November 22, 2020
Genesis 44 (selections)
“The Big Payback”
Whether it’s because of your personal Bible reading or Andrew Lloyd Weber’s technicolor dream coat, some of you may be familiar with the story of Joseph. Not Mary and Joseph – that’s still a few weeks away. I mean even-further-back Joseph, the son of Jacob, great-grandson to Abraham himself.
I think his remarkable story can be instructive for us so let’s review it. Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son. Jacob gave him larger portions of food and a special coat. When you’ve got 10 older brothers, you can guess how well that went over.
But Joseph didn’t help his cause much either. Prone to having vivid dreams – he just couldn’t help but tell those older siblings when he dreamed about every single one of them bowing down to him. Little brothers can be the worst, right?
One day his siblings decided they’d had enough. So, they faked Joseph’s death and then sold him into slavery. Now pause and imagine that for a second. Your own family sells you off like a piece of livestock. How do you recover from that?
But recover he does – through some odd twists of fate, or rather by the hand of God, Joseph becomes the vice-Pharaoh of all Egypt, all because this dreamer predicts a seven-year famine and then comes up with a plan to survive it.
One day, his brothers – near-starving – hear that there is food in Egypt and so they present themselves before this vice-Pharaoh to buy some, but they have no idea who he is. You see, by now, Joseph – in the immortal words of the Bangles – “walks like an Egyptian.”
Why are you looking at me like that? Oh! You think I’m going to sing, don’t you?
Well, I’m not……….seriously, it’s not happening!
Cut to Meg whistling
Oh I see, Meg, you won’t sing a duet with me but you’ll whistle for them.
It’s fine, it’s fine…I won’t hold a grudge….certainly not while I’m preaching on Joseph.
Because there he is, folks – face to face with the brothers who nearly ruined his life. With plenty of reason to reach for revenge, what will Joseph do? A reading from Genesis 44
Scripture: Genesis 44 (selections)
Then [Joseph] commanded the steward of his house, ‘Fill the men’s sacks with food, as much as they can carry, AND put each man’s money back in the top of his sack. [Then] Put my cup, the silver cup, in the top of the sack of the youngest.’
When they had gone only a short distance from the city, Joseph said to his steward, ‘Go, follow after the men…”
When he overtook them, each one quickly lowered his sack to the ground, and each opened his sack. He searched, beginning with the eldest and ending with the youngest; and the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack. At this the brothers tore their clothes.
Judah and his brothers came to Joseph’s house while he was still there; and they fell to the ground before him. Judah said, ‘What can we say to my lord? How can we clear ourselves? God has found out the guilt of your servants; here we are then, my lord’s slaves, both we and also the one in whose possession the cup has been found.’
But Joseph said, ‘Far be it from me that I should do so! Only the one in whose possession the cup was found shall be my slave; but as for you, go up in peace to your father.’
Then Judah stepped up to him and said, ‘let your servant please speak a word in my lord’s ears, and do not be angry; for you are like Pharaoh himself. My lord asked us, saying, “Have you a father or a brother?” And we said to my lord, “We have a father, an old man, and a young brother, the child of his old age. His brother is dead; he alone is left of his mother’s children, and his father loves him.”
Then you said, “Bring him down to me, so that I may set my eyes on him.” We said to my lord, “The boy cannot leave his father, for if he should leave his father, his father would die.”
Then you said, “Unless your youngest brother comes down with you, you shall see my face no more.” When we went back to your servant my father we told him the words of my lord. And when our father said, “Go again, buy us a little food”, we said, “We cannot go down…for we cannot see the man’s face unless our youngest brother is with us.”
Then my father said to us, “You know that my wife bore me two sons; one has been torn to pieces; and I have never seen him since. If you take this one also from me, and harm comes to him, you will bring down my grey hairs in sorrow.”
Now therefore, when I come to my father and the boy is not with us, then, as his life is bound up in the boy’s life, when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die. For [I said] to my father, saying, “If I do not bring him back to you, then I will bear the blame in the sight of my father all my life.” Now therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord in place of the boy; and let the boy go back with his brothers. For I fear to see the suffering that would come upon my father.’
Then Joseph could no longer control himself, and he cried out, ‘Send everyone away from me.’
Joseph [then] said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?’ But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come closer to me…I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life
For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 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.
Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, “Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay.
Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
Have you ever noticed how much the stories we tell revolve around revenge?
Think the Iliad if you’re partial to Homer. Hamlet if you lean more Shakespeare. The Count of Monte Cristo if you’re a Francophile. True Grit if you prefer American westerns. And, of course, no list would be complete without this modern classic. Say it along with me if you know it:
“Hello – My name is Inigo Montoya – you killed me Father. Prepare to die!”
