Preached on Sunday, 20.08.2017
By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
Today we reach the end of our journey through the stories of Genesis – and here it is good to remind ourselves, that through all these stories, one story has been being told. It is the attempt to tell the people of Israel where they come from, to tell them how they reached where they are, how it is that other peoples exist, where ancient enmities have come from, and where they as a people belong. And through it all is an attempt to account for the connection they feel they have with God, and how that connection should be expressed, how it should be lived. So, at the end (or at least the end for now) of the story, we find a story of family reunion, family reunification, a story of reconciliation and forgiveness – the same story in many ways as the story Jesus would later tell of a son returning to his father, but with many of the elements turned around.
Here the son is stolen away, trafficked to another land; and here it is not the case that the son returns, rather that his family follow him into the far country – the group of brothers we heard of today, now including the brother who had not been included in the first visit, and finally the father, the patriarch, the name-giver. And father and son have their roles reversed as the father is welcomed into the love and prosperity of the son, rather than the other way round. As we know, of course, there is a return to come as a people returns to its old nomadic ways and then moves from a nomadic to a settled way of living; and, as in other places in the world where nomadic tribes move toward settled, agrarian economies, there will be conflict over where those settlements are to be.
But that is in the books that follow Genesis. Here we are concerned with the tale of Joseph and his brothers – brothers who are as guilty as the looks on their faces, brothers who are worried, fearful of the judgement that will come their way – and the judgement which they know they deserve.
The story of Joseph and his brothers is a partial story – a partial story in the sense that is the story of people who feel themselves to be special in the eyes of God (they feel that God is partial to them), and a partial story in the sense that there is so much which has now vanished from view. Where are the members of the family who have gone off in other directions, the ones who ‘lost out’ in the power battles, or in the scheming and the manoeuvring? Where are the descendants of Esau, or of Leah, or of Ishmael? They are all there, somewhere, in the background; they have become ‘them’, ‘the others’, the people who are kind of like us, but they’re not really us.
And so, in the midst of the rejoicing with which Genesis comes to a close, in the midst of the settled future that lies in front of them, there needs to be a remembrance of those who are not part of the hugging and the kissing, who do not share in the tears of joy, those who are not part of the reconciliation, those who are yet to be gathered, those who thought they were gathered but ended up rejected, or banished, or forgotten.
So when we look at this story we need to remember that it is a partial story – and we need to look at it both in terms of those who are in the story, and also in terms of those who are not. Because the history of humanity is full of reunions, of people being brought together, reunited, gathered from their past separation into a new bond of trust and friendship, honour and love – but always there are those who not included in any of that. Sometimes they are those who pay the price of a new friendship, a new alliance.
Here, the story tells all who will listen of the gathering of the tribes of Israel, the families descended from Jacob – and it gives a very simple way to work out who is in and who is out. The people of Israel are those who went to Egypt – they became the people who, four hundred years later when Exodus picks up the tale, will walk out of the land that took them in, and head for the new land, the promised land – promised to those who followed Joseph to Egypt, and not to those who did not.
And the prophet speaks: ‘thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.’
It’s an agenda that looks beyond the immediate, beyond the visible, beyond the traditional, beyond (even) the acceptable – an agenda that’s difficult to live by. Look this morning at Isaiah and Paul, and their use of the word ‘all’; it’s a word that is always a challenge to people of faith. A house of prayer for all nations, says Isaiah; and the faithful of Israel say ‘really?’ All nations, they reckon, is not what they signed up for. But Isaiah insists that foreigners are welcome, that eunuchs – the unproductive, the sexually deviant, those with no future of family or name – they too are welcome. It would not have been easy to hear; it still isn’t, for some.
Paul includes all in sin so that all may be included in mercy, in salvation. Paul insists that there are none who are sinless, none who on their own merit, none who by their own effort, can deserve the love and the acceptance of God. But, says Paul, that’s the point. God is in all, and for all – and there are no exceptions. ‘Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.’
