Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28
The story of Joseph from the book of Genesis is an amazing story, with all kinds of interesting and unexpected twists and turns. If you haven’t read it in a while, or ever, you should! And yet the Old Testament lectionary reading for this morning, taken from the story of Joseph, strangely stops just as we are getting into the story – right at the crisis, or at least the first crisis of many. It stops with Joseph’s brothers selling him to a band of traders traveling to Egypt. Why would the lectionary writers decide to stop the story in such a strange place – right at the beginning, without giving us any idea how it might end?
I guess because that’s where life is lived – in the middle of the story – not really knowing how it will ultimately play out, for good or for bad, happy or sad, tragic or redemptive.
There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “May be,” the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses.
“How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “May be,” replied the old farmer.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on the misfortune. “May be,” answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into military service. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on his good fortune. “May be,” said the farmer.
This is how we often experience our lives, when we are in the middle of them, which is where we live, for the most part. We are not sure if we are living a happily ever after, or are waiting for the other shoe to drop!
If we continue reading the story of Joseph, we see that his being sold into slavery by his brothers is not the end of the story at all, but just the beginning. This tragic and life changing experience is only part of the larger redemptive story of Joseph’s life, and is also part of the even larger story of God’s continuing car for and redemption of Israel.
As we continue with the story, we find that as fate would have it, Joseph went from being sold as a slave by the traders to Potifar, an officer of Pharaoh, and from there to Pharaoh’s prison, where he was an inmate for two years, and from there he finds himself sitting face to face with Pharaoh, listening to and interpreting a dream. Pharaoh had two dreams that were troubling him, which no one could interpret for him. Pharaoh heard through his cupbearer, who had been in prison with Joseph, that Joseph could interpret dreams. So Joseph listened to the dreams and told Pharaoh that the two dreams were both the same – a dream predicting first, seven years of rich harvests in Egypt and the surrounding region, and then seven years of famine.
Joseph said the dream also indicated that Pharaoh would appoint a servant to oversee the gathering and storing of grain during the seven years of plenty, so that there might be reserves to feed the people during the seven years of famine. Pharaoh decided that Joseph’s interpretation was true and from God, and he set Joseph over this plan to store up grain so that it might be available during the famine. And Joseph became the most powerful man in the kingdom, more powerful than anyone, except Pharaoh.
And in another interesting turn, at the end of the story, Joseph was reunited with his brothers, his father, and his family when his brothers came to buy grain from Pharaoh’s servant (who was of course Joseph himself), during the famine years. After reconciling with his brothers and his father, Jacob, the whole family is brought into Goshen, in Egypt, where Joseph could watch over and protect his family, and this was the beginning of Israel’s life in Egypt.
Out of this experience Joseph came to believe that what his brothers intended for evil, God somehow used for good, for through him countless lives were saved from the famine, and certain death, as well as the lives of his own people. What at first seemed to be an unspeakable crime against him by his brothers, Joseph now saw as a thread of redemption running through his life – not just a twist of fate, but God’s providence at work in and through the ups and downs of his story.
The Apostle Paul, when writing Romans, found himself struggling with being in the middle of the story of God’s redemption of Israel, and trying to make sense of an unexpected turn in the story. Paul attempted to make sense of how it was that the risen Christ he had encountered on the road to Damascus, who he believed to be the hoped for Messiah of Israel, had come, and his people, the Jews, they had rejected him. For Paul it was difficult to make sense of this . . . were God’s promises to Israel still reliable? Was there a larger plan that was served by the rejection of Jesus by the Jews? And like Joseph, Paul began to see a thread of redemption where at first he had seen a roadblock. For through the Jews rejection of Jesus, Paul now saw a door that was opened to the Gentiles, and this began his mission. And Paul believed that this inclusion of the Gentiles would ultimately lead to the inclusion of all into God’s Kingdom . . . the Jews, the Gentiles, everyone.
And out of this struggle came some words of wisdom and hope from Paul . . . and Paul was not one prone to false optimism born out of an easy life, but rather, he was one who’s hope had been tried and tested by hardship, suffering, ship wrecks, prison, torture, beatings, and eventually execution. In Romans Paul shared his life tested faith and said, . . . “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
For Paul, I think, this doesn’t mean that those who love God, will somehow be shielded from the tragedies that befall everyone else. It doesn’t mean that if we are faithful and patient, our lives will finally, one day, turn out as we hoped they would, with a happy ending. When Paul says, all things work together for good, he means ALL THINGS, the ups and the downs, the light and the dark, our obedience and even our rebellion, the good and even the evil, are within the redemptive and transforming power of God’s love.
When I was in college I had the first truly devastating experience of my young life . . . I was kicked out of my fraternity. I didn’t know you could get kicked out of the party fraternity for partying too much, but you can. And it was devastating to me. I felt as though my closest friends, the people who knew me best, had seen me for who I was, and had rejected me. And after this experience I carried within me a wound and a fear that if others saw me as I really was, they too might reject me, because maybe I was not loveable. I think on some level I even felt this way toward God, for if anyone could see me as I really was, God could.
Years later, I was asked to write a spiritual autobiography for the first time, when I was applying to The Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. And in putting on paper the story of my life, I was surprised to see this painful chapter from my college years as a truly watershed experience that put my life on a totally different path than the one it had been on before. In looking back on it, I realized that out of this painful experience of rejection, I looked in a new place for new friends, and turned to the Church. This eventually led to my studies at Emory and my first vocation as a Methodist Pastor, as well as meeting my wife.
Also, out of this experience of rejection, I came to see myself as an “outsider” for the first time. Being kicked out of my fraternity somehow opened a door inside me that expanded my capacity for compassion on others who were struggling much more profoundly than I was, with what it meant to be an outsider. And it was out of this experience that I fell in love with God in Christ who loved outcasts of all sorts and called them, and me, and all of us, beloved children of God.
I think probably as important, I learned and am still learning to trust this journey to which God has invited me through Jesus and his church. I am learning to have a deeper trust, not that everything will turn out like I want it to in the end, but to trust how God is inviting me to lean into the journey as it is, and trust that God is at work, weaving a thread of redemption into all of it, the ups and the downs, the good and the bad.
As providence would have it, I’ve been reading “Yes, And . . . Daily Meditations” by Fr. Richard Rohr – and I believe the chapter I read two nights ago as part of my Evening Prayer routine, titled, “Center and Circumference” has something to add to my message this morning.
If I had to summarize and put what I think Fr. Richard Rhor is saying in my own words, I would say,
God in Christ invites us on a journey into the mystery of the Divine – into the mystery of God’s profound love. And strangely enough, it is only through this journey into the mystery of God’s love, that we are truly able to journey into the mystery of ourselves – who we truly are – not who we wish we were, but who we really are and who we can only be in the freeing love of God’s grace. For only there, can we be freed to be our best selves. And this dual journey into the mystery of God and into the mystery of ourselves is not one we could ever plan out ourselves, because it involves some twists and turns we would never choose, if the choice were ours, nor even imagine on our own. And yet, there it is, in the very lives we have been given. And the way to begin this journey “ . . . taking up our own inglorious, mundane, and ever-present cross”, is so simple, and yet so difficult at times – simply to live fully into the joy and the pain of the lives we have been given (Rohr 143).
And Christ bids us to come and trust the journey.
– Trent Palmer