It’s one of the great scenes of the Old Testament: the climax of an epic story in which a mystery is solved, brothers are reunited and chickens come home to roost!
Here’s Joseph, who years before had been cast into a pit and sold into slavery by his own brothers in a fit of anger and jealousy. But now, thanks to his ability to interpret dreams, Joseph is neither slave nor prisoner, but in fact has risen to become second-in-command of all Egypt: Pharaoh’s own Chief of Staff. This was a position that included the job of buying and selling grain in anticipation of a great famine; which makes it all the more ironic that one day, Joseph looks up to find that the very brothers who had left him for dead so many years before are now coming to him for the food needed to sustain their lives! Of course, the brothers have no idea that this is Joseph; they had long assumed that he was either dead or someone’s slave; but now, in the tradition of all great narratives, the truth is about to be revealed.
But the question is: what will Joseph do? In the movies, this is what they call the pay-off, where the hero finally prevails and the villains get what’s coming to them. Joseph has both the motive for vengeance and the power to make it happen, so why shouldn’t he repay his brothers for what they’d done to him? It’s what you’d expect someone in Joseph’s position to do; and moreover, kind of what the brothers deserve!
What Joseph does do in that moment of truth, however, is something that nobody expects: he cries. And not just moist eyes and a few sniffles, either; we’re talking weeping and moaning, so loudly, in fact, “that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it.” And then, rather than to angrily condemn his brothers for what they’d done, through his tears Joseph starts talking with joy …about God; how God had brought them safely to this point in their lives; how God had somehow turned all the evil that had befallen him into something good.
Don’t worry about this, he says to his brothers, whose mouths are still hanging wide open in disbelief. “Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” It all fits together, says Joseph. God was the one who sent me here, not you; God sent me here to Pharaoh and before you “to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.” Now all the family can dwell together and not in poverty, even in the midst of this famine.
And before you know it, they’re all crying; all because in one single, powerful, life-changing moment, love prevailed over anger, hurt and the need for vengeance; and now a family that had once been divided and destroyed now is restored and unified as one; disaster becomes celebration… fade out, roll the credits!
Imagine if you will a love so indwelling and overflowing that it cannot help but touch anyone and everyone that comes into contact with it. Imagine love so abundant that it can be experienced even within the absolute worst of circumstances; so all-encompassing that it can envelop Joseph’s forgiveness for his brothers, the preservation of a family and the deliverance of an entire nation all in one fell swoop! It’s what has been called “the impossible possibility,” but it’s right there in this story of Joseph and his brothers; and truthfully, it’s the same kind of love found again and again throughout the biblical story, and within our stories as well; in fact, I would suggest to you that such love can be found in whatever possibility we might name here today …that is, friends, if God is in the midst of it.
If God is in it, you see, the love of which we speak will be there.
Now while most of us can’t claim the experience of having been cast into the pit by seven jealous brothers (then again, I was an only child, so what do I know?), nonetheless here we have a biblical story that rings very true for us today, at least in the sense of how it feels to experience God’s love in such a surprising and overwhelming way. I know it’s true for me: you know the old saying about how “the devil is in the details?” Well, the older I get, the more I discover that more often than not, it’s been God working in the details of life; shifting my perceptions of people and situations, prodding me to move in ways and directions I’m reluctant to go, and opening up possibilities – the right possibilities I might add – often long before I’m ready to acknowledge them. The point is that ready or not, like it or not, God is always there, and though my humanity might well fight God’s relentless divinity from time to time, I am always the better for God’s persistence in the matter.
And I’m not alone in this understanding; as a pastor, I bear witness to God’s work on a daily basis: I dare say that at nearly every hospital bedside vigil, in the midst of every funeral, in the middle of the deepest and most insurmountable tragedies and conflicts that people ever have to face in this life, somewhere, somehow there’s the light of God’s grace shining through the cracks of sadness, confusion and grief.
I remember a funeral over 20 years ago now that I led for a 9 year-old girl who had died from childhood leukemia. It was one of the hardest funerals I’ve ever had to do, not just because this was a child, which was difficult enough, but also because I had a child that age and I couldn’t begin to imagine the pain those two parents were going through. In fact, to tell you the truth, after days of trying to work out the service and writing the eulogy, ten minutes before the service was to begin, I had nothing; nothing on paper, nothing I felt I could say that would have any real meaning at all. And I was starting to panic, a feeling that only intensified when I discovered that our church sanctuary was now filled to overflowing with family members, friends and a great many young children, most of whom were at a funeral service for the very first time. Oh, great, I thought. Now what am I going to do?
