February 24, 2019

“Life and Afterlife”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

1 Corinthians 15.35-38, 42-50

Genesis 45.3-11, 15

February 24, 2019

Anne Lamott, a famous Presbyterian author, is known for sharing her faith in unconventional terms. She struggled through addiction and writes of how she has worked through grief in her life. She is witty and hopeful – making her books interesting reads. In her latest book, Almost Everything, she tells of a story about family dynamics, especially in relationship with her uncle.

Growing up, Lamott said she was portrayed as the “perfect child.” She was diligent, a good listener, obeyed rules, helped, and was intuitive. Some of these were perhaps personality traits, but some of this was thrust on her as expectations as her role in the family. Of course, she clung to these identities, until something happened and her role changed. Her uncle, a family member she was not close with, but had a decent relationship, made some financial decisions that affected her siblings and herself. She was infuriated, and called him up, yelling, and ended by calling him a “Scumbutt.” In that moment, her “perfect child” identity crashed – she wasn’t obeying the rules, she wasn’t playing the obliging niece. She had changed in some way.

She writes about these identities that had been part of her for so long: “Why give up these identities? Maybe because they gravely limited and falsified my life. And because they aren’t who I am. But I like the containment, and how they keep me safe, confined and shipshape, like spandex. When I wear those roles, I can’t feel the air on my skin, but by the same token, I’m not exposed.”[1] The roles were comfortable. To shift roles in family can be difficult, and was for her. She went back and asked for forgiveness from the uncle, who grumbled something about everything being ok, and they gradually built their relationship back up. At the time of her writing, her uncle was dying. She was grateful for the roles she had been given, but perhaps even more grateful that she had broken through them, because without her outburst and reconciliation, she didn’t think she would have grown so close before his illness.

Joseph’s story – like most stories involving families – comes with baggage. His tale wraps up nicely, but it took a long while to arrive there. Joseph was the favored brother of many sons – which, in some ways was not his fault. Some of this probably had to do with his birth order, and some with parental favoritism. Yet, Joseph also lived into this privileged lifestyle as a child. His father gave him this glamorous coat, and when he had dreams about his brothers bowing down to him, he made sure to tell them. Most people do not like prophets, especially if their words cut to the core, but Joseph was, perhaps, still learning how to be a prophet, especially among his own family.

At a breaking point, Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery – one of the stories in the Bible of human trafficking. Joseph’s story is long and in depth, but all I will say that he goes through a litany of events. He ends up, however, after being in jail for quite some time, in this prestigious position under the pharaoh.

His brothers have traveled here looking for food during a famine and Joseph has just revealed that he is their brother and he is alive. Many of them are shocked because they assumed he was dead or that they would never see him again. Joseph attempts to calm the anxiety of his brothers. He sees that they are not in a space where they are ready to accept that he is alive, or that he is in this position of power. He has had time to grow and think and reflect, and he offers his brothers forgiveness in order to calm them. He seeks reconciliation after years of strife.

What is also interesting is that Joseph does his own theological summation of the events. Just like many of us, he tries to make sense of the events that have happened to him. When something bad happens in our lives, we often turn to questions of “why?” For example, why would God let a bad thing happen? Why would God allow something to happen? His exegesis, however, is a little disconcerting. Joseph tells his brothers: “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” To focus on the fact that God wants to preserve life is refreshing – but did God have to send Joseph into slavery for that to happen?

When we start justifying bad actions by claiming that God made them happen for something good to happen, we create a mess. We can end up justifying the horrific actions of others, like mass shootings or racism or abuse. Sometimes I think we are asking the wrong questions. As Anne Lamott writes: “’Why?’ is rarely a useful question in the hope business.”[2] Maybe instead we ask “what is next?” Presbyterians really like to talk about the term “providence.” This term, loosely defined, means that God works through events for a purpose – or that God works through the bad to create good.[3] We are sinful beings and God knows that. God gave us free will to make decisions – and sometimes those decisions effect not only ourselves, but others. Often, we don’t have control. Yet, providence means that God takes what is out of our control and often tears us up, and works it for some sort of good. In this Genesis passage, we see an emphasis on life, because Joseph is there to help the people make it through drought and famine to survive.

Rev. Denise Anderson, a former co-moderator of the General Assembly of the PCUSA wrote about how these types of passages have been used to continue cycles of abuse and oppression. When people hear that “God made me go through this for a reason” it can be harmful theology. This is the kind of theology that has justified racism and abuse and other means of oppression in the world. She quotes Zora Neale Hurston: “If you are silent about your pain they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”[4] God’s Word has been interpreted, reinterpreted, translated, retranslated, and more for thousands of years. Joseph’s words to his brothers could be interpreted as saying Joseph was sold into slavery, but it was ok, because it all worked out in the end. We cannot say that. We cannot minimize the pain or experience of others. We cannot assume that God makes bad things happen just so some good can happen later.

Rev. Anderson emphasizes that “I can control my own response.”[5] This is at the heart of Hurston’s words. If one stays silent, one chooses that path, but know that it can be reinterpreted. The same goes for speaking out – one can use one’s words as a powerful tool. We have control to respond.

Yes, Joseph had power and privilege, but he uses it to help. He helps people from famine. He chooses to forgive rather than hold a grudge. He could have used his power and wealth to oppress his brothers as they harmed him, but instead he chooses a kinder route.[6] This is no small feat.

In Genesis the people are given a new lease on life. The Corinthians passage talks about life in the afterlife, and how not to expect the afterlife to be like current life. Paul is trying to settle some questions about what happens after death – these are common questions regardless of religion. Some have the expectation that physical bodies will be present – others spiritual. Paul essentially tells the people not to expect the afterlife to be like the present – we simply cannot fathom. Last week we discussed the expectations people have about afterlife, and how we just do not know. Rather than arguing over what the afterlife will be like, perhaps the Corinthians can focus on life now. Rather than panicking about whether someone goes to heaven or not, we are present in the moment. God’s realm is in the future, but also here and now. Let us live life abundantly, full of forgiveness and love, with plenty of space to make mistakes, but also see how our flaws can be worked for good. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

 

[1] Anne Lamott, Almost Everything (New York: Riverhead Books, 2018), 162.

[2] Lamott, 183.

[3] Charles M. Wood, “Genesis 45.3-11, 15” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 364.

[4] Denise Anderson, “Living the Word” in Christian Century January 30, 2019, Vol. 136, No. 3, p.18.

[5]Ibid., 18

[6] Allen Johnson, “Genesis 45.3-11, 15” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 367.