God’s Intent

“Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people from starvation… So have no fear.”  (Genesis 50: 20-21)

God never speaks to Joseph.

God spoke to Joseph’s great-grandfather, Abraham; God told Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.”

God spoke to Joseph’s father, Jacob, and told him, “Know that I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go.”

But God never speaks to Joseph; at least, not in so many words.

The God of Genesis is a talkative God. Adam, Eve, Cain, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Hagar – God speaks to each of them by name. But with Joseph, God’s presence is never a voice – always a dream. And not the kind of dream that Jacob had in the wilderness, the dream where God stood beside him and promised to care for him. No, Joseph dreams of sheaves of corn, and stars in the sky.  He interprets those dreams as signs of a great destiny; his brothers interpret them as a sign of a great arrogance. But really, who is to say? Sometimes an ear of corn is just an ear of corn.

The story of Joseph and his brothers takes up the last 14 of the 50 chapters of Genesis, and in all that time God speaks only once, to Jacob. To Joseph, God speaks not a word.

I find that interesting.

I find that interesting, because, at the end of the story, Joseph is confident that his whole life has been under God’s care, his whole journey bent to God’s purpose. This despite the fact that some really terrible things have happened to Joseph.  As a young man, he is sold into slavery, and taken to Egypt, to live among people who do not understand his language or his faith.  The wife of his first master falsely accuses him of attempted rape (an accusation that, in another country, in another century, would surely have resulted in lynching). Joseph is unjustly incarcerated, for at least two years. Worst of all, this whole chain of events is set in motion by an act of betrayal, for it was Joseph’s own brothers who sold him.

Joseph eventually is freed from prison when Pharaoh hears of his skill in interpreting dreams. It turns out Joseph has also has a gift for predicting agricultural futures, a skill that strengthens Pharaoh’s rule and helps Egypt survive a long season of famine.  It is this famine that brings Joseph’s brothers to Egypt, in search of food.

They do not recognize their brother; but Joseph recognizes them.

Finding his brothers on their knees before him, Joseph does not seize the opportunity to punish them, or even to berate them. He embraces them, and pardons them, and tells them, astonishingly, “it was not you who sent me here, but God.”

Seriously?

When I hear someone describing some tragedy or loss — or, worse, some injustice — as “God’s will,” it always seems to me like a cop out, a convenient way of putting difficult emotions back in the canister. It drives me crazy when people shrug off suffering with a pious platitude. After all, the prophets and the psalmists never let God off the hook that easily. They lamented. They complained. They raged against injustice. And rightly so.

And yet: I also know that experiences in my own life that brought me pain have also given me strength, and compassion, and insight. Through them, I have been shaped, and molded, and equipped for my calling. This is a paradox – that God can use suffering to heal suffering. That God can use evil to defeat evil.

And so, at the end of his long and winding road, Joseph can tell his brothers, “Do not be afraid. You intended it for harm, but God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people from starvation.”  The Hebrew word translated as “intended” here can also be translated as planned, purposed, crafted, fashioned, shaped. God never speaks to Joseph; but God’s hand has been upon him all along, shaping him for service, bending his life toward good.

There are two important points we need to recognize about this conclusion, lest we fall into platitudinous piety.

First: it is Joseph’s conclusion to make – not anyone else’s.

It is Joseph’s conclusion to make, because his suffering, his trials, are his to interpret. Imagine if his brothers had said, “hey, look where you ended up, guess it’s a good thing we sold you.” Only Joseph can say when, and how, his life makes sense. On the other hand, the brothers have their own lives to interpret. What do they make of the famine that brought them to bow down before the brother they had harmed, and lost?

Second: it is a conclusion is made only in retrospect.

It would be nice to know our destination in advance. It would be nice to know, as Abraham did, what God has planned for us. It would be nice to get a set of instructions, as Noah did, telling us exactly what to do.  But most of the time, it doesn’t work that way. God never speaks to Joseph; it is only in retrospect, that Joseph sees his destiny plain. It is only when God’s end is in sight, that Joseph sees the meaning of it all.

Let us be clear. A famine is not a good thing. Betrayal, enslavement, and imprisonment are not God’s will for anyone. But even great harm can summon forth great good, for good is always God’s intent.

Of course, it is hard to imagine what sort of tool is being fashioned, when the metal is still in the fire. When we are being painfully bent out of our old shape, when our previous identity is melting away, it is hard to believe that we might be molded into something new.  And for some of you, perhaps, this is such a time. Indeed, I believe that for our nation, this is such a time. Our country’s path has taken a turn for the worse. The flames of racism and bigotry have been stoked and it remains to be seen what sort of people will emerge from the fire.

But imagine the possibility that, like Joseph, we may emerge from this trial with a new sense of calling. The possibility that, like Joseph’s brothers, we may emerge from this trial with a new sense of humility. The possibility that our own family history of enslavement may be at last exposed, and repented, and redeemed.

Joseph’s story challenges us to look honestly upon the lives we have led— not just the comfortable stuff we put on our resumes,  or post on our Facebook pages, or submit to our college alumni bulletins, or write in our history books, but the betrayals and injustices and injuries as well — and to consider how we might yet employ of all of this toward good.

