Once upon a time two brothers shared adjoining farms. For over 40 years of they worked side by side, sharing equipment and helping each other out whenever needed. Then one day a rift developed. It began with a small misunderstanding and it grew into a major difference, and finally it exploded into an exchange of bitter words followed by months of angry silence.
One day the eldest brother, Pete, was out in his fields when a truck pulled up. Out jumped a man who approached Pete carrying a carpenter’s toolbox. “I’m looking for a few days work” he said. “Perhaps you would have a few small jobs I could do for you?”
“Well, yes I do,” said Peter. “See that creek down there, it’s the border between my brother’s farm and mine. My brother keeps it nice and deep to stop me from setting one foot on his beloved farm. Well I’ll oblige him. I want you to take that timber over there by the barn and build me a new fence, a real tall one, so I don’t have to look over at my stinkin’ brother and his farm any more.”
The carpenter was glad to have the work, “No worries mate. I understand. Just point me to your post-hole digger and I’ll get the job done.”
So the carpenter set about working. Meanwhile farmer Pete drove into town to the cattle auction. When he returned at sunset he was shocked to see what the carpenter had done.
There was no fence. Instead the carpenter had built a bridge and walking across it was Pete’s younger brother. He held out his hand and spoke to his brother, “Pete after all I’ve done to you these past few weeks I can’t believe you’d still reach out to me. You’re right. It’s time to bury the hatchet.”
The two brothers met at the middle of the bridge and embraced. They turned to see the carpenter hoist his toolbox on his shoulder. “No, wait! Stay a few days. I’ve a lot of other projects for you,” said farmer Pete. “I’d love to stay on,” the carpenter said, “but I have more bridges to build.”
As we continue our series, “What’s Your Story?” today we’ll see yet another climax in the story of Joseph, who has been in Egypt for about 20 years now and has gone from the pit to the palace, and is now serving as second in command, and governing over all the food supply in Egypt. Remember that last week we saw how, with God’s help, he was able to emerge as the only one in Egypt who could help discern the meaning of Pharaoh’s dreams, and devise a plan to store enough grain during the seven coming years of abundance in order to get them through the following seven years of famine. So far, we have seen how Joseph has clung to his faith in God’s presence in his life, and in the hope of God’s promises made to his ancestor Abraham, in order to persevere through betrayal, slavery and incarceration. Now it appears that Joseph’s own dreams as a 17-year-old are coming true, that he would one day be elevated to a position of power and authority – only now, he understands that this is happening as part of God’s bigger story to save his people.
But remember, Joseph’s 10 older brothers are the ones who sold him into slavery and convinced their father Jacob that Joseph has been killed by wild animals. And they are still back in Canaan, where the famine is affecting them, too. So in today’s scripture reading, we will see Joseph confronted with his past. And we’ll see again that Joseph must choose whether to become angry, bitter and resentful with his brothers, taking an opportunity for revenge, or if he’ll rely on God to help him make a choice for forgiveness and peace.
So I want to ask you to think of a person or situation in your life that may be anchoring you in some way to the past – someone or something that still has the power to make you feel angry or resentful or offended. And as I lead us in prayer, I encourage you to offer that situation to God and ask for God to help you write the next part of your story, which my include the choice for forgiveness and peace. Let’s pray.
Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen
While our story today will center around the scripture listed in your bulletin, I encourage you to go home and read all of Genesis chapters 42-45. It reads like a novel that you just can’t put down. And I’m going to be reading parts of those scriptures today in order to help tell the story. The first reading is from Genesis 42:1-16:
When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you keep looking at one another? 2 I have heard,” he said, “that there is grain in Egypt; go down and buy grain for us there, that we may live and not die.” 3 So ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain in Egypt. 4 But Jacob did not send Joseph’s brother Benjamin with his brothers, for he feared that harm might come to him. 5 Thus the sons of Israel were among the other people who came to buy grain, for the famine had reached the land of Canaan.
6 Now Joseph was governor over the land; it was he who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground. 7 When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke harshly to them. “Where do you come from?” he said. They said, “From the land of Canaan, to buy food.” 8 Although Joseph had recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. 9 Joseph also remembered the dreams that he had dreamed about them. He said to them, “You are spies; you have come to see the nakedness of the land!” 10 They said to him, “No, my lord; your servants have come to buy food. 11 We are all sons of one man; we are honest men; your servants have never been spies.” 12 But he said to them, “No, you have come to see the nakedness of the land!” 13 They said, “We, your servants, are twelve brothers, the sons of a certain man in the land of Canaan; the youngest, however, is now with our father, and one is no more.” 14 But Joseph said to them, “It is just as I have said to you; you are spies! 15 Here is how you shall be tested: as Pharaoh lives, you shall not leave this place unless your youngest brother comes here! 16 Let one of you go and bring your brother, while the rest of you remain in prison, in order that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you; or else, as Pharaoh lives, surely you are spies.”
So, Joseph now sees his dream coming true. He is in a position of power, and here his brothers have come to him in a position of weakness, bowing down to him, and asking for his help. Joseph understands now that God has worked through his story so that he would be in a position to help others. He now sees God as his ally, helping him accomplish a purpose that is greater than himself. But here he is, face to face with his ten older brothers who caused all that pain in the first place. They hated him so much they plotted to kill him, and would have left him in a pit for dead had they not had the fortuitous opportunity to sell him into the slave trade. I’m sure they never dreamed they would see Joseph again. We don’t know whether Joseph thought he would see them – we don’t really know what Joseph thought about them; the scriptures don’t tell us. But what would you think? Put yourself in Joseph’s shoes for a moment. Or think again about that person or situation I asked you to think about a few moments ago. How would you feel if you were now in a situation where you could turn the tables? Where you had the power and the opportunity to exact your revenge, to say, “I told you so,” or to punish instead of bless?
In one of my very favorite stories by J. K. Rowling, her character Dumbledore, the very wise wizard tells Harry Potter, “It is our choices…that show what we really are, far more than our abilities.”
Initially, it seems that Joseph has chosen to use his power for punishment and revenge. And that seems to be a very natural human inclination. When left to our own human devices, we certainly do have tendencies to make choices with our egos, rather than to humbly turn our will and choices over to God. We tend to make choices that are “for-self” – choices of self-preservation, or self-righteousness, or even outright selfishness – rather than “self-less-ness.”
These choices that are “for-self” usually cause us to see ourselves in a position of elevated power over others. We may not quite be elevated to a position of authority over others like Joseph is, but we can sometimes see ourselves as more important than some, or more “right” than others, and therefore, be able to justify our actions that would punish instead of bless.
