a 2-part Message preached on
August 20, 2017
“a brother’s sorrow”
based upon Genesis 37
When I was growing up, there were two brothers, Tom and Dick - comedians known as “the Smother’s Brothers.” In their routine, Tom would often complain, especially when he couldn’t think of anything better to say: “Mom always liked you best!” They made this classic line hilarious. It helped those of us who had grown up in a home with more the one child to laugh at something which might otherwise make us cry or get angry. You see, every sibling has feelings like that at some time or another. “Mom always liked you best!” Laughter is definitely better than some of the alternatives, isn’t it!
My message today, in two parts, revolves around the Bible story of a bunch of brothers. They were sons of a man named Jacob, also known as Israel. As we heard in previous weeks, Jacob had his own brotherly tale to tell. He was a trickster, you see. He finagled his father’s blessing away from his older brother, Esau. He spent a great deal of energy in his life wrestling things from others, even from God. In fact, his name was changed from Jacob to “One who wrestles with God,” that is “Israel,” after a nighttime wrestling match with the Almighty.
Now, eleven of the sons of Jacob could definitely say of the twelfth, “Dad always liked you best,” and it would be true. Only for them it was no laughing matter. Jacob definitely did favor his second to youngest son, Joseph. No doubt this had something to do with the fact that Jacob loved this boy’s mother much more than the mother of any of the other sons.
Along the way, Jacob gave to Joseph a special gift, something he didn’t give to any of his other children. It was a beautiful garment, a coat of many colors – a gift that revealed a father’s love for his son. It was painfully obvious that Jacob loved Joseph much more than he loved any of his other sons. The other eleven brothers were quite jealous. I would be also. It didn’t help that Joseph was either oblivious to this jealousy, or knew and liked to rub it in - as sometimes siblings do. He didn’t hold his tongue when he went so far as to share his dreams with them.
In the first, he dreamed of twelves sheaves of grain (let’s see, twelves sheaves - twelve brothers, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out). Eleven of those sheaves gather around and bow down to one of them. Interesting! The second dream was more of the same. with sun, moon and eleven stars bowing down before him... From the brothers’ perspective, things were getting out of hand, beyond “father always liked you best.” Of course, as events turned out, the dreams came true - but that’s beside the point for now.
The brothers had enough and plotted all sorts of mischief. Had it not been for the oldest brother, Reuben, Joseph would have been killed. Instead, they just to stole his many-colored coat and threw him into a deep hole. Most of the brothers then returned, when Reuben (who planned to safely retrieve him) wasn’t looking, and sold him to a caravan headed to Egypt, where Joseph became a slave. With blood splattered on the coat, his brothers told their father, Jacob, that a wild animal must’ve gotten hold of Joseph. Jacob tore his hair out, beat his chest, and cried over his dead son, whom he loved the most.
Now, I’ve entitled this portion of my message, “a brother’s sorrow,” but you might wonder - which brother am I talking about? Was it Joseph? He certainly had plenty over which to feel sorrow - headed to Egypt, a slave, torn from a father who loved him. You would be filled with sorrow if you were he... Was it his father, Jacob? He was a brother, also. If the truth be told, some of his struggles with his older brother, Esau, might be behind some of his own sons’ problems. Esau’s brother, Jacob, was definitely filled with sorrow. He lost the son he loved the most – Joseph, to whom he had given that coat of many colors as evidence… Of course, last of all comes the sorrow of the other eleven brothers. What they did to Joseph would come back later to haunt all of them… “A brother’s sorrow.”
The events of last weekend in Charlottesville fill us with outrage and sorrow. With torches and guns, some brothers in the American family expressed jealousy over the ‘coat of many colors’ in our society. We are, after all, a diverse people. Our many colors are, as I see it, a sign of our strength, and (if you will) evidence of God’s love. But those who came to Charlottesville to “Unite the Right” see our many colors as weakness, and evidence that their rights are being taken away. Unlike Tom Smother’s, “mom always liked you best,” their words were not funny. Their hate was on full display. Now, it could be that you agree with some of what they had to say. If so, it probably would be a good idea for us to all sit down and talk together about our differing understandings of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
I think that for most of us, however, our “come, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18) time needs to be about what this week has revealed. It’s too easy, you see, to point a finger at a brother doing something outrageous, without recognizing the other three fingers that point back at us. We have a habit of pretending that the sins of days-gone-by aren’t part of our present experience – that, for instance, the Civil War is past history, as are the battles over civil rights. We fool ourselves into believing that we live in a color-blind society where race doesn’t matter… Except it still does. The events of this week should open our eyes to the blood on our own coat of many colors.
