August 27, 2017 | Genesis 50: 15 – 21 | Rev. Nancy Talbot
The last two Sundays we’ve been looking at the story of Joseph and his brothers. We’ve talked about how even a bit of favoritism, boasting or jealously can lead to a chain of harmful events that can be very hard to break or undo. We’ve wondered where God is to be found in the midst of the ensuing damage. We’ve acknowledge the way that old wounds can surface and come back to haunt us. And we’ve marveled at the way the Spirit brings forth life from even the most tragic of circumstances. After last Sunday, I thought we were done with Joseph and his family but when I woke up Monday morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about the story. It felt like there was more in here for us to learn.
This morning we come to the death of Joseph’s father Jacob (also known as Israel.) In the wake of his death, the brothers who first did harm to Joseph because he was their father’s favorite, begin to fret. With their father out of the picture, Joseph will finally seek his revenge. Perhaps they think the only reason Joseph has been gracious with them up until now has been to reunite the family and keep the peace.
Like many families that fall apart when the parents are no longer around, the brothers fear the family bonds are not strong enough to withstand this loss. They wonder if they are about to get what they deserve. So they go to Joseph and make up a story about how their father’s dying wish was that Joseph forgive them of their crimes. They beg him to forgive them. They even go so far as to bow down before him and with tears in their eyes submit to him in slavery. They have a kind of eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth justice as reciprocity mentality. We enslaved you, now you enslave us.
But Joseph isn’t interested in exacting that kind of justice and he refuses to forgive them. Instead he says “Do not be afraid. (the proclamation with which oracles of salvation or assurance often begin in the Hebrew Scriptures) Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” Then he promises to take care of them and he speaks kindly to them.
It’s so clear in this moment that although Joseph has long since moved on from the events of the past, the brothers are still carrying around the burden of their guilt.
If I had any doubt that we weren’t finished with the story of Joseph and his brothers earlier this week, all that doubt vanished on Thursday when I tuned into CBC radio and heard the voice of Glenn Flett and Margo Van Sluytman being interview by Anna Maria Tremonte. Last week I told you about Glenn Flett and the farm community he started in Mission that brings together convicted offenders of violent crimes and family members of the victims of violent crimes. What I didn’t tell you last week is that the inspiration for the farm came from the reconciliation Glenn Flett has experienced through his relationship with Margo Van Sluytman who is the daughter of the man Glenn Flett murdered back in 1978.
Several years ago Margo, who runs an organization that helps people heal through writing, received an online financial donation from Glenn Flett’s wife in support of her work. Shirley, Glenn’s wife, thought she was making an anonymous gift but somehow her email address appeared on Margo’s computer screen. When Margo saw the name Flett on the donation she wondered if there was a connection to the man who murdered her father. She replied and asked if it was him, if he might be willing to tell her he was sorry. Glenn who claims he had been wanting the opportunity to apologize for years jumped at the chance. He wrote an apology which to a face to face meeting and now, years later the two have become very close friends. Together they speak to inmates and victims of violent crimes about their experience of taking their pain and using it for good.
One of the things they talked about in the interview I heard on Thursday is how they never use the word forgiveness when talking about their relationship. Margo said the word “forgiveness” can so easily suggest that everything’s okay. It’s never going to be okay for her that her father was murdered. Instead she and Glenn talk about moving forward and letting go. She also says, referring to her relationship with Glenn, she never expected this beauty of possibility existed.
In the church we call this “beauty of possibility” grace. It’s what Joseph’s brothers have yet to fully experience. Not because it’s not available to them, but because they are unable to give themselves over to it. For whatever reason they are unable to receive it. After all these years they are still carrying around with them the consequences of their actions. Joseph appears to have moved on, but they are still stuck.
And yet isn’t that the way it so often is when we are dealing with the hurtful things we have done and the hurts that have been done to us. We don’t just say you’re forgiven and everything is forgotten and it’s all okay. Sometimes grace comes quickly and sometimes it takes a long time for it to loosen the grip that guilt and shame can have on our lives. Sometimes it takes a long time for us to yield ourselves to its tending.