Right now in our county, we are involved in a vitriolic, partisan divide over politics. Some of you have lived longer than I, but I have never known anything life this in my lifetime. The Pew Research Center, which for two decades has tracked demographic and partisan differences on issues like national security, immigration and the government’s role in helping the disadvantaged, found last year for the first time that the gap between Republicans and Democrats dwarfed gaps between people of different races, genders, religions and education levels. Members of opposing parties not only express frustration with each other, they now say they are angry and afraid of the other side, Pew has found. The National Institute for Civil Discourse, which provides lawmakers, businesses and communities with strategies to solve disagreements, was founded in 2011 after the assassination attempt of former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. They say that requests for conflict mitigation have sharply increased since the 2016 elections; some of the requests include rabbis and pastors whose congregations are at each other’s throats; Fortune 500 companies where productivity is down because employees bicker over politics; and one mother in New England who feared her family’s holiday would be ruined because her two daughters who were returning from college had not spoken to each other since the 2016 election.
Fortunately, I have not seen this congregation at each other’s throats. But I have seen and felt the acrimony in our community, and among facebook posts by my friends and family. And I will confess to you today that one of my own personal situations that anchors me to the past is an unresolved conflict in my extended family that centers around politics. The acrimony in politics has become so pervasive that 91 percent of voters said it was a serious problem in a Quinnipiac University poll released in July. 91 percent! If this is such a widespread problem in our country, why are Christians so embattle in this? Why aren’t we leading by example to find a way to live at peace with one another?? We must consider how our own participation in blind political affiliation causes us to vilify those whom we consider to be “on the other side.” I can remember when I came of voting age, and people talked about issues. And we decided how to vote based on issues. Now, it’s strictly about taking sides. And as Christians, we are damaging our witness in the world. When the unchurched sees those of us claiming to be followers of Christ involved in the same behaviors as the rest of the world, we have no long have any authentic voice to share the love of God, which is supposed to lead us to love our neighbors and enemies as ourselves, not giving our allegiance to Caesar and the Empire, but to Christ and the building of Christ’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
So how do we move forward? What does it take for us to let go of partisan politics, or other situations that keep us anchored to anger, resentment, and the desire to punish or take revenge?
In the Joseph story, after imprisoning all 10 of his older brothers, Joseph has a change of heart. After three days, he lets all but one go. He decides to send them with the grain back to their family so that the family can be saved. But he holds one brother, Simeon, as a bargaining chip. He tells them to take the grain back to their families, but to return with their youngest brother, Benjamin. Now Joseph and Benjamin were the only two sons born of Joseph’s favorite wife, Rachel. Benjamin was still a child when Joseph was sold into slavery. And once Jacob had lost his son Joseph, Benjamin became his new favorite. It’s interesting to note here that when Joseph’s brothers conspired to get rid of him, thinking that would solve the problem of their father’s favoritism for one brother, it actually just transferred the favoritism to Benjamin. So even in exacting their own revenge for a situation that caused them anger and jealousy, it seemed to backfire on them on several levels. They still do not know that this governor of Egypt is their own brother Joseph, even though Joseph knows them. And so when he sends nine of them away, with sacks full of grain, he also instructs his men to return the silver they used to buy the grain, and to put it on top of the grain. When each man opens his bag and discovers their money returned to them, coupled with the fact that they had been released from prison, they begin to speculate that God is somehow involved – and they begin to feel convicted for the evil they committed against their brother Joseph.
Sometimes, showing mercy and grace to someone who doesn’t think they deserve it, has more power than any act of vengeance. Let me say that again: Sometimes, showing mercy and grace to someone who doesn’t think they deserve it, has more power than any act of vengeance. And friends, that is God at work in us.
On our own, we do not have the capacity for showing mercy and grace – for forgiving. That is the work of the Holy Spirit in us. So as we think about those people or situations that have caused us harm, or those with whom we feel angry or with whom we absolutely disagree – we don’t have the power on our own to be at peace with them. That peace only comes from God. But the good news is that if we pray for that peace, if we pray for God’s Spirit to work within us, we can choose to accept God’s peace, God’s mercy, and God’s grace to be shown through us. That’s how forgiveness works.
The late Lewis B. Smedes was a Christian author and theologian who studied and wrote about forgiveness. He wrote, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.” In his writings he explains that forgiveness is an internal process where you work through the hurt, gain an understanding of what happened, rebuild a sense of safety, and let go of the grudge. The offending party is not necessarily a part of this process. In other words, you can come to a heart of forgiveness entirely with the help of God – it does not depend at all on the other person. They may or may not ever repent of what they’ve done to harm or offend. They may or may not ever think they’ve done anything wrong. But their action or inaction does not have to affect our own choice to forgive.
In a study several years ago at the University of Wisconsin, a graduate student conducted a study on the dynamics of forgiveness as a social process. Among the people she interviewed, there was unanimous agreement on one point. When they forgave someone, there was for every single one of them a physical sense of relief, a feeling of letting go of a weight. Most of them had not realized that they were carrying such a heavy burden of bitterness until they “released the other from their grasp.” Suddenly, they felt much lighter. They also realized that at some level they had been enjoying the sense of being the aggrieved victim, and had not wanted to let go. In choosing to remain in the role of “victim,” we are also allowing resentment to keep us captive.
As we read through chapters 42-45 in Genesis, we can get a sense of Joseph’s own emotional process of forgiveness. Three different times in these chapters, we see Joseph needing to leave the room or send others away so that he can weep. Forgiveness and reconciliation can both be painful processes – and they are processes. It’s not a “once and done” event. Forgiveness in the internal process of letting go of the anger, resentment and pain inside yourself. Reconciliation is the process of mending the relationship that was broken. Sometimes the most needed reconciliation is between ourselves and God. That anger and resentment we hold on to can keep us from living into God’s future. Last week we talked about finding the better you in you – there’s no certain age or stage in life when we cease to be part of God’s ongoing plan to seek and to save the lost. God is always looking to write the next story with us! And so forgiving others, or maybe even forgiving ourselves, may be the next step we need to take so that we can be reconciled to God.
In Genesis 44, we are told that about a year later, Jacob needs to send the brothers back to Egypt for more grain. They protest because they were told by Joseph that when they return, they must bring their youngest brother Benjamin. Jacob himself says that if anything happens to him, it will grieve him to death. But he knows they will starve without more grain, so he sends Benjamin with the others back to Egypt. Again, Joseph keeps his true identity secret, and continues his tactics of manipulation. After providing them a meal, in which he instructs his servants to give Benjamin a portion five times bigger than the others, he sends them away again with sacks full of grain, returns their money, and this time plants his own silver goblet in Benjamin’s bag. Then he sends his men to arrest them for stealing his goblet.
