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"Joseph" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - November 11, 2018

posted Nov 21, 2018, 9:52 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

I love the way some people have names which perfectly fit them.  The other night I went to see a gay comedian who adapts famous musicals into political commentary.  Last Spring, with President Trump visiting Kim Jong-un he drew on the Sound of Music to produce “How do you solve a problem like Korea.”  He goes by the name “Randy Rainbow.”  Could there be a more perfect name for a gay musical theater comic?  At first, I thought this must be a stage name; but no, his parents named him Randy Rainbow.  Or I think of a gifted and organized wedding planner we sometimes work with here at Plymouth, Tiara.  Yes, that’s right, when she was born the doctor presented her saying, “look, it’s a wedding planner.” And so, they had to crown her Tiara.

While I love these stories of “perfect names,” I’m also deeply drawn to the song we sang during the scripture lesson.  We sang God’s promise:

I will change your name,

You shall no longer be called

Wounded, outcast, lonely, or afraid.

I will change your name,

Your new name shall be

Confidence, joyfulness, overcoming one,

Faithfulness, friend of god,

One who seeks my face.

The song speaks to the power of God to change our lives.  While Kanye West may talk about alternate realities and politicians talk about alternate facts, God’s power promises to alter our reality, to alter the facts of our lives.

In the United Church of Christ, we are about changing lives; this is grace.  And the world needs a church which believes in the power of God to change lives.  But we also need it ourselves. We need grace: to know that the awful names we get called (or that we call ourselves) are not our true identity; to know ourselves by God’s name for us - beloved, chosen, blest.

This power of God to change lives comes out in the story we heard Les read this morning, an abbreviated story of Joseph.  You might remember the big moments of Joseph’s story: as a teenager, the young Joseph endured the jealousy of his brothers; they beat him up, tossed him in a pit, and then sold him into slavery.  Enslaved, Joseph resisted the advances of Potiphar’s wife; imprisoned, he interpreted dreams; released, he came to run Egypt through times of feast and famine. Enslaved to in charge, Joseph remained estranged from his family.  But then famine caused them to come to Egypt; through several ruses he tested them. Finally, he revealed himself to them and brought them down to Egypt.

But this year I began to wonder about this basic story.  It started when my friend Jody Hirsh, the Jewish Educator at the JCC, led a discussion on Joseph.  He looked at the end of the story in which Joseph becomes reconciled with his brothers. “How can this be?”  Jody asked, “How can Joseph forgive?” It does seem like scripture too neatly ties up the story: a happy ending.  Could we forgive our siblings if they did such a thing to us?

So, this summer while on sabbatical I reflected and prayed about this story.  And as I kept reading through it, elements I’d overlooked came to take on new significance for me, parts of the story that speak to how Joseph came to a place of forgiveness, moments when his life changed.

First, I noticed how the storytellers use Joseph’s age to punctuate the story: 17 when his brothers sold him into slavery; 110 when he forgave his brothers.  Which means that while the narrative makes it seem like forgiveness came quickly; it really took 93 years before Joseph could say to his stricken brothers, “have no fear.”  Even that might be too quick for me; but I appreciate that forgiveness took time. God’s power acts in the world; but more like the slow power of the Colorado River carving the Grand Canyon than the quick shift of an earthquake.

Spiritual healing takes time.  Which is one reason we build a church out of brick and mortar instead of meeting forever in a tent.  Our journeys unfold over a lifetime; and we need a church where that can happen. One worship service might inspire us; but real change in our hearts and lives takes time.  The world needs a church like Plymouth (and we need it too) committed to creating change over the long haul, a Colorado River of grace carving out the deep beauty in our lives.

And yet, there were moments in the long arc of the Joseph story that seemed to propel change.  I tried to call attention to these in our abbreviated version of the story. First, when Joseph went from prison to stand before Pharaoh he shaved and dressed.  It sounded as simple as that; “When he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh.”  But in that verse lay a multitude of meanings. Joseph had previously dressed like a shepherd, an Israelite: desert robe, long beard, shaggy hair.  He looked like a foreigner to the Egyptians. But now he shaved: cutting off the beard, losing his long hair. He made himself pass.

Any of us who have tried to “pass” know the cost of fitting ourselves into the strait-jacket of expectations.  It’s the gay man toning down his flamboyancy; the woman who can’t get angry. It’s the African-American man who speaks with a softer, higher voice so that he doesn’t seem threatening to white people.  It’s the Muslim who shaves his beard much like Joseph to not seem too foreign. But oh, the cost of not being ourselves.

