sermon August 13 2017 Joseph

Today we are continuing our series on the first book of the Bible, Genesis, which as we have noted more than once is also largely the saga of one extended family.  With the emergence in today’s text of Joseph we have reached the fourth generation.   

The story of Joseph, which takes up a surprisingly large part of the book of Genesis, is one of the most memorable stories for me (and many others here today I am sure) from Sunday School days – maybe because I was the youngest of three boys; although Joseph is not the youngest of these 12 boys – Benjamin is. 

Any youngest members of the family here?   Did you get away with heaps that just drove your older siblings crazy?  Or were you the older family member that resented the younger?  May determine to some extent where your sympathies lie in this story. As I have said before there are so many stories in the bible of sibling rivalry starting with what we are told was the first pair of siblings Cain and Abel.

Some pretty glaring shortcomings here in this family.  We have already come across a number of these family traits over the past Sundays.  Jacob plays favourites and sows the seeds of animosity among his own children.  Note well it is the favouritism of the father that stirred up the deep seated animosity and jealousy between his children. And all that bristling, toxic  animosity is starkly symbolised by that famous, (if mis-named) Coat Of Many Colours. Old Jacob gives his son this coat that no-one else can have.  And it reappears in the story to be presented back to Jacob covered with blood.  Animal blood but Jacob thinks it is Joseph’s 

Well surprise surprise… Jacob’s parents played favourites.  His father Isaac favoured Jacob’s twin Esau while Rebekah favoured Jacob.  How often do we see entrenched systemic behaviour passed down the generations?  How challenging to break out of these patterns.  And not just for our own sake. For we do come to realise our actions have this ripple effect.  You act a certain way over here but you cannot contain it to that small area. It will spill over and poison (or nurture and strengthen if our acts and words are positive and life giving) other parts of your life.  Thinking of your life as a kid and those of you who are parents what patterns have you inherited and what ways have your been able to break out of?

Not to say Joseph does not have a part to play.  He feeds into this toxic situation. Joseph flaunts his position and becomes pretty full of himself (pride), the siblings get eaten up by jealously to the point where they are prepared to committ a terrible action against their own brother.

We are told in the text Joseph is 17 years old when these events take place.  At around age 17, I like Joseph thought I might have had something over (in my mind at least!) my two somewhat daggy older brothers.  A better sportsman than the eldest cos I played football – but as it turns out in our not quite old age, but approaching, he beats me consistently in table tennis, and he still plays competitive tennis and squash and runs the odd marathon, none of which I do.  More adventurous than the middle brother I thought, but then he took off at age 21 on his own and hitchhiked across Asia to Europe where he lived in a London squat before riding a bike to Spain, running out of money and eventually marrying a Spanish woman.  And I became a minister living out my quiet days in Melbourne.   Hmm, things don’t always go according to youthful expectations. 

Joseph’s did not help the situation with his brothers when he share his youthful dreams about them. These dreams were fulfilled in the most remarkable way – more of which we shall hear about next week, but it is important for today’s instalment to know that in the verses excised by the lectionary he has had a dream the meaning of which is that his older brothers and even Jacob the revered father will bow down in honour of Joseph.  Perhaps arrogantly and certainly insensitively Joseph tells everyone about his dreams.  Not surprisingly they do not warm to the lad. In fact they decide they have had more than enough of him and plot his departure, one way or another. And so Joseph ends up in a pit, something like a dry well we imagine.

As a youngster I was taken with the idea of this teenager getting chucked into a pit – not by his sworn enemies mind you but by his own brothers. Or step brothers.  You see there are four different mothers in this family.  Now we know there are many different forms families take today and many are cohesive and work well, but there is always the possibilities of alliances, cliques factions.  It was an ominous  warning to a boy far too young to embrace the full profundity of the message that sometimes those who intend harm to you are not the obvious and easily recognizable enemy but may also be people from within the ranks.  Ask our previous four Prime Ministers about this.  Ask the many young people abused by those who responsibility to care for them in schools and scouts and churches. Ask women who are the victims of domestic violence.

