Sunday, August 17, 2014

Pentecost 10A

They probably didn’t know what was going through his head.  They don’t recognize their own brother even when he’s two feet away from them. And Joseph stands in front of his brothers, who have no clue who he is, wondering what he should say.

It had been decades since his brothers’ jealousy had driven them to sell Joseph into slavery. He was their father’s favourite. He had privileges that they were denied.  And he rubbed their noses in it.

When they were out in the fields, working their fingers to the bone under the scorching Canaanite sun, Joseph was inside reading books, learning languages, being taught skills that his brothers wouldn’t dream of having, preparing him for a life that would not be available to them.

So, to get back at him, Joseph’s brothers picked up some beer money by selling him to the Ishmaelites, who then auction him off to an Egyptian military officer named Potiphar.

And those familiar with the story know that Joseph, as a slave, worked his way through the ranks of his master Potiphar’s household until Potiphar’s wife tried unsuccessfully to seduce him.  She accuses him of trying to attack her, and Joseph is thrown in prison for seven years.

Even though Joseph gets out of jail, and had risen to highest position anyone could attain in Egypt except for Pharaoh, I would guess that his mind occasionally turned back toward Canaan, his home. He missed his father Jacob, whom he loved deeply. But I can only guess the level of hatred he felt for his brothers.

As Joseph’s thoughts turned toward Canaan, he probably assumed that he’d never see his father again. After all, Jacob was already pretty old when Joseph last saw him.

And he also probably assumed that he’d never see his brothers again. He’d never have the opportunity to get back at the brothers who took everything from him.

But that life was a million years behind him. Or at least it seemed like it. Joseph had a new life. He had a wife and family. And he had an important job saving Egypt from starving to death. 

He was successful beyond anything that anyone could hope or imagine. He was living a good life doing meaningful work with people who loved him.

So, when Joseph saw his brothers appear at his door asking for food, all his comfort and success suddenly meant nothing. All the memories of betrayal and abuse came flooding back.

Why did they have to appear in his life again and open old wounds? Why did they have to come and remind him of everything he had lost? Why did they have to knock on his door and bring with them the ghosts of the past?

As Joseph stood there, looking into his brothers’ eyes, he probably wondered what to do next. His mind probably leaped to the moment so many years ago when the looks on his brothers’ faces told him that they were no longer his family but his enemies. 

His mind probably leaped to that day when he was staring up from the pit where his brothers dumped him. His mind probably leaped to that moment when his hands and feet were in shackles and he was sold to the highest bidder.

His mind probably leaped to the humiliation of forced servitude, the rage over wasted years in prison, the despair of losing everything he had, home, family, a future that was of his own making, not a life thrown upon him.

His mind probably leaped to the injustice and the betrayal of his past.

Joseph probably fantasized of this moment, the moment when he could take from his brothers everything they had taken from him.

What would the revenge be? Would he provide a quick ending to their betraying little lives. Or would he draw out the pain over time, allowing their cries of agony to nestle warmly in his vengeful ears?

As Joseph stood there, all the anger and hatred of his past came flooding into his present. His was a story of jealousy and betrayal. Of family dysfunction and sibling rivalry. It was a story that he thought he had left behind.

But at that moment as he looked into his brothers’ eyes, that story, the story of his past, was all he could see. Everything else; success, fame, prosperity, love, all disappeared. And all that remained was rage.

He’s not alone. The stories of the past are hard to escape. In my job I see this all the time. I hear lots of stories. Most of them of painful pasts that accompany people into the present.

I hear stories of abuse, be it physical, verbal, sexual, or spiritual abuse. I hear stories of grief. Stories of rejection, of loss, of failure, of violation, of guilt, and of shame.

And when I hear those stories, it’s not the painful experiences or traumatic events themselves that strike me. 

But what strikes me is how those injustices follow people throughout their lives. They’re like shadows hovering over people’s relationships, people’s choices, even people’s physical health.

People then become defined by their pain. Their identity is overwhelmed by the trauma of the past. They feel shackled by their guilt or the harm they experienced. They feel trapped in a cage of suffering, from which they don’t know how to escape.

It’s something we ALL struggle with. We all struggle with past suffering. We all hear voices of earlier loss or rejection or failure or pain. 

And we call carry within us, the burden of bearing someone else’s painful past. So that their story becomes our story, which we then share with others. It becomes lodged in our DNA, which we unwittingly then pass on to the next generation.

