Travelling Mercies on our Freewill Journeys – Genesis 37

Maybe it wasn’t the colourful coat that tipped the balance on the day Joseph was sold into Egypt.
Maybe it wasn’t because he was a tattle tale, squealing on his brothers.
Maybe it wasn’t the father’s love given unequally, unfairly.
Maybe it wasn’t any of those things.
Maybe it was simply the weather was too hot, everyone was cranky.
Or maybe it was because the brothers chanced upon a pit that day.
If the traders hadn’t happened by at exactly that moment, they all would have supper together.
Reuben’s voice as eldest would have sealed the outcome, and Joseph would have been hauled up and fed.
But instead the cup of resentment, which had been filling drop by drop is drained in one sudden act of violence.
The deal is done, the money has changed hands: Joseph is sent in chains to Egypt.

I want to talk to you about a journey. You think I’m going to talk about Joseph’s long walk to Egypt. But I’m not going to talk to you about journeys forced upon you, journeys you have to take. Instead today, I want to talk about the journey of Joseph’s brothers: the journey they started  of their  own free will. The brothers decide to do away with Joseph. That’s as far as they’ve thought: “Wouldn’t it be nice not to have him around.”  It’s a simple little step, a step they probably hadn’t premeditated.

It’s only after Joseph is on his way to Egypt that the brothers realize, “What are we going to tell father?” The coat is the cover-up they need. They dip it in blood, and rehearse the scenario. No doubt they congratulate themselves on their cleverness because they don’t have to say one word of a lie to their father. All they ask is, “Is this your son’s coat?” A tragic story leaps to Jacob’s mind, and they are spared any other explanations.

Day one of the journey, just a few hurrying steps. They think it’s a short journey.  A few days of lying, and then life will return to normal. They couldn’t be more wrong.

The thing they hadn’t counted on was Jacob’s grief: it’s expansiveness, its power to push them on and on in this new journey. The brothers  find themselves pursued by their lie; day in and day out, they see Jacob’s grief.

Where does the journey take them? For a couple of the brothers, at least, it takes them to a place called Remorse. Genesis follows this family, and we hear about these brothers years later.  There is a famine, and they have gone to Egypt looking for food, and they they see their brother, Joseph, who is now a man with great power. It’s a convoluted story, but Joseph tries to prevent one of the brother’s from going home. It’s Benjamin, who is Joseph’s full-brother, and also beloved by the father Jacob. And Judah’s response shows us that he has journeyed to the land called Remorse because he is totally unwilling to deprive his father of Benjamin.

Benjamin is a favoured son, Joseph’s full brother, undoubtedly also a recipient of special coats and an extra large helping of Jacob’s love. But Judah has paid dearly for the mistake they made with Joseph. He had to witness his father’s grief daily and he will do anything to spare his father.

When Joseph seeks to imprison Benjamin, Judah says, “I fear to see the suffering that would come upon my father”  (Genesis 44) Judah offers to give his life in exchange for his brother. Judah dwells in the land of Remorse and it shapes his steps.

I don’t think all the brothers journeyed to the land of Remorse. When the Egyptian ruler helping them suddenly speaks their language and says the shocking words, “My brothers….” before their eyes they see the bejeweled foreigner shapeshift into Joseph, their own flesh and blood. With that revelation, the brothers realize where they are…they are in the land of Guilt. They started walking there on that hot day by the pit. They are now long-term residents of Guilt, and Joseph’s presence reminds them of that. They sold their brother Joseph, the youngest weakest member of the family, into slavery; but now here he is strong and powerful, in a land where they are weak and defenceless.

What happens next?  Read the story…it’s fascinating. Joseph eventually tries to forgive them, embrace them, reassure them. But there is nothing Joseph can do to move them from that place called Guilt. They don’t trust Joseph, they won’t receive his forgiveness.

I wonder why they don’t trust him? I think it’s because of his power. Yes, he has food and the Pharoah’s power.  But I wonder, maybe what they really fear is his power to  tell their father what really happened.

Joseph tells them to go and get their father and bring him back. I think the brothers were terrified that Joseph will tell on them. At the tear-filled reunion Joseph has with his dad, does he tell his father what really happened?  His father will have wanted to know, “What happened, how did you end up here?”  Does Joseph say, “My brothers betrayed me and sold me into Egypt as a slave!”  Surprisingly, I don’t think Joseph says this.   Read the story and see what you think! 

