Be a Surprise (Seventh Sunday after Epiphany)

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Joseph is a surprising guy!  And perhaps that’s why his story from antiquity is remembered at the end of Genesis.  You may remember that Joseph, one of the youngest sons of Jacob, was sold by his brothers into slavery.  They then took his coat of many colors, dipped it in animal blood, and told their father that Joseph had been eaten by wild animals.

Meanwhile, Joseph found himself sold into slavery in Egypt, where he nearly died in prison.  But after being able to interpret Pharaoh’s dream about years of plenty and years of famine, he suddenly became a high officer in Pharaoh’s court, in charge of who got food and who didn’t.

Joseph’s interpretation of the dream, you may also remember, was that after seven great years of good crops, there would be seven years of desperate famine.  And so it is that by the second year of the famine, Joseph’s brothers come down to Egypt to buy food, because the famine is bad back in the land of Canaan as well.  Joseph immediately recognizes his brothers, but they don’t recognize him.

And at that point in the story, what everyone should expect is paybacks!  Now is the time when Joseph could really get his revenge for what his brothers had put him through.  He could order them arrested, tortured and killed.  He could make them all HIS slaves.  Or, he could simply laugh at them and send them away with nothing, letting them starve.

Now Joseph does mess with them a little!  He sends them back with grain, and secretly returns their money, making them think they’ll be in trouble.  Then, on the second trip, he has his steward hide his silver cup in the bag of his youngest brother, and then go after them and accuse them of stealing the cup!

So they’re all brought back and scared!  And this is the moment when today’s reading begins, and when you should really expect the payback to happen!  But it doesn’t.  Joseph tells his brothers who he is, he offers them all refuge and he promises to provide for both them and their families.

Most of us have heard this story before, and it doesn’t surprise us anymore, but it should.  Paybacks are usually the way stories like this end.  There’s always some kind of comeuppance for people like Joseph’s brothers.  And remember, this story is set hundreds of years before the Torah is given, which says that vengeance belongs to God.  So Joseph has no “religious” reason to forgive his brothers.

But that’s what happens.  Joseph is a surprise.  And that’s perhaps what made this story memorable.  In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus contrasts the way he calls his disciples to live from the ways that everyone expects.  If you do good to those who do good to you, what difference does anybody see in you?  You’re not a surprise.  But if you bless those who curse you and pray for those who persecute you, people will notice.  You’re the kind of surprise that makes God’s light get noticed.

And that’s what Joseph did.  But it can’t have been easy.  What is it that could possibly have made Joseph such a surprise?  Doing what Joseph did was absolutely counterintuitive. But perhaps Joseph was able to be a surprise because he:

  • Recognized how God had helped him in spite of the evil he had experienced – Joseph never thinks that getting sold into slavery was a good thing, or that God had intended it.  Notice that he tells his brothers that God had sent him to Egypt (that is, God brought him to a place where he could prosper), in spite of the evil acts of his brothers … Later, after the death of their father (and the brothers are still worried they’re in for paybacks), Joseph tells them bluntly, you boneheads meant this for evil, but God brought good out of it anyway…! 
    • And often, it’s the ability to recognize and experience God’s presence and help in the midst of evil and pain that makes it possible to be a surprise; Please don’t ever be one of those well-meaning people who tell others, “oh, maybe this terrible thing is God’s way of preparing you for something later on!”  NEVER say this to others!  First, because it’s almost surely wrong (Joseph never thinks God intended or planned the evil!) And second, because it is NEVER helpful!  But it can be the case in your own life, and I know this has happened in mine, that sometimes because of a horrible situation I’ve endured, I have the ability to empathize with or help somebody else who’s going through a similar situation.  God didn’t give me that bad situation to “prepare” me, but God can use a bad situation to give me an opportunity to do good in the life of somebody else.  That’s what Joseph realized, and sometimes we can see that in our own lives.  And that’s makes being a surprise possible…
  • Focused on the future, instead of dwelling on the past.  That’s often hard to do.  We nurture old wounds.  We dwell upon what could have been.  And we mourn what we’ve lost.  Surely, Joseph must have had some of that going on as well.  But when he reveals himself to his brothers, his very first words are “Is my father still alive?”  Instead of focusing on paybacks, Joseph thinks to the future: “I get to see my dad again!”  There’s possibility and promise ahead, which people often miss when they’re focused on the past.  And the ability to do that is surprising…
    • And that’s sometimes the case for us, too.  I know that often, for me, it’s hard to envision the future, or even to know what to hope for, when things are hard or difficult.  I get stuck on what was, or what might have been.  I can see what I’ve lost.  But it’s not yet clear what’s coming next.  Yet somehow, Joseph trusted that God was giving him a future.  And so when this moment arrived, he was able to get a glimpse of it.  And sometimes for us, simply being confident that God actually is promising us a future is what makes it possible for us to live in surprising ways…
  • Stayed focused on the mission God had given him, instead of getting caught up in the family drama!  Joseph’s brothers are always worried about paybacks.  But Joseph says, in effect, “we’re only in year two of this famine, and we got 5 more to go.  Ain’t nobody got time for this revenge nonsense!”  And the ability to realize that he had mission and purpose from God, and to stay focused on what God was calling him to do, was what made Joseph a surprise…
    • And often, focus is what’s key for us, too.  And it’s hard!  It’s easy to be distracted, both emotionally and mentally.  But part of the key to being a surprise is to ask ourselves each day, “what is God calling me to do today?  How am I supposed to be making the most of what I’ve been given?”  Surely, the answer to that is NOT “getting my revenge.”  And the ability to stay focused on what God has given me to do – or even just the effort to try to stay focused – can make me the kind of surprise that Jesus calls me to be in the life of the world around me…

Joseph was a surprise in the life of his brothers, and in the life of the world.  And it was by being a surprise that Joseph is remembered for being God’s light in a time of deep darkness.

And his story is paired with our Gospel reading today because he’s an illustration of what Jesus is calling us to do as his disciples.  Jesus is really calling us to be a surprise in the life of the world around us, because it’s by being a surprise that we reveal God’s light during dark times that people are going through.

And it can be hard to be a surprise.  But like Joseph, sometimes the key to being a surprise is to recognize how God has blessed us, in spite of the evil and the pain that we’ve experienced.  Sometimes the key to being a surprise is to remind ourselves that God has promised us a better future, even when that future may not look like what we used to envision.  And often, the key to being a surprise is not to dwell on the pain of the past or the present, but to stay focused on whatever personal mission God is giving to each of us each day.