And don’t think for a minute that behaviour such as we read of today – selling a person, even a family member, into slavery does not exist today.  It takes a number of forms – an impoverished family sells a young daughter into sex slavery, human trafficking, indentured labourers

And so we see this situation rapidly spiralling out of control.  Jealousy has turned murderous and away from their father it seems that much easier to put a dastardly plan into action.  They sell the boy and spill animal blood on the despised coat of Joseph and spin an invented tale to the devastated father.

How do you think it felt for those brothers when they saw the anguish of Jacob?  Our story says that they all tried to comfort him. What would that have been like? To have the truth inside of you like a lead weight, watching your father cry but trapped by your own deceit.  Trapped because to tell the truth you fear will endanger your own life from the other brothers. How do you touch the shoulder of someone you love who doesn’t know that the reason he’s hurting is your fault? The guilt must have been unbearable. You could say they were in their own spiritual kind of pit. The past could not be undone; it could not even be mentioned. There would be no closure. Their father Jacob had said that he would mourn Joseph all the way to his grave. They would likewise carry the burden of their deed all the way to their graves. In a pit with no way out.

Anyway, as a youngster Joseph’s story where he arises out of the pit his brothers throw him into and later prison in Egypt to prominence and prosperity engaged me; and then (we see this next week)having the chance to stick it up the brothers who would have killed him he forgives and so of course in the end he acts graciously as befitting a biblical hero! 

Joseph and Peter in today’s gospel reading both share experience of descending/sinking – for Joseph a pit that is fortunately for him actually dry at the time and Peter beneath the waves when he loses his focus and attention upon Jesus.   Both rise from their experiences, have them reversed, to become leaders and visionaries for God.  Great stuff!

Just to back up for a brief time to Joseph’s dream which is actually about precisely what I said in the Isaac (Joseph’s grandfather) part of the series –and what I have said many many times in sermons over the years – that one of the major themes of the gospel is the notion of reversal, that is of subverting the current order of power/authority.  Jesus says stuff like this often, the widow who gave one coin was more favoured that the rich person who gives much much more out of their abundance. The first will be last and the last first. The poor man Lazarus gets his reward in heaven while the rich man who ignored him during his life is told he has already had his blessings. he  tells stories to illustrate it and in his own flesh enacts it-with God and in the reign of God,  the first will be last, and the last will be first. 

That God may not be too overly impressed by our human constructs of power and authority introduces another allied theme into today’s story. It is a theme that has been running through this series on the family that dominates the book of Genesis.  It is the seething cauldron of destruction and animosity set up by favouritism of children, wives, concubines, and the resulting tensions of sibling rivalry within families.  Now I hear there are some families that have kids who grow up in harmonious peace, with little more than a minor sibling scrap over who gets to watch their favourite TV program, or getting to choose what is for dinner.  But for other families this notion of sibling rivalry, and perceived favouritism by parents, leaves a deep seated sense of resentment and a life-time feeling of being slighted, unappreciated.

Some of us here today may not feel ready to go there – the conflict is too recent or deep to talk about, or too distant to drag up, too painful to embrace, whatever.  But today’s story is one of hope, although we do not get to see this fully played out until next week when Joseph does forgive his brothers wo sold him into slavery.  Nevertheless it is there today and we live as Christians with the the hope for forgiveness.  That God can reach into those places in our hearts that have become hardened and calloused over the years and we can find a new freshness and tenderness growing that will allow us to both forgive and accept forgiveness.  This whole series has been a call to allow reconciliation to reign in our lives, for the restoring and gracious power of God to rule our hearts and lives.  For a powerful reminder that there is nothing and no situation that is beyond the redemptive power of God.

Sermon July 16, 2017

Genesis 25:19 – 34 Esau and Jacob

God calls Abraham into covenant and made the promise of descendants and called the nation to faithflness and the story unfolds telling the dramatic story of this family, this nation.

 The story is at times murky – many families have what is sometimes called “skeletons in the closet” – things that aren’t talked about in polite company. Abraham fathered at least eight sons by three women. We know of Ishmael and his mother, the Egyptian slave Hagar. Then there’s Isaac who was born to Sarah. We read that after Sarah died, Abraham married Keturah, with whom he fathered six more sons. But Keturah’s family stories screech to an abrupt halt.

