Sunday, August 13, 2017

What can we say come August 20? 11th after Pentecost

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     I cannot imagine why a preacher would forego the Old Testament lection for this Sunday – ever, but especially now, given the severe splintering we’re experiencing in society, and in the church.  Genesis 45 is the theological high water mark of the Old Testament, and is a peer of even the best the New Testament has to offer.  Reconciliation should be the fixed point in all our thinking, imagination, labor, and prayers. 

     I would commend to you the resources we pulled together back in the winter as our church engaged in a two month long, intensive series on Reconciliation, featuring Christena Cleveland and her investigations into the hidden forces that keep us apart, why African-American spirituals still speak across the racial divide today, how a novel like To Kill a Mockingbird can help us, ways to understand people who are different, paths to interact on politics, and more – as we fulfill Paul’s commission to us to be reconcilers, just as we are reconciled (2 Corinthians 5), as individuals, within families, communities, our denomination, and the nation and world.

     I would also commend to you a stunning Ted Radio Hour podcast featuring J.D. Vance (Hillbilly Elegy) and most profoundly, Suzanne Barakat, a Muslim striving for reconciliation after her brother and sisters-in-law were brutally killed in Chapel Hill.  I was listening in my car, and had to pull of the road until I stopped crying.  This could work in a sermon on this text well; further down I’ll get to the climax of Lord of the Rings and Good Will Hunting – but the text really doesn’t need any help.

     No biblical story narrates the grief, time, joy and miracle of reconciliation as powerfully as the drama of Joseph.  The emotional intensity of the climax in chapter 45 is intense, and you have to let it be intense, and feel it in your bones; let the story take your breath away or they won’t feel it either.  The Egyptians overheard Joseph’s sobbing in the next room; people in the pews had best hear it in the sanctuary.  The weeping and embracing are just astonishing, and so beautiful – and I can’t help at some point racing ahead to the riveting moment when Joseph is reunited with his father; “he fell on his neck, and wept on his neck a long time” (Gen. 46:29).

     You can’t just plop down in chapter 45 either; the backstory matters.  Without over-explicating every detail, the preacher has to pick up where the story begins, in chapter 37, with a pathetically dysfunctional family, Joseph’s dream that was from God but felt like sham arrogance, the brothers’ cruel dispatching of him and then the wretched way they shattered their father’s heart, Joseph’s rise, and then fall, and then rise in Egypt.  Don’t assume people know the story, but then don’t expend twelve minutes retelling it either.  Urge your people to read it at home, promising it’s better than House of Cards or Game of Thrones.

       Here’s an interesting detail from the Hebrew: of all his sons, Jacob loved Joseph best – because his deepest affection was for his mother Rachel, not the other mothers of his other boys.  And so, Jacob dressed this son, not in an “amazing technicolor dreamcoat” (as in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical - which is such silliness compared to his other work!), but (as the Hebrew puts it) in “long sleeves.” The other brothers wore short sleeves, meaning their labor was in the fields, in the heat, where briars would get tangled in long sleeves. Joseph was established in the house with those long sleeves, in a position of comfort and power over the brothers.  It was that long-sleeved garment of privilege denied them that they bloodied and handed to their father.

     To focus on chapter 45 I wouldn’t spend too much time on Joseph’s character – which isn’t really the point.  He has considerable brilliance, and a moral compass we do not see often in our days.  But that would be to moralize a theologically robust story.  The shock of God’s way comes when the famine compelled the brothers to go down to Egypt, the breadbasket of the world. In a stunning plot twist, it was Joseph from whom they had to ask for food. He would give them far, far more. Naturally they didn’t recognize him; but he recognized them. After dallying with them a bit, he dismissed his entourage from the room, let loose long pent-up emotions, gathered himself, dried his tears, and revealed his secret: “I am Joseph, your brother.”

     When I preach on this, I let the emotion drip, I leave time for it to flow around the room and into the souls of people.  His next words?  “Is my father alive?”  Again, in a pre-cell-phone era, he did not know, and hoped against hope; the brothers, who had despised father and brother, had to feel the gut-wrenchingness of his question.  Mind you, the Bible doesn’t tell us how they felt!  So we have space to find our own emotions from our own life stories in there somewhere – without reading in so much you don’t hear Joseph’s story any longer.  The brothers had to be stricken with shock, horror, guilt, trepidation, remorse.

     But how did Joseph deal with those who had treated him and his father so cruelly? His words must have taken light years to sink in: “Do not be distressed; don’t be angry with yourselves because you sold me here. For God sent me here to preserve life” (Gen 45:5). Even after the glorious reunion with his father, and then even after Jacob’s death, Joseph said the most remarkable thing: “Do not be afraid. You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, so that many people should be kept alive” (Gen 50:20). Joseph forgave; he cast their common, broken life into the hands of God’s larger intentions. Testimony to God’s miracle – in the big story, but then also in Joseph’s gentle disposition.  Who is capable of what he just said to them?

     Notice the brothers weren’t given a “second chance,” another crack at getting it right. They never got it right; they never made up for what they had done. God did not depend on any attitude change among the brothers. God quite simply used the evil they perpetrated and transformed it into good.

     Not that God caused them to do evil: God did not make them sell their brother or break their father’s heart. But God gathered up their misdeeds, the broken will of God, and pieced it all together for God’s good purpose. Joseph’s leadership was defined by seeing, understanding, and then articulating this. He brought healing to the fractured family, and food to a hungry world – or rather, his leading was God’s imperceivable, mysterious use of his life, and then his awed witness to it.  It’s so important to get this nuance: in my Will of God book, I carefully distinguish that God uses evil but doesn’t cause it; and we need to say God uses every evil for good.  Some evils are just evil, and it eviscerates and trivializes the suffering to try sunnily to claim God brings some good from it.

     Leadership expert Ron Heifetz speaks of the need for leaders who climb up into the “balcony” and see larger patterns in the workplace.  Joseph was caught up far higher than the balcony; he was granted a view from heaven itself.  Claus Westermann (in his Genesis 37-50 commentary) wisely noticed that God did not merely use the evil of the brothers; God could have done that without the brothers ever meeting up with Joseph. No, “God’s plan is to bring the evil devised by the brothers to good in such a way that there can be forgiveness.”

     So many threads to follow.  Reconciliation takes time, a long time.  Reconciliation isn’t forgive and forget; it’s genuine healing – for everybody involved.  Joseph needed the healing as much as the brothers and their father did.  The beneficiaries of this reconciliation?  Not just this family, but people who had never known them!

     If ever a text shouted to the preacher “Trust me!” it is this one.  You don’t need to make it relevant; it’s more relevant than anything you can devise.  You don’t have to make it interesting or funny; it’s the greatest story ever told.

     I might touch on “Joseph could control himself no longer.”  We are control freaks – but the healing comes when we yield control and let the emotions roll.  The emotion isn’t Oh, I feel God! but rather, Wow, God is releasing, and healing my emotions!  Think of the joy when the hobbits are reunited in Rivendell after the ring is destroyed at Mordor (The Return of the King); J.R.R. Tolkien told a friend that when he wrote this scene, his tears kept smearing the ink.  He never saw the video of course, but Peter Jackson handled this so well.


     Or the scene in Good Will Hunting where Sean embraces Will and keeps repeating, “It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault.”  Very Genesis 45ish.  Of course, the climactic scene of all climactic scenes is the cross (“You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good”) – or is it the resurrection? Or that breakfast reunion by Galilee (John 21)?

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   ** My newest book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, is available.  My forthcoming book, Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership, will appear before too long.

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