From Victim to Survivor
"As humans we must bury our hurts. We can’t live our lives constantly allowing our inner pains to hold us back. But don’t we want just to cry out sometimes."
Genesis 45:3-11, 15
It is not surprising that Andrew Lloyd Webber chose the story of Joseph as the story line for a musical. It is an exceptional story.
It tells of Jacob, a patriarch of the Hebrew people and his twelve sons. It is not untypical that the youngest son, Joseph, was the most favoured. Particularly of course in a large family.
There may be youngest children here. In which case, I am generalising, and it may not apply to you. But generally youngest children tend to be highly social, confident, creative and they are adept at getting others to do things for them.
Parents tend to coddle the youngest child and often call on the older siblings to look out for them – to fight their battles. As a result, the child will be more adventurous, believing that they cannot fail because there is always someone there to look out for them.
In the case of Jacob’s family, the youngest, Joseph was precocious. As a result, he created jealousy amongst his older brothers. Famously, he dreamt of his brothers bowing down before him.
The book of Genesis in the Bible records an opportunity the brothers had to kill the youngest child. But they were indecisive. Some wanted to kill him outright. Reuben wanted to leave him in a pit but refrain from fratricide. In the end, an opportunity arose with a passing caravan of traders, Ishmaelites. Joseph was sold as a slave and ended up in Egypt.
He had a tough time and to cut a long story short – he finds himself in a position of power during a seven-year famine. His brothers pleading with him for a supply of food.
The tables are reversed.
He had been powerless in a pit, and his brothers literally had the power of life and death over him.
We pick up the story where Joseph has the power over his brothers. He doesn’t make it easy for them and does not reveal his identity rather he spoke through an interpreter.
Finally, as we read this morning, he could not hold his emotions any longer. He sends his retinue out of the room but that was pointless. He wept so loudly that everyone could hear it.
A cry of pent-up distress.
A cry revealing years of an unlanced wound.
As humans we must bury our hurts. We can’t live our lives constantly allowing our inner pains to hold us back. But don’t we want just to cry out sometimes. When no one is around just to allow the tears to come and the sobbing to be out of control.
Joseph retells the story of his narrow escape from murder by his own brothers, his being sold into slavery and the struggle he had to achieve the position of power and responsibility which he then achieved.
This is not a story of revenge but forgiveness.
One of the greatest stories of reconciliation between brothers ever told.
He tells them not to be distressed or angry with themselves. The outcome of those horrific events was that he survived. And not only survived but found a purpose in his survival – to save the lives of thousands upon thousands of Egyptians and now to save his own family from starvation.
It was not his brothers’ treachery which put him there but God. God used all the sons of Jacob in the mission of salvation. God used Jacob’s tribe to fill the hungry with good things. To bring freedom from hunger.
Listen again to the wonderful verse –
‘And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them, and after that his brothers talked with him.
Now imagine Joseph back in the pit with his brothers debating whether to kill him, leave him for the animals, or sell him into slavery.
Imagine Joseph’s fresh seventeen-year-old face smiling at his brother. ‘Don’t worry bros – it’s all part of God’s plan. Don’t blame yourselves. Have a great life!’
Of course, he didn’t.
Joseph has done something which often helps survivors in their healing process.
He retells the story of his trauma and changes it. He looks back on painful experiences and has slowly reframed his story.
He answers the most profound question which a survivor can ask – why me?
Why did I survive?
Is there a reason that I am still here.
Joseph finds an answer.
He survived so that others can live.
He survived so that his brothers can be freed of guilt.
He survived so his father would not live in the deep pain of loss which so troubled him.
In our city, there are many people living with deep traumatic experiences.
Later this year, we will have a repeat of the event we held before the pandemic called Singing our Lives. There will be a choir of people who have survived torture who are part of the amazing charity Freedom from Torture.
This afternoon we will host a memorial event for the Patriarch Abune Antonios. The congregation will be made up of Eritreans many of whom will have known the trauma of difficult journeys escaping the tyrannical regime -the North Korea of Africa.
There are women who have faced abuse in the home and violence in the streets.
There are young people who have been rejected by parents or who have been co-opted into gangs.
There are victims of crime, survivors of terrorist attacks, and of fires and road accidents.
There are people who have endured critical illnesses.
All of us have survived in one way or another. Some more dramatically than others but our trauma belongs to us, and we should not measure it against anyone else’s pain.
We kind of hear you. ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.’
The Gospel is not easy.
Coming to reconciliation and forgiveness for when we have been wronged is not something we can do easily from our own will.
I once preached a sermon on the story of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. I said that I found the passage a bit disturbing because I couldn’t help but worry about Pharoah’s army drowning. Great that the Israelites managed to survive and live to tell the tale. But not so great for the mother, father, wives, children of the soldiers back in Egypt.
Afterwards, one member of the congregation came to me and said: ‘I would have drowned the lot!’ Then she said – I love Jesus but don’t give me any of that ‘turning the other cheek nonsense’.
I felt my sermon had fallen on stony ground that morning.
In truth it is not enough to raise our arms in worship of Jesus, we must also struggle with his teaching.
The Orthodox Christians are told to light a candle for their enemies. Not easy!
The church must never preach an easy Gospel. For that would be a great disservice to the Master and a great disservice to the world.
I do think though that Joseph’s reframing of the story shows a maturity of faith from which we can all learn.
His is a story of the reframing of a survivor.
Tragically, too often it is the perpetrators who do the reframing. Listen to the excuses that are made in the church for the abuse of children and women by clergy. The appalling cover ups were to protect the church – to preserve the dignity of the office of Bishop or clergy. And even the Pope Emeritus Benedict said that he had not been involved in the decision to move an abusive priest to another parish to abuse even more. He only admitted that he had been involved when the documentation showed that he had. Perhaps he needed to admit to himself that his motivation had not been as pure as wanted to believe.
Even a Pope can reframe a narrative from the perspective of a perpetrator. That happens in court rooms, police stations, Bishop’s palaces and – let’s be honest – our own minds.
We invariably find justification for the wrong we do to others.
Your way is so beautiful. You tell us there is a way out of the cycle of revenge, cover up, denial in which violence, anger and wounding are held in perpetual motion from one week to the next, one year to the next, one generation to the next.
Are you telling us that we can reframe the most difficult and painful experiences of our lives as opportunities for good?
It is so beautiful because it is so counter-intuitive.
It is so wonderful because it is so obvious, yet so radical.
Are we being told that in whatever wrong we have suffered or whatever trauma we have survived, there is the kernel of hope – that there is the seed of an opportunity to grow in our trust of the loving God.
If we nurture that seed within us then, like Joseph, we can learn to tell the story of our lives differently.
In the Bible, Joseph who was once a powerless victim has become a powerful survivor. Forgiveness for the very real wrongs perpetrated against us come from the power of God whose love for us comes as a gift.
That gift is the forgiveness which pours from the unconditional love of God.
Are you telling us that the release which comes from forgiveness is sweeter than the satisfaction of revenge?
For this is what you said –
‘Forgive and you will be forgiven, give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back’.
We are not being instructed to forgive – rather we are being offered God’s Spirit which can transform our deepest sadness through the abundance of God’s generosity toward us.
In God’s generosity we can find the power of transformation, change, renewal, strength, wisdom, hope. It is there for you, and it is there for me.‹ back