Sunday, August 14, 2011

Good From Evil

Genesis 45: 1-12

Last week, I used the beginning of this story as my preaching text, and heard from a few people that this story was new to them. So this week I thought it would be appropriate to finish the story.

When we last left our hero, he had been sold into slavery by his brothers, and the slavers had taken him into Egypt. (Last week I said that Potiphar, the person who bought him, was Pharaoh, but I was wrong. Potiphar is the captain of the Pharaoh’s guard.)

Joseph does well as a slave to Potiphar, and is eventually given management of all of Potiphar’s lands and properties. And as it says, Potiphar “had no concern but the food that he ate.”

The scripture says that Joseph was a pretty good looking guy, and he caught the eye of Potiphar’s wife. She pursues him for extramarital relations, and he resists. She finally catches him when they are alone in the house and he slips out of a cloak rather than give in. She takes that cloask and uses it as evidence against him, accusing him of wht he had always resisted, and Potiphar tosses him into jail.

In jail, Joseph begins to interpret dreams for prisoners, and, when one prisoners’ fortunes are restored, he eventually remembers Joseph when Pharaoh has a hard dream. Joseph is brought up from prison, and interprets the dream for Pharaoh-seven years of good harvests, followed by seven years of famine. He suggests that Pharaoh put some of the good harvests aside for the lean years, and Pharaoh does so. Not only that, but he also raises Joseph to the role of manager of this plan, and gives him the symbols of Pharaohs’ second-in-command. So when the dream comes true, and there is a worldwide famine, Egypt has food for it’s people, and even sells to the other countries around them.

One of those countries that is starving is the country of Joseph’s father and brothers, and they are starving, too. They come to Egypt, and Joseph sees them. He puts them in prison, then tells them that they must go bring their youngest brother to him (they don’t know this, but he is asking to see his full brother Benjamin, who is the youngest of them all.) They go home with grain, and unbenknownst to them, Joseph has also put their money back into their sacks-he has given them grain.

They go back when the grain they were given runs out, and take Benjamin with them. Joseph sees them, and sees Benjamin with them. He prepares a meal for them, and eats with them (still not revealing who he is to them), at one point needing to leave because of how emotional he becomes at seeing Benjamin.

As they prepare to leave, Joseph decided to play with them again, and has a valuable cup put into Benjamin’s sack

The “theft is discovered, and Benjamin is detained. Judah, the brother who so long a go was the lead guy planning to sell Joseph to the slavers, steps up and makes a speech asking for Benjamin back, even using the language that Joseph had predicted they would use, when he was a boy and had the dream about them all kneeling before him. And here they are, just as he had seen.

So he finally gives up the game, and reveals himself to them. They are of course astonished, and more than a little afraid of him-he is now very powerful, and they are weak and hungry, and they remember they have already been in prison once by his decree.

But Joseph, in grace and in love, tells them to bring Jacob their father with them down to Egypt, and the family shall have the land of Goshen, and live prosperously.

And this is how the nation of Israel became part of Egypt. The slavery part came later, under a different pharaoh, and that is a different story for another day.

What do we do with this story? What can we glean from it about the loving hand of God? What can we see about the character of God, something that we see that is similar to the character of God we see in Jesus?

Joseph says it: What the brothers meant for Evil, God has turned it to the good.

There is power in forgiveness. Joseph could have easily sent his famil7y back to Canaan hungry, could have finally enslaved them as they did him, could have had them all thrown into the Nile, and no one would have thought much about it. Revenge is the usual way, after all, even now. But it is not God’s way.

There’s a sense in the world that God has our lives planned out. So many times people would say to me about Donna’s illness : “it is God’s plan.” Never once did I believe that. But I do believe that God makes good from evil. God can take the mistakes that we make, the things that happen to us and to our loved ones, and turn them to the good. I am a different person from whom I used to be, and I think somehow better. My relationship with Josiah is much different now than it used to be and much much better.

We must have faith and patience, not that God has a plan for all of this or that, but that God, in God’s infinite wisdom and power, can make a plan that will land us on our feet- will fall us forward.

If we listen.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

From the Frying Pan into the Fire

With great thanks, and permission given by Rev. Alison Hendley, San Rafael UMC, San Rafael CA., for the use of her text and ideas.

Genesis 37: 12-28
Matthew 14: 22-33

Have you ever been in a situation where things are bad… you know the kind of bad where you think they can’t get any worse? Yet, almost as soon as you think this, they do.

A cancer diagnosis followed by notice from your insurance company that your treatment is not covered.

A car dies on you, followed by an irreparable computer crash, maxing out your credit card and making your bank account overdrawn.

A child gets stomach flu, and just as he is in the worst of the illness the next child, your husband and you begin to feel the symptoms crashing down.

You think a budget has been reached and then the economy takes another dive.

