Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Genesis 45:1-15 on August 17, 2008 (OT20a) at St. John's Presbyterian Church
A Buddhist parable will provide an entrance into the story of Joseph's reconciliation with brothers who betrayed him. Along the way we may learn something about letting go of the past, holding steady through the drenching storms of life, and coming closer to God and others. Listen to this parable from Thich Nhat Hahn which warns about our tendency to become enslaved to our ideas and the terrible consequences that may have on ourselves and those we love.
The story goes that a young tradesman came home and saw that his house had been robbed and burned by bandits. Right outside what was left of the house, there was a small, charred body. He thought the body belonged to his little boy. He did not know that his child was still alive. He did not know that after having burned the house, the bandits had taken his little boy away with them. In his state of confusion, the tradesman believed the boy he saw was his on. So he cried, he beat his chest and pulled out his hair in grief. Then he began the cremation ceremony.
This man loved his little boy so much. His son was his reason for being. He longed for his little boy so much that he could not abandon the little boys ashes even for one moment. He made a velvet bag and put the ashes inside. He carried the bag with him day and night, and whether he was working or resting, he was never separated from the bag of ashes. One night his son escaped from the robbers. He came to the new house built by his father. He knocked excitedly on the door at two o'clock in the morning. His father called out as he wept, still holding the bag of ashes. "Who is there?"
"It's me, your son!" the boy answered through the door.
"You naughty person, you are not my boy. My child died three months ago. I have his ashes with me right here." The little boy continued to beat on the door and cried and cried. He begged over and over again to come in, but his father continued to refuse him entry. The man held firm to the notion that his little boy was already dead and that this other child was some heartless person who had come to torment him. Finally, the boy left and the father lost his son forever. (Thich Nhat Hhan, No Death, No Fear)
This tragic story suggests what happens when we are not able to let go of the pain of the past. The father in this parable could not let go of the false idea that his son had died and so he would not his son come closer to him when he appeared in the dead of night and knocked on his door begging to come in. The parable also has a deeper meaning. What ashes, or idea, do you hold onto at all costs?
The Buddha said that if you get caught in one idea and consider it to be "the truth," then you miss the chance to know the truth. Even if the truth comes in person and knocks at your door, you will refuse to open your mind. So if you are committed to an idea about truth or to an idea about the conditions necessary for your happiness, be careful. Our world suffers so much from dogmatic attitudes. Freedom is above all else freedom from our own notions and concepts. If we get caught in our notions and concepts, we can make ourselves suffer and we can also make those we love suffer. (Thich Nhat Hhan, No Death, No Fear, 9-10, italics mine)
Unlike the father who could not let go of the illusion of his son's death, Joseph let go of the pain of the past and opened himself to a new reality and it saved his life and eventually led him back to reconciliation with his brothers. Joseph persevered in the face of humiliation, treachery, and bullying by his brothers. He resisted seduction by his boss's wife, kept faith while imprisoned for his beliefs, and solved the problem of how to help a mighty nation survive a coming famine. How did he do all these amazing things? I think Joseph had a philosophy that sustained him. Here is Joseph's creed: "What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8) Joseph did justice toward his family, loved kindness in forgiving his brothers, and walked humbly with his God. That is all the Lord requires of us and, with God's help, that is what we shall do and that is whom we shall be: People who do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.
At the climactic end of the story, Joseph is Pharaoh's right hand man and his bullying brothers appear before him begging for food to save their family from famine. Instead of refusing their request, Joseph grants the wish of his bullying brothers, and explains to them, "You meant it for harm but God meant it for good." Then he says to them: "Come closer to me." When Joseph said this to his brothers they came closer and were reconciled. Essentially, Joseph exhibited hospitality. Let us be people of hospitality. Let us be a church of hospitality. We invite people to enter into our lives and into our the fellowship of St. John's by gestures, words, and body language. When it comes to hospitality, the little things really do matter.
Verna Rallings tells this moving story in the book Everyday Greatness.
Some years ago in our rural section of Southern California, a Mexican mother died leaving a family of eight children. The oldest girl, not yet seventeen, was a tiny thing. Upon her frail shoulders fell the burden of caring for the family. Taking up the task with courage, she kept the children clean, well fed, and in school.
One day when I complimented her on her achievement, she replied, "I can't take any credit for something I have to do."
"But, my dear, you don't have to. You could get out of it."
She paused for a moment, then replied, "Yes, that's true. But what about the have to that's inside of me?" (Verna Rallings quoted in Everyday Greatness by Stephen R. Covey, 144)
Joseph did what he did for his family because of the have to that was inside him. After being sold into slavery by his step-brothers, he certainly didn't owe them anything. Yet, Joseph had the have to inside him that made him take care of his brothers. Isn't it good to know that God has that same have to inside Him? We read in the Gospel According to John: "For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son. God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world, through him, may be saved." (John 3:16-17)
"Scientists say that if you clap your hands it may have an impact on a distant star. What is happening with us can affect a galaxy far away. And the galaxy far away can effect us. Everything is under the influence of everything else." (Thich Nhat Hhan, No Death, No Fear, 85)
When we are under the influence of God we are able to do mighty things. When we are living our lives out of the have to inside us that compels us to care for our weaker brothers and sisters, God's power will be manifest in our lives. We will keep ourselves open to God's possibilities in us for reaching out in love to others.
Kathleen Norris tells this story in her book, Amazing Grace.
One morning this past spring I noticed a young couple with an infant at an airport departure gate. The baby was staring intently at other people, and as soon as he recognized a human face, no matter whose it was, no matter if it was young or old, pretty or ugly, bored or happy or worried-looking he would respond with absolute delight.
It was beautiful to see. Our drab departure gate had become the gate of heaven. And as I watched that baby play with any adult who would allow it, I felt as awe-struck as Jacob, because I realized that this is how God looks at us, staring into our faces in order to be delighted, to see the creature he made and called good, along with the rest of creation. And, as Psalm 139 puts it, darkness is as nothing to God, who can look right through whatever evil we've done in our lives to the creature made in the divine image.
I suspect that only God, and well-loved infants, can see this way. Peter denied Jesus, and Saul persecuted the early Christians, but God could see the apostles they would become. God loves to look at us, and loves it when we will look back at him. Even when we try to run away from our troubles, as Jacob did, God will find us, and bless us, even when we feel most alone, unsure if we'll survive the night. God will find a way to let us know that he is with us in this place wherever we are, however far we thinking we've run. And maybe that's one reason we worship--to respond to grace. We praise God not to celebrate our own faith but to give thanks for the faith God has in us. To let ourselves look at God, and let God look back at us. And to laugh, and sing, and be delighted because God has called us his own. (Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Grace, 150-151)
The place to begin is with the person in the mirror. Now is the time to examine the direction of your life. In the thousands of little decisions you make each day, are you moving away from God or toward God? Our intention sets the direction of our will and the direction of our will is the way we will go. Let us set our will toward the river of God's love that flows through our lives. Let us open our minds, hearts, and arms to the others in our lives. Joseph cried out to his begging brothers, "Come closer to me!" and they did and he was reconciled to his brothers. Let us hear and respond to God's loving voice which whispers to us the same loving invitation, "Come closer to me." Then respond to God's invitation and Joseph's inspiration by saying to the people around us and to all creation, "Come closer to me."