Our service today invites us into reflective engagement with the Joseph story as told in our book of Beginnings Genesis. The stories of these ancient leaders in Genesis were written down when many of Jacobâ€™s ancestors were living in exile in Babylonia around 586â€“536 BCE. Josephâ€™s story likely encouraged them and reassured them of Godâ€™s continuing care for them. God would bring about their liberation and provide for their return to Judah. They would have a future as a nation.
But the story of Joseph explores familiar human traits, with which we can easily identify. It is a profound archetypal story of the transformation journey of soul and psyche, and unexpected reconciliation. It is not a story about cardboard saints, or superhuman heros. It is about the God who works in the depths, in dreams, and also in the imperfect lives of human beings, in broken relationships, in times of betrayal, deceit, despair, bringing grace in unexpected places.
Are you in my story, God? Are you the principal actor in my drama? Are you the silent, saving character? Dream me into your story. Awaken me to your presence. Show me your saving grace. Amen:
The story begins in Genesis 37.
2 This is the story of Jacob. The story continues with Joseph, seventeen years old at the time, helping out his brothers in herding the flocks. These were his half brothers actually, the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah. And Joseph brought his father bad reports on them.
3-4 Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons because he was the child of his old age. And he made him an elaborately embroidered coat. When his brothers realized that their father loved him more than them, they grew to hate himâ€”they wouldn’t even speak to him.
5-7 Joseph had a dream. When he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said, “Listen to this dream I had. We were all out in the field gathering bundles of wheat. All of a sudden my bundle stood straight up and your bundles circled around it and bowed down to mine.”
8 His brothers said, “So! You’re going to rule us? You’re going to boss us around?” And they hated him more than ever because of his dreams and the way he talked.
9 He had another dream and told this one also to his brothers: “I dreamed another dreamâ€”the sun and moon and eleven stars bowed down to me!”
10-11 When he told it to his father and brothers, his father reprimanded him: “What’s with all this dreaming? Am I and your mother and your brothers all supposed to bow down to you?” Now his brothers were really jealous; but his father brooded over the whole business.
12-13 His brothers had gone off to Shechem where they were pasturing their father’s flocks. Israel said to Joseph, “Your brothers are with flocks in Shechem. Come, I want to send you to them.” Joseph said, “I’m ready.”
So Joseph took off, tracked his brothers down, and found them.
18-20 They spotted him off in the distance. By the time he got to them they had cooked up a plot to kill him. The brothers were saying, “Here comes that dreamer. Let’s kill him and throw him into one of these old cisterns; we can say that a vicious animal ate him up. We’ll see what his dreams amount to.”
21-22 Reuben heard the brothers talking and intervened to save him, “We’re not going to kill him. No murder. Go ahead and throw him in this cistern out here in the wild, but don’t hurt him.” Reuben planned to go back later and get him out and take him back to his father.
23-24 When Joseph reached his brothers, they ripped off the fancy coat he was wearing, grabbed him, and threw him into a cistern. The cistern was dry; there wasn’t any water in it.
25-27 Then they sat down to eat their supper. Looking up, they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites on their way from Gilead, their camels loaded with spices, ointments, and perfumes to sell in Egypt. Judah said, “Brothers, what are we going to get out of killing our brother and concealing the evidence? Let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let’s not kill himâ€”he is, after all, our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed.
28 By that time the Midianite traders were passing by. His brothers pulled Joseph out of the cistern and sold him for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites who took Joseph with them down to Egypt. 29-30 Later Reuben came back and went to the cisternâ€”no Joseph! He ripped his clothes in despair. Beside himself, he went to his brothers. â€œThe boyâ€™s gone what am I going to doâ€
31-32 They took Joseph’s coat, butchered a goat, and dipped the coat in the blood. They took the fancy coat back to their father and said, “We found this. Look it overâ€”do you think this is your son’s coat?”
33 He recognized it at once. “My son’s coatâ€”a wild animal has eaten him. Joseph torn limb from limb!”
34-35 Jacob tore his clothes in grief, dressed in rough burlap, and mourned his son a long, long time. “I’ll go to the grave mourning my son.” Oh, how his father wept for him.
