“What you intended for evil, God intended for good”: Joseph, God, and Imagination.

A sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost

Our first reading today comes from the Book of Genesis. It is the last chapter of the book, and it is the end of the Joseph story. As I’m sure you remember, Joseph was the great dreamer, the favorite son of his father Jacob. You should not have favorites as a parent, and the story of Joseph is a great example of why that is the case. Jacob made it clear that Joseph was the favorite, and Joseph made it clear he was the favorite, and that created, slowly over time, a burning anger and jealousy in his brothers. When the opportune moment came, the brothers decided to kill him, but at the last minute they decided to simply sell him into slavery. They took that coat of many colors that Joseph’s father, Jacob, had given him. They ripped it up, covered it in blood, showed it to their father and said, “See, your son has been killed by wild animals”.

Joseph was taken off to slavery in Egypt, and through a series of intricate plot twists, Joseph eventually becomes second in command of the whole country, second only to Pharaoh himself. He does this because he is able to interpret dreams. Or, as he would put it, God interprets his dreams, God tells Joseph what the interpretation is. Joseph’s imagination is aligned with God, so he is able to understand what God is saying. God had given Pharaoh a dream about a famine, and had given Joseph the interpretation of how to move through that famine. Pharaoh was so impressed that he put Joseph in charge of the country, in charge of solving this problem that was coming. And he did. Joseph did it so well that there was enough food for not only the people of Egypt, but there was food for everyone wherever famine went in the world, including all the way to Joseph’s family. His family came to buy some grain, not knowing it was Joseph, and through another series of intricate plot twists, Joseph and his brothers are eventually reconciled. They go and get Jacob and their families, and they settle in Egypt. Pharaoh is so excited that Joseph and family are coming, that he tells Joseph to give them the best land in the whole country.

But then one day Jacob dies, and that’s where our reading today begins. Joseph’s brothers are afraid. They are worried that the only thing between Joseph and their punishment was their father, and he wasn’t there anymore to protect them. They are afraid that Joseph is now going to extract punishment; probably kill them, or if they’re lucky they can be slaves by offering to do so. But instead Joseph says, “Do not worry about that. For what you intended for harm,” (the word used in our translation today; in Hebrew the word is evil.) For what you intended for evil, God intended for good.

Last week we spoke about imagination. Imagination is not fantasy, is not pretend, is not unreality, but imagination is the way we see this world. There are lots of imaginations, as we talked about, that are in conflict with each other: there are imaginations in the world, and there is God’s imagination. Our hope, our goal, our work as Christians, is to try to align our imagination with God’s imagination. We prayed that beautiful prayer by William Temple, “Almighty God, so draw our hearts to thee, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations.”

Our story today is another example of imaginations coming in conflict with one another. We have the imagination of Joseph’s brothers, a very common and popular imagination, an imagination of revenge and punishment; an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. They are worried that Joseph had that same imagination. Or, even worse, that Joseph had a perversion of that imagination: not an eye for an eye, but a life for an eye; that whatever you do to me, I will do back to you ten-fold, a much more brutal and harsh version of that imagination. The brothers are afraid he has that imagination, so they go to Joseph and try to get in front of the worst option and remind Joseph of the lesser version so they may live.

But Joseph had a different imagination, the imagination of God. The imagination that says, “what you intended for evil, God intended for good.” It is an Easter imagination, an imagination that says Good Friday leads into Easter morning, that crucifixion leads to resurrection, that death leads to new life. That is the imagination of Joseph: an imagination that can see the goodness that God brought out of the evil that was intended against him.

That is the imagination we want to be filled with, as well. “Almighty God, so draw our hearts to thee, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations.” This Easter imagination that sees the goodness that God is bringing out of all the evil, all of the sin, all of the darkness, all of the wrong that is happening in this world. All of the evil, and sin, and wrong that we are doing in this world.

Now, that is not to say that you should go and do some evil in order to bring about some good. I know we chuckle about it, but it is a rather common interpretation. St. Paul wrestles with it, not in the Epistle read today, but seven or eight chapters before this he says that sin brought about grace. He asks the question, should I sin more so that grace may increase? No, of course not. That is a perversion of this imagination.

I’m reading a book right now on the history of slavery in the Western world, and there is a story about Portugal in which slaves are brought in. You can see the moral conscience of observers pricked as they see the brutality and suffering of these fellow humans. They don’t know how to reconcile this. Along comes the royal theologian to say it’s OK, because good things are going to happen as a result of it. We are going to bring about their salvation through this act of slavery, so don’t worry about the evil, for God will bring about good. That is a perversion of imagination; the book calls it “a disease of imagination”.

That is not what we’re trying to do here. We are not supposed to cause evil to bring about God’s good. But rather, when our imaginations and God’s imagination line up and we can see the way God is bringing good out of evil, bringing Easter out of Good Friday, it does not lead us to become Pontius Pilate, but it should lead us to become Christ so we may help in the process of bringing good out of evil. This imagination is to push us into the world, into the evil, into the sin, into the wrong, and help bring about that new life, to bring about that resurrection. “Almighty God, so draw our hearts to thee, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations” with this Easter faith, with this resurrected life, so that all the evil and darkness that is happening may be brought about to Easter Sunday morning. May we be vessels of that imagination in this world so that goodness, God’s goodness, can come about.