The Path to Reconciliation (A sermon based on the story of Joseph; Genesis 45:1-15)

The Joseph story is a beautiful story. And while I cannot share the ancient biblical writer’s view of how directs human affairs I believe it has much to teach on the dynamics of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Joseph is the youngest of the brothers and clearly his father’s favorite son. Joseph knows this and does not shy away from it nor does he seem to express any humility in his good fortune. He dreams of being in power and shares his dreams of grandeur with his bothers and how they along with their father and mother will bow down to him. Joseph gives them reason to dislike him.

The brothers plot against Joseph and he is sold to some Midianite traders. They tell their father a wild animal devoured him and their father mourns for Joseph many days. Meanwhile, Joseph ends up in Egypt as a slave to one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard. Through a series of up and down experiences Joseph finds favor in the household of Pharaoh, and rises to become second in command answering only to Pharaoh himself.

A famine ravages the land as far as Palestine. Jacob hears that there is grain in Egypt. Joseph knowing in advance there would be a famine had carefully stored up grain during the years of plenty so there would be grain during the years of famine. Jacob sends his sons to Egypt with money to buy grain.

Joseph had married and we are told that his first child he named Manasseh for he said, “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.” He had a new home and new family and wanted to forget all about his former life. But it was Joseph who was responsible for dispensing and selling the grain, and so his brothers had to come to him. His brothers did not recognize him, but Joseph recognized them. And the storywriter says that “he treated them like strangers and spoke harshly to them.” He accused them of being spies and had them all imprisoned for three days. Well, can you imagine the feelings and emotions that came flooding back as Joseph struggled with his demons for three days. He now had power over that the question we are all drawn into is how we he use this power.  

Joseph learned in questioning them that his father had another son whom he did not know. So he decided to release his brothers under the condition that they would return to him with their younger brother. And to be assured that they would return he kept one of them, Simeon in prison. They said among themselves, “Alas, we are paying the penalty for what we did to our brother; we saw his anguish when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen. That is why this anguish has come upon us.” Joseph heard all they said, but of course, they had no idea it was Joseph or that he could understand their Hebrew. The text says, “He turned away from them and wept.” Joseph is now dealing with his own demons.

Joseph is undecided about what to do. I get the sense that he is stuck. Stuck, I’m sure, in his memories of the pain and hardship inflicted on him by his brothers. I’m sure he had been replaying in his mind and in his emotions the horror of what his brothers had done to him. So the big question is: Can he let that go? Can he reach out in forgiveness? Right now he is stuck.  

A powerful illustration of how we can get stuck on a different level is found in a scene in the movie, Bridge to Terabithia. Ten-year-old Jess Aarons has his world turned upside down by a free-spirited ten-year-old girl named Leslie Burke. In the woods adjoining their homes, an old dilapidated tree house becomes an invitation into the enchanted kingdom of Terabithia.

One Friday, when they’ve been rained out and cannot enter their magical world, Jess complains about Saturday’s chores and having to go to church on Sunday. Leslie asks Jess if she can come to church with him. Jess feels certain Leslie will hate church, but he takes her along anyway. On the ride home in the back of the truck a conversation ensues between Jess, Leslie, and Jess’ little sister May Belle. Leslie, who had never been to church before says, “That whole Jesus thing is really interesting isn’t it? . . . It’s really kind of a beautiful story.” May Belle interjects, “It ain’t beautiful. It’s scary! Nailing holes right through somebody’s hand.”

Then Jess chimes in, ‘May Belle’s right. It’s because were all vile sinners that God made Jesus die.” Leslie questions that interpretation of the story. She asks, “You really think that’s true?” “It’s in the Bible,” responds Jess. Leslie, in a puzzled and questioning tone says, “You have to believe it, but you hate it.” Then she says, “I don’t have to believe it, and I think it’s beautiful.” May Belle jumps in, “You gotta believe the Bible, Leslie.” “Why?” asks Leslie. “Cause if you don’t believe in the Bible, God’ll damn you to hell when you die.”

Leslie thinks that’s just silly and she is shocked by such a dreadful image of God. She asks May Belle for her source. May Belle can’t come up with chapter and verse, so she turns to Jess, who can’t quote the Scripture either, but he knows that it is somewhere in the Bible. “Well,” Leslie says, “I don’t think so. I seriously do not think God goes around damning people to hell. He’s too busy running all this.” With that Leslie raises her arms to include the sky and the trees and the whole beautiful landscape before them.

Jess and May Belle had been (like we all are) indoctrinated into a particular version of the Christian story and thought they had to believe it. Leslie knew she didn’t have to believe it if she didn’t want to, but then she didn’t see what they saw. She thought it was a beautiful story. She saw it with a new set of eyes.

Maybe what we need when we get stuck, whether it’s in a negative view of God or some painful story in our past, what we need is to be able to see with a new set of eyes. But even before that, we probably first need to realize that we are stuck – stuck with a little, petty God, or stuck in our prejudice, or stuck in resentment and bitterness, or stuck in a craving for vengeance. There are many ways we can be stuck.   

