This is only the third Sunday of our new season together. We started our church season on the anniversary of Sept 11th and lit this candle of remembrance as a light to press against the darkness of those tragic events. It is a good thing we have kept it lit this month, because the weeks since have not been easy ones for our community or country.
Many of you know of my admiration for that Presbyterian minister to parents and children, the Rev. Mr. Fred Rogers. Mr. Roger’s words from an interview following Sept 11 2001, keep coming back to me. He said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world. The helpers are always there, even if they seem off on the sidelines. Find those helpers, and you’ll know there is hope.”  Mr. Rogers doesn’t explicitly mention God here, but because he was a minister and man of great faith, I don’t think we would be stretching to read God into his words. God doesn’t create or want tragedies, but we can see God’s presence in the midst of them, when we see the Love, compassion and mercy of the helpers.
Our scripture today is about a family torn apart by fear and violence. It’s the story of a man who goes through the darkest of times, and discovers that God never leaves him. It is the story of how God shows up in the darkest pits, and the midst of the biggest messes we people can make – and how God, that greatest of creative forces, gets to work creating light to push against the darkness, gathering the shards of broken lives and situations to make things – with our help — right and whole again. It is a story of God, and helpers and hope that we can all use this week.
Lets’ pray together: God, be present with us now, as you always are. Illuminate our understanding of your words and works so that we can be better helpers to you. AMEN
So many of us are familiar with this story from that Broadway musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I remember one summer working as an usher at the college theatre and seeing it play to a packed house night after night after night. It is a long and winding story – Bart and Soo did a beautiful job of reading the beginning and very end. This story is so fundamental to our faith and has become such a widespread and enduring part of our culture at large, that it is worth remembering and tucking into our hearts.
We may note from our reading today that Jacob – is also known – significantly – as Israel, and he has 12 sons. It is through these sons (with some alteration) that the 12 tribes of Israel are established. This is an important family for God’s plans and that promise God made to Abraham in our scripture last week. But all is not well with this family. Jacob makes it no secret that Joseph is his favorite, and gives him a beautiful coat to show it – sowing seeds of jealousy. To make matters worse, Joseph is having these crazy dreams from God that he interprets to mean his brothers will bow down to him. In a way that may reveal at best Joseph’s naiveté, at worst perhaps, his arrogance, he tells his brothers all about them. Jealousy turns into fear; fear turns into hatred; and hatred quickly turns into violence. They strip him of the coat and throw him in a pit. His oldest brother Reuben tries to save him, but before he can, slave traders come and the other brothers, seeing that they can make profit from this mess, sell Joseph into slavery and go back and tell their dad he is dead.
From here Joseph’s journey continues – to Egypt as a slave, and eventually to jail for something he didn’t do. We learn that God is with him through it all, in each mess and tragedy, to protect Joseph and make things right. While Joseph is in jail, the Egyptian pharaoh is having disturbing dreams of his own – images of skinny cows eating fat cow; sickly grain eating healthy grain (that Elvis-like song in the Broadway show). Learning that there is a man in his jails who is good at interpreting dreams, Pharaoh calls on Joseph, and God helps Joseph understand that the dreams mean there will be a famine. The pharaoh, impressed and grateful, releases Joseph, and gives him a position of great power. When the famine hits, as it does, Joseph has used his position to make sure there are stores of grain in Egypt to get them through. His brothers meanwhile, outside Egypt, are starving, and they travel to Egypt, hoping to find food to survive. There are twists and turns as the brothers come to recognize each other, but in the end we come to the part that Bart read. The brothers bow down to Joseph just as Joseph’s dreams said they would – They come on their knees, so filled with fear that Joseph will return their violence with violence; their hatred with hatred. They repent and ask for forgiveness, but don’t have much hope.
