A Beautiful Day

Sermon for August 20, 2023

Up into my late 30’s, my left eye prescription was -7.5 and my right eye was -8.5. That’s extremely nearsighted. But in 1998 I was living in Bogotá, Colombia, and one of the pioneers of the kind of laser surgery that fixed myopia had his practice there. So I had my eyesight fixed, for a good decade after that, I didn’t need glasses at all.

This was almost always a good thing. But there was one circumstance in which being extremely nearsighted was helpful—namely, at the movies when something really gross came on the screen. Whenever this would happen, I had a habit of taking off my glasses to watch the movie. This way I couldn’t see what was happening on screen, but I could still tell when the scene changed to something more watchable.

The one time I really regretted being able to see well was in 2004 when a particular movie came out. It was a Mel Gibson movie called The Passion of the Christ, and it was all that some Christians were talking about. It was so big, that some churches were renting out entire theaters to view the movie, and then serving communion afterwards.

I don’t know if you remember The Passion of the Christ or not, but it really generated a lot of discussion… so much discussion, in fact, that I thought I’d better go see it because I knew lots of people would be asking me about it. This was a matinée and I was alone in the theater, so there was no communion. I did foolishly buy popcorn, however.

I say this, because it was by far the goriest, most unwatchable movie I’d ever seen—so much so that I really regretted having perfect eyesight. A few years earlier, I could’ve just removed my glasses for the duration. But as it was, I had to hold one hand in front of my face and spy what was happening on screen through the cracks between my fingers.

But the experience of “seeing” The Passion of the Christ made it possible for me to comment somewhat intelligently on a movie that everybody was talking about. And here’s what I had to say.

First of all, it reinforced why the Bible—and the tradition—emphasized that faith came through listening to the word, not through watching dramatic depictions of biblical events. I can honestly say that watching torture and gore on a movie screen did nothing to bring me closer to God, even if it was supposed to be a portrayal of the most important event in history.

But even the most important event is still that: an event. What struck me most about the movie was that it portrayed only one thing about Jesus of Nazareth, Messiah, God, the Son of God. Before the crucifixion, Jesus had lived a whole life. He was born into a family, he struck out on his own to travel and to preach, he’d told stories, he’d made friends, he’d healed people and freed them from what oppressed them, and he’d taught people that they were children of God—all part of one human family.

There was no hint of that in The Passion of the Christ. It was a snapshot of one thing that happened. Once again, I acknowledge that it was the most important thing—the most earth-shattering event in the history of the universe. But it wasn’t the only thing. By portraying only the gore and the pain and the death, it seemed to me that it was erasing everything that had happened before it. If it was the only thing that a person was to know about Jesus, I wonder who that Jesus was that they were meeting.

The same can be said for any of us, of course. We’ve all lived lives filled with all kinds of events—joy and pain and confusion and resolution and all kinds of thoughts and feelings. What might someone think if they only caught a single glimpse of any one of our lives? Their opinion of who we are would have to be based on that moment in time.

It’s true of Jesus, it’s true of each of us, and it’s true of any of the Bible’s characters. The greatest moments in the Bible—the one ones we remember the most—are probably about Jesus: Not just his crucifixion, but his birth and his resurrection as well. But if I had to pick another story to place among the best, I’d choose the story of the Patriarch Joseph.

If you caught a glimpse of Joseph at different points in his life story, you might think you were hearing the story of a spoiled brat, of a boy betrayed by his brothers, of a slave or a prisoner, or of a powerful politician. All of these are snapshots of Joseph’s life—and all of them are necessary to understand who he was… but none of them tells of anything more than a moment in time.

The end of this story is the appointed Old Testament lesson for today, and if it were the only thing we knew about Joseph, we’d have thought he’d led a charmed life. It did start and end very fortunately. But much of it was lived in pain. Though he was his father’s favorite as a boy, he was hated by his brothers, who took him out into the wilderness and sold him to enslavers. So he lived for years in bondage in Egypt before his wisdom and vision earned him a place as a civil servant. Even then, he was imprisoned for something he didn’t do. Until finally he was freed and placed at the very head of government because of his ability to interpret dreams and use his knowledge to deliver Egypt from the effects of a horrible famine that left everybody else around them starving to death.

Everybody else, of course, included Joseph’s own family. His father (who thought he was dead) sent his brothers down to Egypt to see if they could purchase grain. They were sent to haggle with Pharaoh’s chief minister—a handsome man they didn’t recognize as the little brother they’d sold to enslavers decades earlier. Let me now share with you the words of Genesis 45:1-15, according to the New Living Translation:

Joseph couldn’t stand it any longer. He said to his attendants, “Out, all of you!” So he was alone with his brothers when he told them who he was. Then he broke down and wept. He wept so loudly the Egyptians could hear him, and word of it quickly carried to Pharaoh’s palace.

