Sorry for the delay in posting the sermon from September 23, 2012. Days are catching up with me and running right past me lately…! But here it is. This is from chapter 3 of The Story, which tells the Joseph narrative from Genesis 37-50.
“Forgiveness Breaks the Cycle”
September 23, 2012
Genesis 37 & 50
Inflammatory videos. Libyan marches. Violence in Pakistan. Hostages right at our own doorstep. Cycles of violence and revenge. It has been quite a week in our world.
Reading Joseph’s story this week, I found myself thinking that our world is something like the world Joseph lived in. Ours are not the first dysfunctional families…or nations…or faith communities…in human history.
We are, this week, three weeks into The Story…let me recap. We started well – creation that God called good, man and woman created for one another and invited to be fruitful and multiply. All is well.
But then – Genesis 3:5 – that man and woman that God created desired to “become like God” – to take over God’s role as judge between good and evil.
And there begins the downward spiral. That sinful tendency echoes through all the remaining pages of Genesis. In Genesis 4, Adam and Eve’s son Cain judges his brother’s offering unacceptable, and takes matters into his own hands by killing his brother Abel.
A generation later, Cain’s grandson Lamech brags, “I have killed a man for wounding me….If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.” (Gen 4:23)
By Genesis 6, all of humanity is caught up in the violent cycle of attack and revenge, and God vows to destroy the whole corrupt earth and start over again with one righteous man: Noah.
But when the flood waters recede, we learn quickly that the cycle of offense and revenge continues. In Genesis 9, Noah and his sons argue it out, and Noah curses his youngest son, declaring he and his descendants will be slaves to his brothers.
Fast forward through the generations to Abraham. Abraham doesn’t murder anyone (that we know of!). But he does lie through his teeth to protect himself. In Genesis 12, Abraham fears that his enemies will kill him in order to take his wife for their own. Rather than protect her honor, he claims – falsely – that she is his sister so that they might take advantage of her without first killing him! Envy and violence still enslave human beings.
And history repeats itself. This time Abraham’s son Isaac insists that his wife Rebekah was really his sister, because, he thinks in Genesis 26:7, “The men of this place might kill me because she is so beautiful.” (Gen 26:7)
Isaac and Rebekah survive that low moment in their marriage and go on to have two sons, Jacob and Esau. By Genesis 27, these two are deceiving one another and their father (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it?) Jacob’s lies lead Esau to threaten murder, and the two take off in opposite directions, kept safe from one another only by distance.
And so it continues. In Genesis 34, Jacob’s daughter is raped and his sons – her brothers – kill an entire town in revenge.
Talk about generational sin! Envy, revenge, rivalry, deceit are all passed down through the family tree, all the way to Joseph.
Joseph. We know him mostly as the kid with the amazing technicolor dream coat. In Genesis 37, we learn two primary things about him: (1) he is his father’s favorite son (evidenced, in part, by the gift of that amazing coat); and (2) he flaunts that fact to his brothers every chance he gets.
The predictable result is that his brothers hate him. And given the storied history of this family, that is not good news for Joseph.
Joseph’s brothers continue the family tradition of rivalry and revenge. They find him alone in the field one day, away from their father’s protective gaze, and plot to kill him. Brother Reuben has just a twinge of remorse, though, and suggests that rather than killing him, they just rough him up a bit and throw him in a pit for awhile. In the end, the brothers compromise – they spare Joseph’s life, but sell him into slavery and he is carried away to Egypt.
The years go by, and Joseph finds himself rising through the ranks from slave to Pharaoh’s right hand man. He is capable and confident, and he gets noticed for his abilities. He has, it seems, put the past behind him and created a new life for himself in Egypt. He’s pulled himself up by the bootstraps and made something of himself.
His brothers, too, have moved on. They’ve farmed the land, found wives, had children. But the memory of their cruelty still haunts them. Their father Jacob (also called Israel, if you’re trying to keep the names straight) doesn’t trust them as he once did. They’ve moved on, but the memory of their brother Joseph hangs over their life together. They provide a sober picture of the way that our sin haunts us, shame continuing to drive us long after the deed is done.
Their shame and fear, long buried deep inside, erupt to the surface at the end of Genesis, when they find themselves suddenly, unexpectedly face-to-face with their brother Joseph. They tremble in his presence, certain that he will seek revenge. He has the power to destroy them – to kill them, or perhaps worse, to reveal the true story to their father who never got over the loss of his beloved son.
Joseph has every reason to continue the cycle of violence. Every reason in the world.
But he doesn’t. The whole Genesis story builds to a climax in one single verse in the final chapter. In Genesis 50:19, Joseph responds to his brothers: “Do not be afraid. Am I in the place of God?”
And with that statement, the cycle is broken. Unlike Adam and Eve who desired to “become like God” in Genesis 3:5, Joseph does not presume to take over God’s role as judge. Unlike generation after generation of his ancestors, Joseph does not seek revenge for wrongs suffered. Instead, by God’s grace, Joseph offers his brothers forgiveness.
From Genesis 3 onward, the story of humanity has been one long downward spiral of envy, anger, and vengeance. But here, in its final chapter, Joseph’s life story reverses the trajectory of that spiral.
That’s how forgiveness works. It refuses to allow the past to define the future. It insists that the relationship ruts and harmful patterns that have characterized our relationships to date will not define those same relationships going forward. Forgiveness makes a clean break with a painful past and frees us for a new future.
How is it that Joseph finds the strength to break the cycle of revenge and forgive his brothers? We aren’t told, really. Certainly, he has the benefit of years of self-discovery and success. He speaks from a place of security, where he can look back and see the ways that God has been at work. Looking back over his life, he speaks with conviction: ““You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
Not, “what you did is okay.” (It’s not.) Not, “Eh, I’ve forgotten all about it.” (He hasn’t.) Not even, “It all worked out in the end.” But: “What you intended for harm, God repurposed for good, so that many people could benefit.” Good for Joseph, but more than that, good for many. Blessed to be a blessing. Joseph finds himself part of a greater plan.
It’s a remarkable story we find in Genesis 50 – a story of forgiveness that breaks the cycle of violence and revenge.
If it is one that you have difficulty imagining, perhaps a contemporary Joseph story will help.
On September 5, Colin Albright – and employee at a bike shop in Pittsburgh – was closing up shop at the end of the night. The he hopped on his bike to ride home to the South Side. The last leg of his trip home took him up one of Pittsburgh’s public staircases. On his way up that staircase, Colin was attacked by knife and left for dead.
On September 16 – just 11 days after the attack – Colin Spoke at Hot Metal Bridge Church, a joint United Methodist/Presbyterian congregation on the South Side.
Hear Colin’s message of forgiveness and hope: