(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on August 20, 2017, Proper 15)
From Feud to Funny Story: The Great Wall of Pillows
Much of the Old Testament is about kings and foreign nations, imperial intrigue and war, which are all very fascinating but are also things that I’ve never experienced in my life. One of the reasons I love Genesis is that it’s on my level. It’s the story of a family. Fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, arguments and roadtrips. Love and loss and new life. I can understand Genesis.
Growing up, my brother and I would occasionally have to share a bed. It would usually be at one of those little motels. They were all the same: white, starchy sheets and two pillows per head. Neither my brother nor I needed the extra pillow. So instead we put them to good use. To ensure that neither of us encroached on the other’s space, we each contributed a pillow to what became known as The Great Wall of Pillows. There in the middle of the bed, we built a wall. It was a diplomatic masterpiece, guaranteeing equal space and a sleep free from flailing arms.
The Great Wall of Pillows kept the peace between us brothers. Until one morning, when it did not. The Great Wall protected us in the middle, but it could not protect us at the head or foot of the bed. And that’s where the trouble happened. One of us had gotten turned around in the middle of the night. I don’t know how. All I remember is my brother crying out in the morning: “Get your feet out of my face!” To which I responded: “Get your face out of my feet!”
Parental arbitration did little to resolve the conflict. We were fuming for minutes. It was not until a half-hour later, when we had made our way through the motel’s cereal bar and were forced to sit at the same table, that peace returned and the feet-in-face skirmish was put behind us.
In fact, in the days and years to follow, that incident took on an entirely different tone and meaning. It became a joke, part of the family mythology, a tale told to kindle laughter and good cheer.
A Forgiveness That Takes Time and Tears
Today’s scripture is also a tale of brotherly conflict and reconciliation. But here the conflict is not simply a matter of sleeping space and feet-in-face. It is a matter of one brother whose self-important dreams are a kick in the face of the other brothers, who hit back by selling him into slavery. And here the reconciliation is not a matter of minutes but of years. The reunion happens not over cereal but over hugs and wordless tears.
If you remember the story, after Joseph goes to Egypt as a slave, he rises from rags to riches. He becomes a governor of Egypt. Then, twenty-three years after his brothers sold him into slavery, they encounter one another again. A famine has driven the brothers down to Egypt to seek food. They do not recognize Joseph, but he recognizes them. He does not, however, reveal himself immediately. Several times we are told that Joseph cannot keep from weeping and must remove himself from their company. He clearly is torn. Part of him must want to reveal himself. But another part resists. Why open the lid on a painful past? Why revisit such a hurtful history?
When he does finally reveal himself, we see that his brothers are similarly conflicted—confused. How could this possibly be the brother they left for dead? More importantly, how can they trust his goodwill? The story tells us that initially they cannot even answer him, so stunned are they. According to the storyteller, only after Joseph has wept and embraced them can they talk to him (cf. 45:14-15).
In other words, this isn’t a simple end to a brotherly squabble, the easy half-hour resolution to a sitcom drama. Forgiveness sometimes takes a whole lot more than cereal. In the story of Joseph, forgiveness takes time, and it takes tears. Joseph does not simply reconcile with the brothers who left him for dead. It takes him months to open himself up to them. And likewise, the brothers do not simply receive his forgiveness and carry on like their offense never happened. It takes tears and hugs to liberate them from the past.
Traditionally a Tale of Divine Providence
Traditionally the story of Joseph is read as a tale of divine providence. As Joseph himself says, “Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (45:5). In other words, you thought you were selling me, but really God was sending me. To many readers, these words suggest the image of a divine puppeteer hidden behind the clouds, imperceptibly directing the drama toward survival. Everything that has happened—their father’s lopsided love, Joseph’s self-important dreams, the brothers’ hate, Joseph’s slavery, his rags-to-riches glory in Egypt—all of this has been invisibly choreographed by a divine director. God orchestrated Joseph’s roller-coaster journey so that he would end up as governor of Egypt, where he could then provide food for his famine-stricken family. That, according to many readers, is the miracle in Joseph’s story.
But what good would it have been—all the twisted events of Joseph’s journey—if at the final moment he and his brothers had not reconciled? Imagine for a moment that Joseph didn’t reveal himself, but instead simply gave his brothers food and sent them on their way. They would have returned home to a father still grieving the mysterious loss of his son. They would have returned home still broken themselves, restless with the guilt of the past. And Joseph would have remained in Egypt, confused and teary-eyed. What sort of life would that have been?
What Really Saved Their Lives?
The question I want to ask, then, is what really saved the lives of Joseph and his brothers? Was it a hand in the sky, orchestrating events just for them? Is that really where God’s power lies?
When Joseph says to his brothers, “Do not be distressed…because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life,” I don’t think he’s theologizing. I think he’s forgiving. I don’t think he’s theorizing about God and providence and omnipotence, I think he’s liberating his brothers and himself from the past.
