Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’ So they approached Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this instruction before he died, “Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.” Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.’ Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, ‘We are here as your slaves.’ But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
For Good: Genesis 50:15-21
When I read this portion of Genesis, I often think of a song from the Broadway musical Wicked. It’s called “For Good.” The two lead characters, Galinda and Elphaba, having grown from rivals to friends, realize at one pivotal moment, that they probably won’t see each other again. At this point in the story, Elphaba has raised the ire of the government by standing up for a population that was being oppressed. And, Galinda, having been used by the same government as a positive face for their unjust regime, finally realizing the extent of the corruption around her, runs to warn her of a group that is coming to capture her. Before they part ways for the final time, they tell each other how they have grown from their friendship. A part of the song they share goes like this:
Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes the sun
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood
Who can say if I've been changed for the better
But because I knew you
I have been changed for good
Before they met, their lives seemed to be going in one direct: straight, clear, predictable, inevitable. But, then something happened. One event, in this case, their becoming roommates, completely changed the course of their lives. While some might argue that they weren’t necessarily good influences on each other (particularly those worried about Elphaba the Revolutionary), they were lasting influences on one another. And, I think you can make the case that the most important things they do in the show are shaped by their relationship with each other. Their reconciliation is heart of the show.
Joseph and his brothers’ reconciliation is the heart of the scripture we read for today. And, while they aren’t roommates at the beginning of their story, they were rivals. Their actions left indelible marks on each other’s lives. Today’s reading shows us the pivotal moment where they turn back towards each other, restoring the relationship that the brothers had so easily sacrificed in the years before. At the beginning of the story, it’s not clear that these siblings have been changed for the better either. It is fascinating that Joseph tells them than the change has been for the good.
Since it’s been a while since we last talked about this story together, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the path that Joseph’s life has taken since his brothers’ actions knocked him out of his father’s orbit. After years in slavery in Egypt, years that included imprisonment but also great success as a manager of the homes of the people who enslaved him, Joseph had developed a reputation as one who could interpret dreams. Remember, he’d had that powerful dream that annoyed and frightened his brothers. He had helpfully advised the pharaoh on how to plan for a famine that was foretold in one of the pharaoh's dreams. The pharaoh has such faith in Joseph that he appointed him to a place of great honor and prominence in his court. He even gave him an Egyptian name and an Egyptian wife.
Knowing the famine was coming, Joseph had made sure that there was plenty of grain stored. Joseph, who had had so many choices taken from him, would go on to build success on the desperation of people who needed that grain to survive. Because of him, Pharaoh had grain. Others would spend all their money, sell of their land, and even sell themselves into slavery to get some of it. Because they had access to the grain, the people lived, but they wound up in service to Pharaoh. In this action, we see Joseph’s adaptability and intelligence allowing him to be better at this system than the people who created it. We, unfortunately, don’t see much of him trying to undo the unjust system. He made the choice to assimilate to survive.
Do you think Joseph imagined that one day, his ten brothers would show up, bowing before him, hoping that he would be willing to sell them enough grain so they, too, could survive? I mean, maybe he remembered his dreams and knew that it would happen eventually. Now, his brothers had no idea who he was, and certainly would never have imagined that their enslaved brother could have ended up a primary advisor to the Pharaoh. This all happens before today’s reading, but it’s important context to what comes later. Joseph will find himself in a place of power over the ones who wanted to kill him. He had the power to enact vengeance upon them. Would he?
For a while, he toys with them, not explaining who he is and asking them to bring their youngest brother to him. The brothers begin to believe God is punishing them for selling Joseph away. Reuben agreed. He had never liked what they did to Joseph and was certain that their starvation and humiliation were a reckoning, and told his brothers as much. Joseph wept when he heard his brother's words. I don't think he knew that Reuben had tried to save him. I wonder if this moment helped set the scene for the reconciliation to come. He still held Simeon as collateral until they are willing to bring back Benjamin, the youngest brother. And, he still required Benjamin to be brought back to him. But he doesn’t say no. And, he slipped their payment for the grain back in their bags.
Jacob almost messes things up. He does not want to send Benjamin to Egypt. He had already lost Joseph and was already assuming that Simeon had been killed. But, the famine continued. They ran out of food again. Returning to Egypt, and an angry Joseph, was their only options for survival. Carrying with them double the money from last time and their brother Benjamin, the brothers went back to Egypt and hoped they had enough to satisfy the man they didn’t yet know was their brother. Joseph surprises them by claiming to have received the first payment, you remember, the one he returned. He even brought Simeon to them, very much alive and in one piece. When Joseph, still unrecognized by his brothers, sees Benjamin, he nearly weeps in front of them, choosing, instead to hid his tears away in another room. Again, when he sends them away with food the next morning, he has their payment slipped back into their bag, along with his own silver cup in Benjamin's bag. This time, though, Joseph then directed his steward to accuse them of being thieves. I guess a little vengeance was too tempting. Certain that none of them had taken it, they promise the steward that he could keep any man whom he found carrying the cup. They tore at their clothes in mourning when they realized Benjamin had the cup.
Judah, the brother who had originally suggested selling Joseph, stepped forward in one last ditch effort to save them. He explained to this man whom he thinks is a stranger just how much their father loves them, and loves especially Benjamin. He explained how this son and another, one who has died, were the only sons from Rachel and Jacob's relationship. He explained that grief over Joseph's death had already nearly killed his father. He said that his father will blame him, Judah, for the rest of his life if they don't bring Benjamin back. He offered to stay in his place, giving his own life to save the life of a beloved brother.
Judah, who once sold one brother, offered his own life to save another. Judah demonstrates a care and compassion for a sibling in a way that Joseph must have wished Judah had shown him. This is the moment in which Joseph fully decided to save his brothers, this moment where he can see that Judah has changed. This is the moment when he finally admits who he is, asking after their father, and weeping. At first, his brothers are sure this news can only be bad. But, Joseph finds the good.
Joseph explained that he felt that God had turned what they intended for evil into good. You see, in this story, God never says, “Joseph, I’m letting them do bad things to you so that you can one day do good things.” That happens sometimes in other parts of the Bible. Here, Joseph found meaning himself in the idea that God could help him work something deeply good out of the deeply troubling things that happened to him and also, the troubling things he did to other people. In this case, Joseph saw that he had landed in a position that allowed him to save his family. The scholar Christopher Davis calls this act re-membering, that is, putting the pieces of his life story together in a new way. This new way points to a redemptive purpose, saving one’s family, and away from vengeance and more unnecessary death and destruction.
Joseph remembers his own story for the better, choosing to walk away from the vengeance that was so close at hand and likely so tempting, and walk towards reconciliation and renewed relationship. What stories are you re-membering, not to hide away the bad things that happened to you or that you did to others, but to find a way towards reconciliation? How are you finding yourself being changed both for the better and being changed for good? This is a season with great potential for destruction and delicious vengeance. What lesson are you learning from Joseph that is helping you re-member?
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.