“The Power of Doing the Unlikely”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
24 February, 2019
Genesis 45:3-11, 15
Introduction to the Theme:
Black History Month Figure: Jackie Robinson. Refer to movie ‘42’ about his life as the first African American baseball player in the Major League. He knew it would be challenging, and that it would take more “guts” to not fight back against those who attacked him than it would to put up a fight: but he recognized the power and the character of rising above baser human instincts. He became an unlikely hero for countless people of all skin colors: his spirit, courage, and integrity helped to change the world for good. That, my friends, is the power of doing the unlikely.
[Before the readings begin, ask everyone to listen for their favorite part: what’s the verse or idea you like the most? Also listen for what challenges you the most about what you’re hearing. In all of it, listen for what God might be saying to you personally, and to us as a congregation.]
What was your favorite part of the Bible passages we read this morning?
Mine: “God sent me here before you to preserve life. . . . God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God…” (Genesis 45:5b, 7, 8a)
What was hardest for you to hear?
For me: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. . . . for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Luke 6:27-28, 38b)
Why is it hard for us to hear these teachings of Jesus that ask us to do what is entirely unlikely? Most of us are better at reciting these teachings than we are at living them. His instructions seem unlikely to be followed by most of us because they’re so contrary to our natural impulses, and certainly run against the grain of what our society teaches we need to do in order to get the satisfaction we deserve. How many of us feel love or warmth or anything that inclines us to do good as an immediate response to someone who’s insulting us? If we manage to respond with, “God bless you,” it’s usually with a bit of snark. Even those of us who pray regularly can struggle to offer a prayer interceding for those who abuse us.
I wonder what Joseph’s prayers were like when he prayed about his brothers. How many remember the beginning of Joseph’s story? He was the youngest of eleven brothers and one sister. Actually, he was a half-brother: remember, his father Jacob had two wives, Leah and Rachel. Rachel was Jacob’s favorite—she was the one he wanted to marry in the first place, but he was tricked into marrying Leah. (Trickery and double-dealing becomes a bit of a theme with this family, and it plays out generation after generation.) But it turned out, Leah was very good at producing babies, and Rachel was not. Leah gave birth eleven times before Rachel finally gave birth to Joseph.
Keep in mind that Jacob was the grandson of Abraham—whom God had promised would have descendants as numerous as the stars. Because Jacob’s father, Isaac, only had the twin sons—Esau and Jacob—the pressure was mounting for Jacob to be a bit more prolific than his father had been.
Remember that Jacob had tricked his brother, Esau, out of his birthright and literally had to run for his life. It was while Jacob was hiding out in a foreign country that he fist set eyes on Rachel, and he loved her immediately. He wound up working for Rachel’s father, and when he told Laban that he wanted to marry his daughter, Laban said, “Sure! Work for me for seven years, and you can marry her.” After seven years, Jacob prepared for his wedding day. He exchanged vows with his bride, lifted back her veil—and discovered that it was notRachel, but instead, her older sister, Leah! Laban laughed and said, “Well, we couldn’t very well marry off the younger girl before her older sister was taken care of now, could we? Give me another seven years of labor and you can marry the woman you really love.” And Jacob did. That’s how much he loved Rachel. So, I guess it’s no surprise that her first son—though it was hiseleventh—would be Jacob’s favorite. Joseph was his parents’ the darling, and everyone knew it. Jacob even made it obvious, by hand-stitching a multi-colored coat for Joseph; none of the other boys had ever been gifted with anything so fine.
In truth, Joseph was a bit of a brat. He was a tattle-tale, constantly telling their father about every little infraction he noticed his big brothers commit. It was supremely annoying. But one day, when he was seventeen years old, he told them all about a dream he’d had: he and his brothers were out in the fields bundling up wheat, when suddenly his bundle stood up tall, and all of their bundles gathered around it and started bowing down to it. It was almost the final straw. That came when he reported his second dream, in which the sun and moon and stars all bowed down to him, as well. Then, even his father, Jacob, got angry: “Are you saying that your mother and I will be bowing down to you, too?!” Jacob might just then have started to suspect he’d raised a little monster. His brothers knew that was the case, and they began conspiring how they might get rid of him.
One day, the older sons were all out herding sheep. Joseph had stayed back at home, but their father sent him out to find and assist them. The brothers saw Joseph coming toward them in his multi-colored coat, and they quickly hatched up a plan to kill him. A couple of them had second thoughts. Rather than incurring the guilt of actually killing him, they threw him down a dry well until a caravan traveling down to Egypt rolled by. They sold him to the travelers for twenty pieces of silver—and went home, satisfied that their brother was still alive, but would never again bother them. They presented Joseph’s blood-saturated coat to Jacob and told him the wild animals had gotten him. Their father was, of course, devastated.
