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Rags to Riches and Beyond, August 20, 2017

Rags to Riches … and Beyond

TV series often start with a voice–over intoning the words, “Previously on NCIS …” So today I begin, “Previously in this sermon …”

We met Joseph, a 17–year–old brat and tattletale. His brothers hated him, so they got rid of him and sold him to a caravan going down to Egypt. Once he got there, Joseph was sold to an Egyptian official named Potiphar as a slave. Potiphar’s wife made advances to Joseph, which he refused, so she charged him with sexual harassment and had him thrown in jail.

In jail, Joseph develops a reputation as an interpreter of dreams. It just so happened that the Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, had some dreams which no one else could interpret. Joseph is called on to interpret the dreams: there will be 7 years of abundance, O mighty Pharaoh, followed by 7 years of famine. Do this: store up 20% of the grain in each of the 7 years of plenty; that way you’ll have enough food for the 7 years of famine.

The Pharaoh agrees and puts Joseph in charge of the storage and rationing program. Joseph becomes the second most powerful man in all of Egypt. It’s a real rags–to–riches story. He’s an Egyptian lord now. He dresses as an Egyptian, he speaks as an Egyptian, to all intents and purposes, he has become an Egyptian.

The 7 years of abundance pass quickly. Then comes the famine, which afflicts the whole region, and soon people from other nations are coming to Egypt to buy food. Among them are Joseph’s brothers, who have been sent by Jacob to buy some food.

Joseph recognizes them immediately. Revenge is sweet. Joseph accuses his brothers of spying and throws them in jail for three days. But he relents, and sends them home with the grain they came to buy, and puts their money back in the sacks as well.

He demands however, that when they come back, they must bring their youngest brother Benjamin with them. He keeps Simeon to guarantee the return of the brothers.

When the brothers return home, Jacob is heartbroken. He’s already lost two sons— Joseph and Simeon. He couldn’t bear to lose Benjamin, Rachel’s other son.

But the day comes when he has no choice. They have run out of food, and so they go back to Egypt.

To their very great confusion, Joseph throws a feast for them. After the feast, he orders his steward to fill their sacks with grain and also to put his personal cup in Benjamin’s sack. The brothers leave, but are soon overtaken by Joseph’s servants, who accuse Benjamin of stealing the cup.

Joseph is playing with his brothers. He has all the power, and he uses it ruthlessly. He’s going to get back at them for what they did to him so long ago. It’s a game of cat–and–mouse for Joseph, and the brothers are afraid. Joseph has all the power now. As the one who decides who will get grain and who won’t, Joseph literally gets to decide who will live and who will die.

With that, we come to Genesis 45. This is the climax of the Joseph saga. He finally reveals himself to his brothers: “I am Joseph, your brother. You sold me into slavery; but don’t be afraid, for while you meant to do evil to me, God meant it for good.”

It sounds as if Joseph has finally forgiven his brothers. That’s a good thing … but we can’t forget how he played on the fears of his brothers and exploited his imperial power. In fact, we find in Genesis 50 after the death of Jacob that his brothers are still afraid of him. “What if Joseph gets back at us, now that Dad is dead?” they ask.

Joseph, by playing this cat–and–mouse game, has destroyed all possibility of community. He might have told his brothers not to be afraid, but he has all the power, and they will always be afraid of him. They will never quite trust him fully ever again.

Sure, it may have been the consequences of their own actions. After all, they got rid of him many years ago. But Joseph has the power to set things right … and he chose to play on their fears. He has unleashed something which can’t be undone.

This story tells us something about how we might live together in peace and forgiveness and wholeness. Joseph could have come to the place of forgiveness much sooner, particularly since he apparently believes that this was God’s purpose all along. But he gave in to his baser instincts.

Finally, there is one other troubling question. Joseph tells his brothers that this was God’s plan all along. Is that really so? After all, this is a story of human trafficking. The brothers sold him into slavery. Does the relief from the famine truly justify the actions of the brothers?

I’ve heard too many sermons saying that any social ill may be part of God’s purpose in bringing about a greater good.

I don’t believe it. And I think it’s okay to disagree with these stories. As with any story, our interpretation of them changes over time.

When Joseph tells his brothers that this was God’s purpose all along, he was doing what so many of us do. He was trying to make some sense of his experience. He was trying to find some reason for his experience, and we all do that, particularly when we’ve had a hard and painful experience.

When Joseph says, “it was not you who sent me here but God,” it’s Joseph’s own perception of the circumstances of his life. He’s trying to make sense of his experience. Contrary to some preachers, this story is not a way to justify any social ill as if God is at work in things like slavery, human trafficking, or any other social ill over which we manage to triumph.

God’s purposes are never expressed through harm done to other people. God’s purposes are not accomplished by the tragedy in Charlottesville this past week. God’s purposes are not accomplished in the increasing hatred and bigotry of people who seem to feel more free to express it. God’s purposes were not accomplished in the Indian Residential Schools. God’s purposes are not met in any act of violence or hatred or bigotry or any other such thing.

Rather, we remember Joseph and tell his story. We remember the family he came from with all of its troubled history. We remind ourselves that even in the most troubled family, forgiveness is possible. Even in the midst of the most unspeakable evil, we can stand firm as God’s people and speak out against that evil and speak out for justice and peace. We remember Joseph, and we are given an opportunity to reflect on our own relationships, our own generosity towards others, our own walk in this world with God and with our neighbours.

Thanks be to God.

Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt

August 20, 2017 (11th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20)

Genesis 45: 1–15

Matthew 15: 21–28

Romans 11: 29–32