“Joseph’s Tears”: Sermon for the 11th Sunday After Pentecost – August 16, 2020

Preached (via Zoom) at All Saints’ Anglican Church, King City, ON, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, on the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, 16 August, 2020.

Readings:  Psalm 133, Genesis 45.1-15, Romans 11.1-2a,29-32, Matthew 15.21-28 

2 And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it.

Last week the lectionary’s hopscotch tour of the Book of Genesis dipped into the story of Joseph, and today we find ourselves almost at the end of that long story.  I want to use this opportunity to look at how the Joseph story models forgiveness and reconciliation for us.

There are those rare moments in life where emotions rush upon us, so raw and so visceral that we can’ suppress them or hide them from others.   Our bodies can be racked by sobs, we make loud noises, and for a few honest moments, we can’t hide how we feel from the rest of the world.   If you’ve had one of those moments, you will remember how it felt, how you just couldn’t hold your feelings back, how they came out like a bursting dam, and how you were most likely the better for it afterwards.

How refreshing to find such a purely human moment in today’s excerpt from the story of Joseph.   There is an ancient, remote quality about Genesis, that can sometimes make us think that this isn’t a story about actual people.  Sometimes the early books of the bible feel like mythology or legend, but here as Joseph breaks down, sobbing so violently that people here him in the next room, it feels as fresh and as real as yesterday’s novel.  

It feels so real because we don’t know exactly where these tears come from.  Is it sorrow for a lost childhood, stolen from him by his brothers?  Is it joy at the thought of being reunited with his family?  Is it some cathartic experience of relief that he is capable of forgiving his bewildered siblings, a deep spiritual relief that he isn’t captive to some need for revenge?  We can’t be sure exactly, but this vivid climax to what is sometimes called one of the bible’s great novellas makes us think about how complex, and necessary, forgiveness and reconciliation can be in our lives. 

So how did we get here?   Because the lectionary doesn’t give us the whole story, let’s briefly review the missing pieces.   After being sold into slavery, Joseph ends up in Egypt and is a servant in the house of Potiphar, a high official of Pharaoh, the king.  He is falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife, and ends up in prison (Gen 39).  While in prison he makes a reputation by interpreting dreams, as we heard last Sunday (Gen 40). Joseph thus comes to the attention of Pharaoh who recognizes him as “one in whom [there] is the spirit of God” (Gen 41.38).  Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of all Egypt, and because of his dreams, Joseph is able to save Egypt from a seven-year famine.  His fame spreads, so that “all the world came to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain, because the famine became severe throughout the world” (Gen 41.57).   Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to buy grain; Joseph recognizes them but does not reveal who he is – to the brother he appears to be a prince of Egypt who does not speak their language (Gen 42.23).  After a series of episodes where Joseph tests his brothers and sees their devotion to their father Jacob, he finally reveals himself to them.

One of the remarkable things about this story is what Joseph doesn’t do to the brothers.   He could have taken his revenge in exquisite detail.   As we saw from the fate of Pharaoh’s baker in last Sunday’s reading (Gen 40), it’s easy to lose your head in the palace, and Joseph has been given the complete authority of life and death.   However, Joseph has tested the brothers enough to see their loyalty to their father Jacob and moreover, he has seen their loyalty to the youngest, Benjamin, perhaps (we are not told exactly) because of their remorse for what they did to Joseph years ago.

Also, and more importantly, Joseph sees God’s guidance in all of this.  He says to the brothers “now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” Gen 45.5).  It may not have been apparent to him when the brothers threw him into the pit, but Joseph firmly believes that God brought him to this place and this power, where, because of his dreams and the influence they gave him, he can save his family from starvation.  Unlike earlier episodes in the family history of Joseph’s ancestors, where God intervenes and speaks directly in the story, we don’t see God act first hand in the Jospeh story, but Josephs words to his brothers – “God sent me”, “God made me” – make it clear that these things have happened for a reason.   Thus, the story of Joseph and how he saves others from starvation is tied into the big story of Genesis, of God using Abraham and his descendants to be blessings to all peoples.  

Joseph is also a blessing to his family because he is able to forgive them, even if, as his sobs and tears suggest, forgiveness and reconciliation can be difficult and painful work.  The work of reconciliation is not easy.  Setting aside pain and injury is some of the hardest soul work we can imagine.  Several times this summer, as we’ve gone through Genesis, I’ve commented on how the story of Abraham’s family, with all its faults and intrigues and bad behaviors, is the human story, but Abraham’s family never breaks bad.   After all the tears and embracing, that lovely phrase at the end of today’s reading “after that his brothers talked with him” (45.15), shows that when ice-dams of guilt and hostility are broken, we can be restored to relationship with one another.  Joseph’s forgiveness makes our story possible, because the story, from Exodus to Israel, from the prophets to Jesus to the adoption of the gentiles in the body of Christ, is our story. 

Joseph’s tears show us that forgiveness and reconciliation are hard work, the hardest there is.    Jesus knew that when he told Peter, don’t forgive someone just seven times, forgive them seven times seventy (Mt 18.22) – which is 490 if you’re keeping count!   The hyperbole points us to the importance of task.  Forgiveness and reconciliation are part of our vocation as God’s people.   We are called to be in relationship with one another and with God.  Our long experience with our indigenous brothers and sisters, in Canada and in the Anglican Church, reminds us of how difficult real reconciliation can be, and how necessary it is.  The gift of reconciliation is never easy.   If it sounds like a dream, then it is, as I said, last week, part of God’s dream for us, which is why it takes a dreamer to show us what forgiveness looks like.