Forward

Forward September 15, 2014

Forward

Genesis 50:15-21

A sermon delivered at The Riverside Church September 14, 2014.  Watch or listen here.

 

Good morning, friends!

Well, here we are.  What a road we have traveled already to get to this week, officially beginning our journey together.  I want to say thank you to so many of you who have reached out to welcome me—your notes and calls and invitations and flowers have eased my transition to a new city.  And in this week of feeling a bit like the new kid on the first day of school, I have to tell you: your church staff has been so helpful and welcoming.  I’m very grateful, colleagues, for all your expressions of warmth and welcome.

It’s curious to me, on this day of new beginnings, that the lectionary texts for today offer us the story…of an ending.  The passage I just read comes from the very last chapter of the book of Genesis—the end of the book.  And it tells the story of the end of the life of one of Israel’s most colorful patriarchs, Joseph.

As I read the text this week I began to think about how we know this truth of human experience: endings punctuate every part of our lives.

Sometimes these endings are painful, like: a geographical move away from the familiar.  Sometimes they are joyful: like the birth of the newest Riverside baby this past week, meaning that Jerome and Sheree Hairston’s uninterrupted sleep patterns…have come to an end!

It seems to me that we often live our lives anticipating the endings, because we know: they’re always on the way.

You may not know that I am the eldest of five children.  My parents ran a very tight ship in our house when I was growing up…as you do when you have five children.  Along with strict rules about chores and homework, our family lived with a strident television-watching policy which only allowed for viewing of The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie.  Some of you are probably too young to remember those television shows, but let’s just say that they were…wholesome television.

(As an aside, my parents’ well-intentioned TV policy has resulted in my life-long ignorance of basic cultural references to shows like Happy Days and The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island, none of which made the wholesome cut.)

But every week we did get to watch Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons, and I have these memories of my mother, exhausted after a long day of caring for us, sitting on the couch, watching with us.  Every time the show would pause for a commercial break, she would speculate about how the show would end.

Like, she would say, “I’ll bet Pa Ingalls is going to make it back to the barn just in time to deliver the new calf!” or, “John Boy will find the lost dog in the end; I know it!”  From my little kid vantage point, this always seemed magical.  How did she ALWAYS know how things would turn out in the end?

It was only later that I realized it wasn’t just that my mother is brilliant; once we’ve watched a few episodes, all of us will try to guess whether or not the small pox epidemic will just miss the town or if Almonzo is definitely going to ask Laura to marry him on this episode.

We human beings are always anticipating an ending, because in our experience, an ending is always on the way.

Over the summer the lectionary, a three-year cycle of passages read in worship by much of the Christian world, has been taking us on a tour through Joseph’s life.  Today we read the end.

Joseph, you might recall, lived a life the likes of which—you might say—would never show up in a wholesome episode of Little House on the Prairie.  He was patriarch Jacob’s favorite son of 12 sons, despised by his brothers and sold into slavery at a young age.  After many, many interesting adventures, he found himself a high-ranking official in the Egyptian government, supervising the food stores of the entire nation during a time of famine.  The tables of power had turned; the brothers who had sold him into slavery were hungry; the family dynamics were a disaster.

If you have some free time this week, you might find it interesting to read about the drama of that family at the end of the book of Genesis; it will remind you what we all know: that human relationships are difficult business, that bitterness can color our living year after year after year, until we wake up one day and find ourselves…at the end.

And the panicked realization of being in that very situation is what frames our passage from chapter 50 today.

Their father Jacob has died.  And as those brothers looked around the funeral home at one another, they began to speculate about the end of their shared story.  None of them were spring chickens. Time was ticking, and they were all still living with a breach in their relationships with each other: insidious bitterness, memory of past hurts, pain, pain, so much pain.  They began to ask themselves the inevitable: how is this story going to end?

