Tuesday, September 26, 2017

"Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?"

“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
Genesis 49:22-26
Ordinary Time, September 24, 2017

Somewhere in the middle of this week, I realized I had reached that point that I so often warn others about. That point at which you have a vague awareness that truly awful things are happening in the wide world around you but you can’t bear to pick up the newspaper or turn on the TV or log onto Facebook to see what’s out there. You have become so very saturated with bad news, so completely overwhelmed by the pain and suffering in the world, that you simply become paralyzed. Unable to take it all in. Unable to open yourself, once again, to the pain of others.

Like the rest of you, I am only human. And my ability to keep up with every tragedy befalling the world around us is just that….human. And so I write checks to relief organizations. And I listen closely to those who are worried about loved ones around the globe and close by. And I meet with friends and neighbors here in Manhattan to try and figure out how we can make this little corner of the world a better place. And at night when I fall asleep, I try to remember to pray not only for the places and stories that I know but the ones I have forgotten. For I know that God is not limited in the same ways we are. God sees and knows and loves and does not forget. Not ever.

On weeks like this one, when we have been inundated once again with stories of tragedy and pain, suffering on a grand scale that is difficult to comprehend, I sometimes find myself sinking down into older stories. The older stories - stories that were passed down from generation to generation, stories that seem to be somehow etched into my DNA - can sometimes provide the anchoring we need in the midst of a non-stop news cycle. These old, old stories provide a foundation for us. Within their lines and songs are deep truths about what it means to be human - the unending cycle of tragedy and triumph, sin and repentance, division and reconciliation, slavery and freedom.

The Joseph story that we’ve been traveling through the past few weeks is one of those old, old stories. At times, Joseph’s story is so complicated, the plot twists and turns, so dramatic, that is seems almost like a fairy tale. But, then again, the characters are so realistic - so inconsistent, so cringe-worthy, so very imperfect - that it grabs me in a way a fairy tale cannot. Because there are no easy, trite lessons here. No one-size-fits-all interpretations of this man’s story.

Can I tell you the story this morning? Can we let the other stories slip away for just a few brief moments? Not that they are forgotten, not that they don’t matter, but because it is good to remember the old stories, too, to be anchored in deep truths so that we can have the stamina and courage we need to meet the stories of today.

Can I tell you Joseph’s story?

Once upon a time, many years after Joseph had been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers and had risen to prominence in the land of Egypt, the dreams that Pharaoh had dreamed about an impending famine came true. All over the region, people were famished. But the Egyptians had enough because Joseph, being warned by Pharaoh’s dreams, had rationed food so that they would have enough in the lean years.

People in surrounding areas who had not planned ahead flocked to Egypt for help. And that is how Joseph, having last seen the faces of his half-brothers jeering at him as he stumbled away with his captors, came face-to-face with ten of his half-brothers once again. Only this time the roles were reversed. Just as he had dreamed as a child, Joseph was finally lording over his brothers, quite literally. As the second-most-powerful man in all of Egypt, his brothers did not recognize their baby brother. My guess is he was likely long thought to be dead and mostly forgotten.

But not forgotten by his father, Jacob, who still lived in the land of Canaan and still hoped against hope that his favorite son might still be alive. And not forgotten by God, who was quietly working in and through Joseph’s life in ways that even Joseph didn’t quite understand.

Joseph recognizes his brothers immediately and decides to have some fun at their expense. If you’ve ever had a hard time forgiving someone for the pain they’ve inflicted upon you….if you’ve ever dreamed of revenge, well, know you’re not along. Just look what Joseph does.

He accuses them of being spies. And when he learns that his father is still living and his full-brother Benjamin, his only connection to his deceased mother, is still alive, he concocts a plan that will both punish his half-brothers and reunite him with his father and Benjamin. He throws the whole lot of brothers, all ten of them, in jail for three days. And then he releases 9 of them - all but Simeon, who he keeps as collateral. “Bring me your little brother Benjamin,” he says, “And I’ll return Simeon to you.”

The brothers weep and moan. Surely they are being punished for their ancient sin of selling the long-long Joseph into slavery. Joseph, overhearing their struggle, turns his face and weeps - ancient wounds reopened, fantasies of what his life might have been if that one moment had just got differently.

