Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sermon for 10th Sunday after Pentecost, “Sunday School Stories: Moses, Part I“

Sermon 8/21/11
Exodus 1:8-2:10

Sunday School Stories: Moses, Part I

            One time when I was visiting our friend and member Walt Jenkins, who is always reading something, he had a book on his coffee table that really caught my interest. I can’t remember the title, but I remember the concept. In each chapter, a different author looked at events in United States history and imagined what would have happened if one small variable had been different. For example, what if Paul Revere had not been able to complete his famous ride in time to warn colonials of the approaching British troops? What if he had been captured or injured or his horse broke a leg? Perhaps we can conjecture that a quick replacement would have been made. But it is only conjecture. We have no idea how one event might have impacted everything else. Or what if Lee Harvey Oswald had missed and failed to assassinate JFK? What if JFK had completed his presidency? Certainly the course of US history would be different – but how?
You’ve probably heard of this, even if not by this name: the Butterfly Effect. The butterfly effect gets its name from the basic example: the presence or absence of a butterfly flapping its wings in a certain time and place can impact the presence or absence of weather systems as large as hurricanes across the world. The actual concept is slightly more complicated. Reading about it will take you into a world of math formulas and graphs. But we can grasp the basic idea, I think, and think about our own lives. Sometimes the examples are much more trivial than presidential assassinations. Think about your own life. You probably consider this when you narrowly avoid an auto accident and realize that if you had traveled one mile per hour faster or slower, your life might be totally different. Think about the choices you’ve made, and the consequences your choices have, intended and unintended. What if you chose to take a different class in college and you never met your spouse? What if you never lost touch with that friend from grade school? Or what if you had taken a different summer job when you were in high school? What if you'd put on a different outfit this morning? What if you hadn’t lost your keys and left the house five minutes earlier? What if you weren’t here today, but out at breakfast? We cannot even know what impact our decisions might be having. We cannot even imagine.
Reading today's Old Testament lesson, where we turn our focus from Moses to Joseph, I am overwhelmed with questions of this type. What if? What if? So, let’s look at what we have. ʺNow a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.ʺ That’s how our passage from Exodus begins today, and it explains how Joseph's actions with his brothers, where he lets them essentially work for food in Egypt, turns into Israelite slavery under Egyptians just a few generations later. What if, indeed? How could Joseph and his brothers imagine that their sibling rivalry would be the groundwork for a whole nation being slaves to another, which would lead to the Exodus, which remains today the most significant story shaping Jewish identity. Perhaps it will give you pause next time you are arguing with a loved one – who knows how your actions will shape the world!
Times have changed and Joseph and family are no longer special guests in Egypt. They’re slaves. More than that, the new king, the new Pharaoh, feels threatened by the number of Israelites. They have multiplied over time and now are more numerous than the Egyptians. So the Israelites become slaves forced into worsening conditions. Pharaoh also directs the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill any male children born to Israelite women. (Lynn, apparently only two midwives were needed to assist with an entire nation of newborns.) But Shiphrah and Puah have their own plan. They deliver babies as usual, and tell Pharaoh that Israelite women are just exceptionally vigorous in labor and deliver and they can’t get there fast enough. Pharaoh is not so easily thwarted though, and he orders every baby boy born simply thrown into the Nile.
We read about a Levite woman, one of the tribes of Israel, who has a baby boy and sees how beautiful he is, and she decides to hide him. When that becomes too risky, she prepares a basket for him and puts him in among the reeds on the banks of the river. The baby’s sister, Miriam, watches to see what happens. Indeed, we don’t know what his mother Jochebed was hoping would happen – but she has to hope for something. Who comes to the river, but the Pharaoh's daughter! When she sees the baby, she has pity on him, even knowing it is probably one of the Hebrew babies, even knowing her actions are about to violate her own father’s law.  The baby’s sister, Miriam, offers to run and find a nurse, and of course, she brings back his own mother. The Pharaoh's daughter hires her to be the nurse, but he is raised as the child of the Pharaoh's daughter. And she names him Moses.
What a strange turn of events! Of course, we know that it is Moses, this baby, who becomes the man who leads the Israelites out of Egypt to freedom, who will eventually go head to head with Pharaoh. So if Pharaoh had never ordered babies killed, in order to oppress and control the Israelites, Moses would never have been raised by his daughter and in a position to lead people to freedom. All through this story, these women take action – maybe small actions – but they add up to the unfolding of one of the most important stories in the Old Testament. Shiphrah and Puah pretend Israelite women give birth really quickly. Jochebed sees what happens if she trusts God and floats her baby in the Nile. Pharaoh's daughter doesn’t let her royal status keep her from pity and compassion. Even Miriam knows just what to do when an opportunity presents itself. They probably are all a little afraid. And probably none of them could imagine the grand consequences of their actions. But without every piece, who knows what would have transpired?
God calls us and waits for us to respond. Every day, all the time, in a million situations. God creates us, and sets us loose in the world, and gives us hearts, souls, minds, lives that we can make of what we will. Sometimes we feel so small in this world, but in reality, we have incredible power because of the gift of freewill God gives to us. And so when we act, when we react, when we speak, when we decide, when we refuse to act – each choice we make has an impact – whether we see it immediately or never truly understand how the years ahead are shaped by a small decision today. That means we should carefully consider what we are about. Our lives aren’t trivial, but full of meaning that God draws out from us. When we speak and act in anger, out of hate, it matters. When we act with compassion, it matters. When we are kind, it matters. When we hurt one another, it matters. When we don’t act, and don’t care, it matters. When we make one small contribution for peace and justice, it matters. When we act with love, it matters. It all counts.
Every day we make a million choices. You’ve already made a million to bring you to this very place this morning. And maybe we can’t know whether taking one route or another home today will change history. But we can think long and hard about how the small choices we make can lead to big things, and how the small steps we take, can bring us ever closer to God. Amen.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sermon for Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, ʺJoseph, Part IIʺ

Sermon 8/14/11
Genesis 45:1-15

Sunday School Stories: Joseph, Part II

            Today we hear the end of Joseph's saga, at least as the Bible records, but we miss a lot of the middle section. So let me fill you in, or remind you, of what happened, after we left Joseph, sold into slavery to Ishmaelites by his brothers last week. Joseph's brothers let Jacob, his father, believe Joseph has been killed by a wild animal. Meanwhile, Joseph is sold as a slave to Potiphar, the captain of the Pharaoh's – the king of Egypt's guard. Things go well for Joseph, though, in spite of circumstances. The scriptures read: ʺThe Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man; he was in the house of his Egyptian master. His master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands.ʺ Joseph, though a slave, makes a place for himself in Potipharʹs house, and because God is with Joseph, Potiphar is also blessed.
            But Potipharʹs wife, one of the many unnamed women of the Bible, pursues Joseph, and wants to have sex with him. Joseph refuses, and when he does, she sets it up to look like Joseph was trying to attack her. Potiphar is enraged, and throws Joseph into prison. While in prison, the Pharaoh's cupbearer and baker are also thrown into prison. There, they both have strange dreams, and Joseph, familiar with dreams, is able to interpret them. The baker will be put to death, but the cupbearer will be restored to his position with the Pharaoh. It happens just as Joseph predicts. But instead of helping Joseph get free of jail, the cupbearer forgets his story. That is, until the Pharaoh begins having strange dreams himself. Suddenly, the cupbearer remembers the strange man that interpreted his dreams long ago. Pharaoh sends for Joseph, and Joseph listens to and explains his dreams, saying it isn’t he but God who is interpreting. Essentially, Pharaoh's dreams are foretelling seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. But with this knowledge, Joseph leads Egypt through careful planning, becoming Pharaoh's right hand man, and Egypt is in good shape when the famine comes.
            However, Jacob and his sons have not fared so well, and they eventually make their way to Egypt, with the brothers unknowingly seeking favors from Joseph, who they sold into slavery and claimed was dead. Joseph recognizes them, but they don’t recognize him. It’s as good as a soap opera, really. It involves Joseph framing one of the brothers for theft, Reuben again being the only sensible one, and Joseph weeping repeatedly and loudly, but eventually we hit our passage for today, where Joseph reveals himself: I am Joseph. I am your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. Don’t be upset because of what you did, because God sent me here in order to save you. After this, and after the brothers affirm that Joseph really really forgives them and isn’t just waiting until their father dies to get revenge on them all, Joseph concludes in the final chapter of Genesis with what I think is the key verse in his story. He says, ʺEven though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.ʺ
            Last week, we talked about how God uses people that are, well – questionable characters sometimes. We thought about those whom God calls and we wonder what God is up to, and I hope we also wondered about the grace of God that calls even us, as much as we can be pains in the butt like young Joseph. But this week, I think our story pushes us to ask even harder questions. The conclusion of Joseph's story brings us a decidedly grown-up and matured Joseph, a Joseph who is able, without hesitation, to forgive his family for what he has endured, and to look over his life and see God at work in every place. Joseph keeps saying things like: ʺFor God sent me before you to preserve life. God sent me before you to preserve you for a remnant on earth. It was not you who sent me here, but God. God has made me a father to Pharaoh,ʺ and finally, what I think is the sum of how Joseph feels, ʺEven though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.ʺ
