|Joseph reveals himself to his brothers.
Sermon preached at St. Dunstan’s, Madison, on these readings for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15 in Year A.
It feels like this morning’s psalm is haunting us today, and I don’t like the feeling of that. “How good and pleasant it is when brethren or kindred live together in unity.” I used to love that psalm. Who knows, maybe I will come to love it again. While I appreciate the comparison that follows that celebration of unity, what with its shoutout to fine beards and beard oils dripping down off of them (sounds kinda awesome), the celebration of unity named by the psalmist feels hollow this week. It may be good and pleasant when we do live in unity, but it doesn’t feel like we do very much of that right now. Not that Charlottesville represented a new thing, but Charlottesville is yet another in an exhaustingly long line – and now not even the latest – but belonging to a long line of honest and painful things that name the violence we do to the unity that God would give us. And the “we” who do violence refers to humanity, but “we” also refers to white people in America. For those of us miles from Charlottesville and the South, here in Dane County, it may be helpful to remember that you don’t need guns to do violence. I don’t say that as a way of shaming folks for things over which we may feel little control, but to begin to make our repentance specific. I take it as foundational to the Christian faith and counter-cultural to the world that there is life and hope in our repentance. And we need life and hope because unity worth oiling beards for feels a very long way away.
Speaking of unity. I saw a t-shirt the other day that said – it had this big heart in the middle and across the heart it said – I tolerate you. Now society has sometimes named toleration as a kind of virtue we want to promote, but limits to the virtue of toleration become obvious the moment someone tells you they tolerate you. Nobody wants to be tolerated. Toleration is for mosquitos. That should be a t-shirt! Still, one thing the deplorable white supremacy on display in Virginia reminded us is that, if toleration can be seen as a desirable goal, it is only because the human desire to end the lives of those we despise is something real.
But then there’s Jesus, calling us to something deeper than the noble restraint we show when we do not kill one another. Inviting us to a table with those we have wronged and with those who have wronged us. Pouring forgiveness in the cup. Washing our feet. Inviting us to the same. How do we get there from here?
Remembering Jesus’ words at that first last supper, Catholic priest James Martin tweeted out last week that, “Jesus asks us to love one another, to place others’ needs before our own, even to die for one another. ‘Supremacy’ is absurd to Jesus,” he said. Jesus invites us to gather at the table, where submitting to the reign of the crucified king also means making room for each other. That’s what unity is.
If a psalm extolling the goodness of unity is painful to read today, it at least comes with stories to encourage us for the difficult, good work of loving and making room for each other.
In Genesis, Joseph is talking to his brothers. And, actually, he’s been talking to his brothers for several chapters now, but they don’t know it’s him. In everything that’s come before, they’ve known him only as the guy Pharaoh put in charge of food distribution during the famine that plagues Egypt and the surrounding region. Like everyone else, they’re just here for the food. The last thing they’re thinking as they negotiate the price is that the shrewd manager staring them down is the very same kid brother with the rainbow coat they had mercilessly left for dead in a ditch and then traded into slavery years before.
Psalm 105 remembers the story this way:
Then God called down a famine on the country,
God broke every last blade of wheat.
But God sent a man on ahead:
Joseph, sold as a slave.
They put cruel chains on his ankles,
an iron collar around his neck,
Until God’s word came to the Pharaoh,
and God confirmed his promise.
God sent the king to release him.
The Pharaoh set Joseph free;
He appointed him master of his palace,
put him in charge of all his business
To personally instruct his princes
and train his advisors in wisdom.