Before they return to Canaan, Joseph has their bags filled with grain. And then, just to mess with their heads and make sure they’re good and scared, he has the money they brought with them to buy the grain placed on top. When they return home they discover it and are terrified. Now they’re really going to be in trouble when they return.

The brothers try to explain the situation to their dad, who - having lost one son already, is not too pleased that Simeon is missing. The brothers say that they have to return with Benjamin but Jacob is not having it. Finally, they convince him to let Benjamin go...but only because the grain has run out, everyone is starving, and Judah pledges his own life as surety for Benjamin’s. He promises Benjamin will return.

Back to Egypt they go. Again, they encounter the mighty Joseph-that-they-don’t-know-is-Joseph. Joseph is thrilled to see Benjamin but does his best to conceal it. A big party is thrown and everyone feasts together. Joseph orders their sacks to be filled with grain once again and that they should not only be given their money back but extra.

Overcome with a desperate need to keep Benjamin close, he does the only thing he can think of. Joseph frames his little brother - placing a valuable silver cup inside his bag - and then sends his stewards to go and confront him, telling the men that Benjamin will have to be returned to Egypt - permanently.

Well, this will not do. Judah, after all, made a promise to his father that Benjamin would return. He explains as much to Joseph. Judah pleads to give himself in exchange for Benjamin. “If Benjamin does not return to our father,” he explains, “It will kill him.”

Joseph, perhaps hearing the desperation in Judah’s voice, cannot keep up the ruse any longer. He sends everyone except his brothers away and reveals his true identity. The years of pain and grief and anger and anguish have caught up with him and he says, quite simply, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?”

So many things that could be said. But he says the two things that really matter to him. First, that he is still Joseph. That has not changed despite years of distance, years of acclimation to another land. And secondly, “Is my father still alive?” No longer a child, but a grown man, he still yearns with hope for that one thing: his father’s arms.

Once Joseph finally calms down enough to begin explain all that has transpired he does something that I’ve always found fascinating. He tells the deepest truth of his soul - the thing that has allowed him to keep going all these years in the face of great adversity. Joseph says that is is his belief that it wasn’t really his brothers who were responsible for his life, but God. That in the midst of all this pain and agony, God has been working to guide Joseph and use his life for good.

None of us can really know what stories we would tell ourselves to survive great suffering until we’re in the midst of it. When I hear Joseph’s deep truth claim that God has orchestrated this whole thing, I have to admit, I cringe a little. Surely God wouldn’t be so cruel as to cause all this pain, I think. But then I remember the times I have sat with others as they have been in the midst of excruciating difficulties. And I have often heard them speak some version of Joseph’s deep truth - that God is in control and is working for good, even when it might seem awful at first. And I have seen the peace that this deep truth provides for some people. And so I remember just how little I really know about God and give thanks that someone who has lived through great tragedy and horror can find meaning in their suffering and can still know God is traveling alongside them.

Now that all the secrets have come out, and meaning has been made, there’s just one thing that remains: Joseph must be reunited with his father. And so preparations are made. It is decided that Jacob and sons and their whole extended family will come to Egypt and be settled on prime land. Joseph, with Pharaoh’s blessing, will ensure that they have enough as the years of the famine rage on.

When Joseph and Jacob are reunited - well, you already know what it looks like, right? Two big guys falling on each other’s necks and weeping. Finally, Jacob lets go and looks full into his beloved son’s face, saying, “I can die now, having seen for myself that you are still alive.”

And they all live happily ever after. Well, not quite. Because there’s more. More tragedy and more triumph, more pain and more reconciliation. That’s what it means to be human and living in the ever-encircling embrace of God, right? That there’s always more.

In particular, the more in this story includes these two scenes of More:
When Jacob is on his deathbed he calls Joseph to his side and demands that he bring along his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. His vision dimmed by his old age, Jacob kisses and embraces his two grandsons. And Jacob says to Joseph, “I did not expect I’d ever see YOU again….and, look here, God has also let me see the faces of your children as well.”


And then, at the very end of the book of Genesis, we are told that Joseph lives to the ripe age of 110 and lives to see several generations come after him. On his deathbed, he said to his brothers, “I am about to die. But God is not done with us yet. I believe - I know, in my heart of hearts - that one day our people will leave Egypt again. We will be brought out of this place and brought up into the land that the God of our ancestors promised to Abraham and Sarah, to Isaac and Rebekah, and to our own parents. Our people will be brought into that land flowing with milk and honey. God will not forget his promises to us. And when that day comes, you will carry up my bones from here. My bones will also travel that freedom road.”

