Joseph’s Forgiveness of Many Colors

Sermon Preached at Christ the King on August 17, 2008 

Genesis 45:1-115 (Semi-Continuous)
Psalm 133:1-3 (Semi-Continuous)
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:21-28
Lectionary 20
Proper 15
Year A

I.N.I. (In the name of Jesus)

Setting the Scene

Our first reading from Hebrew Scripture this morning is a great tale. We heard part of the story of Joseph which covers chapters 37 through 50 in Genesis. You may know the story of Joe… no not the step father of our Lord, but the favorite son of Jacob, you know, the one with the coat of many colors… And in our world today it is probably the Broadway version and not the Genesis original most are familiar with.

So it is Joseph from Genesis who will be in our sermon spotlight this morning. Broadway legends Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat” was first produced forty years ago. Their show based on old Jacob and his 12 sons has been one of the most favored musicals to grace stages around the globe.

Last weeks first lesson gave us part of the story from the first act. We learned that Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son that his jealous brothers wanted to kill him and they threw him into a pit. Older brother Judah protected Joseph’s life but they got rid of him by selling him into slavery. Joseph is taken to Egypt and that is where we rejoin the story for Act II this morning.

Joseph’s fortune changed because Pharaoh was having dreams no-one else could interpret. So the slave was brought in and heard Pharaoh’s dream about seven fat cows, seven skinny cows, seven healthy ears of corn, and seven dead ears of corn. Joseph interprets the dream as seven plentiful years to be followed by seven years of famine. This wows Pharaoh who immediately puts him in charge of planning to save Egypt from the impending famine, making him the second most powerful man in the kingdom.

Back home in Canaan, the famine had caught up with his brothers, who now start to see the error of selling Joseph into slavery and telling their father Jacob he was killed. Well when they hear about the food in Egypt, they decide to head south and beg for food and mercy. The brothers go and Joseph gives them food and sends them on their way.

They were of course clueless that their savior was their “dead” brother. But all is not forgotten for Joseph and he hides a golden cup in the pack of his brother Benjamin. When the brothers try to leave Joseph stops them. Caught “stealing, ” the brothers beg for mercy on Benjamin, now Jacob’s favorite son because like Joseph, his mother was the beloved Rachel.

This story is quite the soap opera, but wasn’t it best known as an award wining Broadway musical?

The Narrator begins…
Joseph knew by this his brothers now were honest men
The time had come at last to reunite them all again

A light brightens over Joseph and he sings…
Can’t you recognize my face?
Is it hard to see
That Joseph who you thought was dead, your brother
It’s me?

The entire Ensemble & Children respond in song…
Joseph, Joseph, is it really true?
Joseph, Joseph, is it really you?
Joseph, Joseph

The lights dim. The next scene opens and the ensemble sings…
So Jacob came to Egypt
No longer feeling old
And Joseph came to meet him
In his chariot of Gold

Forgiveness

Seems remarkable doesn’t it. Eleven brothers literally dispose of one and he not only doesn’t take revenge, he forgives them! Would you? Could you?

I mean who could blame them… this Joe was spoiled rotten! Old Jacob loved him more than his brothers and this pretty boy not only dreamed that everyone should bow down to him, he expected it! As Daddy’s favorite, seventeen year-old Joe was showered with attention, affection and gifts. Yes gifts like designer clothes including that coat that made him the center of attention and showed the world how Jacob loved him more.

With this arrogant twit as the focus of the family, I can see why his brothers hated him. And as difficult as it is to admit, there was more than one occasion growing up that I wished I was an only child, or that a sibling or two would magically disappear and make my life easier.

Have you ever been jealous of a sibling… friend… neighbor… co-worker… or celebrity that seems to have it all?

Well Joe models what seems to be the impossible, forgiveness. Is there anyone in your life that you have not forgiven? Is there anyone you are awaiting forgiveness from?

Or, how would you have dealt with the woman shouting at Jesus in our Gospel reading? Would you have forgiven her bluntness, perhaps engaged her as Jesus ultimately did?

In June Kay and I had the opportunity to encounter a place where forgiveness is not common. A place where everyone is treated like the Canaanite women in today’s Gospel. We attended worship with a friend who is engaged in prison ministry at the State Men’s Prison in Concord.

