This is the manuscript of the sermon I preached yesterday at First Congregational Church of Guilford UCC. The text was Genesis 37 and the sermon was the beginning of a series on Joseph that Ginger and Sarah will be continuing.
I titled it, “Further Along”.
Family: it’s one of the most comforting and discomforting words at the same time. It’s also one of the hot-button words in our culture. We hear some speak of “traditional family values,” saying all we need to do is structure our families just like they did in the Bible. Well, this morning we are going to look at one of those families—actually, one we might even consider as the Central Family in Genesis—and we are going to begin a journey with them over the next few weeks, focusing on the life of Joseph in particular.
The limb of the family tree we are going to climb out on begins with Jacob. You remember him. He was a twin and came out of the womb holding on to the heel of his older brother Esau. When he was old enough, he conspired with his mother Rebekah to deceive his blind and aging father Issac and steal Esau’s birthright. Yeah, that guy.
Jacob left home and got married. Four times. At the same time. But Rachel was his favorite. Jacob fathered twelve sons with his four wives. Rachel was the mother of Joseph and then–a good bit later–Benjamin. Both of the boys held a special place in Jacob’s heart and he couldn’t help but play favorites, which fed the already smoldering sibling rivalry. Listen to the story as told in Genesis 37.
Garrison Keillor said the elements of a good novel are royalty, sex, religion, and mystery, and then he offered the perfect story in one sentence: “Good God,” said the Queen, “I’m pregnant; I wonder who the father is?” Over the next few weeks, the novella, if you will, of Joseph’s life that unfolds in these chapters in Genesis has all those elements, as well as a happy ending. Keep that in mind: it all kind of works out.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
As you can see from our reading, Joseph didn’t do himself any favors by sharing his dreams with his brothers. They already knew he was the favorite. He had the Coat of Many Colors; Jacob didn’t give those to everyone. And now dreams where he everything kept bowing down to him? A few days keeping flocks and fuming in the desert and they were ready to kill him. When he showed up out in the middle of nowhere to say Dad wanted them to come home, they decided to do more than talk: kill him, throw him down a well, and tell Jacob an animal had gotten him. Reuben, the eldest, had a moment of sanity: don’t kill him; throw him in the well and just tell Dad he’s dead.
They went with the second plan and threw him down an empty cistern (or “the pit,” as the King James translates it). Reuben intended to circle back and let him escape, but before he could get there the others had second thoughts of their own and sold him to passing merchants. As far as they are concerned, the pit was the end of the story. They could go home with goat’s blood on their hands and get on with their lives.
The Dreamer, however, wasn’t done. By the time the boys got back to Papa, Joseph had ended as a servant in Pharaohs’ court.
There’s a great sermon in here about family dynamics. And another about how we live with the damage we have done to one another. I’m not going to preach either of them. I want to talk about the pit and what it says about how God works in our lives.
Before the pit can be the segue to the next part of the story, it has first to be an ending. Joseph knew he was more than metaphorically in the pit of despair. Perhaps the reason his brothers pulled him out and sold him was they were tired of his wailing for help. He didn’t see a way out.
If we took the time this morning, most all of us could name pits in our lives—death, depression, despair, disappointment. And those are just the Ds. Sometimes the pit is one dug by tragedy. At other times, we seem to slide to the bottom in a sort of slow descent of circumstance. Either way we are left to wonder: Where is God when we are in the pit? What role does God play in our story?
Where is God in Joseph’s story?
How much God intervenes in our lives is one of life’s most persistent questions.
If we say, for instance, that God delivered Joseph from the pit, or that God already had in mind for him to end up in Egypt so the Happy Ending could take place, we run the risk of turning this story into a puppet show. His brothers and the slave merchants acted out of self-interest, out of hatred; they were not divinely inspired.
On the other hand, to say those showed up out of simple coincidence, or that Joseph’s survival was just dumb luck doesn’t offer much hope or consolation.
What then shall we say?
I would like to say I don’t plan to answer those questions, but I would like to offer ways to live with them.
First, let us remember that we live in the moment and we interpret in hindsight. We see God in our lives when we look back. What is holy shows up best in our rearview mirror. Faith in God is trusting that one day we will get to look back and understand a little more. Like the old gospel song says, “Further along we’ll know more about it.”
I don’t mean we will see how God engineered circumstances. I mean with the eyes of faith we will see things we could not see in the moment of crisis. In the pit. We will see that we lived through it. And that we were not alone.
In his book A Force of Will, Mike Stavlund tells the story of the birth of his son, Will, who was born a twin, and was born with severe heart problems that required extensive surgeries. He lived only a few days. The book, written some years later, is the story of his looking back to see what he learned about God and faith and life having lived through the throes of trying to save his little boy’s life. One of the things Mike says that speaks to me is that he learned the meaning of the word palliative:
Palliative repairs are those that come in a series—one repair builds on the one before it and aims to enable the surgery that will follow. Which seems unsatisfying. . . . As difficult as it was to do so, we learned to focus on the current procedure and not be overwhelmed with the whole regimen . . . . (25-26)
Then he went on,
Though many might disagree, I think our faith is palliative, too. Faith needs to work well enough to get us further along, and we are allowed to make adjustments as we go along the journey of life. (26)
Hold that thought, and let’s talk about God for a minute. In his book Participating in God, Paul Fiddes says God created us as partners, capable of making choices that matter and he says,
If God is going to allow the world to be creative with some reflection of God’s creativity, there must be some things which are possible but which have not yet become actual for God. Further, when they actually happen there will be something new about them, something contributed by the world. (143)
Just as our capacity for relationship leaves us open to love and loss, to being thrown in the pit and being rescued by strangers, so God’s leaves God’s self open and chooses to move palliatively in our lives, from one thing to the next, so that we might know what Love looks like.
We can’t see the whole story because we are in the middle of it. What we know is we belong to a God whose name is Love and who meets us palliatively everyday, should we choose to live in relationship with God. Listen to Mike Stavlund again:
Like a writer’s drafts, or a backpacker’s tent, or a scientist’s hypothesis, or gardener’s weeding, or a parent’s relationship with a child, our present faith only needs to work for its appointed time and should in fact be flexible, temporary, and transitory. We shape it as best we can and then let it be shaped by God, ourselves, and our community. Maybe faith is only and ever palliative, intended to start us on a journey of eternal collaboration with our Maker. (29)
We are a week past our marking of the anniversary of September 11. Fifteen years later and there’s still no way to explain why bad things happen. We have friends and family members who died too soon, or just died before we were ready. We know the pits of grief and betrayal, of hopelessness, of failure and even sin. We have lost jobs, missed chances, and broken our hearts.
But that is not the whole picture. We can look back and remember those who heard us call and pulled us out, those who stayed when that was all to be done, those who kept showing up to remind us the pit is never the last word. There is more light, more love to come further along.
My brothers and sisters, there is still more of the story of God’s love to live out together. Our God has called us as cowriters. As co-creators in this palliative life. Let us look backward in gratitude and move forward in grace. Amen.