            Joseph's story is a story of incredible forgiveness. Joseph grows up and he isn’t now who he used to be. He has been changed. His time as a slave, his time in prison, his time in a foreign land – all of this has made Joseph into a real leader, grounded, serious, looking beyond his own welfare. Sometimes when we have been wronged by someone, or had a bad or painful experience with someone, we're unable to let them ever be anything other than the person that once hurt us. Often, we don’t leave space for reconciliation and healing in our relationships. Joseph doesn’t end up as the bratty kid he started out as. What if we could only ever see him that way?
You might know that I've been keeping a journal since fifth grade. Every once in a while, I like to look back and read what I've said through the years. It gives me hope, knowing that we change and mature. Not just from childhood to adulthood, but I also like looking over my years of ministry and seeing changes from my first year to this, my ninth year in ministry!  Some patterns are the same, some things I still struggle with – but thank God, change is possible. We don’t always have to be stuck in the broken patterns of our lives. So where we have wronged, and where we have been wronged, we have to believe that with God's help, we don’t stand still in the midst of our sins. We move on and beyond to where God calls us. The rift between Joseph and his brothers – who would think that it could ever be conquered? Who would think that they would ever meet again and not want to kill each other, but instead meet with tears of joy? But this forgiveness comes only when we believe that God can work as much in the lives of those that have hurt us as God can in our own lives.
            And for Joseph, forgiveness happens because of his belief that God has been involved in, and in fact was shaping everything that happened to him. And here is where we hit the hard questions. This idea is called God's Providence – the idea that God is shaping and guiding our destiny. Joseph sees that God had a plan for him all along – if his brothers hadn’t sold him into slavery, maybe they would have all starved together during the famine, right? Skeptics among us might wonder though – couldn’t God have just figured out a different way? Did Joseph have to be a slave in order to grow up and save his family?
            For me, this is where understanding God as a parent is most helpful. And here I mean not the parent like Jacob who clearly has a most favorite child. But God the parent who has endless love for all of us. Parents, can you prevent every bad thing from happening to your child? You might wish it with all your heart and soul, but you know it isn’t possible. And you certainly can’t prevent your children from making some dumb choices, can you? In fact, you know it would be best if you didn’t prevent them, sometimes, right? Although I often tease people that their life would be better if I could just make decisions for them, I know that isn’t true. Because what is life, really, if we don’t have choices? If we don’t have any decisions to make? We don’t want to stay babies forever, and we don’t want to stay spiritual babies either. And God doesn’t want that for us either, anymore than you would want your children never to grow into their whole, independent, wonderful, unique selves, even as they drive you crazy along the way.
            But what you do want, what you can do, is be there all along the way, ready to help in every crisis, looking for ways to make the best out of your child’s mistakes and sins, looking for ways to turn awful situations into situations of hope and maybe even joy. And hopefully your children will know they can depend on you, and trust you, and listen to you once in a while! God's intents for us are always good. And God never leaves us or forsakes us. But neither does God seek to make us into babies, never able to make our own (sometimes bad) choices. Whatever we make of our lives, though, God is always willing to take the pieces and show us what they can become, when we work together, when we are willing to follow the risky path God lays out for us.
            Bad things happening to us isn’t God abandoning us, but God freeing us to live in the world and choose what we will be and who we will become, instead of God deciding it all for us.  And God's Providence, God guiding us isn’t God controlling us. Providence is knowing that God always intends good for us, and that God can always take our brokenness, and call us to wholeness. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Sermon for Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, ʺJoseph, Part Iʺ

