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God's Steadfast Intention for Good -- Genesis 45:1-15 (Tenth Sunday After Pentecost)

It couldn’t get much worse for Joseph’s brothers. They are a family of farmers in the midst of a drought and a famine. They’ve run out of food; their families are starving; and they have come to Egypt to beg. And if all that wasn’t bad enough – here’s what they don’t know at the beginning of this morning’s Scripture: The one person who can help them – the one person whose generosity they most need – that one person turns out to be – their brother Joseph – the brother they kidnapped, the brother they threw in a pit, the brother they tried to kill.

Joseph – the brother they sold into slavery. That Joseph.

Their past has finally caught up with them. Everything that the brothers have intended, everything that they have done, has finally brought them to this moment.

The jig is up.

The chickens have come home to roost.

It is time to pay the piper.

And Joseph reveals who he is to his brothers. He sends everyone else out of the room, so it is just Joseph and his brothers. And then he begins weeping uncontrollably – unhinged – scary – and he tells them, “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into slavery.” And here they stand before the most powerful man in Egypt. The brothers who tried to kill Joseph, now at his mercy. Their whole story comes into this present, decisive moment.

And it’s not a pretty story. From the start of the story, the brothers have never really liked Joseph. He is – by far – their father’s favorite. He is the favorite son of his father’s favorite wife. So much so that their father Jacob gives Joseph a very fancy coat – we may know it from the old King James translation as a “coat of many colors.” More modern translations call it an elaborate coat, or a coat with long sleeves. It is a coat of privilege. It is a coat that sets Joseph apart – above his brothers. And they despise him for that.

And then Joseph has a few dreams. In the dreams, Joseph is a cornstalk that grows bigger and stronger than his brother’s cornstalks. Joseph is a star that shines brighter than his brother’s stars. And in Joseph’s dreams, his brothers bow down to him. And he lets them know that. And they despise him for that.

So much so that they plot and plan to do him in. The brothers are out working in the field one day, and they see Joseph coming towards them – not working – in his fancy coat. And they say to each other, “Enough. That’s it. Let’s kill him.” So they grab Joseph, beat him, and throw him in a pit – and then they take a break for lunch. What do we do now? They haven’t really thought this through. All they know is that they want Joseph gone. And just about that time, some Ishmaelites ride by, and the brothers get an idea. They will sell their brother – that takes care of their problem (no more Joseph), and they’ll make a profit. (And maybe they’ll even feel a little less guilty than they would if they killed him.) So they sell Joseph into slavery, and then they have to go back to their father and tell him that his son Joseph is dead. They break their father’s heart. Maybe they didn’t think that part through.

And because of his brothers’ plan, Joseph is now a slave. He ends up the slave of a wealthy Egyptian, Potiphar – but that doesn’t go well, Joseph is falsely accused, and ends up in prison.

From a pit, to slavery, to prison.

But then in prison, Joseph and his cellmates discover something – Joseph can interpret dreams. His cellmates tell him their dreams; Joseph tells them what the dreams mean. And then years later, after years of being in prison, one of Jospeh’s cellmates – who has been released from prison – remembers. Pharaoh is having bad dreams, and this former cellmate of Joseph, remembers Joseph (still in prison) – and says, “Great Pharaoh. I know a guy. I know a guy who can interpret dreams.”

So after being thrown in the pit, after years as a slave, after years in prison – all thanks to his brothers – Joseph comes before Pharaoh. And Pharaoh tells Joseph his dreams, and Joseph says – this is easy – “There will be seven years of good crops, and then seven years of famine – you need to start preparing now.” And Pharaoh is impressed, and puts Joseph in charge of the preparation for famine.

So as quickly as he was thrown in the pit, Joseph rises from prison to power – he’s now the second most powerful person in Egypt. And sure enough, famine comes. It hits Egypt. It hits Canaan. And so his brothers starving in Canaan –completely unaware of all that has happened to Joseph – come to Egypt – to Joseph for help. Joseph knows who they are, but they have no idea who Joseph is. The last time they saw him he was bloody and dirty and riding off, the slave of some Ishmaelites. They don’t know that this powerful Egyptian is really their brother.

Joseph stands before his brothers, with complete power, and he doesn’t know what to do. So he tests them. They haven’t brought the one brother who didn’t plot against him – Benjamin, the youngest of the 12 brothers. Joseph makes them go back to Canaan and get Benjamin. And they do. And then Joseph frames Benjamin – he wants to see what his brothers will do – will they sacrifice Benjamin just like they sacrificed Joseph. Benjamin is caught with some stolen silver – he is accused. But then one brother speaks up. He says to Joseph, Take me. Take me instead of Benjamin. I can’t break my father’s heart again.

And here we are in this morning’s scripture.[1] Here Joseph is with these brothers who have done him wrong. They have done nothing but wrong by him. They have tried to kill him. They have beaten him up and thrown him in a pit. They have sold him into slavery. And Joseph suffered for years – not just the bruises and the broken bones – but years of slavery – years of prison – all at the hands of his brothers. Everything that his brothers have intended for Joseph has been for Joseph’s harm.

And Joseph stands before them, here in this moment, and explodes in weeping – he is so unhinged that folks hear him throughout the house – folks hear him all the way in Pharaoh’s palace. And the brothers just stand there dumbfounded. And then Joseph says this to his brothers: “I am Joseph. I am Joseph. The brother you threw into the pit. The brother you sold into slavery. I am Joseph.”

And Joseph’s brothers know what comes next in stories like this – revenge. In a world that expects an eye for an eye – in a world where Joseph has all of the power – all of the power over those who have tried to kill him – what comes next should be death – or at least prison. Joseph’s brothers intended for him evil and harm and death and a life of slavery. Their intention must be matched and checked.

