August 20, 2017

12th Sunday after Pentecost

This morning we look at the story of a man full of himself, selfish, arrogant, prideful and how God changes him to someone who gives the gift of life. 

Our Hebrew scripture reading continues the story of Joseph that we have been hearing the last few weeks. Today’s reading places us late in the story. Joseph is the prime minister of Egypt, second only to the Pharaoh, and reveals himself in a very emotional scene to his brothers who have come to Egypt seeking to buy food because of the famine. His brothers are at first disbelieving, then dumbstruck and terrified! Years before they had seen him taken away in slavery. They thought they would never lay eyes on him again. They thought he was probably dead. Now he appears before them, a ruler with tremendous power, and they come as victims of famine, desperate to buy food for their families.

The Joseph who stands before them is a gift-giving man. He bestows life.

On the nation of Egypt he bestows life through his administrative ability. Despite a long and severe famine, there is, thanks to him and more importantly to Joseph’s God, food enough and to spare safely stored away. On his scoundrel brothers he bestows life through his generous forgiveness. He remembers how they hated him and sought his destruction, but he does not want revenge. On his ancient father he bestows life by inviting him to a new home. The old man, once brokenhearted by his loss, experiences resurrection because his son, whom he thought was dead, is alive. This Joseph, who reveals himself to his brothers, is a man who gives the gift of life.

It was not always so! Joseph began life as a spoiled brat. The child of his father’s old age, he was his father Jacob’s favorite. You can be sure that the other sons were wounded by this favoritism. Worse yet, Joseph was a tattle-tale. He would tell Jacob all the bad things the other boys were saying and doing. Joseph was very effective at making himself despised. And then there were those dreams! Joseph was a dreamer. He saw his family bowing down to him in homage. He made the mistake of telling these dreams to his already exasperated brothers.

Finally, they have had enough! They throw the obnoxious brat into an empty well. They take his fancy coat, the one his father gave him, put animal blood on it, and tell Jacob that wild beasts tore apart his favorite son. Their father almost dies from sorrow. Joseph, meanwhile, is pulled out of the well by traveling merchants who sell him into slavery. He’s strong and sturdy and fit to labor on Egyptian building projects. This in essence, is a death sentence. Such slaves do not survive for long! Indeed, they come to yearn for death.

That’s what happens to Joseph on the outside. Can you imagine what happens on the inside? There in that empty well abandoned forever by his brothers? There in chains of slavery, being led to a distant land? The old Joseph, obnoxious and full of himself, dies a painful death. In his place appears a different Joseph, who on the exhausting trip to Egypt realizes he has been a fool.

Once he arrives in Egypt, something unforeseen happens. Joseph does not end up as a quarry slave. He is sold to an army officer, and begins the far better life of a household servant. He fulfills his duties so well that in time his master gives him responsibility for the entire household. But his troubles are far from over! His master’s wife keeps trying to seduce him, and he keeps rejecting her advances. Joseph feels an obligation to the master who has shown him such favor. He has been entrusted with great responsibility, and refuses to betray that trust. No longer is he the obnoxious brat, full of himself. Now there is room in his life for others. Feeling frustrated and rejected, his master’s wife insists that Joseph tried to seduce her. This false charge sticks. A slave has no recourse. Joseph finds himself in a prison cell.

When his brothers threw him into that empty well, Joseph was indeed an arrogant person, but now his pride has been whittled away by adversity. If his experience in the empty well and his journey into slavery burnt away his arrogance, his time in prison works in him an even deeper change. Through his utterly unjustified suffering, Joseph realizes he has a companion. As we read in Genesis, “the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love.”

Joseph continues to be a man of dreams even in his prison cell. Through these dreams God speaks to him. This familiarity with dreams and Joseph’s wisdom in understanding them, results in a remarkable chain of events that brings this lowly prisoner to the attention of the Pharaoh, the king of Egypt.

For the Pharaoh has dreams he needs interpreted. Joseph recognizes that these dreams concern not Pharaoh alone, but the entire country of Egypt. Joseph knows that these dreams warn of a long and severe famine. Not only does he interpret these dreams, but he proposes a plan of action to rescue the nation.

Impressed by Joseph’s wisdom, Pharaoh appoints him to a high government post where he implements his plan to counteract the famine. And it is as an important official that Joseph meets his hungry brothers who come to Egypt seeking food. They do not recognize him at first. That comes as no surprise. No longer is he an arrogant, inflated youth. He is now a humble prince, a gift-giving man, one who bestows life.

That Joseph is a person of great ability is not the point. The point is that he has suffered and been transformed, just as you and I suffer. He does not allow his suffering to crush him. He gains something valuable from it. Like us, Joseph has no choice as to whether or not he suffers. But, like us, he has a choice as to whether this suffering destroys him or transforms him.

And the choice Joseph makes, is the choice we all have to make when faced with our own suffering and experience of pain and maybe even injustice: we can follow the path of revenge, of anger, and continue the multiplication of suffering or we can choose to forgive, to say with Joseph, what you meant for evil, God can redeem for good. We too can ask God to transform our suffering into blessing and so that we might be a blessing to others.