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Special, Suffering and Sent
26 November 2017
Jennifer Davis Sensenig, Community Mennonite Church
If you’ve read Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail or Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison , it’s time to re-read them. Or, if you’ve read enough from imprisoned Christian men, then consider Bread and Water by Jennifer Haines, another follower of Jesus incarcerated for faithful resistance to a violent empire. Or, if you don’t have time for book, read about my sister-in-law, Anne Sensenig. Her recent Anabaptist political action landed her in jail–just overnight. Her article is on the Mennonite Creation Care Network website. Or just search for Lancaster Against Pipelines. In a season when Faith in Action is focused on local criminal justice reform, it’s fitting to not only learn about local conditions for persons in our jails and prisons and on our probation rolls, we might also find inspiration from people of faith who have spent time under lock and key.
Four New Testament letters seem to have been written from prison: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon. These letters interpret the good news of Jesus Christ for cities and situations of the Roman Empire. And in Genesis, the prisoner, Joseph interprets dreams about the Egyptian empire.
Joseph in Broad Strokes
The Biblical story of Joseph is a great adventure: favored son with special coat and special dreams; thrown into a pit and sold into slavery; he then earned responsibility in Potiphar’s house in Egypt. We conveniently bounced over the story of Joseph refusing the sexual advances of his master’s wife. But that episode–it’s Genesis ch. 39–is what landed Joseph in prison. After the pit, prison was another low point in Joseph’s life, but he was released through his own ingenuity and the cupbearer who–thank God–finally remembered him. Then Joseph rises to power in Egypt. He becomes second in command over the whole empire.
But let’s pause for a moment in the prison. My favorite verse in Genesis is a question, spoken in that Egyptian prison. It’s recorded in Hebrew, but I suppose it was asked in the ancient Egyptian language, with a trace of a Hebrew dialect. In this question we hear the arrogance of young Joseph in a fancy coat and the later wisdom of a leader who reconciles with his family. Perhaps some of us struggle with some of the same tensions between arrogance and wisdom. So, without further ado, my favorite verse in Genesis: And Joseph said to [the chief cupbearer and the chief baker], “Do not interpretations belong to God?” Ponder that. We’ll get back to it.
Several themes in Joseph’s story anticipate the life of Jesus. Both Joseph and Jesus have special births. Joseph’s birth ended Rachel’s long chapter of infertility. Jesus was a surprise, a special child whose birth ended centuries of Israel waiting for a new kind of king. While it offends our modern sensibilities, recognizing someone as special, different, set apart is not wrong. It is what we human beings do to make sense of the world. We make distinctions. Joseph was given a fancy coat. We know today that parents are not to play favorites. But if we can set our moralizing aside–this is very hard to do–scripture teaches us something here.
Jesus is also special. Jesus was a special child, just as every child is special and has qualities that families and communities should celebrate. Jesus was also special because he uniquely revealed the God of Israel in human form. The idea–that God could be specially revealed in human form–was rolling around in Israel’s imagination and theological hopper for centuries. But it happened in Jesus of Nazareth. And today–not all day–but in moments of today it happens in us. God is revealed in human form. We are the body of Christ. When we celebrate the reign of Christ, it is not only anticipation of the future, but rejoicing in all the Christlike service, ministry, compassion, justice, love and joy that is already visible in the world. The reign of Christ is among us.
Jesus is special in really wonderful ways. He lived as human beings ought to live. Now he had some particularities–Jesus was a man, a Middle Easterner, a Galilean Jew–but he lived with love. He lived with so much love that he let himself be troubled by the unlovable–the prisoners, the widows, the diseased, the discredited. Jesus even lived with love when he was angry. He refused violence or revenge and taught others to do the same.
By love Jesus treated women, minorities, children, and lepers, even rich tax-collectors with dignity. Jesus was the Messiah–the specially anointed one to inaugurate the reign of God on earth among not just Jewish people, but all people. So Joseph and Jesus were special.
Suffering as a Sign
Another theme in Joseph’s story that parallels the life of Jesus is suffering as a sign. You see, despite their special status, Joseph and Jesus suffered–pit, prison, rejection, cross. But their pain didn’t make them bitter, or resentful. Or, in Joseph’s case, not forever. The Biblical interpretation of Joseph and Jesus is that their suffering was a temporary experience that by God’s hand became valuable for their whole community–even future generations. In Biblical theology it’s called redemptive suffering. It’s suffering that accomplishes some some good. If you work in a field trying to reduce human suffering–medical field, therapist, aid worker, then your professional guild probably doesn’t talk about redemptive suffering. But, if you listen deeply to the stories of people’s suffering, sometimes–not all the time because there are different kinds of suffering, but sometimes–you’ll hear people say that there is a reason for what they’ve experienced, there is a purpose, a meaning, a logic to it all.