Sometimes life throws us from the frying pan into the fire, from one situation to another that seems even worse. The pit Joseph was tossed into was bad enough, but then being hauled out and sold to slave traders: humiliating and scary for anyone. For Joseph it was, I imagine, a big blow to his large ego. Here is a young man who has never had to work as hard as his brothers, the spoilt favored child of Jacob, showered with expensive gifts and love. And a bragger to boot, telling his brothers how he is going to rule over them and they will have to bow down before him. He is beaten and thrown into a dark pit, his life spared, but barely, and his future uncertain. I wonder if he feels a flutter of hope as his brothers pull him out, hope that proves to be short lived, as he soon sees the slave train he is to join as he is led off to land unknown. Does he fall into despair? Curse his brothers? Withdraw into himself and deny his gifts?

Joseph is taken to Egypt and soon lands on his feet as the favored slave or servant of the Pharaoh. But he is also the favored object of the Pharaoh’s wife, who tries to make him sleep with her. When he refuses she frames him for the crime anyway and he is thrown into jail. Soon he is the favored inmate, given privileges and tasks that other prisoners envy. He begins to interpret dreams of the other prisoners, and is eventually released to a new Pharaoh to interpret his dreams, and becomes the favored one once more, saving Egypt and the Pharaoh from famine.

Now, contrast Joseph, who seems so confident, beyond arrogant in his younger days, in relationship to his brothers, to Peter, who in the Gospel story is tentative, timid, unsure of everything.

It seems like these two men have very different temperaments: Joseph is sure of himself and somewhat cocky. Peter is filled with uncertainty about himself. Joseph keeps landing on his feet. Peter finds himself in hot water (or cold sea water)! Joseph lands in the right place at the right time. Peter follows. Yet these two continue to listen to God wherever they find themselves. In Joseph’s interpreting of the dreams he is able to save thousands of people from death, and eventually sees and forgives his brothers who come asking for food, and is reunited with his family.

So, even though certain personality traits stay strong throughout their lives, God works in these men helping them to grow into who God intends them to be. Each time they make the same mistakes or face the same situations I believe they change, sometimes in ways that are not perceptible to us on the outside, but change is happening. By their willingness to continue to follow God, God works in their hearts and minds, maturing them, shaping them to their fullness.

John Wesley's interpretation of Peter's wavering isn't the sort of moral scolding one might have come to expect from some evangelical preachers in our day. He doesn't take Jesus' question, “Why did you doubt?” as an accusation. Instead, he wrote, "He was afraid - Though he had been used to the sea, and was a skilful swimmer. But so it frequently is. When grace begins to act, the natural courage and strength are withdrawn." Wesley sees "Little-faith" not as a negative, but a positive. It's not that Peter has only a little faith, but that he in fact does have a little bit of faith and exercises it, steps forward onto the water and walks, even in the windstorm. It’s not that he failed- it’s that he did, for am moment resemble Christ.

This is the task we have for today… to listen to where we are being led, to follow, to step out of the boat, to be bold enough to step into the stormy seas, or into this broken world of ours, and to allow transformation to happen. To put ourselves, for just a moment into the position of resembling Christ, even for just a moment.

There’s a way of life written some 1700 years ago by a man named Benedict, who lived near Nursia in Italy. It’s called the Rule of St. Benedict, and it is the basis for most of the covenants people make together these days when they pledge to live together in Christian Community. It is the rule that is at the center of the community I am a member of.

It begins with the word LISTEN:
Listen carefully, my child,
and incline the ear of your heart.
Receive willingly and carry out effectively
God’s advice,
that by the labor of obedience
you may return to God
from whom you had departed.

Joseph and Peter both kept listening and stepping forward, not hiding who they were, at times, not seeming to ‘get’ it, but discerning the call and taking the step.
And so, this morning, I invite us to reflect for a few minutes, what we are being called to, in our individual lives, in our relationships with ourselves, our relationship with God, our relationship with others and our relationship with the community. Listen. And hear where God is inviting you to follow. Listen, and see the characteristics that you keep showing and how they are slowly helping to bring about transformation. Listen, and incline the ear of your heart, to be open to the ministries God may be setting before you. Listen for the step you, or we as a community, are being asked to have the courage to take. Listen for where the brokenness in the world is showing itself to you and ask how you can help. Listen.


As a further, bolstering of our faith, and courage to step off the boat onto the water, I offer us a blessing as written by a fellow member, a sister in that Christian Community I told you about named Jan Richardson, called
Blessing on the Waves:

I cannot promise
that this blessing
will keep you afloat
as if by lashing these words
to your arms,
your ankles,
you could stop yourself
from going under.

The most this blessing
can do, perhaps,
is to stand beside you
in the boat,
place its hand
in the small of your back,
and push.

Be assured that
though this blessing
is eager to set you
in motion,
it will not
leave you forsaken,
will not compel you
to leap
where it has not already
stepped out.

These words
will go with you
across the waves.
These words
will accompany you
across the waters.

And if you
find yourself
this blessing
will breathe itself
into you,
will breathe itself
through you

until you are
borne up
by the hands
that reach toward you,
the voice that
calls your name.