Sermon on Joseph (w/ Allusions to Ferguson)

Given in response to Genesis 45.

You’ll remember that Joseph was a dreamer. That was his thing. He saw dreams and with the help of God he interpreted them. He also had a very nice coat. Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber called it an amazing technicolor dreamcoat. So if you don’t know the story of Joseph and his dreams and his coat from Sunday school then maybe you picked up along the way from the musical.

I just read the 45th chapter of Genesis, but if you get a chance you might read the entire Joseph story. It’s about 10 chapters, is all. After reading the story you might wonder, as I wondered after reading the story, just how it is that anyone could turn a Bible story into a full length movie or musical. Even reading aloud I can’t imagine it would take much longer than 20 or 30 minutes to get through the thing, and yet we have all of these biblical movies, some about Joseph and some about other characters. And whenever a new biblical movie comes out there will undoubtedly be those critics who say, “Hold on, where was that part in the Bible?” Well, of course there’s stuff that’s not in the Bible. You try making a full length movie out of stories this sparse!

I suppose if you made a biblically accurate Joseph movie, with no extra-textual elaborations, I suppose it would need to be a short film–15 minutes tops. And that would would silence some of the critics, to be sure, but in silencing the critics it would also show how misguided some of them are. Because if you spend any amount of time with the biblical stories you’ll find that they practically beg to be elaborated on. It’s all very concrete. People speak and they do things, and that’s about all it takes to piece together a coherent story. But there’s a lot more we’d like to know about a story than just actions. Usually we want to know Why people do things, what’s their thought process, what motivates them. And Biblical stories leave that part to the audience.

For example: there’s this scene back in the 37th chapter, when the story is just getting started. This is right before Joseph is sold into slavery. Joseph’s brothers are all out working far away from home, and Joseph sets out, on his own, to find them. “So Joseph went after his brothers and found them near Dothan. But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him.” I told you the biblical stories move fast. Joseph appears, his brothers spot him off in the distance, he can’t be far, and in the short while it takes Joseph to reach his brothers they’ve already hatched a murder plot. And you wonder: how does something like this happen? Had they already made up their minds to kill him and they just needed the opportunity? Or maybe someone got carried away and then mob psychology took over. In any case it’s an unusual scene. It’s an everyday work day for Joseph’s brothers and then all of a sudden they’re ready to kill. That’s frightening for me because I like most other people like to believe that there’s tall reinforced fence that separates peaceable people from violence. But the Joseph story makes it seem like a thin line, really just a thread.

I have to believe we’re missing some context here. They must’ve been prepared somehow. They must have been primed and made ready to kill Joseph. Because, sure, sometimes people snap, but a dozen people don’t snap all at once and plot a murder in a matter of minutes.

Just like a riot doesn’t appear out of thin air without a long history of tension. Just like a police force isn’t militarized overnight.

Sometimes the violence portrayed in the media seems to appear to us all of a sudden, that’s how it’s presented anyway. Peace and then violence in the length of a news snippet. But there’s more to know. A riot doesn’t just appear; a police riot doesn’t just appear. There’s context. There’s history. That’s true in the suburbs of St. Louis and it must’ve been true in Joseph’s case, too.

Well, were it not for Ruben, Joseph’s brother, then Joseph would’ve been killed. Ruben de-escalates the situation. He holds his brothers off long enough for his brothers to decide that No, they won’t kill their brother. Instead they’ll sell him into slavery. A caravan comes by and soon Joseph is on his way to Egypt and his brothers are a little bit richer. So Joseph’s brothers seem to have that calculating and odious form of hatred that would rather objectify a person for profit than destroy them out of disdain. They sell their brother Joseph, they send him to Egypt, and they think that they’re done with him.