Which leaves me, of course, thumbing ahead in my Bible to the book of Exodus to see what’s next. Is Joseph right? Do his bones really travel with the Israelites when they leave Egypt? What’s the next part of the story? Is there More?

And so the cycle continues….on and on….tragedy and triumph, sin and repentance, division and reconciliation, slavery and freedom.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

"Right Hand Man"

Sermon   by   the   Rev.   Caela   Simmons   Wood
First   Congregational   UCC   of   Manhattan,   KS
Gen. 40: 1-15, 20-23, 41: 1, 8-14
Ordinary Time, September 10, 2017

I wrote my way out
When the world turned its back on me
I was up against the wall
I had no foundation
No friends and no family to catch my fall
Running on empty, with nothing left in me but doubt
I picked up a pen
And wrote my way out…. [1]

August 30, 1772. A devastating hurricane tore through the Caribbean. A fifteen-year-old orphan named Alexander was one of many who lived on the island of St. Croix. He wrote an account of the storm, which was picked up by local media outlets. In the aftermath of the hurricane, strangers took up an offering to fund a one-way ticket for this teenager to the British Colonies in North America, hoping he could find a new life there.

Alexander Hamilton arrived in New York City a stranger in a strange land, fueled only by his own relentless drive for self-preservation and a sense of wanting to be somehow useful in the wider world. This young immigrant dreamer eventually became George Washington’s right hand man in the Revolutionary War, later landing a spot in the Washington’s Cabinet as the first Secretary of the Treasury.

U.S. American history is full of dreamers like Alexander Hamilton. From indigenous peoples who dreamed up massive ancient cities to my own ancestors who traveled across this vast land in wagons to Dr. King who dreamed we might one day rise and act our creed...on down to the today’s Dreamers. Those who came to this country as children and have only known this nation as their home and are now being told they are no longer welcome here.

The Bible, is of course, also full of dreamers. Two of the most famous dreamers in the Bible share the same name, Joseph. Like Hamilton, Jesus’s father was an immigrant, fleeing to Egypt to protect the infant Jesus, and played an important role as Mary’s right hand man.

Joseph in the book of Genesis was an immigrant of another kind. Sold into slavery by his brothers (we’ll talk about that whole family drama more next week, don’t worry) Joseph didn’t immigrate to Egypt of his own free will. Instead, he ended up there as so many came to Caribbean and U.S. shores...as an enslaved person. And like many enslaved and marginalized people in our own part of the world, he eventually found himself accused of assaulting a privileged woman, in this case, his master’s wife. And so off to the dungeon he went.

Running on empty, his back against the wall, Joseph is simply trying to make it from day to day in an Egyptian prison. In the eye of the hurricane of his life, he finds his salvation not in the art of writing but in another ancient type of storytelling: the interpretation of dreams.

Now, interpreting dreams isn’t new to Joseph. In fact, it had previously gotten him into trouble when he brazenly told his brothers he had a dream they were all bowing down to him in supplication. They were….displeased. And that’s why they sold him into slavery.

But here in the Pharaoh's dungeon in Egypt, his skills are helpful. He interprets dreams for a baker and for the Pharaoh's cupbearer. They are impressed with his talents and Joseph implores them to remember him if they ever get out of prison. He is young, scrappy, and hungry...and sure that he could be useful in the world if just given a chance.

Well, the baker is executed, so he is of no help to Joseph. And the cupbearer is eventually freed...but forgets about his promise to sing Joseph’s praises. Two whole years later, the Pharaoh has a strange dream that he can’t quite understand. None of the empire’s magicians or wise men can interpret the dream either. Suddenly, the cupbearer remembers Joseph, who is still languishing in prison.

Joseph is called to the Pharaoh's side and has no problem interpreting the dream. And it is a dream with dire consequences for the entire empire. It’s a dream about famine - which Walter Bruggemann reminds us is an uncontrollable force of nature that can wreck even the mightiest of kingdoms. Brueggemann says that if ANYONE in this story is able to successfully manage an impending shortage of food, you would expect it to be the Empire. [2]

But this is a story about what happens when God’s chosen people, Israel, bump up against Empire. And like other Biblical stories about that topic….well, we already know we can expect some reversals.

