This past week, our Bishop, Bishop Thomas Bickerton, released a statement about the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, writing,
When the word began to emerge from the horrific events in Charlottesville, Virginia a few days ago one of my first reactions was a genuine one: “What will I say this time that will be any different than what has been said over and over again these past several months?” It has happened to us again — an intolerable, unacceptable, egregious act of racism, violence and injustice. This is an event that once again calls every leader to speak out against every white supremacist, neo-Nazi, and hate group that exists, calling for justice, civility, and a better way.
As I read his statement, I was reminded of the words in Ecclesiastes, as the poet writes:
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
The news this past week has been rough, to put it lightly.
The events in Charlottesville brought to our attention attitudes and hatreds that have never gone away, a disease of white supremacy that has been infecting our families, our schools, our government, and our churches since the inception of this nation. We were brought face to face with a legacy that stretches from our prison system and police brutality to Jim Crow, to the lynching tree, to the cotton plantations, and to the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Those of us who are white have been rightfully confronted with what it means to be white and the privileges that come with that; what it means to be white in a society that seeks to subjugate and oppress anyone who is not white. These events are not new, nor is the sin behind them new.
We witnessed a van driving into a crowd in Barcelona, Spain, killing thirteen and injuring over one hundred in what is being treated as a terrorist attack, a designation that has already led to islamophobic and hateful responses around the world.
We watched the death toll rise to 500 as mudslides swept through Freetown, Sierra Leone, with fear that the final count could top 1,000 victims, many of whom were children. Another landslide in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has killed at least 200, though that number is still rising.
We in this room are dealing with our own heartbreaks and pains, as we mourn the loss of loved ones, as we struggle through marriages and relationships that are on the verge of dissolution, as we try to cope with depression and anxiety, as we are rejected by those we hold most dear, and as we wonder how we can afford to put food on the table for yet another week.
And the Bishop’s question still rings just as true. What can we say this time that will be any different than what has been said over and over again these past several months? These past several years? Or decades? How in the world do we even keep the hope alive that any of this can change, or that there is the possibility for newness in our lives and in our world?
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
In the reading from Genesis that Eric just read, we pick up in the middle of the story of Joseph. Over the past few weeks, we have been reading the lectionary passages from Romans rather than from Genesis, but I think that this is a familiar story for most of us in this room. Whether we grew up with this story in Sunday school or whether we’ve seen Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, this is one of those stories that’s etched into our psyches.
If we had read the whole saga of Joseph, we could have read how Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers who were jealous of him, and how they told his father Jacob that he was eaten by wild animals. We could have heard the story of Joseph serving in Potiphar’s house, how he rejected the advances of Potiphar’s wife and ends up in prison when she accuses him of seducing her. We could have recounted the story of Pharaoh’s dream, in which seven skinny cows devour seven plump cows, and we have heard how Joseph knew that this was a warning of coming famine. In response to this prophecy, Pharaoh makes Joseph the second most powerful person in all of Egypt.
But instead, we pick up the story today in the middle of that famine, as Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to buy grain from the Egyptian storehouses. Joseph immediately recognizes his brothers and is overjoyed to see them; they, however, do not recognize him. He strings them along a little bit, making them come back with their youngest brother, but he eventually gets to the point where he cannot hide his identity any longer.
“I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?”
The brothers are rightfully dismayed, for they remembered how they plotted to kill Joseph and how they sold him into slavery. Joseph reassures them, however, saying,
I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.
Later in Genesis 50, Joseph reassures them again, saying, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”
It’s a story of liberation, redemption and reconciliation; Joseph is liberated from any feelings of betrayal or hostility towards his brothers, his dreadful situation is somehow redeemed into something life-giving and beautiful, and he finds reconciliation with his brothers and with his father.
And there’s two ways that we can read this, I think. On one hand, we can read it as though God was orchestrating everything, as if all of the characters were marionettes on the world’s stage. I think this leaves us with more questions than answers, and some of those questions lead us to problematic beliefs about God. So as we put that aside for now, I think that there’s another hopeful alternative.
