“Breaking the Cycle”

August 17, 2014
Jonathan Rumburg
Genesis 45:1-15

Anger.  Bad behavior.  Wrath.  It has run rampant for centuries.  It was in our scripture from long ago, and is even more prevalent today.

There have been stunning displays of anger, bad behavior, and wrath, and with the increase exposure of such through social media there is never a lack of finding them.

Alec Baldwin leaves scathing telephone messages for his young daughter; Charlie Sheen trashes hotel rooms and declares he’s “winning”; and even perky Katie Couric will at times leave underlings trembling with fear following: bursts of anger and cutting snide remarks.

And then of course there is Kanye West and Ray Rice.

But you don’t have to be a celebrity to get attention for anger, bad behavior, and wrath.

Robert Burton, a multi-millionaire, donated millions of dollars to the University of Connecticut’s football program.  But when he didn’t agree with the school’s choice for a new coach Burton demanded his money be returned and his name removed from the stadium.

A local newspaper mocked his public tirade by depicting him as a large screaming infant in diapers with the caption, “I want my money back!”

Then there’s reality TV, which is a booming business based on volatile encounters between participants.  Viewers eagerly await the personality clash and the resulting rampant bad behavior.
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These stunning displays of anger, bad behavior, and apparent lack of concern for the recipients of one’s wrath are the markers of people oblivious to the meaning of empathy, compassion, and understanding.

They are people who are so self-absorbed that they have a complete disregard for the feelings of others—and this is to say nothing about those whose disdain is voiced in a subtle, more passive manner, but still with the same aggression.

But whether it is an explicit outburst or a passive aggressive dig, all of it causes me to wonder, why do some people lose control in an emotional situation and feel entitled to hurtful, insensitive, and tactless diatribes, while others can calmly traverse the rapids of disagreement and sail smoothly to the shores of understanding?

But maybe a better question than asking “why” do some do respond with aggression and others don’t, would be to ask “how”.

How can we be more like those who are calm in the face of disagreement and conflict, and thus break the cycle of aggression and cruelty our world seems to love?

Well, Joseph was able to break the cycle.

Joseph would never make it as a reality TV star.

Joseph stands in quiet contrast to the “take- no-prisoners and have-to-have-the-final word” world that is so often on display.

Just when we reach the climactic moment in the Genesis story—after the betrayal, slavery, imprisonment, the dream-catching and rise to power— finally the drama comes to a head.

Joseph, second in command to Pharaoh and arbitrator of food in a starving land, faces his treacherous brothers and has both the opportunity and the power to have them punished or even killed.

And what does he do?

The words seem to be leading up to a cataclysmic resolution.  Joseph, after all, “could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out …” (v.  1).

But Joseph is not one for aggression or cruelty, even though, given his treatment, he certainly could have been justified in being such.

We, the readers, are expecting fireworks, revenge, punishment, perhaps banishment of his brothers.

But instead, Joseph astonishes—and perhaps if today’s normative standards are applied, Joseph disappoints.

He astonishes by offering his unlovable, unsympathetic, cruel, jealous brother’s forgiveness, mercy, and reconciliation.

Like I said, Joseph would never make it as a reality TV star.

If he were on any show, it would be a bomb in the TV ratings.

Think about it.  No drama.  No one kicked off the island. No photograph going up in flames.  No rose being ground into the floor or ring being thrown across the room.

Where’s the outrage?  Where’s the conflict, the tears, the screaming?

Joseph obviously lacks that certain something that so many celebrities seem to possess in abundance—call it arrogance or over-inflated ego.

Instead of what is expected, what is even deserved, Joseph offers an olive branch of remarkable proportions.

What do we allow to rule us?

Some people rule with fear and coercion.  Some, then, are ruled by fear and coercion.

Those who call themselves followers of God allow the power of the Holy Spirit to speak through them.  This was clearly the case for Joseph—who was not about fear, not about judgment, not about revenge.

