Have I mentioned how very much I loved studying Hebrew in seminary? There was something about it that I never expected: the pure astonishment when I realized I was reading stories in the language spoken and understood by God’s people thousands of years ago. It gave me the shivers. I frightened me and enthralled me all at once.
I will never forget the thrill of translating, for the very first time, a fragment from the book of Genesis. I was working late in my little dorm room at Union Theological Seminary. It was almost 2:00 in the morning, and I was laboring away, letter by letter. It took a long, long time. I was close to giving up. And then, like those scenes in movies when the camera shifts focus, and something goes from being completely blurry to being crystal clear, the meaning revealed itself to me. I could read it. The sentence was, “Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him” (Gen. 42:8).
One of the most valuable things I learned in Hebrew concerned a certain word—a certain letter, actually. The letter “vav.” The letter vav, all by itself, is an amazing word in that it can mean two things that are distinctly, startlingly, different. It can mean “and.” Or it can mean “but.” And the way the word is translated normally comes down to context.
Think about that for a second. Think about a normal sentence with the word “and” in it. I’ll give you one. “The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man…” (Gen. 39:2a). Now, imagine translating that, instead, “The Lord was with Joseph, but he became a successful man…” That is a very different sentence. Both are viable translations, but in the context of the faith described in the Hebrew Scriptures, only one makes sense to us. of course, the first translation is correct. The connection between God’s presence with Joseph and his success seems obvious. God’s presence enabled Joseph to prosper in all he does. That is a very classic Hebrew Scriptures theme. And—but—it is an idea that is exploded just as often as it’s held up.
Now, how about this sentence: “Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). The use of the word “but” in that sentence implies something. God is in the midst of telling the people of the Exodus how precious and beloved they are, how special and chosen. And, that is surely the witness of scripture. And—but—imagine now an “and” instead of a “but” in that sentence. “Indeed, the whole earth is mine, and you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” How does that change the sentence, ever so slightly? Instead of God’s people being plucked out of the mass that is humanity, removed and set apart, does this tiny little change in translation instead locate them firmly in the human family? Does it somehow say, as God says to Abraham, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”?
“Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him.”
Isn’t that the story of the struggle of the human race? In our readings this morning, we move from a story of a creator God giving a rainbow promise never to destroy the earth by flood; to the story of God calling together a covenant community by beginning with one little family; to the story of a faithful servant of God’s languishing (though, somehow, thriving) in jail. We have the stories bookended by the Ten Commandments, the Ten Words spoken through Moses—the law to be obeyed by God’s people. And the whole second table of the commandments—all the ones that have to do with humans interacting with one another—can be boiled down to: when you see your brother, recognize him.
All around the world today Christians are remembering: we are all brothers and sisters. And that is so easy to say. And that is so excruciatingly hard, sometimes, to live out. 2014 so far is an object lesson in folks not remembering that we are connected to one another as God’s children—“The whole earth is mine,” says the Lord, and everyone and everything that is in it. The making of peace is more than our pondering this for a few moments in our Sanctuary on an October Sunday morning. When we see our brother, we are called upon to recognize him. See him in the rich and the poor, the schooled and the illiterate. When we see our sister, we are called upon to recognize her. See her in the frail elder and in the fragile newborn, in the woman showing her faith in a hijab and the woman showing her strength and athleticism in a bathing suit. My brother, though he speaks with an accent, though he was born in another land. My sister, though her heritage, or coloring, or size, or idea, is different from mine. My sister and my brother. Different from me, but- and- my sister and brother, nevertheless.
Peacemaking requires laboring away, in our hearts and in our homes and on the streets and in the world. It can—it will—take a long, long time. At times we will feel close to giving up. But—and—it is the call of our gracious God. It is the yearning of a hurting world. It is the rainbow promise, and the call to the table. In us, by us, through us, O God, I pray: let all the world be blessed. Thanks be to God. Amen.