25 August 2019

"Don't Be Afraid" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday August 25, 2019

David and Goliath.  The classic story of the underdog defeating the obvious choice.  It is such a classic story that it is the prototype for anyone facing overwhelming circumstances – you hear the media referring to a “David and Goliath Situation.”  The small but mighty hero saves the day.

I want to invite you to imagine yourself into David’s shoes for a moment.  You are the youngest son to a farmer in Bethlehem, out on the fringes of society.  And as the youngest, you are given the job of tending the sheep, meaning that you are away from the comforts of home and human companionship for weeks or months at a time.

Then one day a prophet named Samuel shows up in your father’s home, announcing that the next king would be one of his sons.  But you aren’t related to the current king, Saul.  The prophet looks at each of your brothers in turn, and decides that they aren’t the one who will be king, and it’s only then that they remember that they have another brother, one who is out in the distant fields with the sheep.  They send a messenger to fetch you, and when you get home, this prophet announces that some day you are going to be king, and he pours expensive oil over your head, anointing you as if you were already a king.  How must that feel, being told that you are a king, while the old king is still alive?

And then the summons arrives.  The king has heard that you are a musician, and he needs someone to play the harp for him, to soothe his heart.  How must that feel to enter the king’s household as a young boy, knowing that a prophet has announced that you are the rightful king?

And then we come to the war with the Philistines.  They are a more powerful army, and are likely going to win the war, but to minimize the potential loss of soldiers, they issue a one-on-one challenge.  Really, the king or one of his top soldiers should be the one to take up the challenge, but everyone is afraid.  Sure Goliath is massive, with huge muscles, but he can’t move very quickly so that should even the odds a bit.

You see how he can be defeated, by exploiting his slowness to move, and so you tell the king that you will take him on.  After all, a young musician and shepherd boy is better than nobody at all, and if nobody steps forward, then your side will lose by default.

The king tries to dress you up in fancy armour, and give you the best weapons that his army has, but as soon as you put them on, you know that this will take away any advantage that you have.  After all, wearing this armour, you will be as slow as Goliath, and you won’t have any of his strength to compensate.

You insist on heading in to the combat armed with just your slingshot and five smooth stones – the same weapon that you have used to protect your father’s flock all these years.  After all, there’s not much else to do on the hillside other than practice your harp and practice your marksmanship.

I wonder if anyone tries to talk you out of it, on your way down the hill to meet Goliath.  If someone does try to talk you out of it, if someone points out just how massively huge Goliath is, and how strong his muscles are, and how sharp his sword is – if someone does try to talk you out of it, are you tempted to turn around and head back to your father’s sheep?  There’s no glory there, but there are no giants either!

But you don’t turn around, and when you get within a stones throw from Goliath, your muscle memory kicks in – after all, it’s no different than trying to do away with a wolf or a lion who is threatening your sheep.

How does it feel when you see your stone hit its mark?  Do you feel triumphant?  Do you feel empty?  Do you feel proud?  Did you catch a glimpse of the surprise in Goliath’s eyes when he realized that this fight wasn’t going to go the way he thought it would?

Now let’s step out of David’s shoes, and examine the story from the perspective of Saul, the king.

Saul was the first king of the Israelite people.  When they had crossed the Jordan River after 40 years of wandering in the desert wilderness and entered the Promised Land, they initially lived as tribes – each tribe descended from one of the sons of Jacob – each tribe governed by wise judges.  But the people wanted a king – they saw the powerful empires of their neighbours, and they cried out to God, “We want a king!”  God replied, “No you don’t,” but the people persisted, “We want a king!”  And finally God relented, and the prophet Samuel anointed you, one of the members of the tribe of Benjamin, as king.

You did your best.  It’s hard to be the king of a people who aren’t used to having a king.  You tried your best to balance out doing what God told you to do through the prophets with doing what the people wanted you to do.  And eventually the pressure got to you, and you weren’t able to do it all.

And then the prophet Samuel, the same one who had anointed you as king, told you that you weren’t good enough, told you that God had chosen another king instead.  How does it feel to hear this?  Do you feel cheated? betrayed? set up to fail?

