Monday, October 8, 2007

You intended harm, but God intended it for Good

-And now, continuing this epic into Egypt, many years later with Joseph’s reunion with his brothers, we turn to Genesis 50: 15-21, on page 40 of your pew Bibles.
When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘this is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.”
When their message came to him, Joseph wept.
His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.
But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.
-The word of the Lord.
-Thanks be to God.
It has not taken me long to come to the conclusion that bad things do in fact happen to good people. While bad things also do happen to bad people, fair punishment is not the point of this morning’s scripture lesson(s). As in this morning’s scripture we step into a bizarre family drama, one where God’s will is not done because of the faithful, but despite the faithless, and so we enter a world that may seem much like our own. We come to know the brothers who out of jealousy threw their father’s favorite son into an empty well, then, rather than kill him as they had planned, sell him into slavery so that he is taken to Egypt. Such an act is simply horrible; worse than all kinds of things, certainly material too dysfunctional for even reality TV.
This morning we remember Joseph’s hardship, but we also look to events that occur years later, when Joseph meets his brothers, long after having been sold into slavery, finally seeing them face to face, he is finally given the opportunity to confront those who did him such harm.
Can you imagine the anger that must have built up inside of him? For while his brothers were safe at home, tending flocks that they had always tended, living life with the family they were born into, speaking the language they had always spoke, Joseph was a slave in a foreign land - his life in Egypt was no summer camp away from home, for aside from the obvious fear of living without his family in a region of the world he would have known little about, during his time in Egypt he worked without pay, was then framed by his owners wife, and imprisoned.
However, as Joseph meets his brothers, now as a powerful and trusted advisor to Pharaoh himself, he does not simply have his brothers killed, but chooses to forgive them.
It’s not clear whether these brothers were punished at all, in fact, Joseph seems to be completely unconcerned with their punishment saying, “Don’t be afraid.” And then asking, “Am I in the place of God?”
Such words seem so different from those of a rash and pompous child, one given a special coat, one who encouraged his brothers to bow down and worship him. The Joseph who the brothers meet years later, near the end of Genesis in chapter 50, is a very different person from the favored son who they threw into a well. This older Joseph speaks a different language, has asserted himself and risen in the ranks of Egyptian society, he has become a man shaped by his circumstance, a circumstance that would have been very different had he not been thrown into a well and sold into slavery.
As a powerful man in Egyptian society, he could have very easily had these brothers disposed of, their bodies thrown in the Nile; they could have been completely forgotten.
Completely forgotten, maybe by everyone but Joseph, as for Joseph their actions would not have been easily disposed of.
For the wrongs of his brothers were every where he turned. If it were not for their unfair actions, nothing in Joseph’s life would have been the same.
There would be no return to normality; their sins could not simply be washed away, for their sins had directed the course of his life completely.
For Joseph could simply not pretend that what happened didn’t happen. How could he forgive and forget as there would be no return to life before his brothers threw him into a well and sold him away to a foreign land.
For Joseph, forgiveness is possible though, but not because his brother’s actions could be undone, but because he has seen God’s purposes played out in the evil deeds of his brothers. To use Joseph’s words in Genesis chapter 50: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
This kind of acknowledgement offers distinctive theological depth to human life – especially to those people, who, like us, are constantly seeking a return to some kind of Eden, always looking for ways to start over, people looking inward, afraid to open our eyes to a world that seems to be going to the dogs.
For Joseph acknowledges that even in the worst circumstances, God has worked in his life, that even through those who wished him harm God’s mission to preserve the people has prevailed.
It is no easy statement – no simple theological claim – for it is so different from the pop religion that none of us can really escape. Joseph does not thank God for helping him avoid suffering, for Joseph has suffered. Joseph does not rejoice for he has been spared hardship; his faithfulness is not repaid by an easy life without violence. Rather, Joseph sees God’s hand at work, even through those who wished him harm.
Joseph does not claim that God threw him into a well, that God had him sold into slavery – but that God’s will has prevailed, that God’s will has been done, even at the hands of those who sought to do him harm.
From this perspective forgiveness is possible I think, but it is forgiveness with depth. It is not a forgiveness that offers a clean slate, not a forgiveness that allows anyone to turn over a new leaf, but a forgiveness that acknowledges there is more to life than sunny days, and that even at those times when we suffer; we are still being empowered to be the people of God.
Our hardships are not steps away from God’s plan, our mistakes do not throw us off the trail from grace, but every action, even the actions of those who wish us harm are all part of the victory of God taking place in our midst.