A portion of one sermon is not enough to talk about how most of us in this room still benefit from being white, regardless of what some troubled men with torches and guns say about our white rights being taken away… Several years ago, I spoke with my neighbor up the street. She was the grandmother of a friend of Mitch, who worked as a lunch lady at our elementary school. I told her about getting pulled over by a policeman for speeding, for which I was guilty. Her reaction stunned me, for she was very afraid for me.
Her experience as an elderly black woman led her to see the police in a very different way. Her sons had been routinely pulled over simply for being black in a white community. I am sure her grandson, Mitch’s friend, had received “the talk” I’d never had to have with my sons, about how to behave when pulled over. I just told my boys, “be respectful,” not “open the window and put both hands out. Look down, not up into their eyes. Don’t make any sudden moves that might cause a frightened cop to shoot you.” etc…
My friends, I confess that I have not spoken up as much as I need to about racism, and about how I – through my silence – contribute to this sin. Am I any different from those brothers of Joseph, who sold him into slavery long ago? Furthermore, I have not acted on my desire to connect this congregation with our Baltimore First Church of the Brethren in ways that involve you, not just me. Perhaps we should soon schedule a pulpit exchange with their black pastor, brother EJ. Better yet, might we hold a joint pot luck meal at some point with our brothers and sisters there, maybe even trying to get most of us to head to west Baltimore to eat it, even if doing so in their neighborhood might make us a bit uncomfortable or even afraid...
Yes, I confess that I have not done enough to confront racism, to lift up how this “coat of many colors” in our society is still bloodied. Maybe the first thing you and I need to do is to step out of our comfort zone and try to imagine (perhaps through just listening to persons like my lunch-lady neighbor) how we might unwittingly sin against our sisters and brothers of color simply by thinking that we all stand on a level playing field, just because we can’t see the hole in which they find themselves.
No, a portion of a sermon isn’t enough, but perhaps it’s an opening.
Whether we are talking about the jealousy of Joseph’s brothers, or the hatred and racism exposed by the events of this past week, sin is like an ocean wave which pounds the shore of our existence. It can push backward even the most grounded person. It can knock us over, such that we are tempted to sin against someone, to desire them harm. Sin can also tear us apart on the inside, even if we do not act on it.
Spend a few moments of quiet, thinking about when you have felt this wave wash over you. Perhaps it is very near to you right now. If so, pray for God to help you let it go – even if you are only able to do so little by little. Then, when the song begins, stand tall (physically, if you are able - spiritually, if you are not) and sing of God’s wonderful grace, which is “deeper than the mighty rolling sea.”
“I am your brother”
Genesis 45:3-15 +
We return to the story of Joseph and his brothers - a long, convoluted tale of broken relationships and a series of dreams in search of meaning. Along the way of this journey, we shift to the other side of forgiveness. For every person in need of being forgiven, there is someone who needs to forgive. Neither road is an easy one, not if we travel it with integrity. You see, this story of Joseph is our story for, in a way, we are children of Israel, also.
For those of us not as familiar with this biblical saga, let me share the abridged version. Joseph was, indeed, torn from his home and family and carried off as a slave to Egypt. However, at every corner God awaited, to shift events ever so slightly. The apostle Paul later put it this way, “...all things together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). That’s too much of a mouthful for those stuck in the middle of rotten situations, who can’t see out of the hole into which they’ve been placed. Such words are better spoken after-the-fact, even though, by faith, we try to live them out in the “middle of the muddle.”
At the end of the story, Joseph essentially says the same thing as Paul in a conversation with his brothers. “Even though you intended to do harm to me,” he said to them, “God intended it for good...” (Genesis 50:20) But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Once in Egypt, Joseph ended up with a fairly comfortable job in the house of a fellow named Potiphar. As a trustworthy worker, Joseph became the overseer of the place. Potiphar’s wife saw something desirable in this young man and, like in the worst of soap operas, went after him. Unlike in the soaps, Joseph ran away from a situation that could only get worse. The short-term result of his integrity was jail time. She accused him of making advances on the boss’s wife.
Joseph not only dreamed big dreams himself, he was gifted in interpreting the dreams of others. Eventually (we’re talking years here, not just days), this ability brought him in contact with the ruler of Egypt, who was plagued by a recurring dream he couldn’t understand. There must’ve been something about Joseph that inspired trust. Perhaps it was a sense of humility not seemingly in evidence back when his brothers heard his dreams of grandeur. Joseph told Pharaoh, point blank, that it wasn’t through his own wisdom that dreams made sense. God was somehow involved. Pharaoh liked that.