From my reading of the story, there is never any falling out between Jacob and his sons…and surely there would have been if Joseph told Jacob the truth. In Genesis 49 when Jacob blesses his sons before he dies, he mentions some bad things that his sons have done, but never once does he say, “You sold Joseph into slavery, you watched me grieve all those years, you betrayed me and lied to me all those years!”  That is missing out of the narrative. I think Jacob went to his grave not knowing the truth about his sons.

Sadly, even after Jacob is dead and buried, the brothers are still living in the land of Guilt. They cannot believe that Joseph’s forgiveness is sincere, they fear him still (you can read about that in Genesis 50). None of Joseph’s tears can bring them back, they choose to stay in the land of Guilt forever.

The story of Joseph and his brothers  has captured our attention for thousands of years. If I was to ask you where is God in the story, you might say, “God journeyed with Joseph to Egypt and helped him there.”  We can see God with the underdog, God with the person forced on a journey they did not want to take.

But I see God in the story of Joseph’s brothers too. God is there with them on the journey that they take of their own free will. I see God working in  Judah’s life, showing him the way to the land of Remorse and when Joseph reappears, I see it as God-given chance for all the brothers to make things right. It’s a chance to reconcile. The brothers take the food from Joseph’s hand, but they choose not to come clean with their dad. They continue to be suspicious of Joseph, even though he never tells on them. They prefer to stay in the land of Guilt, they won’t take the journey to Forgiveness, because they do not want to pass through the valley of Confession.  Even if God will lead them through that valley, they will not go there.

Like the brothers in this story, we all set out on journeys of our own free will. We take first steps, sometimes for the slightest of reasons, sometimes not knowing where we are going with it, but we take those steps in a certain direction, and it can be hard to turn back.

I remember a decision I made with a family member. After a hard visit with them, I decide, “I’m not going to call her, she’s going to have to call me.” That’s a small step, isn’t it?  I didn’t realize then where I was going. It became a test of wills, if she wants to see me, she can call–I’m not going to call

So week after week, month after month. At first it was nice, I don’t have to see that person!  At first I felt that I had travelled to the land of Relief, I looked around, and said, “I love living here, this feels great!”

But as time went by, it wasn’t feeling good. I found I was wandering in the wilderness of Estrangement.  I remember having dreams during this time that I had killed this person,  and buried them in my backyard. In my dream I was consumed with guilt,  “Why did I bury them in my backyard…I’m going to be caught, everyone will know I’m a murderer!” My subconscious was working overtime!

But everyday things were hard too. The phone would ring, and I would always wonder, will it be her calling? This goes on and on, and after a couple of years you wonder, “How did I get here?  How did it come to this?” What was once as simple as picking up the phone now felt like a mountain range with icy peaks between us. I didn’t set out to go there, but I was stuck in a place called Estrangement.

So often we begin journeys with no big destination in mind. We just take a few simple steps. I have a friend whose journey began with a drink. Maybe not the drink of wine with friends over a meal,

but the drink that happened one day he was alone at home and feeling depressed, and it seemed like a good idea at the time to see if some vodka might take the edge off that sadness. A drink was a first step, and another and another. The steps were so easy, because he didn’t realize it was a downward path. His family and friends knew for a long time where he was living before he would admit it. “You are living in the land of Addiction,” they told him. But he told them they were crazy. He woke up one day realizing he had lost his job and his marriage was on the rocks.

You can probably think of people you know who have taken journeys like this. Starting out with small steps, ending up in terrible places that they would never have chosen to be. Maybe you are thinking of a place you are yourself, “How did I come to be at this place…how come I am spending so much time doing something I really don’t like doing? How come I’m surrounded by things that are weighing me down?” We have often brought ourselves to these places one small step at a time.

Where is God in the picture when we’ve journeyed to places that are profoundly uncomfortable, places that are killing us? I think that God is in the seeing. God is in us suddenly having the perspective to say, “What am I doing here?” Think of the prodigal son.  He spent day after day feeding the pigs until one day he asks himself the question, “Is this where I want to be?”

I think God is in the question, God is in us realizing that there are other ways to be. Judah lived for years knowing that by his own hands he brought grief to his father. He is given a choice, “Will you do this again?” And he sees clearly enough to know, “No, that is not who I am. I am not going to make the same mistake again. I will not bring this suffering upon my father.”

