Sermon for February 20th, 2022
So first this morning a little bible refresher course:
Joseph was the son of the patriarch Jacob. He had eleven brothers who were extremely jealous of his relationship with their father. So jealous in fact, that they decided to get rid of him. First by throwing him down into a pit, and then by selling him as a slave to some traders headed down into Egypt. They didn’t exactly kill him, but they might as well have. They turned their backs on him and basically left him for dead. That is what they told their father, that he was dead.
But Joseph doesn’t die. Through a number of circumstances he actually manages to prosper in Egypt. His ability to interpret dreams and look to what they may mean for the future eventually puts him in a position of great influence with Pharoah. Despite the horrible thing that happened to him in the past, Joseph is a very future-oriented person. And this orientation actually leads him to help save Egypt from famine.
And now Joseph is in a very unique position. He is a powerful man in Egypt. Egypt, through his own leadership, has stores of food set by. His brothers, the very brothers that abandoned him to slavery and death, have shown up on his doorstep begging for food. They don’t recognize Joseph, but he knows who they are. It is a scene right out of a prime-time television drama or a soap-opera. It would make a great musical.
How many people who have been really hurt would love to be in Joseph’s position? He is in the prime position to get revenge on his brothers for what they did to him. They sold him into slavery. They left him for dead. Nobody would fault Joseph if he told his brothers to go to hell. It would seem like justice served. And you know, maybe it is a human instinct, but we all like to see people get what is coming to them from time to time. If we didn’t, television programs and movies would tend to end a whole lot differently. We like to see justice served. We want the bad guys to get it in the end. But that’s not what happens here.
Why? Why does Joseph feed his brothers, reconcile with them and forgive them? Well I think it is because Joseph recognizes a few key things: the first is God’s power to turn any bad thing into a good thing. Human beings do terrible things all the time, and while God may never approve of the bad things we do, God always has the power to take that bad thing and make it work to serve some positive good. We see this happen all the time. In the wake of an immense tragedy or disaster, people band together and help one another and care for one another. In life we make bad decisions and wrong turns, but sometimes those wrong turns lead us to places where good things happen. Joseph’s brothers did a terrible thing to him, but God managed to make something wonderful come out of it. Joseph recognizes God’s power to transform our circumstances and to turn bad things into good things.
The second thing that Joseph recognizes is that the future matters more than the past. He hasn’t forgotten what happened to him by any means. He hasn’t forgotten the past, but he isn’t living there. He is living in the future and focusing on the relationship that he could have with his brothers and their families.
The third thing that Joseph recognizes is that if he turns his back on his brothers now that the circumstances have changed and he is in the position of power, if Joseph takes his revenge and abandons his brothers for dead, then he becomes just like them. Joseph has a choice to make: he can choose to be like his brothers, or he can choose to be different. He chooses to be different.
Here is a divine law: you can write this down and there is plenty of scripture to back this up. I could also stand here for days and give you one historical example of this law in action after another. If you allow yourself to hate someone or something, you condemn yourself to become them. You will become the very thing you hate. Be careful about who and what you hate in this world. If you let that emotion fester and grown within you, if you let hatred control your thoughts and actions, you are destined to become just like the thing you are reacting against. Watch for it. Abused people very often turn into abusers. Political extremists from the left and the right are sometimes very hard to tell apart, because they talk and act just like each other even though they are supposed to be polar opposites. Their mutual hatred turns them into the very thing they are reacting against. British historian David Starkey has what he calls “Starkey’s law of revolutions” and it is this: Revolutions reproduce the worst aspects of the regime they replace. Revolutions reproduce the worst aspects of the regime they replace. Hatred that is nursed over past wrongs and the thirst for revenge upon the wrong-doers leads to this perpetual cycle of people becoming the very thing that they supposedly hated. Political parties and regimes do this all the time. Individuals do it too. And when you point out a wrong that is being committed, the response you often get is: “well so-and-so did it to me first.” It’s only fair! They did it first. That is a child’s argument. That is essentially saying that if somebody did a bad thing to me, then I am free to do what I like in response. I am exempt from having to consider the moral implications of my own actions. It is a child’s argument, but it is very seductive. How often do we see supposed adults making that very same argument?
A number of us are reading Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s book on morality right now. It is a superb book, and one of the chapters we discussed this week was on the idea of victimhood. Rabbi Sacks discusses how a number of people managed to survive the holocaust and rebuild their lives afterwards. One survivor comments that “there is a difference between victimization and victimhood. All of us are likely to be victimized at some stage. We will suffer abuse, injury, ill fortune or failure. We live exposed to forces beyond our control. Victimization comes from the outside. But victimhood comes from the inside. No one can make you a victim but you. We develop a particular kind of mindset, a way of thinking and being that is rigid, blaming, pessimistic, stuck in the past, unforgiving, punitive and without healthy limits or boundaries. We become our own jailors.”
Rabbi Sacks adds that “there is a fateful difference between the two. I can’t change the past. But I can change the future. Looking only back, I will see myself as an object acted on by forces largely beyond my control. Looking forward, I see myself as a subject, a choosing moral agent, deciding which path to take from here to where I eventually want to be.”
You cannot control what other people do to you. You cannot choose how other people behave. You can however, choose how to respond to them. You have control over your response. You can choose to love your enemies. You can choose to do good to those that hate you. You can bless those who curse you. You can pray for those who abuse you. These aren’t just nice things to do for others. They are key to not becoming the very thing you hate. If you want a better future, then don’t let the past and past hurts dictate your thoughts and actions. Joseph has not forgotten the past, but he isn’t letting it control him or dictate his future. He has a choice to make. Does he want to be like his brothers or not?