You might laugh, as I did, as you read the text again, with the acknowledgement that human beings are so predictable.  3000 years ago, today, we are much the same.  The brothers, having buried their father Jacob and realizing they were at the mercy of their very powerful brother Joseph, began to wonder: “What if Joseph is still mad at us about that little selling him into slavery situation so long ago?  What if he’s holding a grudge, ready to take us down?  What if that’s the way this story is going to end???!”

So, as you heard, the brothers quickly went to Joseph and tried to smooth things over, to control the way the ending would unfold.  And their attempts were, admittedly, a bit shady.  “Brother Joseph, Dad told us RIGHT before he died that he wanted you to forgive us once and for all, so he really wouldn’t like it very much if you were mean to us over past…misunderstandings…”.

Predicting the ending.  We are in the business of trying to guess how things will end, and as those endings approach we spend a lot of time rewriting the past, reviewing the scorecard, justifying events, experiences, choices that have led us to places where we, like Joseph’s brothers, are looking straight at an ending, and realizing with sinking hearts, that the ground around us is littered with the desperation of lost dreams, broken relationships, deep regrets.

Standing there, the end looming, looking back is a scary place to be.  And Joseph’s brothers felt that fear deeply and desperately.

But Joseph heard the desperate jockeying of his brothers and he began to cry.

He wept, the text says.

And in response to his tears, his brothers began to weep, too.

The text doesn’t tell us why they are weeping, but we know.  They can see the end coming, and all the pain of the past is welling up around them, threatening to overcome them in the end.

But right here is where the story takes a plot twist, and it’s one even my mother might not have predicted.

Joseph looks his brothers in the eyes, and through tears says to them: “Do not be afraid.”

“Do not be afraid!  All the pain of the past, all those situations of hurt, division, bitterness, alienation: all of those things God has taken and repurposed…for good.”

Because somehow Joseph knew what his brothers did not: what they thought was the end was not really the end at all.  It was God’s invitation into a new future.

What Joseph meant was: all of the painful parts of their shared past were like threads of silk woven through a grand tapestry.  Up close it was so hard to see the big picture.  But God…God had other plans.

All along God had been weaving strand after strand after strand into a grand tapestry of goodness, hope, redemption…future.  What they could only see was a pain-filled past galloping recklessly toward a terrible end.  Because we humans are always anticipating the end.

But God always sees a future.

God always sees a future.

It turns out that the very last chapter of Genesis and the final moments of Joseph’s life were not, in fact, the end.  If you check your Bible, you’ll see—that’s just the first book!  God had big plans for the ongoing work of redemption in the world.  God had big plans back then, and God has big plans now.

I don’t know about you, but there have been times in my life where I could see an end coming: a broken relationship, an unwanted change in circumstance, an unexpected loss of life.  And these narratives of ending make is hard to look forward.

But.  The courage to go forward into a future we cannot see does not come from knowing the end.

Why?

Because what seems like an ending to you and me is only an invitation to go…forward.  To the next.  To walk into the possibilities ahead of us.

It could be—it is, we declare as followers of Jesus the Christ, the one who overcame the ultimate end—that God’s intention, design, fingerprints, and presence are all over our stories, weaving themes of forgiveness, love, hope, and possibility in and around and over the pain and brokenness that seems so prominent to us, weaving them all into a beautiful tapestry.

And just when we think it’s the end—just when we’re sure we’ve figured out the final scene—that tapestry will begin to unfurl.

It will just tumble out in front of us, thread after thread of all the joy and pain and brokenness and hope of our lives, just spread out there in front of us, inviting us to take another step…forward.  We’ll see it and we’ll remember Joseph’s words at what he and his brothers thought was the end: do not be afraid.

Do not be afraid!

What was intended for evil, what was meant to be the end…well, it’s not really the end.

It’s not the end at all.

Instead, it’s the invitation of God to a hopeful future, a new beginning.

It’s God looking at you and you and you and me in all our brokenness and pain and hope and fear and saying, “You still have a story to live. Come on, people of God.  Let’s turn our eyes from the endings we’ve already scripted, and let’s go…forward.”

Amen.

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