I am sure that at some point over the almost 10 years that you have been so kind as to sit through my sermons that I must have talked about my brothers, perhaps several times even. My parents had 5 sons. No daughters. The first three were born one year apart. Then some 10 years later I arrived on the scene. Four years after me my younger brother was born. You have no doubt heard me say that I am the luckiest minister in The United Church of Canada. Well I also lived a charmed life within my family. By the time I got to my rural one-room elementary school my older brothers had left home to live in the city both to finish high school and because they had started a little business there of their own. Thus, I got a lot of attention and it showed. I suspect that at times I must have been a bit like Joseph as a young child. Then I was accelerated through elementary school grades—chalk up a gold star for that. Boys Scouts had a strong appeal for me and I moved through that programme getting high honours and recognition there. Another gold star or two. Fate had me in a position to save a young child from a rock slide which would have killed him and again fate would have his mother witness the whole thing through binoculars from the bottom of the mountain. The relieved mother saw to it that through the Boy Scouts I would be called to Ottawa to be given a medal for meritorious conduct by Gov. General Vanier at Government House. Another gold star. My personal story has just been like that without any real initiative on my part other than to be engaged in the communities where I have been called to serve. More gold stars.
Those gold stars were hard on my younger brother but my older brothers saw them as a mark of the character they looked for in each of our family members. I just happened to be in the right places at the right times. Like Joseph though, it became pretty clear somewhere along our family journey that there was indeed a favourite son, me. It became somewhat of a family joke and I took a bit of teasing but it was clear one of the five was the golden haired boy. And THAT was before I decided to go into the ministry. J
Families have stories where each person experiences family differently. My late wife, Loreen, felt particularly close to her father and spent many hours in conversation with him. She knew that she was his favourite and as an adult she even felt a little badly about that. Last year as she sat with her brother as his journey with cancer neared its end he said that he always felt guilty that their Dad had picked him as his favourite. He explained all of the ways in which their father had exhibited that and as an adult he felt badly that he got all the attention at the expense of his two sisters. They laughed as they compared their impressions of their father and his “favourite” so much so that they raised the question with the other sister. To their surprise she felt that she was their father’s favourite! It takes a special gift, and a special man, to pull that one off.
So we have two families with differing life experiences. Each family had at least one favourite child. None got thrown into a pit. None got sent into exile. The difference, I think, is that in these two family narratives the energy and the emotions are for the most part positive. They are human and they have their foibles but there was never a sense of losing out, or a fear of being cheated, or all that leading to a feeling of hatred. Joseph’s brothers hated him and feared that they would suffer because of how he was favoured not what he might do to them. Then came that fateful day when they needed him. They needed Joseph for the very survival of themselves and the now rather large and extended family of Jacob and of Israel. They needed Joseph for the survival of their people. They would willingly bow down, willingly become slaves to him if only this little brother who they hated so much might now feed them and give them shelter.
This is where the story gets really interesting. Of course we know Joseph will forgive and accept them. However Joseph’s style is to invoke God. “Even though you intended to do me harm (says Joseph), God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” The whole story in Joseph’s mind is that God has been with them throughout the entire experience. Joseph saw the need to prepare enough stores for seven years but God saw the need far in advance and prepared for millennia to come through the salvation of the Hebrew people in a foreign land. The important thing was that they should survive despite their ability to hate and despite their fear of loss. Joseph’s positive emotions bring the family together and they find food—food for the body but for generations to come food for the mind. Walter Brueggemann notes that God has been largely hidden in the story until this moment and this point is crucial in the history of the faithful. He writes: “As the narrative stands, it is only in retrospect that the character (Joseph) can discern that Yahweh’s powerful intentionality has been at work, not only through the vagaries of lived experience, but through the malicious intent of the brothers. In this usage, Yahweh’s intention is a counterintention that persists to override and defeat the deathly plan of the brothers. It is important that the affirmation is placed at the end of the narrative, for even Israel cannot know this certitude until it looks back on what has happened.”
Brueggemann notes in his commentary that this portion of the Old Testament, chapters 12 through 36 is where Israel moves out of the exclusive nature of Moses and the early days where the Hebrew people understand themselves as chosen and exclusive to what in these chapters is an outward focus of their faith. They still have their vocation of transformation, as we do today, but in this part of the Old Testament: “…Israel’s vocation is regularly in the presence of other peoples, and most often to their benefit—the nations characteristically profit from Israel’s presence among them. In these narratives (writes Brueggemann) the linkage of Israel to the nations, unlike that of the traditions derived from Moses, is positive, affirmative, and intentional.” Again similar families but with differing outcomes and while God’s participation is throughout the journey it is especially acknowledged when God’s people accentuate the positive and acknowledge that which they hold in common rather than that which keeps them apart.
Joseph’s family was no doubt similar to my family, similar to Loreen’s family and similar to your families. Extend that to all the families in this country, or even the family of nations where countries learn to live with respect and are guided by agreed upon standards. What we are asking of our leaders, throughout the world, is not anything more than we ask of our families. Of course the scale of that differs vastly compared to what we might have in our humble homes but the principles and even the practices are the same. Children need to know they are loved for them to grow into responsible adults. Nations need to address the Biblical imperative to serve those for whom God’s justice is to be rooted in the lives of the poor and vulnerable. We may be the favoured child. We may be the favoured family. We may be the favoured nation. But none of that amounts to anything if it is only focussed on us. The blessings we have are to be a benefit to others in the family, to others in the nation, and as nations to others throughout the world. That is when we recognize God at work.
If you ever go to England and visit King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, you will find there a window which juxtaposes Joseph missing from the pit with the scene of the empty tomb of Jesus. You need not have seen the window to know that the concept is brilliant for both the empty pit and the empty tomb show God at work in ways which we cannot understand until we see Joseph able to feed the hungry and Jesus able inspire a global church to feed the hungry but also to struggle with all the forces that make them hungry and keep them hungry despite all of their hard work and best intentions.
Wherever you find yourself in life be it favoured child, resentful child, a leader prone to tantrums, or a leader prepared to recognize that the way forward is through inclusivity and generosity of spirt and of purse, choices that are made make a difference. Yet however we view the world at this or any moment we are not alone. We have an empty pit. We have an empty tomb. God is with us, we are not alone. Thanks be to God.