August 14, 2011
August 14, 2011
The Rev. Leslie E. Chadwick
A few weeks ago, I heard a Zen folk tale that goes like this: Two traveling monks saw a young woman standing at a puddle. She couldn’t cross without getting her silken robes muddy. She was irritable and “impatient,” yelling at the people with her who had their hands full. The younger monk passed right by her. “The older monk quickly picked her up and put her on his back, [walked] across the water, and put her down on the other side. She didn’t thank the older monk; she just shoved him out of the way and [left]. The monks “continued on their way. The young monk was brooding and preoccupied. After several hours,…he [blurted out] ‘That woman back there was very selfish and rude…and she didn’t even thank you!” The older monk replied, “I set the woman down hours ago…Why are you still carrying her?” (Jon J. Muth, Zen Shorts, NY: Scholastic Press, 2005).
I don’t know about you, but I often “carry” negative people and situations way longer than I need to. Like the young monk, I tend to brood. I replay scenes in my head. I rehash conversations. I get preoccupied. Pretty soon, I’ve spent an entire walk outside thinking about the negative instead of appreciating the blue sky and summer sun. I’ve spent a good portion of a day off not enjoying my family, but assigning blame in situations beyond my control. After awhile someone I love gets sick of hearing about the problem and orders me: “Let it go!”
One wise parishioner pointed out that when you focus so much on someone else, it’s because of some insecurity inside of you. If you keep your mind on another person’s flaws, you don’t have to look too closely at yourself. That’s what happens in Jacob’s family. For two weeks now, we've heard about his family drama in our Old Testament readings. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, brings the story of Joseph and his brothers to life. In the song "Jacob and Sons," the older brothers are so focused on Joseph they cannot see anything else. The narrator sings about them as one character—their hate turns them into a mob. If Joseph’s brothers were in a counseling session, this is how the conversation might go: “It all started with our father Jacob. He’s never been good with relationships. He lied to his dying father, cheated his brother, outwitted our great uncle, and played favorites with his wives. He loved Rachel, Joseph and Benjamin’s mother, more than our mother. Since Rachel died in childbirth, my dad has made no secret that he loves Joseph best of all. He made him a long robe with sleeves. The very sight of that coat makes us sick. We hate Joseph.” The counselor might ask, “Have you talked to Joseph about this?” They protest, “Talk to him? We cannot speak peaceably to him. Every morning he wakes up and tells us his dreams about us bowing down before him. He spies on us for our father and brings him “bad reports.” It’s no wonder Judah suggested we kill him that day at Dothan. We’d all had enough. Reuben stopped us, but he couldn’t stop us from selling Joseph as a slave. Now we are twenty pieces of silver richer and don’t have to look at his smug face anymore. We do have to look at our father’s face though. I’ll never forget the way he looked when he saw Joseph's torn robe. We'd dipped it in blood before telling him Joseph must have been killed by a wild animal. Getting rid of Joseph didn’t make our family happier. It just shifted our problems somewhere else.”
In today’s reading from Genesis, we are nearing the end of the saga. Joseph was 17 years old when his brothers sold him. At least 20 years have passed since then. Joseph has every reason to be bitter and resentful. Heroes in modern novels and films who have been wronged like this spend their whole lives plotting revenge (Count of Monte Cristo, Bourne Identity). They obsess over the people responsible for their misery. Since Joseph left his brothers, he’s been enslaved, falsely accused, and imprisoned for years. Remarkably, Joseph is not brooding or preoccupied. He chooses to look at the gifts and resources that God has given him. He decides to see himself not just as a victim of hate, jealousy, and meanness. He sees himself instead as an agent of a living, loving God who has the power to bring good from ill. The narrator tells us that “the Lord is with Joseph and shows him steadfast love.” Joseph focuses on that love. In both slavery and in prison, Joseph rises up to positions of respect and responsibility. His superiors see that “the Lord is with Joseph.” He is not negative or bitter. He is able to see beyond his own situation to help others. Pharaoh hears about Joseph and asks him to interpret a dream. Joseph tells him “Your dream means that there will be 7 good years and 7 years of famine; You should store up grain for the lean years and feed everyone when the economy tanks.” Pharaoh is so impressed that he asks, “Can we find anyone else like this one in whom is the spirit of God?’ He sets Joseph over his house and all his people, over all the land of Egypt, and gives him a wife. Joseph has two sons. He names his first one Manasseh, “for God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house” (41:51). He names his second one Ephraim, “for God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortune.”
In today’s reading, this powerful, successful Joseph who has overcome so much confronts his brothers. Desperate in the famine, they have come to buy food in Egypt. Joseph has done well at putting his family and his past behind him so that he can enjoy the present. But in this scene, emotionally, it seems that no time has passed. Joseph tests his brothers by planting a stolen cup on Benjamin. Judah, the ringleader who sold Joseph, has a surprising response. Judah begs, “Please take me as your slave instead of Benjamin! Our father has already lost one son. If we return without Benjamin, our father’s grief will kill him.” The floodgates open. Joseph weeps so loudly that the entire household of Pharaoh hears him. He cries for the compassion he sees in Judah instead of the hate he expects. He cries because he hears for the first time how deeply his father has grieved him. He cries because he has been separated from his family for 20 years. His brothers are dismayed. Twenty years ago they could not speak to him because they were choked by hate. Now they are speechless out of fear and shock.
So Joseph speaks to them. He begins by naming the wrong. Forgiving does not mean forgetting. “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.” Then he lets go of his hold on them: “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here. For God sent me before you to preserve life…. I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” He repays their evil with good. As he puts it later, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” Joseph is able to let go of his anger and hurt; he reconciles his old life with the new. As Joseph lets go, God breathes new life into his relationship with his brothers.
My challenge to you is this: Think about what people or burdens you are carrying that you can let go of. Start small. Joseph’s story shows us that the big ones take time, sometimes decades. Let go of one resentment or wrong in a relationship this week. Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting. It means naming the wrong and letting it go. It means trading our brooding and preoccupation for looking around at the gifts and resources God has given us. It means choosing to see yourself not just as a victim of hate, jealousy, and meanness. It means choosing instead to see yourself as an agent of a living, loving God. Our God has the power to bring good from ill. He calls us to see beyond our own situation to help others. This story tells us that “the Lord is with us and shows us steadfast love.” May we let go of what is holding us back and embrace that love. Then, we, like Joseph, will find God’s spirit working within us to bring about reconciliation and new life.