Many of you know that before I was a parish pastor, I was a chaplain at a children’s hospital, working mostly in the emergency room. I spent a lot of my time sitting with parents who were scared and waiting for some good news. And while I as there, I heard people, people who were trying to be helpful, say some of the most amazingly thoughtless things.
“God has a plan,” they’d say to these parents. Or, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” Or, “this is God’s will…we can’t understand it.”
I would hear these things, and I would always tense up and try to keep quiet until the “helpful” friends were out of the room. Then I’d tell the parents that I was sure God had not meant for their child to get hurt or sick or abused, and I’d explain that sometimes when friends don’t know what to say they say the first thing that pops into their head and makes themselves feel better.
One day I was sitting with a mother whose child had been injured by a stranger who had broken into her school. She was distraught, and her friend kept saying to her, “It’s okay…it’s okay…it’s okay.” Finally she broke, and yelled out, “It’s not okay…it’s not okay…it’s not okay.”
I was pretty proud of her. She was telling the truth, a truth that I believe God would have believed as well. God does not will bad things to happen to children, and God did not think this was “okay”.
It’s because experiences like that that I have trouble with today’s passage. In particular, I have trouble with one of the last lines we read today: you meant it to harm me, but God meant it for good.
This comes from the story of Joseph, which the elementary students have begun reading in church school. As you know, I like to preach on whatever they’re studying so that we will all know the story, and can all help them with it. And it’s this part of the story in particular that I want to talk about, because I don’t want us as a church to create another generation of people who witness tragedy and call it God’s will. I think we can do better than that.
But first, to remind you of the story, Joseph was the son of Jacob and Rachel. He had ten older half-brothers, all of whom thought their father loved him most of all. Jacob didn’t help to reassure them when he gave Joseph a special coat of many colors, either. The brothers grew more and more jealous, and after Joseph had a series of dreams in which they were shown bowing down to him, they decided something needed to be done.
At first, they decided to kill their brother. But one brother, Reuben, said “no, let’s not kill him. Let’s just sell him into slavery instead” And so that’s what they did. They sold him off and they brought back his coat covered with goat’s blood, gave it to his father, and said he had been killed.
But Joseph wasn’t dead. He ended up in Egypt where his ability to interpret dreams gets the attention of the Pharoah. He predicts a coming famine, and so the Pharoah begins to store up grain in advance, which no one else does. So when the famine comes, people come from other lands looking for food. And one day, Joseph looks out and sees his own brothers there. He’s no longer a boy, though, so they don’t recognize him. And for a while he pretends not to know them
It goes on like this for a while. Joesph even sets them up to look like thieves, and tricks them into bringing their father and youngest bother to Egypt. But when they are finally all there, Joesph tells them who he is. And he feeds them and keeps them safe during the famine. And his father is overjoyed, and before he dies he blesses Joseph.
But now, the brothers get scared. They knew Joseph wouldn’t do anything to them while their father was still alive. But what about now? They beg Joseph not to harm them, the way they harmed him. And that’s when Joseph says these lines: “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you meant to harm me, God meant it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”
Joseph is a good person. A forgiving person. I wrestle with whether or not I could be that forgiving. But more than that, I have always wrestled with that line: “God meant it for good”. It sounds too much like those people in the hospital.
And I remember a story that William Sloan Coffin, a minister who was once the chaplain at Yale, once told. Coffin’s son Alex was killed in a car accident at the age of 24. A week later he got up into the pulpit and told the story of people who had tried to comfort him. In particular he recounted how one woman, loaded down with quiches she had brought, off-handedly said to him, “I just don’t understand the will of God.”
Distraught and heartbroken, he lit into her. “I’ll say you don’t, lady”, he told her. He went on to say that God was not some sort of “cosmic sadist” who makes these things happen. Instead, he said, when his son died, “God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”
I think that’s true. I believe that when we are hurt, God hurts with us. And that’s why I don’t believe that God wills bad things to happen to us. And I don’t believe God wanted Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery.
If you go back to the original Hebrew of this text, you find that what we read as “God meant it for good” actually translates more accurately to something like “God devised it for good”. I hear that as “God used if for good”.
I don’t believe God ordains bad things to happen so that later on more bad things won’t happen. I don’t think we are chess pieces being moved around without free will. Joseph’s brothers had complete control over what they were doing. But I do believe that, no matter what, God can meet us in our suffering, and God can transform it for good.
That means that God does not give us cancer, or crash cars, or make the people we love betray us. But it does mean that God can be beside us in even the worst of situations, and God can help us find a way through. God can bring new life after destruction. That’s literally what Easter, this season, is all about.
Now, I don’t mean that in a naive way. Joseph’s brothers should never have done that to him. And especially when what has been done to us intentionally, we have to be allowed to name that. But in the aftermath, we can become hard, bitter, and hateful people, slow to forgive and quick to lash out. In other words, we can become exactly like the people who have hurt us, which means that we will likely become people who hurt others.
Or, we can accept that what was done to us was wrong and, knowing that God is with us, knowing that God can help us to transform even the worst of it, we can choose to be better. We can become Joesphs in a world of jealous brothers, finding ways to transform the trauma into hope and new life.
We will all be Joseph from time to time. But, truth be told, sometimes we will also be the brothers. Truth be told, I’d rather be the noble Joseph even with all the pain than the conniving brother. But none of us is perfect, and so there’s also the question of what to do when we find that we ourselves are the brothers. And I’ll leave you with this story.
In 1867 a man named Alfred Nobel patented his new invention. It was a a mix of nitroglycerin and explosives that came to be called “dynamite”. It was a new, more deadly, way to make war, and Nobel’s invention would bring him plenty of money.
But then, in 1888, his brother died. And the newspaper, thinking it was Alfred who had died, ran an obituary for him instead. The headline, translated from French, was this: “the merchant of death is dead”. It went on to read that, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”
Nobel was horrified that this was his legacy. He realized what he had done. And so, he took the money that he had made from his weapon of war, and donated it in order to form a new series of prizes for contributions to humanity. The greatest of all of these awards we know today as the “Nobel Peace Prize”.
When it comes to metaphorical “brothers of Joesph”, Nobel took the cake. And yet, even he could change his legacy. Even he could transform what he had done into a small source of hope for a broken world.
That’s true for me, and that’s true for you. Whether you are Joseph, a brother, or a little bit of both, God is not done with us yet. What ever has happened to you, whatever you have caused to happen, it does not have to be the last word. As long as we breathe, God can always help us to turn things for good.