A sermon by Geoff Boyce at Pilgrim Uniting Church, Sunday August 20th.
Hospitality and Grace – God’s antidote to the dark side
Genesis 45: 1-15 Joseph Reveals Himself to His Brothers
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
Today’s text from Genesis is very rich. One could explore the dynamics of prejudice and bullying, forgiveness and intimacy or family relationships. But I am choosing to reflect on two principles at work in the story – karma and grace. In many ways, this story prefigures the agenda of the enigmatic Jesus: that the risk of hospitality and compassion trump blind, static and comfortable obedience to cultural norms. The brothers represent small mindedness; Joseph represents openness and vision. The brothers are victims of their own doing and represent a life lived by karma; Joseph represents a life lived by grace.
Sandy and I once visited a young Australian woman who had volunteered in a pre-school for disadvantaged kids in the heart of Johannesburg, South Africa.
During her time there she had begun to support a group supporting homeless people and had been befriended by a family who lived in a makeshift cardboard shelter in the old disused central bus station.
We joined her and the group one night, with hot food and a supply of aspirin and medical dressings in the boot of one of the cars that were doing their ‘run’ across the inner urban centre.
At first we felt out of our depth to be among such desperate people, but were consoled by the fact that the organisation was run for the homeless by the homeless themselves! We were immediately welcomed as friends!
Inside the little shanty, lit only by a fire of waste wood in an old oil drum, we met the family. They were full of joy to meet us, and of course their ‘adopted daughter’!
I asked how they supported themselves and heard how they collect old telephone cables and strip them to get the thin coloured wires; then mother weaves them into bowls for sale. I noticed her arthritic, gnarled hands, cut by the weaving process. She showed me an example of her work. Then she immediately offered it to me as a gift!
I was gob-smacked! I, who by comparison had everything, had brought the family nothing! She had offered me a piece of her own creative handiwork – probably a week’s income!
Have you ever experienced a moment like that?
Sandy and I have experienced a number of these kinds of situations. In Soweto, in Palestine, in India – you never forget and you feel bonded to these wonderful people forever. Forty odd years later, we still catch up with friends who took us in when we were in need in London!
Grace is the giving and receiving of an unmerited gift. Sometimes it’s harder to receive than to give.
Today’s reading is full of the unexpected – a surprising moment for everyone concerned.
Joseph, stereotyped, abused and shunned by his brothers and sold by them into slavery, would have given up all hope of ever seeing them again. His memory would have been the rejection and abuse he was subjected to during his growing up years.
But Joseph had made the best of his situation as a slave in Egypt. His native skills, so despised by his brothers, turned out to be what the Egyptian Pharoah was looking for. Joseph was open to using the gifts he had and to receiving unexpected favour. By grace – as a gift – he found himself elevated up the ladder of success in Egypt.
The brothers on the other hand, thought they had got rid of their embarrassing brother and would never see him again. He didn’t fit their mould. Now, forced by a famine to seek food aid from Egypt, they come face to face with the Egyptian Prime Minister – none other than the one they had despised in their youth! They are gob-smacked!
What will Joseph do? Send them away? Exact revenge? Seek justice for their despicable behaviour – tantamount to murder? That would be the expected response in a tit-for-tat, eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, karma culture!
But Joseph had learnt grace – free, unwarranted, unmerited gift -giving.
There is a wonderful statement by Bono of U2 at the end of their song ‘Grace’, on YouTube.
Commenting on the song, Bono says:
You see, at the centre of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics – in spiritual laws – every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea of Grace to upend all that “as you sow, so you will reap” stuff.
Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.
I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge… It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace.
One senses the Irish context for Bono’s statement on grace – the bigoted militancy of Paisley’s Protestants and the guilt, hellfire and damnation credo of the Irish Catholics. Bono holds out grace into the future in the hope that he escapes judgement. For Bono, grace is his escape from karma.
But grace seems to me to be on a another plane altogether than sin, law, guilt and judgement; and certainly not the triumphalist certainties of biblical literalists.
Law tries to keep doors closed that, if opened, will cause harm. Do not murder, do not steal, do not drive through red lights. To motivate you not to murder, steal or run a red light, we have police to enforce consequences for breaking these laws and courts to dish out the punishments. We are deterred from breaking the laws that have been legislated through a democratic process. Law protects us against the selfish and wilful and establishes norms for order and cohesion in our society.
Grace, on the other hand, opens new doors. It is all gift, not guilt and looking back over one’s shoulder in case you’ve transgressed. Grace would have the policeman pull you over to tell you you are driving beautifully and to accept a $250 reward for doing so! ‘Think of the good you can do with that!’ says the policeman as he rides off!
That is the reality Jesus insists is in the mind and heart of God. That is the ‘good news’! Life is a gift. You don’t have to prove anything!
Joseph prefigures this good news demonstrated by Jesus by not demanding payback, but forgiving. He mourns the squandering of opportunity for happiness, and weeps in celebration of the hope of a new future, living in the much bigger, surprising, open, risk-taking and life-giving world of grace.
She travels outside of karma
When she goes to work
You can hear her strings
Grace finds beauty in everything
What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings
Because Grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things
Grace. Do you feel the strings lifting you?
Or is life just notes on the music page?