Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
August 17, 2014
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
With Megan as my witness, I got thoroughly exasperated this week trying to craft the Sunday morning hour. You see, we began with this wonderful text of reconciliation. There is hardly a more beautiful reunion in all of Scripture. (A bit of a relief after the Tamar story, wouldn’t you say?) After all the challenging stories we’ve been exploring lately, this one feels just perfect, completely right as the centerpiece for our worship.
Only, can you believe that I could not find a single song in our whole hymnal about forgiving one another? Not one. Now, I may have overlooked something—I really hope I overlooked something—but after a long search, I came up with nothing. We’ve got plenty of hymns in there about rising up as Christian soldiers, about victory over our foes, and about the greatness of America. There’s a mother’s day hymn and a battle hymn of the republic and a song for when the roll is called up yonder, but there is no music for the church about forgiving each other.
Does this strike you as absurdly out of balance? Yeah. Me too. I complained about it all week long. Last time I listened, Jesus was always talking about forgiveness—with parables, with sayings, with his life, and then with his death. “Father, forgive them,” was the way he ended things, and before that he told stories about servants having their debts forgiven and about prodigal sons being restored to the family. He said to forgive seventy times seven and to love your enemies and to pray for those who persecute you, and when he healed people, sometimes he would include with the physical healing these powerful words: “Your sins are forgiven.” With Jesus, it was never about just receiving forgiveness; it was always “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Forgiveness is both a gift we receive and a gift we give, and the giving and the receiving are intrinsically wound up in each other like a set of lovers’ legs.
But if you got your forgiveness information solely from our hymns, you’d get a picture of one-way receiving. The majority of songs about mercy have the singular and first person message: “I am forgiven.” By contrast, this week in our Wednesday morning group, we read that “the criterion of the depth of one’s spiritual growth is love for one’s enemies.”
I mean, I get why the hymnal would skip right over this central part of our faith. It’s tough. So much easier to sing about the forgiveness we receive and about conquering our enemies than it is to sing about forgiving them. Real forgiveness is about as complex as the call to love ever gets.
Right after my divorce, someone with a very good heart and well-meaning intentions asked me if I’d forgiven Nate yet, as if there was a timer ticking somewhere in the heavens and I was supposed to hurry. But forgiveness, as every deeply wounded person knows, is not a split-second choice but a slow growing seed that you plant, water, and cultivate, all the while plucking one-by-one the relentless weeds of resentment that threaten its growth.
For Joseph, it took years, maybe decades. About 22 years elapsed between his brother’s selling him into slavery at the age of 17 and the reunion scene we witness today. First he spent years in Potipher’s household, rising to the top servant in command, then he served time in jail on a false accusation. He was there long enough to earn the jailers’ respect and be given responsibility over the other prisoners. Eventually he is able to interpret the cupbearer’s dream, and it seems like this might just be his ticket out of jail, only, it is two more years in jail before the cupbearer remembers to help Joseph get out. It sounds to me like Joseph has plenty of time to think and to stew. He ends up both in slavery and in jail through no fault of his own and for years he must have wavered between planting the seeds of bitterness or watering the seed of forgiveness. Can you imagine being innocent and stuck in a jail cell, obsessing over the unfair circumstances that landed you there? Wouldn’t you replay the past again and again in your mind? Who knows? Maybe it was Joseph’s anger at being treated this way that gave him the gumption, the defiance, to succeed. Enslaved or in prison, he would not let his situation defeat him. In both scenarios, his is met with success for his hard work and trustworthiness. He chooses to respond to betrayal in his life by being the opposite of the evil he has been dealt. He meets dishonesty with honesty and violations with integrity and unfair suffering with determination to thrive.
