Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Scripture Reading: Luke 15:1-10
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
Whenever I read these stories about sheep and coins, I think about rhinos. Yes. Rhinos. I think I’ve told you this story before. When we went to South Africa, we met some people who were like the shepherd who went looking for that one lost sheep, except it was a baby rhino. On the very first ride we took around the small game preserve where we were staying, we saw a white rhinoceros and her very young baby. The baby was the size of a very large dog, like a bigger version of our dog, Sugar. The mom was, well, rhinoceros-sized, huge. One of the first things we learned about the large mammals in South Africa is that baby rhinos make great little squeaking noises when they are impatient for their moms to do something. The little one we saw was impatient to keep roaming in the bush and had very little interest in standing next to the pond with land rovers full of people watching. Our guide, Tina, told us how this little rhino had once been lost.
She pointed to the mom and we could see that she looked a little swollen. She had developed an infection called mastitis that makes it painful and difficult to nurse. For the rest of the story to make sense, it’s important to remember something: Rhinos are endangered. The last Northern White Rhino died the year before we went to South Africa. We were looking at a couple Southern White Rhinos. They are threatened, but safer, at least for now. There are considerable conservation efforts going on all over South Africa to protect the species. As Tina put it, “Every rhino matters.” For those of you who are avid outdoorspeople or hunters or who have worked in conservation, you know that sometimes good conservation is not interfering too much in the lives of the animals in your care. That is true on the preserves we visited, too. But, when an animal as endangered as rhino is sick and when the illness can affect a calf, the rangers will attempt to capture the animal and provide a medical intervention.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to take a very annoyed cat or scared dog to the vet. If you have, you know it’s pretty hard. Now, imagine that the scared dog is the size of a Toyota Prius and has a horn longer than my forearm. And, it’s wild. And, it has a baby to take care of. They have to use helicopters and tranquilizer guns and cranes and trucks for these trips to the vet. In the midst of catching the mom, the baby got away. For three days, she was in the bush by herself. But, remember, they will go to extraordinary lengths to save a rhino. They looked and looked and finally found her. Her mom got treatment and she got to be reunited with her mom. What was lost, was found. Any resources expended in the search were worth it.
In our reading today, Jesus was, sadly, not hanging out with rhinos. Jesus was teaching and spending time with sinners and tax collectors. Scholars are quick to point out that we don’t know what the sinners have done, though we can assume that they are not guilty of the run of the mill mistakes that all people make. These folks are called sinners because they living consistently outside their community’s shared religious laws and ignoring their shared social obligations. Dr. Lois Malcolm notes that people who only look out for their own interests are called sinners in Luke 6:32-24. The details aren’t of what they did aren’t as important for us to know as the fact that the community, the respectable people, considered the ones who were eating with Jesus to be sinners. And, if you wanted your reputation to be good, you didn’t hang out with such people. So, why was Jesus spending time with them?
In her commentary on this chapter, Dr. Amanda Brobst-Renaud reminds us that there is an old cliché that says, “Bird of a feather flock together.” How many of you have heard that phrase before, particularly from parents who were worried about your misbehaving friends? Jesus’ critics, in this case, the respectable members of the community who were working hard to follow God’s laws and take care of their neighbors, wondered why Jesus was spending time with people who weren’t doing the same. It is also not surprising that they would be critical of Jesus for spending his time with sinners and tax collectors. It is one thing to argue, in good faith, with a Pharisee. Disagreement and discussion of religious law was a thing devout people did together. It is a whole other thing to willingly consort with tax collectors, traitors, who helped the Roman Empire. What was the content of Jesus’ teaching that sinners found it so compelling? What kind of example was Jesus setting with the company he was keeping?
Jesus often taught in parables. He decided to respond to those grumbling about him with three parables. The first two are our scriptures today. He said to the Pharisees and Scribes, which of you, having one hundred rhinos wouldn’t rent a helicopter to look for the one sick one to take it to the vet? Wait... he didn’t talk about rhinos. He talked about sheep. The people he was teaching knew more about sheep than rhinos. Who among you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them doesn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one until they find it? And, when they find it, lays it across their shoulder and rejoices? Doesn’t that shepherd return to their friends and say, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Dr. Brobst-Renaud argues that the pharisees and scribes would assume that looking for the sheep was worth it. Every sheep is important, even the one that has run off or has been frightened away. Every sheep, even the ones who make our lives harder with their choices, deserves to be searched for. Even if you fear that you won’t be able to find it, you look. Because that’s what shepherds do.
Then, Jesus told a second story. It was also not about rhinos. It was about coins. Jesus told a story of a woman who had two coins and lost one. We should understand that one coin was a fair amount of money. Dr. Brobst-Renaud said that one coin was at least a half day’s wages for most laborers and possibly a whole day’s wages. We don’t have a lot of background on this woman, just that she lost a coin. Maybe she’s rich because she has 10 coins laying around. Losing a half day’s work is still a lot. Maybe she’s poor and she has been scrimping and saving. It would be devastating to lose so much of it. While details of her life aren’t clear, what is clear is that she is frantic to find that money. She lit a lamp so she could see. She cleaned everywhere, searched carefully, until she found it. Then, she calls out to her friends to celebrate with her that she has found it. Whether this is just a bit of her wealth or a whole day’s labor, she celebrates. The coin meant something to her. She was not afraid to celebrate finding it.
Isn't this an interesting way for Jesus to describe his ministry? The Pharisees and the scribes were the 99 sheep and the 9 coins, safe were they were supposed to be. Jesus isn’t most concerned for the ones who are safe and sound. He is first concerned for, and orients his teaching towards, those who are lost, either because they are excluded or because they have chosen not follow the central tenants of their faith, love God and love your neighbor. Because Jesus knew that the sinners and tax collectors were God’s children, too, he made sure that his energy was spent making sure they are found.
Imagine hearing, maybe for the first time in a long time, that you are worth so much that you will be sought after frantically. Imagine hearing that you are worth the price of the oil in the lamp, the time spent cleaning in the dark, and the dangerous risk of a trip out into the bus. Imagine hearing that God’s greatest joy in not in hanging out with the righteous, but in finding the lost and bringing them home. In telling these two stories, Jesus made clear that the most care must be taken in searching for the lost, caring for the endangered, and in healing the relationships with the greatest histories of harm. Even if it takes a helicopter and a couple tranquilizer darts. The risk of the search is worth it.
Now, I think the rhino/sheep/coin connection I’ve made isn’t perfect. Rhinos are endangered for several reasons, none of which are the fault of the animal. Between the poaching, the colonization, and the human-caused climate change, rhinos aren’t simply running off, like the sheep. They are dwindling because of human actions, because we are sinners who are most concerned with our own well-being. But, sinners do not have to be without hope. Remember, as Dr. Caroline Lewis notes in her commentary on this passage, Jesus is trying to find us, searching urgently, relentlessly, tirelessly. And, we can live our lives different for having been found. Maybe we’ll even end up doing some of the looking alongside Jesus. Because those baby rhinos aren’t going to find themselves. And, neither will the lost sheep among us. So, who’s up for a helicopter ride?
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
In our country, we are in a time of rising tension. I don’t know if you’ve noticed. We have a pandemic that has not been addressed as it should be on a national level and a national election that is among the most contentious of the last 80 years. There’s the death of a well-respected Supreme Court justice and the on-going protests against racism. And, there’s natural disasters, like fires, droughts, and hurricanes, complicating an already complicated year. Things are tense. Today’s scripture reading is tense, too. There has been a lot going on in Matthew. And, this might be the moment, or the collections of moments, when Jesus is preaching and teaching in the temple in Jerusalem, where the tension finally rises to a head. And, so much of the conflict with center on this question of authority. By who authority will Jesus preach and teach? That’s the question the chief priest and elders wanted him to answer. But, Jesus didn’t think this was the right question.
