I had not expected it to turn out the way it did. I was young, a few years out of college. My boss had invited her to our meeting. It was the meeting in which my boss told me I was losing my job. I was not expecting to hear that. I knew that there were things that were not going well, and my boss had given me warnings. Still, I had been making an effort to improve, and I thought I had made some progress. At that age, I probably still remembered the things well-meaning adults said to children: “If you work hard, you can be anything you want.” Well, I was surprised to learn that that little adage turns out to be not 100% accurate. I wanted to be in that job and I was working hard. But the answer was no.
During the rest of the day, I felt as if I was walking around with all my skin removed. Sensitive, vulnerable.
After my boss told me her decision, the woman she’d invited started talking. She knew my religious background, and quoted to me a verse from today’s Old Testament passage. She said my situation would turn out to be like Joseph’s, in which he told his brothers years later, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” She hastened to add that my boss did not, of course, mean this for evil, but the point was that even though it was hard now, it would turn out to be good for me in the end. I was not in the mood to hear that. I was disappointed, angry, and hurt, but I wasn’t hopeless. I was young and I knew, even in the middle of that conversation, that my life wasn’t over. I knew that I’d find another job doing something. She said that this job was not my calling, that there must be something else God was calling me to do, because this wasn’t it. I was not in the mood to hear that either.
People ask me from time to time, “How did you get into the ministry?” I don’t tell them about that conversation. But it was an essential turning point for me in finding my calling. I love being here doing this ministry with this congregation. And maybe you can look back to times in the past, either as a congregation or in your individual life, in which something that was very painful at the time turned out to be something that God meant for good.
Does it turn out that way 100% of the time? I would have to say no. I’m not someone who tells people, “God never gives you more than you can handle” because there are so many cases in which it isn’t accurate. There are plenty of people whose lives are a constant nightmare of severe mental illness which is more than they can handle, and plenty of people whose lives are a constant crushing burden of severe depression which is more than they can handle. To them, I offer my sympathy, and my compassion.
Does everyone’s story turn out like Joseph’s 100% of the time? Again, I would have to say no. There are plenty of people whose suffering goes from bad to worse. Victims of starvation, war, torture. I am a child of privilege. My experiences have been those of someone with economic privilege, white privilege, heterosexual privilege, native English-speaker privilege. It is easy for me to forget or to simply not see how the experiences of others are different from my own. The list of people who’ve had a harder life than I have is a very long one. My life of privilege has protected me from much of the suffering and degradation that are inflicted on others. Even with all of my privileges and protections, is it possible that I might end up in circumstances in which I might be so severely traumatized that it would be more than I could handle? That is possible, and I would hope that if that ever happened, people would offer me not platitudes, but their sympathy and compassion.
But that is not where I am today.
It is important for us not to shut our eyes to the presence of suffering, injustice, and evil in the world. And it is also important for us not to shut our eyes to the presence of God’s providence and grace. It is not faithless for us to acknowledge both; in fact, it is part of our faith. Jesus himself tells us that the rain falls on the just and the unjust, and that those killed when the tower fell on them were no worse sinners than anyone else. When I see the suffering of others, I hope that my response will be a sense of compassion, not a sense of superiority.
I do not want to speak glibly about this passage, but I do want to speak about it because I find it so valuable. It might seem like a passage that is very remote from the world we live in: a nice story, but not the way things happen in real life. We might think that it doesn’t really happen in real life that someone spends years in jail and then ends up as the leader of the country and forgives the people who tried to destroy him. I used to think that would never happen in real life. And then I went to hear a speech by Nelson Mandela. Whoa. 26 years of imprisonment under apartheid. And then he becomes the President of South Africa. And he forgives the people who tried to destroy him. How could I say that the story of Joseph sounded far-fetched after that?
We can look at the events of Joseph’s life as just plain suffering, or we can see them as the kind of preparation he needed. Going through the rejection of brothers who want to kill him, being sold as a slave, gaining prominence as a servant, being unjustly accused by Potiphar’s wife, ending up in prison, interpreting dreams, being forgotten, being remembered, being alone, being despised, being treasured and trusted, seeing dreams come true, it all enriches him to be the person God wants him to become. And that’s what gives him the spiritual depth to be able to forgive, to weep, to love deeply.
So where I am now is that I don’t want to miss any of the gifts God has for me. Whether we like it or not, suffering is part of human life on earth, and even suffering can have gifts for us. Since we’ve got to go through suffering anyway, I want to get as many of its gifts as I can. Does a painful experience contain something that I can learn from? Does it contain something that I can benefit from? In a difficult situation, is God giving me a chance to improve my abilities in the situation I’ve got or giving me a chance to move in a different direction? I can’t speak for anyone other than myself, but I can say that every time I’ve looked for gifts from God, I’ve found them. And the more I’ve found them, the more I have the sense that this is not just me making the best of things with my go-get-‘em positive attitude; more and more, I have the sense that I am the recipient of something divine and benevolent moving me forward.
I would have stayed in that job if God hadn’t given me a kick in the butt to get me out of it. I am not particularly fond of kicks in the butt, but I have to admit that sometimes they are what’s necessary. A retreat leader once asked me, “How do you hear the voice of God?” and I said, “trial and error.” I am grateful for people who hear the voice of God in other ways, but for me, and maybe for many people, it is easier to see the guidance of God in retrospect than it is when you’re right smack in the middle of things. I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with that, and in fact scripture is written from the perspective of looking back at events and being able to see the significance of them much more clearly in retrospect. But it really helps if you’re keeping an eye out for God’s activity. As one of our Eucharistic Prayers puts it, “Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us.” In a somewhat less eloquent version, here’s the main point of today’s sermon: when God gives you a kick in the butt, don’t become so focused on the pain in your butt that you forget to look for where God might want you to go next.
I had not expected my life to turn out the way it did. But I love being here, and doing this ministry together, and I thank God for everything.