After selling their brother Joseph into slavery, I am pretty sure they assumed they would never see him again. They had thrown him in a pit to die, sold for twenty pieces of silver. He calls them closer: “I am your brother…” and he pauses for what must have felt like forever. Then he says it: DO not be upset or angry over what you did to me. For – Joseph theologically interprets his whole story – God sent me before you to preserve life. Joseph has a really high sense of God’s providence. There has been a famine that will last five more years, he says, and God had you sell me into slavery in order to get me here, to keep the people, to keep the promise, alive. You didn’t send me here, as much as you think you did. It was God.
In one sense this text serves a practical function. Remember, these are stories not written in the moment but around a fire in exile in the middle of the 500s BCE. They are told, collected so the Israelites might know WHO they are. This text gives the people a sense of how Israel made it as a fledgling nation in a worldwide famine when they probably shouldn’t have survived. It also serves to get the people TO Egypt. It is Joseph who brings the family there, so they might survive, but this also roots them in Egypt and, as we are soon told, the next Pharaoh did not look upon the people so kindly, and begins enslaving them all. This story starts that ball rolling, too.
But beyond the mechanics this story is about WHO did all that. It was GOD. It was God who first made a promise to those people. It was God who journeyed with them as families became a nation. It was God who healed wounds, brought reconciliation. It was God who made a way for the people to survive when there was none. Who did all this, the people asked? GOD.
But when we talk about God’s movement, God’s providential action in the world, it is important we be careful. I don’t read this quite as a “God does everything for a reason,” because I’m not sure I believe that’s true. “God did this,” is a truth that isn’t hard for Joseph to proclaim from the seat of wealth and power. “God did this” is easy to proclaim when a thing that seems bad later works out well. When the crisis led to later healing, God did something there. What was first a bad thing for Joseph – slavery – then became a really good thing for him, and for God’s people. And it’s good to give God credit. But it is also impossible for us to say fully when God was present and when God was not. When God did something, and when we did something. Because sometimes it is not at all clear. Sometimes you wrestle with the disease all your life. Sometimes she doesn’t get sober. Sometimes you don’t get to have the conversation you need to before he dies. Sometimes the bad thing doesn’t become a clearly recognizable good thing.
The next move I find more helpful. It’s not, “God did this one thing for this one specific outcome.” It is, “I am not sure how God is present here, but God is doing something. God is doing something powerful. Something real.” And our job as a Christian community is to sit together and try and figure it out. When things go well, how was God at work in that? What gifts did God give us? How were we shown God’s wisdom? When things go poorly, we wonder, too. Sometimes it is anger at God, which God can take. Sometimes it is trying to figure out how God can get us through. Sometimes it is fury at God because we feel so alone. These are the same questions we ask when tragedy strikes, when someone we love gets sick or hurt or dies. What, God, are you doing? How can this be you at work?
These are the same questions we ask when something happens in our world. This week, back to last Saturday: What was God doing in Charlottesville? How exactly was God at work? I do not believe God causes things like this, violent, racist hatred, to provoke an outpouring of good. A young woman killed, dozens others hurt. But, perhaps, God has granted us a moment. A moment to speak as clearly as we can, to pray God can make us all more than we are. I believe the white church has a key role to play in that regard. This is where it’s important to us to have a little bit of a family meeting. It is not hard in this room with you, it is not a risky or particularly bold to point at white supremacists, the KKK, neo-Nazis and other hate groups and say – this is not who we are. This is not what our nation is about, as complex as its history is. For us, it’s not too hard to say that right now the church of Jesus Christ stands firmly against these things.
But this is where we need to have a bit of a family meeting. Because it is not that hard when it’s about other people, people in Nazi garb smashing people with sticks and running over people with cars. Frankly, I’d prefer it be about other people. Then I can stand up here as a preacher and denounce and feel, even when I try not to, a little self-righteous about it.
But this is about us. Family. My great-great-grandfather Romulus Morrison Tuttle fought for the confederacy, had a conversion experience on a battlefield, went to Union Seminary, served a church outside of Charlotte, then became a roving evangelist of sorts. I bet you have some of these folks in your family. Folks who got up, cared for their family, went to church, prayed the Lord’s Prayer, sang some of the hymns we sing. But it is also those family members who either actively supported or stood silently by as humans made in the image of God were sold as property. It was Presbyterian ministers that gave the south much of its theological justification for slavery. The Rev. John Henley Thornwell gave an address in May 1861 that was to become the charter of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America. My hands trembled, maybe like Joseph’s, when I read it again this week. I have a longer section printed in the bulletin. “We have no right,” he said, “as a church, to enjoin [slavery] as a duty or to condemn it as a sin.” It’s not our job to get involved, Thornwell said – there are sacred matters, matters of the spirit, and matters secular, of politics and economic life. Those aren’t ours to mess with, he argues. The best he can do is to leave the question sitting there: “Is slavery, then, a sin?” And a lot of faithful church people, family, sat by and did nothing.
But one of the many things that make issues of race so painful and complex is that they are both about the past but also very much about the present. It is too easy to throw stones at people more than a century ago. Would we have been any better? The history of this nation or the church is always an ongoing project. About engaging the seeds of the sin of racism lodged in the quiet corners of our hearts. About engaging the pain many of our African-American brothers and sisters experience every day that we cannot understand and we need to just sit and listen. And about the question – from Joseph’s time and before until now: what is God doing in this? I must confess I do not know. My instinct is that marches and statues and flags are both important and a distraction from the racism that on some level still grips us all, that I am confident still grips me, even as much as I try and fight it. Those things, and what our leaders say, and which monuments stand where, are both important and a distraction from seeing the privileges that come with being white in this country, just like the air we breathe.
I confess again I do not know where exactly we are to go. I think there is conversation and wrestling and learning and listening and, my gosh, so much prayer. I do not know what exactly is required of me, or of us. I fear, yet I believe, that whatever it is will cost us something. I do know that NOT wrestling is not at all the answer. God has created a remarkably complex and diverse creation. And God has accompanied us, through our glorious and sordid history. God led some elders at the very first Session meeting of this church in November of 1963 to say that all people will be welcome in this church regardless of race. Those faithful were willing to wrestle then, and for that I am so grateful. But the project is far from complete, God’s vision of a community here, and a kingdom beyond, a family of all races and nationalities, a nation in which everybody really gets a shot to be who they are called to be. Maybe we, in honor of that first Session’s work, can pray that the Holy Spirit might give us the courage again to wrestle now. With as much humility, and as much courage, as we can muster. Together.
All praise be to God. Amen.
 In addition to Thornwell’s address, these two articles informed my reflection as I thought about this sermon: “After Charlottesville, will white pastors finally take racism seriously?” and “#Charlottesville, the Christian Response, and Your Church’s Call”