It bears mentioning: when we read today's Scripture, it is important to know where we are in the story. This reading takes place just after the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday. As you consider this text on this lovely fall morning, hear the echo of last spring's Easter. The scholar Emerson Powery argues that the encounter described here, this argument between Jesus and the chief priests and elders is part of a constellation of events that seems to lead directly to Jesus' arrest, torture, and execution. First, Jesus rode into the city on the back of a donkey, evoking messianic prophesies from the book of Isaiah and Zechariah. People followed him into town, treating him like a king and calling him “Son of David.” Then, he flipped over the tables of the moneychangers and dove-sellers in the temple. And, then he healed people inside the temple. They shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David,” too. Any one of these events would have been enough to irritate community leaders.
Dr. Powery argues that when you take them as a whole set, especially if they all happened during Passover, when so many people were crowding into Jerusalem and the Roman soldiers would have been on high alert for anything that smelled like revolution, leaders would have seen it as a major threat. For a certain set of people who believed that the Messiah would be a military leader for the Jewish people, it might have looked like Jesus was sowing seeds for a political rebellion. It probably didn't help calm things, when, in chapter 21:21, Jesus destroyed a fig tree and told his followers that they could do the same and more through the power of their faith. People immediately connected his teaching to their own destruction. Rome was looming, ready to pounce on any whiff of revolution.
As Jesus returned to the temple and began to teach, why wouldn't we expect the current leaders who ask him where he got his authority to teach? Wouldn't we have a similar response to someone who just showed up here and began teaching and healing in ways that were very different from our current practice, especially in ways that might put us in danger? The chief priests and scribes were the ones held responsible for the teaching that made its way out of the temple. They wanted to know if they could trust Jesus with that oh so holy task. To be fair though, this whole set of questions might have been a trap. This may have had nothing to do with them doing due diligence. They may have just been hoping that Jesus would get himself in trouble so they could be done with his clear teaching and hard questions. Maybe they thought he was so wrong that he had to be gotten rid of by any means necessary.
I can't help but wonder what answer they expected when they asked him where he got his authority. Whatever they expected to hear, they didn’t get it. In fact, they quickly realize that they have been caught in a trap of their own making. They realize that they can't say that John's authority came from heaven or they will look like fools for not following him. And, they can't say that it was from human authority for fear of the crowd, because this crowd trusted John as a Holy Prophet. So, they gave the best answer they could come up with and said they don't know. Since they gave no answer to his question, Jesus felt no compulsion to give them an answer to their question. Or, at least not the direct one they had hoped for. Instead, he shares a parable.
It is short... Only four verses. But, as many of us know, it doesn't always take a lot of words to make a strong impression. He used four verses to completely up-end their understanding of how someone can know if a prophet is righteous. Because Jesus told these people, the pillars of his community, that the way we know if a prophet is good and true is that the most hated people in town begin to follow him. Now, I don't know about you, but that doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement of a prophet to me and it probably didn't sound all that great to them. I mean, if you're like me, you've been taught that the way you judge an event or activity or leader is by how respectable the attendees of the event are. The two groups of people that Jesus mentioned, sex workers and tax collectors, weren’t respectable people. But, here is Jesus, telling the chief priests and elders that the people who saw righteousness in John, that is, people who included the most disrespected members of their community, were closer to God’s will than they were. And, they will be rewarded for it. Jesus told them that you can say that you follow God's will all day long, but until you actually do what God calls you to do, until you actually work in that vineyard, you are not contributing to the empire of Heaven.
The word Gospel means “Good News.” How is this story good news for us today? How can it provide instruction to us as we figure out what it means to be church in a time of great tension? Just about every time I turn on the television or look at my phone, I see people in the midst of conflicts about who has authority. Does the government? Do scientists and physicians? What about the media? What is the authority of the media and who gave it to them? We are right in the middle of conflicts over which institutions should be granted authority and which institutions and people are taking authority that should not be theirs.
I offer today some questions for us to think about as we consider the idea of authority. First, inspired by a pastor named George Hermonson, I'd ask, who are the chief priests and elders right now? The ones who have been granted and earned authority? The ones who are afraid to make those in power of them angry? Who are the ones invested in the way things are right now because they have figured out how to have authority in this current system? Emerson Powery, in his commentary, notes that sex workers and tax collectors were among the least trusted, most reviled people in Jesus' day. Who would be their counterparts today in our town and our country? What happens when they make the first, right choice to follow Christ in our time? Do the respectable people join them?
What we do with this text probably comes down the parable. Who is the one who did the will of God? The one who did what God asks. What does God ask? That will come up soon. In the next chapter, a pharisee, one who knew the law well, will ask him, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus will say, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with your mind. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Jesus was right. This is the core of Jewish teaching. And, he would continue to hold it as foundation to his own.
If we are judging who is following God’s will, perhaps we need to keep these commandments in mind, too. People are making lots of choices and claiming all kinds of authority. Perhaps we judge how they, and we, are using this authority by how well it follows the heart of Jesus’ teaching. Does this action that we are being directed or invited into demonstrate a love of neighbor? Does it show mercy? Does it meet basic needs? Does it provide healing? Does it enhance relationship and connection? Jesus tells us that we know we’re doing what God wants of us not when all the respectable people show up but when the people who have been rejected see a way to a more robust and loving future. God’s will might be disruptive. It will definitely surprise us. This story reminds us that if we are more concerned about being respectable than following God, we’ll be missing out. May we learn to follow the authority that is actually worth our attention.
Resources consulted in writing this sermon:
‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’
When Do We Start the Work: Matthew 20:1-16
“Your picture and the salutation on your college transcript indicate that you are not of the sex entitled to be admitted to Harvard Law School.” That is what the letter from Harvard said in response to Pauli Murray’s application for admission. “Your picture and the salutation on your college transcript indicate that you are not of the sex entitled to be admitted to Harvard Law School. It was 1944. Murray, a brilliant student and voracious reader as a child, had already been prevented from attending one undergraduate institution, Columbia University, because of her gender, and another graduate program, the sociology program at the University of North Carolina, because of her race. Also though, by this point, Murray had already been jailed for refusing to move to segregated seating on a bus in Virginia, made friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, and been one of the few women in the law school at Howard University. Murray wasn’t really one to back down from a fight.
Here is Pauli Murray’s written response to the sexist admission policy at Harvard: Gentlemen, I would gladly change my sex to meet your requirements, but since the way to such change has not been revealed to me, I have no recourse but to appeal to you to change your minds on this subject. Are you to tell me that one is as difficult as the other? Murray continued to press Harvard for an admission. Murray had the grades. Only the school’s sexism was an issue. Even the president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, interceded on Murray’s behalf to no avail. Their policy was more important to them than the possibility of welcoming a very promising student. So, Murray ended up doing further study at the University of California in Berkley, and, eventually, Yale. Actively fighting for both women’s rights and civil rights of African Americans, Dr. Pauli Murray would eventually, in 1977, become the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, celebrated as the first African-American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest in the United States. Rev. Dr. Murray is now even a saint in the Episcopal church. What I’m saying is that Harvard missed out.
Rev. Dr. Murray, who was addressed as a woman during life, revealed a lifelong struggle with understanding their gender-identity and sexuality through many journals and personal papers that became available after their death in 1985. Were Rev. Dr. Murray alive today, they might understand themselves as transgender or genderfluid, and maybe not use she and her as pronouns, which she did during her life. A journalist named Kathryn Schulz, in an article about a biography of Pauli Murray, written by Rosalind Rosenberg, succinctly explains this. I’ll link to the article on the sermon blog.
