This is a story with two endings.
The first ending is the text Judy read a moment ago. After all the buildup, twenty years or so, of Joseph’s older brothers selling him in slavery, of somehow finding a good job, of being falsely accused of having an affair with his employer’s wife, he ends up in prison. He interprets dreams for fellow prisoners and gains some prominence among them, but stays there for two long years. Soon Pharaoh has dreams, and someone in his court knows a guy who could interpret them. Joseph does, impresses Pharaoh, and improbably rises to power. He wisely stockpiles grain so that, when the famine comes, all the nations make their way towards Egypt – the only place with anything to eat. Even those brothers come, after twenty years. His resentment is strong, and Joseph spends a couple of chapters trying to figure out how to respond to them. He sets them up, has them thrown in prison, goes back and forth in chapters 42, 43, 44. You can feel the struggle within him, with his own blood with whom he is so angry, but whom he so desperately loves. It all comes together in this remarkable scene in chapter 45, when he breaks down in front of them, sobbing uncontrollably. Is my father alive, he asks? He then first makes the claim that is at the center of this narrative, showing a remarkable compassion. Don’t be angry with yourselves. You sold me here, but even God was in that, sending me here to preserve life, he said, for all peoples, for you. God was at work this whole time.
For a season things fall perfectly in place. Joseph sets his family up in Goshen, with good land on which their flocks can graze and they can build a new life together. Joseph introduces them to people, to Pharaoh and, in a stunning scene in chapter 47, Jacob offers the Pharaoh a blessing. They settle in and, after all the turmoil, and like any good story like this one the father, now quite old, can die in peace. Chapter 49 is a poem, Jacob’s last words to his sons, gathered around his deathbed, as he pronounces a blessing on each one, blessings that shape their identities as the twelve tribes of the people of Israel, blessings that continue to shape them for centuries. Their father dies, and the Egyptians prepare his body, and the nation weeps. They travel back to Canaan to bury him together.
Except the brothers begin to get nervous. This is the second ending. Things had come back together, even after all of their conflict, while dad was alive. These parents hold us together. But once they die, these matriarchs and patriarchs, siblings have to rethink the nature of their relationships. Maybe that has happened in your family – someone important, someone who held everyone together dies, and the situation is all of the sudden ripe for conflict. Now that dad is gone, Joseph could do what he wants with us. They are scared, and anxiously approach him. They quote a conversation they had with their father before he died. Speaking from the grave, their father, through the brothers, begs forgiveness of him. They did wrong, of that there is no doubt – the brothers themselves admit it. They beg his forgiveness. Joseph weeps, the brothers weep, they all fall down, clutching each other as they cry. Everything, finally, seems to have fallen in place – they couldn’t have scripted it any better themselves…
And in the midst of it comes, straight from Joseph’s mouth, the theological claim at the core of this narrative. He tells them to not be afraid, that he is not God. He knows he is not the final arbiter of their forgiveness. But, he has been granted a bit of God’s perspective, which he now shares: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” No matter what plans they had, no matter what they thought they were doing back when they threw him in a pit twenty years before, God had different plans. This narrative poses something remarkable – that regardless of the facts on the ground, maybe even in spite of them, God is still powerfully at work. That no matter what comes, God is STILL working out God’s purposes.
This is something that flies in the face of most of reality as we experience it. I got home Sunday evening to a news report on a study by Mark Chaves over at Duke, one of the country’s foremost sociologists of religion. He notes in a new study that in the last generation or so, religious belief in the U.S. has experienced a “softening” that affects everything from whether people go to worship services regularly to whom they marry. Far more people are willing to say they don’t belong to any religious tradition today than in the past, and signs of religious vitality may be camouflaging stagnation or decline. Today, as many as 20 percent of all Americans say they don’t belong to any religious group, Chaves found, compared with around 3 percent in the 1950s.”1 This is far from the worst thing in the world, but still a sign so much is changing. Almost 2000 Presbyterians have been in Minneapolis Friday and Saturday, many of them talking and thinking and praying about ways to leave the PC (USA) because of many things, most recently the change we made in our ordination standards.2While I am trying my best to be gracious to these brothers and sisters in Christ, what they see as an unconscionable departure from the bible I see as a chance for the church to live more and more faithfully into the grace of the Christ who welcomes and calls all to serve. Preliminary reports from the gathering are disheartening. It seems like the larger church is in for tough times ahead.
