Sermon for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Throughout these summer Sundays I’ve been preaching on the stories of our deep origins as told in the book of Genesis, and tonight marks the eighth and final sermon in that series. In just eight weeks, the lectionary has had consider four generations of the family line descended from Abraham and Sarah, by basically jumping in and out of some twenty-three chapters of narrative. As is true of the gap between last Sunday’s reading and what we have on our plate this evening, those have often been rather big jumps, and once again I need to begin by bridging the two pieces of the story.
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Last Sunday we were introduced to Joseph; Jacob’s favourite among all of his twelve sons. “[Jacob] loved Joseph more than any of his other sons,” the narrator had told us, “and he made a richly ornamented robe for him.” This favoured status combined with the fact that Joseph had been having dreams that suggested that one day his brothers would bow down before him—dreams he openly told them about—had caused his brothers to quite utterly loath him. Their rather drastic response was to sell Joseph to traveling merchants, who take him to Egypt where he is sold as a slave to Potiphar, the captain of the Pharaoh’s guard. The brothers cook up a lie for their father Jacob, and convince him that Joseph was killed by a wild beast; the only thing left of him was his blood-spattered robe. That’s where we left off last week.
At first things go not too badly for Joseph in Potiphar’s household… until his master’s wife takes rather a liking to him. Joseph refuses her persistent advances, and she is so miffed that she accuses him of trying to seduce her. ‘The Hebrew servant,” she tells her husband, “whom you have brought among us, came in to me to insult me.” Potiphar is so enraged that he has Joseph tossed into the royal prison.
It is in the prison that Joseph’s gift as an interpreter of dreams begins to surface. He is such an able interpreter of the dreams of two of his fellow prisoners—Pharaoh’s chief cup-bearer and baker, who had both landed in jail for some infraction—that in time word of this gift makes its way to the Pharaoh himself. You see, the Pharaoh had been troubled by some perplexing dreams, which he knew were significant yet couldn’t understand. Joseph is brought up from the prison, “And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.’ Joseph answered Pharaoh, ‘It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favourable answer.’” (Gen 41:15-16) “God will give Pharaoh a favourable answer;” it is one of the first indications in the Joseph stories that it is God who is at work; that this is more than just a tale of Joseph and his brothers.
When the Pharaoh tells his two dreams, Joseph hears them as a warning that a severe famine is coming; that there will be seven years of good harvests, after which will come seven very bad years. “Now therefore,” Joseph continues, “let Pharaoh select a man who is discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt.”
Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land, and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plenteous years. Let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming, and lay up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to befall the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine.’ (Gen 41: 33-36)
The Pharaoh is impressed by Joseph’s interpretation… and who better than this wise interpreter to oversee the whole plan? And just like, Joseph is raised from the status of enslaved prisoner to that of senior official. And sure enough, Joseph’s dream interpretation was accurate. Seven good years are followed by seven years of famine, and yet his grain management system protects Egypt from the worst of it.
Meanwhile back in Canaan—and here comes one of those plot twists so typical of these ancient narratives—there is also famine. Jacob has received news that Egypt has great storehouses of grain, and so he sends ten of his sons on a mission to plead for assistance from the Pharaoh. When they arrive they have an audience with Joseph, and though he instantly knows who they are, what with his Egyptian clothing and shaved face they don’t recognize him. For the next three chapters, Joseph will actually toy with them; he accuses them of being spies, and then holds Simeon as a prisoner and sends the rest of them back to Canaan to get Benjamin. When they return, he sets them up as thieves and takes Benjamin prisoner. In other words, before we get to this evening’s story of their reconciliation, Joseph messes with their minds. As Cameron Howard rather wryly observes in her commentary on these narratives,
[B]efore Joseph weeps on their necks, he plays on their fears and exploits his imperial power over them. His actions may not constitute intentional revenge, but they certainly are not worthy of a Hallmark card, either.
Yet there comes this point where “Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants,” and so he clears them all out and stands facing his brothers alone.
“I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.”
“It was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you,” he has said to them, and right away he begins to set in place plans to have the whole clan move from famine-weakened Canaan to the security of Egypt. “You shall live in the region of Goshen and be near me—you, your children and grandchildren, your flocks and herds, and all you have… bring my father down here quickly!”
“It was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you,” he has said; a sentiment—a theological statement, really—that he will repeat in a slightly different form in the closing chapter of Genesis. “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good…” (Gen 50:20). It is Walter Brueggemann’s view that the narrative “hinges on the conviction that God is free;” that God “is at work for his purpose in spite of, through, and against every human effort.” Against what he calls an “easy humanism” that entirely severs God’s work from ours, “this narrative affirms that the arena of human choice is precisely where God’s saving work is done.” Not that there isn’t such a thing as a harmful choice, or that people don’t do real damage to one another. Not that our choices aren’t real; our personalities and identities irrelevant as if we were so many chess pieces on a cosmic board, moved around by some divine whim. No. But at the heart of these narratives is an insistence that God can work with real human persons, with all of their limits and in all of their troubling freedom.
In Genesis 12 God calls the aging Abraham and his barren wife Sarah, and says to them, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” (Gen 12:1-2) An aging childless couple as the parents of a great nation? And God says, “I can work with that.” An increasingly complicated and dysfunctional family, marked by parents showing rank favoritism to particular children, brothers cheating and turning on each other, and deception and con games apparently hard-wired into the family’s way of doing things. And again and again the word God speaks over the whole mess is “I can work with that.” It is primary theology in Genesis, but it doesn’t end there. A stuttering and fearful man named Moses; a grief-stricken and barren woman named Hannah; a shepherd boy named David; reluctant and cranky prophets named Amos and Jeremiah; a conquered and exiled nation living under the iron rule of Babylon. “I can work with that.”
And it keeps rolling forward. A motley group of twelve Galileans—a bunch of uneducated fishermen, a tax collector, a revolutionary zealot named Simon—and a group of women followers, some with rather questionable reputations. And Jesus says, “I can work with that.” A best friend nicknamed Peter—the Rock—who in the hour of crisis pretended he didn’t even know Jesus, and a Pharisee named Saul who wanted to track down every last one of these followers. “I can work with that.”
A hundred and twenty people gathered on a hot August night, in a prairie city half a world away from where these events all took place; some coming with much belief, some with little; some who have tried to follow, and some who fear only that they have failed. “I can work with that.” This is the word spoken over us through these ancient stories of our forebears. God can work even with us; in our strivings and our occasional successes, and in our foibles and our failings. Even us.