When they are brought to Joseph, he continues this cat-and-mouse game, offering to send them all away expect for the one caught with the goblet, who will stay and be Joseph’s slave. Maybe he thinks they will do to Benjamin the same they did to him – to turn their brother over as a slave so they can save themselves. But hear the response from Judah, one of the older brothers, in chapter 44:18-34:
Then Judah stepped up to him and said, “O my lord, let your servant please speak a word in my lord’s ears, and do not be angry with your servant; for you are like Pharaoh himself. 19 My lord asked his servants, saying, ‘Have you a father or a brother?’ 20 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.’ 21 Then you said to your servants, ‘Bring him down to me, so that I may set my eyes on him.’ 22 We said to my lord, ‘The boy cannot leave his father, for if he should leave his father, his father would die.’ 23 Then you said to your servants, ‘Unless your youngest brother comes down with you, you shall see my face no more.’ 24 When we went back to your servant my father we told him the words of my lord. 25 And when our father said, ‘Go again, buy us a little food,’ 26 we said, ‘We cannot go down. Only if our youngest brother goes with us, will we go down; for we cannot see the man’s face unless our youngest brother is with us.’ 27 Then your servant my father said to us, ‘You know that my wife bore me two sons; 28 one left me, and I said, Surely he has been torn to pieces; and I have never seen him since. 29 If you take this one also from me, and harm comes to him, you will bring down my gray hairs in sorrow to Sheol.’ 30 Now therefore, when I come to your servant my father and the boy is not with us, then, as his life is bound up in the boy’s life, 31 when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die; and your servants will bring down the gray hairs of your servant our father with sorrow to Sheol. 32 For your servant became surety for the boy 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.’ 33 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. 34 For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the suffering that would come upon my father.”
It seems that Joseph’s brothers have been changed. While they once had plotted to kill their younger brother who stood in the way of their father’s favor and a more secure future for themselves, they now are offering to do anything to save their youngest brother, including offering to take his place. We might call this change of character, this 180-degree turn in attitude and behavior, repentance. While forgiveness is an internal process that only needs the help of God’s Spirit, reconciliation requires another person. Both parties involved must be willing to offer and accept forgiveness, and then choose to do whatever is necessary to heal the broken relationship. In Chapter 45, we see the beautiful resolution to this conflict:
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. 2 And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. 3 Joseph 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.
4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 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. 7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 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. 9 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. 10 You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11 I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ 12 And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. 13 You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” 14 Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. 15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
Notice this passage begins with, “Joseph could control himself no longer.” Many of us may be control freaks on some level; but the healing comes when we give up our control and let the emotions roll. When we finally let go, we can sense God’s healing and peace starting to break in. Forgiveness and reconciliation are both process that can take a long time. The scriptures we read today spanned about a year and a half. And we don’t know how long Joseph has been internally struggling with forgiveness. We also need to bear in mind something else that Lewis B. Smedes said, “Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future.” In the story of Joseph, this also isn’t a situation of ‘forgive and forget.’ But it is a genuine healing for everybody involved. Joseph needed the healing as much as the brothers and their father did. And the beneficiaries of this reconciliation were not just this family, but people who had never known them!
Next week, we’ll finish the Joseph story as we consider our responsibility for passing on the story. Today I’m ending with a prayer by St. Francis – use this moment to reflect on the ways that we can let go of the people, places or emotions that are anchoring us to the past, so that we can move with God into a future filled with hope.
Scripture: Genesis 41:14-16; 25-40
14 Then Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was hurriedly brought out of the dungeon. When he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh. 15 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” 16 Joseph answered Pharaoh, “It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.”
25 Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “Pharaoh’s dreams are one and the same; God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. 26 The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good ears are seven years; the dreams are one. 27 The seven lean and ugly cows that came up after them are seven years, as are the seven empty ears blighted by the east wind. They are seven years of famine. 28 It is as I told Pharaoh; God has shown to Pharaoh what he is about to do. 29 There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt. 30 After them there will arise seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt; the famine will consume the land. 31 The plenty will no longer be known in the land because of the famine that will follow, for it will be very grievous. 32 And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about. 33 Now therefore let Pharaoh select a man who is discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. 34 Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land, and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plenteous years. 35 Let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming, and lay up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. 36 That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to befall the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine.”
37 The proposal pleased Pharaoh and all his servants. 38 Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find anyone else like this—one in whom is the spirit of God?” 39 So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is no one so discerning and wise as you. 40 You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command; only with regard to the throne will I be greater than you.”
Can you remember the very first thing you wanted to be when you grew up? My husband’s parents shared a story with me once of the very first thing Thomas said he wanted to be when he grew up. I asked Thomas to remind me of that story again, and with his permission, I want to share it with you. When Thomas was a young child, around 5 or 6 years-old, the church where his family worshipped was in a older section of Baton Rouge. The route they drove to church every week took them down streets that were full of pot-holes. He said some pot-holes were left unfilled, while others had been filled in a way that made the pavement rough and uneven. He remembers how bumpy the ride was and how the car would jostle him around; and he remembers the adults talking about what a problem it was. So one day, he told his parents that when he grew up, he wanted to become one of the people that fills the pot-holes so that he could make sure that all the holes were filled properly so that all the streets would be smooth and even to drive on. As a young child, Thomas saw a problem and had a dream that when he grew up, he would become the person to solve it.
Today we’re going to see how Joseph’s dreams and desires from when he was that bratty 17-year-old will come back into play as an adult who has had his share of hardships, twists and turns in life. So what about you? Can any of you think of the very first thing you wanted to be when you grew up? Or can you remember what dreams or desires you had for your future when you were younger? I’m going to give you a moment to reflect on this, and then I’ll lead us in prayer.
Gracious God, meet us here today and give us humble, teachable, and obedient hearts, that we may receive what you have revealed, and do what you have commanded. So may our desires become your desires, our work become your work, and our community the place where you are sought and found. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
For a few weeks now, we’ve been following the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. The first week, we learned that Joseph was the youngest of Jacob’s adult sons, and was the first-born son of Jacob’s favorite wife, which made Joseph Jacob’s favorite son. And Jacob didn’t hide his favoritism – he gave Joseph a special coat, and even put him in charge of reporting back to Jacob what his older brothers were doing. If this weren’t enough to cause a little sibling rivalry, Joseph also had these dreams when he was younger, that seemed to indicate that one day he would be elevated to some position of importance over his brothers, and even over the rest of his family. So his brothers found an opportunity to get rid of him; instead of murdering him, which was their first plan, they sold him into slavery when he was 17 and convinced their father that he had been killed by wild animals.
Joseph became a household servant in Egypt for the Captain of the king’s guard, eventually becoming the head of Potiphar’s entire household; but that didn’t last long. After saying “no” repeatedly to the temptings of Potiphar’s wife, she used her power and influence to convince her husband that Joseph had assaulted her, and so he was thrown into prison, and mostly forgotten.