And yet the people of faith, from the earliest times to the latest, have laid such restrictions on the gathering of God that it has never been within their understanding nor within their grasp. ‘Were you there,’ they ask, as the people Israel asked of those who had not followed Joseph to Egypt. ‘Are you on the list,’ they ask, like bouncers at a fancy nightclub. The people of Israel knew who were on the list, for the list was there for all to see toward the end of Genesis, the list of Jacob’s sons and their families, the ones who went, the ones whose descendants returned.
And we have struggled in the church too, over the centuries, with these questions of choice, and election, and lists in the book of life. We have asked over and over again where the mercy of God ends, for we have been sure that it must end somewhere. And, lest God was not up to the task, lest Jonah was right in his suspicion that God just forgives people without thought for the social consequences, without thought for order and law and justice, we have taken it upon ourselves to damn those who would not agree with us, who would not see things our way, who would not do things our way.
And the prophet insists on saying: ‘thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.’ And we have begun to wonder if there really is no end to the gathering, to the forgiving, to the divine embrace.
And, amazingly, we have an encounter with which to contend, an encounter in which Jesus is dramatically reminded of the infinite gathering of God. Jesus, we find, is working with the list. He’s asking who was there in Egypt with Joseph. He’s asking who really is part of the people of Israel, asking who can trace their roots and trace their ancestry back to the list in Genesis. And Jesus says: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ He’s telling her she’s not on the list. But it gets worse. ‘It’s not fair,’ he says, ‘to take the children’s food (that is, the food of the children of Israel, the descendants of Jacob) and give it to the dogs.’ He’s calling her a dog. It’s the kind of name that has been used for people of one faith that people of another faith want gratuitously to insult – the kind of language not unheard even today.
But the power of the poor is spoken, the privilege of those who have nothing to see more clearly, the ability of the outcast and the oppressed to understand the working of exclusion and the pulse of prejudice. ‘Even the dogs,’ she says, ‘eat.’ Even under the table where bread and blessing are shared, and where forgiveness and mercy are displayed, even down there where the blessed and the forgiven have no need to go, there are crumbs – crumbs of comfort, crumbs of hope, a trail of crumbs that might yet lead to a future.
And Jesus, like the prodigal son of his story, comes to his senses; he remembers the feast of his father’s kingdom, the hall filled with those from the highways and the byways, the table flowing with richest wines and groaning with the finest of food – which will be for all nations. And he says, ‘what was I saying? what was I thinking?’ ‘Of course,’ he says, ‘of course your daughter is healed; of course.’ Just for a moment he was caught up in the traditional ways of thinking of his faith, of many faiths; they are ways of thinking that pretend to be God, but that in fact exclude because they are afraid, like Jonah, that God will not do so. They are, of course, right to be afraid – for God will not, and Jesus does not.
Just for a moment Jesus allows his vision to be reduced and limited, his horizons to be restricted; he allows the moment of forgiveness and mercy and reconciliation expressed in the encounter between Joseph and his brothers to be just that – a family affair with no wider significance. But Jesus’ life showed then and tells us now that particular events of mercy, forgiveness and acceptance are not meant to be left as particular. They are meant to point us all to a life of forgiveness, a life of mercy, a life of acceptance – a life aimed at the life of God, a life lived for all peoples, a life guided by a vision that is not narrow or limited, but all-encompassing.
I came across this prayer:
Sometimes, Lord, we dare to dream
of a day when the whole church on earth
will become one in love and one in purpose.
Then a doubt arises;
is the unity of the church too small a vision?
Is it diverting us from directing our prayers and our energies
to a larger hope,
the unity of all humankind
no longer despoiling planet earth,
no longer striving against one another,
but seeking to live in harmony
with all peoples and with the whole creation?
Is this what you are calling us to work towards?
Is this what you are urging us to proclaim?
Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.