A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church
September 25, 2016
Selected verses from Genesis 38 and 50
Joseph is Jacob’s second youngest son, and the first-born son of Jacob’s favorite wife, making him Jacob’s favorite son. Joseph is also a dreamer. And his dreams get him in trouble, because he dreams that his older brothers will bow down and honor him. So, what happens to the favorite, snotty younger brother when Jacob sends him to “see about the shalom your brothers?” (37:14)
First, they want to kill him, naturally. They are brothers, after all. But then one of the brothers considers that a bit of an over reaction and they decide to leave him in a pit to die on his own. And remember—people look to scripture to support “family values”.
Eventually, they sell him to traders, dip his coat in goat’s blood and take it home to dad and say, “gee, dad, we don’t know what happened to your favorite child?” Filial love at its finest.
Joseph ends up working for the pharaoh of Egypt—it’s a great story. If you haven’t read it, I invite you to spend some time with it this week. And in the intervening years, a famine comes upon the land. Because of Joseph’s dreams and visions, Egypt is well prepared for the famine. The rest of the family of Jacob are not.
The brothers end up encountering Joseph when they come to Egypt seeking food, but they don’t recognize him. He recognizes them, however. He puts one of them in prison, which is still better than leaving them in a pit or selling them to traders, but tells the others to take grain home to their father and to bring their youngest brother back if they want to save Simeon from prison.
Even though the brothers don’t recognize Joseph, they correctly assume that this development is connected to their earlier actions against Joseph.
They go home and report to Jacob. He rather astutely comments, “I am the one you have bereaved of children. Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more and now you would take Benjamin.”
They run out of grain again, and he tries to send them back. Judah says, “dad, we already told you. We can’t go back unless we take Benjamin. But I promise I’ll take care of him.”
So Judah begins to live into his role as his brother’s keeper.
Eventually, Jacob dies, and the brothers still worry about Joseph.
Jacob had sent Joseph to inquire about the shalom, the well being, of his brothers right before his brothers sold him into slavery. And it is only now, after all these years, that Joseph is able to see to the shalom of his family by saving them from the famine.
But what he can’t quite do is rise above his family system. The dysfunction that led brothers to sell their little brother is still in place. The brothers express their “dismay” when they realize Joseph is still alive. That’s their reaction.
If there was joy or celebration, the author doesn’t tell us. Their dismay he noted.
Yet even in a family as dysfunctional as the family of Jacob, God is at work. That is important to remember as you read Joseph.
Some commentators want this to be a story about how great Joseph is. Joseph is a flawed character in a flawed family. This is a text about how God works through people, even people like Joseph. Because if God can work through the imperfect people whose lives are chronicled in Scripture, then God can work through you and me.
And Joseph seems to get that too, finally.
“Do not be distressed”, he tells his brothers, “or angry with yourselves. Even if you sold me here, for God sent me here before you to preserve life. 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.”
Joseph, who has good reason to be bitter, is not. He sees blessing in his having been sold into slavery by his own brothers.
More than that, he sees Divine blessing.
I want to be clear about something.
Joseph’s comment is one he can only make for himself. If Joseph came into my office and told me this story, I would never, ever, ever say to him, “don’t be upset, Joe. I know your brothers were trying to kill you, but God had them sell you into slavery so that you could then save them some day in the future. See, it was good news!”
Surely, we can help each other frame our stories. We can suggest ways that our friends and loved ones may seek connection to the details of their lives to God’s story. We cannot determine how another person gets to experience God’s working in their lives. When we try to tell someone else what their experience has been, they lose the ability to write their own story.
I see that happen in the news when we decide people are protesting “incorrectly” about the injustices faced in our society. To be clear, it is fair to hold different viewpoints.
What’s not fair is to assume someone else’s experience is the same, or should be the same, as yours. When someone says they have experienced sexism or racism or ageism, or whatever flavor of injustice—it is not for us to dismiss or invalidate their experience. It is upon us to listen to their stories, to see the way they experience the journey of their lives. We can share how our experience is different. We can’t presume we know how’d we respond, because their journey is theirs, and ours is ours.
I have a friend who said the other day that every time her husband leaves the house to go to the store, or go to work, or take their daughter to school, she’s terrified.
This friend is black. I’m not. I confess I don’t know what it is like to have that kind of fear. My husband and sons can navigate the world with a presumption of safety that my friend and her family cannot. So I listen to her. And I am reminded to check my assumptions when I hear the news reports, and wonder whose perspective we’re hearing, and whose perspective is going unvoiced.
