Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | August 17, 2014

2014.08.17 “Stories from the Family of Faith: Joseph, Part 2” – Genesis 45: 1 – 15

Central United Methodist Church
Stories from the Family of Faith:
Joseph, Part 2
Pastor David L. Haley
Genesis 45: 1 – 15
August 17th, 2014 JosephThePatriarch

“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 plowing 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 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.’ 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.” – Genesis 45: 1 – 15, New Revised Standard Version

One of the most amazing lives of our time – indeed, of all time – was that of South African President Nelson Mandela, who died last year.  After being imprisoned for 27 years, Mandela rose from prison to become the leader of his country, and a man admired in every country. But perhaps even more amazing was that – after all that he had suffered – Mandela could forgive those who imprisoned him, and live without bitterness and resentment.  As Mandela said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

I have not read that this happened, but I wonder if Nelson Mandela was inspired by a life similar to his, the story of Joseph, the Biblical patriarch whose story we continue today. Or, as we have come to know him in our time – thanks to Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber – Joseph of the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

We began Joseph’s story last week, in Genesis 37; with only two readings, it is a story we only get to skim. Joseph, as the youngest and favorite son of Jacob, had a lot going for him: his good looks, his visionary dreams, but most especially his father’s love. This is how he got his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which – as we also learned last week – might only have been a robe with long sleeves.  Ironically, it was all this together – combined with the fact that he was likely an arrogant little snot – that earned him his brother’s resentment and his ensuing downfall. His brothers turned against him, threw him into a pit, and sold him into slavery.  Then, presenting his bloodstained robe, they deceived their father, Jacob, telling him that Joseph was dead, attacked by an animal.

If the theme last week was family – specifically family favoritism – and fortune – as in Joseph’s bad fortune; the same themes continue this week, but in a different way. This week we consider Jacob’s good fortune, and again family – that eventually he was able to forgive his brothers, for what they had done to him. What hearing Joseph’s story does for us, is to give us an opportunity to consider what we make of the “ups-and-downs” of our lives, and specifically the importance of forgiveness in attaining integrity and maturity in our lives.

First, what is the role of good fortune in Joseph’s life, and our lives?  What I mean by fortune is not wealth, as we often use the word, but “good fortune” as in luck, or what we Christians call divine providence. Because what was even more notable about Joseph than his amazing coat was his good fortune in being able to rise up out of whatever pit life threw him into. This is what the Bible means when it says of Joseph, “The Lord was with him.”  In fact, in one of the earliest English translations of the Scriptures, by John Wycliffe in the late 14th century, Wycliffe actually translated it: “The Lord was with Joseph, and he was a luekie felowe.”

If you read more the story of Joseph in the last ten chapters of Genesis, you will see that Joseph is up, and Joseph is down, but never for long. He starts off a boy wonder, but then gets stripped of his robe, and thrown in a pit.  He’s sold into slavery, to an official in Egypt named Potiphar, where he works his way up from slave to steward. But then Mrs. Potiphar takes a liking to him and tries to seduce him, which he resists.  But as Jacob runs naked from the scene and Mrs. Potiphar holds his clothing in her hand, it doesn’t look good. Who you going to believe? Stripped again, into the dungeon he goes.  Someone has suggested that in Joseph’s story, clothing is a sub-theme:  you can always tell how Joseph is doing by how much clothing he has on.

Once in prison, Joseph rises again. Imprisoned with Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker (wonder what they did wrong?), Joseph interprets their dreams. Two years later – (did you hear me?) – two years later, Pharaoh has a bad dream, and Joseph is called in to interpret.  Sporting new clothes and a shave, he rises quickly to become CFO (Chief Financial Officer) of Egypt, where, by his dream interpretation and management abilities in storing and allotting grain, he literally decides who lives and who dies.  What is it with this guy? Is he a lucky fellow, or is “The Lord with him,” as the storyteller tells us?

And what is it with us? To what do we owe our rising and falling in life? Is it good luck and good fortune, the right place at the right time? Is it self-help and hard work, pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps out of whatever pit we are in, as all those self-help books would have us believe? Or is, as was said of Joseph, that “The Lord is with us.” Or is it a combination of all three?

My problem with this theology is its implications for those who don’t make it, who far outnumber those who do.  Especially this week I can’t help but think of Robin Williams. Like many, I am crushed by his apparent suicide (he was only five days younger than me): what a brilliant, funny, good man.  Starting out here just north of us, on Chicago’s north shore, working his way up.  When he was at Julliard in New York, he was so poor, his roommate Christopher Reeve often paid for his food. Williams paid his dues and worked his way up: as a comedian and as an actor, he made so many good movies. He even made a whole movie about depression and suicide, one of my favorites, “What Dreams May Come.”

