St Peter De Beauvoir Town
Sunday 7 August 2011
Today's reading from the book of Genesis tells the start of one of the most famous stories in the Bible - that of Joseph. Or as many have come to know it, Joseph and his amazing technicolour dreamcoat.
It is not really surprising that Andrew Lloyd-Webber should have taken this tale of betrayal, tragedy, family feud, and triumph over adversity and turned it into a hit stage musical. It has all the elements that a budding composer and librettist could possibly want.
Sadly, our reading only covers the betrayal. Joseph's brothers, deeply jealous of their Father's favouritism towards Joseph (and, to be fair, their brother's rather obnoxious way of rubbing their noses in it) conspire to fake his death and sell him into slavery in Egypt. It is the cause of much grief to their Father, who we have been hearing about in previous Sundays' readings go by the name of Jacob, but is now called Israel. (Long story).
The best bits of Joseph's story come later on, where he does rather well for himself in Egypt - barring a few ups and downs - rising to a place of real importance in Pharaoh's service. It is in this role that Joseph encounters his brothers once more. There is a famine in their homeland and they have come to Egypt to buy food. Here is Joseph's opportunity for revenge. If this was a piece of French 19th century romantic literature, there would follow a very carefully plotted and elaborate vengeance, strung out over hundreds of pages with quite forensic precision. But Joseph is not a character from the fevered imagination of Alexandre Dumas or Victor Hugo. Aside from toying with his brothers when they fail to recognise him, Joseph's love for his father and for God shine through.
In Joseph we see a role-model of faithfulness to God in both the worst of times and the best of times. He remarkably keeps faith with God when his brothers sell him to slavers headed for Egypt. He keeps faith with God during imprisonment and in the face of temptation. Somehow he manages to keep hold of a bigger picture outside of his immediate circumstances.
Desmond Tutu calls this capacity to hold onto the big picture during tough times the ‘principle of transfiguration.‘
During the darkest days of apartheid I used to say to PW Botha, the president of South Africa, that we had already won, and I invited him and other white South Africans to join the winning side. All the "objective" facts were against us – the pass laws, the imprisonments, the teargassing, the massacres, the murder of political activists – but my confidence was not in the present circumstances but in the laws of God's universe. This is a moral universe, which means that, despite all the evidence that seems to be to the contrary, there is no way that evil and injustice and oppression and lies can have the last word... That is what upheld the morale of our people, to know that in the end good will prevail. It was these higher laws that convinced me that our peaceful struggle would topple the immoral laws of apartheid... The principle of transfiguration says nothing, no one and no situation, is "untransfigurable," that the whole of [creation waits expectantly to be] released from its bondage and share in the glorious liberty of the children of God.Joseph seems to understands this principle of transfiguration. Even in the face of his worst ordeals he is able to understand that God is bigger than the present circumstances suggest.
It is one thing to hold onto our hope in God during a time of suffering, quite another to do so when we enjoy the security and comfort that affluence brings. Then it is easy to believe that we can get by without God's help. And of course often we try. Yet Joseph rises to the position of second most powerful person in Egypt and doesn't let that go to his head. He doesn't dispense with God, but stays true to the principles and values of his faith. It is this that enables him to respond to his brothers with generosity and forgiveness. When we are free to live lives that are independent, under our own control, successful or powerful, the goodness of God is needed more than ever to help us live up to the responsibilities that come with good fortune and affluence.
Whatever our circumstances our choices should be made in the light of the character of God. His essential goodness is reflected in ourselves. His loving, gracious and merciful spirit is something we can tap into to enable us to be our best self in any situation. For me this is what lies at the heart of our spiritual life. How can I live my live so that God's goodness is even more self-evident? How do I step away from those decisions or behaviours that cause me to somehow be a little less than my best self?
It takes a big person, anchored in something outside of their self, to make godly choices of the kind Joseph made. He set aside the smallness of human revenge and judgment to let in the bigness of love divine.
It is not always easy to let go of the experiences that have scarred or damaged us in past. Events in childhood in particular can cause wounds that continue to pain us in adult life. It requires conscious effort through prayer - and in some cases professional help - to bring God's healing love to bear on such wounds. This is not to say that our wounds will necessarily vanish. But the ‘God effect’ can strengthen us to rise above them, to be our best self in spite of them. Even, perhaps, to be a source of healing to others through them.
Joseph, I am sure, would carry the wounds of his brothers’ betrayal throughout his life. But in the strength of God and with faithfulness to him, he finds restoration – a transfiguration – that enables him to be his best self even an opportunity for revenge presents itself.