Here is the reason why I am bringing up Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray today. In remembering the long and storied career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg following her death on Friday night, the activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham noted that Ginsburg had made sure to give Murray credit for developing a legal argument that changed the course of the fight for women’s rights in this country. Justice Ginsburg wrote the brief. But, Dr. Murray laid the foundation.
Dr. Brittany Cooper explained these connections in an article she wrote in Salon Magazine in 2015. I’ll link to it on the blog, too. One of Justice Ginsburg’s most important legal successes was a 1971 case known as Reed vs Reed, one where a mother was arguing that she had as much right to administer the estate of her deceased son as his father, her estranged husband. They had lived in the state of Idaho, that had a law, at that time, that men were to be preferred to women in this type of case. When the case made it up to the Supreme Court, Ginsburg, who was not yet a justice, was the lawyer who wrote up Ms. Reed’s argument before the court. What Ginsburg wrote was that Idaho’s law went against the 14th Amendment, which states that all citizens were to be guaranteed equal protection under the law. The Supreme Court sided with Ms. Reed. Dr. Cooper notes in the article that this was the first time that the Equal Protection Clause was used in a case regarding gender-based discrimination.
Beginning with the idea that Jim Crow laws that segregated schools based on race went contrary to both the 13th and 14th Amendment, Murray developed this into a law school thesis that Thurgood Marshall would eventually use to help craft the legal argument that convinced the Supreme Court to declare Jim Crow-era school segregation laws unconstitutional. And, adding to this, Murray’s own experiences with gendered discrimination in hiring and school application, Murray wrote a piece called “Jane Crow and the Law,” where she described the similarities between the sexism and racism she had been dealing with all of her life. Dr. Cooper said this work in particular was important to Ginsburg. In 1966, Murray would go on to work with an ACLU lawyer named Dorothy Kenyon, on a case in Alabama about laws forbidding women and Black people from serving on juries. They argued that these laws did not give women or Black people equal protection under the law. In 1971, Ginsburg built on both of their work in the Reed v Reed case. Ginsburg was so grateful for their wisdom, that she added them on as co-authors to her brief, even though she hadn’t actually written it with them. Once, when asked about this action, Justice Ginsburg said that they added their names to the brief to acknowledge that the Reed v Reed team was “standing on their shoulders” and that society should have been finally ready to listen to what they had been arguing for many years.
At first glance, today’s text from Matthew is a text about work. About who works, how long they work, and how they get credit for their work. But, I don’t actually think this is a parable about work. I actually think this is a parable about generosity. According the scholar Emerson Powery, landowner is a common metaphor for God in the book of Matthew. God, as the one who guided the work and oversaw the land, had the power both to call for workers and acknowledge his employee’s work. What is important about this powerful figure is that, when they had the opportunity to exercise power over their employees, deciding how much they got paid for how long they worked, this powerful person chose to be generous. Dr. Emerson puts it this way: “As the ultimate ‘landowner,’ God will use what has always belonged to the Creator for the good of all even if humans fail to view the world through God’s eyes.” The reign of God will not be marked by ranks and hierarchies based on first come, first served mentality. Instead, the reign of God will be marked by an abundance of care, by generosity, and by making sure everyone has enough, not just the people who were lucky enough to show up first.
This weekend, in the midst of mourning the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I was grateful for Brittany Packnett Cunningham’s reminder of this piece of professional generosity in the midst of a world-changing legal case. Not everyone who was influenced by Pauli Murray gave Murray credit. But, Justice Ginsburg did. Justice Ginsburg isn’t God, and she wasn’t perfect. And yet, I believe that we can see a reflection of the Divine in this act of generosity. So much of Pauli Murray’s work as gone under-recognized, an unfortunate consequence of the racism and sexism of the movements in which she worked. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, however, helped make sure that Murray’s name, not just her work, is remembered in connection to the work to make sure our country lives up to its highest ideals. How have you been a recipient of divine generosity? And, how are you, and we as a church, passing that generosity along? May Justice Ginsburg’s memory be a blessing. And, may we also remember Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray as an ancestor of our faith and as a perfector of our union. I pray that we can continue the work that the Holy Spirit began in them.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’ So they approached Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this instruction before he died, “Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.” Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.’ Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, ‘We are here as your slaves.’ But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
For Good: Genesis 50:15-21
When I read this portion of Genesis, I often think of a song from the Broadway musical Wicked. It’s called “For Good.” The two lead characters, Galinda and Elphaba, having grown from rivals to friends, realize at one pivotal moment, that they probably won’t see each other again. At this point in the story, Elphaba has raised the ire of the government by standing up for a population that was being oppressed. And, Galinda, having been used by the same government as a positive face for their unjust regime, finally realizing the extent of the corruption around her, runs to warn her of a group that is coming to capture her. Before they part ways for the final time, they tell each other how they have grown from their friendship. A part of the song they share goes like this:
Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes the sun
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood
Who can say if I've been changed for the better
But because I knew you
I have been changed for good
Before they met, their lives seemed to be going in one direct: straight, clear, predictable, inevitable. But, then something happened. One event, in this case, their becoming roommates, completely changed the course of their lives. While some might argue that they weren’t necessarily good influences on each other (particularly those worried about Elphaba the Revolutionary), they were lasting influences on one another. And, I think you can make the case that the most important things they do in the show are shaped by their relationship with each other. Their reconciliation is heart of the show.
Joseph and his brothers’ reconciliation is the heart of the scripture we read for today. And, while they aren’t roommates at the beginning of their story, they were rivals. Their actions left indelible marks on each other’s lives. Today’s reading shows us the pivotal moment where they turn back towards each other, restoring the relationship that the brothers had so easily sacrificed in the years before. At the beginning of the story, it’s not clear that these siblings have been changed for the better either. It is fascinating that Joseph tells them than the change has been for the good.
Since it’s been a while since we last talked about this story together, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the path that Joseph’s life has taken since his brothers’ actions knocked him out of his father’s orbit. After years in slavery in Egypt, years that included imprisonment but also great success as a manager of the homes of the people who enslaved him, Joseph had developed a reputation as one who could interpret dreams. Remember, he’d had that powerful dream that annoyed and frightened his brothers. He had helpfully advised the pharaoh on how to plan for a famine that was foretold in one of the pharaoh's dreams. The pharaoh has such faith in Joseph that he appointed him to a place of great honor and prominence in his court. He even gave him an Egyptian name and an Egyptian wife.
Knowing the famine was coming, Joseph had made sure that there was plenty of grain stored. Joseph, who had had so many choices taken from him, would go on to build success on the desperation of people who needed that grain to survive. Because of him, Pharaoh had grain. Others would spend all their money, sell of their land, and even sell themselves into slavery to get some of it. Because they had access to the grain, the people lived, but they wound up in service to Pharaoh. In this action, we see Joseph’s adaptability and intelligence allowing him to be better at this system than the people who created it. We, unfortunately, don’t see much of him trying to undo the unjust system. He made the choice to assimilate to survive.
Do you think Joseph imagined that one day, his ten brothers would show up, bowing before him, hoping that he would be willing to sell them enough grain so they, too, could survive? I mean, maybe he remembered his dreams and knew that it would happen eventually. Now, his brothers had no idea who he was, and certainly would never have imagined that their enslaved brother could have ended up a primary advisor to the Pharaoh. This all happens before today’s reading, but it’s important context to what comes later. Joseph will find himself in a place of power over the ones who wanted to kill him. He had the power to enact vengeance upon them. Would he?
For a while, he toys with them, not explaining who he is and asking them to bring their youngest brother to him. The brothers begin to believe God is punishing them for selling Joseph away. Reuben agreed. He had never liked what they did to Joseph and was certain that their starvation and humiliation were a reckoning, and told his brothers as much. Joseph wept when he heard his brother's words. I don't think he knew that Reuben had tried to save him. I wonder if this moment helped set the scene for the reconciliation to come. He still held Simeon as collateral until they are willing to bring back Benjamin, the youngest brother. And, he still required Benjamin to be brought back to him. But he doesn’t say no. And, he slipped their payment for the grain back in their bags.
Jacob almost messes things up. He does not want to send Benjamin to Egypt. He had already lost Joseph and was already assuming that Simeon had been killed. But, the famine continued. They ran out of food again. Returning to Egypt, and an angry Joseph, was their only options for survival. Carrying with them double the money from last time and their brother Benjamin, the brothers went back to Egypt and hoped they had enough to satisfy the man they didn’t yet know was their brother. Joseph surprises them by claiming to have received the first payment, you remember, the one he returned. He even brought Simeon to them, very much alive and in one piece. When Joseph, still unrecognized by his brothers, sees Benjamin, he nearly weeps in front of them, choosing, instead to hid his tears away in another room. Again, when he sends them away with food the next morning, he has their payment slipped back into their bag, along with his own silver cup in Benjamin's bag. This time, though, Joseph then directed his steward to accuse them of being thieves. I guess a little vengeance was too tempting. Certain that none of them had taken it, they promise the steward that he could keep any man whom he found carrying the cup. They tore at their clothes in mourning when they realized Benjamin had the cup.
Judah, the brother who had originally suggested selling Joseph, stepped forward in one last ditch effort to save them. He explained to this man whom he thinks is a stranger just how much their father loves them, and loves especially Benjamin. He explained how this son and another, one who has died, were the only sons from Rachel and Jacob's relationship. He explained that grief over Joseph's death had already nearly killed his father. He said that his father will blame him, Judah, for the rest of his life if they don't bring Benjamin back. He offered to stay in his place, giving his own life to save the life of a beloved brother.
Judah, who once sold one brother, offered his own life to save another. Judah demonstrates a care and compassion for a sibling in a way that Joseph must have wished Judah had shown him. This is the moment in which Joseph fully decided to save his brothers, this moment where he can see that Judah has changed. This is the moment when he finally admits who he is, asking after their father, and weeping. At first, his brothers are sure this news can only be bad. But, Joseph finds the good.
Joseph explained that he felt that God had turned what they intended for evil into good. You see, in this story, God never says, “Joseph, I’m letting them do bad things to you so that you can one day do good things.” That happens sometimes in other parts of the Bible. Here, Joseph found meaning himself in the idea that God could help him work something deeply good out of the deeply troubling things that happened to him and also, the troubling things he did to other people. In this case, Joseph saw that he had landed in a position that allowed him to save his family. The scholar Christopher Davis calls this act re-membering, that is, putting the pieces of his life story together in a new way. This new way points to a redemptive purpose, saving one’s family, and away from vengeance and more unnecessary death and destruction.
Joseph remembers his own story for the better, choosing to walk away from the vengeance that was so close at hand and likely so tempting, and walk towards reconciliation and renewed relationship. What stories are you re-membering, not to hide away the bad things that happened to you or that you did to others, but to find a way towards reconciliation? How are you finding yourself being changed both for the better and being changed for good? This is a season with great potential for destruction and delicious vengeance. What lesson are you learning from Joseph that is helping you re-member?
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Matthew 18: 15-20
‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’
How Are We Gathered: Matthew 18:15-20
Gathering has been strange lately, hasn’t it? For months now, gathering has been strange. It’s still not safe to be physically close to people we don’t live with or don’t share a socializing pod with for more than a few minutes or without a mask. My colleagues and my wife’s colleagues, preachers and teachers, are spending a lot of time figuring out which masks they can teach and preach in without getting too sweaty or losing their breath. Weddings and funerals, two major lifespan events in our families and communities, are held over the internet and in small, in-person groups. So many of us have figured out which rooms in our homes have the best lighting so that our faces look just a little more lively on camera, because that’s how we’re seeing people most often these days, on camera. On the one hand, gathering over the internet is letting me attend a housewarming party at my friend’s new place in Topeka, Kansas next Friday. On the other, I haven’t seen most of your whole faces, unmediated by technology, in months.
I don’t regret these choices to gather differently over the last five months. We did not make them lightly, but, informed by the best science available, we made them with the intent to do the most good possible... to care for the people at greatest risk if they contract Covid-19. And, I think we’ve fostered a different kind of intimacy. It doesn’t replace gathering in person as we did in the time before this virus spread. But, look how people from our church who live in Maryland and Florida and those who have been traveling around Maine have been able to be with us in worship? Look at how we still pray for each other, every week, if not every day? We even make music with and for one another, passing along recordings of the instruments to the singers who record the voices. For those who have access to technology, technology has helped us gather. It’s not church like before, but it still feels like church, at least to me.
I’ve been thinking about gathering because today’s scripture is about gathering and navigating what it means to be in community with people. Well, actually it is a teaching meant to help followers of Jesus function not just as individuals of faith, but as a community of faith. Relationality is at the core of who Jesus was and what he hoped for humanity. Of course, he would leave them with some wisdom about how to be in relationship... When you tell people that the greatest commandments are to love God and to love your neighbor, you also have to help people learn what it means to love your neighbor. Sometimes figuring out how to love your neighbor means figuring out how to argue with them.
Jesus, as recorded and interpreted in Matthew, is under no illusion that the people who follow him will no longer disagree or get in arguments or harm one another. Following Jesus doesn’t stop you from being human. Following Jesus does give you a mechanism and guidance for making amends when you do end up hurting someone you care about. One scholar I read, Barbara K. Lundblad, referred to this portion of Matthew as the “church reconciliation manual.” In the chapter just before this one, Jesus shared a parable about a shepherd who lost one sheep leaving the ninety-nine safe sheep behind to go rescue the one who was lost. Lundblad suggests that that story can help read this part about reconciliation. This is a path by which a lost one can be restored.
Notice how this process presumes that there is a place for confrontation in Christian community. If another member sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. Scholar Michael Chan thinks it’s helpful to read this portion as a reminder that following Christ means that you don’t ignore when harm has been done. Instead, Jesus sets out a process by which harm is addressed. The verses outline a process by which the wronged party can seek redress with increasing levels of helpful mediation in cases where the party that has done the harm is not prepared to address it. It is a clear and intentional process with the ultimate goal to restore a right relationship that mirrors the intimacy of the family. Verse 15 says that if the member listens to the harm and makes amends, the one who initiated the conversation has regained a sibling. Dr. Chan puts it this way, “Critique and conflict must be in service of reconciliation and return.” This is about bringing the sheep back in. But that can only come if the harm is addressed.
The things we do right here, right now, have affects that ripple forward. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. The texts and traditions and people we hold tightly leave an impression, like the pale indention under a wedding ring. Some text and traditions and even people need to be held more loosely, adapted, changed, and even let go according to the new movements of the Holy Spirit. We have to discern what is fitting for now, based on the needs of our neighbors and the movement of Christ’s spirit in this moment. This is also a part of the church reconciliation manual: Jesus empowering his people to interpret God’s will for the times and situations in which they live.
We are gathering differently, but this work of discernment and reconciliation remain vital to the mission of the church. How on earth can we function as the Body of Christ, especially now, if we don’t tell the truth about harm, tend to the traditions that have helped us survive, and cultivate new ways to gather that reflect the needs of this group of people in this time and space? This scripture tells us that where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, Jesus is there among them. That means, when the people are gathered, regardless of how, Christ is there. And, if Christ is there, we have the power to do right by one another and by God. In fact, we have the mandate to seek to do right by one another, even if it means that we have to hear how we have done someone else harm. Christ is with us, helping us to listen, and Christ will help us figure out how to respond. This is what it means to be church, even a church that is meeting mostly on the internet and over the phone. May we remain bound to Christ and to one another.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’
But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.” ’ God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”: This is my name for ever, and this my title for all generations.
Where is this Sacred Ground?: Exodus 3:1-15
I love a story about a reluctant hero. And, that is definitely one way to think about Moses. He’s a reluctant hero. A man raised in two cultures: secret son of the brilliant Hebrew woman Jochebed and adopted son of the Pharoah’s daughter, he’d had the option to quietly stay in his Pharoah’s good graces. But, he chose to protect someone his adopted grandfather enslaved. And, he killed an Egyptian in the process. Out of guilt and fear for his life, he ran from Egypt, ran from his easy, if complicated life, and settled in Midian. The prince became a shepherd, working his father-in-law's flocks.
Moses had a privileged upbring, but not a lot else at the beginning of this story. In fact, he’s only got a job because his father-in-law gave him one. The main thing he’s going for him was other people were taking care of him. First, his sister and mother. Then, his foster mother and then his father-in-law (though, to be fair, he did help his future wife and sisters-in-law out first). He probably thought this was what his life was going to be like: nestled into a new family, separated from his first family and his adopted family, taking care of sheep. I imagine him being grateful for the tranquility. I also imagine him being surprised and maybe a bit dismayed to be invited back into the action.
One of my favorite parts of Exodus is Moses trying to talk God out of calling him. God says, "I've heard the cries of your people. I'm sending you to tell the Pharaoh to let my people go." Moses says, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt.?" God says, "I have observed the misery of my people. I will deliver them from their suffering. Go to the Pharaoh. And Moses is like, "The Pharaoh? Really? Because he is not thrilled with me and Pharaohs hold a grudge." God says, "I will be with you. See this burning bush? It's a sign so you know I can do amazing things, even help you go talk to the Pharaoh. So, go. Save your people. We'll meet back here up on this mountain."
Moses, though, is still afraid. He seems keenly aware of just how unqualified he is to be saving anybody. And, he seems all too aware that if he shows up back in Egypt, he's going to need an explanation. After all, if I may quote scholar Karla Suomala, "Moses can’t just run down to Egypt and say that he is working for a talking bush." So, God tells Moses God's name so Moses can tell Pharaoh who sent him and who empowered him. In Hebrew, this name is four simple letters. In English, these four letters are YHWH. It is often pronounced Yahweh.
I have learned from Hebrew scholars that the name Yahweh, rooted in the Hebrew verb "to be," means "I am who I am." It also means "I am what I am" and "I will be what I will be." The translation isn’t clear but that is some of the beauty of it. It is a mysterious name befitting a mysterious God who speaks from burning bushes and pillars of fire. Other scholars have pointed out that this mysterious name does seem to have one foundation idea: living, being, existing in one's identity as a child of God. A God with a name rooted in being is a god of creation and of connection... the God who used more than few scoundrels in the family of Abraham and Sarah to bring Divine blessing to God's people. This is a God who can even work through Moses, a murderer and a shepherd, to bring about liberation to God's people. God says, "I am who I am. And, I will be with you even if you think you can't do the job... even if no one else thinks you can do the job. I think you can. So, go. Save your people."
Moses asked for one more thing in the verses following today’s reading. Even with the sign of the burning bush and the name of God on his lips, Moses feared that his words would not be clear enough. God eventually agreed to send Aaron, Moses’ brother, along, too. Sometimes it’s easier to do hard things with someone else by your side, in addition to God I mean. Eventually, God answered every question and Moses was satisfied enough to do what God asked. It is incredible to watch this reluctant leader and his brother walk right into the court of the most powerful man in his world and demand that he free the people he had enslaved.
Moses isn’t the only one walking on sacred ground. He isn’t the only one who God calls to work for liberation. Right now, refugees are being treated like criminals, caged when seeking asylum, hassled when moving into established neighborhoods. Right now, if we are paying attention, we are hearing the testimonies of Black citizens in our country who are clear that they are not safe with the people who supposed to be paid to protect them. Powerful people seem to be doing their level best to ignore the humanity of their neighbors. Fear, just like in this story, is being used as a weapon. You might see the burning bush that inspires you to action not out in the field with the flocks but on your phone or computer or television.
I imagine that some of us, like Moses, might be tempted to argue our way out of speaking up to the powerful. We’ll say it is too hard or too scary or we just might mess up the words. While we might not be Moses, we can be inspired by Moses. Remember, we don’t have to be perfect to follow God's call. With God's help, we can build on whatever is broken in our pasts to serve our people. We just have to remember that God will be with us, too. Because that's who God is... the one who calls us towards life and connection. So, the next time you feel God's call to liberation and you feel tempted to say "who am I to go to Pharaoh," remember Moses. And, remember that you, too, are a child of the living God. Don’t let your fear keep you from your calling. This ground is sacred, too. And, God stands with us on it.
Resources consulted to write this sermon:
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob.
Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, ‘Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.’ He answered, ‘Here I am.’ So he said to him, ‘Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.’ So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.
He came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, ‘What are you seeking?’ ‘I am seeking my brothers,’ he said; ‘tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.’ The man said, ‘They have gone away, for I heard them say, “Let us go to Dothan.” ’ So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.’ But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, ‘Let us not take his life.’ Reuben said to them, ‘Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him’—that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, ‘What profit is there if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.’ And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.
The last time I preached about Joseph and his jealous brothers, white supremacists had marched on the city of Charlottesville, Virginia. Christians and non-Christians alike gathered in to provide a counter-rally, because sometimes you have to stand up to the bullies, instead of ignoring them. Bolstered by interfaith worship and prayer, the counter-protestors stood up to the white supremacists, both the unarmed polo wearing ones and the armed white supremacist militia members who lined the streets. I later met a minister who stood in the line against the white-supremacists. She said it was terrifying. Even when they were in worship on Friday night, they knew that they were at risk of being attacked.
The white supremacists said vile things when they met them on the line in the city. The white supremacists yelled vile things as they marched through the city. They chanted "You will not replace us" and the Nazi slogan "Blood and soil." They yelled other things, too, epithets and slurs that I won't repeat. It was clear three years ago and it is clear now, as white supremacists continue to organize more openly than they have in decades, that what is important to them is to frighten certain kinds of people: black and brown people, immigrants, LGBT people, Jews, Muslims, white people who believe that diversity is a gift and that all people are made in God's image. They dream of a country that both never quite existed and also was too close to the reality of history. They want to “take back” a country when they never actually had a right to it to begin with. They killed one woman, Heather Heyer, that weekend three years ago. They’ve killed more since. And, continue to threaten the people they hate. In their minds, greatness is power and violence. And, their dreams continue to be twisted.
Before Charlottesville, when I thought of Joseph and his brothers, I mostly thought of that great Dolly Parton song, “Coat of Many Colors.” I’ve even read the book version to kids at church. Or, I thought of Donny Osmond and Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat. That is one of my wife’s favorite Broadway shows. Those are pretty kind and fluffy associations with the story. Now, though, since Charlottesville, I think if Joseph’s family, and the ways that the violence of this story seems like the violence of systems that never get healed. In the Bible story, the family of Jacob repeats the sins and jealousies of their past. In our country, we fail to address the sin of white supremacy, and it keeps getting repeated.
This part of Genesis is basically a long family history of the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. Their family, like many of our families, repeats unhealthy behaviors, even to the detriment of the family. In today’s reading, Jacob, who is also called Israel, whose own life prospects were once curtailed of his father’s favoritism, has not learned from his father and grandfather. He repeats some of their greatest mistakes. First favoring his wife Rachel over his wife Leah, then favoring his son Joseph, one of Rachel's boys, over his other children, Jacob helped pass along a heritage of violence and deception. It is not surprising that Jacob’s other sons would resent Joseph. And, unfortunately, it is not surprising that they would unleash their frustration, not on their powerful father Jacob, but on their less powerful younger brother, Joseph.