That’s the thing about suicide; in most cases, we are only left to guess at what was in the mind of a person who completes it. Mental illness, especially depression, is a risk factor; those of us who do not suffer from severe depression or bipolar illness have little appreciation what those who suffer from it live with, what blackness and despair they face on a daily basis. Add an addiction and the risk is higher, although his wife indicated that his sobriety was intact. It could even be, as his wife reported, that his diagnosis of early Parkinson’s could have been a factor; that, looking into the future, comic genius that he was, he just couldn’t stand the thought of his slow demise, and what it would mean for him and for those he loved. Frankly, as often the case with suicide, we may never know. It has been said that those who commit suicide transfer their problems to those who are their survivors.  What I most want to reiterate is that for those who have had the thought cross their mind: no matter how bad it is, there are people who care, people who can help, it is never too dark or too late to reach out and seek help.

So, with regard to fortune, both scientifically and theologically, we are finally left with mystery, which neither the best psychiatrists or most profound theologians can predict: why some like Joseph succeed, and others like Robin Williams, sink deeper into the pit.  As Nelson Mandela said, “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”  Even if, it is sometimes only by the sheer grace of God that we do that.  As the old saying goes, “There but by the grace of God go I.”

But now to the second part of Joseph’s story, getting around to the messy business of forgiving his brothers for what they did to him.  Soon word gets around that even in the midst of famine, Egypt is eating well.  So who shows up, straight from the land of Canaan, than Joseph’s brothers. They don’t recognize him, all grown up as he is, and dressed in his Egyptian outfit. Funny thing: Remember that dream Joseph had about his brothers bowing down to him, the one that got him into trouble? Yep, it’s coming true.

Does Joseph forgive them? No, he decides to have a little fun with them first, play a few games. He accuses them of being spies, and sends them home to return with their little brother, Benjamin, whom Jacob had kept at home for safekeeping. Before they go, Joseph slips the silver they paid for the grain back into their luggage. They return to Jacob and discover the silver; what’s up with that?

Soon the food runs out and they go back to Egypt, where Joseph invites them over, to eat, drink, and get toasted. Once again, Joseph puts the silver they paid into their luggage, except, this time, he includes his own silver goblet, the one with a big “J” engraved upon it.  After they depart, he accuses them of stealing.  Things look bad, until finally, Joseph outs himself to his brothers, who are dumbfounded. This is, after all, the guy they threw into a pit and sold into slavery. Joseph’s first question is, “Is Dad still alive?”  And his second is: “Oh, that – that thing back there that you did? “Forget about it: “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”  That is impressive.  Wait, does that mean God’s will is worked out through jealousy, deceit, and violence?

Some might observe how much Joseph has matured over the Joseph we met last week. The young Joseph, though gifted, was naïve and insensitive. The Joseph of these chapters, educated in the School of Hard Knocks, or as we might call them in Joseph’s case, “the days without clothes,” can read people with a glance. The younger Joseph dreams of the day when his brothers will bow down to him; now, when that day arrives, he can’t keep from weeping, which he does four times. The young Joseph had to have been terrified by what happened, possibly considering it the worst that COULD happen; the Joseph in these chapters has come to understand that – as bad as it was – God has used it to bring about good, not only to him, but to Egypt, to his father and his brothers, and the nation of Israel who would come from them.

Even so, even in these chapters, Joseph is no saint.  He is still – as we all are, while we live – a work in progress. Furthermore, it just goes to show that as glibly as we talk about forgiveness, seeing how the teaching of Jesus is shot through with it, forgiveness is never easy, in both Nelson Mandela and Joseph’s case, taking the better part of a lifetime.  Forgiveness of those who have wronged us is never instantaneous; it is a process that slowly takes place in our hearts and minds, until one day we realize it is within the realm of possibility.  Nevertheless, for integrity and maturity in life, not to mention walking the Jesus way, forgiveness of those who wronged us is essential.  Nelson Mandela put it this way: “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

The story progresses: imagine Jacob’s surprise when his sons report to him: (1) “That story we told you about Joseph? It’s was a lie, (2) Jacob is alive, and (3) he’s practically the king of Egypt! The whole family moves to Egypt, financed by Pharaoh.  Jacob finally dies, and wants to be buried in Canaan. The rabbis say as Joseph goes back to Canaan, carrying Jacob’s bones, he passes the very pit into which his brothers had thrown him. He goes so far as to stop to say a blessing over it, as the place that saved and redeemed his life.

Author Frederick Buechner put it this way:

“Alost as much as it is the story of how Israel was saved from famine and extinction, it is the story of how Joseph was saved as a human being. It would be interesting to know which of the two achievements cost God the greater effort and which was the one he was prouder of.” (Frederick Buechner, originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words)

Whether like Joseph, or Nelson Mandela in our time, what are the challenges and troubles in our lives, that – though we may not even know it – are saving and redeeming us, both as human beings and as God’s instruments, towards the blessing of all God’s people?  Amen.

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