Jean Vanier in his wonderful little book titled, Becoming Human tells about a friend who wrote to him about her grandfather. He was an Australian who had served in the First World War. He had been gassed by the German army and was left permanently impaired. He remained terribly bitter toward all Germans. He called them: “Those wretched Huns.” His bitterness and prejudice poisoned his whole family even down to the third generation. It took this woman a long time to overcome her grandfather’s legacy. She wrote to Vanier: “All my life I’ve tried to rid myself of the prejudice against the German people that has been programmed into me.” It was a slow process. Overcoming years of indoctrination, overcoming a heritage of prejudice and a legacy of hate can be very hard.

But there is no way forward unless we do. We have to confront the ways we get stuck.  We have to admit our bitterness and hate. And whether it’s rooted in a long history of distortions and prejudice, or whether it springs from our own longings for vengeance and retribution – it has the same effect in staining and souring our souls. It makes us little. I get the sense that Joseph is struggling with these feelings and emotions.

So when we get stuck in our negativity, and when we can’t see past the pain and hurt, or past the anger and bitterness, maybe we need to step back and take a wider, deeper look into our own heart and soul. Maybe that was part of the dynamics of what Joseph was doing as he struggled with how to respond to his brothers.

One of the things we might be able to see if can take a wider, longer, deeper look into our own hearts is the part we may have played in the breach of the relationship. Maybe it was just a small part, but we realize that we were not totally blameless. There was nothing Joseph did or could have done to justify the crime committed against him or the pain inflicted upon him, but maybe, just maybe he began to realize that the way he played up his father’s preferential treatment and his braggadocious dreams of grandeur and greatness contributed to the resentment and anger his brothers felt toward him. Are we honest and open enough to consider the ways we may have contributed to broken relations with others? Few of us rarely are completely innocent.

Following the first round of interactions with his brothers there is a second round. Eventually the brothers have to go back to Egypt for more grain, and they have to bring Benjamin, the youngest with them, because that is the condition that Joseph had set. Joseph is still struggling with what to do. I’m sure he is still replaying his painful memories. In this second round as they leave he hides his own silver cup in Benjamin’s sack and then sends his aid out after them. Of When the cup is found in Benjamin’s sack he plans to keep the boy and send the others back. They know it would destroy their father. Judah steps us and makes a passionate plea begging Joseph to allow him to serve the boy’s punishment. This becomes the moment of grace for Joseph. This is the moment he decides to forgive his brothers.

I heard about a man who had committed a violent crime and was imprisoned. One day he became violent with other inmates and ended up in solitary confinement. In the solitude of solitary confinement he became aware that he had lost everything – his work, his family, his mobility, as well as his dignity and self-respect. He wanted to die. But suddenly there rose up in him what he called “tiny stars of love.” He had this urge to rediscover love and find himself again. In the darkness a ray of hope came through. It was the moment of his conversion. He clearly still had a lot of work to do and a lot of baggage to get rid of, but that was where he turned it around. It was a moment of grace.

When we experience such moments, when the light finally breaks through and we see just how blind we have been, how hardened or unenlightened or prideful or prejudiced, all we can do is say, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound . . . I was blind but now I see.”

Part of what we begin to see is our own complicity in the brokenness of the world, the brokenness of our relationships, and the brokenness of our lives. We begin to see that we are part of a common humanity and that we all are loved with an eternal love by the Divine Father and Mother who is over all and within all. We begin to believe that we can change, that we can evolve and grow – that we don’t have to remain stuck. We begin to yearn and long for unity, for peace, for reconciliation. We want to be liberated from our prejudices, from our negative feelings and disdain that led us to dismiss certain people and groups treating them as less than ourselves. When we are touched by God’s grace we become repentant and want to open our lives to others that we had previously rejected and condemned and excluded.

This is the work of grace God wants to work in every human heart. In writing to the Corinthians Paul says that the love of Christ urges us on and we regard no one from a human point of view.  I read Paul as saying that we all form a new creation in Christ and that it is God’s goal to reconcile the world. Our part is to live into it. Our part is to allow the Spirit to form us and change us and reconcile us to God and one another.

I don’t know what it takes to make us aware of our blindness, our prejudice, our pride. I don’t know what it is that causes the light to come on, for “tiny stars of love” to rise up within us, for us to let go of our painful hurts and the need to replay all the grievance stories of our past. I don’t know what it will take for that to happen in your life and in my life, but if it hasn’t happened, I pray that it will.

Our good God, you are well aware of the many ways we get stuck that keeps us from being reconciled to you and reconciled to our sisters and brothers. We get stuck in ways of thinking and believing that keep us from fully trusting in you as a God of love and grace. We get stuck harboring biases and negative attitudes toward others thinking that you don’t love them the way you love us. We get stuck in our prejudices, our pride, our selfishness, our anger, and resentment. Help us to look deeply and honestly and clearly into our hearts and may we know that you are calling us to be more – to be more accepting and forgiving and embracing – the way you accept, forgive, and embrace all of us. Amen. 


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