Well, it happened that one request that the family had made was that we play a tape some music the little girl loved; a song from the cartoon movie “An American Tail,” which was the story of Feivel the immigrant mouse, who is separated from his mother in old New York. The song was “Somewhere Out There,” (“Somewhere out there, someone waits for me….”), a song about how true love transcends even the farthest of distances. I know (!); it’s a sad song to begin with, and we weren’t even playing the Linda Ronstadt version, but the one directly from the film with the little mouse singing in the moonlight!
So it’s really emotional; everyone is crying, as you might expect, and so were all these children; but as I looked out at the congregation I noticed something else: that most of these little kids were also singing! Singing, or at least mouthing every word of love, and caring and hope; the music touching their hearts in a way that nothing else could at that particular moment. It was, to say the very least, a holy moment.
And after it was done, I still don’t remember what I said; all I know is that by some miracle of grace the words came very easily. Because God was in it, working in the details of the profound sadness of that day and the grief shared by family, friends and a room full of third graders (and one blocked pastor, as well). What I do remember is that a few days later, one of our deacons brought to me a pew card they’d found with a note written in a child’s handwriting. It read simply, “I feel better now. Julie.”
If God is in it, you see, the impossible possibilities become real; the strength and peace we need become ours; and unlikely as it seems at that moment, something good, something healing and brimming with hope will be found in the midst of it.
It’s also there at the heart of this morning’s gospel; those wonderfully idealistic but seemingly impossible commands that we are to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us and pray for those who abuse us. “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven (?)” Now, friends, let me just say this: these verses might well seem very basic to our understanding of the Christian faith; but bottom line, it’s also a hard, if not downright impossible standard to live up to! Truth is that our human nature inevitably runs counter to Christ’s teachings: actually, I’m reminded of a great line from a Lyle Lovett song: “God can, but I can’t and that’s the difference between God and me.” And maybe that’s the whole point. We can’t do what God would have us do or be to one another on our own since our own human frailty and our propensity to sin always gets in the way; but if God is in it, the love that’s required for forgiveness and mercy to take place can and will be poured out to overflowing.
As a Canadian pastor by the name of Vicki Homes has written, “Agape love (that is, love that is full and self-sacrificial, and the kind of love to which we are called) is difficult.” That is why, she says, Joseph had to place the situation with his brothers in God’s hands, and that is why we have to take this business of truly loving one another that Jesus talks about in Luke and place it in the hands of God. “(We need to) pray for God’s leading,” Holmes writes. “Pray for God’s wisdom. Pray for God’s love that will spill over and pour out to all who need it.”
Like I say, this is part and parcel of the Christian life, and honestly, I think we all know deep down what it takes to love in the manner that Christ demands. It’s simply that we need God in the midst of it; for you and I to be capable of “mastering the impossibilities,” as it were, we need God to be in the details, working in and through us so that truly, “the measure [we] give will be the [measure] we get back.”
I mean, who knows what challenges you and I will face this week? In truth, life is filled with unexpected “moments of truth,” in which, like Joseph in our story today, we’re confronted with the kind of circumstances that demand from us some kind of response; and the question is, how will we respond? An unforeseen piece of bad news that changes everything; a moral or ethical dilemma that suddenly rears its head; a breach of trust or crisis of faith that rocks our world to its very core: who knows how love, compassion, forgiveness and mercy might figure into the decisions we need to make; how these virtues of faith we’ve been taught from the time of childhood might actually apply? And, if it does, how do we know we can follow through; even with something as simple and as universal as doing unto “others as you would have them do to you?”
Well, maybe as Mr. Lovett has suggested, we can’t …at least not wholly or primarily by our own efforts. But God can… and the good news is that it’s precisely within our own human weakness and fallibility that God’s love and mercy begins to flow, working in and through the details of every new day, every relationship, every unforeseen circumstance; girding us to do the right thing with mercy, and forgiveness, with justice and always in love.
Because if God is in it, whatever it is, something good will come out of it. Granted, there are times when might not see it immediately, and it might well be hard for us to find at all; but with patience and in faith, in time, something good will come, and we’ll find it because God was in it.
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry