Sermon of the Week
Keywords: Reconciliation, Yoke, Pastors, Joseph and his Brothers, Bosque Chapultepec, Ordered Service, Ministry of All Believers, Stole.
I’m looking forward, this afternoon, to participating in an installation service
for a new pastor in our Presbytery.
Scott Phillips spent some time in Kansas City.
He was a Pastoral Intern up at Parkville Presbyterian Church a while ago,
and after serving as a pastor in Colorado,
today he will be installed as the new pastor at Northminster.
That’s a church up in North Kansas City.
Our theology of leadership is one of the things that makes us Presbyterians unique.
We believe in a ministry of all believers.
All of us have something God call us to do.
All of us have skills that we use to do it.
All of us have something unique and important to share, to give, to contribute.
That’s true whether you are a pastor, or an elder, or a deacon
or maybe none of those things,
and you’re “just” a member, or a visitor,
or you rarely darken the door of a church.
God gives all of us gifts.
God calls on us to use them for the common good.
One way God does that,
not the only way, to be sure,
but an important and unique way,
is through the Church:
the place where we come to learn about God,
and experience God,
and try to be more God-like because of it:
serving and loving and
making peace and pursuing justice.
So we have lots of people scurrying around doing lots of things, good things,
for God’s sake.
Which can get quite hectic, actually.
I had a lot of time to think about this image this week:
lots of people scurrying about doing lots of things.
Brook and I travelled to Mexico City for a few days of vacation.
Mexico City is the most inhabited city in the hemisphere
with more than 22 million people.
To put that into perspective, there are about 9 million people
in Missouri and Kansas combined.
When you’re with that many people, you notice it,
whether you’re talking about people watching at the airport,
or just trying to get around town,
it was quite impressive to see so many people doing so many different things.
We were just trying to get away from all this snow for a bit.
Which worked. It was 80 there this week.
On Friday, we went to Chapultepec Park,
which is kind of like their version of New York City’s Central Park.
We went to see the castle there, which is a rather important historical location
It is where Maximilian the first lived, and later several Mexican leaders and presidents.
A battle at the Castle of Chapultepec is cited in the first verse of the US Marine hymn:
“From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli”
Today it is a beautiful old museum with stained glass and a garden,
and a lot of history. A place of importance to the Mexican people.
We were looking forward to visiting.
We got to the park, though,
and there were just tons of kids there. Bus loads.
We guessed they were from a local middle school or something.
They were everywhere, having a great time in the park.
Running over to the lake.
Walking through the trees.
Talking to the street vendors. Just everywhere.
Lots of people, scurrying about doing a lot of things. Quite hectic.
But there was an order to it, in the end:
They were all in pairs.
They all had the same red t-shirt on.
And when a whistle blew,
the kids all somehow came together, swarming in on the whistle,
and voila, they could walk to their next activity.
We do better when we have some order in our lives.
Our communities do better when we have some structure to them,
certain people tasked with certain responsibilities.
So it is for us, as a church, too.
We set some people aside for particular work:
Some of them the work of care and compassion – those are deacons;
Some of them the work of discernment and leadership – the elders;
Still others the work of helping all of us
engage scripture and life and relationships and faith,
equipping others for the work of ministry – the pastors.
These are positions of service, not of stature.
You don’t get extra credit in front of Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates
because you served on a church committee.
(Though, it’s possible some of us believe that we do.)
In the end, you serve because you’ve been given certain abilities,
and other people see them in you, and the community asks you to help out,
and you love them, and you want to try to make it get stronger, better.
And so you serve. You pitch in. You help out.
And in the middle of that, we affirm, God is there
helping put the pieces together.
It’s the same for pastors.
We’re no different from others called to serve,
even as we lead worship in robes,
and park in “clergy” parking spots at the hospital when visiting people who are sick,
or, as I do sometimes when it make sense to do so,
when we put on a clergy collar so that people can notice that I’m a pastor.
To the Presbyterians, pastors are no different.
We have certain gifts, which we expand through study at a seminary,
and which we try to apply for the health and vitality of a congregation,
because we want to serve God, just like everyone else.
(We don’t get that extra credit in front of Saint Peter either)
Scott is going to be a great pastor at Northminster.
His installation service this afternoon will stress all of this
and he’ll possibly be given symbols of his office
perhaps even a stole, like this one,
which pastors wear during moments of worship, or service, or protest, or witness,
to stress the responsibility of serving the God who gives all of us work to do,
whether it is easy, or hard, or maybe a bit of both.