And through all of this, the threat from the neighbouring tribes and kingdoms never lets up.  The newest threat comes from the Philistines, this sea-faring nation that settled the Mediterranean coast and is trying to make their way inland.  And now they have issued a challenge – send your best warrior to enter one-on-one combat with Goliath, a giant and the secret to their success in battle.

What are you to do?  If you refuse the challenge, you will lose by default, and you will lose the land that God gave to your ancestors.  And yet who are you going to send?  If you go yourself, you will likely be killed, and then that pronouncement by Samuel that there is a new king will come true.  And yet you don’t have any soldiers in your army who can match Goliath’s size and strength.

It’s no wonder that you have stress in your life and you aren’t able to sleep.  Honestly, who in their right mind would want to be a king?!

And then this boy, this child who entered your household as a musician to help to soothe your heart and mind in the middle of all of the stress, this boy steps forward and offers to fight the giant.

How does this feel to you?  Are you ashamed of your actions, watching this boy step forward to do what is, by all rights, your job?  Are you afraid for him, afraid for the outcome, afraid that the land will be lost for all of your people?

Or maybe a rumour has reached your ear that the Prophet Samuel has visited the farmer Jesse, and has anointed this boy David as the next king.  Maybe the thought of David going into battle against the giant fills you with relief because if he is killed, you will be the only anointed king in the land.

And how do you feel, watching this boy without armour, without weapons, defeat the giant that you assumed was undefeatable?

It is a complex story – one filled with intrigue and plotting.  I was trying to think of a good contemporary situation that is similar – and in many ways I think that this is the story of David and Saul, rather than David and Goliath – and the person who came to mind is Greta Thunberg.  Last year, when she was 15, she began a “school strike for the climate” which has now spread around the world.  Led by Greta, the students of the world are trying to reach us adults and convince us that we need to change the way that the world runs.  Are we Saul in this story, letting a young girl do what we should be doing?  Thunberg has gone on to address the United Nations climate change summit, the World Economic Forum, the EU Parliament, and she is now crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a zero-emissions boat to address the United Nations again.  One person, a David, doing what she is able to do using the gifts she has been given, to approach the Goliaths of the world powers.

Greta Thunberg, addressing the European Parliament
CC-BY 2.0

I have to ask though, where is God in the story of David and Goliath?  I don’t see God acting through war and violence and killing and political intrigue.  But David knows that God is with him.  David knows that God is with him, and that he doesn’t need to be led by his fears.  David knows that God doesn’t want him to be afraid, doesn’t want him to be paralyzed by fear the way that Saul was.

And isn’t that true for all of us?  If we trust that God is with us, then we don’t need to be led by our fears.  It’s OK to be afraid, but if we let that fear take over, then it’s as if we are saying that whatever it is that we’re afraid of is stronger than God.  If we trust that God is with us, and that God is stronger than our fears, then we can keep taking one step after the other as we follow God.

This week, the world has been flooded pictures of the rainforests burning in Brazil, and it is good that we are afraid.  After all, these forests are the lungs of the earth that God created.  If we don’t have trees, then nothing will be able to breathe.  But if we allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear and overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge, then things will only get worse.

Whatever Goliath you are facing in the world, be like David and remember that God is with you.  God is stronger than our fears, and God’s love is stronger than anything it is that you are afraid of.

And remember that God is always saying to you,
            My love is stronger than your fears.
            Don’t be afraid.  My love is stronger.
            And I have promised, promised to be always near.”[1]

May it be so.


[1] John L. Bell and Graham Maule, “Don’t Be Afraid,” music by John L. Bell, More Voices, 90.

18 August 2019

"Where is the Good News?" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
August 18, 2019
Scripture:  Joshua 6:1-27
Preacher:  Kate Jones

Our exploration of favourite Sunday School Stories continues this week with the Battle of Jericho.  This is a story that is probably more familiar because of the song I just played and VBS re-enactments than it is from sermons.  Did you know that in the Revised Common Lectionary, the 3-year cycle of readings that we usually follow on Sunday morning, the book of Joshua only appears three times in the whole three year cycle, and the story that we just read is not included?