Seriously, though, what is the deal? We love this stuff. The perfectly-executed, expertly-timed revenge scheme is so satisfying. And the longer it plays out the better.
I don’t know about you but I’m missing Brother Trebek something fierce so – “I’ll take 19th Century French Literature for $200, Alex.”
The Count of Monte Cristo spends fourteen years in prison concocting his elaborate plan for vengeance on those who framed him, which illustrates a certain trait us humans share in common:
Our resentment has an awfully long shelf life.
So what does it say that this book – the one that we hold to be holy – tells a story in which a deeply wronged Joseph expressly resists the seductive satisfaction of revenge? What might God be whispering to us through the story of Joseph.
“I’ll take 19th Century French literature for $400 Alex”
Going from Dumas to Hugo, in Les Miserables, there is this moment when Jean Valjean steals all the silver from that Church, and when he is arrested and dragged back before the Bishop, instead of punishment there is blessing. The Bishop takes the silver candlesticks off the mantle and says “You forgot I gave these also.” There’s no payback – only forgiveness. But there’s something more than just forgiveness in that moment…or perhaps we can call it a deeper shade of forgiveness. The Bishop looks at this wild, criminalized man and he sees something else. The Bishop believes that he can be better than his past may indicate. In the musical the Bishop sings:
But remember this my brother.
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man.
I bet that Bishop had to look really deep within to see that possibility hidden within Jean Valjean – to see an honest man hiding inside a thief. But that may very well be the most extreme form of forgiveness – not just forgiving the wrong, but seeing the potential for transformation.
I believe that this highest form of forgiveness is what this Joseph story is about. Though it may not be altogether evident at first.
For a moment, it looks as if Joseph is in fact working out his big revenge scheme – he forces them to bring their youngest brother Benjamin with them when they return.
He throws a party and serves Benjamin a serving that is five times more than what the other brothers receive – he’s needling the others about how their father had always favored Joseph more than the rest of them.
After the set up, he then springs the trap and frames Benjamin for stealing his silver cup, which is where we picked up the story today.
Again – by all appearances, Joseph is toying with them, putting that moment before them again, setting them up so they’ll be forced to sacrifice their younger brother again, leaving him enslaved in Egypt and breaking their father’s heart all over again. That is certainly what it looks like.
But look again – at the end of it all – after Judah of all people, Judah who had concocted the whole “Sell him into slavery” plan in the first place – after Judah steps up and offers to remain a slave in place of Benjamin, Joseph breaks down and he embraces them, saying “I am your brother Joseph.”
Brother! Think about that
After everything he had been put through…
In spite of all the time he has been away – becoming more and more Egyptian by the day.
In spite of the bitter path he had traveled with enslavement and false accusations and imprisonment.
In spite of all the accumulated resentment and the revenge that he would be more than entitled to, he still says to Judah and the rest “I am your brother.”
So maybe Joseph isn’t setting them up – maybe he’s “giving them a chance to be better this time around.”
Joseph could have said “I know these guys…”
These are the guys who’ve hated me all my life –
These are the guys who planned to kill me, but then figured they could make a little coin and sell me into slavery.
These are the guys who will cut and run and leave Ben hanging out to dry…I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
But forgiveness – the highest form of forgiveness – is first an act of imagination…can I imagine something other than what has come before?
Can I imagine that they might be different this time?
Can I imagine they will live in a way that is more gracious?
Forgiveness is letting go of the injury and holding on to the brother,
Forgiveness is releasing the resentment in order to retain the relationship.
Now – let’s talk straight – this kind of forgiveness can be incredibly difficult work. I don’t know everything you have endured. I don’t know the depth of injury this would require you to release. So I do not – I repeat, I DO NOT – want you to leave this sermon thinking that I am shaming you into forgiving that which you are not ready to forgive. There are no “shoulds” in this sermon. There are no guilt trips in this Church.
AND – no matter who we are and what we carry – we still must contend with this story that cuts so much against the grain of all those revenge stories we love so much. We still must contend with this God for whom forgiveness is the path to the future.
I believe we need that kind of forgiveness now – in our families, in our community, in our nation. It has become far too easy to see the worst in one another – to expect the worst from one another.
All the while we undermine any sense that we actually do belong to one another…and I do think that is what we long for most – a sense of belonging.
But here’s what I hold on to and this is what gives me hope.
That God has the most wonderful imagination of all;
That God can look at me with all of my faults and flaws – my resentment, my arrogance, my foolish pride – and God can see something else entirely; A completely different person than the one I see in the mirror.
Sometimes I bet God has to look real deep to see that other man hiding inside, but my goodness, just to have somebody looking for him, well, that’s enough to make me want to meet him, too.
Personally – I’ll take that over a cold serving of revenge every time.
 This line – and the line of thinking that flows from it, comes from Tom Are and his sermon “Forgive Us As We Forgive”