Sermon of the Week:
Things We Do To Heal
Week three of a nine part sermon series:
I Feel Seen: Ancient Stories and Modern Wisdom
Keywords: Joseph, Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Unity, Beard Oil. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
This week I found myself dreaming
of something that feels increasingly out of reach these days:
what it would look like for kindred to live together in unity.
A few years ago, when I might feel pessimistic
about the ability of people to avoid
presumptive maligning and rancorous arguing over something,
all I would have to do is take a break from reading the comments on the news articles for a while
or I could step away from facebook,
dedicate a bit more time to in-person relationships,
hold the door open for someone at the pharmacy…
receive a smile and a thank you, and you’d be reassured of the potential harmony you find there…
These days, do you wonder if it is just harder?
Disputes over wearing facemasks during a pandemic have led to altercations at subway and costco,
people have strong feelings about whether
it’s a good idea to send kids to in-person school right now or not,
even something as obvious as affirming that black lives matter to God and to us
because they do…
even that sends neighbors over the edge.
There’s no shortage of discord and angst and disunity these days.
And I’ve had to wonder, you know,
if it has been something of a privilege, to dream of unity,
me, not living in the dangerous part of town,
not wondering where my next meal is going to come from,
not fretting about a routine traffic stop
or the fact that my kids, now fourteen, will start driving soon
and will have a traffic stop of their own someday…and I presume that they’ll be ok when they do.
And then again, its election season
which makes all of it worse, more fraught, in a way,
and for many of us, the stakes feel higher this time around.
Even so, I so very much adore
this little Psalm that Wendy read for us this morning.
The 133rd Psalm is one of the shortest,
three verses, just four sentences,
but generations of faithful people, Jews and Christians alike,
have turned to this psalm with hope and with expectation.
We were talking about this passage a bit at bible study this week
and I was trying to frame for the group what the big deal is about this oil, right
the oil on the head,
running down the beard,
just like the beard of Aaron
running down over the collar of his robes…
and we just don’t intuitively get it.
Seems a little gross, actually,
to have a quart of oil poured over our heads…
olive oil we’re probably talking about here.
Not other things we might call oil.
They didn’t have petroleum or mineral products yet, in the biblical period.
But to get your head around it,
just go to Target or CVS or Walmart sometime
and walk through the aisles of bath salts and lotions and deodorants
and all these products which are tested and formulated and refined
just to make your skin feel oh so good, your hair look healthy and vibrant,
your odor pleasing and your smile inviting.
There are these things called shower bombs,
which are little fizzing wonders that you toss into your shower
and they soften your feet and provide an aromatic steam,
and, if you get the right one, you might just be smiling all day because of it.
Now think about what it was like to live around 1500 BCE, and you might wonder
what was the average guy to do…
Well, Robert Alter, scholar of the Old Testament, reminds us that
“In the Israelite world, as in ancient Greece,
rubbing the hair and body with aromatic olive oil
was one of the palpable physical pleasures of the good life.”[i]
a way to help you remember that life is good, that living is good, that your body is good so good…
This Psalm is called a “Psalm of Ascents”
which means that it is a song sung by those who travel up to high places,
just like “heigh ho, heigh ho, its off to work we go”
of Snow White fame might also be a song of ascent,
but this one, here, was sung by pilgrims going up to the temple mount over Jerusalem,
Where they would look down upon that city
that holy city, the pride of the people,
and pray: How very good
when kindred live together in unity….
knowing full well, as we know, how elusive that vision of humanity is.
The biblical world isn’t naive to the tendency of human beings
to be disunited, disjointed, fragmented.
That’s certainly true in the Hebrew Bible: Cain and Abel, the tower of babel, Noah and the flood,
Jacob and his brother Esau, Joseph and his brothers, as we talked about last week.
Jesus cited Leviticus in claiming as the greatest commandment to love neighbor as self,
which was a reminder of just how hard that is.
Jesus’ most revolutionary—and yet most hopeful—words were “Love your enemies,”
and showed by sparring with those of his own home town, his own religious tradition,
that sometimes those are people who are very close to you.
And even so, the Bible asserts a future with hope for reconciliation.
In fact, that might be the most important to recognize about Holy Scripture,
and what it is trying to get us to see:
in the bud there is a flower
from the stump of Jesse, there is a shoot,
for the outsider, there is the possibility of welcome and belonging
for the one who returns to give thanks for his healing, there is a reorientation to joyful living,
for everyone born, there is a place at the table,
and finally, even though there is a sealed tomb,
a sealed tomb, there is resurrection.
The basic posture of scripture is what we might call hopeful realism,
this foolish stumbling-block of an idea
that even given this world that we’ve got, and the people that we know,
and the troubles we’ve created,
a better one is possible, a better one is happening, with God’s help.
And when you see it,
it is like precious oil on the head, and not just a little bit, but the whole thing,
it is like sunshine while it is raining, making the sky sparkle
(call it the dew of Hermon if you want to…)
it is like the smile of a newborn, like the triumph of justice achieved,
like a cup of your favorite ice cream on a warm summer day…
It is so, so, so good. So very very good.
And we have one of the most powerful images of that hopeful realism
right here, in the story of Joseph and his brothers.
One of the people I was reading up on for this sermon
a commentator by the name of James Howell,
asked the question
“How is it that the most theologically profound
and emotionally moving moment in all of Scripture
is not in the New Testament but in the Old?”
That seemed a bit overstated when I read it
but maybe he’s right.
To explain what Howell is trying to get at,
we need to fill in some of the story
between the reading from last week, and our scripture lesson today.
Here’s how that story goes:[ii]
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.
This is because the Pharaoh has been troubled by these, well, 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?[iii]
But an 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 by now 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
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!
That’s no good! There must be a mistake. There might be retribution!
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 this time 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.
To be honest with you:
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.
Just as I am moved by the healing power of people
who choose unity, who choose healing,
over revenge and destruction.
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 teaches,
what Paul preaches
what Joseph demonstrates,
we maybe, just maybe, can see that we too 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 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.
A true church, one that looks to Jesus Christ as our guide and our salvation.
God is working to bring us together,
a diverse people united by our love for others and a vision of God’s just world.
And so, we do the work of reconciliation as a community.
We remind each other of God’s hopeful realism. We help each other strive for it.
We do that as a church, when we love and serve in Jesus name.
When we demand justice.
When we welcome everyone 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 the one preaching
or singing or praying or just listening this morning,
or finding other ways of living our faith out into this big, beautiful, busy,
confusing, humbling, sometimes heart wrenching world that God loves.
This is our calling,
to remember that God loves everyone
and God is working on righting wrongs,
helping those who hurt others to make things right
and showing through acts of forgiveness
that there is hope for all of us,
even if it is sometimes just a dream right now.
And so, my friends, may we,
Follow where God is leading us,
claiming hopeful realism as our own way of seeing the world,
as we seek to be people who remain open to the possibility for reconciliation
of people who are so torn being reunited
as siblings, as neighbors, as people of equal worth and dignity and safety and wholeness,
and may we make that cause our own
just as Christ made it his own.
May it be so.
[i] As cited by James Howell in Feasting on the Word: Year A (Supplemental) for Proper 15, “Pastoral Perspective” (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011). The citation is from Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007) 462, n.2.
[ii] Parts of this section adapted from an earlier sermon, “Ancient Stories: Who Breaks Retribution With Love,” preached at The Kirk on August 17, 2014.