The scriptures tell us that God has been with Joseph in each of his predicaments and has worked through Joseph to help turn things around. When Joseph was sold into slavery, God worked through Joseph to make his work successful, which was noticed by those in higher up positions. That helped elevate Joseph from slave to head servant. Then, when Joseph was wrongly accused, instead of being executed he was imprisoned. In prison, God endeared Joseph to the chief jailer, who put Joseph in charge of all the other prisoners. And God continued to show steadfast love to Joseph, no matter what happened.
Now Joseph ended up spending quite a few years in prison. Remember that last week we talked about how it is natural to ask ourselves, “Where is God when it all goes wrong?” And that we may not always be able to trust our own feelings that God is with us when we are experiencing the low points and the difficulties in our lives. So those are the times when we must cling to faith. Joseph’s faith was anchored in several things: 1- the promises that God made to his ancestor Abraham, that God would work through Abraham’s descendants to bring blessings to all people on earth; 2- the dreams of Joseph’s youth, that showed him that God had plans for his future, that he was part of God’s plan to bless others; 3- that through the difficulties he had already faced, that God had worked through those events and situations to bring Joseph through them to something better. Joseph can now trust that because of what he knows about God’s promises, because of his own dreams and desires, and because of the ways God has already acted in his life, that God will continue to work to bring about something better through him.
When we began this series, we talked about the fact that in the great hero stories, the hero usually discovers something about him- or herself in the process of overcoming obstacles and challenges on the way to solving the ultimate challenge or quest. That’s where we are in Joseph’s story today. Joseph now realizes that those dreams and desires he had in his youth were about more than just becoming greater than his brothers – they were about God’s plan to use him to accomplish something greater than himself. Have any of you seen the new TV commercial from Apple Watch? I was confused the first time I saw it, as it showed a guy in his house suddenly looking at another version of himself; then the two of them see another version of themselves on the street, so they go to investigate; then the three of them see another version walking by, so they follow; and this goes on a few more times. Each time the new version is being slightly more active than the previous version. And it ends with the line, “There’s a better you in you.”
“There’s a better you in you.” I asked you earlier, what were your desires and dreams for your future when you were young? It’s important to pay attention to our dreams and desires, because they help inform us of ways that we can find the “better you in you.” You’ve heard the saying, “there’s always room for improvement.” And we know that as human we’re not perfect. But as Christians, as followers of Jesus, who was the perfect representation of Love in the world, we have room to grow. And our dreams and desires are the parts of us that God can work with to help us write a better story, to help us become a better version of ourselves, and become the person God wants us to be.
All of us have deep desires within us. Think for a moment about curiosities you have about things, or little nudges you may feel from time to time about something you think you may want to do or try. Those come from deep within us – they’re one of the unique ways that you alone have been created. And our deep desires are those parts of ourselves that drive us forward – they are what define the plot of our story. These can either be desires that move us toward a future with hope, or they can be desires that lead us to the pit. Noticing and responding to our desires can actually give us the courage to write a new story, to try something new, or to make some change, so that you can become a better you.
Over the years, I’ve known many people who wanted to change their story because their desires were causing them to lose something. Some lost jobs, some lost friends or marriages or other important relationship, many of them lost some amount of freedom, and almost all of them lost hope. In order to change their story, they had to change their desires – their desires to drink, or to use food, drugs, people or pornography to try to fill some emptiness or cover up some defect of character. Once they had the desire to stop drinking or using, and admitted they were powerless over their behaviors, they were willing to take other steps to turn their will and their lives over to God, who they trusted with the power to change their desires and their lives. People who have worked the twelve steps of recovery consistently say that they learned something new about themselves on their journey that helped them to become a better version of themselves. By connecting with new desires, they found out that there was a better you in you.
I’ve also know people throughout the years in my work in church ministry who have connected with deep desires that changed their lives and others for the better. My friend Lauren came to our church when she and her husband were just starting their careers after college. She was working as a music teacher in an elementary school at the time. Her deep desires included teaching, nurturing, creative arts of music, dance & visual art, and making meaningful connections with other people. She and her husband joined the choir and began developing relationships with other choir members. Through those relationships, they found a spiritual support for the struggles and disappointments of trying to have children. Lauren also had a dream of connecting her desires for teaching and nurturing children with her passion for music and dancing, and helped to start a new show choir ministry at the church.
After successfully having twins, she was struggling with the demands of her job. And at the same time, she was having dreams about expanding her volunteer role with ministries involving children and youth at our church. A year ago, as we were ending another successful summer of show choir camp ministry, she and I had a conversation about her dreams and desires for ministry. I prayed with her, and then had a conversation with one of the pastors. And several months later, our church hired her to be the associate director of youth ministry! She now leads the mid-high youth program and two youth praise teams, in addition to the show choir ministry. What she found to be true for herself, she is now instilling in the youth, that when you connect your dreams and desires to God’s care, that God will reveal a better you in you!
Rev. Sarah Heath, the author of the book, What’s Your Story?, that we’ve been using in our small group study, encourages her readers not to ignore or discount those deep desires within you, no matter where you are in life. She says, “our life’s work isn’t to get rid of desires, but instead to become aware of them and bring them closer to the surface when they seem to be life giving, not just to you but to those around you.” (p. 81) In fact, she goes on to explain that when we take these desires that God placed within us and combine them with our own unique experiences and skills and talents, that we can then discover our own personal mission and purpose; we can discover who we’re meant to be – the best version of ourselves – to find the better you in you.
Joseph discovered a new identity beyond that of favorite son, or bratty brother, or slave, or head servant, or prisoner. After looking back over his life’s ups and downs, he could see how his own desires met with God’s faithfulness to bring him into a new role where he was able to do something truly extraordinary – and not just something that was great for himself, but something that would bless people all throughout Egypt and neighboring countries.
When Joseph finally has the opportunity to go before Pharaoh to interpret his dreams, he had already come through many difficult situations. Each one of these other experiences could have left Joseph depressed & despondent, and could have squashed any desire to go on. But Joseph didn’t give up – he remembered his dreams and desires from his youth, plus the promises passed on to him about God, which helped move his story forward. He allowed his desires to join with God’s in order to become a better version of himself. Joseph discovered the truth of ‘there’s a better you in you.’ In slavery, instead of becoming resentful, he worked to do his best to make his master successful; in a position of power, he resisted the temptation to sin against God; in prison, he treated other prisoners with empathy, and helped them even though he remained forgotten. And now that he has this opportunity before him to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, instead of using it as a way to negotiate his freedom or to tell Pharaoh what he wants to hear, he trusts in his understanding of God’s power to work in and through him for something greater than himself.
Joseph has discovered who he is meant to be. He understands the theme of his life to be that God is with him, no matter what happens, and that God will work through even the worst circumstances to bring healing and restoration. He gives God all the credit for the interpretation of the dreams, and takes no personal credit, which in turn gives Pharaoh the willingness to trust Joseph to become the manager of all the food in Egypt, throughout the seven years of abundance and the seven years of famine. Joseph had finally learned that his dreams and desires were not just about himself, but that when he embraced these desires and dreams in light of God’s promises and faithfulness, that his new identity was to become a better version of himself so that he could be a blessing to others.