But then Joseph says something remarkable. He says to his brothers, “Your intention is not God’s intention.” You intended to destroy my life. God always intends to preserve life. You intended for me to live as a slave. God always intends freedom. You intended for me evil and harm. But God always intends toward our good.

Joseph turns their world upside down – or better yet, he turns it right-side up. Joseph re-orients their world – not on the basis of revenge or an eye for an eye. Not on the basis of human intention. Joseph names and grounds their life in God’s intention – God’s intention for good – God’s intention for life. Joseph says to his brothers, “All that you have intended for me – all that you have done to me – all of that – even that – could not defeat God’s ultimate intention for the good.”

Joseph names something true: There is an intention that is larger and broader and greater than our own. All of our intentions that tend toward harm – all of the things we do wrong in the world – all of the wrong that we do to each other – there is something larger and broader beyond all that: God never ever stops intending our ultimate good. God never leaves us. God never stops bringing us and the whole world toward life.

In theological terms, we call this providence. We’ve been talking this summer about God’s creative power: God created us and all things in love. But God doesn’t just create. God stays with God’s creation. In God’s providence, God upholds and sustains the world in love. God accompanies us through the whole of life – through joy and sorrow, through hardship, through suffering. God never stops caring for the world, and God is inevitably and steadily bringing the world toward the ultimate good that God intends for us all. There is never a moment that we are outside of God’s providential care – God’s intending for us – and the whole world -- good and life and love -- forever. Providence is the claim and the promise that -- beyond and encompassing the whole of life – beyond the reality of our decisions and misdirected intention – God never leaves us and never ceases intending our good and bringing us and the whole world to our ultimate good.

Now talking about providence can be tricky as we hear this story – and hear how Joseph explains what has happened here. Because it could sound like God intends everything that happens in life. For Joseph, it could sound like God intended that Joseph be beaten, thrown in a pit, almost killed, sold in to slavery, and then locked up in prison. No. All that is what Joseph’s brothers intended. God never intends our harm.

What Joseph says here to his brothers is: All this evil that you have intended, that you have let loose in the world – there was and always has been God’s broader intention that moves the whole world toward good. What you intended evil – even that, God can use toward God’s ultimate intention of good and life and love. What providence says is that there is never a moment that God is not with us, never a moment that we are outside of God’s care, never a moment that we are outside of God’s concern for our life and our well-being.

When we talk about God’s providential care, we are not saying that God intends everything that happens in every moment of every day – to Joseph – or to us. We are not saying that when bad things happen we should tell each other, “It is all part of God’s plan.” No. It’s not. God never intends our harm.

What we are saying is that God has chosen to love us in freedom – chosen that we are free to partner with God, or not – and that no matter what our choice, no matter what our intention, God never wavers, God never leaves us, God never stops intending our ultimate good. What we are saying is that in the midst of our present pain and our present brokenness, there is something more.

There is a broader horizon as expansive as God’s infinite and never-ending love for us. Nothing is beyond God’s love. Nothing is beyond God’s power to redeem.

And so what issues forth here – in this moment – with Joseph and his brothers – is forgiveness. What matters for today, and for the rest of their days together is no longer the brothers’ evil intention and all the wrong that the brothers have done to Joseph. That has shaped their lives for too long.

What matters for life is God’s intention for good. And Joseph says, that is where I will stand. I will stand in God’s intention for good and for life and for love. And Joseph walks down from his position of power-over, and he embraces his brothers, and they weep together, and they talk together – brother to brother.

Even more broadly, what issues forth here – in this moment – is justice – a particular vision of justice. Hugo Magallanes points to this moment in Scripture as a vision of “restorative justice.”[2] Not justice understood as punishment, or revenge, or retribution. But justice understood as the restoration, repair, and re-creating of relationship. This kind of restorative justice requires the saying of true things. It must name the harm. “I am Joseph your brother. We know what you have done.” It requires that we say those true things, acknowledge and own them as real, so that we can then stop the harm and create something new – so that we can re-create and repair relationships.

In our relationships that are broken or wounded by harm, it requires –whether we are the one who has inflicted or suffered the harm – it requires that we name the harm – and say it plain – and then actively re-orient ourselves in God’s better, steadfast intention for good.

In our justice work, it requires no less. For those of us who are white, and seeking to live out a commitment to anti-racism, it requires

· that we learn and name systemic racism and our complicity in it;

· that we listen to those who have suffered the harm of racism and trust that their testimony is the clearest witness to the harm we have done; and

· that we then – as Professor Yolanda Norton said back in February – that we then stop the harm. Stop the harm. Dismantle the system. Listen and look to the witness and leadership of those who have been harmed to re-create new systems of equity, equality, and freedom.

All the life that Joseph and his brothers have lived up until now is right here in this moment in this morning’s Scripture. Fresh and raw. Joseph tells their story and tells it true – all the harm they have done.

And then he finds for them a new place to stand – a broad and spacious place – and he re-orients their lives toward God’s steadfast intention for good. Stop the violence. Stop the oppression. Stop the harm. With God, let’s create something new.

From the moment of creation, God has accompanied the world God made and us every minute of every day. God is present with us now. Ready.

© 2020 Scott Clark

[1] My reading of the Joseph story is informed by Terence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis,” in The New Interpreters’ Bible, vol.i (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press,1994); Wil Gafney, Commentary at ; Hugo Magallanes, Commentary on Lectionary Proper 15 and Genesis 45:1-15, Connections lectionary commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020), pp.230-32. [2] Hugo Magallanes, Commentary on Lectionary Proper 15 and Genesis 45:1-15, Connections lectionary commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020), pp.230-32.

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