Somehow, Joseph remains true to himself despite all the setbacks. He knew from an early age as a young dreamer that he was born to be a leader, and so wherever life sends him, he leads. He knew from an early age that he had a certain affinity with the dream world, a special relationship with those rare dreams of prophetic proportions. You might expect him to lose faith in that part of himself. After all, his first experience with big dreams that we know of are his dreams about his brothers’ sheaves of wheat bowing down to his and about the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowing down to him, yet the next thing he knows, he is a slave who does the bowing.
In real life, his dreams seem like just that—only dreams. We know that there is more to the story, that Joseph will, in fact, rise, but how could Joseph possibly know that when he was laying in the bottom of a pit, stripped of his coat? How could he possibly hold on to his dreams when he was sold to the Midianites or to Potipher or when he was unjustly accused of making advances on Potipher’s wife and thrown into jail? How could Joseph have possibly known that after all that misfortune, he would end up here, second in command under Pharaoh?
He couldn’t have known. It must have seemed for certain that his dreams had failed him, lied to him. Just like everyone else in his life, his dreams were traitors too. It must have felt like he could no longer trust anyone, not even himself.
Only somehow, Joseph stubbornly hung on to his sense of self. In every situation, no matter how bad or unfair, he let his identity as a leader shine forth. In prison, when two prisoners needed their dreams interpreted, Joseph did not even balk at re-entering the dream world and offering his gifts of interpretation even though his own dreams had gone so wrong.
This staying-true-to-yourself is one of the first steps towards forgiving others, by the way. If you allow the wounds you’ve incurred to defeat you, if you allow them to twist you into something or someone you are not, if you stoop to the level of your betrayers in some form or fashion, then you will never be able to forgive them because you will forever need someone to blame for your downfall and the loss of your own integrity. If you do not find your way to stay true to yourself, despite the crimes against you, you will never be able to forgive yourself for the loss of who you are. And without self-forgiveness, you cannot forgive others. Forgiving your enemies starts with forgiving yourself—forgiving the wounded elements of you that lash out to sabotage your own healing and growth after hardship. There is an enemy voice inside your head that tells you how unfair it all is and how you should just give up and what a waste of time kindness is, because looks how it has failed to save you from pain. You have to forgive this voice inside you, recognize it is there because you are hurt and confused, but then refuse to let it be the voice that defines you. Then and only then can you address your perpetrators with strength and a clear mind.
By the time Joseph’s brothers unexpectedly reenter the scene, Joseph has spent years reconstructing his sense of self. He even went so far as to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, and again, for someone whose own dreams seemed to be so false in their predictions, Joseph sure had a lot of guts as a prisoner to offer up his interpretative skills to Pharaoh of all people. What if he were wrong again? Remember how he too dreamed of wheat so long ago? When he heard Pharaoh report a dream about this wheat being swallowed up by that wheat, did his heart stop and did his legs tremble? Did he think to himself, “I’ve heard this before. I better not answer.” Did an enemy voice rise up in his mind to say, “You can’t do this. You’re a failure. You’ll get it wrong”?
We do not know the fears he overcame because in the story he appears to act without hesitation. He not only offers an interpretation, he boldly goes further and suggests a plan of action. Even as a foreigner and a prisoner, his leadership gifts come pouring out and Pharaoh responds favorably, putting Joseph in charge of storing up grain during the seven good years in preparation for the seven years of famine.
Nine years later, two years into the famine, Joseph’s own brothers travel to Egypt having no idea their brother lives there and certainly having no idea that he’s risen to power. All they know is that they are facing famine and starvation and everyone is saying there is food to be had in Egypt. So they go. They end up in front of Joseph, asking for food, but they do not recognize him.
Joseph recognizes them though and to start with, he is gruff and harsh, accuses them of being spies, then throws them in jail for three days. It would seem Joseph will get his retribution at last. He has the power to retaliate against all ten of them with a single command to his guards.
