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.