Scripture underscores this cost by having Pharaoh rename Joseph; calling him, “Zaphenath-paneah.”  I’ve certainly butchered the ancient Egyptian; but I know the name means, “the one who reveals the secrets of life.”  Not a bad name in and of itself, but it turned Joseph into a functionary. Pharaoh didn’t bother to learn Joseph’s name; he only learned how Joseph could be useful to him.  In renaming Joseph, Pharaoh made clear that he was to make a break with his past and instead to just become the man Pharaoh needed him to be; a functionary.

The pain of this all becomes overt when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers.  What caught my attention was this moment when everyone sat down to eat: the Egyptians, Joseph, and the brothers, all at separate tables.  We normally focus on Joseph’s reaction to seeing his long-lost brother Benjamin but hear what happened when they sat down. “They served him by himself, and them by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because the Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians.”  The Egyptians wouldn’t eat with the Hebrews; a segregated society. But what happened to Joseph? For all his attempts to pass, for all his attempts to become Egyptian enough, the Egyptians still would not eat with him. He sat alone.

His brothers wounded him; but the Egyptians made clear, “no matter what, you will not belong here.”  Joseph realized in that moment that he would always be the foreigner, the outsider, the outcast no matter what he did to try to pass.

Now I’ve read this story a lot over the years, but I don’t think I noticed this detail until our congregation started really focusing on racial equity, facing the reality of racism and discussing issues of unearned privilege and unfair power.  But our church opened my eyes and I see the discrimination right in the text: the Egyptians wouldn’t eat with the Hebrews for that is an abomination to the Egyptians. The world needs a church like Plymouth (and we need it too) that opens our eyes to the reality of pain.  But also, the world needs a church like Plymouth that makes welcome and acceptance real, one that says, “no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Joseph needed that; I need that; I suspect we all need that kind of welcome, the kind that seats us all at the same table.

After Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, the whole family settled with him in Egypt.  The famine continued to rage. Joseph had stored up grain; and now people came to him, desperate.  They sold everything to buy Joseph’s grain. And then the next year, when they didn’t have any belonging, them came again to Joseph.  As he stood before them, the Egyptians said, “There is nothing left in the sight of my lord but our bodies and our lands. Shall we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land in exchange for food. We with our land will become slaves to Pharaoh; just give us seed, so that we may live and not die.”  The people became so desperately hungry that they sold themselves into slavery.

What did Joseph think at that moment when the Egyptians said, “Buy us and our land?”  Did he feel proud of his planning ahead; the grain Savior of Egypt? Did he want to boast to Pharaoh of the profit he made?  I don’t think so. I think that in that moment when the Egyptians sold themselves, Joseph realized that he’d become the very thing he hated.  He’d become like his brothers, enslaving others, selling them into bondage. I imagine he cried; “Wretched man that I am! For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7: 24, 19).

This moment in the story - if you were reading along in the Book of Genesis - comes across as out of place.  You could even read the story without scene. And yet, the original storytellers included it because it told us something so important about Joseph.

Just as the realization about the racism of the Egyptians affected him, so now an insight into himself did as well.  Joseph faced an awful true about himself; he did the very thing he hated. And as he continued to sit with that insight, I think it is what ultimately allowed him to forgive his brothers.  I don’t think the forgiveness at the end of the Joseph story could have happened without Joseph’s insight into his own moral struggles.

One of the roles of church in our life is to help us see those places of growth in our own souls.  We begin with confession because here at least we don’t have to pretend that everything is perfect; we don’t have to pretend to be angels.  But confession isn’t the only place that may make us aware of ourselves. Years ago, two families in our church didn’t get along. Neither family is here anymore, and they covered it up with fake pleasantness; but I knew.  They sat near each other; neither willing to give up their pew despite their disagreement. And when we’d have a passing of the peace, it became for them the passing of awkwardness, a moment which caused them to see the brokenness in their relationships.  We need a place in our lives like Plymouth (and the world does too) where we face what is broken in our lives; a place where we can say, “I have done the very thing I hate.”

Still, Joseph’s brothers did an awful thing to him.  And it took time to forgive. They thought they might never hear those words.  We can’t really know what moved Joseph to forgive. But I know what does in my own heart.  More than just seeing the pain in the world, more than just seeing my own complicity, forgiveness comes as an experience of grace.

I need a place like Plymouth (and I think you do too) that continually pushes me to open my heart more and to let go of those things I grip too tightly, especially animosity.  Like Joseph, I need a place where God can work on my soul and change my name. No longer wounded, outcast, afraid. But beloved, chosen, blest.

And friends, the world needs a place like that too.  Alleluia and Amen.