No matter how much you try to hide it, no matter how much you try to tell yourself the past is behind you, no matter how much you ignore it, it’s there.

Your past is there in the way you misconstrue a simple comment made by friend.

Your past is there in how you overreact to bad news.

Your past is there in your tears after someone criticizes you.

Your past is there when you ignore wonderful opportunities lying at your feet.

Your past is there you meet accomplishment and success with guilt and shame rather than with joy and celebration.

Your past this there when you greet other people’s wins with jealousy and anger rather than praise and admiration.

Your past is there when you look in the mirror, and all you can see is someone else’s negative opinion of you.

Your past is there when the power of the previous years engulf the possibilities you see for the future.

As Joseph’s feet were fixed in place, and he was looking into his brothers’ unknowing eyes, I can only assume that his first, gut reaction, was to reach for his sword and cut them down where they stood.

But first reactions aren’t always the best reactions. And Joseph realized that no matter what they did to him, he did NOT want to give them any more power over his life. 

He did NOT want THEIR actions to define who HE was. He did NOT want anger and bitterness to control his behaviour. 

If he gave into revenge, if he resorted to violence born from rage to exact his justice, he’d be no better than they were, he’d be allowing their actions to diminish him.  He would become one of them. And they would, once again, victimize him. And he was no one’s victim.

His brothers may have been responsible for his past. But they will NOT be responsible for his future. He would NOT give them that power.

I would imagine that that moment with his brothers was the hardest moment of his life. The moment he turned from angry victim to forgiving brother. And at that moment of forgiveness, he got his family back. He got himself back.

I say that this moment was probably one of the hardest of his life because, too often, the anger and bitterness of past injustices that you hold on to do more harm than the injustices themselves. The voices of pain, suffering, abuse, failure, and grief caused by others can be like voices shouting in our ears, drowning out any word of healing that you want to hear.

The story of guilt and shame, abuse and rejection, betrayal and loss, can overwhelm you, and wonder if your life will ever be any different.

But this is when Joseph realized that the story CAN change and DOES change, and IS changing. He realized that his story and his brother’s story wasn’t the only story. There is also God’s story. And that is the story that Joseph realized he wanted to live. It was the story that grabbed hold of his life, and helped him see the world with fresh eyes.

The story that Joseph was now living is a story of creation rather than destruction. It is a story of mercy and forgiveness rather than anger and revenge. 

It is a story of hope for tomorrow, peace between enemies, and strength in adversity. It is a story of abundant tomorrows. It is a story of life rather than death.

Joseph realized that God’s story was already working within him. He saw that God’s story is stronger and bigger than any other of their stories. 

God had brought Joseph and his brothers back together so they could live as a family and learn something about themselves and about God. God brought them together so that they could see the world refreshed by the story that is being lived out in their lives. 

God wouldn’t allow any injustice to define them. God wouldn’t allow any betrayal from keeping them from being who God wanted them to be. God wouldn’t allow any anger or bitterness or abuse to keep them from living the vision that God had for them.

God was bigger than their past. God was bigger than their betrayal. God was bigger than their pain. God was bigger than their anger.

And today God knows your past. God knows what has been done to you. God knows the pain, the injustice, the abuse, the grief, the rejection, the failure, and the loss.

And today God is saying that your past does NOT control your future. God is saying that the story of your painful yesterday is not the story of your healthy tomorrow. God is telling a different story in your life. God is telling a story of of healing, of forgiveness, of peace, and of joy.

God is telling a story of possibility, of hopefulness, of second chances, of open doors, and pregnant futures.

Your future is before you. And it’s not just your future. It’s God’s future. Your story isn’t finished. The pain of your past does NOT have power over your tomorrow. Your future belongs to God.

Someone else’s opinion of you is NOT your reality. God decides who you are, and God has declared you to be a beloved, forgiven, beautiful, and free child of God.

Your future will not be perfect. Your future will not be without pain or illness or failure or grief. But God has given you power over anything that life throws at you. 

God has given you power over any betrayal, over any injustice, and over any loss. God has given you power over any rejection, over any defeat, over any conflict, and over any abuse.

God has given you this power, the power of the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life, because you belong to God. God is writing the story of your life.

And God’s great and glorious future, where the ending meets us in eternity, rests inside of you and in front of you, greeting you with love. 

May this be so among us. Amen.

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