Prison is not an experience most people choose. Even as a visitor for worship I had some doubts about my decision. But Jesus calls us to minister to all and specifies the imprisoned, so we went.

The visitor and chapel area is surprisingly nice and as we were escorted to the chapel, the main prison yard, several cell blocks and maximum security areas were pointed out.

We got to the beautiful modern chapel only to learn that there was a marriage encounter scheduled so worship would be held in the multipurpose room. Well the room was across the yard, so downstairs we went and exited the barred and fenced “safety” of the chapel area to walk across the asphalt yard of the prison.
The windowless room we entered had a low ceiling and one single door.

Inside the multipurpose room were plain cinderblock walls and a couple fans that barely moved the stale air. Instead of a traditional altar and pulpit was an industrial table and milk crate lectern. There were no guards in this place and the five rows of chairs filled as a few dozen inmates filed in.

As our friend set-up for worship we were introduced to the worship assistants and a group of four gathered to sing. Before worship began, the assistants, our friend, Kay and I joined hands to pray for God to bless the assembly and the worship experience.

Kay commented on how tightly I held her hand and I realized it was perhaps my anxiety of the two of us being in a foreign and potentially dangerous place.

Worship was spirit filled but my eyes were constantly drawn to the contrast of the communion elements, means of grace sitting on a dirty old table. That scene reminded me of the messiness of sin in our lives and the forgiveness for all through bread and wine.

Our friend gave a powerful message referencing the inmates context as it related to the text.

But the most powerful moment was receiving the sacrament from a man with a life sentence.

A life sentence… a term that changed for me that day. Regardless what we have done, or our convictions, God forgives through the scandal of a life sentence and death penalty via the cross.

And God delivers us the ultimate life sentence,
one that is eternal.

Grace and Mercy

The final story in Genesis is all about forgiveness. Joe had good reason and a position of power to get back at his brothers for all the horrible things they had done to him.

He could have brought justice or even gotten revenge, but Joe showed mercy, forgiving them and crying tears of joy when they finally reconciled.

Forgiveness, a concept we are familiar with, but mercy, true compassion shown towards an offender or enemy? Mercy is compassion with no strings attached. Mercy is complete forgiveness, reconciliation, wholeness, as in God’s forgiveness of our offenses.

So there is more than forgiveness revealed in our story today. Mercy is more complete than forgiveness. Mercy flows from relationship, from sharing the other person’s pain and brokenness.

This holy love is forgiveness with compassion that grows peace and reconciliation.

To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice:

“You cannot force someone to be merciful,
it drops like gentle rain from heaven,
it is blessed twice,
it blesses the person that gives and
it blesses the person that takes,
it is the greatest of all gifts.”

Some Biblical commentators compare Joseph to God in the way that God has reason, authority and ability to punish us.

While we deserve punishment, God freely and generously forgives us, no strings attached.

Our second reading from Romans confirms God’s grace and mercy. God did not reject Israel because the call and gifts of God are irrevocable.

While all have been disobedient, God has mercy upon us all restoring relationship with us and abundantly blessing us, just as Joe did for his brothers.

The Story Continues

This is the last text we will hear this summer from Genesis, but our shared story with the chosen people Israel continues. God protected Joseph and the story reminds us that when we experience the pitfalls of life, God is with us as well.

Throughout Genesis we’ve heard stories filled with the hope and promises of the God from Abraham and Sarah, to Isaac and Rebekah, to Jacob, Leah and Rachel, to their twelve sons, the twelve tribes of Israel.

The Joseph story explains how Israel ended up in Egypt and as Luther Professor Kathryn Schifferdecker points out, it is through Joseph that we see the beginning of the “great nation” promised to childless Abraham and Sarah.

In Joe we see the fulfillment of God’s promise that “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” God who may not be obviously present in the Joseph story makes everything he does prosper, even while a slave or in prison.

As second-in-command in Egypt, God used Joseph to save not only the people of the promise, but the whole world from famine. The only promise that remains as we leave Genesis is the promise that the descendants of Abraham and Sarah will inherit the promised land of Canaan.

As the curtain closes on this saga today, we look to the next book and sermons over the coming weeks to share the Exodus and return to the Promised Land. O God, your mercy is great and you are with us always. This story, our story together with you, filled with your promise of forgiveness and life is truly Good News! Amen.

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