“I am Joseph” he said to his brothers—“is my father still alive?” But his brothers were speechless. They were stunned to realize that Joseph was standing there in front of them. “Please, come closer,” he said to them. So they did. And he said again, “I’m Joseph, your brother—the one you sold into slavery. But don’t be upset, and don’t be angry with yourselves for selling me to this place. It was God who sent me here ahead of you to preserve your lives. This famine that has ravaged the land for two years will last five more years, and there will be neither plowing nor harvesting. God has sent me ahead of you to keep you and your families alive and to preserve many survivors. So it was God who sent me here, not you! And he’s the one who made me an adviser to Pharaoh and the governor of all Egypt.

“Now hurry back to my father and tell him, ‘This is what your son Joseph says: God has made me master over all of Egypt. So come down to me immediately! You can live in the region of Goshen, where you can be near me with all your children and grandchildren, your flocks and herds, and everything you own. I’ll take care of you there, for there are still five years of famine ahead of us. Otherwise you, your household, and all your animals will starve.’”

Then Joseph added, “Look! You can see for yourselves, and so can my brother Benjamin, that I really am Joseph! Go tell my father of my honored position here in Egypt. Describe for him everything you have seen, and then bring my father here quickly.” Weeping with joy, he embraced Benjamin, then kissed each of his brothers and wept over them, and after that they began talking freely with him.

Here we see two themes. The first is that God is doing something, even when it seems like God is doing nothing, that God is near even when it seems that God is far away, that God remembers even when it seems like God has forgotten. No matter where Joseph was—with his family in Canaan or in faraway Egypt—God was with him. No matter what his status was—favorite son, slave, prisoner, or prime minister—God remembered who he was. From beginning to end, Joseph was the poster child for Romans 8:28, We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

We would all do well to remember Joseph as we journey through life. When times are rough, remember that God is still at work. And when times are good, we need only look back and see all that has happened to bring us to where we are. Thinking about this reminds me of the time Fred Rogers accepted a lifetime achievement award at the Emmys in 1997. When he took the stage, and before he thanked anybody, he asked the audience to pause for ten seconds and think about all the people in their past who had helped them get to where they were. Apparently this was something Joseph had done with some regularity in his life… and among those he was thankful for were his brothers, who sold him into slavery.

Speaking of Mr. Rogers, I told you in The Bellwether this week that I wanted to talk about a movie. And I know you think I’ve already done that. But I told you it’s a movie I hoped you’d seen. And honestly, I don’t care whether you’ve seen The Passion of the Christ or not. But I do hope you’ve seen a Tom Hanks movie called A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. It’s based on the true story of a cynical magazine writer who’s assigned the task of writing a biographical sketch for an article on modern-day heroes. And he’s assigned Mr. Rogers—a kids show character he rather looks down on.

In the movie, the reporter’s name is Lloyd Vogel. Lloyd is a very angry man, and much of his anger stems from his relationship with his father, Jerry—a man who left his family when he found out Lloyd’s mother was dying. In fact, the first time Lloyd actually meets Fred Rogers, his face is messed up from a fistfight he’d gotten into with his father. Which brings us to the second theme found in the Joseph story: Forgiveness, reconciliation.

You see, as Lloyd found out, Mr. Rogers loves people like him: Hurting people, lonely people, people who need to know that they’re loved, people who need to forgive. And by the end of the movie, there was a reconciliation between Lloyd and Jerry. The past was not changed, nor was it forgotten. The future was still uncertain. But they were able to embrace the present and experience it together.

Just as the Joseph story is a living example of Romans 8:28, it’s also a prequel to part of the passage the elder read to you earlier—a passage that couldn’t find a better re-telling than the movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood:

Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. Dear friends, never take revenge—leave that to the righteous anger of God.
—Romans 12:17-19a

You never get the idea when you read the long story of Joseph that he is filled with resentment and hatred for what his brothers did to him. In fact, it almost seems that it’s his desire to conquer evil by doing good [Rom. 12:21]. And I suppose that’s the lesson for us, just as it was for Lloyd Vogel in the Mr. Rogers movie: Instead of spending our time lashing out in anger or planning revenge, we should spend our time being constructive, discovering the good, being helpful until the time for reconciliation finally comes.

For God does have a plan. And chances are it’s not for vengeance and it’s not for eternal hatred. The sooner we embrace that concept, the more we will love the time we spend in this life.
—©2023 Sam Greening