A sermon preached on July 10th, 2011 based upon Genesis 45: 1 – 8, right before setting off on a two week trip with my family.
Everybody loves a good story. It’s why we turn on the TV, go to the movies, read a book. We’re looking for a good story.
The Bible is among other things a really good story book. It is full of stories we are invited to climb inside and let shape us.
If we ask, what is required for a good story? The answer is some sort of conflict, adversity, obstacle for the character or characters to overcome.
The Joseph story has plenty of this sort of thing. Joseph was the eleventh of twelve sons in an old fashioned, very modern, complicated, blended, dysfunctional family. The Father Jacob had two wives, the one who bore the first ten, and the second, his preferred wife, who bore him Joseph and his youngest son, Benjamin.
Joseph was gifted and precocious, and something of a brat. He had this habit of telling dreams at the breakfast table in which his brothers and father all end up bowing down to him. He was also a tattle tale who reported his brother mistakes to the father.
He was clearly his father’s favorite, whose work assignments were light compared to that of his older brothers. His father gave him a beautiful coat of many colors to wear while they got by with tee shirts and jeans.
Not surprisingly, he evoked a jealousy in his brothers that turned into downright hatred. One day when the sons were out working the herds they spotted the brat – 17 at the time – coming out to them with his coat of many colors and an evil idea arose up within them. They took hold of Joseph and threw him into a pit with the idea of killing him. Some traveling businessmen happened to pass by at that moment and they decided to sell him to them instead of kill him. They took their brother’s robe, tore it apart, slaughtered a goat and soaked the robe in the goat’s blood. Then they took the bloody robe to their father and said, “Oh, my, it looks like Joseph got eaten by a lion!”
Joseph was taken to Egypt where he ended up working for a general named Potiphar. Things started to look up for Joseph. His gifts shown through, and Potiphar put him in charge of his household. With his good looks, Joseph caught the attention of Potiphar’s wife, who tried to get Joseph to sleep with her, but he would not. Angered by the rejection, Potiphar’s wife claimed that Joseph had tried to rape her, and he ended up in prison.
Life’s setbacks can really get us down. We lack the big picture.
Joseph might have spent the rest of his days in prison, but once more his gifts shown forth. Pharaoh was troubled by some reoccurring dreams he was having, and he was told that there was a prisoner who showed a knack for dream interpretation. Joseph is brought to Pharaoh, and quickly reveals to him the meaning of his dreams: there will be seven years of abundant harvest followed by seven years of draught and famine.
Pharaoh is so pleased by Joseph’s wisdom that he makes him in charge of the Department of Agriculture, and later his right hand man. Joseph organizes the country to live moderately in the years of abundance, storing away grain for the famine to come. As a result, when the famine arrives, millions of lives are saved.
In a fascinating plot twist, the draught brings Joseph’s family to the edge of starvation. Joseph’s father hears of the store houses of grain in Egypt and sends his brothers to Pharaoh, for the draught has left them on the edge of starvation. When they arrive, Joseph recognizes them, but they don’t recognize him. He’s all grown up now, wearing Pharaoh’s fancy threads, and speaking Egyptian.
How will Joseph respond? Emotions whirl within him. He remembers the despair of the pit his brothers cast him down into, and old hurt and anger that has been buried in his heart arises within him. He jerks them around, accusing them of being spies. Terrified, they beg their case. Finally Joseph allows them to leave, but he hides some silverware in their baggage, and then has his guards find it. He accuses them of being thieves. They assume they are done for.
But there is something else inside of Joseph beside the urge for revenge, what Abraham Lincoln called our “better angels.” He recognizes that this is, after all, his own flesh and blood. Perhaps he realizes the hand he played in alienating his brothers. Perhaps his awareness of his own good fortune under God’s providence calls for graciousness on his part. He longs to be reconciled.
Joseph sends all of the Egyptians out of the room, leaving him alone with his brothers. And then he reveals himself, “I am your brother Joseph.” They are stunned, unable to speak. Joseph begins to cry so loudly that everybody hears his wailing in the surrounding homes.
We’re funny, us people. Somebody we are connected to hurts us, and in our anger we turn our backs on that person, declaring that we no longer care about them. The truth, of course, is that we do care, care deeply, but we are afraid to go to the place where Joseph was willing to go, the place where the heart wrenching tears come.
Joseph declares that God has taken the evil intentions of his brothers and brought about good from them. Many starving people – including his own flesh and blood – have been saved by the peculiar turn of events that began with their selling him into slavery.
In a good story, change is brought about in the course of dealing with the adversity. In Joseph’s case, the change is both outward: the effects of the famine are diminished. But the change also happens on the inside as well: Joseph’s character is changed. He becomes more Christ-like.