Such an outlook does not excuse, nor pretend that bad things did not happen, does not offer anyone blanket forgiveness for all that they have done, but calls us to see the greater scope of God’s purpose.
For too often we only seek to see what we presume is Godly, forgetting that it is our scars which give us the power to relate to the broken, that it is our experience with heartache that gives us the power to comfort the afflicted, that it is the knowledge of our own mistakes that give us the ability to forgive others.
For our God, is after all, the God who out of death brings us new life.
It is very different from the spirit of vengeance that surrounds us. For at this table it is the broken body that makes us whole.
Just as the evil deeds of Joseph’s brothers were the means by which God’s will was done – that it was the act of selling their brother into slavery that led to provision in a time of hunger – so at this table we are reminded that even in the death of Christ, God’s will for the salvation of this world is being made real.
It is this kind of theology of hope that closes the book of Genesis, and leads into the harsh slavery of the Exodus, for only such a theology can offer the perseverance needed to truly make it through hardship.
And it is only such a theology of hope that will offer us the sustenance to persevere when we are afraid, when we are in doubt, when we are angry, when we are lost, when we are faithless, when we face death – for even in such things we may take heart; that what may be “intended to harm you, God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid.” - Amen.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Good News That's a Little Too Good

This morning’s scripture reading is Genesis, chapter 33, verses 1-17.
I invite you to listen for the word of God.
Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men; so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two maidservants. He put the maidservants and their children in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear. He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother.
But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. “Who are these with you?” he asked.
Jacob answered, “They are the children God has graciously given your servant.”
Then the maidservants and their children approached and bowed down. Next, Leah and her children came and bowed down. Last of all came Joseph and Rachel, and they two bowed down.
Esau asked, “What do you mean by all these droves I met?”
“To find favor in your eyes, my lord,” he said.
But Esau said, “I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself.”
“No, please!” said Jacob. “If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably. Please accept the present that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have all I need.” And because Jacob insisted, Esau accepted it.
Then Esau said, “Let us be on our way; I’ll accompany you.”
But Jacob said to him, “My lord know that the children are tender and that I must care for the ewes and cows that are nursing their young. If they are driven hard just one day, all the animals will die. So let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I move along slowly at the pace of the droves before me and that of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.”
Esau said, “Then let me leave some of my men with you.”
“But why do that?” Jacob asked. “Just let me find favor in the eyes of my lord.”
So that day Esau started on is way back to Seir. Jacob however, went to Succoth, where he built a place for himself and made shelters for his livestock. That is why the place is called Succoth.
-The word of the Lord
-Thanks be to God.
In a world that offers so many values that church going people don’t agree with, a nitch has developed in our community marketplace. As an alternative to those GI Joes’ which are so obviously violent, or those Barbie dolls, who can be overly sexual and certainly sexist, there is now a market for a cleaner, more wholesome brand of toys, and so the likes of Moses, Noah, Esther, and even Jesus have been cast into plastic molds, packaged, complete with accessories and staffs to hold onto, so that all kids can have appropriate toys to take to the sand box or doll house with them.
However, I believe that there is a great problem with Biblical Action figures. The main problem that I see is that the Bible simply does not lend itself well to the ways that our culture understands heroes.
Our culture tends to seek out heroes who are bigger and better than we are. What our culture seems to want is a Super Man – for Super Man is perfect. He is like us, but better, stronger, more heroic, more patriotic, and with better hair.
Barbie, in the same way, sets the standard of what it means to be the ideal – but it is an ideal set so high that no one could ever touch her. She is tall, slender, yet her feet are microscopic. She has no varicose veins, no cellulite – she is like a woman, but only in the sense that Super Man is like a man.
I worry too, as those parents who seek out a Christian alternative worry, that our children just don’t have enough good stuff to play with. But I also worry that our children’s toys symbolize one of society’s greatest problems – that is, that the bar is set so high that we are simply never good enough.
While I may be fast, I am not faster than a locomotive, and while you women may be beautiful, your feet are simply in a different proportion to your height – and so we are all left a little mediocre in comparison.
I feel like here is the tragic flaw in the Biblical alternative, for the Biblical Action figures that I have seen so far play by these same rules. Moses – while he does not wear his red underwear outside his blue tights as Super Man does, he is still muscle-bound in his plastic form – he could easily crush his Egyptian pursuers between his pectoral muscles and then use his staff as a Ninja Turtle’s Bo stick, spinning and whacking his foes from their chariots.
