Genesis 45:1-15; Romans 8:38-39
The Rev. Tom Herbek
February 24, 2019
Let us hear this familiar story as told by Frederich Buechner, a novelist turned theologian, who tells a not-very-literal story that is actually very close to what really happened:
Joseph’s brothers tried to murder him by throwing him into a pit, but if they had ever been brought to trial, they wouldn’t have needed Clarence Darrow to get them an acquittal in any court in the land. Not only did Joseph have offensive dreams in which he was Mr. Big and they were all groveling at his feet but he recounted them in sickening detail at the breakfast table the next morning. He was also his father’s pet, and they seethed at the sight of the many-colored coat he flaunted while they were running around in T-shirts and dirty jeans.
After tossing him into the pit, the brothers decided to tell Jacob, their father, that his fair-haired boy had had a fatal tangle with bobcats, and in order to convince him, they produced a shirt that they’d dipped in goat’s blood. Jacob was convinced, and they didn’t even have to worry too much about the lie they’d told him because by the time they got around to telling it, they figured that one way or another it, or something like it, must have come true.
Unknown to them, however, Joseph was rescued from the pit by some traveling salesmen who happened to be passing by and eventually wound up as a slave in Egypt where he was bought by an Army man named Potiphar.
He got into trouble over an embarrassing misunderstanding with Potiphar’s wife and did some time in jail for it as a result, but Pharaoh got wind of the fact that he was big on dream interpretations and had him sprung to see what he could do with a couple of wild ones he’d had himself. When Joseph passed with flying colors, Pharaoh promoted him to be head of the Department of Agriculture and eventually his right-hand man.
For the first time in his life, something was expected of Joseph. He was put to work and given responsibilities and, as a result, this seventeen-year-old began to show abilities that were never revealed before. Joseph inherited many natural gifts from both of his highly capable parents, but because nothing had ever been asked of him, those creative capacities were never developed. The amazing truth was that Joseph began to flourish in ways that might never have happened if he had remained pampered by his indulgent father.
Sometimes, the worst that can happen to us becomes something that opens doors to us that never would have happened otherwise. Sometimes the worst of life changes us for the better.
There is an ancient Chinese story of an old farmer who had an old horse for tilling the fields. One day the horse escaped into the hills and when all the farmer’s neighbors sympathized with the old man over his bad luck, the farmer replied, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?” A week later the horse returned with a herd of wild horses from the hills and this time the neighbors congratulated the farmer on his good luck. His reply was, “Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?” Then when the farmer’s son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses, he fell off its back and broke his leg. Everyone thought this very bad luck. Not the farmer, whose only reaction was, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?”
Some weeks later the army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied youth they found there. When they saw the farmer’s son with his broken leg, they let him off. Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?
There are many possible meanings in the events of our lives. Richard Rohr once wrote about suffering: “Suffering of some sort seems to be the only thing strong enough to destabilize our arrogance and our ignorance. I would define suffering very simply as whenever you are not in control.”
Look what happened to Joseph when he no longer had control. Sometimes, when we look back at the history and life of people, we discover clues to what they did later in life, to who they would later become. We see how earlier events in their life changed them in surprising ways.
In her book, Tears to Triumph, Marianne Williamson describes such a person:
Some powerful figures in history have been transformed in ultimately positive ways by experiences that were outwardly devastating. One of the most compelling of such stories is the life of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States.
When he was a young man, Roosevelt was the epitome of someone who had it all. He was tall and handsome, brilliant and wealthy, married with several children. His cousin Theodore had been president of the United States, and his own career seemed guaranteed to go as far as he chose to take it.
One day in 1921, while on vacation at his family lake house in Canada, Roosevelt took a swim. Within hours of returning home he was suffering chills, within days his limbs were numb, and within weeks he was diagnosed with polio.
Yet this tragedy was not the end of his story; in a profound way, it was just the beginning. Roosevelt would never walk again without the help of iron braces and canes, but from the crucible of his suffering he emerged as someone who did as much to ameliorate the suffering of others as has anyone in history.
Three years after his diagnosis, Roosevelt traveled to a resort in Warm Springs, Georgia, known for its eighty-eight-degree natural springs. Its hot waters eased his physical pain, but at least as importantly, the kindness of those he met there lifted his spirits. Few others at Warm Springs had ever heard of the Roosevelts of Hyde Park, New York. They didn’t know of FDR’s wealth or care about his power. To those he met at Warm Springs, many of them poor, he was just another sufferer, a saddened man who needed the waters to soothe his pain. They cared for him simply because he was a human being who shared their affliction. Through that experience, Roosevelt came to know, and to depend upon, the kindness of people he most probably would never have met otherwise.