Joseph is a fascinating figure. He wears beautiful clothes, clothes a grown-up Dolly Parton would approve of. The scholar Arthur Van Seters, in his commentary on the text, notes that robes, here, more like dresses than pajamas, with long sleeves were a sign of special status. Tamar, David’s daughter, wears one to demonstrate that she was an unmarried daughter of a king in 2 Samuel 13:18. It appears that you could look at him and see that his father wanted to give him something special to mark him as the favored one. And, Joseph had dreams of greatness, vivid dreams that show him replacing his brothers as the presumed ruler of the family, and gaining dominion over them. This should not happen because Joseph was not the oldest. But, we know in this family that younger, favored sons end up in charge all the time.
The brothers, who had bought into the idea that they should rule because they were older, who are threatened by their father's love for Joseph and imagine that they will lose material goods because of Joseph and Jacob's relationship, become willing to resort to violence to secure the future they wanted. Rather than call out their father, they decide to sacrifice their brother. While Reuben makes sure that he is not murdered, the other brothers still sell him into slavery. The brothers lie to their father, telling him that Joseph died in an accident, ensuring that he would have no hope of finding him again.
Joseph’s story won’t end here. He will continue to dream, even while enslaved, and come to a position of power where he can one day save his family during a famine. He will one day find something holy at work, something divine that will save him. He’ll say that what some intended for evil, God used for good. He’ll end up making a place for all his people to come to Egypt for safety. And, unfortunately, within a couple generations of this saving act, his people will be enslaved by pharaoh because pharaoh will grow afraid that he will lose his power and status to the newcomers. Unfortunately, there continues cycles of fear and violence in our time, when federal troops get ordered to crush protestors for justice and refugees are treated like criminals for seeking asylum. When people are afraid of losing power, they get dangerous. This is true in this story and it is true today.
Jealousy is not new. Nor is favoritism. Nor is practicing violence to maintain power. These sins are old, so old that you'd think we would have learned to do better by now. But, just because people keep doing harmful things, it doesn’t mean we stop responding to the harm out of our Christian faith. I think Reuben, Joseph’s brother who tries to save him, points us in a more helpful direction, though we can’t stop where he did.
Did you catch that part of the story? Reuben stops the boys from killing Joseph. He even planned to double cross them by going back and saving him. Sometimes, if you are outnumbered, you make the best plan you can in the moment. In that moment, keeping Joseph alive seemed to be the most important thing and that’s what he makes sure happened. Unfortunately, though, his half-measure was not enough to make sure that Joseph stayed with his family. His brothers decided to sell Joseph for a profit. See, there are always people who look for profit in suffering. That’s a whole other aspect of this cycle of fear, violence, and power. We can’t be satisfied with the half-measures of Reuben. We have to find ways to undercut the fear and power-hunger before it starts.
Scholar Roger Nam, in his commentary on this scripture, wonders if we wouldn’t do well to spend some time examining the brothers who are angry to murder their relative. Because, frankly, we are more often in their place than in the place of the most favored, best dressed one. The last three years have shown us that lots of people are feeling threatened by movements that value Black lives, LGBTQ rights, and immigration. When we’re at the grocery store or sitting around family dinners, we’re right in the middle of the field with the brothers, conspiring, in big and small ways, to protect our way of life by inflicting harm on someone else.
Dr. Nam says that the word that gets translated into “conspired” also has connections to the word “deceit.” In allowing deceitfulness to grow in their relationship, they go against the stated values of their culture, which is, fidelity to their father’s wishes and the cultivation of right relationship among the brothers. The deceitfulness allows them to believe that that violence they are considering is not outside of bounds of acceptable behavior because it allows them to get more power in their family. It is this deceitfulness that allows them to violate the core commitments of their culture, that is, to harm a family member and to lie to their father.
If we don’t want to be like these brothers, we have to figure out what we do cultivate deceitfulness within ourselves. What are we afraid of losing if we live different than we live now? What are the cycles that we are repeating that only lead to more suffering? What really are the values we want to live by and how do we build relationship that honor them. The last three years especially have shown us that we don't have to stand by and watch Joseph get thrown in the well again. I mean we could. But, we shouldn’t. The greatness that we are dreaming of, and that God is inviting us into, won’t be found in half-measures. I pray that we will make the kind of choices to save the dreamers in our midst that Reuben wishes he had made for his Joseph. That is the kind of world God is dreaming for us.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Matthew 14:13-21 Feeding the Five Thousand
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Since early March, when I first began to hear of the spread of Covid-19 from my colleagues in Washington state and into the first weeks of safer-at-home policies, it became clear that we who live in Maine and have access to cars and woods are luckier than many of our neighbors across the country. Because as we realized we would need to create some space between ourselves and people that we don’t live with, we still had the wilderness as a place of sanctuary. We have been hiking and gardening and kayaking as much as we can, as safely as we can. I even began making videos of myself reading Psalms in the woods because, if we couldn’t meet safely in the church sanctuary, reading scripture in the sanctuary wilderness seemed the next best thing. The wild spaces feel like places of abundance here.
From conversations we’ve had, I’m not the only one who has felt like this. So, when you hear, at the beginning of today’s scripture reading that Jesus withdrew to a deserted place to be by himself, you may think of your favorite hideaway in the woods and the sense of comfort and maybe even safety that this place brings you. I'm going to ask you to imagine something a little bit different though. Rather than remember how peaceful you find the natural world around you, I'm going to ask you to imagine the wilderness as a place in your world where something bad is most likely to happen to you.
Imagine that you are in a place where it is hard to find enough to feed yourself and your family. Imagine a place where you can’t run to the grocery store for dinner, even if you have a little money. Imagine living in a way that the wilderness only reminds you of the work you have to do to clear it for farming, and the people and animals that might harm you in the process. Abundance looks pretty different in this place.
This world that I’m asking you to imagine is one in which what you have to eat will mostly come from what you can grow or what you can barter for or buy with meager wages. If you grew up in a farming family, this might feel familiar to you. Though, in the world of this Bible story, if you are lucky enough to have land, a significant portion of that food will go to feed the armies of the empire that have taken over your home-country. In this place, abundance isn’t the wilderness. It’s cultivated land with long, plowed fields. It’s enough rain to make the crops grow and no pests to ruin your harvest. It’s a time when no soldiers are trampling or stealing your months of hard work to feed their own bellies. The wilderness is where the foxes and jackals live and the bandits roam. The wilderness is where you have even less of a guarantee of finding food and often very little access to clean, potable water. It is a place of scarcity outside the bounds of cultivated farmland and walled, protected cities. It is probably not a place where you go for relaxation, unless, apparently, you are Jesus.
Now, imagine being so desperate that you willingly follow Jesus into danger. Maybe you are very sick. Your illness makes it hard for you to plow your fields and mend your fishing nets. Maybe your illness has left you isolated and disconnected from your community and your family. Or, maybe your child is sick and you cannot bear to watch her die. Thorns, thieves, and wild animals may not seem more frightening than a life lived in such pain. So, you go to the dangerous wilderness to find Jesus. That is where we begin our story today. A crowd of needy people in a place of great scarcity looking for healing. What they get is an added measure of compassion that they may not have been able to imagine.
Even though Jesus was in the midst of his own grief, he saw these sick, desperate people and had compassion. You’ll remember that Jesus went to the woods after learning that his cousin John had been violently murdered by the king. Upon hearing of this grisly death, Jesus withdrew to the wilderness. He did not seem to fear what lurked there. It couldn't be worse than that which lived inside the palace walls. And, as he left the town, the sick and the ones who loved them, followed him out into the unknown.
Most of the time, when we talk about this reading, we talk about two incredible acts: the healing of all the sick people and the feeding of these same people with what looks like very little food. These were incredible acts. But, we should remember, that even in the biblical record, Jesus isn’t the only one who can perform miracles. Others might have had powers that allowed them to heal and feed people. I’m going to suggest to you, following the work of a scholar named David Lose, that the most powerful thing Jesus did in this story wasn’t the food or the healings. It was the compassion at the foundation of the acts that tells us the most about Jesus.
In his commentary on this passage, Dr. Lose talks about how in Jesus’ time, and too frequently in our own, people with greater power in a society have an easier time getting food. The background that isn’t explicitly mentioned in this story is that there was small group of elites who had ready access to good and healthy food. There was an enormous group of poor people who did not. I learned from other scholars that in Roman society of this era, the Empire used food as a tool to manipulate people into service and fealty to the Empire. It was taken for granted that with the cost of a few pieces of bread and the spectacle of the circus that the Empire could leverage the desperation of the poor masses into cooperation with the ruling elite. If you do what you are told, you get food. If you don’t, you won’t.
Psychologists remind us that when you feel like you don't have something that you really need (like money, food, emotional support, housing, a meaningful worship community), all of your mental and emotional energy is oriented towards managing that scarcity of resources. It is hard work being poor. People in this church know that. While you may become quite adept at the strategies that allow you to survive and find the things that you need that are scarce, in the long run, spending so much time managing that stress of not having enough is not good for people. Study after study shows us, and we know in our own bones after the stress of the last several months, that living without what we need prevents us from functioning at our most full and healthy capacity. And, it can even negatively affect how we make decisions about our long-term well-being. The empire of Rome counted on the poor people they conquered being unable to manage anything more than merely surviving in order to stay in power.
But Jesus demonstrated that the Empire of heaven lived by different standards than the Empire of Rome. The empire of heaven would not manipulate your need in order to demand your allegiance. The empire of heaven would not create scarcity within your community to ensure that a small group held onto power. The empire of heaven would be generous without conditions. In healing and feeding the people, Jesus demonstrated that God does not demand you suffer so that God can reign. No, God is not the emperor and you are no longer simply a peasant. You are a beloved child of God, and you will be fed.
While our lives are very different that the lives of the people in this story, we know that there are hungry and sick people who would walk out to the scariest place they can imagine if they thought it would help them feel well again. We know that there are people who haven’t worked or haven’t worked enough to pay their bills since March. We know that there are people at risk of eviction. We know that students, parents, and teachers are worried about school in the fall. And, we know that there are people worrying that they will never get better from a virus that we have no cure for. Just as the empire was part of the context of the original story, Covid-19 and our national response to it, are part of ours and affect how we read and respond to it. That compassion that lived in Jesus still lives in the Body of Christ, in this body of Christ. How will we gather up our loaves and fishes and make sure that the people who are in the wilderness right now get fed?
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Mark 5:1-20 Jesus Heals the Gerasene Demoniac
They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’ He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake.
The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighbourhood. As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’ And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.
This story is a little bit of an Easter story. Yes, I know that Easter was weeks ago in April. And, yes, Dana did just read us something about a man possessed by a whole bunch of demons that later go and possess a bunch of hogs. You might be thinking back to Easter and not recall very many hogs showing up except for at Easter supper. But, I’m telling you. I think that this story is a little bit of an Easter story.
Let’s do a comparison. Easter begins at a tomb. This story begins at a tomb, or near enough to the tombs that the man who lives there can find Jesus just as soon as he steps off the boat in the area. Usually, the only people at the tombs are the mourners visiting the tombs or the people who have died and are now inside the tombs. Who is this man who they say lives at the tombs?
Easter also starts with people who are without hope. If this man lives in the tombs, it probably means that his community is without hope for his healing. Notice how tormented he sounds. Night and day, he howls and harms himself on the stones. His neighbors had tried to restrain him with chains, either to protect themselves or to protect him from his own self-destructive behavior. And, why would he live among the tombs, a place often considered unclean, when he could live with his family? I learned from Dr. Bonnie Bowman Thurston that in some Jewish traditions during the era in which Jesus lived, there were four tests to see if someone has grown mentally unwell: a person that spends time in a grave, a person that tears at their clothing, a person that takes dangerous walks in the dark of night, or a person that destroys anything given to them is considered deeply unwell. This person who lives among the tombs exhibits each of these behaviors. So, his neighbors are without hope that they can help him.
Easter is a surprise, too. And, there are so many surprises in this story. First of all, did you see how Jesus’ presence calms the man who is so wild that people thought they needed to chain him up? The man saw Jesus from far away and runs right at him and bows down to worship him. The second surprise: the demons. Not that this man might be possessed. Illness and presumed demon-possession were connected in this era. So, the idea that he might be possessed would not have been surprising. What is surprising is that they say that there are so many of them. They are called Legion. Do you know how many are in a Roman legion? Four thousand to six thousand Roman soldiers. Now, it’s not clear if the demons really meant four thousand or are just using it as a handy metaphor for “a whole bunch.” But, what is surprisingly clear is that a whole bunch of something is tormenting this man.
It’s also surprising that the demons try to negotiate with Jesus. Ok, they say, we know you can get us out of this man. That’s fine. But, what if you let us stay in this area. The climate is lovely and we so enjoy the view from the tombs. Jesus seems unmoved. Then, they try another tack. Ok, the pigs. Let us go into the pigs. Just don’t destroy us. Jesus surprisingly says yes. This does not mean particularly good things for the herd of pigs. Unfortunately. The demons couldn’t help but destroy life. They tried to destroy the man. They succeeded in destroying the animals, which is a shame.
The Easter story, at least in Mark, has no small portion of fear, either. Mark’s version is the one where it says that the women who found the tomb empty were afraid and told no one. We know that they must have pushed past their fear and told someone, because we know their story. But, initially, they were afraid. The now-healed man’s community was afraid. Having grown accustomed to his torment and their hopelessness, they didn’t know how to respond when they saw him well and whole once again. Dr. Thurston, in her commentary on this story says that they might be worried about their property more than their neighbor. Some farmer just lost all those pigs! If Jesus keeps hanging around, what more might they lose? “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” They must not have heard that part yet.
The man who has been saved though... his response, well, Jesus’ response, too... that’s what really makes this an Easter story. The man whose life has been restored from living death wants to follow Jesus. That is the proper response to a resurrection. But, Jesus has a different future in mind. During the Resurrection account at the end of Mark, the angelic figure tells the women to go and tell other people what they had seen. In this story, Jesus tells the man to do the same. “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” In all the rest of Mark, Jesus is hesitant to allow the people he’s healed to tell people what happens. But, not here. Here, he invites this man who has been changed to tell people how. Dr. Thurston puts it this way: Jesus delivers and Jesus sends.
This man who had lived a life we wouldn’t wish on anyone now has a plan. He will preach the good news. He will offer more grace than was offered him. And, he will live a life renewed, a foretaste of the Resurrection to come. Life restored. Faith renewed. Mission assigned. That certainly sounds a little like Easter to me. Now, I imagine your delivery might not be as dramatic as this man’s story. Or, maybe it was. The things that keep us all of this world from living into God’s kindom are Legion. But, this story shows us that we can’t be so attached to the way things are that we are afraid of the renewed Life that could be. Our stuff isn’t more important than our neighbor. The sick and tormented deserve care, not abandonment. We are here because we have met Jesus. Let’s not be afraid to tell others how we’ve been changed.
Resources mentioned in this sermon:
‘But where shall wisdom be found?
And where is the place of understanding?
Mortals do not know the way to it,
and it is not found in the land of the living.