In another part of the Bible,
Jesus calls his disciples and says to them:
Come to me, when you are weary
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)
I’ve always loved that sentiment
even though we know that the work God gives us isn’t a cake walk.
It’s not “all daffodils and roses,” as one former pastor of mine used to say.
The stole that symbolizes the office of the Minister of Word and Sacrament
is meant to remind us all of that yoke,
of being tied to one another in a common task,
pulling others along, through sometimes difficult terrain.
The work is easier when you’re not doing it alone.
That’s another reason why the church is so important,
as a community: it reminds us that we’re not doing this work alone,
that we’re all in this together.
Can you imagine the burden of feeling that it is all on your shoulders:
that you are the only one who is out there
trying to model love and peace and justice
in a world that seems to be so ambivalent about all of that?
Brutal, it would feel.
But we’re not alone.
We’re together in this, whether we’re talking about our humble Kirk,
or our connection with others, like our friends in Northminster,
who are formally welcoming their new pastor today.
The stories from the bible this morning
all evoke some of the more challenging, and rewarding,
aspects of serving the God who calls us to be her people.
That’s what we are, when we call ourselves Christian
“people who follow Christ,”
Christ, who asks us to do relatively easy things—
like pray for our neighbors,
giving to someone who is begging on the street corner…
And who asks us to do relatively harder things, too—
like praying for our enemies
or turning the other cheek,
seeking the welfare of everyone,
even hurtful, vengeful, spiteful, horrible people.
That’s challenging work.
Work that is hard to do, alone, by yourself.
Work that is so much easier to do when you’ve got others there to help you do it,
because they’re working on the very same things.
Our main reading today is from Genesis
The story of Joseph reuniting with his Brothers.
Here’s how that story goes:[i]
There once was a man named Joseph.
The youngest (at the time) of eleven boys, the most loved of his father
A kid who had unique gifts in management and oversight
and was trusted by his father to help oversee the others.
His brothers resented him for it, and sold him off 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’ve ever watched Downton Abbey
another show with similar deeply human personal intrigue to Genesis.
But Potiphar’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.
You see, The Pharaoh these, just, weird dreams
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.
There’s seven years of food, and then it just stops.
The Famine was severe.
And while the Egyptians had enough, more than enough, really,
the neighboring nations became increasingly desperate.
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?
They were famished, 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, the new overseer,
who has been given an Egyptian name, Zaphnath-Paaneah
(try saying that three times fast)
who is surrounded by the wealth of the Pharaoh’s court
more grand, I’m sure, than even Chapultepec Castle
ruling with the power and statue of the Pharaoh himself.
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, and, 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 even 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 (!)
They go, but 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 it’s 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 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.
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.
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.
The fancy word for this sort of work is Reconciliation:
when people who are divided are brought back together
when hurts are healed
when families are reunited
when neighbors turn from enemies into friends.
Reconciliation is really, really hard.
But when you look at what Jesus is teaching,
there, at the Sermon on the plain, that Pat read this morning,
we have the tools to do it:
to pray for everyone, not just those in our tribe, but for others, too,
to give generously,
to love extravagantly,
to be the adult in the room and to take the first steps towards forgiveness.
If Joseph could do that to his brothers who sold him into slavery,
I should try do that for the driver of the ford who cut me off in traffic,
or the jerk who embarrassed me in public five years ago,
or the neighbor who always votes for the other candidate, not my candidate,
or the person who I think won’t ever return the gesture…
Maybe he won’t ever return the gesture.
That’s not part of the deal, him having to return the gesture.
We are asked to be agents of reconciliation when we carry the name of Christ.
If I’m honest, I don’t succeed at this in far too many instances.
But it is something that I’m called to do, even so,
to try to do better.
If I was all alone in it, I don’t think I’d ever succeed.
But I’m not alone.
I’m part of a church.
We do the work of reconciliation as a community.
We do that as a church, when we love and serve in Jesus name,
when we pursue justice,
when we welcome all into God’s family,
when we take the first steps toward forgiveness,
because right there, we are assured of the very presence of God.
That’s a calling for all of us,
whether we’re wearing a stole or sitting in a pew or serving on a committee
or finding other ways of living our faith out into this big, beautiful, busy,
confusing, humbling, sometimes heart wrenching world that God loves.
May we, my friends,
follow where God is leading us,
as we seek to be people who reconcile wherever it is possible,
through acts of justice and love and peace.
May it be so.
[i] Parts of this section adapted from an earlier sermon, “Ancient Stories: Who Breaks Retribution With Love,” preached at The Kirk on August 17, 2014.
Image credit: an aerial photo of Chapultepec Castle from Getty Images.