Sunday, August 17, 2008

Pentecost 14 - Year A

How do you think God works in the world? Does God limit divine options by choosing to work only through those clearly identified as “Christian”?

Many preachers and theologians have said the church is God’s “Plan A” for the world. And that God has no “Plan B.” They’ve said that God limits God’s saving work only to those visibly and unmistakably in a covenant relationship with their creator. That we – God’s people – are the first, last, ONLY way that God intervenes in peoples’ lives and worldly affairs. We are IT. We are God’s hands and voice in a broken, hurting, and sin-stained world. God is relying on us. So is the world.

I used to believe that. I don’t anymore.

But if you read the whole of Romans chapter 11 instead of the bits the lectionary flings at us, then you might be inclined to agree with those preachers and theologians who see us as the only tools in God’s tool belt.

Paul talks about the “remnant.” Meaning a small group of believers who keep the faith pure against so much ungodliness in the world. After the community of believers had been so thoroughly corrupted by the world, Paul identified that little tiny church in Rome, probably no larger than 10 or 12 believers, as the remnant who will keep the faith alive, a tiny light in the vast darkness of the world, a candle glowing in the night, a drop of clean, undiluted godliness in a poisoned planet.

But I wonder what Paul would have said about today’s first reading from Genesis. In this story, known as the “Joseph saga” (Most of you know it better as “Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”) the line between the world and God’s people mists over to the point of being indistinguishable. This story seems to suggest that God isn’t limited to those who claim to be God’s people. God seems freer than what we might initially perceive.

On the surface this looks like a story of hard work paying off, with a little forgiveness and reconciliation thrown in to jerk a few theological tears. The stuff of good movies and snappy musicals.

Joseph was the guy you hated in High School. You know the one I mean. The Golden Boy, the Favoured One, who seemed good at everything. He was captain of the football team and he dated the head cheerleader. He won math awards, wrote for the school newspaper, played Hamlet in community theatre, sang solos at Christmas, volunteered in a homeless shelter, and couldn’t decide whether he’d be a brain surgeon or rocket scientist when he grew up, so he thought he’d be both. And you just knew he could pull it off.

You couldn’t stand him. Not just because he was better at everything than you were. You didn’t like him because he liked himself so much. His arrogance was breathtaking.

And he enjoyed showing off. His Emotional I.Q. hovered in George Bush realms.

He was oblivious to his brothers’ scowls. He didn’t notice their clenched jaws and furrowed brows. He simply didn’t see how badly his arrogance made his brothers want to tear out their ear hair.

It’s no wonder that his brothers wanted to get rid of him. He made them look bad. Really bad. And he flashed his egotistical white teeth while doing so.

You couldn’t accuse Joseph of putting on a show. He knew himself. He knew he was talented. He knew that he could succeed at anything he put his mind to.

Even his dreams stroked his ego. He was a dreamer. Some said it was God’s dreams that lived inside him. Others believed he simply dreamt what he wanted his life to be. Maybe it was both.

But Joseph also knew what his values were. He may have been a conceited jerk but he knew what was expected of him.

When his brothers sold him into slavery, he worked hard in his master’s house, being promoted again and again until he ran the whole household, landing a fancy-schmancy new royal suit to wear. As far as slaves go, he reached the top.

But he knew that success in an imperial household meant less than the values his parents taught him about God.

When his master’s wife tried to seduce him, grasping for him out of her place of power, she can only grab his royal clothes, ripping them from his body, but leaving empty-handed. The clothes do not make this man. It is God’s dream living inside him that makes him who he is. And no earthly power can take that from him.

When he’s thrown in jail on the trumped-up charge of adultery he takes charge of the prison, tending to other prisoners’ needs, telling them God’s future for their lives. Good and ill.

When Pharaoh’s nightmares mock him, displaying a vision of both abundance and famine, his own imperial priests are stymied. So Pharaoh was forced to turn to the prisoner Joseph to tell him God’s future. Joseph told Pharaoh what the dream meant: that there would be seven years of prosperity followed by seven years of famine.