The covenant relationship splutters along, stalls, nearly careers off the rails due to the rather awkward lack of descendants a couple of times.  But through it all God is present and active.

The story can simply be enjoyed as a rattling good yarn and with the knowledge that it is a story within a larger story that is one of faith.  It is a story that can be enjoyed for its own sake, a sprawling messy, family saga.  

Having dealt with Abraham and Sara and the wondrous birth of Isaac today we leap over that generation of Isaac and Rebekah and are already onto the commencement of the next generation of Esau and Jacob.    Rereading this story it occurs to me again how small a part Isaac plays in the book of Genesis.  This long awaited man appears and then quickly passes through the story before it settles on son (s) particularly Jacob who came to be known as Israel.

In today’s language we would describe this family as a“dysfunctional family.” We mean the way Abraham drives one wife and son out of the family home, and nearly sacrifices another.  But we also mean the tensions without other members of the family.  And this is a frequent theme in bible stories; especially tensions between siblings.

brothers or sisters. The narratives of Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Leah and Rachel, and finally Joseph and his brothers help us reflect on the possibility of a common life between beings who are similar and yet different, where it is not always easy to get along together and where jealousy is always a menace

So a couple of points to emerge.  First, it is more than a bit of a relief that God can use broken, stumbling, less than squeaky clean individuals and families.   We no longer have to pretend we or our families have got it all together.  We are all “under construction”.  Story of spending hours in youth hall putting together tt table.  Groan when mate opened the box and saw the whole things in pieces.  “Normally it comes virtually constructed”.

  One of the more negative images Christians seem to have projected in the wider community is of being self righteous, judgemental, holier than thou, in a way that does not attract people who knew only full well they are struggling, that they do not measure up to those standards, and therefore  fear if I was to show my face I would not be accepted , or at least not until I have changed and smartened up. Its like some church have a big container at the front entrance saying leave all you frustration, shortcomings, failuress, here and you can collect them on your way out but we don’t want them in our worship service. 

Most feedback I have ever got on one of my sermons was the day I had to confess at the start of the sermon how I felt very conflicted.  Because there I was standing up in front of 100 people about to deliver the word of the Lord (hopefully!) but I was a meeting ball of anguish inside. Why?  Because there had been raised voices, angry words, possibly even a smack or two delivered to the children that morning.  I was not the serene, got his act together person I was pretending to be at that moment and it ate me up.  I can’t remember exactly what had happened.  I do get a bit tense on Sunday mornings, probably even more so in the early ministerial days.  And the kids were little, probably dawdled getting dressed, spilled food on their SS clothes, Who knows now, but I do remember the feeling of shame, hypocirisy, so I let it out worried that people may think less of me and the reverse happened.  Never have I had so many people come up to and confess that they too felt the same.  One said, just last week my wife and i had an argument in the car on the way to church, but we got out and pretended all was well.  I always feel inadequate, like everyone else’s life is so much more together than mine.  Why do we do this to ourselves and to each other?  Not to say we are not committed to growing, improving, striving… but we are all a work in progress.

Second point complements the first and perhaps goes even further.  First point is, that God is not shut out by our brokenness, unfaithfulness, waywardness. God can work with it and through it.  Second, that God’s way in the world will very often have something to do with inverting the normal pattern of prestige, priority, authority.   We see it quite clearly in the Esau and Jacob story unfolding.  You see Jacob on more than one occasion was a cheat and a fraudster. Jacob is a schemer, he is good at tricking and manipulating situations and people.  He can almost get people to say whatever he wants them to say by being smart with words.

Jack and Max are walking home from a religious service. Jack wonders whether it would be all right to smoke while praying. “Why don’t you ask the priest?” asks Max. So Jack goes up to the priest. “Father, may I smoke while I pray?” “No, my son,” says the priest. “You may not. That’s utter disrespect to our religion.”
Jack tells Max what the priest said.
“I’m not surprised,” says Max. “You asked the wrong question.”
So Max goes up to the priest. “Father, may I pray while I smoke?” “By all means, my son.” says the priest. “By all means. Pray anytime, anywhere! Pray without ceasing.” Moral: The reply you get depends on the question you

Embarrassingly he also happens to be God’s chosen instrument.

