“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
Ordinary Time, September 24, 2017
Somewhere in the middle of this week, I realized I had reached that point that I so often warn others about. That point at which you have a vague awareness that truly awful things are happening in the wide world around you but you can’t bear to pick up the newspaper or turn on the TV or log onto Facebook to see what’s out there. You have become so very saturated with bad news, so completely overwhelmed by the pain and suffering in the world, that you simply become paralyzed. Unable to take it all in. Unable to open yourself, once again, to the pain of others.
Like the rest of you, I am only human. And my ability to keep up with every tragedy befalling the world around us is just that….human. And so I write checks to relief organizations. And I listen closely to those who are worried about loved ones around the globe and close by. And I meet with friends and neighbors here in Manhattan to try and figure out how we can make this little corner of the world a better place. And at night when I fall asleep, I try to remember to pray not only for the places and stories that I know but the ones I have forgotten. For I know that God is not limited in the same ways we are. God sees and knows and loves and does not forget. Not ever.
On weeks like this one, when we have been inundated once again with stories of tragedy and pain, suffering on a grand scale that is difficult to comprehend, I sometimes find myself sinking down into older stories. The older stories - stories that were passed down from generation to generation, stories that seem to be somehow etched into my DNA - can sometimes provide the anchoring we need in the midst of a non-stop news cycle. These old, old stories provide a foundation for us. Within their lines and songs are deep truths about what it means to be human - the unending cycle of tragedy and triumph, sin and repentance, division and reconciliation, slavery and freedom.
The Joseph story that we’ve been traveling through the past few weeks is one of those old, old stories. At times, Joseph’s story is so complicated, the plot twists and turns, so dramatic, that is seems almost like a fairy tale. But, then again, the characters are so realistic - so inconsistent, so cringe-worthy, so very imperfect - that it grabs me in a way a fairy tale cannot. Because there are no easy, trite lessons here. No one-size-fits-all interpretations of this man’s story.
Can I tell you the story this morning? Can we let the other stories slip away for just a few brief moments? Not that they are forgotten, not that they don’t matter, but because it is good to remember the old stories, too, to be anchored in deep truths so that we can have the stamina and courage we need to meet the stories of today.
Can I tell you Joseph’s story?
Once upon a time, many years after Joseph had been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers and had risen to prominence in the land of Egypt, the dreams that Pharaoh had dreamed about an impending famine came true. All over the region, people were famished. But the Egyptians had enough because Joseph, being warned by Pharaoh’s dreams, had rationed food so that they would have enough in the lean years.
People in surrounding areas who had not planned ahead flocked to Egypt for help. And that is how Joseph, having last seen the faces of his half-brothers jeering at him as he stumbled away with his captors, came face-to-face with ten of his half-brothers once again. Only this time the roles were reversed. Just as he had dreamed as a child, Joseph was finally lording over his brothers, quite literally. As the second-most-powerful man in all of Egypt, his brothers did not recognize their baby brother. My guess is he was likely long thought to be dead and mostly forgotten.
But not forgotten by his father, Jacob, who still lived in the land of Canaan and still hoped against hope that his favorite son might still be alive. And not forgotten by God, who was quietly working in and through Joseph’s life in ways that even Joseph didn’t quite understand.
Joseph recognizes his brothers immediately and decides to have some fun at their expense. If you’ve ever had a hard time forgiving someone for the pain they’ve inflicted upon you….if you’ve ever dreamed of revenge, well, know you’re not along. Just look what Joseph does.
He accuses them of being spies. And when he learns that his father is still living and his full-brother Benjamin, his only connection to his deceased mother, is still alive, he concocts a plan that will both punish his half-brothers and reunite him with his father and Benjamin. He throws the whole lot of brothers, all ten of them, in jail for three days. And then he releases 9 of them - all but Simeon, who he keeps as collateral. “Bring me your little brother Benjamin,” he says, “And I’ll return Simeon to you.”
The brothers weep and moan. Surely they are being punished for their ancient sin of selling the long-long Joseph into slavery. Joseph, overhearing their struggle, turns his face and weeps - ancient wounds reopened, fantasies of what his life might have been if that one moment had just got differently.
Before they return to Canaan, Joseph has their bags filled with grain. And then, just to mess with their heads and make sure they’re good and scared, he has the money they brought with them to buy the grain placed on top. When they return home they discover it and are terrified. Now they’re really going to be in trouble when they return.