Families donâ€™t get much more dysfunctional than Josephâ€™s. You can read all about it in the book of Genesis-lying, cheating, rape, jealousy, incest, polygamy, violence, arrogance. Itâ€™s all there. The story begins before Joseph is ever conceived, as do all our stories. Joseph comes into a fabric of relationships, a system already operating. Josephâ€™s father, Jacob, like his son, was an arrogant young man. He tricked his own father, stealing the birthright from his brother Esau. His journey into wilderness took him to an even greater cheater Laban who tricked Jacob into marrying his eldest daughter Leah, even though Jacob had fallen madly in love with Rachel, the youngest .
Much of what ensued in terms of family dynamics stems from this deceit. The 10 eldest brothers of Joseph, were children of Leah or Jacobâ€™s concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah. Only Joseph, his fatherâ€™s favorite, and his younger brother Benjamin, were the children of beloved Rachel. And that is key to the favouritism that led to such a mess.
Jacob spoiled Joseph rotten, overinvesting in him. Healthy parental love for a child can become distorted if we project on our children a god role, so that they appear as magically wonderful beings who can do no wrong. Whenever this happens, the child and ultimately the family, suffers. It is quite a shock for a child raised with the belief that he or she is next to God to be plunged suddenly into a world which is not at all impressed and could care less.
As a child Joseph bought into believing that he was this overly-wonderful person. This created in him a STAR form of egocentricity – a desire to shine to receive adulation and homage from others. For Josephâ€™s personality to develop, this destructive egocentricity had to be broken.
The path to wholeness for Joseph, is for the one who begins life with an overinflated ego. Many of us have begun the path from the other end- from a severely criticized, judged, insecure place. That journey is not the same.
Joseph was a tattle-tale, maliciously bringing home bad reports of his brothers to his father. Joseph, blind to how his arrogance wounds others, flaunts the dream of his brotherâ€™s sheaves of wheat bowing down to him, and later of the sun, the moon, and eleven stars bowing down to him. Even his father, finds that one a bit much to take, and scolds Joseph for his arrogance. Joseph did not yet have the spiritual maturity, or wisdom of consciousness to honour any truth there was in these dreams any more than his brothers did. Little did Joseph know that in order for these dreams to become reality, he would have to endure enormous suffering, which would transform him.
The brothers seething in this unjust family system, at first want to kill Joseph, so great is their rage, and fear and hurt. But instead, they throw him into a well and sell him into slavery in Egypt. Let someone else do the dirty work! And so the family lie is invented to cover up the family secret. Josephâ€™s coat of pride is dipped in goat blood, and an anguished Jacob is told that his son has been killed by a wild animal. He is devastated.
Where does this story connect with you? How have you been shaped by the family system you were born into? Have there been times when you have been blind to how you impact others?
Have there been times when you have been jealous of anotherâ€™s gifts? When you feel you have not been treated justly? Like Reuben, have you ever been put in the position of feeling you have to go along with something you donâ€™t agree with, in order to be part of the group? Do you carry the burden of knowing you have done harm to another? Are there family secrets in your family system that have have deeply affected relationships?
Song: “Any Dream will Do”
TELLING: Part 2
The story continues in Egypt:
Josephâ€™s journey into slavery in Egypt was like a death experience. Placed in chains, carried far from home, he expected never to see his family again. He faced only torture, agonizing labour in Pharoahâ€™ massive building projects, under unbearable working conditions where slaves lasted a few years at best. On that ghastly journey to Egypt, the young arrogant Joseph with the godlike pretensions died. The Joseph we meet later has been much transformed.
At the auction block in Eygpt, Joseph, was snatched from death as a labouring slave by Potiphar, a captain in Pharoahâ€™s army who bought him to work in his household. What incredible luck! Joseph proves himself to be a young man of remarkable abilities. His old arrogance is burned away and he is deeply grateful for the positive turn in his fortunes. Potiphar comes to appreciate his integrity and intelligence.
But just as Josephâ€™s fortunes begin to improve, a new catastrophe develops, this time not of Josephâ€™s own making. Potipharâ€™s wife takes a real fancy to this well-built handsome young man and invites him to sleep with her. Who says the bible is boring?
Now the old Joseph might have thought only of himself, and all the extra perks he could gain from this rather dangerous liason. But the new Joseph has developed a capacity for relationship, and an integrity that leads him to honour Potipharâ€™s trust. He says no.