Parents sometimes can hardly believe they have children who turn out so differently.  How can it be two or three or maybe even four people  have the same parents and got raised in same home – and turned out so different.  So it is with today’s twins. Any twins here?  The babies born to Isaac and Rebekah are twins but everything about Esau and Jacob is contrasted.  As the twins are born Jacob grips the heel of Esau, foreshadowing his desire to grasp what belongs to his brother. From then on they are contrasted at every point: one becomes a hunter, the other a ‘quiet man’; one an outdoors type, the other more fond of indoors. Esau is impetuous and strong willed, Jacob more reflective and thoughtful.  Even the love of their parents is divided between them (v. 28). The intriguing little tale of how Jacob took advantage of Esau’s hunger to get him to give up his birthright, the portion of inheritance belonging to the oldest child (vv. 29-34), heightens the divisions. Esau despises what is a privilege and coveted by Jacob.

All this sets the scene for the reversal in relations and closeness these two brothers experience.  This is prefigured in Yahweh’s speech to Rebekah – the elder, Esau, will serve the younger Jacob (25:23).  Jacob will inherit the things due to his older twin, and for those who know the continuance of this saga they will recollect Joseph will later ascend over his older brothers which also became a sore point for them.  The way Yahweh will work out his promise will not be in accord with human power, political, social or religious assumptions.  David the little shepherd boy is not even considered as a possible candidate for king, but is anointed as the great future leader. The widow’s mite – that is the smallest offering – is upheld by Jesus as the greater gift because the woman gave in her scarcity not her abundance.

All this of course is a major theme when Jesus came preaching.  He said things like, The first will be last and the last first; a child will lead the godly into the Kingdom and you must become as a child, the poor and sinful will enter the Kingdom ahead of many who think of themselves righteous, God uses what is despised and foolish in human eyes, even, and supremely,  an outcast dying on a cross.

So God can use you and me.

sermon for June 25, 2017 Ishmael and Hagar

Genesis 21

Another sermon from the first book in the bible today.  Genesis. Which is good because it is very easy to flit over scripture and dip in for morsel here and a morsel there and not really stay with a story or a theme and follow it through in some depth so we will have turned a series on Genesis – one of the most influential books in the bible.

We love the story of the Abraham and Sarah, the elderly childless couple carrying the unfulfilled  promise for so many years, we perhaps find we can relate to their doubts and even as we read last week their downright  cynicsm.  Oh and when the child is finally born we laugh with Sarah and Abraham and rejoice in the miracle of the birth of Isaac.

As with many family sagas there is a shadow side to the story.  Someone whose name is not mentioned at family gatherings. Have you got someone like that in your family? The one no-one talks about, or when they do it is in hushed whispers. 

I reckon if before you had heard today’s reading I asked who was the mother of Abraham’s first child many of us would have struggled to name Hagar.  She is the mostly unspoken mother of Abraham’s first born.

Hagar and her son Ishmael are pretty shadowy figures in the scriptures and in Christian and Jewish tradition.  Although I understand many African American Christian communities draw great comfort and strength from the story of the used and abused and dismissed servant/slave woman and her son.  They relate to this story.  “That’s us, that’s how it has been for so many generations for us” they declare.  And also of course the story is paramount  in the Islamic world where Ishmael is the person the line and the tradition is traced through.  The division between Islam and Judaism (and through Judaism the Christian tradition) goes back to what we read of today.

Need it be so?  Is the hatred and the conflict and the  enmity between the three religions embedded in the story so it is inevitable?

I don’t think so.

It is a tough story, oh it can be dressed up when the emphasis is put upon God hearing the cries of Ishmael and Hagar; and that is a valid literary and theological point that should never be lost sight of.  But it is also a concern that the father of the faith, albeit reluctantly , drives his son and mother of his child into the desert.  And God is the one who insist he do this.

