Sunday, August 24, 2014

Pentecost 11A

What a short memory they had.

“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph...” the bible tells us. It’s a different book, but the story continues. How could Joseph be erased from memory? What Egyptian could forget Joseph? And so quickly. And if Pharaoh chose to forget who Joseph was, why didn’t anyone remind him?

Certainly they couldn’t forget that Joseph was the one who saved Egypt from starving to death. Surely they remembered that it was Joseph who managed the Egyptian economy so effectively that vanishing resources wouldn’t affect their prosperity.

But they forgot him.They ignored his achievements. And instead waged war on his legacy by enslaving his kin who came to live with him.

Pharaoh looked out his window and he was afraid. He was afraid that the Israelites - Joseph’s family - were growing too numerous, large enough to become a threat to his empire if they got their act together, organized themselves, and rose up against him. 

He was afraid that it would be him who would go down in history as the one who destroyed Egypt’s greatness. He was afraid that he would look weak when put up along side the great rulers of the past, rulers who made Egypt what it was.

Pharaoh ruled out of fear. Not out of a vision of a better tomorrow, or hope for a more abundant future. For him strength meant dominating others, oppressing and enslaving those under him, forcing them to build large cities to match his enormous ego. Ruthlessly starting wars with other countries simply to steal their riches.

People were just instruments to create his vision of himself, they were to be used to build his greatness, then be tossed away.

He ruled out of fear because he forgot Joseph. He forgot his peoples’ story. He forgot how this lowly slave from another country was lifted to the highest position he could attain in order to save a country that was could have been destroyed by drought. He forgot what God had done for them. And he put himself in God’s place.

He forgot his story.

But in his defense, that’s easy to do. Especially when we don’t KNOW our story. When we stop telling it.

I heard a lecture recently about a poll taken last year involving the biblical literacy levels of average churchgoers, asking them basic biblical questions.

The answers were depressing for any pastor. Many could not identify David as king. Some said that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. Others believed that “Christ” was Jesus’ family name and not his title. Some said that they would go to heaven when they died because they are “basically good people” and not because of what Jesus had done for them.

Furthermore, they mis-identified popular aphorisms as biblical passages. These ones especially are most often mistakenly named as scripture:

“The Lord helps those who helps themselves,” they say with great piety. But of course this was said by Benjamin Franklin, not Jesus or Paul or Isaiah.

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” some utter as if it were biblical wisdom, but is actually a Chinese proverb and not from scripture.

“Neither a borrower nor lender be,” they hum with their best English accent which, but not realizing what is apparent to anyone who took grade 12 English that the quote is by Polonius from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and not a biblical proverb.

People didn’t know their story. And if they didn’t know their story how could they live it when they left church each Sunday.

And I suspect many of us would have similar problems telling our story to others let alone living it in our lives. Even among church folks, our story is less and less familiar.

I say this NOT to point the finger at anyone. It’s a different day than it was 20, 30, 40 or more years ago. Church used to be the social centre of peoples’ lives. It was the moral and spiritual gathering place for a society who had a silent agreement with the church, who was to play a significant part in people’s personal development.

But some say that churches abused this responsibility. And instead of being a place where people received love and and forgiveness, church became a place of rules and regulations. 

Instead of learning about care for others, justice for the oppressed, peace between enemies, healing for the sick, or resurrection for the dead, church became a place where power over people’s lives and behaviour was more important that setting people free in Jesus’ name.

As a pastor, most of the angriest anti-church people I encounter are those who’ve been hurt by the church. A brutally strict pastor who demanded rote bible memorization. A Sunday School teacher who yelled at her class and ordered her students to sit up straight and do what they were told. The oppressively boring confirmation classes that droned on for hours. The condemnation of other religions as “satanic.” Threats of eternal torture presented as “good news.” A place where people hate sin more than they love forgiveness.

When people lash out at us Christians, it’s often because of what we’re doing wrong rather than what we’re doing right.

Non-believers lash out at us when we try to dominate society and dictate to people what they should believe and how they should live. 

Non-church folks lash out at us Christians when we spend more time judging and condemning rather than loving and forgiving. 

Non-Christians lash out at us when we forget to live OUR story, and put religious language on the dominant culture’s - or Pharaoh’s story.

We think that if we occupy places of power than we can change the culture. If we elect the right people than we’ll take a leap forward for the kingdom of God. If we enact a specific political agenda, then we can force others to live according to our values.

We confuse what the world calls “power” with what God calls “power.”

God’s power is different. God’s story is not about wielding worldly authority. Just ask Pharaoh. He learned that lesson the hard way.

When Pharaoh forgot God’s story, God inserted Moses as a reminder. Moses was sent to be part of Pharaoh's family NOT because God wanted a good and righteous man in a position of power to rule over the nations. That’s not what happened because that’s not what God is interested in. Moses became part of the royal household to humble it, and to tell a different story.

Of course we know that the story took a long time to tell, and Moses often leaped between narratives. And it wasn’t until Moses returned to Pharaoh decades later after living a completely different life, with nothing in his hands but his shepherd’s staff and God’s power, to prove to Pharaoh the strength of God’s story.

But Pharaoh couldn’t hear it. He clung to that old story of power and empire and domination and oppression so tightly, that he lost a generation of Egypt’s first born.  He clasped his hands around that old story of anger and violence and selfishness that too many mothers buried too many sons because of it.

He grabbed hold of that old story of enlarged ego and unrestrained ambition until his actions affected him personally. Until finally, he had to admit defeat, he understood his story brought death, where God’s story brought freedom.

What’s YOUR story? How is YOUR story playing out in your life? What is driving YOU? How does your story and God’s story connect?

Is it a story of selfless service, giving to others without of thought to yourself? Or is it a relentless pursuit of prosperity, putting values aside and striving to get everything you ever wanted?

Or is it somewhere in between? A mixture of self-serving ambition and care for others. Perhaps even at the same time. Maybe forgetting which story is which.

That’s why we gather here each week. We Christians tell and live a unique story. We come to church to hear that story again and again and again and again and again, until it becomes part of us. 

You may not be able to quote the bible chapter and verse, and you may have forgotten everything you learned in confirmation, but I’ll bet that your life bears witness to God’s love in ways you don’t even recognize. I’ll bet you are living God’s story in ways you can name, and in ways you don’t even see.

That’s because God’s story is within you. God planted it there and watered it in baptism. You live God’s story because it is God who tells that story through you - and through us, together.

Of course, there are moments when we put up a fight, when we cling to that old story of selfishness and ego, of anger and violence, hurting those around us, hurting the world God made, and hurting ourselves.

And when we do, when we forget our story, when we insert ourselves in God’s place as chief-storyteller, God humbles us, calls us out, and reminds us of God’s story, where we all play a role in God’s story of freedom and forgiveness. God’s story of care and healing. And we then again live that story.

It’s a story that God has given YOU, a story that God put on your lips when you offer words of encouragement and forgiveness. It’s a story that God puts in your hands when you help someone up when they fall. It’s a story that God puts in your heart when you reach out in compassion.

It’s a story of generosity to those in need. It’s a story of be-friending those without a family. It’s a story of welcoming new faces.

It’s a story that Bryn has just been baptized into. It’s a story that God has included him in. It’s a story of life and love. It’s a story of abundant futures and vast possibilities. It’s a story of renewal, where God will use Bryn’s giftedness for service to others. It’s a story of healing and justice. It’s a story of freedom from whatever chains will threaten to weigh him down.

It’s a story that he might forget. It’s a story that WE might forget. But God certainly doesn’t. Despite our forgetfulness, God keeps telling that story over and over and over and over and over again, until we become that which we hear and receive, and the story ends when we join the chorus of those who are numbered within the narrative, the great company of storytellers, those whom God has drawn together to share how God has told the story through them, until all people reach that happy ending, and all voices join together in the finale of joy and peace.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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