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. 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.

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