When we find ourselves miserable and unhappy where we are, that very feeling of being unsettled is a gift from God. It’s a wake-up call, it’s a check-in. It’s chance for us to ask, “What am I doing here?  Do I want to stay here?” God helps us ask the question because God never leaves our side. No matter what journey we take, God is right there, God knows what is happening to us. We may feel like we have gone to somewhere entirely godforsaken but it’s not. There are no godforsaken places.

God has a divine GPS, no matter where we find ourselves, God knows the direction to somewhere better. You are living in the Land of Misery?  or the Land of Fear? You want to get to Peace, to a land that feels like home? God says, “Yes, you can get there from here.” Sometimes you only get the directions one step at a time, but that is all you need.  What step do I need to take today?

When I finally realized where I was living, in the land of Estrangement, I had basically given up hope; “It’s not going to get better. We will live and die in this place.” But God provided a way to leave, the same way I got in…with small little steps, and God gave me the strength to keep going. God also provides people to help us, who show us the way, who inspire us. God is present when a friend or family member, an acquaintance or a  co-worker encourages, offers help, gives support.

I think that one of the ways we can embody the presence of God for each other is by telling our own stories. Can the church be a place where people share about the gloomy places we’ve been, the places we didn’t know we were travelling to until it was too late? Can we share about how God has shown us the way home?

Sometimes we go to church, and it seems like everyone has it together, everyone is doing fine, but this can be very offputting who is somewhere they don’t want to be.  Maybe coming to church is one of the steps that God is leading them to take. Can we be a community of people who admit that we’ve taken hard journeys, journeys that are long and still ongoing?

I think about a man I knew who had committed a sexual offence against a child. That’s a terrible place to find yourself… but he chose that path.  I don’t know anyone who sets out to be an adult who hurts children, to a land called Disgrace, but small steps are taken, rationalizations are made. And then you realize you’re facing criminal charges and everyone despises you because of what you’ve done. How does a church community walk with someone like that?

Leaving that terrible place is going to take years. There is no quick “Beam me up, God!” moment, where you are back to your old self. But nonetheless God was there for that man I knew, helping him take small cautious steps to a new and better place. It was a challenge for the church to walk with him: to say, “We are a church that believes there is a better place for you, and you can get there from here. We will walk with you.”

Sometimes our journeys are taken as peoples. When the first white people came to this country, they met the people who lived here. The white people thought, “They look uncivilized…they don’t talk like us, eat like us, live like us. They haven’t got what we’ve got…iron and guns and money.”

Those ideas were the first step that took white people down a very long road of thinking and treating First Nations peoples as inferior and sub-human.   The recent Truth & Reconciliation commission was a way of asking the question, “How did we get to this terrible place called Genocide?” And we were shown that the way to the land called Reconciliation goes through the valley called Truth.  Will we take that road?

Or the white nationalist march that was held in Charlottesville in the United States this week. People with torches yelling “White Lives Matter,” surrounding a church, yelling racist slurs, making Nazi salutes, even driving a car into people who were standing in opposition.

So many of us live in a land called Racism and Intolerance.  God is in the question, “How did we get here?”  And God will help us find a road to a better place to move to, God will show us the way.

As human beings, we are prone to wander on our way; the slightest things distract us. The day…too hot; the brother…too irritating; the pit…too deep and compelling. And before we know it we are walking a journey to the last place we really want to be.

But God offers travelling mercies no matter where we are. There is a road to a better place, and God will show us that road. But it might take a long time to walk that road.

My own journey from the land of Estrangement took fifteen years. Some journeys take longer. Are we willing to go the distance with people, to realize that they are doing the best they can? Their journey is their journey. We can’t micromanage it, we can’t short circuit it, we can’t take control. What we can do is walk alongside, we can encourage, we can offer love.

This week I encourage you to think about where you are…is this where God wants you to be, or do you need to get somewhere else? Let’s pray for each other, and give thanks that we worship a God who offers travelling mercies on every single journey we take.  Amen.

A sermon preached at
Grace Mennonite Church,
St. Catharines, ON
by Carol Penner
August 13, 2017

About Carol Penner

I am a Mennonite pastor currently teaching theology at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario. I’ve served congregations in Ontario and most recently, Alberta.

I love to write and to lead worship! If you are finding my writing helpful, I would love to hear from you! Feel free to use or adapt the material here, it is all written by me. If printing material, please credit “Copyright Carol Penner” (and say whether you modified it). If publishing, please contact me for permission. Contact me at

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