I don’t know if I can believe that God put Joseph in these situations, but what I am convinced of is that God was with Joseph through them.
For those of you who have been around the Methodist church for a while, you likely have heard of something that we call “Prevenient Grace.” For those of you who are newer, and especially for our friends from the Park, allow me to give a brief overview as to what this is.
Prevenient Grace is of the tenants that Methodists follow from the theology of John Wesley. It comes from Latin, with pre meaning before and veni coming from the word for come. So quite literally, Prevenient Grace is the grace that comes before any kind of human action or decision. It means that we live and move and have our being in grace, from before we are even aware of God. There’s many things that it speaks to, but one very important facet of Prevenient Grace is that it means that God is always moving towards us, reaching out to us, and sustaining us. No matter where we are, how deep we find ourselves, or how desolate our situation, God is there with us in this grace, working that we might learn to live in the way of love and that we might respond to Go’s call for us to repent; to change our ways and our lives. It’s a way of framing what the Psalmist writes in Psalm 139:
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
Regardless of where we are or what we are doing, we are being held in grace. Now, I realize that this is not necessarily something that those from other traditions may subscribe to; there are some traditions that flat out disagree. But rather than get into a debate over theology, I say this to bring a very particular idea to our understanding of this story of Joseph: God was always with him, and grace was always acting to nudge Joseph towards God, and God was always working to bring forth new possibilities
And I am convinced that as God and Joseph were in the bottom of the cistern, God was already working to open ways in which new opportunities are possible. When Joseph was in prison, God created new paths through which Joseph might have been saved. And as the threat of famine began to loom in the distant background, God was at work to find ways that the people might withstand the famine.
Perhaps then, Joseph’s exclamation in chapter 50 that “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” is not as much speaking about where God placed him but is rather about what God was doing during that time.
To utilize a phrase from the womanist theologian Monica Coleman, I think that what Joseph is pointing to is the ways in which God makes a way out of no way, in which God creates out of the chaos that seems so barren. For this is a God that sees the formless and void in the beginning and creates out of it light, earth, sky, oceans, animals, and humanity. This is the God who takes the barren womb of Sarah and brings forth many nations. And this is the God who takes on flesh in Jesus Christ and ends up in the pit of death and hell, yet still emerges bringing forth new life and new hope.
And what this means is that there is no situation that is truly hopeless. There is no point at which we cannot be rescued. And if what we proclaim in light of our texts is true, there can be no place in which God is not with us, for as Paul says in Romans:
I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.
And where we find that God is with us, we find that God is working to create a way forward. And when God is working to make that way out of no way, we can be sure that new life is always possible. New things are always possible.
Let me be completely clear: I firmly believe that we have the choice to turn from this path of new life. This nation has had 400 years to turn towards a path of justice for all, and we are clearly not there yet. This world has had opportunities to build that beloved community, but we more often have chosen the path of hatred and separation. Even the Church has failed so many times, and we know that it is failing now in showing love to all. And when we see these failures, we far too often begin to think like the author of Ecclesiastes and think that no new thing is possible in our own lives. We resign ourselves to the fact that this is what life is and what life will forever be.
It’s an imperfect world, after all, and we’re only human.
But, my friends, the grace of God still goes before us, and God’s presence is still in our midst. There is still time for newness to break into this world.
In the face of white supremacy, the Spirit is pleading with us to continue the fight for equality and liberation, because it need not be in vain.
Within our own lives that seem so desolate and solitary, there is still room for love and embrace.
In the face of islamophobia, acceptance and that beloved community is still possible.
In the face of so much death, destruction, and despair, there is still a chance for new life, new creation, and for all things to be made new.
Because for what has been intended for evil, God is able to transform it for good. As long as the grace of God is pursuing us and as long as God’s presence is with us, there is still time for newness to break into this world. This is still the possibility for change, for new life, for grace, for love, and for hope.
Please let us not lose that hope.
 Ecclesiastes 1:9
 Genesis 45:3
 Genesis 45:4-5
 Genesis 50:20
 Psalm 139:7-10
 Romans 8:38-39