And what a story it is!  Can you imagine the Sunday School or VBS re-enactment of it?  Half of the army marching towards the city, followed 7 priests blowing trumpets, followed by more priests carrying the ark of the covenant – that gold and jewel-encrusted box which was the home of God, followed by the other half of the army.  On the first day, they process around the city once.  On the second day, they process around the city again.  On the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth days, they process around the city once a day, all those people and the trumpets blowing all of the time.

I don’t know if anyone else is a soccer fan, but I’m imagining that it must have sounded something like the 2010 World Cup in South Africa with all of the vuvuzelas blowing!

And then on the seventh day, the Sabbath day, they process around the city seven times in total beginning at sunrise, and slowly circling around again and again.  And after the seventh time around is finished, Joshua gives the signal, all of the people begin to shout, those thousands of voices; and at the sound of the shouting, the city walls of Jericho fall to the ground.

It is a pretty dramatic and memorable story on its own; but let’s take a step back from it just for a minute to see how it fits into the overall story arc of the Old Testament.

Two weeks ago, we read about how the Israelite people ended up in Egypt following a drought and famine; then last week, we read about how the descendants of Jacob, the Israelite people ended up in slavery in Egypt, and we read about the birth of Moses.  Well, that baby who was born in last week’s story would grow up to hear God speaking to him from a burning bush, he would go to Pharaoh and demand that he release the people from slavery.  Eventually, the Israelite people were able to escape, Moses parts the waters of the Red Sea for them to pass through to safety, and then Moses led the people for 40 years as they wandered through the desert wilderness.

Eventually, the people reach the banks of the Jordan River, but before they could cross over into the land that God had promised to them and to their families, Moses died at the ripe old age of 120, and, as we’re told at the end of the book of Deuteronomy, “his sight was unimpaired and his vigour had not abated.”  (Deut. 34:7)

Enter Joshua.  He had been Moses’ apprentice, and he became the leader of the Israelite people after Moses’ death – the “New Moses” so to speak.  And so Joshua leads the people across the Jordan River and into the land of the Canaanites, and the waters of the river parted in front of Joshua and the people, just as the waters of the sea had parted in front of Moses and the people.

Jericho was the first city on the western side of the river that they would have encountered.  Joshua sent out spies to scope it out, and they collaborated with Rahab, mentioned in today’s reading, who helped them get in and out of the city.  And then all of the Israelite people marched around the city walls, and the walls came tumbling down.  And then the Israelite people killed all of the Canaanite people and livestock living in the city.  And then they would go on to attack and take over the other cities in the region, and kill all of their inhabitants too.

Which makes this a very challenging reading if you go beyond the surface pageantry.  There is more than one side to every story; and as my father always told us, “History is written by the winners.”  What if we were to tell this story from the perspective of the Canaanite people?

From the perspective of the people who were already living in Jericho, it becomes a story of invaders coming from afar, convinced that God was giving them a new land.  From the perspective of the Indigenous people of Canaan, they are quietly living their lives, not attacking, not being the aggressor, when all of a sudden this foreign army comes in, razes the city, and kills all of the inhabitants.

And this story is a story that was used by European colonizers crossing the Atlantic to the New World.  They were convinced that God was giving them a new land, just as the Israelite people were convinced.  They crossed the water, just as the Israelite people had crossed the water.  They were convinced that God was with them and on their side, just as the Israelite people were.  And they killed and oppressed the people that they found living there, and stole the resources of the land, just as the Israelite people had.

Which makes this a very troubling story indeed.  Because I don’t think that I can worship a God who collaborates with people to kill people and destroy a city.  My understanding is that God is love, and I have trouble reconciling this story with my understanding of love.

And yet here I am this week, trying to craft a sermon out of a story that gives me so much difficulty.  Where can I find the good news in this story?  Where is the good news?

And this story raises deeper questions too.  How do we understand the nature of God?  Do we believe that God sides with the powerful oppressors?  And how do we understand scripture?  First Timothy tells us that all scripture is inspired by God, is “God-breathed” but what do we mean when we say “inspired by God”?  Did God dictate the bible, and the people who wrote it down were like scribes or typewriters, transcribing what they heard?  Or do we mean something different?  And what happens when we come across parts of scripture that contradict each other?  God is love on one hand / God destroys a city on the other.

Personally, when I think of scripture being inspired by God, I think of all of the men (and probably some women too) who were inspired by the Holy Spirit to write down their experiences of God through generations and generations.   As we say each Sunday after our scripture reading, “this is the witness, the testimony, of God’s people.”  And as they wrote of their experiences of God, their human biases were also able to slip in.  And so if a person believed that God does choose sides, that God does give victory in battle, then that person might write that belief into their story.

And so whenever we are reading scripture, it is important for us to know what lens we are looking at it through.  What lens are we using to interpret scripture, to figure out what it might mean?  For me, my lens for reading and interpreting scripture is Jesus’ summary of all of the teachings:  that we are to love God with our whole selves, and we are to love our neighbour as we love ourselves.  Looking through that lens, I can try to figure out the rest of scripture, even when it seems to contradict itself.

And so getting back to today’s story, I have trouble finding the good news in this story to preach about.  The more “traditional” interpretation of this story is that it is about obedience – that the Israelite people were obedient to God, and so God gave them victory over Jericho.  But that doesn’t sit well with me because, as I said earlier, I don’t think that I can worship a God who collaborates to bring about death and destruction.

And so finally I had to conclude that there is no good news in today’s scripture story.  I have to read it as a story of violence and destruction, rather than a story about the God who is love.

In order to find good news this week, I had to look outside of our scripture story; I had to look forward through time to the cross of Jesus.  In the person of Jesus, God became human, the second person of the Trinity.  In the person of Jesus, God chose to embrace love, and to embrace the vulnerability that comes with love.  In the person of Jesus, God chose to embrace vulnerability, and the risk of suffering.  And in the person of Jesus, God suffered pain and abandonment and rejection and death.  And so God is with everyone who suffers, because God has been there before.

In the Jewish tradition, there exists a practice called “Midrash” which is the practice of telling stories to interpret the stories that we find in scripture.  There is a Midrash that goes, not with this story of Jericho, but with the story of Moses parting the waters of the Sea and leading the Israelite people to safety on the other side, when the water rushed back and drowned all of their Egyptian pursuers.

And this Midrash says that when the people reached the safety of the other side, and when Miriam had taken out her drum to lead the people in a song and dance of celebration, that the angels up in heaven joined in.  And in the middle of the celebration they looked over and noticed that God wasn’t joining in to the celebration.  And one of the angels asked God, “Why aren’t you celebrating?  After all, your children have reached safety and freedom on the other side of the sea!”  And God replied, “How can I celebrate when my children have been drowned in the sea?”

God is with us when we suffer; God is present in suffering; God weeps with us when we weep; God was with the people of Jericho in their suffering as they were killed; God is with all people in the world, suffering with us through oppression and violence and fear.  God is a God who chooses the path of love and vulnerability and compassion.

Thanks be to God.

"White Crucifixion" - Marc Chagall
God is present in all suffering

11 August 2019

"Courage" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
August 11, 2019
Scripture:  Exodus 1:8-2:10

Back in the spring, when I asked for people’s favourite bible story from their Sunday School days, the most popular answer was “Moses in the Bulrushes.”  I wonder why that is?  Maybe because there is a baby and his sister – children can relate to stories about other children.  Maybe because it is a story that can be easily acted out, or colour pictures of.  Maybe because it is a good story, filled with action and intrigue.  But when I was figuring out where to begin and end the scripture reading this week, I wanted to give some of the background to the story from before Moses is born and placed in a basket, because the story of Moses in the Bulrushes doesn’t make any sense unless you know the context in which it is happening.

And the first thing that I noticed when I stepped back from the story is that Moses himself doesn’t do very much here, other than being born – and even then, I think that it was his mother and the midwives who did most of the work!

Possibly the most dramatic character in the story is Pharaoh.  Here we have an unstable ruler, someone with absolute power who is terrified of losing it.  Last week when we read the story of Joseph, we read about how Joseph and his father Jacob and his brothers came to be living in Egypt – Joseph had been sold into slavery by his brothers, and had been brought to Egypt by the slave traders; then Jacob and his other sons migrated there in search of food during a famine.  Joseph was in a position of power and authority in Egypt, and so his family was pretty comfortably situated there.  Our story today picks up several generations later, and an unspecified number of kings later.  And our story begins with a new king in Egypt, one who did not know Joseph.  And so instead of being in a position of favour and privilege, these descendants of Jacob are now in a position of slavery.

And this new king, this new Pharaoh, is terrified of losing his power, afraid that his slaves might steal it from them.  And so he treats them ever more cruelly.  Which, from the perspective of history, is a pretty silly plan.  If you look at the major revolutions in history – the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution, for example – they have usually been precipitated by an escalation of oppression by the elite.  But fear combined with a thirst for power can make people act in illogical ways.

And when he sees that slavery isn’t enough to supress his fears, the Pharaoh escalates his plan against the descendants of Jacob, who was also named Israel.  First he commands the midwives to the Israelite women to kill all of the male babies at birth, and when that plan fails, he tells all of the people of Egypt that if they see any boys who have been born to the Israelite people, they are to steal the babies and drown them in the Nile river.

This heartbreaking, gut-wrenching cruelty has been repeated so many times throughout history around the world.  Cruelty says that if you can control the children, you can control the whole people.  Look at the number of children who died in the gas chambers and experimentation labs in the Second World War.  Look at the camps currently in place on the US/Mexico border where children are separated from their parents, locked in cages like animals, and many of them have died.  Closer to home, look at our history of Residential Schools, some of which were run by our United Church of Canada, where the stated aim was to “train the Indian out of the child,” and where so many children died or were permanently separated from their families and communities.

Imagine, if you dare, the wails of the Israelite parents as their newborns were ripped from their arms and drowned in the Nile.  Imagine, if you dare, the wails of the migrant parents at the US border, as their children are ripped from their arms.  Imagine, if you dare, the wails of Indigenous parents as their children were ripped from their arms and stolen away to the unknown.

One image that haunts me was shared with me by an Anishinaabe woman in northern Ontario.  A week after her mother died, the floatplane arrived in her community, and she and her 4 siblings were bundled off to the residential school.  She describes her father standing at the end of the dock, forlorn, having lost his wife and all of his children in the space of a week.

But despite the grief and the heartbreak of the story, I don’t think that Pharaoh and his cruelty are the main characters here.  They provide background to the story, but they aren’t the star.

So if Moses isn’t the star of the story, and if Pharaoh isn’t the star of the story, who is?

I think that it’s the women in the story who are the heroes of this story, and there are five of them whom I want to highlight.

Let’s begin with the two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah.  When Pharaoh ordered them to kill all of the male babies, they didn’t say anything, they just refused to carry out these orders.  And when Pharaoh eventually noticed that there were still Israelite boy babies, they used his own prejudices against him and lied, telling them that they weren’t able to get to the births fast enough.

Imagine the courage that these two women must have had to openly defy a cruel and unjust king.  Imagine the meetings that they must have had with the other midwives, encouraging them in their defiance.  Imagine how their actions would have inspired and given hope to the rest of the Israelite people in slavery.

Moses, one of the babies who was born in this period of time, would eventually deliver the people out of slavery and in to freedom; but Moses would not have been able to deliver the people, if the midwives hadn’t first delivered Moses.

And history has been kind to the midwives.  Thousands of years later, we still remember their names – Shiphrah and Puah – we still remember their names even though historians have not been able to figure out which Pharaoh was ruling over Egypt in the time of Moses.

As well as the courage of the midwives, we also have the courage of his mother – we don’t learn her name here, but if we were to read forward in the book of Exodus, we can learn that her name was Jochebed.  Jochebed gave birth to a baby boy, and even though she knew that the orders had been given to drown all baby boys, she refused to give in.  She nursed her baby for three months to give him a head-start in life, and when she realized that she wasn’t going to be able to hide him any longer, she didn’t wait for him to be snatched from her – she crafted a basket for him and made it waterproof, and she laid her baby in the basket and nestled it in the reeds on the bank of the river in an area away from the crocodiles and where he was likely to be discovered by a sympathetic person.  She was going to fight for every opportunity for her baby to live.

