Its been a crazy week in my home
a crazy, bloody, scary, dangerous week.
Depending on when you ask me,
I might say I grew up in Iowa, which I did,
from just a bit after birth to around age 12
but more likely I’ll say Saint Louis,
where my family moved just before I started 7th grade.
My father, also a Presbyterian Pastor,
was called to a small, diverse, inner-city church in the Central West End
which once was a church of thousands
before the interstates came in the 50s and 60s
and what was left
was Westminster, and its 150 or so members
drawn from all over town.
It was one of the few churches with a Manse,
that’s a fancy word for a house that the church owns
so that the pastor can live there
as part of their salary.
They didn’t have a whole lot to pay my father,
but the manse was a nice trade off.
I’m not sure why, but the Manse wasn’t anywhere near the church,
the church being on the corner of Union and Delmar
itself on a somewhat bizarre intersection of town
on one side mansions, slightly deteriorating
from no longer being the wealthy part of town
but still with gated streets and carriage houses
still worth big money, comparatively,
and on the other side section 8 housing and apartments
and community health clinics with free tests and all that.
That’s Saint Louis, the Central West End part,
near the park and the major hospital district and, just a mile or two East,
the nice shops and attractions.
The manse was seven miles away, in the suburbs.
My home was in University City,
an inner-ring suburb of some 35,000 people
a short distance from Washington University and the U City Loop,
delightfully diverse and safe and warm, again, comparatively.
It was a town of churches and synagogues,
not the enclave of the rich or of the poor,
claiming Tennessee Williams, you know, cat on a hot tin roof,
and Bob Gale, who wrote the Back to the Future movies,
as notable people who called it home.
The move to University City was eye-opening to me.
To relocate from monochromatic, rural Iowa to diverse Saint Louis
at a pivotal age, no less,
meant a demand that I recognize
that the world that I thought I knew…maybe I didn’t know so well.
It has always been from this move that I learned to catch myself from thinking
that I have everything figured out.
Who knows the next time God is going to pick me up from where I am
and plop me down somewhere completely different
and ask me to make sense of the new environment the best I can.
I attended University City public schools,
first Brittany Woods Middle
then U City High.
Its important to note that I found these to be excellent schools,
good preparation for what would be a demanding liberal arts college
and later Graduate School. They did something right.
But not everyone saw them that way.
In fact, even though University City had a majority white population,
many affluent parents, most of the white kids and some of the others
were sent to private schools.
U City High, by contrast, was about 75 percent African American,
maybe 19 percent white, and a few others there too.
And while I entered a freshman class in High School of around 400 kids
less than 200 graduated with me four years later.
So many of the families that remained had great challenges, my peers.
And while I tended to hang out with many of the other white kids at school
I made many African American friends
and lived with many many more on a daily basis.
I walked with them down city streets, and experienced how they were treated
by shopkeepers, or police-officers, or bystanders,
not all of them, not all the time, but enough to get it
that their life was not the same as mine
not as free, not as fair.
I mention all this to say
that what has been happening this week in Ferguson, Missouri, has hit me hard.
I have classmates who live there, and in neighboring Florescent.
I see them tweeting and facebooking.
They’re helping organize clean ups
or yearning for the end to the chaos.
They’re broadcasting a desire for the whole mess to end
for the danger to end, for the power dynamics to end
but also for justice, blended with peace.
It breaks my heart.
I struggle to find something to make sense of it all.
One of my closest friends, with children a bit older than mine,
not from Saint Louis at all but watching from afar like everyone else,
described watching the news with his older boys
and being at a loss for explaining what was happening
not in Iraq, not in Ukraine, not in Palestine,
on the other side of our state.
And while it started with a shooting of an unarmed black teen
by a white police officer last week
the ensuing protests and heavy-handed police response
have re-opened a lingering wound
of centuries old inequities and power dynamics
that many of us, in this room,
are fortunate enough not to have to think much about on a daily basis.
I know I’ll never go to bed at night
worrying about how my daughters will be treated
if they ever get stopped by the police. Others worry constantly.
Ferguson is today’s hotspot, but the issues raised are not isolated there.
We’ve made some great strides as a country.
