Living in the Place of God
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 9/14, 2014
Based on Genesis 50:15-21 and Romans 14:7-12
There is an old Buddhist story that goes something like this:
There was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “such bad luck,” they said to the man sympathetically.
“Maybe,” the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed to the farmer.
“Maybe,” he again replied.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Such bad luck,” they said to the farmer.
“Maybe,” he answered.
The day after the accident, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “What good fortune!” they exclaimed.
“Maybe,” said the farmer.
The story reveals that we cannot fully know the evil or good that may evolve from life’s events. Feasting on the Word, Yr A, Vol 4, pg 52 This morning’s reading is the conclusion of the story of Joseph, number 12 son of Jacob, and of his brothers. After their father Jacob dies, Joseph’s brothers are very fearful about what Joseph might now do to them since their father is no longer alive to help keep this fragile balance of peace. As they beg for their lives, Joseph makes a very disturbing statement: Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people…” It is disturbing because in the word “intended”, it can implies that God is somehow orchestrating events that go on in our daily lives.
Two weeks ago we looked at Moses’ encounter with God in the form of a burning bush and its message of having courage enough to encounter God, listen to God, and then to act upon what God is saying. In the example of the burning bush, I suggested a radical perspective of how we might hear God in acts of violence; instead of looking at the evil acts of violence through the eyes of a victim, examine these acts with courage to hear the deeper messages of what part we too have played in the situation. Maybe this is what Joseph was saying to his brothers of how God was able to take their wrong and use it to save multiple lives later down the road.
In his 2005 publication of “Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember Its Misdeeds”, Donald W Shriver, President Emeritus of the Union Theological Seminary, calls us to do justice by remembering injustice, for any love of this or any country that is uncritical of its past and present deeds runs the risk of killing the best of its history and engendering its own destruction. He refers to as examples: How did Germany deal with the Holocaust? How did South Africa deal with the forgiveness of those who held power during apartheid? How do European countries remember the colonization of Africa, Latin America, and Asia? How do Africa, Latin America, and Asia reflect and act upon this legacy? Feasting on the Word, Yr A, Vol 4, pg 53-54
This is at the heart of this morning’s story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph, through the plotting of his older brothers, was sold into slavery at a young age. Joseph through his gift of interpreting dreams was given freedom and a position in the Egyptian court, eventually becoming second in command over the whole land of Egypt. Through this position he was able to spare Egypt economic disaster by storing up enough grain to feed all of Egypt and many other tribes throughout the region, during a 7 yr famine.
It is because of this great famine that Joseph once again crosses paths with the brothers who had plotted against him. Joseph has to deal with the history between him and his brothers. Will he dish out retribution for the wrong that they had done him, or will he forgive them? Joseph had to chose to deal with his brothers either through the eyes of being a victim or through a vision of greater good. If we go back earlier in the life of Joseph we see that Joseph was not innocent in his actions that had provoked his older brothers. His misdeeds were those of an over indulged youth, who lorded over them, his favoritism by their father.
Comes the final paragraphs of this family saga, as his brothers fearing for their lives after their father Jacob had died, begged Joseph for mercy and offer themselves as slaves to him; a basic “what goes around comes around” scenario. You see, the understanding that his brothers had, was the idea of reciprocity, what you do to me, I do to you in return. But Joseph saw their actions as something bigger than the twelve of them. Joseph sees God at work through his life and acted in a non-conventional way of not just forgiving but giving them land that would allow for a good living.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans this command: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Among the many things that Paul tells us which can rule our physical bodies, hate and need for revenge, are two of the most powerful feelings that we deal with as humans. They destroy not only those that hate and revenge are directed toward, but also the one who is acting upon their hate and revenge.
On the ten anniversary of 9/11, there was a tremendous amount of programming on Television remembering that fateful day. Some programs aired focused in such a way as to promote a continuation of being a victim of these actions, and in essence allowing ourselves to be held hostage by the Al Qaeda. Other programs presented topics that focus on constructive actions that provide healing from this violence and the ability to move beyond being a victim toward providing space that allows for healing and hopes for a future that will promote peace.
As a nation, we chose to view ourselves as victim and have conducted ourselves internationally with that mind set. The state of Israel has built a society on the foundation of being a victim (I believe) and from that foundational view, reacts to its neighbors and the world in a way that creates much strive and pain. When South Africa became free from Apartheid, as a nation they had to decide whether they would be a nation of victims or victors. They chose to be victors by designing a radically new way of dealing with the injustice many had endured through the South Africa National Peace Accord. It is believed that this helped stop the potential violence that many feared with the fall of Apartheid.
Forgiveness is costly. It demands repentance and it should not happen without a long-critical engagement between victims and perpetrators. Forgiveness goes hand in hand with issues of justice. Joseph’s brothers talk about justice as a matter of simple reciprocity. Joseph changes this perspective and offers a new model of justice by way of forgiveness. Feasting on the Word, YR A, Vol 4, pg 54
I was deeply touched by Joseph’s question to his brothers, “Am I in the place of God?” We are created in the image of God. This is a metaphorical statement expressing a truth that we have God within us. Because of our finite constraints of this physical world, we are too often tempted to forgo our image of God and act in a way that is hurtful and harmful to those around us. Joseph told his brothers not to be afraid, not because Joseph thought of himself independent of God, but because he saw himself in accord with God – through a repentant heart he was able to look beyond the violence that his brothers had perpetrated upon him and saw how God used that action in providing salvation for not only his brothers, but for the land of Egypt. I believe Joseph went from asking the question of “Am I in the place of God?” to “Living in the Place of God.” For to live in the place of God is to dwell in the same space, the space of love. Amen
Aug 23rd: Rebecca Tucker will be speaking on mass incarceration and the obstacles people face when leaving prison and attempting to reenter society. Sep 27th: Revs. Jann Holleran (UU) and Greg Garland (UCC) will be speaking on Reproductive Justice. Oct
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