And then we have Jochebed’s daughter.  Again, she isn’t named in this passage, but we learn later that her name is Miriam, and she was likely 10 years old or so when this story takes place.  Miriam sees her mother hiding her baby brother, and she watches over him to see what would happen.  And when an Egyptian princess comes along and picks up the basket, she swallows her fear and approaches her.  Imagine Miriam, the 10-year-old daughter of slaves, approaching a princess to offer her advice.  And it works.  Miriam is able to manipulate the Pharaoh’s daughter into not only keeping the baby, but hiring his own mother to continue to nurse him.

And our fifth woman in this story is the Pharaoh’s daughter.  Her name, like the name of her father, has been lost to the sands of time.  She must have known about her father’s orders to kill the babies of the Israelite slaves.  And she must have figured out that this baby who is lying is a basket nestled at the edge of the river is one of the babies that her father wants to kill.  But she takes him home anyways.  She adopts him as her own.  She recognizes that her father’s orders are wrong, and so not only does she defy him by not killing the baby, but she brings this baby into her father’s very household.  She uses the power that she has as the daughter of a king to help a family who was marginalized and oppressed, even though she didn’t have the power to change the whole system.

And this baby that she takes into her house and her heart , she names him Moses – he would grow up to be the same Moses who encountered God in the burning bush; the same Moses who stands before Pharaoh and demands that he “let my people go”; the same Moses who would part the waters of the Red Sea and lead the people to freedom on the other side; the same Moses who would ascend Mount Sinai and receive the Ten Commandments from God; the same Moses who would lead the people through 40 years of wandering in the desert wilderness.

But our story today – I don’t read it as a story about Moses, and I don’t read it as a story about Pharaoh and his cruelty.  I read it as a story of the courage of the women – the courage that they had to do what they knew was right, even in the face of oppression and cruelty; the courage to defy the unjust powers of the world; the courage to do what they were able to do in the situation in which they found themselves to make the world a slightly better place.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” and I believe this to be true.  I believe that God has a plan for the world – a plan where the world is ruled only by goodness and love and justice and mercy.  Sometimes it feels like this plan, this dream, this vision is taking a long time to get here.  But we can take heart from and be inspired by stories like the one that we read today – stories where the actions of ordinary people, doing what they are able to do in the situation in which they find themselves, can shift the narrative in small or big ways towards love.

In the middle of despair, we can find hope.
In the middle of fear, we can find courage.
In the middle of death, we can find new life.
Thanks be to God!

4 August 2019

"Joseph and his Brothers" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
August 4, 2019

(This is a continuation of our look at beloved Sunday School Stories over the summer. Because this week's reflections are story-driven, I strongly encourage you to read the linked scripture readings that go with each reflection.)

Scripture #1:  Genesis 37:1-28

Reflection #1
As I mentioned in my mid-week e-mail on Wednesday, I love the story of Joseph because the characters are so very human and so very relatable.  I mean, most of us have been that 17-year-old who knows everything and who isn’t afraid to tell our elders what it’s all about.  And since I have sisters myself, I get the sibling dynamics in this story!  The younger sibling telling the older siblings that they are the favourite one.  The elder siblings jealous of the younger ones’ relationship with their parents.

A bit of background to this story…  Joseph and his brothers and sister are the children of Jacob and his four wives.  Jacob is the son of Isaac and Rebekah.  Isaac is the son of Abraham and Sarah.  Abraham and Sarah are both descendants of Noah, who is the descendent of the original humans who were created in God’s image and brought to life by the breath of God.  The book of Genesis is essentially a family tree with stories of the people involved scattered between the lists of genealogies.

Joseph was the second youngest in his family – he had 10 older brothers, one older sister, and one younger brother.  Which is only slightly less crazy when you remember that Jacob, his father, had four wives.  So Joseph, as an annoying 17-year-old, had brothers who were likely in their 20s, 30s, and maybe 40s.  Now despite being the second youngest overall, Joseph was the first-born of Jacob’s favourite wife, Rachel.  And this made Joseph his father’s favourite.  I think that we’re almost in soap opera territory here!

And if we were to go back digging in his family tree, you might start to see a pattern of the younger son being favoured over the elder.  Joseph’s father Jacob was his mother’s favourite, and she helped Jacob trick the inheritance out of his brother Esau.  And Jacob and Esau’s father was Isaac, who was the preferred son who displaced his elder brother Ishmael in a story of pain and tragedy.  And if we were to go waaay back to the story of Cain and Abel, the offering of the younger son, Abel, was preferred over the offering of the elder son Cain, leading to a murderous outcome.  It’s amazing how patterns can repeat themselves through family trees.

But let’s turn back to todays story – the story of Joseph, the favourite son.  Just as [name] read for us, Joseph has been given a special garment – different translations have this as a coat with special sleeves, a long coat, or a coat of many colours – but no matter what the cloak actually looked like, it was something that set him apart from the rest of his siblings.  And he plays it up.  He lords over his brothers in a way that only a 17-year-old can do.  He interprets his dreams in a way that gives him power and prestige over them.  He flaunts his new clothes.  In short, he is a bit of a jerk at the start of the story.

But as one of the commentaries I read this week said, even a jerk doesn’t deserve to be killed.  But that’s just what his brothers do.  They initially plan to do away with Joseph; but then they change their minds and decide to sell him into slavery instead.  And if we were to keep reading past what [name] just read, we would see that the brothers take this special robe that his father had given to Joseph, they dip it in goat blood, they take it back to their father, and they tell their father that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.

So our story begins with a not-very-kind younger brother, jealousy, and betrayal.  Let’s see what happens when Joseph arrives in Egypt.

Scripture #2:  Genesis 39:1-23

Reflection #2
The story of Joseph, as well as being the story of very real humans doing very real things, is also the story of a rapid change in circumstances.  In a few short chapters, Joseph has gone from being the favourite son, to being sold into slavery, to rising to be the overseer of the household of a large and prestigious household, to being unjustly thrown in prison, to being placed in charge of all of the prisoners in jail.  This first part of the story of Joseph is an overall downward movement from family to slavery to imprisonment, but in each of these circumstances, Joseph must have had a lucky penny in his pocket or something, since he always manages to rise to the top.

Or maybe it isn’t a lucky penny.  In the part of the story that [name] just read, we’re told again and again that God was with Joseph.  In the household of Potiphar, “his master saw that the Lord was with him, and the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands”; and then “the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had.”  And then later in prison, “the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love”; and then “the Lord was with him; and whatever he did the Lord made it prosper.”

Which is all very well for Joseph, but I’m a bit troubled because if the Lord was with Joseph, watching over him and helping him to rise to the top of every situation he finds himself in, what about the other people who don’t prosper?  I know that I’ve said it before, but you have to be careful when you ascribe material blessings to God’s favour, because what about when those material blessings are absent or lost.  Was God with Joseph when he was sold into slavery or when he was thrown into prison?  Was God with the other slaves and the other prisoners who weren’t put in charge?

The only way that I can answer these questions is with a “yes.”  God is with everyone at every time.  God was with Joseph when he was sold into slavery and when he was thrown into prison, just as much as God was with Joseph when he rose to be head of the household and head of the jail.  God was with the other slaves and the other prisoners just as much as God was with Joseph.

We’re going to be skipping over the next chapter of the story.  In this chapter, Joseph is still in prison, and a couple of members of the Pharaoh’s household join him there.  Remember that Joseph had a talent for dream interpretation, even if that’s what got him into this situation to begin with.  Anyways, Joseph uses this skill at interpreting dreams to predict correctly that the Pharaoh’s cupbearer – his chief wine taster – was going to be released from prison and returned to his former position; and that the Pharaoh’s baker was going to be executed.  And Joseph asks that the cupbearer remember him once he is out of prison.  It takes a couple more years for this to happen, but our story picks up again in the Pharaoh’s household.

