"He kissed all his brothers"-Sermon for Proper 15, Genesis 45:1-15
When we hear the name Joseph, biblically speaking, our first thought might turn to a marvelously, multicolored coat…or as Broadway has coined it…the amazing technicolor dream coat…a gift lavishly poured upon Joseph by his doting father Jacob…in a time when colorful dyes were only accessible to the well healed and powerful…a coat of many colors was precious indeed…a sign of privilege and great favor. But as we dig into Joseph’s story in the book of Genesis the technicolor coat begins to take on really two distinct symbols. One is the wealth and power that Joseph will one day wield as head of Pharaoh’s household in Egypt. As you likely know, Joseph does not just go, say on a whim, to Egypt…instead is taken there as a slave…but through a story with many twists and turns and over much time…and more so through the grace of God and a God-given gift of prophecy…Joseph is elevated to the status of a king…again the very head of Pharaoh’s own household…the sort of position and office that would be held by one who could afford a closet full of marvelously, multicolored coats. But the actual coat…the one given by Jacob to his son Joseph…is also a sign of deep and painful division between the one given the flashy gift, Joseph, and the ones not receiving the same gift…that is Joseph’s 10 older brothers. You see, it is Joseph’s own brothers who are the ones who sell him into slavery when he was still just a youth.
And that unthinkable decision, perhaps obviously, was not really just about a coat. The coat may have been a symbol of the division between Joseph and his older brothers, but the choice to sell their brother into slavery was about things like Joseph being different from the other boys in the family. Joseph was more at home in the household than in the fields…more comfortable and called to domestic duties than long days under the hot sun and nights sleeping on the hard ground in the care of their father’s herds of sheep. The story suggests that the brothers began to think of Joseph as soft and lazy and spoiled. And then there was a jealously spawned by a perceived, and maybe correctly perceived, sense of favoritism. Joseph was a late in life and unexpected child and, to this end, considered by Jacob to be a sign of God’s blessing in his life. Thus, Jacob took a special delight in Joseph…and his brothers knew this. It was obvious to them…the coat just a painful reminder…and it hurt them deeply…and, again, maybe rightfully so. As perhaps all of us have experienced at one time or another, family dynamics can be difficult, and this was surely true in the house of Israel. So, at some point, the enmity between Joseph and his brothers grew so deep and the division between them grew so wide, I like to think in a moment of passion, for they surely regretted their decision after the deed was done, the brothers did the unthinkable…maybe even unforgiveable…they faked their brother’s death by some wild beat and then sold his into slavery in Egypt.
But, when I personally think of Joseph, it is not the beginning of his story that I think of first. Surely, the story begins with a tragic opening episode of a family drama worthy of a Netflix series…but where I always go in my mind is to the end of the story…the very place our Old Testament reading from Genesis picks up this morning. The climax of the story…which is the hope filled restoration of a family…a lovely reimagining of the unthinkable…an act of forgiving what seems unforgivable. For in today’s story, we find Joseph and his brother’s in the second half of life. Joseph is the leader of all Egypt at a time when all of the Middle East is in a terrible draught followed by life-threatening famine. And to avoid literal starvation, Joseph’s brothers are sent by their father Jacob from their home in Israel to beg for grain in Egypt. Which, in a moment of great serendipity, brings them before none other than their long lost and, surely assumed, long dead brother. And though his brothers do not recognize Joseph in his kingly Egyptian raiment…he surely recognizes them…almost like a single day has not passed sense their violent and painful separation many years before. And, I suppose the story could go several directions from here. Including, Joseph as the most powerful person in the land, turning his brothers away to face certain starvation…even letting them know who he really is…just to deepen their sense of guilt and shame. It is really their own fault if they and those they love starve…what they deserve really…a grand moment of retribution…some sort of justice for Joseph at the last. But as you already know from what was read, Joseph, instead, is overwhelmed with a fierce love. And though the six words that I think are at the heart of maintaining healthy relationships are yet to be uttered between brothers…I am sorry…and…you are forgiven…Joseph from his heart and with tears welling up from the deepest places in life…forgives his brothers.
