God Rescues and Reconciles Through Us

A sermon based on Genesis 45:3-11, 15
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 24, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott

When I selected our lesson from the Lectionary readings for today my intent to write a different sermon that the one you are about to hear. That’s not unusual, I often plan to write about X and end up writing about Z. I think of it as the Spirit influencing the topic. Today’s sermon was going to be about Joseph in general but it ended up a companion piece to last week’s sermon on the blessing and woes relating to Jackie Robinson’s civil rights efforts. I heard a number of very positive responses to that sermon. But sometimes when I do racial justice work with you I am asked why this church has among its many missions and ministries racial justice work. I was led by the Spirit to addresses that through our lesson today.

I remember Joseph in one of my earliest church experiences. My parents did not go to church, but once in awhile a neighbor took me to a very large Baptist church –and I remember hearing about Joseph and his robe of many colors in their young children’s Sunday school.

Robes in my childhood were worn over pajamas in the morning when you first got up, so for the longest time I pictured Joseph in a rainbow colored terry cloth robe. And since he talked all the time about dreams I figured maybe he got to do what all of us kids wanted to do back then, lay around in a bathrobe, dozing off to dream, while watching cartoons. I figured since the other brothers’ robes were not mentioned they must have had to get dressed like the rest of us and were out doing chores when Joseph would take a break from TV and saunter out in his robe to watch them work and make them listen to his dreams about bossing them around. I gathered that was why the older brothers got mad enough to think about pushing Joseph into a pit and selling him into slavery.

Even today when I read that earlier part of Joseph’s story the narrative seems to justify the brothers selling him into slavery. As an adult justifying slavery for any reason sets off alarms in my head. When I put it like that, I am guessing alarms go off for many others too. But that’s a recent thing. Even though we have those alarms now, I am not sure most of us appreciate how common and awful a thing slavery is. If we did, then I am sure the awfulness of what founding brothers of the tribes of Israel did to Joseph would leap out at us a bit more and be wholly unjustifiable and awful in our minds.

Frankly I cannot help but wonder if the Biblical excuse for the founders of the Hebrew nation gains traction because we grew up in a country where many of our nation’s founders owned slaves. For over two hundred and sixty years millions and millions of Americans were cruelly enslaved – legally. Incredibly the terror of slavery was culturally accepted for more that two and a half centuries. To understand how normal a thing it was during that shameful period we need to remember that the father of our country, George Washington and the father of our Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, each enslaved hundreds of Americans and James Madison the father of our constitution enslaved over a hundred Americans. The list goes on and on with eighteen of our presidents enslaving one or more Americans. Half of them did so while in office as president of a nation founded on a revolution based on a declaration of the fundamental truth that all humans are created equal and endowed with the right to liberty. That is very troubling.

This year is the 185th anniversary of our church and in the first thirty-one years of our existence our founders were so troubled by slavery they actively fought it while many other churches were justifying it. During the first three decades of our church’s existence slavery legally continued on American soil. Thank God this church and many others fought it until it legally died when the Civil War ended in 1865 freeing four million Americas enslaved by fellow Americans, when the war ended.

This church’s fight against slavery was so wound into the fabric of our church’s ethos that thirty years after the Civil War our anti-slavery founders and their friends were permanently remembered in the inscription beneath those windows looking out over Main Street. It is apt that Black Americans who were cruelly enslaved are given the higher honor of being represented in the stained glass looking out over the town and this sanctuary since 1895. It is telling that they are not enshrined in portraits of enslaved Bible characters, but as free and powerful people, Elijah and David, the greatest religious prophet and greatest secular ruler in the Bible. They remind us of the full humanity of People of Ccolor. I like to think they look over us and guide us and help us to continue seeking justice, humbly with God.

There are, of course, Bible people who were enslaved. Abraham the founder of Judaism had an Egyptian slave named Hagar. Her enslavement was justified to force her to bear Abraham’s child, Ishmael. But when Abraham and Sarah gave birth to Isaac they eventually abandoned Hagar and Ishmael in the desert to die. Thankfully God rescued those humans, taking them out of bondage and harm’s way, and honoring them as well. God did what Abraham and Sarah should have done, cared about the well being of those humans treated as expendable.

Joseph, and his brothers are Abraham’s great grandsons. Joseph’s brothers use his haughty behavior, parental favoritism and that rainbow robe to justify selling him to Abraham’s great grandsons through Ishmael. The Ishmaelites then give Joseph over to slavery in Egypt, a reversal of what happened to Hagar. And like Hagar Joseph is mistreated because of the physical desires his master’s household, and he is left to die in a prison. But God rescues Joseph taking him out of bondage and harm’s way, and giving him great honors. God does what all of Joseph’s brothers should have done cared about the well being of a human treated as an expendable.

God does more than that. God works to stop the cycle of slavery madness through Joseph and Egypt. They become God’s hands that ironically rescue Joseph’s brothers, the founders of the tribes of Israel. Joseph and God do this in spite of the brother’s justifying and causing Joseph’s enslavement . . . not as verse 5 implies, that God willed him oppressed and enslaved.

We will come back verse 5, but first I want to point out that after Joseph dies the book of Exodus opens with a story many generations later when the Egyptian government starts the slavery cycle back up. In eery echos of racism and xenophobia in modern history, Pharaoh claims that the alien race of Hebrews who resided in Egypt were getting “more numerous and more powerful than we. Come let us deal shrewdly with them . . .” Like Black Americans in 17th, 18th and 19th century America and like Jews in modern Germany, in ancient Egypt the Hebrew tribe was cruelly enslaved because of their race, a race that Exodus tells us is so dreaded by Egyptians that Pharaoh and the government are extremely cruel to them.