This is a common theme- the journey out of suffering. People arrive to help us in our darkest hours, and they often come oddly disguised. Someone we might never have met, or respected- much less looked to for help- ends up giving us pivotal assistance that we could not have gotten elsewhere. People at a ramshackle resort helped heal Roosevelt in ways that all
the doctors at the best medical institutions could not do. Not all God’s angels have letters on their doors announcing that they are angels. Nothing humbles us like being helped by people whose help we never thought we would need.
Years later, when Roosevelt became president, he was faced with the suffering of millions left poverty-stricken by the crash of the stock market in 1929. Given his own socioeconomic background, he may not have had a deep, visceral compassion for the millions of unemployed people struggling during the Great Depression. He was a very rich man from a very rich family, and he could easily have walled himself off emotionally from those who suffered the most at that time.
They were not the likes of the Roosevelts of Hyde Park; but they were very much the likes of the people Roosevelt had known, and come to depend upon, in Warm Springs, Georgia.
Now it was his to give back. His empathy for the hardships endured by average Americans at that time inspired the New Deal, an array of social and economic programs that brought relief to millions of people. Roosevelt was not a perfect man- there were many left outside the circle of his compassion- but someone with less empathy would not have accomplished the New Deal, nor perhaps even tried.
Roosevelt’s suffering helped turn him into the man he needed to be to alleviate the suffering of millions. When tragedies occur, we don’t always get an answer to the question, “Why did this happen to me?” But we can always question what blessing can still come from the experience.
We cannot always choose whether or not we suffer, but we can choose whether or not our suffering will have been in vain. From the person who loses his or her eyesight and then becomes an advocate for the blind; to the parent who forms a foundation in his or her late child’s memory; to the athlete who loses limbs and then founds an athletic organization for others similarly challenged- a key to transcending our suffering is to use it as a blessing on the lives of others.
It would be a mistake to idealize suffering, but it would also be a mistake to diminish its relevance to the formation of character. In the words of poet Khalil Gibran, “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”
The wounds of betrayal, physical pain, and separation from his family ended up opening possibilities that would never have been there if Joseph had stayed with his family. Does this mean that every tragedy we experience has a silver lining? Does it mean that all the bad things that happen in this world are really good? That everything that hurts us will turn out to be OK? No. Not at all.
The world is full of senseless violence, horrible hatred, meanness and pain. These events are not the will of God. It would be absurd to hold that God is orchestrating evil and wanting it to happen, as some religious people assert. I can’t buy that.
But one thing that both the Old Testament and New Testament teach us is that God is able to transform evil and pain into something far different. God used the slavery of Joseph to save a family, and he transformed the death of Jesus into the ultimate expression of goodness over evil. God is able to help us to create a life in which our woundedness is transformed into something that can bring good to this world.
Henri Nouwen, in his book The Wounded Healer, says that a Christian community is a healing community, not because wounds are cured and all pain is alleviated, but because wounds and pain become openings for occasions for a new vision of life. We, too, must learn to see our wounds as openings for new vision.
In the book that he wrote after the death of his young son, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner says:
Let me suggest that the bad things that happen to us in our lives do not have a meaning when they happen to us. They do not happen for any good reason which would cause us to accept them willingly. But we can give them a meaning. We can redeem these tragedies from senselessness by imposing meaning on them.
The question we should be asking is not, “Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this?” That is really an unanswerable, pointless question. A better question would be “Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?”
The facts of life and death are neutral. We, by our responses, give suffering either a positive or a negative meaning. Illnesses, accidents, human tragedies kill people. But they do not necessarily kill life or faith.
Just like Joseph, in the midst of a world filled with arrogance and conceit, guilt and guile, hatred and separation, there are possibilities for growth that we cannot experience otherwise. Somehow, we must remain open to the fact that sorrow and suffering are not God’s last word.
If Jacob had not shone such favoritism to Joseph, if the brothers had not sold him into slavery, if all of the plot twists and turns had not happened, then Joseph might have simply been a spoiled little kid who never grew up, and the tribe of Jacob might have starved to death and ceased to exist. Everyone in this saga changed over time, and ultimately, all changed for the better.
As we go through the most difficult times of our life, we will also change, and there is always the possibility that, later on, we also might come to the realization that “Surely, God is in this place, and I did not recognize it.” The good news is that nothing can separate us from God’s love. As Joan Chittister once wrote: “The essence of struggle is the decision to become new rather than simply to become older.”
We will always go through struggles in our life. Somehow, let us come out of the most difficult struggles of our life with a decision to become new, rather than simply to become older. May we always remember that our God says that suffering and struggle are never the last word. The God of love and compassion always has the last word!
When our struggles happen, what will become of us? Are the struggles we face good news, bad news? Who knows?