The doll Esther is barely different from Barbie in the same way that Moses is barely different from Super Man – as she has perfectly long hair, silky as a woman just stepping out of an Herbal Essence commercial, with eyes so big that they take up half her face, leaving little room for that tiny speck of a nose.
These similarities make me angry really, for while these Biblical Characters are in fact inspired by the Bible – they are so much more similar to their secular counterparts than the actual people that the Bible presents to us. It makes me angry, as we forget their humanity, and once again present our children idols that they will never measure up to.
So as I look at myself, realizing how unlike Super Man I am, I thank God for the people that the Bible truly presents to me.
For Biblical people were very unlike Super Man or Barbie. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if these Biblical Action Figures were truly representative of their Biblical Counterparts then the Moses figure would have to come with a pull cord that made him speak – but with a stutter – just as the Biblical Moses was embarrassed by his lacking public speaking skills.
And the Esther, the true Esther of the Bible is no doll – she is strong, and smart, not to mention so brave that she infiltrated a king’s court to become a hero of her people. So how is her heroism to be represented by a doll with eyes too big for her head – this is supposed to be the Esther of the Bible and not the Esther of the Roswell New Mexico UFO landing?
And as we think about Jacob – the man our scripture passage leads us back to, we must wonder – how will the designers of the Jacob action figure emulate him. I have not seen his action figure likeness, but I can only assume that he would be muscle bound with a smile of perfectly white teeth – for this is the kind of figure that our children are used to playing with. Our heroes are bigger than life, seeking to characterize virtue, as opposed to vice; but when we truly take a look at the Jacob of the Bible, we do not see Super Man. We truly see selfishness and trickery – for the man presented in the Bible is no hero in our culture’s sense of the word. As we read this passage we do not see Super Man - in today’s passage we should all see one of the Bible’s great jerks.
In Jacob – we do not see the person who we can hope to be at our best. Rather, we see the person who we are afraid to acknowledge – the person we dread looking in the mirror, that is, ourselves at our worst.
For the Bible is not some shiny and idealized Obituary. This Bible of ours is not like the Newspaper who speaks so well of a grandfather as though he were an angel without flaw – our Bible may be more like a recording of what our grandfather’s old friends say about him in voices too soft for anyone else to hear. This Bible of ours is not like the memories of a grandmother, who now that she has passed on is only remembered for who she was on some idealized Christmas morning, for the Bible would record who she was at her worst – her alcoholism, her drug use, her anger.
The Bible is not some sugarcoated image of God’s people. It does not lift heroes up so high that we can never reach them. No, the Bible brings heroes down low – so that we may look into their eyes and realize that they are not so unlike us.
In this morning’s scripture reading we see first Jacob the coward, Jacob who offers his wives, concubines, and children as penance to his brother, and then we are led to the occasion when Jacob finally meets his brother Esau, who, for whatever reason forgives him. We read that “Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him.”
But how does Jacob respond – he should rejoice, he should celebrate – but no, in the words of the great 20th century scholar Gerhard Von Rad, we find “the mistrust of one who himself has often deceived.” For though Esau forgives him, Jacob will not trust this forgiveness – and when Esau asks Jacob to journey with him a while down life’s road, Jacob assumes that he is being led into a trap, and so he tricks Esau and goes down another road, a road that is lonely, but one that must be traveled because that forgiveness offered by his brother just sounded a little too good.
In Jacob we find how easy it is for God to forgive us, how Jacob is made a great hero of the Bible, not because of his own valor, but because God choose to do great work through him; but we also find how hard it can be to let forgiveness work in our lives – to allow ourselves to change our perceptions of the world and of ourselves.
In this area, the example set by Super Man, Barbie, or the Biblical alternatives all seem painfully inadequate, for what does Super Man or Barbie need to be forgiven for, what shortcomings must they come to terms with? It is in the example of Jacob that I see the true tragedy of living a life of deception, for after living a life earning his keep by trickery, we now find a man unable to trust in forgiveness.
By this Biblical testimony, we may see what it means to be a child of God, to come to terms with who we actually are rather than hiding and ignoring our flaws – for God does not choose to work through the perfect, as what do the perfect need with a God who forgives inadequacies. In Jacob we see a God who works through a dangerously flawed man, and come to know how God will love and work through us, despite our flaws, despite our trust issues, leading us all down the long, hard path towards living with ourselves, and accepting forgiveness.