But the dis-ease goes far beyond the church. Economic anxiety grips us. Our politics are in danger of moving from disappointing to irrelevant. The Annie E. Casey Foundation released a report recently – that I will link to from this sermon on the website – on the sad state of America’s children. Almost all the gains made from 1996-2000 have been erased in the decade since. In 2009, 20 percent of children (14.7 million) were growing up poor. Over 23 million children lived in families “where no parent had full-time, year-round employment,” an increase from 27 percent in 2008 to a startling 31 percent of U.S. families in 2008. In 2010, home foreclosure haunted the childhoods of four percent of U.S. children.3 The news remains downright depressing, here and abroad, with continued instability in the Middle East, continued hate-filled violence. Famine, maybe not unlike that in Joseph’s day, spreads again across Africa. It is difficult to see how the environment into which we ordain and install these gifted officers today is a pleasant and hopeful one…
But the bold and radical claim of this text, of this Joseph narrative – these 14 chapters that make up the longest continual narrative in scripture – is that no matter what it looks like outside, God is still at work. To we who are trained to watch and gather data and assess things reasonably, scientifically, this text suggests the opposite. No matter how bad it gets, God is still doing something strange, mysterious, and unpredictable, God is still working out God’s purposes in creation. God has not yet thrown up God’s hand and left us to our own devices. This is not scriptures’ only claim, or only way of understanding these things. But this text is clear, right from Joseph’s mouth…to the Israelites wandering in the wilderness or stuck in exile, throughout the annals of history. As Joseph dares to say to us, living lives filled with guilt and anxiety and unfinished business, as the earth shakes underneath us, as windblown trees crash into already flooded homes: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” That is our call – our new officers’ call, a call for all of us – to lean into this God who sees where we cannot see, who, in a world filled with death, brings life.
On Friday morning I walked Ella Brooks down the hall and into her kindergarten classroom. She skipped in, greeted her teacher, put her lunch, her backpack in the cubby, found her place at the appropriate table. And as I walked out of that school, trying to hold myself together through yet another parental milestone, as many of you are experiencing these weeks in all of their forms, I was filled with a tremendous sense of powerlessness. We had done what we could do and, while we’ll be involved and be around and probably drive her teacher a bit crazy with our helpfulness, I realized all of those things were my plans. My work. My best intentions. And I was challenged to, as we are challenged to do thousands of times each day with our families and our jobs and all of the things we carry around in our lives and our world, take those plans and that work and those intentions and hand them over to God. We do our best, we try and work and teach and study and fret, and then, when nothing else is left, we trust. Because we can’t do it on our own. “In the midst of our family problems,” Walter Brueggeman writes, “God lifts us up beyond them, to the larger scope of history.”4 Sometimes through our plans, but even more often despite them, God’s faithfulness remains.
Right after today’s text Joseph dies, and in 4 verses the entire book of Genesis is over. The Israelites are also in Egypt, soon to become slaves. But the stage, through Joseph, has already been set for the exodus itself, for Moses’ arguments with Pharaoh, for a dramatic escape across the Red Sea, for the greatest act of redemption until the cross. The ending is already a beginning. And no matter bad things look outside, Joseph offers us hope: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”
Even as God is doing today…
- From “Duke prof: America’s Religious faith waning,” by Tom Breen of the Associated Press, accessed at http://www.chron.com:80/news/article/Duke-prof-American-s-religious-faith-waning-2133835.php
- Learn more about ‘The Fellowship’ at http://www.fellowship-pres.org/about/
- Read a story about the report, and find a link to it, at: http://www.americamagazine.org:80/blog/entry.cfm?blog_id=2&entry_id=4517 ?
- Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: Genesis, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), p 369.
Audio of today’s sermon is not available.