I guess Pharaoh was impressed. The criminal becomes the ruler. Second in command. Only Pharaoh is greater. He is no longer Joseph. His name is now Zaphenath – paneah meaning “revealer of secrets” Or some say it means “God speaks: he lives!”

Zaphenath – paneah gets a shiny new chariot and a wife out of the deal. Not to mention a really cool job: saving the world’s only remaining superpower from starving to death.

This is where the line between God’s people and others blurs. Joseph doesn’t just get a great job with excellent benefits. He joins the inner-circle of the power elite. He exchanges a Hebrew name for an Egyptian one. And to keep his job he at least needs to pay lip service to Pharaoh being some kind of divine being, if not a god. A definite no-no he learned in Canaanite Sunday School.

When Pharaoh’s dream comes true, Joseph’s brothers come looking for food. Those who’ve seen the musical know what happens next. Without revealing his identity, Joseph accuses his brothers of spying. He demands to see his younger brother. Whom they produce.

When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, it’s interesting what he DOESN’T say. He doesn’t say “I am Zaphenath – paneah. The prince formerly known as Joseph.” He doesn’t say, I used to be one of you puny little people. Now look at me. You’ll suffer for what you did to me.”

Joseph isn’t hung up on titles or royalty. He knows who he REALLY is. And royalty means nothing to him. He’s bigger than that.

To identify himself he simply uses his plain, bare, Hebrew name. “I am Joseph,” he says. They thought he was dead. But he’s alive and giving life to the world through his work in Egypt.

I spent a good chunk of the week reading bible commentaries because I wondered why this story is included in the book of Genesis. There had to be a better reason other than it giving a reason as to how the Hebrews found their way to Egypt, then, somehow becoming slaves.

The funny thing is that each and every scholar came to the same conclusion as I did (shocker!). This story is not so much about forgiveness and reconciliation, although that’s part of it. Nor is this story about how hard work and determination are the building blocks of success, as if Joseph were the consummate capitalist.

This is a story about God’s freedom to work in any way God chooses. This is a story of God’s unpredictability, God’s unwillingness to play by the rules.

God wasn’t afraid to use Joseph to help save pagan Egypt from famine, and through Egypt, the whole world known to them. God wasn’t afraid to let Joseph become everything God despised to make it happen.

God wasn’t afraid of the cruelty of betrayal or the injustice of false imprisonment.

God wasn’t afraid of the pompousness of royalty, the abuses of empire, or the idolatry of paganism.

God was only interested in rescuing people from being destroyed. God trusted Joseph because that’s who God chose to do that job.

And God trusts YOU. When you do your work, God trusts that you know who you are, and that you’ll be able to use your gifts for the life of the world. God trusts that God’s dream lives inside you.

Me, I’ve got it easy. I can always hide behind my collar and people know what to expect from me. Whenever I’m tempted by the world I can simply put on my church clothes as a shield against those things that threaten to diminish me as a Christian.

You don’t have that option. You are Joseph. Yours is the greater witness. You’ve got the hard job. You have to walk the fine line between working with culture and not letting it decide who you are. You have to work in a “me-first” world without submitting to its selfish temptations.

And it’s not easy. Sometimes that misty line between God and world disappears completely.

I read in a Christian newsletter this week that one of the swimmers who won a gold medal was a Christian (!), meaning…what, exactly? How many non-Christians won medals?

I recently stopped listening to a certain ministry podcast because they started interviewing almost exclusively celebrities and CEO’s, and not necessarily Christian, just famous people who’d been financially “successful,” as if that were evidence of…what precisely?

But while you get to live in the tension between God’s world and our world, you also get to see where God is doing things, you get to see where life, joy, beauty, justice, and compassion are lived and celebrated. You get to see where the free, active, God is working outside the safety of church walls.

You are Joseph. Like Joseph, you have God’s dreams living inside you. Like Joseph, God trusts you.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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