Twice in Genesis in chapters 21 and 22 we are told Abraham rose from his bed early.  Once to cast out his son Ishmael, and his mother Hagar, into the wilderness.  The other time is next week’s story – to sacrifice his other son, Isaac.  I think in that family the kids would start to panic whenever they heard Father stirring before the sun was up.  “We all have a sleep in tomorrow, shall we?” they were frequently heard saying by the neighbours. I think Ishmael and probably Isaac may well have problems with the father figure in his life from this point on.  I don’t think this is the burden of the story in the scriptures but some of us still have unresolved issues with the parental figures in our lives.  Many of them we will ourselves carry to the grave.  It is an issue being able to forgive your parents, where that is needed.  I don’t have too much to say on it except it is an important thing to do if it is your issue and remember your parents had parents.  They also, like your parenting of  your kids if you have them, were not perfectly parented themselves.  Forgive them if you need to and if you can when the right time comes.

It all has the makings of a good soap opera – one man, two women, multiple children, jealousy, greed and murder.  Just another day in Genesis land with this family whose story line we follow in the remaining chapters of this extraordinary, sprawling, warts and all, dramatic account of God’s dealings with humanity through them.  Remember last week we were onto a clue as to how God (the universal power of love and mercy in our world) so often chooses to be present and make that love known and deal with the creation through a particular family or individual.

And the one chosen, Abraham and Sarah, for no good reason other than that is the way God chose to do it, has all the makings of TV reality  series.  It is a divine story full of both the mercy of God and the petty jealousies and idiocincratic behaviour of sinful humanity.   That is what makes it so compelling and so much my story and your story and our story.

Story does seem to have some sympathy with Hagar.  Single parent, woman with young child; cast out, no refuge to take her in.  Sarah (and Abraham) put her in this situation to start with; it was at Sarah’s suggestion and Abraham’s  compliance, that she bore Abraham’s son.

She was a servant girl, to be ordered to come and to go.

And when finally Sarah’s turn did come to have a child; it was as if they wanted to go back and undo what she had been instructed to do.  Just disappear her and her son.

One child bears all the promise, the line of succession, the other is the outcast, the embarrassment to be sent away carrying all the shame and indignity.

  Oh if it were only that easy to undo our past regretted decisions and actions.  Just drive them away into the wilderness, be done with it and move on.

Not real fair.  What we call today abuse of power,  overstepping her authority

The huge issue, the dilemma can be put like this.  It is OK for God to choose a particular family or people to bring blessings through; but what of the others.  If you choose one person is everyone else the “unchosen”?  And once you have made that step the next one becomes even easier – that is that the unchosen are the rejected.  It is all too easy and all too common for anyone with a calling, a passion, a cause.  And that is why this story has been preserved in our tradition. To caution us and to stop us going down that path.

It’s almost as if the Bible is arguing with itself here. The big story is Isaac. But from the very beginning the Bible keeps reminding us that God doesn’t forget about the ones who get pushed to the margins or pushed out of the big story. From the very beginning God is passionately committed to the very ones the traditions and customs and laws of God’s people exclude. God stands in judgment of the very religious tradition God has inspired.

You cannot claim the name of Jesus and ignore his embrace of those his own religion marginalized.  We in the church don’t need any to criticise or critique us; our own tradition, our own scriptures do a far more thorough and elegant job of that than any current anti religious crusader could ever conjure up.

This is the surely most beautiful verse in the story:

“God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is”. (Genesis 21:17)

It reminds me very much of another word from God that appears a little further down the track of the Biblical narrative, where the descendents of Isaac ‘cried out to God because of their slavery’ in Egypt. And we’re told,

“God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.” (Exodus 2:24)

God, it seems, tends to have  ears open to the cries of the vulnerable. As it happened in Exodus, so it happens here! God hears the cry of the boy and God  remembers the  promise, not to Israel this time, but to Ishmael!

In our Bibles, the story of Ishmael more or less finishes here. In the Koran though we read of Ishmael going on to Mecca and building a Mosque there. He becomes the physical father of the Arab peoples, and spiritual father to the Islamic community!

God did not and has not abandoned work of redemption.  It is costly, difficult, sacrificial work that we are called to.  God does not abandon the calling of this elderly couple, this plan that through their off spring they will be a blessing to the nations.  But, and this is a huge but, this does not mean the rejection of the outsider.  No outsider is scapegoated and sacrificed on the altar of religious purity.  No other religion has to pay the price, nor gender, not ethnic group, nor sexual orientation.