God never speaks to Joseph. But Joseph’s story speaks to me. And it tells me this:  that whoever we are, wherever we’ve been, whatever kind of shape we are in right now, we may yet be shaped for God’s purpose. God intends all of us for good, and not for evil; for compassion, and not for hatred.

So, Joseph told his brothers, have no fear — neither of the past nor of the present, for the future is yet to be revealed.

May our lives be bent toward good, and may God be with us all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not Joseph’s Son

The Common Cuckoo is a migratory bird found throughout much of Europe and Asia. It is less known for its appearance than for its call, made famous in songs, carols and countless cuckoo clocks. The cuckoo is famous also for its distinctive reproductive ecology: it is a notorious “brood parasite’ – meaning that it lays its eggs in the nests of other birds.

A female cuckoo watches a nest until its rightful occupants are occupied elsewhere, and then flies down and lays her eggs. Most species of birds are too dim-witted to notice that this new egg is not theirs, and so they incubate the cuckoo’s egg along with their own. But cuckoo eggs are fast incubators; the young cuckoo typically hatches before its foster siblings, and its first action is to push their eggs out of the nest. The unsuspecting foster parents feed and raise the cuckoo’s chick as their own, and the biological parents are spared all that effort.

It is from the habits of the cuckoo that we get the Old English word cuckold, meaning a man whose wife has been unfaithful, and who – perhaps unwittingly – raises another man’s offspring as his own. It was, and is, a pejorative term. It was a favorite insult of Shakespeare’s, appearing in new fewer than fifteen of his plays.

Most of us have probably never hurled this particular insult at anyone, but in the past decade the insult has had a resurgence within the alt-right and white supremacist movements. Their blogs and tweets are full of references to cuckolds — or “cucks,” for short. In alt-right parlance, a “cuck” is any man who apologizes, compromises, hor in any way puts another’s interest ahead of his own. While there are numerous alt-right slurs for women and minorities, the most shameful insult they can hurl at a straight, white male, is to call him a “cuck.”

It is in this context, that I invite you to consider the story of Joseph.

Here we have a young man on the threshold of marriage, to a young woman named Mary. He is filled with expectation for the start of their life together. But before their wedding day, he discovers that Mary is pregnant — and not with his child.

A first-century Jewish betrothal was more binding than a modern-day engagement. A betrothed woman who had sex with another man was guilty of adultery, a crime that brought shame, not only upon her but upon her entire community, and especially upon her husband. According to the Torah, an adulterous woman was to be stoned to death, in order to purge the evil – the shame – from her people.  Joseph would have been within his rights to carry out such an honor killing.

And yet, Joseph pardons Mary. Not only that – he marries her, and raises her firstborn as his own.

So we must ask ourselves:

Is Joseph a saint, or just a cuck?

Matthew tells us that an angel came to Joseph in a dream. Not in a blinding flash of light, as Joseph was walking home from his carpenter’s shop. Not as a loud voice, booming from the clouds. In a dream.  This was an intimate, personal communication, seeping in through Joseph’s unconscious as he lay sleeping. This was his inner angel, the voice of God within. Upon awakening, Joseph still had a choice to make.  Would he believe this dream? Would he follow this angel within?

The angel tells Joseph: Do not be afraid, to take Mary as your wife.

Joseph’s dream affirms for him that his reluctance to put Mary to shame is not a sign of weakness, but of courage. It takes courage, to choose compassion. It takes courage, to risk ridicule and accept insult. It takes courage, to listen to the angel within, when you are the only one to hear it.

Do not be afraid. In a culture that shames forgiveness, tenderness demands fearlessness.

A friend of mine, a devoted father of twins, once wondered aloud to me why it is that there are so few nativity scenes in which Joseph is holding the baby. Joseph is so often depicted standing off to the side, reduced to an ineffectual bystander.

Yet, alone in the stable, far from home, who was there to help with the birth, besides Joseph?  Who was there to hold the baby, while Mary slept? Joseph was Mary’s midwife. The first hands to cradle Jesus, would have been Joseph’s.

And holding this newborn stranger, Joseph knows at last the truth of all that the angel told him: that this child is indeed a blessing, that he himself is blessed to be his parent – not by biology, but by love. And in that moment, Joseph becomes a saint indeed: the patron saint of male tenderness.

He is the patron saint of all men who love and care for children – including children who do not share their DNA. He is the patron saint of all men who understand that their honor depends on their own choices, not their ability to control others.He  is the patron saint of all men who choose forgiveness over vengeance, and second chances over judgment.

Joseph is the patron saint of Gentle Men, everywhere.

God rest you merry, gentle men. Let nothing you dismay. Remember Christ our savior was born on Christmas day – into the hands of his father, Joseph, who had the courage to listen to a dream, and love shamelessly.

(sermon by Liza B. Knapp for Belchertown United Church of Christ, December 18, 2016)

(photo: Joseph holding Jesus, from a Georgia church. CNS photo / Michael Alexander)