Saturday, September 6, 2014

An Epic of Hope

My partner is one of the people who gives me the best feedback on my sermons, and after a few weeks of trying to get back in the swing of things after returning home from vacation, I finally came home to an unprompted, "That was a good sermon today!" So, after having shared with with Presbury United Methodist Church, I bring it to you here to read, to critique if you wish, and (hopefully) to find a little hope. 

(If you are wondering where the reading comes from throughout August and September, we will be following an adapted Narrative Lectionary.)

Hebrew Bible: Genesis 45:1-15 (NRSV)
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

Let us pray:
Patient teacher, we give you thanks for all the ways you guide us,
especially for the examples of those like Joseph who show such forgiveness and compassion even in the face of violence and betrayal.
Guide us today. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts
reorient us so we can live lives overflowing with love
as Joseph did. Amen.

Last week I gave you all homework. Raise your hand if you did it! For those of you who either weren't here or forgot, the homework was to write down every day this week one blessing you received and one way you were a blessing throughout the day. We have been reading the past two weeks about God's promises to us through characters like Noah and Abraham. God told us that God blessed Abraham so he would go and be a blessing. Honestly, I found the homework more difficult than I expected it to be. While I can easily find ways I have been blessed, choosing a way I was a blessing felt uncomfortably like bragging. It also reminded me how even as a pastor, my days can too easily be spent without putting myself out there to really be a blessing to strangers. I don't know if that was your experience. But such difficulty reminded me that maybe I am a little hard on some of these ancient figures from the Old Testament. This call God has placed on our lives to be a blessing to others is not easy even without the added complications of conflict we see in Genesis alone.

The book of Genesis, the first book of the bible, is, frankly a depressing one. God created us and called us good. Then we sinned in the garden and had to leave. Then Cain killed Abel and things went totally downhill into a chaotic, violent, ugly mess until the flood came. But the destruction so upset God that God made a rainbow to remind us that life is too precious. But even with the rainbow and the new start, we continued to mess up. God showered blessings upon Abraham, but Abraham still lied and cheated. And God's whole promise to Abraham was that Abraham would be blessed so he could be a blessing! But Abraham had even more difficulty with that call than we do--- and so did his descendants. Jacob, his grandson, lied and cheated and encouraged violence within his own family by the way he valued some sons and wives and devalued others. The ugliness rivals Game of Thrones, for those of you who watch the show or read the Song of Ice and Fire series.

To look at our history as a people of faith through the bible story alongside our own struggles to be a is all a little depressing. All God asked is that we show each other a little love, a little compassion, and instead we are greedy and self-serving or even just lazy. Brian D. McLaren, a pastor and public theologian, writes that “[t]he book of Genesis would be a tragic epic of despair,” that indeed would give us little hope for our own situations, if not for the end of the book: the story of Joseph.1

(Some of you were probably wondering when Joseph would be coming in here!) His story really begins in chapter 37 of Genesis, the first son of Jacob's favored wife and so Jacob's favorite son. Now Joseph, as much as I will praise him later in my sermon, is not perfect by any means. He is one of those annoying kids who doesn't realize how pretentious he is. I'm glad my sisters aren't here in worship this morning or they would tell you that I used to be(am?) a lot like Joseph in this way. He tattles on his brothers, he has dreams about his whole family bowing down to him and he doesn't keep said dreams to himself. He prances around in ostentatious clothing, which, in his defense, was his father's fault for buying him the fancy coat. But as annoying as he was, and as insufferable as his father must have been fawning over him, no one deserves the treatment that his brothers give him.

Joseph's brothers are classic bullies. They are obviously hurting, but instead of trying to break out of the cycle of hurt, they choose to hurt someone else instead. Joseph. They throw him into a pit, speak of killing him, but then decide to sell him into slavery. Afterward, they soak Joseph's fancy coat in blood and go to their father, allowing him to believe his beloved son was dead. This is a horrible, heart-wrenching story. And poor Joseph, as though his life wasn't bad enough, he tries to live as ethically as he can as a slave and still finds himself wrongly imprisoned!

But still Joseph does not break, and eventually he becomes Pharaoh's right-hand man. God gives him the power to interpret Pharaoh's dreams of a coming famine, and Pharaoh gives him the power to prepare and prevent starvation. And soon, Joseph's own brothers find themselves in Egypt at Joseph's own feet pleading for a little food to ward off starvation. They do not know who he is, but he knows exactly who they are. And then something amazing and beautiful and hopeful happens. Joseph, remembering the blessing of his father's love, looking at the blessing that here he was a slave who rose to prominence, looking at the blessing that in the midst of famine Egypt had plenty--- Joseph becomes a blessing. In McLaren's words, “Joseph refuses to imitate the hatred of his rival brothers. Instead, he returns to the imitation of God whose will, Joseph knows, is always benevolent.”2 He shows us that we aren't doomed forever to keep on messing up and failing God's call to love our neighbors, to bless one another. He shows us that what God asks of us is actually possible, even in the worst circumstances. He forgives his brothers. He feeds them and cares for them and reunites his family.

Now, Joseph's brothers committed a egregious sin. It would not do anyone any good if Joseph just saw them again and welcomed them in with open arms. He was abused by his brothers! But when he saw his brothers again, he was safe, in a position of power so that, if his brothers refused to repent, he would not have to worry about them committing another violence against him. Also, because they did not know he was their brother, he was able to scare them a bit, to see if they would treat their brother Benjamin badly as they had treated him so badly. But he saw they had changed. They were no longer bent on violence and destruction. And so they were able to receive the grace he offered, to receive the blessing.

I read a story once about this kind of compassion and blessing in the face of sin. It is a story from South Africa. I know not many of you are familiar with South African history, but you may remember hearing the term “apartheid” before. The government of South Africa, run by the white minority established apartheid, officially introduced in 1948. Apartheid is a word that means “apartness,” and was a system of violent racial segregation not unlike Jim Crow in our country. In it, however, people of color were not considered to be citizens at all, did not deserve any rights at all, and so most services like medical services were inferior to those for whites. People of color were to be constantly reminded of their so-called inferiority, and they lived in constant fear of violence at the hands of their white oppressors.

When apartheid was finally overthrown in the 1990s, leaders like Archbishop Desmond Tutu came up with a creative and life-giving way to bring justice to the country that would allow them to acknowledge the human rights abuses that were committed while breaking the cycle of violence. They established the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission to bear witness to, record and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations, as well as to determine reparation and rehabilitation.

There are many amazing stories about the commission, and I will share one with you today.
In the days of apartheid, seven youth were killed by the South African military in an ambush. One of the men who participated in executing the youth, who were lying wounded on the ground, testified before the Commission. In the room were the mothers of these young men. After he finished testifying, the mothers were asked if they wanted to say anything. The spokeswoman for the group of mothers said that they did want to speak. She turned to the young man and said, “You are going to listen to our anger. Sit there and listen.” One after another, these mothers spoke of the pain they had suffered. Then, after all had finished talking, one of the mothers turned to the man, who was totally crushed, and said, “Come here. Come here; let me hold you. Let me forgive you. I have no son, now. But I want you to be my son, so that you will never do these things again.”3

Like Joseph, these women did not say to the men that what they did was okay. But rather than returning violence with more violence, they showed love. They blessed the man who had sinned. And that blessing helped him turn away from sin. That blessing gave him hope.

So today I want you to remember that as difficult as being a blessing can be, as difficult as breaking cycles of violence and poverty and apathy and sin can be, repentance is possible. Let us go forward from this place and chose not to return sin with more sin. Let us go forth from this place like Joseph choosing to be a blessing even though it may be difficult.

1Brian D. McLaren, “How the Doctrine of (Un)Original Sin Can Help Christians Be Less Sinful,” Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World (New York: Jericho Books, 2012), 112.
3Thomas Porter, “The Last Supper: Naming the Conflicts and Giving Bread and Wine,” Conflict and Communion Reconciliation and Restorative Justice at Christ’s Table, ed. Thomas Porter (Nashville, Tennessee: Discipleship Resources, 2006), 23.