And that day….and at that moment…not only are Joseph’s brothers saved from starvation…they are just saved…saved in their souls…for there is pain greater, in this world, than what is experienced in the body alone…there is the pain that comes with a broken heart…that unless healed…can make our physical lives utterly unbearable. Healing and wholeness are always, first and foremost, a matter of the heart. From my perspective, our physical well-being actually begins with the well-being of our relationships. And because it is not an if…but a when…that we are going to break each other’s hearts…in small or large ways…forgiveness is maybe the most powerful medical intervention that exists in the divine surgeon’s healing arts. And it is forgiveness that heals and saves this family…the twelve tribes of Israel…the mothers and fathers, the ancestors, of our own dear Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, a forgiveness with even cosmic and divine implications…even for me…even for you.
This all reminds me of what one of my best friends named Samy’s dad once said to me. My friend’s dad, before retiring, was the chief surgeon at one of the hospitals in the Texas Medical Center in Houston. And, what he said was that he believed that 90% of the thousands of patients in the Texas Medical Center at any given time where there as a manifestation of unforgiveness in their lives. It looked like heart disease and cancer and diabetes and the like…but that all those physical manifestations began with dis-ease on the inside…all the regret…all the grudges…all the things left unsaid…all the anger…all the hate…all the what ifs…the broken relationships…the emotional wounds…that went untreated…unhealed in so many human hearts. Now I don’t know about the science…but from a spiritual perspective I believe him. For we are heart, body and mind…all three living in a symbiotic relationship…the health of one is fully dependent on the health of the others.
And there is great good new here…for we have power given to us by God in the good hearts, bodies and minds that God has created within us…to love one another fiercely…with God’s own love. And, when we really know God’s love for us and for each other and are deeply in touch with that love…believe in it and nurture it, we find that it provides the inspiration, the fertile soil, the courage to say and mean…I am sorry…and you are forgiven. And we need to be familiar with both…sorrow and forgiveness…for we will surely find ourselves on both sides of that equation in the course of a life-time. For the power to seek and grant forgiveness…the courage to face, name, amend, and apologize for our own hurtful behavior and the courage to grieve, accept a wrong done, and then genuinely offer forgiveness without retribution…requires a fierce and deep love for the other…flowing from the deepest places in our lives.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his book “Love in Action”, writes, “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.” And what I think is most helpful about this quote is twofold…first the capacity to forgive is something we must develop and nurture over time and with maturity. To forgive is, indeed, divine…not human. It calls us to way of living that is well beyond our instinctual desire for justice. It is the intentional choice, rooted in a fierce love for the one has hurt us, to willingly grieve the hurt, accept their limitations, forgive them, and move forward in a new way alongside the very one who has hurt or harmed us…divine indeed. And this is not being a “walked all over” door mat…for often forgiveness comes with new boundaries, new expectations for things moving forward, and a wholly new and different life together than what was before…but in that new life, with healthy boundaries and shared expectations, a deeper, richer, more rooted relationship has the chance to emerge from the ashes of what was…and an, even, altogether more wonderful relationship than what it was before is made possible. It is possible that all come out of the hurt or harm more like Jesus…more like who we were made to be…than before…even more deeply connected and committed to one another…than before. For “God’s ways are higher than our ways” says the Lord…and healing is possible.
And the second thing Dr. King suggests, that I have already hinted at, is the connection between love and forgiveness. Forgiveness is in its essence an act of fierce love. Forgiveness is a necessary response gracefully given to the one who has wounded you…because you already love them. It is forgiveness that flows out of deep, abiding love that makes authentic reconciliation possible…that creates the fertile soil that allows new things to emerge and grow. Joseph’s brothers, despite their unthinkable act, never stopped loving him…and he never stopped loving them. It is this unbreakable bond of affection…God’s own never-ending love shared between them…that makes everything else that follows, the great moment of forgiveness…the climax of the story, possible.
And so, I will say in conclusion that as we begin to regather for worship, even, in a limited way, perhaps now is a good time to recommit to not only loving all well, as our Vision Statement reads, but very specifically recommit to falling more in love with one another…those who make up this family of faith. For…as our Vision Statement also reads…our ability to grow in relationships…our ability to say I am sorry and you are forgiven and mean it…our ability to come out of moments of hurt and harm even more connected and committed one to another…begins…is made possible…by our fierce love…one for another. Amen.