Rev. Catherine Quehl-Engel
Each of us is a complex mixture of weakness and wisdom. Sinner and saint. Oak of righteousness and weed. Not one of us escapes being this mixture. Ask your sibling, spouse, parent or child, and they will tell you that this is true, even of you. Even the super heroes and saints we love the most are—like the rest of us, flawed and some how more endearing because of those weaknesses. The folks who think they are perfect—who fail to humbly acknowledge their own humanity are the ones who annoy us most. This is especially true of Christians, particularly clergy.
In high school, the person we kids at Monroe Public High School always wanted as our baccalaureate speaker was Fr. Campion. They’d line us up in the gym (as they did for our siblings the years before) and ask us to vote. All us Protestant and secular kids would join our Roman Catholic classmates in voting for him. We wanted him because we had heard that same speech every year—on how he had been on skid row, had struggled as a recovering alcoholic over the years, and we’d think that if God was able to use this flawed priest for some great purpose and meaning then imagine what God could do with us amid our doubts and flaws (Fr. Campion was chaplain of our local hospital, and a mentor for me; even came to my ordination theological competency hearing and, as a good Catholic priest, voted for me to be ordained. Even buried one of my grandfathers). He was head of the local Apostolate to The Handicap, and one of his favorite sayings was that all of us are handicap; it’s just that some of our handicaps are more obvious from the looks of things on the outside.
On a similar note, I recall how, over the years, it has been easier go to my dad with my flaws and failures rather than my mother. A recovering alcoholic and a couple failed marriages just make him more approachable with my own imperfections when I am in need of counsel.
Of course, sometimes it’s easier loving one’s neighbor or stranger than closest kin. Family dis-ease is as old as scripture. I think that’s why there are flawed biblical heroes and dysfunctional families sprawling throughout the pages of scripture, especially in that book of family feuds known as The Book of Genesis. I think those flawed characters and families are there not to serve so much as models of morality but mirrors of identity for our own families and lives. Folks like Joseph and his family remind us how God loves and uses us anyway--flaws and all--for leadership and the purposes of God’s redemptive love.
As for those points of fracture we can’t fix, we like those biblical characters and families, turn to a strength and grace larger than our own to fill the gulf. It’s like that Mizpah benediction plunked smack dab amid the father and son-in-law tensions of Jacob’s life. In their last words to each other after a big fight before they parted ways, Rachel’s father says “May the Lord watch between you and me while we are separated one from another.” Last May I was preparing the funeral homily for my grandfather. He was so dear to me, and all his life revered in his church, the Masons, and even voted Citizen of the Year in Green Bay. Yet he was also verbally abusive at home when he took to drinking. The relationship between him, his wife, and two sons was quite stormy. Sadly, my dad’s last words to him before grandpa died were “I never want to speak with you again. While combing through my grandfather’s bedside Bible in preparation for his funeral homily, of all things, I happened to find tucked within its pages a slip of paper with the words Mizpah benediction written in his own hand writing. “God will watch between us while we are separated one from another.” The timing of finding this message as I wondered how to prepare a grace filled the sermon disclosed the hidden hand and healing of God. Indeed, sometimes God alone is all that is able to fix the brokenness we as family try but fail to do. That’s the first of two points I want to make this morning. Sometimes, no matter how much therapy. No matter how many attempts to fix it, sometimes the reconciliation—if it happens at all this side of heaven—is something we don’t get to coerce and force but rather grow into and stumble upon. No longer obsessing on how so and so did you wrong, you eventually unclench the jaw and fist, and one day wake to notice that the bitterness has eased.
It still requires a degree of work on our parts. A synergy or co-creating with God’s grace. Still letting God be God while at the same time working with our own pain; reframing how we look at it on the spiritual path. As Shanty Deva and Pema Chodron suggest, working with our minds; with our reactivity to the things that provoke us or hook us. To lean into the discomfort or soft spot; into the things that make us so righteously indignant and all worked up which of course never did solve our conflicts and problems. To practice breathing, patience, and loving kindness with that vulnerable place and stormy sea. If it helps, imagining Christ saying to that stormy sea swirling inside you, “Peace Be still!” Or like Theresa the Little Flower, imagine Jesus riding that storm asleep in the back of the boat. And then inviting you to get in the back with him and ride the storm out.
I don’t know about you but I find today’s story about the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers as one of the most moving stories in scripture. “He wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it,” says the Genesis family album of the human condition. "I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.” “It was not you who sent me here,” he says to his brothers who decades prior left him in a pit. God took the discord and helped transform it. “He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them says the holy book. “And then the brothers talked with him.”That’s the dream isn’t it? To arrive at such a reconciled, harmonious place, be it in the family, or work place, or among feuding provinces and bishops at Lambeth and beyond. Whether that gets to happen for us this side of heaven is something we simply don’t know. But, in my second and final point, there is something we can learn from Joseph’s response to hardships and adversity for our daily living and growth in God. IN Joseph’s story reminding us that we have a choice as to whether we’ll reframe how we look at our pain while on the spiritual path.
As my good old 1950s Interpreter’s Bible Commentary points out, Joseph—who was left in a pit, then enslaved, then disgraced by a woman’s lies landing him in prison could have grown cynical; a disillusioned dreamer, he could have heeded advice from the likes of Job’s wife who said “curse God and die (Job 2:9).” Or, Joseph could have become vindictive, caught up in the intoxicating pleasure of revenge, “paralyzing his better self.” Or, he simply could have become discouraged. Now that is understandable. How easy we can buy into that devil of a voice that whispers despair in so many a battered down people, snuffing out the possibility of living into resurrection.
But, as the commentary notes so well (and I confess that I’m taking huge chunks of quotes of it at this point), Joseph clung to his invincible instinct, to the rainbow coat of many colors of his past which groomed him to believe in hope and knowledge that God had a purpose for his life worth believing in and pursuing. Same holds true for you and me. Your life has purpose and meaning. And like Joseph, we can trust even if amid losses and brokenness or failures it all.
One thing about pain. While some folks become bitter or yield to self-pity, I think that for most people, experiences of profound pain are humbling, expanding our compassion and empathy for the suffering of others, and thus our desire to assist God in alleviate pain.
Though I do not think God causes bad things to happen in order to make us better servant leaders, I do think as in the case of Joseph—God can take the harm we experience and use it for good. When young, dreaming away as daddy’s favorite while his jealous brothers did all the work, Joseph was not yet ready for leadership with a clear and wider sense of his purpose and meaning. “His dreams were originally self-centered” notes the commentary (37:5-10). “He was thinking about himself and his supposed pre-eminence, success, and greatness. His dreams were about honors and he may have developed into only a vain self-seeker.” The adversities he faced could either have destroyed him or clarified and strengthened him and enlarged his sympathies. When asked to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams he thought of life in a larger arena than saving his own hide or receiving personal recognition. “It is not in me,” he said to Pharaoh; “God”—and notice the emphasis on that word God—‘God shall give Pharaoh an answer of peace.” If Joseph had not divine concern for the fate of the whole people, he might not have had either the foresight or patience to become the agent of salvation for Egypt through the years of famine, let alone agent of salvation for his own family. The man the brothers’ stood before was no longer a self-seeker focusing open personal achievement but a servant. May this be so for you and me.
As for the bit about awaiting reconciliation with those who have hurt you, may the Lord keep watch between you and them while you are separated one from another.