Joseph, however, is not the arrogant boy he was. God was with him when he was broken and bruised at the bottom of a pit; when he was in the shackles of a slave; when he sat behind bars unjustly accused. In each of those situations, God stood with Joseph. Through all the highs and lows, twists and turns, God protected him; God sent him helpers; God created light, again and again, in the darkness that lit a path forward. God stood with him, and so in this moment, when the tables have turned on his brothers, Joseph stands with God. Joseph becomes the helper, the light and hope for this family. “Do not be afraid.” He tells his brothers, “You may have intended all you did for harm; but God has been and still is working to make all this (all this mess we made) right.” “God intended it for Good”
This phrase “God intended it for Good” has a troubling history – and has been, over so many years-upon-years, interpreted to say God wanted, needed and caused Joseph’s suffering as part of God’s master plan. It’s an idea still prevalent in our culture, and we hear echoes of it whenever we hear someone grieving or suffering being told, “Well, I’m sure this is happening for a reason; or as part of God’s plan.” I can’t believe that God caused or wanted the brother’s violence, or Joseph’s suffering, or any violence or suffering. I do believe that when we find ourselves in the pit; when darkness pushes its way into our lives; God jumps into the pit with us, a comfort, a shield, and a creative force gathering whatever broken shards are left and working to mend them into something new and life-giving. (Psalm 23 –The Psalmist says it best… Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.) The brothers intend harm; God gathers whatever we offer up and intends to make the very best of it.
What the story affirms also is that (for all God’s power) for God’s good intent to succeed, God does also need the helpers. For reconciliation, healing, and Goodness to prevail, God doesn’t need the tragedy, but God does need the brother’s and Joseph’s repentance and forgiveness; God needs Joseph as a conduit of love and mercy; and as a fearless witness of God’s work and presence with him. The tender end to this painful story is Joseph’s reassuring words; Joseph’s kindness and care.
With all that has happened this week in our town and country this week, this story has never felt so relevant to me. I could not help but reflect on this story of God’s presence in suffering and darkness, as I attended the funeral of the 14 year old boy who tragically died a little more than a week ago. That child’s death is nothing God wanted or caused. But I believe, as the Rabbi who was officiating said, that God was there with him, and has remained with the boy’s family and friends; “God is here with us as we mourn”, said the rabbi, and “God is crying too.” While it may be hard to see through the tears and sadness of that death, through this past week, there have also been glimpses of God’s light pushing against the darkness — shining through his friends, and friends of friends, through God’s kind helpers, showing love and compassion to the family and one another; offering kindness and reassuring words — remembering the beauty and joyful parts of a too short but bright life. All those bits of light together, beginning to illuminate the hope of a path forward.
And sadly ours was not the only community experiencing loss and darkness this week. As the heartbreaking events in Charlotte and Tulsa continue to unfold, I could not help but reflect on this same story of our faith – this story of God’s deep desire and work to create healing and reconciliation in a family and people torn apart by fear, hatred and violence. What might this story of God’s presence in the pit/victim of violence, with the slave, with the unjustly imprisoned have to teach us? Probably a lot. What might repentance and forgiveness even look like in this situation? Can we begin to imagine a place and time where we are all reconciled, unified, equally loved and made whole? Where is the path to that place?
And yet glimmers of God’s light and work are all around us; in the voices, faces and fearless acts of love of so many helpers.
Joseph would tell us “Do not be afraid!… God has been and still is working to make all this right.” God is at this moment is gathering the broken shards of the violence and loss– desiring already to make something new and good and whole. God is even now working through the helpers to create light to push back the darkness. We need only look for them — For the people who know God’s presence with them in the dark places of this struggle, and who are living and acting as witnesses and conduits of God’s goodness.
Our path forward is to stand with them, because in them see hope, and witness and join in with God’s work.
Tonight – in this sanctuary, we are invited to join together, with God and with people – the helpers — in countless other sanctuaries, temples, and halls in this state, and around the country. At this evening’s concert (information in your bulletin) we will cry with God about the violence and brokenness in our communities; but also to bear witness to the presence of Goodness at work. Through music and art and poetry we will gather to try to push back the darkness – with the light and hope of beauty and love.
If you are looking for Hope, please come. We will remember that Together with our God, who never leaves us, we need not be afraid of whatever dark place we find ourselves in. We will remember that in the darkness, we are also never alone because there are always helpers – people – communities of faith like this one – ready to share God’s Love and reassurance. We will remember that together we can join with God in shining an ever-brighter light on the path that will guide us, step by step, to a place of peace, healing and unity again. May it be so…
For a versions of this interview see: http://www.fredrogers.org/parents/special-challenges/tragic-events.php or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-LGHtc_D328