Yr A ~ Pentecost 11 ~ Genesis 45:1-15
Ok, I have three jobs to do here this morning.
One is to fill in the rest of the Joseph story to give us some context beyond the short scripture excerpt.
Another is to dismantle a terrible bit of theology that a too simplistic reading of verses 7 and 8 brings – one that has done a lot of damage.
And the third is to expound on a theological idea that may not seem obvious but I think is the heart and soul of this whole story arc.
Here we go!
The story of Joseph and his brothers and father is so epic and sweeping that I can’t relate the whole thing in this limited time. If you weren’t with us last week I will encourage you to go back and either watch the sermon on our YouTube channel or read it on our website. We left the story last week with Jacob mourning what he thought was the death of his favourite son, and Joseph’s brothers feeling guilty about lying to their Dad and breaking his heart. And I filled in the story up to the point where Joseph had found favour with Pharaoh and had been made a powerful ruler in Egypt.
The action picks up with the famine that Joseph predicted in full swing. Luckily for Pharaoh, he listened to Joseph and they’d been stockpiling supplies for 7 years so they were ready for it. Unluckily for Jacob and sons they had not – and now they are starving. So the 10 sons (not young Benjamin) are sent to try to buy supplies from Egypt. While there Joseph recognizes them, but the brothers don’t recognize Joseph. To test them, Joseph questions his brothers and accuses them of being spies, and briefly jails them. Then Joseph demands to see their youngest brother, Benjamin, and keeps one brother in jail while the others go home.
Joseph is testing their integrity. They had confessed their sorrow at their family’s history. They were humble and repentant. Joseph wants to believe them, but he isn’t sure. Maybe they’re just saying what they think he wants to hear to get what they want. People do that all the time.
Joseph takes their money, gives them their food, and then hides their money back in their sacks. When they get home they have all the food and all their money – and Jacob and his sons are mortified that they will be thought to have cheated the Egyptians or stolen anything, and that their brother Simeon (who stayed behind in jail) would be killed, but Jacob cannot bear the thought of losing Benjamin, so he resigns himself to Simeon’s death and mourns some more.
More time passes and they run out of food again. They take double the money, and whatever goods they had to offer, and went back to Egypt – with Benjamin this time. Joseph sees Benjamin, orders a feast to be prepared, sends soldiers to bring the brothers to him, and then they ate at the feast – bewildered, and afraid.
The next day the brothers are sent on their way – but Joseph has his chalice hidden in Benjamin’s pack. He sends soldiers after them. They’re accused. They deny. Benjamin is taken prisoner. The brothers freak out. They throw themselves at Joseph’s mercy (bowing, just like in Joseph’s youthful dream), offering their lives in exchange. They cannot bear the thought of breaking their father’s heart again.
Joseph is convinced. He weeps and wails and reveals his identity to his brothers, all is forgiven, the family is reunited, and Jacob comes to live with them all in Egypt. It took 20 years (way longer than 22 minutes), but in the end there is a happy-ever-after. Ish. (but that’s another story)
Ok. That was job one – to fill in the story.
Job two is to dismantle Genesis 45 verses 7 and 8. Here they are:
Joseph says, “God sent me (here) before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivours. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.”
Can you see how problematic a too simplistic reading of this is?
If you stay on the literal surface here it sounds like God is out there somewhere orchestrating certain things to happen in your life to suit God’s purposes.
It makes it seem like we’re nothing more than puppets, and God is pulling all the strings.
This is very dangerous theology! And, in my view, quite misguided.
Do I think God orchestrates these things?
Because if we say that’s true then it turns God into nothing more than a demented sadist who manipulates everyone’s life for some unseen purpose.
And it makes us say horrific and hurtful things like, “Well, God must have given her that illness for a reason.”
No. No, no, no! Never. Full stop.
God does NOT send illnesses, or rainy days, or job losses, or pandemics.
It’s understandable that we might attribute things that are beyond our comprehension to a God that we cannot fathom. So we strive to find some sort of explanation or meaning in some of the bad things in our lives.
Unfortunately, we tend to think in binary either/or’s – so if God doesn’t send bad things then we turn to the other extreme that God is powerless and evil because “he” allows such things to happen.
Both views are theologically problematic – because they both portray God as something that God is fundamentally the opposite of.
Simply put, both ‘manipulating God’ and ‘absent God’ are unloving – so those views must be false.
If God is love then God can’t be unloving.
Love does not purposely cause pain. That’s unloving.
