The redemption of tears

The redemption of tears

This is the sermon the Rev. Allison Sandlin Liles preached at the diocesan worship service for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 16, 2020.


Proper 15A
August 16, 2020
Genesis 45:1-15

Today we continue with stories from Abraham and Sarah’s family tree. For the most part, we have read about the generations as they struggled with even the simplest of human relationships. Last week we were introduced to Joseph, the most beloved of Jacob’s 12 sons. The brothers hated Joseph; we’re told they cannot even “speak peaceably to him.” If the obvious preferential treatment from Jacob wasn’t enough, Joseph shares with his brothers his dreams of domination over them. This certainly explains the brothers’ antagonism toward Joseph.

Last week the brothers plan to kill Joseph, then change their mind after Reuben suggests throwing him into a pit instead. After stripping Joseph of the long- sleeved robe Jacob gave him, that’s what they do. And then decide to make a little money out of this scheme by selling Joseph to traveling Midianite traders.

The sons return home and show Jacob this torn robe (which they’d soaked in animal blood). Innocently they say to their old father, “We found this, see if it’s Joseph’s robe?” They then leave the rest to Jacob’s imagination. “It is my son’s robe! A wild animal has devoured him! Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces!”

Except he isn’t torn to pieces! Joseph is taken to Egypt and sold into slavery. He’s then falsely accused of sexually harassing his enslaver’s wife, and imprisoned.

Thanks to his God-given gift of dream interpretation, Joseph impresses the Pharaoh and rises to his second in command. Joseph accurately predicts seven years of great plenty, followed by seven years of famine, and creates a plan to keep Egypt well-fed. We read that the world comes to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain because the famine was so severe.

The famine certainly reaches Canaan, because Jacob sends his sons to Egypt for food. They appear before Joseph who recognizes them, but they do not know it is him. Joseph does not reveal his identity, but he does use his power and authority over them. He accuses them of spying on Egypt and imprisons them all for three days. He then demands they go back to Egypt and return with their youngest brother, Benjamin, and until they do, Simeon will remain in prison. The brothers whisper to one another about their predicament – admitting that they are paying the penalty for what they did to Joseph. When Joseph over hears their remorse, he turns his back on them and cries.

 The brothers are sent home with bags of grain, but Jacob refuses to let Benjamin go to Egypt because he had already lost Joseph and now Simeon is stuck there.

That’s that – they forget about Simeon until their food supply runs out. Only then does Jacob allow his sons to take Benjamin and return to Egypt.

When Joseph lays eyes on Benjamin, he has to leave the room because he’s so overcome with affection for his only full-blooded sibling. He finds a private room and weeps. He washes his face and after “controlling himself,” returns to his brothers…who still do not know who he is.

What happens next could either be a test of the brothers or the second act of revenge. Joseph instructs his servant to slip a silver cup in Benjamin’s sack. Joseph then confronts the brothers about Benjamin stealing from the Pharaoh. The brothers beg Joseph to release Benjamin, stating that their father has already grieved the death of one son from his favorite wife, he cannot bear to lose the other one. Judah says that Jacob’s life is “bound up” in Benjamin’s life, he will die if he hears Benjamin is sentenced to death. Judah states that he just cannot do that to their father.

This is when our reading picks up today. All those tears that he’s been crying in private rush to the surface. He sends everyone away except the brothers and wept so loudly that the Egyptians can still hear it. 

Then finally, Joseph reveals his identity.

I keep coming back to Joseph’s tears. This is the third time we hear about him crying in Egypt, but this time is different. Earlier he stifled his sobs, he gained control over them as a man in his position of power was supposed to do. But now he is full blown sobbing. Even people in another building can hear his weeping.

Why? Relief? Joy? Sadness?

I’m wondering it is all of these things after 20+ years of estrangement from his family in Egypt? 20+ years of slavery, imprisonment, then a sharp rise to power. 20+ years of feeling every possible emotion, but not feeling comfortable enough to share them.

In some small way, Joseph’s cathartic sobbing reminds me so much of this current time of isolation. Back in May, a member of my prayer group described her struggle in this way: “It’s just that I’m so sad. And so tired. And so tired of being sad. And so sad about being so tired.”

Yes. A couple weeks after that I noticed our daughter was crying more than usual. At the wise old age of 8 she articulated that she wasn’t really upset, but she couldn’t stop crying. Her eyes just seemed to be leaking all the time and over the smallest of things. She asked if she could just watch the first ten minutes of the movie UP to get all of her crying out. Anyone who has seen UP knows how brutal those first 10 minutes are emotionally.

When was the last time you wept? Not just a few tears leaking, but crying of biblical proportions? Unless we intentional watch a sad movie, most of us do not plan our ugly cries. It just happens and we can’t control it. And right now, in this period of separation, depression cases are on the rise, our emotions are running very high. Are we letting them all out?

I wonder about our separation from church, from families and close friends. If we cannot spend time with the people who know us best, do we have opportunities to be truly vulnerable during quarantine? Are we given the opportunity to weep, wail, and sob? The opportunity to just get it all out and feel a sense of freedom?

I’ve spent much of the past four months feeling like my friend Jennifer. Tired of being sad. I understand and appreciate the importance of entering grief and feeling emotions. But then what? What are we to do with them?

We are resurrection people. We believe that that all things in life can be renewed and redeemed by God. We believe that all of humanity is liberated through the power and grace of the resurrected Christ. It’s this cosmic redemption of Christ reconciling all things (Colossians 1.20).

But how is this powerful, redemptive promise of the resurrection actualized in the midst of a pandemic? This hope of redemption cannot just be for the end times, it must also be for right now. But how? When? Where does it happen?

In the Joseph story, the redemption happens in the restoration of relationships. For 20 years Joseph has held back his love and his tears, and then when he sees his brothers this third time, there is a flood of both. After two decades of estrangement, he invites them to move their children and children’s children, their flocks, herds and all that they have to a nearby village. Their broken history has been mended, and Joseph declares he will provide for all of their households. And then they cry a bit more.

Joseph’s crying calls to mind Jesus weeping at the grave of his friend Lazarus. Jesus cries with sorrow, compassion, maybe even guilt. Not unlike Joseph. They both cry tears stemming from the love of God. They both cry tears before revealing their true identities to those around them. Joseph to his brothers and Jesus to the crowd of Jews who follow Mary from her house to Lazarus’ tomb.

Joseph and Jesus both cry – but then they do something. Joseph weeps, then forgives his brothers, then issues an invitation to come and move near him. Jesus weeps and then calls Lazarus to come out of his tomb.

How is God redeeming our tears?

My prayer is this –

That we might find safety with people with whom we can be most vulnerable. My prayer is that we allow ourselves a true weeping. Not turning away, not immediately washing our face and regaining control. But an epic cry of biblical proportion. And then, following that cathartic release, we allow God to work through us by asking the questions:

What relationships in my life need restoration? Who needs my forgiveness?

Who needs my compassion? Who might I call or write?

Friends, even in the midst of a pandemic, God is making all things new.