Sermon 8/7/11
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

Sunday School Stories: Joseph, Part I

            You all know I have three brothers. And like any good set of siblings, we have often indulged in a game of ʺwho is Mom's favorite?ʺ We all both claim and accuse each other of holding this title in some way. Jim is the oldest, so he had six whole years of undivided parental attention before I came along. I am the only girl, so obviously I am the real favorite. TJ had several health problems when he was born, so we all know he got the most coddling. And Todd – well, Todd is the baby, so he got everything, including my mother’s car, a gift that we will never let either of them live down. Spoiled. Then we figure Jim reclaimed the title by producing a grandchild, which is a totally sneaky way of winning favorite status. But of course, we all really know that while each of us has a different relationship with my mother, she loves us all equally. Completely, unconditionally, but with no hierarchy.
            It may or may not surprise you to realize that this kind of equal love for children doesn’t seem to have much place in the bible. It always surprises me when people talk about biblical family values, because families in the bible are some of the most dysfunctional groups of relatives I've ever ready about. The family we encounter today is no exception. The Bible explicitly states in more than one place that a parent prefers or loves one child more than another, that a spouse loves one spouse more than the others. Sometimes, people in the Bible play favorites. And that’s where we start out today.
Last week we read about Jacob wrestling the angel or God or a man who symbolized God, or something like that! Jacob, we heard, was on his way to reconcile with his brother Esau, who he had tricked out of his firstborn birthright by pretending to be Esau in front of their failing father Isaac. This week we find Jacob settling down in the land of Canaan with his family – his wives Rachel and Leah, their maids Bilhah and Zilpah, and between the four women, twelve sons of Jacob, and, oh yeah, a daughter named Dinah.
            But our story quickly focuses in on Joseph, one of Jacob's younger sons with wife Rachel. We learn a couple things about Joseph. He is his father’s favorite. Jacob loves Joseph the most, because he is the child of his favorite wife, Rachel. Jacob doesn’t try to hide his preference. To show it clearly, in fact, Jacob gives him a coat, described in different translations as long-sleeved or of many-colors. Either way, the point is, it sets Joseph apart from his other brothers. On top of that, we find out that Joseph – well, he is a tattle-tale. He and his brothers are all shepherds, but Joseph sees fit to run back and make a bad report about the work all his older brothers are doing. Naturally, this, coupled with his favorite-status, doesn’t endear him to his brothers.
            But there’s still more. Joseph has these dreams. He dreams that that he and his brothers are binding sheaves in the field, and suddenly his sheave stands straight up in the air, while the others bow to his. And then he dreams that the sun, moon, and eleven stars, one for each brother, are all bowing down to him. Brilliantly, Joseph shares these dreams with his brothers. And our text says that the brothers hate Joseph and cannot even speak peaceably to him. No reaction from Joseph is recorded. We don’t know if he is just oblivious to their feelings or what. He certainly doesn’t seem to act very wisely. In fact, Joseph seems like a spoiled brat.
            Eventually, it becomes too much for the rest of his brothers. One day when Jacob is coming for them as they are pasturing their flocks, they decide to kill Joseph. ʺHere comes this dreamer,ʺ they say. ʺLet’s see what will become of his dreams.ʺ Reuben, one of the brothers, talks them out of outright killing Joseph, but Judah, another sibling, persuades the group that they might benefit most if they sell him into slavery. So they sell Joseph to some Ishmaelites, and they take him away to Egypt.
            We will hear more about Joseph next week. But what can we learn from this part of the story? Frankly, Joseph isn’t really very likable, is he? Andrew Lloyd Webber may have made him into the hero in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and maybe we root for him by the end of the story. But really, Joseph is not that likable. I obviously don’t recommend murder or selling your troublesome family members into slavery. But who is surprised that the brothers can’t stand Joseph? He is the clear favorite of their father, and Joseph can’t seem to stop rubbing that fact in their face.
            I told my mother that I was going to title today's sermon something like, You know that Obnoxious Person you Really don’t like? Yeah, God is Calling Them. Catchy, right? But hopefully it conveys my point. Here is the hard truth about the scriptures, and what they tell us about who God chooses. God does not choose the most faithful, the nicest, the most devout, the most well-behaved, the most-loving. It is a rare event in the Bible for us to read about any particularly positive attributes of people God chooses for amazing tasks. Instead, it seems, God chooses liars and adulterers and cheaters, even murderers, and even snotty siblings. How frustrating, right? That means that if we think over the people who we don’t really like very much – we have to admit that there is a chance that God will be using them to do God's work in the world. One of the hard lessons we have to learn, though, and I’m serious about this, is that God is often working through people we don’t like! We have to learn to look beyond the faults we find in others because if we can’t, we might miss where God is at work.
            Hardly seems fair, does it? I've shared with some folks here that a line from a Newsboys song goes like this: ʺWhen we get what we don’t deserve, it’s a real good thing. When we don’t get what we deserve, it’s a real good thing.ʺ Although we value fairness a lot in our culture, God isn’t really into fairness. I have a lot more to say about that in some other sermon! But we should be thankful that God isn’t all about what is fair, because sometimes we forget that if God was being fair to us, giving us what we deserved to get – well, maybe we, sinners, makers of bad decisions, hurters of others, ignorers of God's calls and commands, wouldn’t really deserve much actually, or wouldn’t want what we did deserve. What we receive from God then, instead of fairness, is mercy, love, compassion, forgiveness, which is infinitely more valuable to me. We don’t often deserve it. But thankfully it comes as a gift, free, without price. So the second lesson we have to learn from Joseph is this. Sometimes it turns out we might be acting like the spoiled child. We might be behaving in a way that causes someone else to wonder what God sees in us! But our bad behavior won't get us off the hook either. God loves us anyway and calls and commands and uses us anyway too.   
            Next week, we will see where God continues to be at work in the story of Joseph’s life, and the story of his brothers too. But in the meantime, I want you to think about the people that, for whatever reason, you find a little challenging to be around. And start looking for God at work through them. You might be amazed at what you find. And maybe, because of grace, you will start finding God at work in you too. Amen.