Joseph in that moment when those who had wronged him, those who had judged him, stood before him, had every right to say “Take that!”

His anger would be justified.

No one would blame him after the multitude of hurts that his brothers had inflicted on him and of the devastating pain and suffering that they had caused in his life.

Some could have even said that to do so would be just.

But what happens instead?  Simply grace.

Grace lived, grace spoken, grace shared.

Undeserved, unearned, unexpected grace.
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Joseph could have commanded fear.  He could have demanded retribution or at the very least groveling from his siblings because it was them who made it so that he knows what it means to literally be in the pit of despair.

And even though he has every right, he will not abandon his brothers to a similar fate, and by doing so he mirrors God’s mercy, which has brought him to this life-giving moment of power.

Perhaps he reflected on how the Spirit had woven its way in and through the course of his life.

Perhaps he became mindful of how God’s Spirit brooded over him there in that pit where his brothers had thrown him, and had turned the chaos of that place into the blessed, ordered place he now stood.

Whatever it was, a cycle of cruelty was broken in Joseph’s mind and heart, and it empowered him to choose to be a reflection of the miraculous, gentle, and powerful Spirit of God.
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Joseph has experienced both complete human betrayal and utter divine intervention.

And now he has the opportunity to choose which of these experiences he will pass along.

So the question is, what will his brothers learn?

If they received the punishment that they deserved, they would learn only about justice.  They could rightly say, “I deserve this punishment in return for my misdeeds.”

But since they instead receive grace, they have the chance to learn about love and forgiveness.  And it is from that well of love and forgiveness that they can now draw from, and it is that lesson that we pray they—and we—will pass along to others on life’s journey.
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Even though he has every reason to be consumed with anger, even though he has every right to rule with fear, Joseph chooses to break a cycle and take a different path that models the grace he himself has received from God.

Now some might think that choosing forgiveness over retribution equates to weakness or a lack of passion.

But truly, the display of Joseph’s strength is astounding and the depth of his passion is clear.

He cried out when he could no longer contain himself.

He could have, humiliated, disgraced, or even killed those who wronged him, but he doesn’t.

He refuses to allow anger to dictate his actions.

He doesn’t do any of what would be expected

Instead he offers compassion for those who were ruthless.

He offers empathy for those who were unfeeling.

Joseph mirrored the sentiment of an Eastern sage who said, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else—you are the one who gets burned.”
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So what are we to do, then, with anger, which can be the justified response in a situation?

Even though there is no hint of him going for counseling or cathartically hitting his pillow, clearly Joseph worked through his fury and sense of betrayal.

Did he pray?  Did he journal his feelings into submission?  Maybe.  Maybe he talked to his wife or a professional counselor.

Whatever it was, he let God rule his heart so that the offering of grace and the resulting resurrection of his family are made possible.

Joseph chooses God’s way and reaps the harvest of a family restored.  He is reunited with his brothers and his beloved father.

And because he let God rule his heart, a senseless cycle is broken.

Conclusion

The story of Joseph is less a “how to manage anger” and more an example of the life-giving results of breaking a cycle of anger and wrath with grace and mercy.

This is not to say that those who have been mistreated must instantly run out to offer undeserved leniency to their tormentors.  Rather, this story encourages us to place ourselves in the hands of God, the fountain of forgiveness and the source of new life.

The most life-giving response to bullies and abusers may be to give them a wide berth and deny them any further destructive influence over our lives by NOT allowing their behavior to be perpetuated by ours.

Joseph refuses to allow those evildoers any power over his life.

Instead of permitting the resulting anger to destroy him, thus compounding the damage already done, he refuses to allow anger to take over his life and define his actions.

He does not lose control of his emotions, but more importantly, he retains control over his life.

Anger and fear are not directing his actions, and because they don’t, he is able to put anger behind him, break a vicious cycle, and offer them, along with himself, new life.

That is how we can be those who are calm in the face of disagreement and conflict.

It is how we can break the cycle.  Amen.

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