Now, Joseph didn’t forget everything he went through to get to this point in his life. If you read on in Chapter 41, you’ll see that Joseph is given a wife and has two sons before the years of famine arrived. And his names for those sons indicate that he has reflected on and found some healing in terms of his past. Verses 51 & 52 tell us, “Joseph named the firstborn Manasseh, ‘For,’ he said, ‘God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.’ The second he named Ephraim, ‘For God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes.’
But this also isn’t the end of Joseph’s story. Joseph has found a new identity as a great leader in Egypt. But fully trusting in God’s promises means that he will have to face his identity as a son of Jacob. So, in order to fully come to terms with his past, present and future, there is another step on this hero’s journey which we’ll explore next week.
For this week, I want you to consider where you are in your own journey. What story is God waiting to write with you based on the deep desires within you? What story would the world miss out on if you didn’t act on those dreams and desires you have? Who is the better you in you waiting to emerge?
On the back of your connection card today, there is a Ministry Survey that lists some general areas of ministry. God wants to use your deep desires to connect with the world’s needs in order to bless others as part of the growth and expansion of Maple Grove. So take a minute or two right now to pray about the areas of ministries where your desires may useful. Check any of those that you feel nudged to do so and place them in the offering plates today as part of your offering – as a way of committing to God to let God help you write the next part of your story. After a moment, I’ll close with a prayer by Thomas Merton…
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
SCRIPTURE: Genesis 39:1-23
This week we marked the seventeenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11. Most of us in this room can remember the events of that day, maybe even where you were and what you were doing when you first heard or saw the news. I know I can. For me, that day marked the end of life as I knew it. In one day, the world had changed. That’s a national event that happened during most of our lifetimes – something that we all know about and experienced in some way. And because of this shared history, we may feel comfortable enough to share our own stories of how that day impacted us – stories of the fears we experienced in the aftermath, or of the people we knew personally who perished, or of the ways that our faith may have been impacted – especially in the way that many communities of people began to pull together to comfort one another, and to join together in prayer.
I remember that our churches became fuller after that – it seemed that many who had stopped attending churches, as well as some who never stepped foot into a church before were seeking out a safe place to come and connect with other people who could understand their pain and sense of loss, to connect with others who were searching for the same hope and goodness to emerge from the darkness that had descended over us, and to connect with something bigger than ourselves – with God – in an effort to find strength, to find comfort, to find peace. I read two important books after 9/11 that have each had a huge impact on my faith: When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold S. Kushner and Disappointment With God by Philip Yancey. These books both dealt with that question that we all have from time to time, “Where is God When it All Goes Wrong?”
If we as people are able and willing to come together after some national tragedy and traumatic event like 9/11, and know how comforting and reassuring it is to have a shared story of this collective pain, fear, worry, or of hope and even faith, then imagine how much strength, and comfort and encouragement we could all be experiencing on a regular basis if we came together with people more often to share our other stories! If, when we experienced tragedy and trauma on a more personal scale, we still sought out others who also knew tragedy and trauma and pain and who could console, and comfort, and encourage, even in the personal experiences! That is why we are involved in a worship series called, “What’s Your Story?”
As we’re reading through the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis, we’re discovering that Joseph’s story is one example of the classic hero’s journey, similar to those epic fantasy stories like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. In his story, we will see that Joseph, who comes from a pretty dysfunctional family, is not perfect; but that God is working through Josephs’ series of unfortunate events to fulfil the promises first made to Joseph’s great-grandfather Abraham, to make him the father of many nations, and to bless him and his family so that all people on the earth will be blessed.
When we left Joseph’s story last week, his brothers had just conspired to kill him, and threw him into a dry well, or pit to die. But along came a group of Ishmaelites, who apparently dealt in slave trading, and so Joseph became a victim of human trafficking instead of murder. Joseph must be asking himself, “Where is God when it all goes wrong?”
Before we pick up with today’s scripture reading, I want to give you a content warning. Today’s scripture and sermon will be touching on the subjects of mental illness, sexual assault and harassment, and incarceration. They won’t be discussed in any graphic ways, but they will be mentioned. So while I think it is extremely important that church be a safe place where we can talk about real life, and real issues that humans struggle with both in the bible and in contemporary life, please do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself as these topics are discussed. Whether that includes stepping out of the room, taking a break, or asking for a follow-up discussion. I want to create a space where we can all be our authentic selves, and where we can respect one another’s stories as well as boundaries.
As we continue, I want to ask you to consider a time when you felt like you had been thrown into a pit. When have you felt the other shoe drop? The bottom fall out? When is the time you asked, “Where is God when it all goes wrong?” As you hold this thought or memory in your mind, please join me in prayer.
In a dark world we live; from a dark world we come to worship, God of light. Let your light by the Spirit shine through your Word today to illuminate all the dark corners where fears, doubts, and worries hide. Bring us into the light of your presence and peace. Amen.
Remember that Joseph was seventeen when he was thrown into a pit by his brothers and then sold as a human slave. I want to take a moment here to talk about the pit of mental illness. I was first diagnosed with an anxiety disorder when I was in college. At that time, I didn’t know many others my age who were being treated medically or who sought counseling for anxiety or depression. We’re finding that today’s teens and young adults are experiencing anxiety and depression at an exponentially higher rate than any other previous generation. It is estimated that 1 in 10 Americans ages 12 and up struggle with some sort of mental illness today, and it’s something I have struggled with on and off as an adult.
My anxiety became severe after the attacks on 9/11. Those events triggered my anxiety in a way that made it difficult for me to even leave the house for simple errands like grocery shopping. We were living in new state and I was staying home with 3 children ages 4 and under! And I didn’t know many people. That was hard enough! And on top of that, I was now living with the very real and paralyzing fear that had taken over my life. It was debilitating! But it got better when I began to share what I was experiencing with my doctor, who changed my therapy and prescriptions, and when I was able to talk about it with other moms in my small group at church. Moms I was still meeting and getting to know, at a church that was still new to me. But I was at a point where I had nothing to lose by sharing this with others. It was too big for me to carry by myself. And something amazing happened.
First, it was very helpful to get help from my doctor for the neurological and physiological things that needed to be address by a medical and mental health professional! But my fears and feelings of isolation began to melt away when I risked the vulnerability to let others know that I wasn’t okay. Some of them understood exactly what I was feeling, because they had been feeling it, too. Or had experienced something similar in another time in their lives. And others were able to simply assure me that they wanted to be there for me – to bring me groceries, or bring their kids to play with mine, or just share coffee and conversation when I needed it. I had been asking myself, “Where is God when it all goes bad?” And I realized that God was there in my doctor’s office, God was in the friends I made at church, God was in my husband who patiently took the whole van-load of Webbs to the grocery store, or who came home occasionally to have lunch with me so I didn’t feel so alone. God was with me.
We’re continuing Joseph’s story in chapter 39 of Genesis today, and I’m going to break it into three sections; the first section is verses 1-6a:
1 Now Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. 2 The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man; he was in the house of his Egyptian master. 3 His master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands. 4 So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him; he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. 5 From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field. 6 So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge; and, with him there, he had no concern for anything but the food that he ate.
After being thrown into a pit and sold into slavery, we hear the assurance that God was with Joseph, and that Joseph became a successful man! If Joseph’s story ended here, it would be a nice little rags-to-riches story, and we could all go home saying, “And he lived happily ever after.” But we’re still just getting started. One thing I think we can truthfully say about this part of the story is that no matter what may have happened in Joseph’s past, God did not abandon him. God was right there with Joseph in the pit, and God stayed with Joseph when he was sold into slavery; God worked through these situations to bring Joseph to this man, Potiphar, who recognized God’s presence with Joseph and, even though it was for selfish reasons, decided to elevate Joseph to head of his household, because he saw that God was working through Joseph to bring blessings to others.
Before we go on with the story, there is a very important theological point we need to be clear about here. God was with Joseph – God worked through Joseph’s circumstances, to bring something good from a bad situation. Does that mean that God caused the situation? Does ‘everything happen for a reason?’ In the United Methodist faith, we believe the answer is unequivocally, “NO!” I mentioned those books that I read after 9/11, and one thing they both emphasized, and that our Wesleyan faith supports, is that bad things happen in our world because of humanity’s free will.
When God created the world and all that’s in it, everything was good. Everything was as it should be, in perfect wholeness. But God, in God’s wisdom, gave human beings free will, to chose to love God and God’s creation without coercion. That also meant that humankind could reject God’s love, and make choices that were selfish, and that were not what God intended. Humankind’s free will has caused chaos and brokenness, and that is why God’s love story to us, the Bible, is full of stories of God pursuing humankind in order to restore broken relationships, and restore creation to its intended wholeness – that’s why God sent Jesus, and why God invites us to co-create with God the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. So – as we continue Joseph’s story and all the other stories of the Bible, always read them with this theological point in mind. God does not cause bad things to happen, but as Romans 8:28 reminds us, God does work everything together for good for those that love God and are called according to God’s purposes.
Now Potiphar was a very important and powerful man in Egypt – he was Pharaoh’s Captain of the Guard, which meant that he was the head executioner, and over all the other executioners. So it’s in Joseph’s best interest not to get on his bad side. Joseph’s story continues in verses 6b-18:
Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking. 7 And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.”
8 But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Look, with me here, my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my hand. 9 He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” 10 And although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not consent to lie beside her or to be with her. 11 One day, however, when he went into the house to do his work, and while no one else was in the house, 12 she caught hold of his garment, saying, “Lie with me!” But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside. 13 When she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled outside, 14 she called out to the members of her household and said to them, “See, my husband has brought among us a Hebrew to insult us! He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice; 15 and when he heard me raise my voice and cry out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside.” 16 Then she kept his garment by her until his master came home, 17 and she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to insult me; 18 but as soon as I raised my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside.”
Now we see Joseph’s story taking a turn for the worse. Joseph seems to have realized that God has been with him throughout his ordeal. He has acknowledged God by refusing to give in to Potiphar’s wife and sin against God. Have you heard of the #MeToo movement on social media? Over the past year or so, many women and even some men have been using this hashtag to publicly share their stories of sexual harassment and assault – some of them for the first time. This is Joseph’s #MeToo moment – this is an ancient example of an all-too-common situation of someone in a position of power using it to harass and abuse others. There are too many contemporary examples to name today, but brave women and men in our country have begun to join together to shine a light on this age-old problem, and call out those who have gotten away with it for too long. In fact, Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2017 was “The Silence Breakers” – those who were willing to stop hiding in fear of retribution, or in the shadows of shame for what happened to them.
Over the past year, more than 200 well-known celebrities, politicians, CEOs and others have been named by survivors who were willing to break their silence. Next came the #ChurchToo movement, in which people began to share the same sort of sexual misconduct that was perpetrated against them by religious authorities, which has included pastors and priests from all denominations. Most recently, a grand jury report revealed over 300 ‘predator priests’ who allegedly abused over 1,000 children in only 6 Pennsylvania diocese.
The reason I’m pointing all of this out is because sexual assault and harassment are very real issues that go all the way back to our earliest human stories. In fact, in the previous chapter of Genesis, before we read about Joseph’s sexual harassment, we are told about his sister’s sexual assault. Even going back to Abraham, we read of both men and women who had to be protected from would-be perpetrators. Statistics say that about every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted, and about every 8 minutes, that victim is a child. So I’m addressing this in church today because I believe that church is the place where no topic should be “off-limits” – especially when it is something that affects so many people!
I can share with you today that I myself am both a survivor of sexual assault and harassment, as well as the mother of a survivor. I know first-hand the pain, the shame, and the mental and emotional suffering that results from sexual misconduct. And like Joseph, sometimes you can do and say all the right things to try to avoid it or stop it and it happens anyway. In fact, sometimes you may even be the one wrongfully, or rightfully accused. And no matter which side of this issue may affect you or someone you love, we cannot just sweep it under the rug and pretend that it doesn’t affect our faith. People touched by these situations surely ask themselves, “Where is God when it all goes wrong?”
A survivor shared with me once that after she was violently attacked by an acquaintance, that part of her therapy each week included lighting a candle and praying for him. She said in the beginning, she used to question where God was when she was attacked; why did God let this happen to her? Why didn’t God do something to stop it? And she shared that one day, while she was praying for her abuser, and having this conversation with God in her prayer time, that she suddenly realized that God was there! She said she believes that God was right there whispering in the ear of her attacker, pleading with him to stop; but that he refused to listen to God – and so she holds her perpetrator alone responsible, and not God.
“Where is God when it all goes wrong?” Maybe we can’t always sense God’s presence in the moment, but God promises to be with us no matter what. And when others choose not to follow God’s will for good, God – in God’s great faithfulness – has the power to take the bad and make something good out of it! God has the power to heal, to redeem, and to restore!
Here’s the rest of chapter 39:
19 When his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, saying, “This is the way your servant treated me,” he became enraged. 20 And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined; he remained there in prison. 21 But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love; he gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer. 22 The chief jailer committed to Joseph’s care all the prisoners who were in the prison, and whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. 23 The chief jailer paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.