In this story, with a crisis looming and the Pharaoh and all his mightiest servants frantically looking for answers, it’s the little guy from Canaan who has them. Joseph, that relentless dreamer, not only interprets the dream but does one better: he comes up with a detailed plan for mitigating the effects of the famine.

Pharaoh is delighted and brings Joseph into his inner circle. Suddenly, this young Dreamer from another land is catapulted into the halls of power. As Pharaoh's right hand man, he is solely responsible for ensuring that the people of Egypt do not starve. AND he ends up further enriching his new country by creating a program to sell food to neighboring lands during the lean years.

It’s yet another one of those great role-reversals in the Bible. A man with great power - revered as a god, in fact - comes to depend upon a formerly enslaved ex-felon as his right hand man. But those of us who get to hear the story told through the book of Genesis can also see that Joseph is not really beholden to Empire. Instead, he functions as the messenger of God - the God of his ancestors, Abraham and Isaac, Rebekah and Rachel. The God who never forgets her beloved children. The God who speaks in the rush of the wind, the crackling of a flame, and, yes, through the voices of the Dreamers among us.

Joseph is God’s right hand man.

From the beginning to the end, he plays an important role in ensuring that lives are saved and crisis is averted. As the symbol of Israel, his story helps us remember what happens in God’s world when the Little Guy bumps up against The Empire.

Though there are times of awful pain and uncertainty, God is consistently and carefully working somehow in the background in ways that can be impossible to understand. And God is always working on behalf of the Little Guy - the least, the lost, the last. Those that society has cast aside as disposable, illegal, undesirable. Remember the chorus from throughout our holy text? The widow, the orphan, the immigrant. The widow, the orphan, the immigrant.

God is consistently on the side of those the Empire discards.

This is, of course, not just a theme in the story of Joseph. Joseph’s rise to power as Pharaoh's right hand man sets the stage for what comes next. It explains how the Israelites came to have ties with the Egyptians and foreshadows Moses’s future relationship with that same Empire. Once again, the Little Guy comes up against the Empire and we know instinctively whose side God will be on. And on and on it goes through the ages….it’s probably no accident that Mary’s right hand man was also a Dreamer named Joseph. In the fullness of Jesus, once again, God places himself squarely among those who society marks as inconsequential or problematic. Once again, Empire must deal with the shock and embarrassment that comes when even Caesar cannot defeat some little guy from nowhere named Jesus.

Joseph’s story is an in-between kind of tale. Standing on the shoulders of his ancestors, he is a child of Israel. But he also finds himself spending most of his life in another land, with people who are not his own. My guess is he probably never felt quite at home in Egypt but he probably wouldn’t have felt at home in Israel, either. Instead, the one thing he carries with him throughout his troubled and dramatic life is the God of his ancestors.

God is his refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trial. God is the one who comes to him in the dreams that follow him from Canaan to Egypt to prison to the halls of power. Brueggemann says that the story of Joseph is bracketed by the hint of a dream in the beginning of the story and the “doxology of disclosure” at the very end. [3] Joseph’s initial dream about him brothers bowing down to him sets in motion his painful journey, but it also provides some sense that perhaps eventually it will all be okay.

It’s not until many years later that the fullness of God’s vision is revealed to Joseph (and to us!) when we come to understand that God has been steadily working behind the scenes to ensure that not only Joseph, but many others are preserved. [4]

The God of life, the God of love never abandons her children. The God who dreams alongside us is always working quietly, mysteriously, in ways we can’t quite understand behind the scenes to bring us into new life. It was true for the dreamer Joseph and it is still true today.

I wrote my way out
Oh, I was born in the eye of a storm
No lovin' arms to keep me warm
This hurricane in my brain is the burden I bear
I can do without, I'm here (I'm here)

[1] Wrote My Way Out, from the Hamilton Mixtape, performed by Nas, Dave East, Lin-Manuel Miranda & Aloe Blacc.
[2] Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis: Interpretation Commentary, 295.
[3] Ibid., 293.
[4] Ibid., 204.
[5] Wrote My Way Out, see above.