Normally there are deeds and there are consequences. Normally the past determines the future. But forgiveness disrupts the normal order of time. Forgiveness throws a wrench inside the gears and chains of time, separating deed from consequence, crime from guilt, wrongdoing from revenge. Forgiveness means that our story can be changed. Forgiveness is the way our story gets edited. You can never erase what happened, but you can cross through it and write in a new meaning. That’s precisely what Joseph does. Listen again to what he says: “Do not be distressed…because you sold me here”—in other words, you sold me here, but let’s cross through the original meaning of wrongdoing and guilt—“for God sent me before you to preserve life”—which is to say, let’s put a twist on the story (45:5). I will not hold your crime against you. Quite the opposite, I will seek instead the opportunities that it has offered, which include not only saving the famine-stricken lives of many but also reconciling with you.
What really saved the lives of Joseph and his brothers? Was it the food Joseph provided? That gave them biological life, for sure, but just because a heart pumps blood doesn’t mean it pumps love and life. In my eyes, what really saved everyone’s life—the real miracle of the story—is not the fortuitous twist of events that put Joseph into power and his brothers back in his presence. What really saved their lives is forgiveness. It is the twist that Joseph puts on the past, which gives him and his brothers their lives back.
The Miracle That Gives the Past a New Meaning
In the case of my brother and me, forgiveness transformed a fraternal feud of feet-versus-face into a tale of laughter and good cheer. In the case of Joseph and his brothers, forgiveness turned a hateful conflict into an opportunity for saving the lives of not only the hungry but also the heartbroken.
I wonder about today. Our nation bears many wounds wrought by a hurtful past. These wounds cannot be undone. But they can be healed. The past cannot be erased, but it can be edited. History cannot be unwritten, but it can be overwritten with a new meaning. The power of God is not the power of an omnipotent puppeteer. It is the power of the heart, the miracle of forgiveness, the only thing that can transform a hurtful past into a healthy future.
But here’s the difficult thing. Who forgives whom? Normally we would read today’s scripture and say, Okay, I need to forgive others. Normally as Christ-followers, we think of ourselves as the agents of forgiveness. But for myself, I wonder if this time I’m not on the other side of the fence.
I’m not the wounded one. I’m the one who went from strength to strength, unimpeded by poverty or a broken home or underfunded education or inadequate transportation or student loans or the prejudices of people who give grants and scholarship and jobs to people who look and talk like them. I’m the one who has lived as if there’s no problem, the one who’s said, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. I’m the one who has been complicit, and by complicit, I mean not asking questions and not seeking answers; I mean wanting to turn the news off before I hear about someone else who has been hurt by a culture that has never really hurt me. I’m not the wounded one. I’ve been the one who wants to pretend like there’s no wound. I’m the one who needs the miracle of forgiveness. Only then could there be true reconciliation like there was between Joseph and his brothers, or my brother and me.
Forgiveness can overwrite a hurtful history with a new meaning. But it must begin with the hurtful history. How can there be forgiveness where we do not confess our sins? In Montgomery, Alabama, which used to be one of the busiest slave ports in the US, there are 59 markers that commemorate and celebrate the Confederacy but not a single marker that acknowledges slavery. How can there be forgiveness where we do not confess our sins? “It took only ten years to erect a memorial to the victims of September 11,” but “to this day there is no national monument to slavery.” How can there be forgiveness where we do not confess our sins?
Forgiveness is neither simple nor easy. Today’s scripture shows that plainly enough. To confront the sin of the past takes time, and it takes tears.
Mark Heyer, the father of the young woman whose life was taken by a white supremacist, recently spoke about forgiveness. He had tears in his eyes. He had a long, slow future in his eyes. “I hope all this stuff that’s come out,” he said, “isn’t twisted into something negative but there comes a positive change in people’s hearts, in their thinking, in their understanding of their neighbor.” I hope so too. I hope that forgiveness can cross through the hurt of history and write in a new meaning. It is the only hope we have for the future. What has happened—last weekend, these last five hundred years—cannot be undone. But it can be healed.
Whose power is not of the fist
But of the heart,
Writes a new story:
To walk the long, tearful path
With those we have wounded
And those who have wounded us.
We trust that new life
Can come from anywhere,
Even a cross,
Even a grave.
 Gen 42:24; 43:30; 45:1-2.
 In fact, it takes years too. After their father dies, they become frightened again that Joseph will turn on them. Joseph must repeat his forgiveness (cf. 50:15-21).
 This analysis comes from D. L. Mayfield’s excellent essay, “Facing Our Legacy of Lynching,” http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/september/legacy-lynching-america-christians-repentance.html, accessed August 19, 2017.
 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/charlottesville-protests-latest-heather-heyer-father-mark-forgives-james-fields-killing-his-daughter-a7894996.html, accessed August 16, 2017.