Scripture: Joseph Reveals Himself to His Brothers, Genesis 45:1-15 (NRSV)
Offered to United Church of Chapel Hill by Katherine Henderson
August 20, 2017
Last Saturday I sat in my parents’ home in Massachusetts, glued to the live videos of the white supremacist protests in Charlottesville. They chanted slogans of hate ripped straight from the mouths of their Nazi and KKK predecessors. Like all terrorists, white supremacists are bullies. Their hatred and fear make them small, vindictive and dangerous. On Friday night the police stood quietly, no riot gear in sight, protecting the right of these violent bullies to freely speak hate in the land of the free.
Rev. Traci Blackmon, the UCC’s Executive Minister for Justice and Witness Ministries, was there in Charlottesville. You may remember her powerful preaching when she visited us for a Lenten retreat last spring. Rev. Blackmon and many others traveled to Charlottesville to offer a faithful resistance to the white supremacists. Friday night, clergy and laypeople of many faiths and colors packed into a church in Charlottesville. They sang of freedom, of love triumphing over evil, even while torch-carrying bodies streamed around the church. They were a beacon of light in a dark night of white terror.
Eventually the police evacuated the church, shuttling worshippers out into the back alleys, fearful for the safety of those who sang and prayed inside. After leaving the sanctuary, Rev. Blackmon saw the faces of the terrorists carrying fire and shouting Nazi slogans in the night. This is significant: she saw their faces. They didn’t even bother to wear sheets. Now, she says, white supremacists wear “polos and oxfords. And they look like students." Those terrorists streaming through Charlottesville—they looked like students. They are somebody’s neighbors, co-workers, cousins. Maybe yours or mine.
As a white, straight, Christian, I am not among the groups targeted by white supremacists. I cannot understand how it feels to be a person of color, or a Jew, or a queer person seeing the images from Charlottesville. But I am listening, deeply, to the voices of those most affected, trying to be a witness to the fresh pain heaped upon centuries of oppression and trauma. And what I do know is this: our freedom is bound up together. We belong to each other, our bodies woven together in the divine tapestry. I can feel this truth in my bones. And when our collective body is hurt by white supremacy—from an egregious display like Charlottesville to the ongoing, everyday violence of racist systems—we all suffer. And God suffers with us.
Public theologian Jennifer Bailey says “white supremacy is not just an ideology, but a theology.” According to Rev. Bailey, we Americans are “indoctrinated to worship the God of whiteness as that which is to be aspired to, that which is holy.” White churches, since colonial times, have helped build a society that worships whiteness and denigrates blackness. We are part of this unholy legacy.
White supremacy sees life as a zero-sum game in which there are never enough resources to go around. One terrorist in Charlottesville was so drenched in this virulent evil that he drove his car into a group of counter-protestors, killing Heather Heyer and wounding nineteen others. The leader of the North Carolina KKK sent his congratulations.
Lord, in your mercy: hear our prayer.
This is a dangerous and frightening moment in our country and in the world, a moment when our president engages in nuclear posturing while enabling neo-Nazis with his lukewarm rebukes and outright lies. Many of us are scared and heartbroken. What does wisdom look like, in this moment?
Let us look for a word of wisdom together in today’s scripture. Here we have a piece of the story of Joseph. Joseph was his father’s favorite, and his brothers were very jealous of him. Joseph’s brothers wanted to grab all the power and privilege for themselves; they didn’t think there was enough to go around. They banded together to terrorize Joseph and sell him into slavery in Egypt.
Joseph, recovering from this betrayal, manages to survive and even thrive in a difficult world. He grows up. Many years later, his brothers come to Egypt in great need, their families starving in Israel. They have no idea their brother is alive, much less in a position of power. In our reading for today, Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers, weeping uncontrollably. Joseph’s brothers are initially worried, thinking the one they betrayed will send them away to starve. But Joseph does not choose retribution. Instead he initiates a process of forgiveness. This is how God works in the story—God nudges Joseph, the wounded one, toward forgiveness instead of retribution.
But our text for today is not the beginning of Joseph’s story—it’s the end, the “reveal” as they say in magic. To get the full picture, we have to back up a bit. At first, when Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt looking for help, Joseph hides his identity from them. He doesn’t jump straight to forgiveness and reconciliation. No—first he accuses them of being spies, and throws them into jail! Joseph puts his brothers through a series of tests to see if they would betray their youngest brother, Benjamin, who had taken over the role of favorite son. Joseph tests his brothers to hold them accountable and to see whether they had changed.
