Before moving up here last summer, I lived across the street from an art gallery in Hattiesburg, MS, and one day while walking around the neighborhood, I saw some unfamiliar art in the window. I went inside, and I learned that it was a Japanese form of art called Kintsugi, and it’s a remarkable method of repair. Kintsugi brings together broken pottery pieces with golden powder and lacquer to make something new. The work starts exactly where you would expect it to end, after the damage has been done. All that seems to be left is for the pottery pieces to be swept up and thrown out, but it is here that they take a new shape. A new creation shines forth with beauty and complexity that was previously unseen, and through the skill of the artist, you see that the art hasn’t been lost. If anything, it has been illuminated through this turn of events. Here’s an example of that art form. I stayed a while at the gallery that day, thinking about the things that we throw out and the things we take care to preserve. When we cherish what has been given to us, when we patiently wait and work with the material of our life, God has a way of restoring our situation through grace, and beauty and goodness are brought forth.
Today, I invite you to stay a while reflecting on the first reading about Joseph and the presence of God. You probably remember some details about Joseph: He’s his father’s favorite son and the proud owner of many-colored coat, but things go south for Joseph after this promising beginning: His brothers betray him and sell him into slavery; then he’s imprisoned, and he’s under great suffering in his situation. Nevertheless, he holds onto to the knowledge of who he is, the son of Jacob and Rebecca, a child of God, and no situation can erase that identity. “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how” wrote the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, and he was well aware of that insight. Frankl survived the horrors of the Holocaust as a prisoner at Auschwitz and Dachau, and after losing so many loved ones, he used that guiding principle in helping people to heal. Frankl would not allow anyone to define him as a victim, and he set his heart on being victorious against the odds, taking each small step to survive and thrive. In our own lives, we all know people who have taken this path of perseverance, those who have overcome major obstacles, hardships and heartache. When asked about these trials, they usually attribute their endurance to some purpose greater than themselves. Joseph knew this insight, too, when he was down and desperate, and he trusted that God would provide a way when everything seemed shut off. Like others who have known suffering, Joseph allowed that experience to be an opening for compassion than a reason for resentment. It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, as the saying goes, and Joseph stays faithful to his dreams and to his God.
In our reading today, Joseph has finally received a reversal of fortune. After years of apparent insignificance, away from others, he’s now second to the Pharaoh in Egypt. His skills have helped the nation to endure during a time of famine, and his brothers come to him in need. He could now treat them like he was treated, but he’s not the same person as he was in earlier years. Revenge would be a simple solution, but he knows that satisfaction would be short-lived. It would not change the past, and it would not benefit the future.
It would only bring more pain and more regret, so he relies on the divine strength that has given him wisdom and opportunity. Joseph offers them grace, that gift of God that announces that we are forgiven and accepted even when the evidence suggests otherwise. Joseph had power to kill them for their crime, but he has learned to rely not on the power of men but on the authority of God. It is not a time to kill, but a time to create, and when he forgives them, he creates a new future.
Joseph tells his brothers, “God sent me before you to preserve life,” because he desires to draw them into a vision of promise. They’re fearful of his words at first, and rightfully so, but again and again, Joseph shows a generous spirit that’s been formed through grace. When Joseph tells his Egyptian guard to leave, he lays aside his defenses and reveals the courage of love. He shares with them his deep care for them and his commitment to help all who come to him during the famine. Trusting in grace has given Joseph freedom in any situation, and we step into freedom whenever grace guides our decisions rather than our fears. Like Joseph, we remain open to grace when we listen in prayer, when we meditate on God’s Word, when we honor the image of God in another person. When we seek to preserve life, our hearts and dreams grow larger in light of God’s mercy.
Our hearts and dreams are shaped by what we worship. “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what worship,” remarked the writer David Foster Wallace. We might think that Joseph had an easier prayer life than us, given his incredible dreams, but like much of the spiritual life, it’s more relatable than we might realize. Unlike the patriarchs before him who had powerful, direct encounters with God, Joseph doesn’t meet God in that way. Joseph perceives God in glimpses, by intuition, by being faithful wherever he finds himself, and when he reflects, he sees that God has been closer than he could have conceived. In Joseph’s model of prayer, there’s a review that can be condensed to three questions: Where have we noticed God’s grace today? How have we been receptive to grace? How have we been resistant to grace? Prayer defies exact definition, but whenever we sit in silence and surrender our thoughts and decisions before God, our will is given over to the divine will. Our schedules and rhythms have been interrupted lately, but as we see in Joseph and in our life together, we can still listen and learn from the Holy Spirit. We may not sense that much is happening, but wherever love leads the way, God is there.
Joseph leads his brothers to God’s presence when he invites them to come closer, but they’re unsure and unsettled. They’re out of their element; they don’t know what to do after all that’s been done, but they stay, and God restores what was broken and forges a new future for this family. Grace gets them through their numerous trials, and while they have their faults and frustrations, this reunion brings hope, healing, new life. Likewise, we have the chance to to come closer in this strange season, even though it doesn’t feel the same and we might not know what to do. We are still the family of God, just in another unexpected set of circumstances, and in Christ Jesus, our ministry carries on. Come closer to God and the Church at this time of great need and great possibility, because as our history and faith have shown, God is able to redeem what is damaged and bring forth new life and beauty, like any artist with a vision.