Harrowing Of Hell
February 20, 2022

Going Down and Being Lifted Up

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

As many of you know I am a jogger. That is what I call it. My son says I look more like a wounded man struggling to get home; particularly when I’m going uphill. Which is why he has forbidden me from running up Prep Hill, near his school, particularly when students are coming in or out. I assure him that no one will recognize me.

In fact, one day I was jogging down near REI, and I saw Jad, our communication minister, so, I pulled up next to him as he walked down the sidewalk, and sort of jogged in slow motion next to him. He kept looking at me out of the corner of his eye, thinking he was about to be mugged by a deranged jogger. I revealed myself moments before he pummeled me. He forgave me, after he collected himself.

That is what this sermon is about today, forgiveness and reconciliation, and how, through the ups and downs, the hills and the valleys, the exhausting climbs and the easy downward strolls, we find opportunities to forgive and maybe, on the rare occasion, times for reconciliation as well. I say rare because reconciliation is significantly more complicated than forgiveness. But we’ll get to that a bit later.

Our tour guide in this exploration of forgiveness and reconciliation is Joseph. We hike the rugged terrain of his life as a means of explicating our own. His ups and downs reach to the extremes, and so ensure that our context, for the most part, fits into the lessons learned from his experience.

The other thing we see with Joseph, as a sidenote, is that his story fits the Old Testament pattern of descent and ascent, of downs and ups. We see this same pattern in the life of Isaac and Jacob, as well as King David and Job. These stories of going down and coming up prepare the mind of humanity for the salvation story of Jesus…Down to earth, down, down to the cross, up in resurrection, up, up in ascension.

Jesus’ descent-ascent parabola reveals the contours, the pathways if you will, that open the heart to forgiveness and make it available for the possibility of reconciliation, as well.

So, let’s see how this works by getting better acquainted with Joseph. You are probably familiar with his story; if you are a Donny Osmond fan, or an Andrew Lloyd Webber aficionado. That is right – Joseph and That Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat…same guy, just 4500 years before Donny Osmond. Let me give you the authorized version of the story from the Bible!

Joseph was the 11th son of Jacob. Rebecca was his mom. Isaac was his grandfather. Abraham was his great grandfather. He was one of those children that was easy to love… handsome, bright, inquisitive, caring (aka: Donny Osmond), a capable kid who his father loved more than the others, hence the Dream coat.

It is aptly named, incidentally, Dream coat, because Joseph had a gift for interpreting dreams; which is what got him are in trouble with his brothers. Sometimes our gifts are not appreciated by others. People get jealous, like my son over my foot speed, or Jad over my Inspector Clouseau disguise instincts.

Anyway, one dream in particular caused problems for Joseph. It went like this… (and I quote Joseph): “There we were binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheavess gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf” (Gen 37:7). Big brothers don’t like that kind of stuff.

Anyway, one day, when Joseph was a teenager, his father sent him to retrieve his brothers who were out tending the sheep. When they saw Joseph approach on the horizon, they plotted to kill him. But one brother, Reuben, convinced the others that the blood of their brother was not a good thing. There was a bad precedent for this in their family…you may recall Cain and Abel. And so, instead, they grabbed him, tore up his coat and threw him down into a pit. Then they sat down for lunch. The Bible is odd, sometimes, in what it decided to include.

Anyway, after a while, a caravan of Ishmaelites came by on their way to Egypt, and the brothers sold Joseph to them for 20 pieces of silver. Bound with ropes, Joseph was dragged behind a camel down into Egypt; and sold as a slave to Potiphar, who had a wife that took a fancy to Joseph. He rejected her advancement, as Donny Osmond would have, so, she accused him of acting lasciviously toward her. Potiphar was enraged and threw Joseph into jail.

Now at this time, there was a lot of office intrigue in the Pharaoh’s court. A baker and a cupbearer got into trouble and were thrown into jail. There they both had dreams.  Disturbing dreams. Enter Joseph, stage right, to interpret them. And he did. And his interpretations proved accurate: the baker was hung, and the cupbearer returned to good favor with Pharaoh. And Joseph remained in jail.

Years passed, and then Pharaoh had a dream that disquieted his soul. No one in his vast empire could interpret it. Then the cupbearer remembered Joseph.  Pharaoh called him up out of the dungeon and told him his dream. It was a dream of massive famine. Joseph interpreted it and then proposed a solution on how to mitigate it.