In the men’s group on Fridays we’ve been listening to an author who points out the claim made in the New Testament that Christ has always been there, from the beginning of time, working behind the scenes. This isn’t Jesus of Nazareth, but the second person of the trinity – the Son, who was incarnate in this particular man known as Jesus of Nazareth. What this means is that Christ has been at work in more ways then we can begin to imagine, including in other religions.
One way to read the Old Testament is to ask ourselves, “Where was Christ secretly at work?” In the Joseph story, I think we can recognize a number of possibilities. Christ was present nudging the brother to choose the lesser evil of selling their brother into slavery instead of killing him, so that his life was preserved.
Christ was there working to preserve life, saving millions of from starvation.
Christ was their nudging Joseph towards forgiveness rather than revenge, acting out in his own way the parable of the Prodigal Son, centuries before Jesus would tell the parable.
Christ was there transforming experiences of profound darkness into experience of overwhelming light.
Each one of us is living out a story. You could say that are various authors involved. God is the author who established to central character – that’s you. He wrote you precisely the way you are, with your unique combinations of gifts and limitations.
Others have a hand in writing our stories. The interactions we have with the stories of countless others are constantly shaping our story.
But we too have a hand in writing the story. Left to ourselves we would write the adversity parts out of our stories. But then our stories would be diminished, because there would be little motivation for us to change. The problems and conflicts provide the impetus to change who we are. It’s that simple.
I came across a powerful story on the front page of the New York Times of all places about a woman named Marsha Linehan, 67 who holds a phd in psychology and has devoted her professional life to developing effective treatments for people who are severely depressed and suicidal. The occasion for the article was that had decided to share her own story: how at the age of seventeen (the same age Joseph was thrown into a pit) she found herself in a deep, dark pit of despair as well. She was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward for the better part of three years with severe depression. She survived several suicide attempts. When she was discharged at age 20 she was given little hope. She continued to struggle with the darkness until one day while praying in a church she had a vision of shimmering light that left her with a strong sense that, for the first time in her life, she could love herself.
There were still difficult times to endure, but a corner had been turned. Slowly she began to make her way forward in building a better life. She devoted herself to helping others who had been where she had been. She developed a treatment based on two paradoxical principles: “radical acceptance” — accepting herself and her life, realizing that the misery is largely connected to grieving for some other life than the one a person is in fact living. The other principle was change where possible, slowly, steadily, building a better, more affirming quality of life.
The striking thing, of course, is that, like Joseph, without having traveled to the truly dark places she visited in her life, she could not have been such a vessel of light for others.
The larger theme of every particular story is that Christ is working behind the scenes to invite us to become more Christ-like ourselves. God wants to be partners with us in the writing of a better story.
So again: our lives are stories. The Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that entered Jesus of Nazareth as he embraced his story, whispers into our ears to write a better story than the one we are willing to settle for.
I want to share a quote from a book I’ve been reading by Donald Miller entitled “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned to Live a Better Story.”
“I like the part of the Bible that talks about God speaking the story into existence, as though everything we see and feel were sentences from his mouth, all the wet of the world his spit.
I feel written. My skin feels written, and my desires feel written. My sexuality was a word spoken by God, that I would be male, and I would have brown hair and brown eyes and come from a womb. It feels literary, doesn’t it, as if we are characters in books.
You can call it God or a conscience, or you can dismiss it as that intuitive knowing we all have as human beings, as living story tellers; but here is a knowing I feel that guides me toward better stories, toward being a better character. I believe there is a writer outside ourselves, plotting a better story for us, interacting with us, even, and whispering a better story into our consciousness.
As a kid, the only sense I got from God was guilt, something I dismissed as a hypersensitive conscience I got from being raised in a church with a controlling pastor. But that isn’t the voice I’m talking about. That voice was the leftover hyperactive conscience I got form being raised in a church with a controlling pastor.
The real Voice is stiller and smaller and seems to know, without confusion, the difference between right and wrong and the subtle delineation between the beautiful and profane. It’s not an agitated Voice, but ever patient as though it approves a million false starts. The Voice I am talking about is a deep water of calling wisdom that says, Holy your tongue, don’t talk about that person that way; forgive the friend you haven’t talked to; don’t look at that woman as a possession; I want to show you the sunset, look and see how short life is and how your troubles are not worth worrying about; buy this bottle of wine and call your friend and see if he can get together, because, remember, he was supposed to have that conversation with his daughter, and you should ask him about it.”
So my family is taking off this afternoon on a two week road trip today, traveling to North Carolina and then up to Michigan. We’ve taken some good trips in the past, but maybe we should have taken more. I’m probably to blame for not having taken more trips. I had my reasons. Saving money. It always seemed easier, more relaxing to stay close to home. Living in close quarters for two weeks, visiting family with the old issues to address, well, who knows what might get stirred up?
But I suggested this trip, realizing somewhere inside me that some risks are involved to write a better story. Sometimes you have to get off the coach and hit the road to give yourself an opportunity to go places that make your story more interesting.
We’ll see you on the far side of the trail.