Reflection #3
So here we have the final reversal of situation in Joseph’s story.  Joseph is brought from prison to interpret the Pharaoh’s dream, and in doing so he is not only given his freedom, but he is placed as the Pharaoh’s commander-in-chief, and he is able to save the people from starvation through seven years of famine.

But in doing so, Joseph proves once again that he is a complicated person.  Just like most humans, he is neither purely good nor purely evil.

After the 7 years of good rain and good crops come the 7 years of famine.  And the famine isn’t limited to Egypt – the famine has also reached Canaan where Joseph’s family are living.  And Joseph’s family hears that there is food to be found in Egypt, so they set out in search of something to keep them alive.

When they get to Egypt, Joseph recognizes them right away, but they don’t recognize their baby brother.  After all – they had sold him into slavery more than a decade ago – they would not have expected him to be the overseer of the Pharaoh’s kingdom.

And Joseph doesn’t reveal himself right away to them.  It’s almost like he wants to make them suffer a bit more for what they did to him so many years ago.  He has them make the trek back and forth between Canaan and Egypt a couple of times – hundreds of kilometers each way, in the middle of a famine.  He plays tricks on them, has them accused of thievery, kidnaps his youngest brother.  And then he eventually reveals himself to them, and all of his brothers and their father move to Egypt.  But as we’ll see in a bit, they still don’t quite trust each other yet.

And we also get to see Joseph acting in a troubling way as the commander in chief of the land.  He had inside knowledge about the upcoming famine, and he was able to stockpile enough food for everyone to get through 7 hungry years.  But he doesn’t just give it away.  No; in a move that has been repeated by colonial empires around the world throughout history, he takes money from all of the people in exchange for food; and when the money runs out, he accepts livestock in exchange for food; and when the livestock runs out, he accepts land in exchange for food; and when the land runs out, he allows them to enter slavery in exchange for food.

And so by the end of the famine, the people of Egypt and Canaan have no money, no livestock, no land, and no freedom.  Like I said, Joseph is a complicated character.

Eventually the famine ends and Jacob and all of his family are comfortably settled in Egypt.  Jacob eventually dies of old age, offering a blessing to each of his sons from his deathbed.  And it is only after burying their father that Joseph and his brothers can finally be fully reconciled.

Scripture #4:  Genesis 50:15-21

Reflection #4
The story of Joseph and his brothers, these sons of Jacob, reads very much as a novella tacked on to the end of the book of Genesis.  This morning we’ve gone with Joseph on his journey from favourite son to slave to prisoner to the Pharaoh’s number one man.  We’ve seen how God was with Joseph through each of these movements.  We’ve seen how Joseph did some good things like saving people from famine, but we’ve also seen his shadow side when he lorded over his brothers, when he tricked his brothers when they were vulnerable, and when he stole the land and the freedom from people who were starving.

And now we come to the close of our story.  Cue the crescendo of strings, the credits are about to roll.  Joseph is finally reconciled with his brothers.  Sensing that they were still hesitant around him, and rightly so, given what they had done to him, Joseph is able to make the first move towards building a new relationship with his brothers.  He reminds them that he isn’t God, judging them for their misdeeds – he is only human, just as they are.

And then we come to what is one of the better-known lines from the Joseph story.  Joseph tells his brothers that even though they intended harm when they sold Joseph into slavery, God was able to make something good come out of it, so that many people’s lives were saved from the famine.

We are all human.  And we all mess up.  We all do things from time to time that we regret, we say things that we wish that we could take back.  And despite how much or how often we mess up, God can still make good things happen.  Love is still possible.  Reconciliation is still possible.  New life is still possible.

God is always with us, just as God was with Joseph.  God is with us with life is good, and God is with us when life seems to bring only pain and heartbreak.  And God is always reaching into the messiness that we make in our lives, and making the good things possible.

Thanks be to God!

"Reconciliation" - Statue by Josefina de Vasconcellos (Berlin)
Photograph by Mark Ahsmann CC BY-SA 3.0