Thousands of years ago Egyptians justified slavery and cruelty to another race akin to our American ancestors claiming human beings of a different race were expendable more like livestock than people. In the Exodus story, thankfully just as God rescued Hagar, Ishmael and Joseph, God through Moses, Aaron and Miriam also rescues the Hebrew slaves taking them out of bondage and harm’s way, and honoring them. God did what humans like Pharaoh should have done, cared about the well being of humans treated as expendable.

Getting back to verse 5 in our Bible reading. Joseph tells his brothers “now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” Those e words leapt out and haunted me a few weeks ago when I began work on this sermon. They can be –and have been– read to justify slavery as God’s will, suggesting that there is no need for the humans who caused slavery to blame themselves, because God meant it to be.

Is that true that God wills slavery? Or is it only true for Joseph because he prospered? Or is it only true because Joseph served to save God’s people? Or does the verse it mean something else? I can tell you this, I am atheist to a God that wills anyone, let alone an entire people to be enslaved in ancient times, in our nation’s history, in Nazi Germany or today. I think it is safe to say our church founders as abolitionists did not believe in such a cruel God either. Nor did Moses. Nor did Joseph. Nor did Jesus.

God, you see, is love. That love has a long, long history of rescuing slaves, of acting Exodus– wise even in Genesis and also in our church’s first three decades. God so loves the world God becomes incarnate (what we call Christ) within in each person. As we discussed last week, God calls each person to desire the well being of others and be woe-full until all have the blessing of well being. That woe-full-ness makes us uncomfortable calling us to be blessings that work to rescue the oppressed, which in the Bible includes all who are treated as expendable, most especially slaves.

The seeking justice and loving kindness mandate on the quilts up here mean we are to be a part of God’s rescue and restoration and reconciliation of every race of humankind. Everyone’s well being and honor is to be our desire. That call is for all people. It is no accident that the Bible shows Egyptians and Hebrews both oppressing slaves and both rescuing them.

So either verse 5 is wrong in suggesting that God willed slavery, or reading the verse to suggest God wills slavery is wrong. Since Jesus and his loving way are our filter of Bible verses it is fair to just reject the suggestion in the verse as wrong. But there is also a way to read the verse as not suggesting God ever willed slavery. We know in the Joseph narrative that God does what the brothers should have done. God cares for Joseph’s well being and through the Egyptian Government, rescues him from prison and slavery. God took Joseph out of bondage and harm’s way, and honored him.

In the story God fully restores the humanity of Joseph– like our wonderful windows back there symbolically do for the Black Americans our nation enslaved. God’s restoration in the lesson, coupled with the brothers’ remorse allowed Joseph to eventually forgive and bring about full reconciliation. Notably it is God working in the wronged person, the enslaved, not the wrongdoers that gets to do the forgiving in our story.

And quite understandably it takes awhile. It is not until after restoration of liberty and respect, that reconciliation of the brothers occurs. Forgiveness is a process it rarely happens in a snap. In the chapters before our lesson Joseph does a lot of mischief and serious revenge against the brothers before he decides to abandon retribution and disclose who he is and offer forgiveness. It is God’s actions in Joseph and others that allows that process to occur and lead to the reconciliation in a situation that without God ends up worse with an ever increasing the cycle of violence.

Rescuing, restoration and reconciliation is God’s work. Work done by God working through humans who challenge the earthly way of cycles of violence. In the Joseph narrative it is God’s actions in rescuing Joseph through others that saves the people of God. The dreams of Joseph portended salvation, not slavery. God’s plan, God’s will, was from the start as Joseph puts it in the end “to preserve life.” Life with well being for all as it turns out.

Listen again to verse 5, Joseph said to his brothers that enslaved him: “NOW do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” That “now” speaks volumes. Until that moment the brothers should have been distressed and angry with themselves because they sold Joseph. Woe should have rocked their souls to the very core. It is only in the “Now-ness” of Joseph being rescued, restored and able to fulfill God’s dreams – along with Joseph’s choice to forgive that allows the wrongdoer brothers to let go of their very justified woe.

See God did not will the enslavement of Joseph. What God willed was to preserve life, the well being of everyone. In the story that means both Egyptians and Hebrews slave and free. In the Joseph story God created a way around the brothers’ wrongdoing to complete the dreams God expressed through Joseph. In the end God’s dreams comes true, not because the brothers did God’s will by selling him into slavery, but because love through others prevailed over that wrong.

Our American founding brothers stated God’s dream for us, equality and God-given rights for all. Sadly many of them, along with many others got in the way of God’s dream. But God did what God does and worked through people like our church founders and anti-slavery friends – Black and White– to end slavery. Race based slavery in our nation is thankfully now illegal and abhorred by the vast majority of Americans. God’s dream in that respect has come true. The vestiges and verbiage of the racist rationale for slavery, however, are still out there. Pharaoh-like individual and Egyptian like systemic oppressions are not fully resolved. The reconciliation of the races has not yet occurred. Our daily news evidences that.

Consequently our church continues to walk in the footsteps of our church founders seeking justice and loving kindness trying to be the hands and feet and voice of God bringing about God’s dream for all people. Our ancestors did their job to help God end slavery. We are doing ours to help God end racism.