Incredible change, for sure.
And I’m deeply grateful for those who stand in the gaps
of a chaotic world:
community police officers, firefighters and paramedics
aldermen and journalists and peacemakers
and those who are working for both order and for justice.
Suffice it to say that there remain deep, systemic challenges,
that remain before, say, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream
that I referenced last week becomes our reality.
This has been on my mind all week
as I’ve pondered this concluding tale from the Book of Genesis.
If you’ve missed it, not to worry,
but our sermon series has now covered a lot of ground,
–from the covenant promises given to Abram and Sarai
and the dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael after Isaac’s birth
–to Abraham’s terrible moment binding his son and God’s telling him
to stay his hand
–to the birth of Isaac’s twins Jacob and Esau, fated for conflict
the manipulation and deceit and contortion
that ended, after a night of wrestling, with not judgment day
–to Jacob, now named Israel’s, eleven boys,
ten of them hurt and jealous of their father’s preference for Joseph
and scheming of a way to dispatch him because of his dreams.
Each week an opportunity for us to delve into the way that, when you read scripture,
you get the sense that the authors have a grasp on something human about us.
These ancient stories: so long as we take care to understand
the gap of time and culture and history,
these stories open up something useful for us
as we try to make sense about who we are in the 21st century,
millennia away from the narrative setting here
but deeply convicting, revealing, unearthing nonetheless.
There once was a man named Joseph.
The youngest (at the time) of eleven boys, the most loved of his father
who had unique gifts in management and oversight
and was trusted by his father to help oversee the others.
And they resented him for it and sold him to the Ishmaelites.
Joseph became a slave, a servant, a nobody.
A teenager, soon to be a man, with no control over his future.
Joseph, ultimately, would be transported to Egypt,
where he was sold again to Potiphar,
the captain of Pharaoh’s guard.
And Joseph, through his skill and his gifts and his charm
worked his way up to become Potiphar’s personal servant,
sort of a Bates type, if you watch Downton Abbey
another show with similar deeply human personal intrigue
But Potphar’s wife has her eye on Joseph, and makes advances which he rejects,
and Joseph lands in prison after a false accusation against him.
So Joseph falls down again, maybe even farther than he’d been before.
But the warden sees something in Joseph, astonishingly,
and puts him in charge of the other prisoners.
It is in jail that Joseph becomes infamous.
The Pharaoh has dreams of his own
–where there are seven skinny cows
and seven fat cows
and the skinny cows devour the fat ones, you see
–or where there are seven withered ears of grain
that devour, somehow, seven plump ears of grain
proving that you know it was a dream
produce eating each other….
And the Pharaoh’s advisors have no clue, none, what they could mean,
of course not, cows eating cows
wheat eating wheat, come on…
What were you drinking that night, Pharaoh
a touch too much beer, perhaps?
But a fellow inmate recommends that the Warden send Joseph,
and Joseph goes and hears the dreams
and knows what they mean:
famine is coming: seven years of plenty
followed by seven years of abject misery.
The Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of the nation’s food production,
and he starts saving and managing the largess,
and in so doing, Joseph saves Egypt.
So there’s seven years of food, and then it just stops.
And it was severe. While the Egyptians had enough, more than enough, really,
the neighboring nations became increasingly desperate.
And so Joseph sold the excess grain to them,
helping the pharaoh become wealthy and strong
and at the same time feeding many who would otherwise perish.
I wonder if Joseph ever connected the dots
and might predict that his family, back in Canaan, would be famished too?
But they were, and in the second year of the famine
Jacob sends his brothers to Egypt to buy goods.
And they, like the others, were sent to Joseph,
who has been given and Egyptian name, Zaphnath-Paaneah
(try saying that three times fast)
and who is surrounded by the wealth of the Pharaoh’s court
That is to say: they didn’t recognize him.
That fateful day, throwing him into the pit
selling him off, sullying the coat of many colors
telling their father he was dead
that was so many years ago.
But Joseph knew immediately.
Genesis says that Joseph worked up a plan,
and he accused his brothers of being spies, and after they mention Benjamin
the brother born after Joseph’s departure,
a brother he had never known, unlike the others, a full brother,
born to his mother Rachel
Joseph sells them their grain and orders them to go home,
They go home.
