August 20, 2017 | Genesis 45: 1-15 | Rev. Nancy Talbot
Yesterday a rally planned at Vancouver City Hall. It was organized by a group called the Cultural Action Party whose platform includes anti-immigration and specifically anti-Muslim policies all in the name of preserving “traditional Canadian values.” Early in the week, awareness of the gathering began to grow in the wake of the white nationalist rallies that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend and the death of Heather Heyer, one of the people involved in a counter-protest. Suddenly, an event that might well have flown under the radar at another time became a siren call for those who believe our strength is actually in our diversity as Canadians. In a clever move, an anti-racist rally was organized with a plan for people to arrive well ahead of the anti-immigration protesters to fill the space with love and peaceful protest so there would be no room left for hate. The move was successful and by 2pm when the originally planned rally was supposed to begin, thousands of counter-protestors had taken over the area. What the Cultural Action Party intended for division and harm, the rest of the public used for good.
The same thing happened in other cities across the US yesterday. A “freedom of speech” rally in Boston resulted people filling the streets in the name of inclusion and love completely outnumbering those who were gathering with an alternative agenda.
We know what hatred can do when it goes unchecked. When people remain silent. We have museums, monuments, movies and family members and friends to remind us. We live in the midst of systematic privilege for people who are white and we see its effects on our streets. Is it possible that the response we are seeing to the rise of these nationalist and nazi movements means we are actually beginning to learn from the mistakes of the past? Is it possible the wounds of the past are fresh enough in our minds that we are actually ready to seek a different way of being together as human family? If so then it’s about time. For far too many, especially people of colour, indigenous people, Jews and Muslims the wounding has never really stopped.
Joseph has also seen what hatred and violence can do when it goes unchecked. He has lived it in his own life. Sold into slavery by his brothers at the age of 17, falsely accused by his master’s wife, thrown into jail, forgotten by the inmate whose release he helped secure, for years on end he suffered long and hard until finally his life took a turn for the better. By the time we find him in this morning’s reading he has risen to the top of the Egyptian aristocracy. He has power and influence, he’s married a wife who has given birth to two sons. One of them is named Manasseh meaning “God has made me forget my hardships and all my father’s house.” The other son is named Ephraim meaning “God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes.”
Joseph has come a long way. It’s been over 20 years since his brothers threw him in a pit and sold him to a stranger for being such an arrogant little brat, for the favoritism his father showed him and the way flaunted it in front of them. He’s finally gotten on with his life and his troubles appear to be all behind him. The famine he predicted has come but there is plenty of food for the people of Egypt because during the previous seven years Joseph managed resources well.
And then one day his brothers show up, travelling from Canaan looking for grain to feed their starving families, and suddenly the old wounds surface once again.
Now one can only imagine how often Joseph had gone over in his mind the events of his early life. As he lay in his jail cell year after year no doubt he thought a lot about his part in the chain of events that led to his separation from his family. Perhaps he wondered what he could have done differently to avoid being made the victim. It’s what we do when what’s done is done and we know there’s nothing we can do to change it. We look back and we wish we could unravel the events of the past or re-write our stories. We wish we could take back the hurtful things we have said and done or avoid the hurt that has been done unto us. How often do we go over the past wishing we could erase the parts that are painful? And then there comes a time when we too, like Joseph get on with things.
Which is what Joseph did. He put the past behind him until it was in front of him once again. In the chapters that precede the verses we read this morning, we learn that Joseph’s initial treatment of his brothers was harsh, he actually throws them in jail for a number of days. They plead with him and tell him they are honest men but he knows them to be otherwise and so he tests them to see if they have really changed. And it’s during this testing that his tears first begin to flow.
They first appear in chapter 42 when he realizes his brothers actually do have remorse for what they did to him. They come again when his younger brother Benjamin is brought to him as requested. He sees Benjamin and has to leave the room because he is overcome with emotion. And in this morning’s reading, when at last he can’t take it anymore and he finally reveals his true identity to his brothers, he weeps so loudly that the entire household can hear him sobbing.
It’s not often we see this kind of behavior from a male figure in the bible outside the psalms in which there is lots of poetic crying from the depths of the soul. In fact, we might expect that after all Joseph has gone through his heart would be hardened towards his family and yet the exact opposite occurs. In contrast to his brothers who are terrified of whatever retribution their brother might now exact, Joseph is not fearful at this moment of revelation, he is full of tender tears. It’s as if all the unresolved hurt of the past is being released with those tears, which is really the only way the heart begins to heal, when the hurt is released.
I’ve heard many of you talk about the way a loss has left a permanent hole in your hearts. There’s a saying that those holes are God-shaped. They are the places through which love and healing flow to soothe the pain and tend the hurt.
Now that’s not to say the only way to heal the hurts of the past is to sit down and have a good cry about them, but I do think if we want to move beyond the hurts of the past, and truly be a community of acceptance, justice and love, to preserve and protect the best that life can be, the way forward will have to come from the softness of our hearts.
Some time ago I watched a documentary about a community garden in Mission that brings together inmates from the local prisons and victims of violent crimes. Together they till soil, plant seeds and grow things on the eight acre farm. One of the people who volunteers on the farm is Ray King. In 1981, Ray’s son was murdered by serial killer Clifford Olson. For years, he said, all I dealt with was death, at the farm, there’s only life. He talked about the way he tried to kill himself but didn’t succeed. His wounds just kept festering and he kept pushing people away until he found a place where he could begin to open his heart to others. That place was the farm and the person he started to open up to was the most unlikely of characters, a convicted killer. Someone who needed Ray’s friendship as much if not more than Ray needed him.
The farm was started by Glenn Flett, himself a convicted killer who claims that living through the tragedy of what he did to a fellow human being and having an awareness of the way it affected his victim’s family is what ultimately brought out the best in him. The decision to create life and healing where there was only hurt and death.
Over the past few years now, what we have been witnessing in the public arena is the surfacing of old wounds. The roots of racism, colonialism, nationalism, classism, inequality and poverty run deep. As the world continues to change through technological advances and climate change power and privilege is shifting. It’s going to need to shift a whole lot more if we are serious about inclusion and love. If we are serious about life. Lives will continue to be lost if we cannot find a way to come together with open hearts. If we are not able to acknowledge mistakes made in the past and take responsibility for our part in the chain of events that has led us to this moment and more importantly for how we respond to this moment. If we are not able to be humble. If we are not able to witness each other’s pain.
We have fooled ourselves into thinking we have come a long way and put the past behind us. We have come a great distance, but old wounds are surfacing. I wonder if we are truly ready to open our hearts and let them heal.
When Joseph, the victim of his brothers’ crime, finally reveals his identity to them, one of the things he says to them through his tears is that God sent him before them to preserve life. If he hadn’t risen to power in Egypt, there would have been no food during the famine and he and his brothers would have perished. What Joseph is able to see and perhaps what brings the tears to his eyes is that somehow out of the mess that had been created of his life, God was always right there beside and in front of him working to preserve life in ways he could not have imagined.
The truth is we can’t undo what’s been done in the past. We don’t always get the opportunity to reconcile with those who have harmed us and those that we have harmed. Sometimes the harm that has been done cannot ever be directly reconciled. But our hearts can be softened and we can grow beyond our wounds. Where there is division and hate we can bring compassion and love, curiosity, creativity, grace and a willingness to learn from our mistakes. And we can trust that there is a greater love that goes before us, working to bring forth life in all its woundedness and wonder.