It cannot be easy to receive wisdom from one whom you had counted as a know-nothing slave. It cannot come easily to be mastered by someone you once sold to a master. But here they are. Joseph dramatically reveals himself to be the brother they had tried to kill. Whose brotherhood they had denied. On whom their lives now depend. Predictably, they are dismayed. Dismayed, because, it was his prediction of this moment, years before, that had caused them to hate him in the first place. They’d dismissed him as “the dreamer.” Now the apparent truth of the dream they’d dismissed is their nightmare. Unthinkably, God has used their hate to create the very situation that had filled them with resentment and, now, fear. Here, in his presence, they are undone. Now, the one they have hated is not only the one with the food they need, but also the one with power and cause to destroy them. Joseph’s brothers have created an either/or world in which either Joseph or his brothers must emerge victorious over the other, and for a while they thought that was them, the victorious, but now it is clear that, barring an unlikely strategic gaffe, victory belongs to Joseph. They brace for their expulsion from the future of the one they have wronged.
But then Joseph says the only words that could have made things even worse. “Get it over with,” they may have hoped. Be to me what I have been to you. They had no reason to expect otherwise. But then, these excruciating words: “Come closer to me.” There is another way. An unexpected future, a waiting embrace that will cost them every drop of the either/or logic they have made of their world. Come closer to me, Joseph says. And, remarkably, they do.
In Romans, Paul picks up this age-old struggle: does embracing the other on that side, in this case the Gentiles, undo the integrity of God’s promise to this side? Not at all! says Paul. No. God’s future, illumined by Joseph, refuses the logic by which our struggles with each other finally result in anything other than opportunities for God’s mercy to win us all back to God.
But a warning. In participating in the unity and mercy of God, we may find ourselves invited to a role in the story that is not the role we once had or the role we had wanted. Like Joseph’s brothers, the Canaanite woman in Matthew’s gospel finds herself begging life from a man who, being Jewish, she was raised to despise. It can be difficult to receive wisdom or life from one whom you had counted as a know-nothing slave. But as with Joseph and his brothers, her daughter’s healing comes when the women overcomes the instinct to claim a future without the other side. “Come closer to me,” she insists, and it’s all the more remarkable for Jesus’ gruff treatment of her. But as I’ve wrestled with Jesus’ difficult words to the Canaanite woman of great faith, I find myself uncertain whether I am offended for her or if my offense is simply a disguise for my desire to have a better place for myself in the story. What do you think? What would you do? Would you take Jesus’ offer to find your place in the story of God as a dog at the table? Remarkably, she does. Because she knows in her bones that place and position fail to accomplish what God might do in the space of surrender to the one she calls her king. Whatever her place, she longs for that table. Forsaking all else, she finds the mercy of God.
Our scriptures today are full of people who give me hope for the unity the psalmist names because, against all odds, they speak and accept the challenge to “come closer to me,” to step toward the other, even the despicable other, trusting that God will meet them both in the space of total vulnerability.
What might it look like to come closer today? Theologian David Fitch thinks it might look like this. He writes, “Racism is a subjectivity formed within a social world. It is a social construct that teaches us (as white people) to think, feel and experience others of color in a way that is not conscious. To think we can change this racism by merely confronting it with words or protest misses the insidiousness of racism. No, we must go the next step and engage the racist with presence (not anger or violence). This may start with face to face nonviolent protest. But it must not end there. This is why addressing racial injustice ultimately requires the church filled by the Spirit to be viscerally present in the world.” Filled by the Spirit, we must be viscerally present. “Come closer to me,” Joseph says to his brothers.
Finally, of course this will not be the last time in the pages of holy scripture that we’ll see a man left for dead unexpectedly standing before eleven of those whom he called his brothers. Jesus will appear before them on the other side of the walls of the hate and fear and pain they had locked themselves behind, and the disciples, very much like Joseph’s brothers, will see him and be dismayed and undone. They had left their Lord for dead, and so they will know what this moment should bring. They will brace for their expulsion from the future of the one they have wronged. But he will not destroy them. His breath on them will be forgiveness and peace. Their hearts will know his love as they haven’t known it before. And we will marvel as we remember. We will find courage to come closer across every line of our hatred, righteous judgments, and fears, remembering that God in Christ has first come closer to us.