The dream was about an upcoming famine and, amazingly, Pharaoh placed Joseph in charge of preparing for it, with wide discretionary power. From the bottom of a pit to being an overseer; from prison to a position of great power - do you see what I mean about God “tweaking” with the picture? Does this same God “tweak” with our pictures? Is God tweaking behind the scenes of this past week? I sure hope so, even if I can’t imagine how right now. Is it true that “...all things together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” or, as Joseph put it, “Even though (it was) intended (for) harm, God intended it for good...”? It makes you wonder.
When that famine hit, Joseph’s family, the brothers who had sold him into slavery - they were hit as hard as everyone else. Like refugees of any age, they sought food wherever they could get it, and apparently Egypt was the place. Jacob sent his sons, all but the youngest, to trade for grain. So, as the story goes, one day Joseph’s brothers appeared on his doorstep. Not recognizing him, they reached out to him for food, that their family might survive.
Now, tell me, what would you have done had you been Joseph? Perhaps you have faced similar junctions in your life, where you must decide what to do with garbage from the past. Will you let it go and move toward forgiveness. It’s an age-old question, isn’t it? - one that most of us will probably encounter not just once, but many, many times in the course of our lives.
Did Joseph welcome his brothers with open arms, immediately proclaiming his kinship with them and showering them with loving care? Get real! The Bible isn’t a fairy tale, just like our own lives. It involves flesh and blood people who struggle to do what’s right, and Joseph is no exception. He toys with his brothers. That’s right, he makes them run through several hoops. Why? Not hard to figure. Is this a prescription for what we should do - toy with people needing the bread of forgiveness? I don’t think so. Still, we’re human - like Joseph.
“You’re spies,” he accused them. “No, no, no, sir,” they replied on their knees. Let’s see how low they can grovel. How about a test? Toss them in prison for three days, then make a deal. “Leave one of you here with me and the rest go home and bring back the youngest son.” That was the “plan” Joseph presented to them, which they accepted. Brother Simeon was bound and gagged before their eyes and they were sent on their way. Memories of what they had done to Joseph flooded their minds, haunting their thoughts, even though they didn’t recognize him standing right before them.
When they returned home to Dad, they had to explain the loss of yet another son. On top of that, Joseph had put in with the food they’d bought the money they’d used to buy it. When they discovered it, they were not as overjoyed as you might think. Instead, they imagined the fate of those accused of stealing.
Eventually the food ran out, and choices needed to be made. Would Jacob allow them to return with his youngest son, Benjamin? Judah, the son who had thought of the idea of selling Joseph into slavery, persuaded his father. “If I don’t bring him back, let me bear the blame forever.” With this, they took off for Egypt.
Once there, Joseph arranged a meal for them, but he was not smiling through it all, imagining what would happen once they realized who he was. He was dying inside. Forgiveness is not an easy process. We fool ourselves when we think otherwise. Just as it takes time and effort to come to the place of asking, truly seeking forgiveness - apologizing for the past, so it takes time and effort to let go of the past and forgive. Reconciliation does not happen instantaneously. Three times in the story as we have received it, Joseph wept, overwhelmed by a flood of emotions.
Finally, to make a long story short, we come to the moment recalled in this morning’s scripture reading. Make no mistake, however, that the process of forgiveness is not so easily abridged. In response to a plea from brother Judah, who lays it all on the line, Joseph is deeply moved. Please note, however, Judah never asks forgiveness nor confesses his part in what happened long ago. Sometimes it doesn’t happen so neatly, and we must decide whether to forgive, or to allow the pain to continue by staying in a pit of our own making.
It says, “Joseph could no longer control himself ... he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it.” Amid his tears, he made himself known. “I am your brother...” He had to repeat it, for they didn’t really hear him the first time. It takes time for forgiveness to sink in.
Now, please note - at no point does Joseph say “I forgive you.” Its more than a matter of words, isn’t it? He does, however, place everything in the context of a larger picture. It wasn’t merely a matter of brothers harming a brother. No. “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors,” Joseph told them. “So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.”
Forgiveness is hard. It is also a messy and time-consuming process - its stepping stones often obscured. Without God involved, we would all be lost in the pit of our own sin - those desperately needing to be forgiven and those desperately needing to forgive. Behind the scenes, God is at work shifting desperation into hope - this I believe with all my heart, though there are days when I have my doubts. Fresh starts are possible through the One who fiercely loves us more than we will ever know how to love. Yes, as Joseph later spoke, “even though you intended to do harm to me God intended it for good...” Yes, as the apostle Paul much later wrote, “...in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”
Well, the story goes on. I have not told it all, by any manner of means - the story of Joseph and his brothers, as well as our story. May we be revealed as brothers and sisters in Christ, loved and called to God’s purpose.