Of course, they thought wrong. Fast forward to chapter 45, to today’s reading. This is probably the most dramatic moment in the entire story. Joseph is now the highest ranking administrator in Egypt. He’s in charge of the food supply, which makes him especially powerful since there’s a famine going on. His brothers show up. The famine is harsh back home, they have no food, but they’ve heard that there’s food in Egypt. So they go, and they meet with Egypt’s administrator, the one in charge of grain. They’ve no idea whatsoever that it’s Joseph. It’s been a while, after all, and presumably Joseph is all done up however Egyptian elites tend to dress, and this is probably the last place they’d expect to find him. They don’t know it’s Joseph, but Joseph knows it’s them. And at first he gives them a hard time. Joseph sends them back home; they spend some time in jail. Joseph is waiting for the right time.

And now, today, is the big reveal. Here’s Joseph, and his brothers–still oblivious–and a room full of Joseph’s Egyptian colleagues. He sends the other Egyptians out of the room. As they’re standing in the hall they hear a sniffle, then a sob, and then weeping, uncontrolled weeping from Joseph. His voice cracks, he looks at his brothers, each in turn, he says, “It’s me. It’s your brother Joseph, the one you sold into slavery so long ago.”

His brothers, they could not answer him. Look around at various translations and you’ll find that they are dismayed, they are dumbfounded, they’re distressed. They are troubled, frightened, terrified. And it’s easy to see why. I challenge anyone to write a more perfect revenge plot. This is such a perfect turning of the tables, and you can just imagine what his brothers are thinking. (You’ll have to supply the expletives yourselves, but any number of them will do.) They couldn’t muster a response.

And then, what’s truly incredible, and what all of the commentators are eager to comment on, is that Joseph forgives them. It goes beyond forgiveness, though, at least it goes beyond forgiveness the way we normally think of forgiveness. Joseph acts like nothing happened. As if it didn’t even cross his mind that these are the men who tried to kill him and only didn’t kill him because they wanted to turn a profit. Further still, as one of our UCC ministers points out, this is a “freely given forgiveness that seems to give Joseph as much joy as it gives his brothers relief.” Joseph says, “Come near to me. Now, don’t be distressed, don’t be angry with yourselves.”

We don’t expect that sort of forgiveness. All of our cliches about forgiveness–I’m sure you know a few–they’re all aimed at getting people to realize that the failure to forgive does them harm. “Like swallowing poison and hoping the other person dies.” So it’s most of all an appeal to look after yourself. But this sort of forgiveness? I’ve heard very few people urge others to forgive so that they could bring relief to the very people who hurt them in the first place. That’s not a calculating or self-interested forgiveness. No, that’s the way God forgives and that’s the forgiveness only God can give.

I got to wondering how it was that Joseph could forgive in that way. Did it build gradually, with time? Was it somehow born of necessity? Did it occur to him all at once like an epiphany? Well, I don’t know. That’s another aspect of the story about which we can only speculate. But here’s what I do know. I learned it from Joseph. God’s forgiveness always strolls hand in hand with an awareness, with a knowledge of what it was all about. Joseph says something truly astounding: “You didn’t send me to Egypt; God did.” Now I can see that God was with me; God was sustaining me; God was going to bring meaning out of everything I went through.

And did you catch, did you hear from Joseph the point of it all, the conclusion? “Is my father still alive?” It’s practically the first thing he says. Don’t worry, God had a plan, he says, now go and hurry, tell my dad that his son Joseph is still alive. They take the news. The brothers caravan back to Canaan and they tell Jacob, their father, “Joseph is still alive.”  And “when they told him all the words of Joseph, which he had said to them, and when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived. 28 And Israel/Jacob said, “It is enough; Joseph my son is still alive. I will go and see him before I die.”

One thing I love about Bible stories: We can usually identify with the ending. Even the most spectacular stories–and this one is dramatic, I know, there’s a reason it did so well in the theater–even the most unbelievable stories end in a way we can relate to. Joseph takes an epic journey, from Canaanite slave to Egyptian grand supervisor, and at the end of it all he says, “I want to see my father. It’s been a very long time.”

So in the midst of these miraculous stories there is always somewhere for us to start. If you cannot interpret dreams and visions, if you’ve never performed a miracle, if you don’t even count yourself particularly faithful or brave, well, maybe you try to start at the end of the story, at the parts we can all relate to. Let’s all pray for the forgiveness that only God can give. Let’s break bread and start to be reconciled one to another. We can all start today.

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