“The Lord was with Joseph; the Lord was with him.” But that didn’t safeguard Joseph – even though Joseph was wrongly accused, he was still incarcerated. Even today, there are people behind bars that either committed no crime, or are being treated by the criminal justice system either because of mental illness or drug addictions or sexual abuse. Did you know that over 90% of the women incarcerated in America today were first a victim of sexual or domestic violence? Many of them as children? This is another one of those things no one really wants to talk about, that we need to talk about, because it affects real people who we know and love.
Bad things happen in this broken world because of the choices that humankind have made that have been against what God intended. But God has not abandoned us. God promises to be with us, no matter what. There will be plenty of times in our lives when we don’t feel God’s presence, when we can’t confirm with our feelings that God is with us, or that God is working to bring healing and wholeness – that’s why it is so important to share our stories of faith for those times when someone else is lacking in theirs. Sometimes you may be the one who needs to lean on the strong faith of others. And so I pray that each one of us will become more willing to tell our stories of when God has been with us.
Last week we began two small groups for this very purpose. Unfortunately, only five people attended the first week. This week, I want to encourage each and every one of you to get connected in a small group. There’s a daytime group on Mondays, and an evening group on Thursdays. If those times don’t work for you, write a note to me on your connection card about a time that does work – and we’ll work on adding another group if we need to.
“Where is God when it all goes wrong?” God is with us! Let’s go out and tell others that God is with them, too. We can start a #GodToo movement to share how God wants to join with us to write a new story of healing and hope!
PRAYER: Dear Lord, when all we have left to do is cry out in the midst of the pain, give us hope. When our tears feel like the only way to quench our thirst, remind us of your providing presence. When loneliness seems overwhelming, make your presence known. This world seems so full of death and destruction, but you are a God of life and restoration. Mold us into an unwavering people of grace, passion and love that cannot ever be ignored. Amen.
Scripture: Genesis 37:1-28
37 Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. 2 This is the story of the family of Jacob.
Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves.[a]4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
5 Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. 7 There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” 8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.
9 He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10 But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?” 11 So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.
12 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13 And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.” 14 So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.
He came to Shechem, 15 and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” 16 “I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” 17 The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. 18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” 21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22 Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. 23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves[b]that he wore; 24 and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
25 Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. 28 When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.
Close your eyes for a moment and think about your teen years. Can you remember when you were seventeen? For some of us, that may bring back good memories of a time when we were thinner, or stronger, or had more hair. Maybe a time when we enjoyed fun times with friends. Maybe we can remember the hopes and dreams we had for what we thought our future would be. Or, maybe remembering that time brings back painful memories – maybe there were difficulties at home, or in school, or fitting in with friends. Maybe we’d rather not revisit those days when we struggled with acne or dating or passing algebra. For those of you who are near the age of seventeen now, I can only imagine how the addition of internet and smart phones have complicated the pressures on young people today. And personally, I can tell you that I would not go back to relive my teen years for anything in this world!
When I think back to when I was seventeen, I think about my senior year in high school. Some of the good things I remember about that year is that it was finally my turn to be Captain of the Color-Guard, Dance Captain of my Show Choir, Editor of the school Literary Magazine, and secretary of the Student Body Government. I had achieved some things I had worked toward for all of high school. But I also remember that, maybe even because of some of these achievements, I didn’t have many friends that year. There was a rift that occurred in my friend group, and for most of the year, it felt like my friends had turned against me. And I’m sure I didn’t help the situation by avoiding them as much as it felt like they were avoiding me. But what caused even more harm to our friendship that year is that I unfortunately got caught up in a prank war with them by joining in the pranks of another group of students who considered my former friends their rivals. Needless to say, there were some mistakes made, and maybe some of those pranks went a little too far. So when you think about your teen years, are there mistakes you made that still haunt you today? Maybe you were the one on the receiving end of someone else’s mistake. And those of you who are living through your teen years right now, one thing I would say to you is just hang in there. It does get better.
All of us have to survive those teen years in order to grow up and become the adults we are meant to be. Some of us leap into adulthood, ready to leave those immature days behind us. Others of us may have to be dragged into adulthood kicking and screaming, not wanting to leave those carefree days behind and face new responsibilities. But growing up is a part of life; and our lives themselves become these stories of what happened and how. So today we are beginning a worship series called “What’s Your Story?”
We all have a story! Some of us may think that no one else really wants to know our story – that no one would write a novel or make a movie about our life. But here’s the thing – our lives are not neutral; they are telling a story whether we realize it or not. And I think that every single one of us has a captivating story to tell – not the ones we edit and post on Facebook, that make it seem that we are living these perfect lives! But our real story – the one that is absolutely unique and unlike any other, and one that, when told, has the power to free us and others! In worship we’re going to be studying the story of the family of Jacob, or Israel, which centers on his favorite son Joseph. We’re going to learn about family dysfunction that included rivalry, deceit, human trafficking, seduction and imprisonment! But we’re going to see how, even within this human family full of human failings, God was present and working to bring hope out of despair, and to fulfill the promise of bringing wholeness and reconciliation in the end.
There’s a small group study that goes along with this series. You’ll see information on your connect card about the two different times these groups will be meeting. I encourage all of you to try to get involved in one of these groups, because with the tools in the study, you’ll have the chance to go back through your own life to discover the times when God has also been present in your life, and maybe to discover something new about ways God has worked through the events and circumstances in your life to bring you where you are today. And even more, how you can more intentionally begin to partner with God, to co-write the next chapter in your story, and then begin to share that story in a way that gives others hope for God’s working in their lives, too!
I want you to take a moment and think about any unresolved conflict with another person or group of people that may exist in your life today. And hold that in your mind as I lead us in prayer.
Creating and Loving God, we know that you have created all things for good, and yet in our humanness, we spoil your peace and harmony with our selfish actions that cause others pain and strife; in our immaturity we think more of ourselves than our neighbors. We pray that you will guide our hearts and minds today as we consider our own stories of conflict along with the story of Joseph and his brothers. Open our hearts to receive your Spirit of gentleness and peace, and move us to actions that heal and restore. In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.
Before we dig into Joseph’s story, I want us to think for a moment about the nature of stories. Some of the best stories are those that begin with an unlikely hero. Usually, in the beginning, everything is good. And then, something unexpected happens to send this unlikely hero on a journey or quest to solve this problem that has occurred. Along the way the hero meets obstacle after obstacle, which makes us cheer for our hero even more. And in the overcoming of these obstacle, the hero will likely discover something new about him or herself which helps the hero finally complete the journey or quest. Joseph Campbell was an American scholar who studied the structure of the great stories of literature, and helped to formalize what we now recognize as the structure of the mono-myth, or the hero’s journey. He says that the hero’s story always has three acts: Act I is the Call to Adventure – we meet the hero who is confronted with a problem or conflict to solve; Act II is full Plot Twists – where the hero begins to encounter new challenges; and Act III involved Embracing a New Identity – our hero becomes more self-aware, having grown and changed because of the journey, and now fully accepts his or her new role in order to resolve the original conflict or problem. I’m sure you can think of many stories and movies that follow this pattern: Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Hunger Games, just to name a few.
