Though the Joseph story can be resonant for many life situations, today it feels like a story about what happens when the favored child of a church dares to speak God’s vision of change to those they have only known as siblings. That is partly because this old story is playing out afresh in my own denomination (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) right now, as our current favorite child (and Disrupt contributor), Rev. Lenny Duncan, is speaking the vision of a program of reparations given him by God, which will mean as big a change in power structures as Joseph’s dream of bowing sheaves.
If the church is a family, it is easily as dysfunctional as Jacob’s, and tends toward singling out an identified patient on which to dump all its blame and point to as the problem which needs fixing. How often are these identified patients in our churches also the ones God has called to lead? How many churches have turned on their pastors when they dare to speak their God-given visions of a changed system? How many church leaders have felt betrayed by those they consider family when they reveal the call God has placed on their lives?
Such grief is acute and faith-shaking, when the people with whom God has called you to work cannot (or will not) hear what God has sent you to say. I and too many other faith leaders know that pain intimately, and have invested energy toward our own healing that should have gone toward realizing the visions God’s people wouldn’t see.
I wonder how long after this betrayal to slavetraders it was before Joseph was willing to speak the dreams God sent him aloud again. It is very likely that if the brothers had come to Joseph asking for forgiveness within a few years of this incident they would have found him much less compassionate. I wonder who tended Joseph’s grief in its early days. I wonder if he had flashbacks to the betrayal of his brothers when he felt called to speak his dreams to the baker, the cupbearer and finally Pharoah.
However it happened, it is clear when we get to the resolution of this story, that Joseph has processed his grief thoroughly and used the pain of it for his own transformation. He understands that his brothers’ betrayal could not ultimately stop the visions of God, even if they were derailed and their realization more painful than it was meant to be. He speaks his famous (and oft-quoted) line about God using for good what humans intend for evil, and the story seems to wrap up with a happily ever after feel.
I will leave my suspicions about how long that happy ending lasted aside, and end with a caution instead. Though Joseph may proclaim God’s ability to take evil intent and turn it to Their good purposes, and however much I may believe that does actually happen, such a proclamation should never be made while one of God’s people are in the depths of tragedy. It is violence to suggest to a person who has been wronged by God’s people, or by those they considered family, that God will use their tragedy for good.
God did not desire Joseph’s pain anymore than God desires mine or yours. That is not who God is. When people are betrayed by those they love, by the church, by the people who call on God’s name, that is evil and needs to be so named. There may be time later to talk about how God was able to use the pain of those situations for transformation, but it comes much later. Sometimes it doesn’t come at all, and a tragedy is not redeemed.
Let us not rush to make every story like Joseph’s, even though some are. There are just as many times in Scripture that the people succeed in killing God’s messengers, including Jesus himself. Tragedy is still tragedy and evil is still evil, even when it is ultimately redeemed.
When we set out on a journey, even one as unknown as the one to which God calls Abram, we set out with expectations. In Abram and Sarai’s case, those expectations are given as a covenant promise by their God, giving them more reason to set their hearts on a particular outcome for the journey. Yet, when we meet them three chapters and however many years after God called them out of their comfort and away from their family home, a grief has settled over them. It shows privately in Abram’s anger and cynicism. And worse, it shows publicly in the couple’s continued infertility. The serpent’s question from last week’s text must have echoed in Abram and Sarai’s hearts year by year as they remain childless. “Did God really say…?”
Those who have experienced infertility have special difficulty with the miracle birth stories throughout scripture, from Sarai here to Hannah to Jesus’ mother Mary. They have prayed for their own miracles, maybe even trusted that children were part of God’s intention for them, and those prayers and promises remain unfulfilled. It is tempting for us to skip over this painful part of our ancestors’ story, rushing to the promise’s fulfillment. We who don’t know better think that the birth of a child cancels out all the pain that leads up to it. When we rush, when we cancel others’ pain unknowingly, we leave no space in our communities of faith for the aching grief that is all over the stories of God’s people. Those grieving infertility need their preachers to name this grief aloud, to say that even the heroes of our faith experienced it, that there is space for them to be angry with Abram and Sarah before their God.
Whether we have experienced infertility or not, each of us have a story of unfulfilled promises. In my own life, I have experienced this grief in pregnancy loss, in both my marriages, in unsupportive congregations to which I was called, in confidences broken between friends.
There are systemic ways in which promises are not kept also, and it is no stretch to say that our BIPOC siblings in this country have been grieving the unfulfilled promises of white people for centuries. Treaties with indigenous peoples have never been honored. Slaves were set free only to discover that freedom severely limited by a racist system of laws. The social contract between police and those they are sworn to protect only applies to white people.
This text opens space for us to name such griefs, personal and systemic, before the same God who meets Abram with compassion when he is angry and disappointed. God does not shame Abram for his questioning, nor rebuke his anger at God’s seeming faithlessness. God simply calls Abram forth again, this time from the confines of his tent to look at the wide and sparkling sky above him. God waits patiently as Abram counts each twinkle, and when he eventually loses track and gives up counting, God renews the promise. “So shall your descendants be.”
Abram’s faith is renewed because God opens space for his grief, holds Their tongue as he attempts the impossible counting of stars, then speaks the promise again when Abram has nothing else to say. The text calls this moment righteousness, but it is unclear whether the righteousness is Abram’s for believing God’s word or God’s reckoning to Them by an old man whose grief was held and honored.
As the Narrative Lectionary cycle begins again, I’m starting a new project. Using the weekly texts from Year 3 (Luke), I’ll be offering reflections rooted in grief. I hope these will be helpful to those trying to locate their own grief in the stories of God, as well as to those who are supporting loves ones as they journey through grief’s wilderness.
Year 3, Week One: Creation and Fall (Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17, 3:1-8)
If grief is an expression of love, then God sets Themselves up for grief from the very beginning. In this second account of creation, God forms the adam (the human) from the adamah (the ground/dirt/dust) and blows into them the breath of life. And though God has made an abundance of creatures alongside the adam, this first human is dissatisfied with what God provides from their first moment. Though God intends Themselves to be the human’s helper, the adam searches in vain for another.
It is God’s grief I can’t stop thinking about here. How much does God know ahead of time, before a thing is created? Is every beautiful moment ruined by anticipatory grief for Creator, and They await the pain of Their creatures’ betrayal? How many days did the adam and their God walk together in the cool of Eden’s evening before the woman was created and took the Helper’s place? Was God ever awaiting the serpent’s question, and hoping against hope that the adam would not be tempted?
I wonder about the grief between the adam and chava (Eve) after he throws her under the first ever bus, blaming her for his disobedience. She trusted him, not only as her partner, but as the one who had heard God’s command about the fruit before she was created and reported it to her as law. Surely she mourned not only her own choice, but the loss of trust between herself and the adam. And of course, the couple together must grieve the loss of Eden, where their life was simple and easy. Put out into the wilderness, their lives are bifurcated, the path between before and after blocked by a cherubim and a self-brandishing.
Still, the grief that grabs me in God’s, as They are forced to restrain the love they have for the humans in consequence of their disobedience. Yet, as any grief traveler knows, love does not stop seeking an outlet just because the beloved is no longer available. Thus, God’s love is stitched into the garments the first humans wear into the wilderness. Unaware, the humans carry on their very bodies the proof of Love that lives beyond all death and its attendant grief.