Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Sermon: Seeing Beyond Pain

Genesis 45:1-15

Last week we read about how Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. Much has happened in Joseph’s life since that time: his life has had highs and lows, he has been in positions of respect, and he has been falsely accused and thrown in prison. So in this week’s reading, Joseph is a powerful leader in Egypt in charge of the distribution of food during a severe famine. With great irony, Joseph’s brothers come to the distribution center for food.

If you were the writer of a revenge novel, the set-up is perfect. Karma is about to strike with a red hot iron. They sold Joseph into slavery and now, Joseph will reject their application for food and let them starve! Hahahaha!

But that isn’t what happens. Although Joseph could hold their wrongful treatment against them, although he could throw their past at them and deny them food, he does not. At first it looks like he might seek revenge. Just before the section that was read, Joseph is clearly struggling with how to receive them. At first he plants a cup from the palace in their food and then charges them with stealing it, and at that point the reader is wondering if Joseph will have them thrown in prison on these false charges.

But he doesn’t, instead he tells them that they must go back and bring their youngest brother, Benjamin with them. (Apparently he is concerned that they have treated Benjamin the same way they treated him). But when they return with Benjamin and Joseph sees that his youngest brother is well – Joseph relents from punishing them.

It is then that he reveals who he is, and he offers them forgiveness and calls for the reunion and reconciliation of their family. He asks them to bring their father to Egypt and promises to take care of them all from his position of power. In many ways the end result of the story is a shock to us, because in our world people are much more likely to seek revenge than they are to offer forgiveness.

For many of us, the thought of forgiving others is a great thought, but it is much more difficult to do than it is to practice! I like what C.S. Lewis said, 'Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.' We have a hard time healing the pain, so we have a hard time letting go of the past in order to forgive.

So how is Joseph able to do this? In his speech Joseph gives us one insight into his change of heart,

“Now, don’t be upset and don’t be angry with yourselves that you sold me here. Actually, God sent me before you to save lives. We’ve already had two years of famine in the land, and there are five years left without planting or harvesting. God sent me before you to make sure you’d survive and to rescue your lives in this amazing way. You didn’t send me here; it was God who made me a father to Pharaoh, master of his entire household, and ruler of the whole land of Egypt.”

This is a significant change of perspective – Joseph comes to understand that while his brothers meant to harm him, God was able to use that painful and broken circumstance to bring about greater good. What this teaches us, is that for us to be able to see beyond the pain in our lives, we need to be able to shift our perspective and see the whole situation from another angle.

For example: In The Book of Joy the Dalai Lama talks about his exile. While he was the young leader of Tibet, China came into the country and took it over – the Dalai Lama had to flee for his life. So for the past half-century he has been an exile from his own homeland. Yet hearing him talk about this calamity is amazing, because he has been able to reframe the situation more positively. He can see not only the negatives and what he has lost, but he also sees the gains from it: wider contact, new relationships, less formality and more freedom. He then explains: “So therefore, if you look from one angle, you feel, Oh, how bad, how sad. But if you look from another angle at that same tragedy, that same event, you see that it gives me new opportunities.”[1]

This shift in perspective does not make what happened less wrong. He still feels that it was very wrong that the Chinese took over Tibet by force and refuse to grant it back its freedom, but the wider perspective does change emotionally how he feels about it. Rather than be filled by anger and resentment, rather than seeing his life as having been ruined by the hardship, he sees the ways that it has brought good for him and others.

Likewise when someone hurts us, as happened to Joseph, shifting our perspective to see how we grew or were strengthened can change how we feel about the wrong that was done to us.

Joseph realizes that God has used the evil to bring about good. It doesn’t change that it was wrong for his brothers to sell him into slavery. But it changes how he feels about it.

So when we look back on our lives and we think about something wrong that was done to us, when we think back upon the ways a person has hurt us or we have been oppressed by society – what these examples suggest to us is that we should strive to change our perspective and see the good that has come from the situation.

Perhaps you are stronger as a person now, perhaps you have grown closer to your family, perhaps your faith and relationship with God are deeper than ever, perhaps you have experienced things that you never would have otherwise – meeting people that you would not have, learning skills you would not have. Not that this makes what happened to us, okay. The wrongs are still wrong. We still speak out against them and strive to change what we can, but . . . we also know in our hearts that God was at work through even the darkest days building us up and guiding us to a new place.

This is not the only shift of perspective that can be helpful. In addition to seeing how we ourselves have benefited and grown, in addition to seeing how God has used our trials and suffering for good; The Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the same book, suggests that we also seek to see things from other people’s perspectives.

He talks about being cut off in traffic and imagining what that person is going through – perhaps they are rushing to the hospital because his wife is giving birth or her loved one is dying.

He says: “I have sometimes said to people, when you are stuck in a traffic jam, you can deal with it in one of two ways. You can let the frustration really eat you up. Or you can look around at the other drivers and see that one might have a wife who has pancreatic cancer. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know exactly what they might have, but you know they are all suffering with worries and fears because they are human. And you can lift them up and bless them. You can say, Please, God, give each one of them what they need.”[2]

He explains that this process helps him remember that others are also suffering, and helps him to have compassion for them. That is another shift in perspective. It is no longer just about me and mine, but it is about all of us as a community and a world who are seeking to live together.

You might say that the idea is to see everything from God’s perspective – knowing the pain and suffering that every individual is going through, seeing the whole, and then seeing the ways that this suffering and evil can be redeemed for good.

So perhaps in our Bible story Joseph had thought back to his early life and he had looked at it from his brothers’ perspective. Maybe he had seen his own part in causing his brothers’ anger. Or maybe as he sat there day after day as they gave food to many people during the famine he saw that he was not alone in suffering, that lots of people suffered and that right now God had given him a position in which he could relieve suffering. So as his brothers come before him, he can see that he has a choice – to deepen the suffering they are already experiencing from their immense hunger, or he can be a way of alleviating that suffering and be an agent of forgiveness and healing. Perhaps he was beginning to see things from God’s perspective.

The lesson here is easy to say, but it is hard to actually do. When we are in pain, even when that pain is caused by others, one of the best things that we can do is see beyond the pain, try to see the situation from God’s perspective, knowing all that is happening in the world, all that each person is suffering, and having compassion. And we can look at our suffering from all angles, (And I admit this is much easier years later when we can see the fruit of the suffering). As we learn to see things from new perspectives, as we see beyond our individual pain, the hope and prayer is that we can find deepest peace with what has happened in our past even as we are encouraged to be agents of God who work to bring healing and forgiveness to a hurting world.

[1] Lama, Dalai; Tutu, Desmond; Abrams, Douglas Carlton. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (p. 195).
[2] Lama, Dalai; Tutu, Desmond; Abrams, Douglas Carlton. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (pp. 198-199). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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