They open their cargo, and behold: not only do they have their supplies,
but Joseph has returned their money!
So they go back, with Benjamin!
And there is a bit more back and forth,
and Joseph manipulates things a bit more
by sending them back home with more grain
but this time with double their money returned
and not only that, with a silver cup
Joseph’s silver cup
in Benjamin’s sack
And they go, and they don’t get very far
when the Egyptian authorities stop them
and accuse them of stealing, of looting the court of Pharaoh.
And they are hauled back again before Joseph, all eleven brothers
That’s an awful lot of back-story to get to what we heard read this morning.
But its necessary to get a sense of the deep undercurrents going on here.
We can’t skip the details, the back-story, the history,
when we’ve been confronted with the chaos before us.
The details matter:
–Joseph has been through the ringer.
–The brothers, they’ve been through the ringer.
–Jacob, the one who thought his son was dead,
who now has sent his OTHER eleven sons on a mission of life or death,
waiting at home to see if they made it or not,
he’s been put through the ringer,
Jacob is a parent who knows what it is like to wonder
about the safety of his children.
And they meet again. And they are all overcome with emotion.
And Joseph cannot stand it any longer.
He sends the court away, and he wails
and he reveals himself: I am Joseph. I am your brother.
It unfolds pretty quickly from there.
There are tears. There is fear of recompense.
There is a quick assurance from Joseph that he intends no such thing
and when it becomes clear to the brothers that Joseph
is HAPPY to see them, is RELIEVED to be reunited
there is JOY, there is HOPE, there is PEACE.
And they send for their father to give him the news,
and Jacob and the rest of the clan under his tutelage
travel to Egypt to wait out the rest of the famine under Joseph’s protection.
Now: while I think we too often get wrong the notion of God as puppet-master
moving pieces here or there,
I am constantly moved by people who look back over their adversity
and see the power and the love of God at work in the midst of it.
Joseph does this.
In the middle of all he has been through, trials and travail
he sees the great opportunity he has been given to do good
to accomplish justice
to save lives.
And so he forgives. He simply forgives. And more than that,
he acts to bring healing and closure to the tense chaotic moment.
Joseph teaches us something important here:
the power of love
the power of forgiveness
and, particularly, the power of God, to inspire these in people
who have been through so much heartache and pain and hurt.
We said last week,
that one of the important things about these biblical stories
is the way that they help shape our understanding of our world
how ones’ faith gives us a framework
to make sense of the seemingly senseless
and meaning in a fragmented, chaotic, shifting world.
Its always been this way,
and its one of the reasons I find the Christian story so compelling
in a time of so many narratives, so many answers
to life’s perplexing questions.
What are we to say when we open the newspaper
and read about the world?
Or when your twitter feed is alive with pictures
from the streets of Ferguson, Missouri
one minute armored vehicles and weapons and gas,
pastors hit with rubber bullets
another minute teens cleaning up a burnt out QuikTrip
or the local BBQ shop delivering food and water
to locals and journalists, kids and bystanders.
What are we to say?
Well, I think we are to say that we believe
in the God who inspires reconciliation,
the God who forms us through stories of retribution broken with love
who motivates great leaders to show humility and contrition
before the ones who have done them wrong
who walks beside us through hard times
until we get through the other side.
I know things are still tense there, but did you notice the huge change
that happened when the police exchanged riot gear
for a police commander
who got out and started walking among the protestors?
Did you hear the NPR story about a Ferguson pastor
who was out on the streets daily, talking to angry young men
and encouraging them to choose a path of peace?
Did you see that, once looting began by some opportunists,
local residents, again, young urban men,
stood shoulder to shoulder to protect shops of strangers.
What are we to say?
I think we are to say that, if we are looking,
God is still working,
still weaving a thread of peace
that, perhaps, might become a tapestry of hope
through many, many deeds of hope and love.
But we have to be looking for it.
Are we looking for it?
And if we see it, what will it inspire us to do
to make THAT story, OUR story, our deeds, part of GOD’s deeds?
. . .
May it be so. Amen.