Through the Joseph story we learn a couple of critical things about forgiveness. One: forgiveness is a process that includes accountability. And two: forgiveness and reconciliation must be directed by the one who was wronged, not imposed or coerced by others.
Sometimes we are lucky enough to be like Joseph, weeping with gratitude at the grace of forgiving another. And sometimes, we are like his brothers, trying to hoard privilege, betraying our brethren, and dumbfounded by the possibility that we might be forgiven.
The full Joseph story includes a lot more detail and nuance about his brothers. They were not a homogenous group. Some wanted to kill him; one wanted to save him; another finally convinced the group to sell him into slavery. When I envision the story, I imagine that there were a couple of ringleader brothers. These guys thought their family was a zero-sum game. They created an enemy, Joseph, and got the whole group drunk on their jealousy and hatred of him.
Those ringleader brothers: those are the kind of people who would chant Nazi slogans and call for genocide. Those are the kind of people who would drive a car into a crowd of unarmed protestors. Right? It is easy for us to see and name them as evil. But there were some other brothers, the quiet ones, who went along with the plan. They may have disagreed, or even mourned their brother Joseph. But it wasn’t enough. They were silent, and so they were complicit in the betrayal.
I am a white person complicit in the sins of racism. I am part of the system of white supremacy that continues to betray the most vulnerable among us. And in this moment, I must face my identity as one of Joseph’s brothers. I’m not one of the ringleaders, but I am one of those quiet brothers. It is long past time that people like me hold ourselves accountable. We need to listen more to those who have been betrayed, and then follow their lead. This process of accountability and action will begin to set us all free.
As we work our way into deeper accountability, we must always remember: we are still and always beloved. Each of us is made in the image of God. We, like Joseph’s brothers, make grievous mistakes. But those mistakes do not have to define us or make us small. God offers us her deep well of forgiveness, renewing us for the hard work ahead.
Let’s circle back to the scripture and to Charlottesville. I’ve named Joseph’s brothers—both the neo-Nazi ringleaders and the quiet brothers who prefer not to get involved. Then we have Joseph, who embodies the divine process of healing. Who is Joseph, today, in Charlottesville?
For me, Joseph is the interfaith, interracial body of clergy and friends, the ones who had been evacuated from the church. On Saturday they linked arms and walked through the streets in silent protest. In their silence, the peace of God rippled out in waves. Where others contracted in hate, they expanded in grace. They were Joseph, demanding accountability while also offering God’s profound love. Their bodies, in magnificent diversity, herald a vision of justice that is much, much larger than we can imagine.
Asked what it was like to march through the streets of Charlottesville, author and activist Lisa Sharon Harper said: “We knew what we were walking into. We knew we might not come back… With each step, I just kept holding on to the call to love.” Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, said: "They had their guns and shields. We had our songs, our faith, our love. And we had each other. "
There is an expansive movement of love afoot in the world, bringing together people of all colors, people of many faiths and no faith. It was on display in downtown Durham on Friday, when justice-loving people prevented a KKK rally, drumming and dancing out their joy and commitment. It was on display in downtown Boston yesterday, when thousands of justice-loving people marched to Boston Common, overwhelming the small number of white supremacists.
Our church has long been part of this movement, and we have more work to do. Yes, the protests this week are horrifying—but also they are nothing new. The roots of systemic racism run deep in this country, infecting all our institutions, including the church. United Church’s “Racial Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Covenant” is printed in your bulletin on page 9. I encourage all of us to read, meditate, and pray on these commitments. Each of us is responsible for embodying this covenant in order to make lasting change in the institutions that shape our lives.
For those of us who are white, let’s hear this loud and clear—not as permission to stay in our comfort zones, but as a call to figure out where we personally are called to show up against injustice. Because, as our own UCCH member Joey Honeycutt says, “we are indeed called to different places, but that doesn’t mean we get to stay where we are comfortable.”
I’ll leave you with these words from Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer. Speaking at her daughter’s funeral this week, Susan said:
“This is just the beginning of Heather’s legacy. You need to find in your heart that small spark of accountability…You poke that finger at yourself, like Heather would have done, and you… take that extra step… We are gonna be angry with each other, but let’s channel that anger not into violence, hate, fear—but let’s channel it into righteous action. Right now there are people here willing to listen and talk to one another…. The conversations have to happen. That’s the only way we are going to carry Heather’s spark. So remember: if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention… I’d rather have my child, but if I can’t: then by golly we’re gonna make it count.”
Amen and blessed be.