As Christians, we can think about the life of Jesus and it also seems to follow this pattern of the hero. Jesus himself became the Word, became the ultimate Story so that we would know God more. And Jesus even used stories as his preferred method of preaching and teaching. Think of all the parables Jesus told as a way of telling us more about God, about being a disciple, and about the kingdom of God. The Bible, which is a collection of many stories, many of which were passed down orally for many, many generations before finally being written down during the period when the Israelites were living in exile, can be read as one long story – God’s story of creation and re-creation.
In the beginning, God created everything & everything was good – it was as it was intended to be. Everything was green, the earth was teeming with life; the water was clean, the air was clean, the soil was clean, and humans lived in harmony with each other and with God. But with the gift of free will came the ability to make choices that were not good, that were not what God intended, and our world fell into chaos. So the Bible records the story of how God has worked through specific people at specific times and in specific places to try to restore what was broken. And our lives today are a continuation of that story. The story isn’t over – God isn’t finished working to restore the world. After Jesus, God sent the Holy Spirit to form God’s church, the body of Christ in the world; at our baptisms, we were given God’s Spirit to work within each of our individual lives, as well, so that we can co-create with God; so that through God’s church and God’s people, God’s Spirit is still actively creating and recreating today!
So, let’s think about the beginning of Joseph’s story for a moment. When we meet our unlikely hero, he is a seventeen-year-old who seems to be kind of bratty; he’s the youngest (so his brother Benjamin is probably either about to be born, or is still an infant), he is sent to spy and tattle on his less-favored brothers to his father, and his brothers are not so secret in their jealousy and resentment toward him. They could not speak peaceable to him – they withheld their shalom from him. Think back to that conflict in your life – are there people right not that you avoid speaking to? People that, maybe when you see them in the grocery store, or at work, or maybe even in church, you turn and go out of your way to avoid them? That was Joseph’s situation with his brothers – now these were brothers from another mother – literally. Jacob had two wives and two concubines, and Joseph was the first-born of the favorite wife, which made him the favorite son. See the dysfunction? And in addition to this, Joseph has been having these dreams – dreams that would suggest that Joseph is going to be in a position of authority over his older brothers, even over his father. And it doesn’t really sound like there was any humility on Joseph’s part when he dropped this little bit of forecasting.
Maybe partly because of Joseph’s immaturity, and partly because of his father’s favoritism, Joseph seems to only be able to interpret the dreams in terms of how it elevates him over his brothers, without really thinking about how it may hurt their feelings. I wonder if any of you can relate to Joseph in this part of the story. I can look back at my seventeen-year-old self and see very clearly how my pride and arrogance got in the way of my friendship with others. And I’m certain there are times today when I revert to stages of immaturity, especially in my faith, which cause my thoughts and actions to be more me-centered. When we’re not able to see past the nose on our own face, it’s very hard to notice the feelings or needs of others around us. When we get stuck in self-ish thinking, we can convince ourselves that our own needs, or aspirations are more important that someone else’s. So a lesson we can all learn from Joseph here is to ask for more humility in order to put our wants and needs into perspective, and to ask God to lift our eyes so that we can see the needs and desires of others in the same way that God sees them – and remember that sometimes we are the answer to someone else’s prayers.
These dreams seem to be the straw that break the camel’s back for Joseph’s brothers. The scriptures say that after this, Joseph’s brothers hated him even more! So they plotted to kill him! Can you imagine being full of so much jealousy, and hatred and resentment towards someone? We have to ask ourselves, why they would get so bent out of shape. And the answer is most likely fear. The brothers feared losing status, losing land, and losing wealth. And they based this fear over an interpretation that wasn’t even accurate. So can you identify with the brothers at all? Have you ever experienced jealousy or resentment? Have you ever let fear of losing something cause you to feel hatred or wish harm on someone else? You know, there is a lot of tension in our country today. The whole country seems to be divided into a rivalry like Joseph and his brothers. And most likely, each one of us sees ourselves on one side or the other. In such extreme polarization, it can be very difficult to remain neutral, or to try to be a bridge between people with differing views.
It was poignant to be reminded at the funeral of Senator John McCain that no matter how much political forces may be working to appeal to our fears, or to fill our social media feeds and airwaves with vitriol and accusations of ‘fake news’ that we as individual Americans can choose not to take the bait. That we can choose to be united in the higher values and ideals of the Kingdom of God. McCain himself wrote, “We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil. We are blessed and are a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world. We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.”
When we turn back to our story, Jacob – the wise father – seems to take a ‘wait-and-see’ approach to the message of Joseph’s dreams. Remember that Jacob, also called Israel, is the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, with whom God made a promise to make him the father of many nations, and to bless him so that through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Jacob himself had has own sibling rivalry with Easu and cheated him out of his birthright; and had even wrestled with God, but had seen that God continued to work through his family to fulfill the promises made to his ancestors. So Jacob was able to take a step back from the situation and put himself in someone else’s shoes, to contemplate the “what if” of the dreams. With his wisdom and experience, he could look back on his life and see how he had grown in his own faith and knew that God could be trusted to be faithful in his son’s lives as God had been faithful to him.
How many of you have gained this kind of insight and wisdom over the years? How many of you have been through struggles already when you knew the hand of God was working to bring you through it, or to bring healing or restoration on the other side of some tragedy or trauma or conflict? How many of you have had your faith strengthened by looking back and clearly seeing the times that God has come to your rescue? If that’s you, then you already have a wonderful story to tell – to share with someone else who may be right now feeling like Joseph at the end of our story – like someone who has been thrown into a pit! It could be a pit of depression, or financial worries; a pit of illness or loss. There are many pits that we may fall or be thrown into on our own life’s journey. But thankfully, this is only the beginning of Joseph’s story. And no matter where we are in our own life’s story, this doesn’t have to be the end of our stories, either.
Joseph didn’t roll over and give up when he was in the pit; and if we remain in our pits in life, then our stories remain unfinished – we don’t get to see the new stories that God wants to create through us because of who we are, and the world misses out on our story. So take courage – there is always the opportunity to turn the page and ask God to help you write a new chapter! God is with you, always working for good, always working to give you a future with hope. Next week, we’ll find out what happens when Joseph goes from the pit to the palace. There are pot twists ahead, so stay tuned! Let’s pray:
God of mercy and faithfulness, we thank you that no matter what mistakes we make, that you are still with us; that no matter what pitfalls may throw us of the course that you have set for us, that you are still there to set our feet back firmly on your path for our lives. God, we want to live a life that is worthy of your calling; we want to tell a great story with our lives that point others to you. So humble us, and give us courage to let you help us write the next part of our stories, that we may be a living witness to your love. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.