Thursday, November 21, 2013

Hope: A Passion for the Possible

So his brothers approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended 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.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
Genesis 50:16-21

In my childhood, the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors held a special place. The idea that his jealous brothers would throw him into a pit and then sell him into slavery was terrifying. But in the end, Joseph came out on top. He rose from slavery to be a trusted advisor to Pharaoh and a powerful leader in Egypt. He warned of a coming famine and insisted that the country should store up grain to get them through the shortfall. He saved Egypt from catastrophe, and because Egypt was able to help other nations, he basically saved the world.

Much later I learned that his “coat of many colors” was a mistranslation. What his parents really gave him was a coat “with sleeves.” The sleeves were a big deal, but a coat with sleeves is not nearly as evocative as a coat of many colors, which sounds like a rainbow flag made into a coat.

But it is still a great story. Even after we look closely and realize that Joseph did plenty to annoy his brothers, and make allowances for the unfairness of his parents’ favoritism.

The best part of the story is the ending, when his brothers come to Egypt in the midst of famine looking for food. They find out that Joseph, the brother they sold into slavery, is in charge of the disposition of the grain they need and they are terrified. They beg forgiveness and fear the worst, but Joseph is more than ready to forgive.

He has his own interpretation of what happened. His brothers intended to do him harm, but God intended that good should come out of it. “So have no fear,” says Joseph, “I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” It is a wonderful moment of grace.

I have been meditating on this story as I think about the church trial this week in Pennsylvania. Rev. Frank Schaefer’s clergy brothers and sisters did not sell him into slavery for celebrating the same sex wedding of his son, but they did throw him into a (metaphorical) pit. Bishop Peggy Johnson of Eastern Pennsylvania seemed intent on making sure the pit was a deep one with a letter which seemed to clearly indicate her intent to uphold the actions of the trial court.

But that was not the last word.

Joseph’s gracious declaration that by God’s grace an evil intent had led to a good result came back to me as I read a pastoral letter from Bishop Sally Dyck of Illinois. It is an impassioned plea for love and inclusion.

A colleague called it too little and too late, but I don’t think so.

The trial has been a public relations disaster. We don’t need secular critics to show the world that Christians (United Methodist Christians) can be petty, judgmental, and toxic, we are eager to do it ourselves. Our Wesleyan theology, which has always been more about grace than judgment, was turned upside down. And our claims of “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.”, look foolish and hypocritical.

But I see hope.

I see hope in the outrage of folks who were once silent and can no longer keep still about a policy that is self-destructive, anti-Christian and just plain hateful in its implementation. I see hope in the bishops who have been silent for so long, and are now speaking out.

At the end of his autobiography, William Sloane Coffin, Jr. writes:

"I am hopeful. By this, I mean that hope, as opposed to cynicism and despair, is the sole precondition for a new and better life. Realism demands pessimism. But hope demands that we take a dark view of the present only because we hold a bright view of the future, and hope arouses, as nothing else can arouse, a passion for the possible."

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