August 16, 2020
Sent to Foreigners: Joseph’s Brothers 11th Pentecost
Genesis 5:1-15 August 16, 2020 Matthew 15:21-28
My letters went to Curlew by accident. I had moved from Seattle to Spokane to study counseling at Whitworth. The secretary at my former church made a typographical error when publishing my new address in the church newsletter, and the ZIP Code was that of Curlew, WA, rather than northern Spokane. As a result, the first several letters I received from folks in Seattle went first to Curlew, then got re-routed down to me. My letters went to Curlew by accident—or did they?
Four months after arriving in Spokane, I was visited by a pastor who helped arrange pulpit supply for several small churches in the Presbytery. He was wondering if I might be willing to spend the next summer in Curlew, and travel up there once a month during the rest of the year to 1. Preach, 2. Celebrate communion, and 3. Moderate their Session. I didn’t know anything about this tiny congregation just a stone’s throw from the Canadian border, but I felt a STRONG sense that God wanted me to go there. I started driving up there once a month to preach and get to know the people, and I ended up having a really great summer being their short-term pastor! This led to a continuing relationship with the folks in Curlew and in nearby Republic, and that summer was a significant chapter in my own personal development. Sometime later, I found those old letters that had the big CURLEW postmark on them, and I couldn’t help but sense that God had sent those letters “astray” as a way of putting Curlew in my brain! “We go nowhere by accident,” right?!
Well, in today’s Scripture readings we have 1. The continuing saga of Joseph and his sojourn in Egypt, as well as 2. A brief vignette of an interaction between Jesus and “a Canaanite woman”—a foreigner.
BOTH passages show God’s hand at work in some seemingly random, “accidental” situations! Friends, can we believe, along with Joseph, that God sends us into different places as part of God’s plan to bless us—and to bless others? And can we, like Jesus, reach out to folks who are different from us? And, finally, can we forgive those who treat us badly, trusting that God will use even these bad things to work out God’s good purposes? Let’s look more closely and see what God might be saying to us.
Grace in Practice
Most of us know the story of Joseph, and of how his jealous brothers sold him into slavery. He was taken down to Egypt, and sold to a high official named Potiphar. There, he worked hard and honestly, earning Potiphar’s complete trust…but ended up in prison after being wrongly accused of a crime.
Friends, put yourselves in Joseph’s place for a moment. One day, he was the favorite son in a large, prosperous family—and the next, tied up and sold into slavery, shipped out to Egypt. Instead of sulking and bemoaning his unfair treatment, he got busy and worked hard—forgetting the position of privilege he had one enjoyed. And when he went to prison for refusing the advances of Potiphar’s wife, surely he could be forgiven for sliding into self-pity and despair…but he didn’t! He made himself useful in the prison, and the warden put him in charge of the place. (I can almost hear Joseph repeating under his breath, “I go nowhere by accident. Wherever I go, God is sending me; wherever I am, God has put me here. God has a purpose in my being here!”)
Indeed, God’s purpose led Joseph into that prison, because there he met some of Pharaoh’s servants and interpreted their dreams for them. And when Pharaoh himself was having troubling dreams, one of these servants told him about Joseph! He then interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams and informed him that there were going to be 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine. He then boldly suggested that Pharaoh find someone to organize the building of storage barns to hold the surplus grain during the years of plenty so that there would be food on hand through the famine. And, surprise! SURPRISE! Pharaoh chose Joseph to be that person. And Joseph prepared Egypt to survive the famine.
When the famine struck his family back in Canaan, and Jacob sent his sons down to Egypt to buy food, it was Joseph (all grown up and unrecognized)—Joseph who dealt with them! And when he revealed his identity to them, they were dismayed because of the evil they had done to him (and because they knew he was powerful enough to have terrible revenge.)
But instead Joseph wept out loud, and asked them to come closer, and he told them not to be distressed or angry with themselves. And he declared his faith in God’s all-powerful hand:
God sent me before you to preserve life!
It was not you who sent me here, but God!
Joseph asserted his faith that God was behind all the events that brought him to Egypt, put him in a position to help build up reserves of grain, and thereby helping to preserve not only Egypt but also Jacob’s family!!
Instead of holding on to the position of anger and revenge, Joseph chose forgiveness. He chose forgiveness. And instead of giving in to despair, Joseph displayed a willingness to see God’s hand at work all through his difficult sojourn. And Joseph’s traitorous brothers? They got a second chance; they got their (nicer) brother back; and they got a glimpse of God’s amazing mercy and power!
Now, I mentioned last week that being sent to foreigners was especially frightening because the culture was focused around family and tribe. Most people of that era believed that their god (or gods) were LOCAL—that each land had its own god. What we see in this story is that Yahweh is concerned about the welfare of the Egyptians as well, and makes provision to see them through the famine. There’s no room for ethnocentricity in God’s economy.
We see in our Gospel reading that Jesus had a significant encounter with a non-Jewish woman. The text tells us that he took his disciples to the district of Tyre and Sidon (Gentile territory), so it’s obvious that he expected to run into some “foreigners!” And when this woman cried out, asking for healing for her daughter, his disciples betrayed their ethnocentric prejudice by urging Jesus to “send her away!”
As we examine this exchange, I want you to keep in mind that Jesus was speaking a different language, which has been translated into English. He spoke from a different culture, and we have to somehow translate into our culture. And we don’t really know his tone of voice, so I will do his voice the way I hear it!
When the Disciples urged him to “send her away,” Jesus seized on this teachable moment by imitating the attitude of his disciples, and he told the woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” She fell to her knees in front of him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He continued with his charade, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Dog is a derogatory term sometimes used to describe non-believers.) I believe that, by now, the woman could see that Jesus was saying these things for the benefit of the Disciples, and she played along, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
In response, Jesus threw aside any barrier between Jew and Canaanite, any sense of ethnic superiority, and declared, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Joseph had been sent to “foreigners,” and so had Jesus.
In fact, the Scriptures tell us that Jesus left his place at the side of the Father to come to us foreigners and live as one of us. He did this to reunite us with God, to bridge the gulf that sin had created between us. Jesus discerned his purpose from a young age, and was obedient all the way to death on a cross. Joseph was held in slavery and even imprisoned, but he kept his attitude right and trusted that God would use his difficult situation for God’s own purposes. His story must have been a source of strength for Jesus as he faced his own imprisonment and scourging and crucifixion. And that same story can help you and me as we face life’s difficulties.
So, are there times when you feel “imprisoned” by your circumstances? Do you feel “trapped” in a body that doesn’t work the way you want it to? Are your choices severely limited because of family needs or financial struggles? Have you suffered some very real hurt because of someone else’s actions? When these feelings come along, I invite you to think of William Barclay’s comment on Philippians 1: “God put me in this situation; and God means it, with all its problems and its difficulties, to make for my happiness and usefulness in time, and for my joy and peace in eternity.”
Prayer: Lord, help us to see your purpose in all the seemingly random things in our lives. And when we can’t see it, help us to trust that you are using every event, every struggle, every failure and hardship, all of it to do your perfect will. Give us expectant hearts that anticipate your glorious victory in our lives. We ask it in the name of Christ, amen.