A third theme that Joseph in Genesis and Jesus in the NT share is that both are sent with a purpose. Jesus doesn’t catch onto this until he’s about 30 years old. So, if you’re not yet 30 and you don’t yet know the purpose of your life, you’re in good company. Jesus was in the Nazareth synagogue reading the Bible when he realized: The Spirit of YHWH is upon me. God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives. For Joseph it took longer. All these chapters in Genesis about Joseph are told in such a way that we can hear that there is some kind of purpose in all this. Joseph himself doesn’t piece it together until late in life. If you’re over 30 and you don’t why you were sent to the world, then let us hear your story, seek God. We’ll help each other discover our lives together.
Friends, being special, redemptive suffering, and being sent are markers of living according to the reign of God. These themes shared across Joseph’s story and the life of Jesus reveal one God telling the whole story of the Bible. And the interpretation of our lives also belongs to this same God. What might God want us to hear in these family stories in Genesis? We are special. Sure, we all have little lives. And some of us are more in touch with the dull or even meaningless dimensions of life. But the God says we are special, we are loved–beyond what we deserve or could earn. Second, God is at work in the midst of our suffering and the suffering of the world. And some of it will have meaning, will make sense, will even contribute to healing or feeding our families, our neighbors, our nation, the world. What might God want us to hear? We are special. Suffering can be redemptive. And we are sent.
Suffering as a sign.
The Hebrew prophets–from Miriam to Micah, from Jeremiah to Jesus–all suffer in ways that challenge our convention that God is just a really moral being–like us, only better. In the Bible, just like in our experience, suffering is sometimes the result of injustice. If you lose your job at a poultry plant because you were not given adequate treatment for your on-the-job injury, then your suffering is a result of injustice. And in the Bible suffering is sometimes unexplained–things just happen that are a result of natural forces, or evil forces, things out of our control. If your home is damaged in a hurricane or you’re a victim of a crime, that suffering is tragic. And in the Bible suffering is sometimes explained as the moral repercussions of people messing up. Sometimes suffering is directly described as God’s punishment. (For the record, we usually don’t like those passages because we’re afraid that means that God doesn’t love us as much as we need to be loved. Just to reassure you, God loves you more than you think you need to be loved. God anticipated all the love you would need to get through life and then budgeted extra. Just like Joseph had a surplus of grain. God has a surplus of love for you.)
But sometimes in the Bible suffering has an indirect purpose. This is true in the story of Joseph. Joseph escapes his brothers’ desire to kill him, but he is thrown into a pit and sold into slavery, tortures most of us can only vaguely comprehend. But later, released from prison and serving as second in command of Egypt Joseph’s economic plan saves people from starvation, and, as in the previous generation, there is another family reconciliation. In the end the powerful Joseph says to his very imperfect family:
“I am your brother , Joseph , whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed , or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are 5 more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here , but God; God has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.”
Joseph sees God’s redemptive love in his own story of suffering. He lets go of arrogance in favor of wisdom, believing he is sent to preserve life. Do not interpretations belong to God? As Community Mennonite Church, let us seek God together in the scriptures, in our stories and through Christ just the way MLK, Bonhoeffer, Jennifer Haines and lots of ordinary Christians do.
I’ll end with a stanza from a 17th century poem. It compares our scriptures to shining stars that help us find our way in the world. [Holy Scripture (st . 2) George Herbert , 17th cent . Welsh poet and Anglican priest . Died at age 39.]
Oh that I knew how all thy lights combine,
And the configurations of their glorie!
Seeing not onely how each verse doth shine,
But all the constellations of the storie.
This verse marks that, and both do make a motion
Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie:
Then as dispersed herbs do watch a potion,
These three make up some Christians destinie:
Such are thy secrets, which my life makes good,
And comments on thee: for in ev’ry thing
Thy words do finde me out, & parallels bring,
And in another make me understood.
Starres are poore books, & oftentimes do misse:
This book of starres lights to eternall blisse.
Scripture: Genesis 40-41
Our theme music is “Jesus, I believe you’re near,” composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.
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