The brothers try to explain the situation to their dad, who - having lost one son already, is not too pleased that Simeon is missing. The brothers say that they have to return with Benjamin but Jacob is not having it. Finally, they convince him to let Benjamin go...but only because the grain has run out, everyone is starving, and Judah pledges his own life as surety for Benjamin’s. He promises Benjamin will return.
Back to Egypt they go. Again, they encounter the mighty Joseph-that-they-don’t-know-is-Joseph. Joseph is thrilled to see Benjamin but does his best to conceal it. A big party is thrown and everyone feasts together. Joseph orders their sacks to be filled with grain once again and that they should not only be given their money back but extra.
Overcome with a desperate need to keep Benjamin close, he does the only thing he can think of. Joseph frames his little brother - placing a valuable silver cup inside his bag - and then sends his stewards to go and confront him, telling the men that Benjamin will have to be returned to Egypt - permanently.
Well, this will not do. Judah, after all, made a promise to his father that Benjamin would return. He explains as much to Joseph. Judah pleads to give himself in exchange for Benjamin. “If Benjamin does not return to our father,” he explains, “It will kill him.”
Joseph, perhaps hearing the desperation in Judah’s voice, cannot keep up the ruse any longer. He sends everyone except his brothers away and reveals his true identity. The years of pain and grief and anger and anguish have caught up with him and he says, quite simply, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?”
So many things that could be said. But he says the two things that really matter to him. First, that he is still Joseph. That has not changed despite years of distance, years of acclimation to another land. And secondly, “Is my father still alive?” No longer a child, but a grown man, he still yearns with hope for that one thing: his father’s arms.
Once Joseph finally calms down enough to begin explain all that has transpired he does something that I’ve always found fascinating. He tells the deepest truth of his soul - the thing that has allowed him to keep going all these years in the face of great adversity. Joseph says that is is his belief that it wasn’t really his brothers who were responsible for his life, but God. That in the midst of all this pain and agony, God has been working to guide Joseph and use his life for good.
None of us can really know what stories we would tell ourselves to survive great suffering until we’re in the midst of it. When I hear Joseph’s deep truth claim that God has orchestrated this whole thing, I have to admit, I cringe a little. Surely God wouldn’t be so cruel as to cause all this pain, I think. But then I remember the times I have sat with others as they have been in the midst of excruciating difficulties. And I have often heard them speak some version of Joseph’s deep truth - that God is in control and is working for good, even when it might seem awful at first. And I have seen the peace that this deep truth provides for some people. And so I remember just how little I really know about God and give thanks that someone who has lived through great tragedy and horror can find meaning in their suffering and can still know God is traveling alongside them.
Now that all the secrets have come out, and meaning has been made, there’s just one thing that remains: Joseph must be reunited with his father. And so preparations are made. It is decided that Jacob and sons and their whole extended family will come to Egypt and be settled on prime land. Joseph, with Pharaoh’s blessing, will ensure that they have enough as the years of the famine rage on.
When Joseph and Jacob are reunited - well, you already know what it looks like, right? Two big guys falling on each other’s necks and weeping. Finally, Jacob lets go and looks full into his beloved son’s face, saying, “I can die now, having seen for myself that you are still alive.”
And they all live happily ever after. Well, not quite. Because there’s more. More tragedy and more triumph, more pain and more reconciliation. That’s what it means to be human and living in the ever-encircling embrace of God, right? That there’s always more.
In particular, the more in this story includes these two scenes of More:
When Jacob is on his deathbed he calls Joseph to his side and demands that he bring along his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. His vision dimmed by his old age, Jacob kisses and embraces his two grandsons. And Jacob says to Joseph, “I did not expect I’d ever see YOU again….and, look here, God has also let me see the faces of your children as well.”
And then, at the very end of the book of Genesis, we are told that Joseph lives to the ripe age of 110 and lives to see several generations come after him. On his deathbed, he said to his brothers, “I am about to die. But God is not done with us yet. I believe - I know, in my heart of hearts - that one day our people will leave Egypt again. We will be brought out of this place and brought up into the land that the God of our ancestors promised to Abraham and Sarah, to Isaac and Rebekah, and to our own parents. Our people will be brought into that land flowing with milk and honey. God will not forget his promises to us. And when that day comes, you will carry up my bones from here. My bones will also travel that freedom road.”
Which leaves me, of course, thumbing ahead in my Bible to the book of Exodus to see what’s next. Is Joseph right? Do his bones really travel with the Israelites when they leave Egypt? What’s the next part of the story? Is there More?
And so the cycle continues….on and on….tragedy and triumph, sin and repentance, division and reconciliation, slavery and freedom.