Potipherâ€™s wife, feels humiliating rejection, and has Joseph cast into prison on a trumped up charge. Again Josephâ€™s fortunes are at the bottom. You survive an even shorter time in Pharoahâ€™s dungeon, than you do as a laborer.
But Joseph, has developed some qualities that help him survive, and rise above despairing circumstances. He did not allow himself to get sucked into a whirlpool of cynicism and self-pity. He does not fall into a â€œwhy did God let this happen to me?â€ trap. He did not expect God to be the guarantor of all goodness and protection. Joseph stayed, even in the worst times in touch with his own inner Centre, connected with God, whom he experiences as the source of guidance in the midst of whatever circumstances life might bring. He gives himself wholeheartedly to the situation in which he finds himself and does the best job possible no matter how dreadful the situation. But no doubt he watched for signs of hope in his dreams, which had been such a key part of his life.
Into this prison, come 2 of Pharoahâ€™s servants. Joseph interprets their dreams in such a profound way that two years later, when Pharoah has dreams, the butler remembers Joseph, and Pharoah calls Joseph from prison to the court. Joseph has come a long way from the arrogance of his youth. When Pharoah asks him if he can interpret dreams, he says â€œI do not count. It is God who will give Pharoah a favourable answer.â€ Joseph has moved beyond self-centredness, to see his gift and his life as an instrument to be used by Holy Wisdom. It took a terrible journey into Egypt, and enormous suffering to bring this about, but the bitter medicine has worked, and Joseph is at last ready to begin his great life work.
He interprets Pharoahâ€™s dreams of 7 fat cows and 7 lean cows devouring them, and then of 7 ears of fat corn, and 7 meagre ears swallowing them up as warning of years of plenty followed by life destructive famine. But then he also comes up with a master plan to avoid the impending catastrophe. Pharoah should choose a person who is intelligent and wise to govern Egypt to impose a tax during the years of plenty so that the food collected will be a reserve for the famine that will afflict Egypt. Joseph integrates the depths of his inner life and his world of dreams, with practical needs. On the spot, Pharoah makes him Prime minister in charge of overseeing the next 14 year task of saving this nation from devastating famine.
Where do you find yourself in this movement of the story?
Have you had to adjust to a life that was not of your choosing, circumstances youâ€™d rather not be in?
Have you, like Joseph, found ways to lift yourself above cynicism and self-pity?
Have you found ways to give yourself to the situation in which you find yourself?
Have you had dreams that have brought you significant wisdom for your life and for the life of others?
Has your spiritual journey been one that has required the death of arrogance? Or is your path more learning to claim you power and giftedness?
Song: “Any Dream Will Do” (second verse)
TELLING: Part 3
And now the story goes back to the beginningâ€¦.Back to the relationships that have been broken. In the middle of the famine, Josephâ€™s brothers come to Egypt to buy food for their family. Joseph is shocked to recognize them but he does not reveal his identity. Imagine his surprize to discover that his father is still alive.
Yet Joseph is still caught in the the web of the abuse by his brothers, and does not rush to cheap forgiveness that would deny the reality of what happened. We watch a fascinating drama of reconciliation ensue as both parties move to changed hearts. Joseph, like many wounded people is driven to do what can seem bizarre. He has his brothers put into prison accused of being spies.
On the third day, he releases them on condition that they leave one hostage, and return to bring back the youngest brother Benjamin. The brothers are horrified. They know that Benjamin is their fatherâ€™s heart and soul since Josephâ€™s death. In the presence of this foreign Prime Minister whom they think cannot understand what they are saying , they remember in anguish, in their own language, their violence against Joseph and feel they are now being punished for their wrongdoing. Joseph sees his brothersâ€™ remorse for the first time, and leaves the room to weep bitterly.
The brothers had kept their guilty secret and it had gnawed at them all those years. It is essential, for the healing and growth of the brothers for their guilt to come to the surface of consciousness where it could be named, grieved, faced, and integrated.
Perhaps it is important to distinguish between false guilt and real guilt. Guilt feelings, or false guilt comes from a distorted conscience made up of collective attitudes of others – parents, teachers, society, and gathered up into a collectivized voice. In order to grow spiritually and psychologically, it is often necessary to overcome this kind of false guilt, and grow beyond its tyranny. But there is another kind of guilt, true guilt, where we have violated truth, and our own nature, and the very order of life, when we are guilty and the only way to deal with it is to name it, and assume healthy responsibility for it, and move to the freedom of truth telling. Real guilt, repressed, makes us sick; Facing it is painful, but it is not a neurotic sick pain. It can lead to the healing of the soul.
