers are dismayed and distraught at seeing him, because surely they were worried about his potential retaliation. But Joseph embraces them, and assures them that they will not starve. He will take care of them, their father, and their families. Joseph even attributes all that has happened to God. His brothers might have been the ones who actually sold him into slavery, but God was the one who sent Joseph ahead of them to "preserve life."
This sounds wonderful, and it should lead to a sermon on forgiveness and reconciliation. But before we go there, let's look at the events that led up to this moment of forgiveness in the passage before us this morning. A lot has happened since last week's text that kicked off the Joseph Cycle. Joseph goes to Egypt as a slave and is bought by a man named Potiphar. Potiphar recognizes Joseph's ability, and Joseph rises in the ranks to become overseer of the household. Potiphar's wife also notices Joseph. She notices that Joseph is handsome and young. She attempts to seduce him. When he runs from her, she falsely accuses him of trying to harm her. This lands Joseph in prison. But even in prison, he makes a name for himself. He interprets the dreams of two fellow prisoners who once served the Pharaoh. Joseph's interpretations prove true. When the Pharaoh himself has disturbing dreams, the former prisoner who’d had his dream interpreted, told the Pharaoh about Joseph and his ability to read the true meaning of a dream. After interpreting the Pharaoh's dreams about seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, Pharaoh makes Joseph the second-in-command over all of Egypt. While different versions translate Joseph’s role as “governor,” I see his position being more like a prime minister. Either way, Joseph is given immeasurable power. He has the ability to determine who will eat and who will go hungry, who will live and who will die.
The famine happens, just as Joseph interpreted that it would. It affects not only Egypt but the whole region, including Canaan. But while other countries had nothing, thanks to Joseph’s planning and preparation Egypt had grain and plenty of it. So people from all over begin flocking to Egypt seeking food. That includes Joseph's brothers. As I understand it, anyone who wanted food had to go before Joseph and ask for it. He had the power to meet someone's need ... or not. When his brothers appear before him, they don't recognize him. The last time they saw Joseph, he was the boy and the brother they hated. But now he is the second biggest bigwig in all of Egypt. He recognizes them immediately. But he doesn't reveal himself. He pretends not to speak Hebrew, and uses interpreters. Joseph accuses them of being spies. He insists they bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, to him. He imprisons Simeon. Joseph has the money that they used to buy grain put back in their sacks, which they see as a sign of misfortune from God. When they bring Benjamin, Joseph orders an elaborate feast so that the brothers can dine with him. Then Joseph frames Benjamin by having his servants put his silver cup in Benjamin's sack to make it look as though Benjamin stole it. He threatens to imprison Benjamin, but Judah makes an impassioned plea on Benjamin's behalf. Finally Joseph can take it no more. That is where we find ourselves today. Joseph sends all the Egyptians away and tells his brothers his true identity. He forgives them, assures them of the divine intervention and purpose in the whole ordeal, and we have our happy ending.
Do we? First, Joseph's actions are not those of a truly forgiving person; at least not as I understand it. Biblical scholars seem to have mixed opinions about this. One commentator says that Joseph does all this to test his brothers, to make sure they have truly repented of their sins against him. Another commentator sees Joseph's actions as an abuse of power. He uses his power in order to exploit, torment, and manipulate his brothers for as long as possible. His weeping is merely crocodile tears. Second, what about the role of God in all of this? Joseph claims that while his brothers intended what they did to him as evil, God intended it as good. Does that mean that God caused all of this to happen, or did God work through the evil of humans to bring about good?
While we wrestle with these questions, what we can't take lightly is the function and acceptance of slavery throughout the entire story. Joseph was sold into slavery. He rises out of slavery to a position of unchecked power. Yes, he does forgive his brothers. But what we won't read about Joseph is that he created slaves out of all the people in Egypt. It was Joseph who made people give him everything in order to receive food. When the wealth from the people dried up, he enslaved them instead. Joseph made possible the system of slavery and oppression in Egypt that would devastate his own people for hundreds of years. Was God the cause of that? When Joseph invites his entire family to come to Egypt and live and be well, God comes to Jacob/Israel in a dream. God assures Jacob that it is all right for them to move to Egypt. God will continue to be faithful. God's promise of a multitude of descendants and a great nation will not be forgotten in the land of Egypt. Again, does this mean that God will work through the evil we perpetrate against one another, or is God evil’s cause?
I think we have to take the issue of slavery in these stories and in the stories to come seriously. With human trafficking on the rise, slavery is not something that only occurred in the past. It is a real and present evil. I don't believe, I can't believe that God is the source and cause of this institution of slavery. If anything, I think God calls all of us to do whatever we can to fight it, just as we are called to fight injustice and oppression wherever we encounter it.
But I think there is another aspect of slavery to be found here. Something I'd never given much thought to before preparing to preach this passage. Jacob and his family were already living in the Promised Land. They were inhabitants of Canaan. Canaan is the land God will lead them to in the Exodus. When we think of the Biblical Egypt, not the modern nation, we associate it, consciously or unconsciously, with oppression, evil, slavery. God's chosen people must be rescued from this terrible place. That’s all I’ve thought of the Biblical Egypt. It was a terrible place from which to be rescued. But in our story, in the Joseph Cycle itself, Egypt is where the food is. Egypt is where salvation from starvation is possible. Joseph rose to power in Egypt. Joseph will rescue his family by bringing them to Egypt. Egypt was, in a sense, the new Promised Land. While Joseph was brought there through slavery, his family wasn't. They went willingly.
I wonder if we don't do the same. I wonder if we don’t go towards what we think is good, what we think will save us, and wind up being enslaved by that supposed good instead. The philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote that nothing can be considered as absolutely good except for a good will. Other things, attributes, qualities that we consider good can also be bad. Intelligence, fortune, fame, power, talents – all these can be distorted for bad as well as used for good. So maybe we willingly go towards what is good, but wind up needing rescue as surely as the Israelites will need rescuing from Egypt in centuries to come.
Here’s another thought. While I don’t agree with Joseph that God caused his slavery and famine and suffering so that God could make good happen, I do believe God intends us for good. I do believe that God created us as good, wants good for us, and never gives up on bringing us back to what is true, what is right, what is good. Not only does God work through each of us, through our mistakes and bad choices and failings, to bring about good for all, God calls us – always calls us – to do what is right. God works through us, and God calls us to work for the good for all of God’s children. We may be unsure in the moment of God’s grace and intervention, but God is indeed working through all of us, bringing good out of bad, hope out of chaos, love out of evil. God continues to call us to be the people we were created to be. Stay tuned. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.