One of the things that can get in the way of its’ tending is how we understand God’s role in good and evil. One of the common misunderstandings of the story of Joseph and his brothers is that things had to happen the way they did. In other words, Joseph had to be his father’s favorite so that his brother’s would be jealous of him and want to kill him because if they didn’t want to kill him they would never have sold him into slavery and if he hadn’t been sold into slavery he would never have ended up in Egypt and if he hadn’t been in Egypt and risen to power he couldn’t have saved his brothers from the famine and so on and so forth. Therefore, God must have been behind the scenes making all those events happen both the evil and the good.
This is the logic behind the statement “everything happens for a reason” which is a widespread belief. And although I think that reason can be made of most things in life, the reason someone rear ended you with their car is probably because they weren’t paying attention when they were driving, not because God thought you needed a wake up call.
That doesn’t mean that good things can’t come out of a car accident, but to say that God causes all things to happen for a reason makes one wonder why God spends so much time causing people to inflict pain and suffering on one another when God could be doing something far more productive like putting an end to war.
So when Joseph says to his brothers even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, he’s not saying God made you do all those evil things in order to show you who’s really in charge. He’s saying even though we choose to do harmful things to one another, God, grace has the capacity to render those things for good. The choice is our business, what God does with our choices is God’s business, and God is in the business of bringing about good.
The Hebrew word “khashav” meaning intended has many nuances including to reckon or to impute. How it happens, how what is intended for harm becomes good is a mystery. But when you experience it, when you have yielded yourself to it, you know that it has happened.
Joseph’s brothers are still trying to control what is going on the story. They want their brother to forgive them to relieve their guilt and they want to choose their redemption and how it happens. As if grace and forgiveness were an equation that could be written down and measured out.
I still remember gathering with people from my former congregation on the evening of September 11, 2001. Someone who I knew to have a very active faith turned to me and said “how will anything good ever come out of this?” I remember responding to her “I don’t know, but I trust that it will.” Everything in our tradition, passed on from generation to generation, tells us that it will.
There’s been a lot of stories circulating these last few weeks from survivors of the Holocaust. It seems particularly important to remember these stories at this moment in history when we are faced once again with political ambiguity towards hate and the survivors of the Holocaust are aging. David Wisnia, an American citizen, lived for 3 years in Aushwitz before escaping while being transferred to Dachau. He was found by and American soldier who gave him a uniform where he fought side by side with the Allied Forces until the war had ended. He still recalls the first day he was being registered at Aushwitz. He was so young that the belt buckle of SS man who was taking his information was at eye level. The buckle which had a swastika in the middle had the words Gott Mit Uns inscribed around it meaning God is with us. Wisnia remembers thinking to himself God is not with you, God is with me and I am going to outlive you.
God was with David Wisnia and at 90, he is a joy filled man who has had a very good and successful life. That’s not to say that God was not with all those who died in the Holocaust, but God was with David. His advice to others is simple. Have a little respect for the next person. Don’t care who they are because hate, prejudice winds up being death. Give of yourself, you’ll get it back.
It’s advice that is remarkably similar to something Margo Van Sluytman says to victims of violent crimes. “Stand in a place of love towards yourself and if you can’t love anybody else, then just love yourself and that’s okay.”
In the wisdom of Jesus, loving yourself is exactly what’s needed to love others.
Thankfully, few of us have experienced the kind of brutal human behavior Joseph, Margo Van Sluytman and David Wisnia have experienced. Not many of us have served time in jail for our actions. But we know what it is to carry guilt for all manner of things we have done and left undone and for the lingering effects of actions taken by our forebearers. We know what it is to carry grudges and harbor resentments and think and act on our prejudices and hates. At times we, like the woman in my former congregation on 911, wonder what good will ever come from the death and destruction being wielded in our world and against our planet. We wonder about our own pain and suffering and the division in our families, with our neighbours, with indigenous peoples, or our colleagues at work and how all of this will ever be reconciled and redeemed.
We beg for forgiveness and for anything we can do to make the wrong right. In response, the invitation we receive through Joseph and his story is to let go of our guilt, our hurt and our anger, to move forward, to yield ourselves to a bigger story, a wider mercy and the beauty of possibility and grace threaded throughout history.
May we be attentive to its unfolding and active in our participation with the glorious tapestry being consistently woven.