The brothers leave Simeon and return to their father. On their return they discover the money they had brought hidden in their sacks. Panic!! Their hearts sank, terrified of retribution.
As Joseph went through the profoundly painful but transforming experiences of his life, so now do the brothers go through the painful night of the soul journey back in Canaan. They are living with guilt about what they did to Joseph, and panic at discoving their money in their sacks, and how are they ever going to tell their father that they must take Benjamin back with them?
Jacob lets Benjamin go to Egypt only after painful struggle. The brothers are forced to face once again the pain of the heartbroken father and memories of what they had done to Joseph. Loaded with gifts and 2X the amount of money they had found in their sacks, they returned to Egypt terrified that they will be punished for the money discovered in their sacks. Instead they meet a kind Joseph, who has ordered a feast prepared for them. How is your father? he asks. When he sees his brother Benjamin, he is overcome by emotion, and leaves the room to hide his tears.
Yet reconciliation has not taken place. The family secret has not been broken-the truth has not been told. Joseph still has not disclosed his identity, and again we see bizarre behaviour. He plants a silver cup in Benjaminâ€™s sack, and accuses them of stealing it. Once again the brothers are cast into prison.
Judah, now becomes the spokesperson for the family, asking for a private audience with this Prime Minister who seems to be behaving so strangely. He confides in him the whole story of the family. He tells it all-the treachery, their fatherâ€™s bitter sorrow. and begs Joseph to let Benjamin return to warm his fatherâ€™s heart. He then makes a profound offer to stay himself as a slave in place of the boy. Judah, as Joseph knew, had been the original ringleader in getting rid of Joseph. It is at this point-only after the truth has been told, the secret broken, the guilt acknowledged, the humanity released for compassion and relationship, that Joseph finally pours out his heart to his brothers and tells them that he is indeed Joseph, their brother whom they had sold into slavery. Only at this point, can Joseph move to letting go of the vindictiveness, and the desire to punish in return. Only at this point can there be reconciliation, for the walls of arrogance, and lies, and unhealthy family dynamics that divided them have been broken down.
This reconciliation only happens because of the painful healing journeys that Joseph and his brothers took separately. As the brothers heart changed, so could Josephâ€™s heart also be transformed, Both have gone through profound soul development in the only way it is ever possible: painful self-confrontation, a reckoning of the past, and a willingness to centre the self in God.
Whoâ€™d have ever expected Godâ€™s grace could find a place in this wounded family?
Have you ever had to struggle with forgiveness either as giver or receiver?
Have you longed to hear someone admit the truth so that you can move forward in freedom?
Have you been part of transforming reconciliation?
When you look back over your life, and see the times where you felt everything fell apart, can you see any sign of Godâ€™s presence, Godâ€™s transforming love:?
Are you in my story, God? Are you the principal actor in my drama? Are you the silent, saving character? Dream me into your story. Awaken me to your presence. Show me your saving grace. Amen.
#95 More Voices How Deep the Peace:
Teach: God use our tears to water something new.
As we pray, may the water we pour today
represent the tears shed of both our suffering
and our burden of knowing weâ€™ve done harm.
Let us pray.
(Pour water.) Giver of all life,
we shed tears of loss for the ways
we have harmed ourselves with harsh self-talk,
words, and behaviours, that injure.
God use our tears to water something new.
(Pour water.) Redeemer of all life,
we shed tears of hurt for the ways
we have done harm and received harm
in our families, with our co-workers or schoolmates,
with friends and neighbours,
and with members of this faith community.
God use our tears to water something new.
(Pour water.) Sustainer of all life,
we shed tears for the way we live
in the legacy of dishonour and injury in our culture
in which differences of race, gender, religion, class,
ethnicity, and sexual orientation cause brokenness.
God use our tears to water something new.
(Pour water.) Giver of all life,
we shed tears for the wars of weapons,
words, and ideas that continue
between nations and peoples, taking lives and hopes.
God use our tears to water something new.
Prayers from Seasons of the Spirit/08
(This sermon owes many of the insights to the work of John Sanford in the book, â€œThe Man who Wrestled with Godâ€)