I have prepared a sermon this week and, as usual, it has been posted on line on Friday. I am not going to talk about it today though, but you’re of course invited to read it if you want to explore a bit more the Scriptures we have just heard.
I sat Saturday afternoon at home with a heavy heart after having received a phone call and an email both bearers of very sad news for two families of our community. These sad news came piling up on other sad news we have had this past week and in the past months at Christ Church. And so Saturday, I could do nothing but sense the grief and the pain a lot of you are going through right now, who had lost a close and beloved one, brother, sister, cousin or even a child. Or maybe you haven’t lost a beloved one, but a lot of us – if not all of us! – have experienced recently a fair amount of anxieties and isolation, worrying about our health, jobs, finances and our families.
For all these reasons, I don’t think teaching or sharing my deep thoughts about the Gospel with you today would be a great help – I know it wasn’t helpful even for me! – But maybe we can just approach the readings as we are, with our heavy hearts, and try to get a hold of what God wants to tell us.
To me, the first lines of the Old Testament today are just remarkable, if you pay a little attention. It reads: “Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out ‘Send everyone away’ (…) He wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it”
Well, I find this remarkable and touching that the Bible shows us that it’s really okay to express your grief and your hurt. The story of Joseph is such a long and amazing adventure: From the dreams of his youth, to his being sold in slavery to the Egyptians, becoming Potiphar’s intendant, then being sent in prison because of false accusations, and then leaving prison again, becoming Pharaoh’s counselor and then something like his prime minister. Yet, as much as it is of a “success story”, it’s hard to imagine how utterly heart broken Joseph must have been throughout all of this, having been betrayed and rejected by his brothers, living away in a foreign country, not even knowing if his parents were alive or dead. Throughout all of what happened to him, Joseph had remained strong, courageous and faithful to God, but today in our reading, Joseph sees his brothers again and it’s like his heart finally melt, or at least, he has a meltdown – and everybody in the palace knows about it, hear him cry, servants and royalties, including probably Pharaoh himself.
And what is remarkable is that the author of the Bible does not seem to be embarrassed to say this, about this great man Joseph, that he had a meltdown. Quite the opposite, it looks like Joseph’s ability to be touched, to cry and to mourn is part of his greatness, of what makes him a strong and powerful man, and moreover – a man of God.
I was talking recently with a friend who is from Middle East and who is also an artist – he lives now in US – and he was telling me that, in his country, he has never felt it was okay for him to be who he was, emotional and sensitive, because that’s not how men are supposed to be like in his culture. But then he asked this very insightful question: “Isn’t it our feelings that make us human? How can you be a man, if you are not human to start with?”
How can you be a man, if you are not human to start with?
Joseph shows us the way. To be a man, and even more to be a man of God, he has to be able to be in touch with his pain, and as he does so, he is also in touch with his own heart, the love he has for his brothers and for his own, and instead of burying him deeper down into depression and isolation, expressing his grief enables him to be brought back together with his brothers and to be reconciled with his family.
It didn’t matter, you see, if he was the more powerful man in the country after Pharaoh, it didn’t even matter if he could know the will of God or interpret dreams. What he needed was to have his heart comforted and healed and be surrounded by people he loved and who would love him.
As so I think, this is really how it looks like to be powerful in God’s realm, it is to have the power to be touched, to mourn – not because we would be good at being sad – but because we are able to love, and also to have compassion. God makes us strong in a way that does not look like “strong” according to the world – we are often schooled to not put on display our feelings, or at least to not show any weakness – but in the Bible, to those who express their pain, God gives them the strength to overcome their pain by a greater love and a deep compassion.
And I think this is also how it goes with this strange story of the Canaanite woman seeking after Jesus.
Not unlike Joseph, this woman does not behave according to her gender’s standards. Women – yesterday and always – are expected to be “good girls”, discreet and reserved – but this woman, she is loud, rude and disruptive, she cries out after Jesus, she begs him to help her. She asks for help and for compassion, she expresses the despair she has over her daughter’s disease and in all of this, far from being weak or a victim, she shows herself strong, bold and courageous – and not only she will win over Jesus who will have compassion on her, she is also shown to the disciples as an example of “great faith”.
Jesus today asks his disciples to be fully engaged with their faith. He’s just told the Pharisees that true religion isn’t about looking good on the outside, doing the right thing, keeping it together not matter what. Faith is about engaging our hearts in what we do, with the ones around us, and it is to trust God to give us the best, to restore us beyond our heartbreaks and to bring new life to us. Jesus tells his disciple that they are “without understanding”, which is also translated by “dull”, “dumb” or “numb”. To them, he shows as an example this woman who expects everything from God’s mercy.
I hope today that, with the example of the Canaanite woman begging for the crumbs of the meal, we would feel encouraged in persevering in prayer, trusting that at God’s feast, there is a place for all of us. Joseph tells his brothers that all these hardships he had in his life, God intended them for good. I don’t think it means – as we usually assume – that God had planned everything that happened to Joseph, even the bad and the terrible – because it was the best way to make something good happen to his family (being rescued from the famine). I think it means that Joseph had enough love in his heart to see goodness coming even from terrible places, to see that there was no situation, no trial and no pain that love could not redeem.
We are invited to trust that in the end, everything will be okay, well and meaningful, not because there is so hidden justification to evil and pain, but because in the end we will be able to experience fully God’s power and God’s goodness in the reuniting all God’s people, in the same way that Joseph was reunited to his family in the end – because indeed it was all Joseph longed for. You know how sometimes we look back on the difficult times and we think it was all good and okay because those circumstances brought us this friend, this partner, this child in our lives? It does not mean the difficult times were okay or good or even necessary. It means that it was still worth it, because the love that is to receive is stronger than the pain we have to endure. I think, it is the same for all our lives, it will be all worth it, because it will bring us, all of us, into God’s arms of mercy.
God is really in our pain and our sorrows, right here and right now and look at us with compassion. And all what God expects from us is that we would open our hearts to God. To release us from our pain, and to find a way with God through our suffering towards the fulfillment of God’s promises.