Thus begins the lengthy process between Joseph’s first encounter with his brothers and the scene we read today, where he reveals his identity. Between these two scenes, he plays games with them, acting alternately harsh, then gracious. It is clear from his tricks that he wants to find out whether his father and his brother Benjamin are alive and well. It is less clear whether he wants to hurt his other brothers or embrace them, if he’s testing them or trying to scare them. To me, all these outward shenanigans represent the turmoil Joseph is having on the inside. All this time has passed, but it is still up in the air what Joseph will do now that the people who hurt him are in his presence and vulnerable to his power.
Today’s story is the breaking point, where Joseph succumbs to great weeping. But these aren’t his first tears. The first time he cried, he overheard his brothers discussing their regret over having sold him so long ago. They don’t know he can hear them, because they do not think he can speak the language. The second time he cries is when he sees Benjamin for the first time in over twenty years—Benjamin, the only other son of his mother, and the only brother who didn’t conspire to harm him.
And then in today’s story, he cries for the third time. Before this scene, he was still playing games with them. He accuses Benjamin of stealing, and says he will therefore detain Benjamin and keep him as his slave, but the brothers will not have it. Judah steps forward and begs Joseph to let him take Benjamin’s place as a slave. Judah does this. Did you know it was Judah’s idea to sell Joseph 22 years before? And now Judah is the one who offers himself as slave in Benjamin’s place. Now Judah is someone who has lost two sons of his own—Er and Onan—so he knows what losing Benjamin will do to his father. And in his dealings with Tamar, he’s learned a thing or two about admitting his wrongs. Judah, it would seem, is a changed man.
It’s hasn’t just been a long season for Joseph; it’s been a long season for all of them. We can hear remorse in their voices. We see the willing protectiveness over Benjamin, even though he’s clearly the new favorite son of the family. It appears their hearts have shifted, that their failures have softened rather than hardened them. And seeing this brings Joseph to tears.
See, you can forgive someone who has violated you, but you cannot be fully reconciled to a cruel and toxic person unless that person decides to stop being cruel and toxic. Relationships aren’t repaired by forgiveness. Forgiveness repairs you and gives you back your freedom and sets you free from the suffocating power of bitterness. Relationships are repaired by reconciliation, where the offending party or parties admit their wrongs and commit to respectful treatment of one another.
When Joseph hears Judah’s willingness to protect Benjamin, he knows that the men standing before him are changed men, and he sees that reconciliation is actually possible, and knowing it is possible cracks him entirely open. This is how we know that forgiveness has been growing in his heart all along, despite his confusing antics. The minute there is an opening for reconciliation, the text says he could no longer control himself and that his weeping was heard throughout the entire house. For the first time, he does not bother to hide his tears from his brothers; he lets them flow.
He sends everyone else out the room so that he is alone with his family, which means this is the first time he has spoken to them directly and without an interpreter. Imagine the brother’s shock, not only when this powerful man breaks down in front of them, but also when he starts speaking to them in their own native tongue, in Hebrew.
The brothers are so shocked they say nothing while Joseph has to tell them twice, It is me, Joseph, your brother. He tells them, “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” When he finally finishes delivering his speech into the stunned silence, Joseph falls onto Benjamin’s neck weeping, and Benjamin, likewise, weeps into Joseph’s neck. Then Josephs kisses all his brothers, his tears falling on each of them, and finally they begin to speak in reply, as if his touch loosened their speech.
Picture this: Twelve grown men embracing one another and overcome with emotion, exhibiting no restraint, forgoing all revenge. Joseph rising to power but refusing to use his power to seek justice against his brothers. Instead he offers hospitality, welcome, and mercy.
It seems as clear as day to me that these are the kinds of stories we ought to sing about. I don’t know whether or not it helps our souls to sing about Joshua fighting the battle of Jericho, but I know that the story of Joseph’s reconciliation sounds like something of heaven happening right here on earth. These are the scenes we want to grasp hold of with melody and with memory, plant them into us like seeds with the power to sprout and define our own lives.
May we, the people of God, spread the mercy of God wherever we are planted and to whoever we encounter, even if it takes a long time to grow. Amen.
 Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism