Rev. Nathan E. Kirkpatrick: When the Story Gets Rewritten

Did you go to the movies this summer? I don’t know about you, but to me, most summers, it feels like the movies that are playing play on familiar formulas and predictable patterns. So much so that we can almost guess what happens in the movie before we see it.

On one screen, we have an action adventure. You know the type. Innocent people are going about their lives when suddenly a villain descends upon them determined to do awful things. But fortunately, an unlikely hero rises up and saves civilization. That’s a pattern we know, a pattern we could predict.

On another screen, there’s a romantic comedy. There’s young love. Let’s say, boy meets girl. That’s pretty typical. Boy then loses girl, of course. Boy then does something daring or foolish or maybe both and wins her back. That’s a formula we know.

We’ll do one more. On another screen, there’s the underdog movie. You know this one too. A character facing incredible odds – a society against them, a personal challenge of some sort – beats the odds and shows us the power of the human spirit. You know that story too.

There’s some comfort to be found in these types of stories, of course – in their familiarity, in their predictability. When life seems chaotic or overwhelming, when our relationships are challenging, these kinds of stories have a role to play in our lives. When we need them, there is something comforting about seeing the world as a patterned place, where the lines are drawn in just this way, and the story is told just so.

And yet, frankly, what catches our eye is seldom the stock story. What grabs our attention is the story with that surprise twist, the plot turn that we didn’t see coming. These are the movies and books that we talk the most about because these are the stories that fall fresh on our ears.

Put it another way? When the formulas are rearranged, our imagination about the world we live in gets rearranged too.

It happens in Scripture all the time. From Genesis to Revelation, there is almost no story that we could call predictable, or formulaic, or stock. Stories that are supposed to break one way break the other. Patterns we think we know are remade. It’s almost as if Scripture wants to reorient the way we are in the world.

Take the story from Genesis about Joseph and his brothers. The stock storyline would go this way: An innocent one is bullied, but then the bullied gets power, and then, gets revenge. This is a story we see not just in literature and film but we also glimpse it in global politics and maybe more locally, maybe even in office politics, maybe even in playground politics. The bullied becomes the bully. This is how the story usually goes. Which might help to explain Joseph’s brothers’ fear when they need him.

You remember how we got here, right? Joseph was always the favorite of his father Jacob, and he seldom missed an opportunity to tell his brothers just how favored he was. And Joseph didn’t just tell his brothers. He flaunted how much his father loved him in front of them. So, his brothers decide that this insufferable Joseph must go. At first, they decide that they are going to kill him. Then one of them speaks up, “Well, that’s unreasonable. Let’s not kill him, let’s just put him in this well and tell dad he died.”

And that’s what they do, until at that very moment when a band of travelers goes by, and the brothers decide that they can solve their problem with Joseph and make some money too. So, they sell him into slavery and still tell dad that a wild animal ate him. The evidence? That coat of many colors soaked in blood.

Well, years go by. Joseph, who had been in Egypt, now rises to prominence. After a brief stint in prison (that’s a whole other story – that’s a whole other sermon), it turns out that Joseph is quite the interpreter of dreams and Pharaoh has been having puzzling dreams. But they’re not puzzling to Joseph. No, he tells Pharaoh that Egypt will know years of abundance, and then years of famine. And Egypt needed to use the good years to prepare for the hard years to come. And that’s what they did. They saved and prepared, and when the famine arrived, Joseph is proven to be a shrewd manager and steward.

As you’ll remember, the problem now is that Joseph’s family – the very brothers who had sold him into slavery – well, now they were not ready for the famine. There had been no dream there, but they hear a rumor that there is food to be had in Egypt. And so, they go to ask for help from Pharaoh and Pharaoh refers them to his right-hand man, who happens to be Joseph.

And when they recognize him, they are afraid. You see, they know this particular story. This storyline is no mystery, it is predictable. When the weak get strong, when the powerless become powerful, when the bullied can, the bullied becomes the bully. They are now living a story that ends with revenge, with retaliation and retribution. “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong we did to him?” they ask.

What the brothers didn’t know, and what they couldn’t really know is that in the midst of their story, another had been writing a plot twist in. In the midst of a story that could easily end with revenge, in a story that could conclude with judgment and punishment, God has been at work changing the ending.

And so, Joseph – rather than spitting words of anger and hostility, rather than seeking to inflict as much pain on his brothers as they had put him through, instead speaks and makes a way for reconciliation. Through tears, he assures them, “Do not be afraid. Do not be scared or embarrassed because what you meant for harm, God has used for good. Have no fear.”

No language of revenge. No promise of retaliation. No retribution ahead. Instead, Joseph tells how the lines have been redrawn. The story that the brothers thought they knew has been changed. God has rewritten the storyline in grace. Everything is different now. Despite what they did, Joseph will care of his brothers and their families. He will get them food and find them land. They will be safe in Egypt. And it’s not because of Joseph. God did that. It took years to get to that point. But God did that. The story that the brothers thought they knew gets turned on its head. And the Good News is that sometimes the same happens for us.

Do you know something about that? Do you know something about what it’s like to be Joseph? To stand face-to-face, eye-to-eye with a person or persons who have done you wrong and suddenly, almost inexplicably, you find yourself seeking reconciliation? You find yourself extending forgiveness when you could insist on punishment or you could seek revenge?

Do you know something about what it’s like to be Joseph? To find yourself years later looking at someone who caused you pain and suddenly you realize that you’re not the same person you were then? Time has gone by and hurts have healed, grace has stirred, peace has found a way into your soul. Where you thought there could be only anger, there’s now nothing but compassion. And so, while you could be mean or catty or cagey, instead, you point to new lines that have been drawn. And you say, “I don’t know how and I don’t know why, but God has redrawn our relationship in grace.”

In your own way you say, “It is I, Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt, but don’t be afraid, and don’t be upset. God has rewritten the lines.” Making a way for reconciliation and relationship. You know something about what it’s like to be Joseph.

And I don’t know about you, but more often than I want to admit, in this story, I’m not Joseph; I’m one of his brothers. Maybe you know something about that, too. Maybe you know what it’s like to find yourself with a person you love, with a family member, a friend, a coworker, a classmate you care about, and you realize that you have hurt them deeply. You’ve said something thoughtless. You’ve done something foolish. You’ve wounded the relationship. And you are convinced that it is beyond repair.

Do you know what it’s like to be one of Joseph’s siblings? To regret that moment – whenever it was – way back when or just the other day. When everything changed in your relationship, when nothing may ever be the same again. And you find yourself face-to-face with the one you’ve hurt, and they could scream or cry or ask you why, and you don’t know what to say or do to make it right. There is no sufficient explanation, no reason, no rationale, no mitigating circumstances.

But it turns out, they know this. Instead of demanding an explanation, instead of demanding apologies, the look at you and tell you a new story. They say that God has been working, that grace has happened. They say that the lines have been changed. There is forgiveness and healing and everything is different. Not the way you feared, the way you could have only hoped.

Do you know what it’s like to be Joseph’s brother? To be Joseph’s sister? Do you know what it’s like to hear, “Do not be afraid. God has been writing here and we will find a way through.”?

And on that particular day, when Joseph had said everything he needed to, he fell on his brothers and embraced them, and they embraced him. And together, they wept. And then they were able to speak of a future that they would find together.

Sometimes, the story we thought we knew – sometimes, when the familiar story is changed – we are changed too. And that may be the best story of them all. Amen.