Pharaoh was so impressed that he put Joseph in charge of this operation, and soon after, in charge of the entire kingdom of Egypt. Joseph became known as the father of Pharaoh, and things were looking up. He was feeling good, and then THEY showed up. His brothers. They were affected by the massive famine that stretched all the way up to Israel and they came to Egypt looking for food. And (like Jad), they didn’t recognize Joseph… but he recognized them.

You can only imagine how Joseph felt. WAIT! We know how he felt, it says it right here in the Bible. He wept; couldn’t control himself. He cried out loudly. Everyone heard, even though the shut doors. Joseph was honest and authentic about his pain. He didn’t hide what happened. He didn’t claim it hadn’t hurt him badly.

A quick read of what happened next may give the impression that Joseph quickly forgave his brothers and was reconciled with them. Which is true, but it is a bit more complicated than that, because forgiveness and reconciliation are separate things, and each has a process unto themselves.

Let’s take a look. We’ll start with forgiveness. It begins with authentically owning our hurt and pain. Joseph didn’t hide his. He wasn’t ashamed of it. It was real and he let it be so. But then, he did something interesting. He let his pain expand beyond his own experience and metamorphose into something else that played upon a bigger state. In doing so he saw how his suffering and profound familial hurt was used by God to do something extraordinary. He saw how God worked through him to feed the world in time of famine. Joseph’s gifts had been used to do God’s bidding.

Our gifts are made to be employed in the same way. We are like Joseph. We are not accidental people with transitory gifts meant to enrich ourselves and then expire in the tomb. We are like Joseph; made by God with gifts to be used by God for the betterment of this world – we exist on a bigger stage in ways that we may never quite perceive or understand.

It is that big picture perspective that enabled Joseph to say to his brothers: “Where you had sought to do evil, God turned to good.” And so, through Joseph’s experience we see how forgiveness works:

  • Owning, authentically, our feelings around the suffering experienced.
  • Putting them in the context of God’s bigger picture.

We own our experience; and we see how it cascades into something good for God’s world. These two things are what allow us to forgive in here (point to DLC heart). This is where forgiveness happens. It is unilateral. It does not require the consent of the perpetrator or even their knowledge that forgiveness has taken place.

That is the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness happens with God; through our relationship with God. Reconciliation requires engagement with the perpetrator.  It requires accountability. Joseph required his brothers to be honest about their history and the pain and suffering they had caused both Joseph and their father. He did not let them off the hook. He did not acquiesce and reenter a toxic relationship. He required that it be transformed, before reconciliation could take place. He said, “Go tell dad what you did.”

And to their credit they did. Or maybe not to their credit, maybe they were just hungry, but either way they owned the horror of their past actions,and reconciliation happened.

Did Joseph nurse a grudge? It would have been easy to do, but he did not, because he had forgiven them as well. He had forgiven them in here (point to DLC heart).

If reconciliation happens without forgiveness, bitterness can metastasize in the victim’s heart. There can be forgiveness without reconciliation, but there shouldn’t be reconciliation without forgiveness for it can lead to envy and anxiety and disquietude of the heart…and potentially hardness of heart.

Forgiveness saves our own souls. Forgiveness coupled with reconciliation changes the world. We witness this in the Joseph story. The fruit of forgiveness and reconciliation is victory over famine and blessings upon future generations. Forgiveness and reconciliation together create a force for good that transcends the original transgression revealing the world as God so desires it to be.

That is why Jesus calls us to the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18). Forgiveness plus reconciliation is a Kingdom of God equation where 1+1 = 10,000,000! That is God math = revealed when forgiveness in the heart and reconciliation between people takes place.

As I come to the end of this sermon, I want to acknowledge that no one wants to be hurt. Nobody wants to suffer. We don’t want anyone to suffer, and yet it happens. But God can use what is bad to reveal good, and more so, to take the bad and manifest it into a good that is exponentially larger than anyone could’ve asked for or imagined. That is what we see in the story of Joseph.

So, seek reconciliation where you can, pursue forgiveness where you must. It is for the sake of your soul. And live into your gifts, as Joseph did, whether you are on a hill or in a valley; whether you are descending or ascending, trust God with the bigger picture. It is the story of the cross and resurrection.

And finally, the moral of this sermon: Don’t tease your dad and be nice to joggers.