Fast-forward a decade and a half or so, and we find Joseph in Egypt. Astonishing things have happened to and for him during those years—many good things that he has consistently given credit to God for accomplishing, in spite of his brothers’ treatment of him. He has been very successful, and is now, at age 30, governor of Egypt. His brothers, of course, have no idea. They’re just in town because the entire region has been plagued by a terrible drought—a drought that Joseph had helped to predict by interpreting the Pharaoh’s dream. Joseph’s insight and wisdom allowed Egypt to be exceptionally well-prepared for the drought, and surrounding nations were streaming to the Egyptian capital to buy grain in order to survive. Joseph is now in charge of managing the sales of grain to neighboring lands.
When Jacob’s older sons (Joseph’s older brothers) all arrive hoping to make a purchase, Joseph recognizes them immediately, but they don’t have a clue who he is; he’s been given a new, Egyptian name which further obscures his identity. He questions them, accuses them of being spies, and has them all thrown into jail for a few days. He questions them again, and ultimately allows most of them to return home with the understanding that they must return with their youngest brother. (In the intervening years, Rachel’s had another son, called Benjamin. Of course, Joseph wants to meet his little brother.) He holds one brother in jail as collateral.
Eventually, the brothers return with Benjamin—though it broke their father’s heart to send him away; as you can imagine, Jacob was terrified that he would also lose his youngest son, as he had Joseph. After a bit more toying with them all, Joseph reveals his identity—which is where our reading picked up this morning. As we heard, Joseph reconciled with his brothers and embraced them: he loved his enemies, was good to those who had hated him, he blessed those who had cursed him, prayed for those who abused him. Somewhere between being sold into slavery, and embracing his baby brother, Joseph had experienced a change of heart.
He was prepared to forgive his brothers—to liberate himself from the burdensome weight of a past grudge or grievance, however justified it may have been. And he discovered that, having been liberated from that weight, he also possessed the power to liberate his perpetrators from the weight that had shackled theirspirits for so many years. He became reconciled to them, and their relationships experienced a sort of healing that each of them had longed for in the depths of their souls. It was a cosmic healing, as the power of doing what was unlikely radiated forward from Joseph’s act and blessed not only his brothers and his father, but also untold others. Their reconciliation healed more relationships than just the ones that had been shattered thirteen years earlier.
But here’s the crucial thing to remember, as Joseph himself properly acknowledged: The blessing, and the healing, didn’t originate with Joseph. That was all God’s doing. Even Joseph recognized that, whereas his brothers had intended to do him harm, God used their vengeful act and turned it into an opportunity for their own salvation. “And now,” Joseph said, “do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves because yousold me here…” [he named their hateful behavior, allowing them to own the way they had hurt him, and not attributing the wrongdoing to God, but instead showing how God turned it to into the possibility for blessing]; “…for God sent me before you to preserve life.”Had Joseph not been sold by them, he could not have made it to the Pharaoh’s palace and his role as governor of Egypt; in which case, their entire family might all have perished in Canaan during the drought.
What Joseph’s brothers engaged in was destructive and all-too-ordinary vindictive human behavior. It wrecked their father, and undermined trust in their family. To the very end, the brothers worried that Joseph might still harbor ill will against them, and for years they wondered whether the bad things that happened to them might be punishment for their mercenary acts. But God brought good from their wickedness, and Joseph made room for God’s good to blossom and flourish even more fully by his unlikely decision not to seek retribution or revenge on his brothers.
This is the way that God behaves with you and me, with humankind, all the time. Lest we forget, God delights in the unexpected, and regularly engages with what seems unlikely. In Jesus Christ, we have the ultimate example of how God can turn the very worst of human horridness into the means for our salvation. But we need to be willing to accept our role in receiving salvation; and our call to participate in bringing it to others. This is why Jesus could suggest without the slightest trace of irony, “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat, don’t withhold even your shirt.”
We are sinful people living in a sinful, hurtful world—where others hurt us, and our first impulse (and the encouragement of this world) is to hurt back, harder. It may feel difficult and even unlikely for us to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us or pray for those who abuse us. But because we have the spirit of Christ—God’s own Holy Spirit—living within us, it is not impossible. When we allow that divine Spirit to work through us, it is entirely likely that we will discover the power to overcome our baser inclinations, and to resist the destructive impulses of this world. Regardless of our age, our station, or our profile, we have the power to change the world for good. All thanks and glory be to God!