And love does not stand by and ignore pain. That too is unloving.
So while God neither causes nor ignores such things, God is always Present in the midst of them – loving us.
So what do I make of verses like this? Why does Joseph say, “God sent me before you. So it wasn’t you who sent me here, but God?”
I think it’s just because that how it seems to him when he stands back and looks at the arc of his story and realizes that good emerged out of a bad situation. Or that love emerged out of an unloving situation.
In my theological world, God was present through the entire story – in and with all the characters – yearning, and drawing, and luring them all toward love – because that’s what God is – love.
Last week we said that when unloving abounds people get hurt, and we looked at all the unloving things in the early part of the Joseph story.
Now look at the end of the story. What do we see?
Lots of loving!
Unloving has been replaced by loving.
The brothers who once selfishly lied now selflessly sacrifice themselves. Joseph who once arrogantly exalted himself now humbly sees that his eventual powerful position wasn’t for himself but for the sake of others.
That’s love breaking through into our consciousness and understanding.
At the beginning of the story all of their unloving brought pain, and hardship, and discord, and disharmony.
God didn’t orchestrate that. They did that all on their own.
And then in the end of the story all of their loving brought reconciliation, and forgiveness, and flourishing, and harmony.
God didn’t orchestrate that either.
But God was definitely present. Always.
Let’s get metaphysical! (Stay with me – we’re going on a ride! This is that third thing that I said was a bit out there.)
We say that God is constant, never-ending, never-changing – that God is love. One way to express that is to say that God is the fundamental vibration of the universe – that this ‘Something More’ that we’ve given the name God to is what’s vibrating at the heart of all that is.
Vibration is a key musical concept too – as in how sound waves vibrate through the air and are interpreted by our ears and bodies. When music is out of tune the sound waves are deadened and unpleasant. And when music is in tune the sound reverberates, amplifies, resonates, rings out, and becomes rich and full and pleasant.
Now blend the images: Love (God) is the vibration that fills the universe, and when we’re not loving we’re creating disharmony.
But when we love, when we act lovingly, when we tune in to that fundamental love and resonate with it we create harmony.
That loving vibration is constantly luring us toward vibrating with it.
When we act against loving we are acting against the sacredness, the God-ness that underlies and infuses everything and everyone. We are out of tune with the Way of Love. We are marring the harmony of the universe.
Joseph and his brothers began in disharmony, because they were unloving.
In the end they were in harmony – blessed – because they loved.
God does not orchestrate these things – God’s constant Presence inspires them, if we take the time and have the openness to notice.
God is not the orchestrator – God is the music itself.
And we are created to be in harmony with that music.
This is why singing is such an important part of our faith tradition – because singing is an embodiment of love. Sometimes we sing along to the main melody – sometimes we sing a complimentary part. It’s all harmony – or maybe a better word is harmonious.
Singing harmoniously requires listening, humility, following, trusting, nuance. If we charge ahead on our own – if we wander off the path – if we stop listening – if we make mistakes – if we try to be the star – we mar the harmony, we create disharmony, we act unlovingly.
(And yes, I’m aware of the irony of using the analogy of singing harmony in a season when singing in groups is cautioned against.)
A state of harmony isn’t some elevated, idealized, perfect, impossible, ‘only in heaven’ thing.
Harmony is the natural state of things.
It’s how things ought to be, here, now, always.
God is love, is vibration, is harmony, is ever-present.
So, how should things always be?
Why aren’t they?
Because people are sometimes unloving, choosing disharmony.
But the music never ends.
We can’t stop the harmony – we can only be in or out of tune with it.
And it all comes down to where we are on the continuum of unloving to loving.
The story of Joseph and his brothers is just an epic example of that core theological idea.
Harmony with God is ours.
The more unloving we are, the less harmony we experience.
The more loving we are, the more harmony we experience.
I can’t say it any plainer than that.
Here in this sacred moment, when we’re perhaps most open to God’s loving harmony, and when we’re focusing on it, this seems like such an obvious message that you might wonder why I have to preach it.
And yet, one look at the world out there, and the hurts in our own lives, and we know how quickly we forget.
And we’re reminded of how important it is for people like us – people of faith – to share this life-transforming good news – to proclaim to everyone we encounter that harmony surrounds and enfolds them, that love surrounds and enfolds them – and that tuning in, and finding the groove, and singing along – that whether we choose to be more unloving or more loving – is all up to us.
It really is that simple.
And that hard.