The deep says, “It is not in me”,
and the sea says, “It is not with me.”
It cannot be bought for gold,
and silver cannot be weighed out as its price.
It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir,
in precious onyx or sapphire.
Gold and glass cannot equal it,
nor can it be exchanged for jewels of fine gold.
No mention shall be made of coral or of crystal;
the price of wisdom is above pearls.
The chrysolite of Ethiopia cannot compare with it,
nor can it be valued in pure gold.
‘Where then does wisdom come from?
And where is the place of understanding?
It is hidden from the eyes of all living,
and concealed from the birds of the air.
Abaddon and Death say,
“We have heard a rumour of it with our ears.”
‘God understands the way to it,
and he knows its place.
For he looks to the ends of the earth,
and sees everything under the heavens.
When he gave to the wind its weight,
and apportioned out the waters by measure;
when he made a decree for the rain,
and a way for the thunderbolt;
then he saw it and declared it;
he established it, and searched it out.
And he said to humankind,
“Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
and to depart from evil is understanding.” ‘
In 6 years as the pastor of this church, in all the pulpit supply I did in my church when I was serving as a hospice chaplain, even back to my internship, after seminary, I have never preached a sermon on Job. I’m pretty sure that I know why. It’s because Job is hard to preach on. Even pre-eminent biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann once wrote “The book of Job is not for ‘everyday use’ among the faithful, but it is an artistic extremity that is peculiarly matched to the most extreme crises of life lived in faith.” I’m a preacher than tends to look for the everyday use scriptures. But, as the folks who compiled the Unraveled devotional note, few figures in the Bible have their lives more thoroughly and painfully unraveled than Job does. And, this is a time when lots of parts of our social fabric are being unraveled. Maybe it’s worth spending some time here. One sermon probably won’t cover it. But, it’s a start.
First, let’s see who are the players in our story. The scholar Carol Newsom calls the first couple of chapters of the book kind of a fairytale. Once up on a time, there were a man named Job and he loved God. He was devout and did everything God asked of him. One day, God’s heavenly court is meeting a God talks to a member of the court called ha Satan. That is translated to the Accuser. This is a different the figure of Satan who is the devil. This figure is more like a prosecuting attorney. In fact, this whole book is going to end up looking a bit like a trial. The Accuser with be the prosecutor, trying to entrap Job into cursing God, and Job acting as his own attorney, both challenging God and recognizing God as the judge.
God, after expressing great pride in Job, as though he were the very best student in a class, decides to allow the Accuser to play with Job’s life, taking away what is most important to him: his family, whom he loves, his possession, which give him stability, and his health, which lets him live. I think it’s this particular characterization of God that is at the core of why I don’t preach on Job very much. This is a god to let’s a good man be toyed with for a bet. This is a god who turn Job’s family over to the Accuser just to see what happens. Maybe God is confident that Job’s piety is real, that he won’t fold when times are hard. But, there is a price to be paid for the experiment: all of the people in Job’s family, Job’s own well-being. If we assume that this book is only about the nature of belief, and whether or not one can sustain belief in hard times, it seems like a pretty cruel game to play with a character.
But, that’s not all this book is about. It may be the question the Accuser is interested in, but he makes terrible choices, so we probably shouldn’t follow him. Carol Newsom, in her introduction to Job in the Women’s Bible Commentary, says that she thinks it helps to read Job like a parable that is intended to be outrageous for a reason. The goal of the outrageous story is to disorient and reorient the person reading it. This book begins by asking if a person can be devout without assuming that God will give them good things as reward for their devotion. The book reorients us towards a different question. What is the nature of God? Does God give out blessings like prizes to be won? If you are good, will God give you things? If something bad has happened to you, does that mean that you have done something wrong in God’s eye and are being punished? The first question is about the nature of humanity. The second is about God.
The moment the Accuser is allowed to harm Job’s children and slaves and animals and even to afflict Job himself with illness, though Job had never done anything but be devoted to God, we see the beginnings of the answer to the question about the nature of God. The bad things that happen to you are not a punishment from God. Job knows this in his heart. There are 28 chapters in this book where Job’s friends end up coming to the conclusion that Job must be actually not that great a guy who all these bad things wouldn’t have happened. As Walter Brueggemann describes in his commentary on Job, suffering is seen as punishment for disobedience. If Job is suffering, he must have been disobedient.
But, Job is pretty sure he’s been obedient. He says in chapter 27, verses 5-6, “I will hold fast to my righteousness, and will not let it go; my heart does not reproach me for any of my days.” He has not been told explicitly what he has done to deserve punishment and understands himself to be faithful. He will continue to testify to his faithfulness until someone gives him an example of his behavior that merits punishment. We know that God isn’t punishing Job. Job knows that he hasn’t done anything worthy of punishment. So, what’s going on?
Dr. Newsom said that we need to pay attention to how Job imagines God to be functioning in the world. She said that Job is presuming that God will respond to him the way he would respond to the people dependent on him, his spouse, children, and the people he owns. His vision of God mirrors that the behavior of a benevolent human head of a family. Dr. Newsom says that Job expects God to be just as a human leader would be just, that God would intervene to “vindicate righteous conduct,” and that, yes, God would punish wicked behavior because those are all the things that Job would do as a paternal figure in his family. The book of Job, though, tells us that God doesn’t function like the head of a human family, even if that’s a common metaphor for God. God does something else.
Today’s scripture points to the “something else” that God does and God is. Today’s reading is a poem about God’s wisdom. It’s not clear who is saying it. I’ve seen scholars call it a poetic interlude between the parts of the book where Job is arguing with his friends about sin and punishment and where he challenges God directly to come and tell him why all this is happening. I think that this poem is the clue pointing us to what the author of the story hopes we’ll realize: humans, wise though they might be, still aren’t God. Job’s wisdom, and his friend’s wisdom, for that matter, leads them to assume that God will function just like people, especially like the men in charge of things in their families. This interlude, before God fully responds in chapters 38-42, is what can clue us in that we should be thinking about different scales of reality here. Humans have learned many great things. Humans still don’t know all the mysteries of Creation. And, that is the scale that God will invite Job to try to imagine.
Wisdom, that is God at work, is found not simply in the ideas that humanity has passed along, but also in the very foundation of life. God gave the wind it’s weight and apportioned out the waters by measure. God made a decree for the reign and a way for the thunderbolt. There is a wisdom in creation that goes beyond human ideas that bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people. God isn’t a big human in the sky, acting just like we do. God is a force of creation. That’s why we depart of evil, as verse 28 says. Evil is destructive, the opposite of the constructive, living force of God. Awe is a better starting point than evil for coming anywhere near understanding the wisdom of God.
God will eventually come and speak to Job from inside a whirlwind. That’s most of chapters 38-42.6. Most of what God will talk about is the awesome wonder of creation. This whole lawsuit brought up by Job will come to a complicated close. Though many of his fortunes are restored, Job never quite gets straight the answers to his questions, or, I think, a particularly compassionate response to his suffering. Dr. Newsom argues that what he does have is a new understanding of the nature of God. God is no longer that father waiting to punish his missteps, but is, instead, the power and spirit that is at the root of all life. And, maybe this is its own kind of gift. How much less shame and hurt would there be in the world if people no longer imagined all the bad things that befall them as retribution from a God who is definitely keeping score.
Maybe that is something that can carry us, as we wonder how to respond to the suffering in our own world, to a more compassionate response. God isn’t punishing the people who have lost their jobs or who have gotten sick. We don’t have to punish them either. But, we can remember that we are connected to them through God’s power at creation. And, in turning towards that connection, and responding to it, we are turning away from evil. We may not understand everything that is happening. But, we can be grounded in the majesty of Creation, and we can respond with our own goodness to it.
Resources mentioned in this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.