Sunday, August 20, 2017 || Proper 15A || Genesis 37-47
In honor of holding a Godly Play storyteller training here at St. Mark’s this weekend, I’d like to take today’s sermon to tell you a story. It is an old, old story, one which we heard the end of just a few minutes ago. We heard the beginning of the story last Sunday, and then we skipped the long roller coaster ride in the middle. It is the story of Joseph from the book of Genesis. The story of Joseph teaches one thing above all. It teaches that God’s directing creativity can work through any earthly situation, good ones and bad ones, joyful ones and painful ones.
When bad things happen, we often try to assuage our pain and confusion by looking for the good that will come out of them. When a devastating tornado struck my hometown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama several years ago, a huge swath of property was destroyed and many, many people died. In response, the citizens of Tuscaloosa came together like never before to support one another and rebuild. We saw the same phenomenon after 9/11. I see it whenever I walk a family through the death of a loved one – the grief of loss often catalyzes the family to grow closer in love and mutual support.
We might be tempted to learn the wrong lesson from such examples. We might be tempted to think God creates bad situations in order to bring about good ones. We hear such wonderings all the time: why would God send that hurricane? Why would God take my loved one away from me? Why would God allow this to happen? Answers to these questions are are almost always misguided: answers like God sent the hurricane to punish such-and-such a group of people. Or God took your loved one because He needed one more angel in heaven. A better approach is not to ask why God allows something to happen, but to ask how God is moving through the situation, and how will we respond to such movement.
The story of Joseph is a succession of tragedies followed by new creativity as God guides Joseph through a fairly crazy life. It tells the tale of one person’s openness to God’s directing creativity in his life and how such openness saves his family and his adopted country. Here’s the setup: Joseph’s father Jacob (grandson of Abraham) has twelve sons from four wives, but Joseph is his father’s clear favorite, for he is the son of Jacob’s most beloved wife Rachel. Jacob dotes on Joseph, which, predictably, irritates his brothers. Joseph is also tactless and a tattletale, which further aggravates matters. He has a pair of dreams about ears of corn and stars in the sky, and he shares them with his brothers. “These dreams mean that one day you will bow down before me!” he says. (See what I mean about tactless?)
Last week we heard the story of what happens next. Joseph’s brothers conspire to kill him, and “then we shall see what will become of his dreams,” they say. But Reuben, the eldest, plans a double cross. He’s going to save Joseph and restore him to Jacob, thus winning their father’s esteem for himself. But Reuben’s plan falls. The rest of the brothers decide that instead of killing Joseph, in which there is no profit, they will sell him into slavery instead. This they do, and then they kill a ram and dip Joseph’s special coat in its blood so that their father will think his favorite son is dead. Then the story leave’s Joseph’s brothers for several chapters.
Joseph becomes a slave in Egypt, a servant in the house of Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Joseph proves himself an able manager and soon Potiphar places his whole household in Joseph’s hands. Potiphar’s wife likes the look of our handsome young Israelite, but Joseph does not succumb to her advances. Rebuffed, she conspires to have him arrested. So Joseph finds himself in jail.
And the pattern of his life continues: he proves a capable youth, and soon he is running the jail in which he himself is a prisoner. Two of Pharaoh’s servants wind up in jail for displeasing their master, and each has a dream which Joseph interprets. Pharaoh’s cupbearer will be restored to his master’s good graces, while Pharaoh’s baker will be executed. These events come to pass.
Two years later, Pharaoh himself has a pair of troubling dreams. The restored cupbearer finally remembers our astounding protagonist and fills Pharaoh in on Joseph’s peculiar gift. Pharaoh brings Joseph out of prison, and Joseph interprets his dreams: there will be great bounty for seven years, after which widespread famine will strike the land for the same period of time. “Whatever will we do?” wonders Pharaoh. Joseph suggests, rather cunningly, “Set a good organizer over the work of securing Egypt’s food supply.” Joseph’s own C.V. speaks for itself, so Pharaoh picks him.
A wife, two sons, and seven years of plenty later, the famine hits. Due to Joseph’s diligence, Egypt has enough and to spare. Two years into the famine, we return to Jacob’s house where his family is starving. Jacob’s other sons, save Benjamin the youngest, head to Egypt to buy food. They do not recognize Joseph when they meet with him, but he surely recognizes them. He desperately wants to see Benjamin, his own mother’s other son. So he sends them home to fetch him. Jacob is loath to let Benjamin out of his sight, but he relents because of the severity of the famine. When they return, Joseph wines and dines his brothers. Then he tests them to see if they’ve changed their ways. And they have! Right before our passage today, Joseph arrests Benjamin on false thievery charges, but his brothers are having none of it. “Take us instead,” they plead falling to their knees. (Thus Joseph’s original dreams come to pass.)
Knowing his brothers have changed their ways, Joseph reveals his identity and everyone has a good cry. The whole family moves to Egypt, where Joseph is restored to his father. Jacob dies in Egypt and Joseph is the one to shut his father’s eyes.
At each rise and fall in Joseph’s life, he remains open to God’s directing creativity. He joins God and God joins him in the tough times and the bountiful times. “God’s directing creativity” is the way I enter into the reality of God’s providence. I don’t believe God intervenes in only certain earthly situations, nor do I believe God moves us around like inanimate pieces of a chessboard. But I do believe God constantly and consistently works in and through us in every situation, urging us toward fulfilling God’s dream for all creation. Joseph’s story teaches us to stay open to this directing creativity, to stay active in our walks with God, to partner with God in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation.
“Then we shall see what will become of his dreams,” say Joseph’s brothers. And they do. And we shall see what will become of God’s dream. And not only see, we are a part of that dream coming to fruition.