It’s human nature, this tendency to forget that other people have a different perspective than we do. In some ways, it’s the root of the story of Jacob’s family. Jacob loves Rachel, so he doesn’t care how it might seem to his other sons when he favors her son Joseph. Joseph’s perspective is that of the favorite son, who can say anything without retribution. No wonder he doesn’t get why his brothers would not like his dreams as much as he does. The rest of the brothers—are they so wounded by being overshadowed by Joseph that they don’t see the love their flawed father has for them?
Joseph was able to look over the story of his life and trace a path of how God worked through the good, the bad, and the ugly moments of his journey. How do we view the stories of our lives?
And do we feel we have the permission to claim our own version of the story? So often, in my own life, and in what I hear in conversations with friends, we seem to be stuck in the stories other people have told about us.
I had a youth group kid once who was the most creative and talented kid. Her parents had a very clear set of expectations for who she was going to be when she grew up. From what she was going to major in to where she was going to college. Those expectations, the story they taught her to tell herself, was somewhat at odds with her particular gifts. In order for her to tell her own story, she had to disappoint people she loved, and who loved her.
Maybe that was part of Joseph’s journey too. Hearing his father tell the story of his being the favored son. Hearing his brothers tell the story of his being the bane of their existence. It took Joseph until the very last chapter of Genesis to tell the story the way he had experienced it.
“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. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”
As someone who is living into the process of claiming my own part of my birth family story, I suspect that moment for Joseph was a powerful one. To make a claim for himself, for God’s movement in his life, for his hope for the future. What a gift.
There is beauty in looking for blessings, in looking for God’s hand, even in the worst situations.
When we’re sold into slavery, we can grow bitter and plot revenge against our brothers.
like Joseph, we can look for God’s hand in our lives. Not as the cause of the difficulty, but as the redemption of our lives in the midst of the difficulty.
And we don’t look for God’s hand in our lives so we can just pretend that everything is fine. Joseph’s brothers needed to apologize to him. The fact that God was able to work in the situation didn’t erase the fact that Joseph’s family had some “issues”.
The story of God’s working through the dysfunction of the family of Jacob is a good illustration of the concept of providence. Providence comes from the Latin, ‘pro videre’, to fore-see, to fore-ordain.
Providence is not fate. God is not a puppet master or fortune teller. We still have the agency to make decisions and take actions that affect our lives and the lives around us. But providence means that through the good and the bad experiences that happen to us, God is at work, creating new ways for us to see blessing.
Providence is related to the idea of God as creator. The God who created us is still at work, in the midst of everything, creating new life.
The word “life” flows through this Joseph story. “Do not be distressed”, he tells his brothers, “or angry with yourselves. Even if you sold me here, for God sent me here before you to preserve life.”
Providence is best seen when you are looking backward at your life.
My earliest memory is of my parents telling me that they prayed to God for a baby, and that God found me for my family. My adoption story was framed by an experience of providence. Long before I could make any decisions about God, God was working for good in my life.
As I’ve been discovering things about my birth family these past few years, I’ve been thinking about providence a lot. What would my life have been had I not been adopted? Literally everything about me would be different. Everything. I would not be standing before you today, with the experiences that have made me into the woman I am.
I wonder if Joseph thought about that. What would his life had been like had his brothers not sold him to traders? Would he have risen to the top in his hometown, as the almost youngest son of a patriarch the same way he rose to the top as Pharaoh’s advisor? Would his family have died in the famine, if he wouldn’t have been there to interpret Pharaoh’s dream that allowed Egypt to store up grain for the lean years?
Providence is not about second guessing your life. I’m certainly not second guessing mine. I’m so grateful for having been adopted and for the life I am leaving, even as I’m also grateful for everything I’m learning about my birth family. All of these “I wonder” moments for me, instead of leading me off down trails that don’t lead anywhere, have actually been leading me to a deep center, a place in myself where I feel grounded and heading toward wholeness, toward shalom.
So, when your life feels like your brothers just sold you to traders, remember that even then you are being held in the palm of God’s hand. Look for your story.
And as you go back out into the world, remember that your kindnesses and good deeds may be the providential hand of God in someone else’s life. Listen for their stories.
I’m grateful for the way our stories come together and for the God who helps us be the author of our lives. Amen