Sunday, September 27, 2020

Phil Kniss: The family who kept God busy

“God’s providence toward all”
Genesis 37:3-8, 17b-22, 26-34; 50:15-21

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As we keep turning pages through this narrative—
a story about God’s project to form a people
and build a right relationship with them,
for the sake of the world—
God’s project keeps running into roadblocks.

The particular story we look today
is unique among them all.
It’s one of the longest sustained singular stories in the Bible,
14 chapters on the life and adventures of Joseph
from his teenage years to his death.
It’s like a short novel.
In fact, some biblical commentators call it a “novella.”

There are unlimited lessons I could draw out of this story —
lessons on jealousy, pride, favoritism, narcissism,
family violence, sexuality,
loyalty, betrayal, revenge, restitution, forgiveness, greed,
working systems for personal gain,
growth of political power and empire,
treatment of immigrants and foreigners,
and a whole lot more.

But we are on this narrative journey through the Bible,
watching and listening for how this relationship unfolds
between God and the people God created and loves,
so that’s the angle we’ll take this morning.

How is God going to pull off this shalom project—
this restoration project to bring back what was lost
in the Garden of Eden?
this project to establish a loving and just covenant
between God and humanity
that fulfills God’s original intent
to have human beings tend and care for this creation,
and live in harmony and shalom with each other
and with their Creator?
How will God do it?

God cannot just reach down and slap people into shape
with violence or coercion.
God cannot pull our strings and make us dance just the right way,
like a puppeteer with a marionette.
God cannot . . . do those things.
God cannot . . . force our hands,
without violating God’s own nature,
which is animated by love.

God must work with what God has.
And God has us.

So this whole story of Jacob and his feuding sons,
and his spoiled favorite son,
and all the trouble they make,
has God constantly on the move to try to keep up.

At least in my imaginative way of thinking,
this is a family that keeps God busy.

If as I said,
God is not pulling the strings, but giving us genuinely free will,
and if God wants us to be partners in the shalom project,
then God has to keep doing a lot of adjusting and shifting,
to accommodate for the things we do to keep messing it up.

I think God’s #1 occupation here is running interference.
When you run interference on someone,
it means you do whatever you have to,
to keep someone out of danger.
You either block something that’s incoming,
or you purposely distract them from something
that would lead them off track.
They may not even know you are doing it for them,
until much later.

That’s kind of like God and Jacob’s family.

God stays busy re-grouping and re-acting to what’s coming next—
Jacob spoils his favorite son Joseph,
who then becomes a teenage narcissist.
Then his other sons get bitter and vengeful and ultimately violent,
and Joseph gets sold into slavery.
So God gets busy and uses that opportunity to mature Joseph a bit.
And his stint in prison also helps that happen.
Time doesn’t permit me to repeat the story,
but one thing happens after the other,
and the story ends with reconciliation in the family.
With the brothers and Joseph putting the past behind them.

Seems to me there is a lot in common
between the sins of Jacob’s family,
and the sins of Adam and Eve . . .
and for that matter, the sin that ensnared the people
in most of the stories that come between
the Garden of Eden and Joseph.

The same thread runs through all of them,
the urge not to trust God,
not to put our lives in God’s hands and trust God’s providence,
the tendency to usurp the role of God,
to create God in our image,
to rewrite God’s agenda in a way that suits our desires.

So when God gave Abraham and Sarah and their descendants
the job of blessing the rest of the world,
bringing God’s goodwill to all the nations,
the continuing temptation for them—
and I suggest it’s still a temptation for us—
the ever-present temptation is
for us to mistake being chosen,
for being favored, or being more loved.

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all had favorites.
God doesn’t.
God loves all.

It has always been God’s way to choose flawed human beings (like us)
as vehicles to work out God’s salvation plan for the world.
And our biggest flaw is thinking that makes us special.
We imagine that God is so committed to us,
that whatever our heart desires, God is good for.
We imagine that we are a team, against the world,
and God is on our team.

So isn’t it interesting,
when the family of Jacob—God’s chosen ones—
start to mess up in a big way,
God finds a way to work with that,
by bringing into play outsiders
who never heard of Yahweh—
like slave-traders and merchants from Midian,
like an officer in Pharaoh’s army,
like royal bakers and wine-tasters,
like the Pharaoh himself,
chief architect of an oppressive empire.

The net result,
after God was all said and done with Jacob and his family,
is that God’s purposes did not fall apart after all—
a devastating famine did not wipe out the Hebrews,
and the Egyptians, and many other people God loved,
the terrible family brokenness and dysfunction
that almost destroyed Jacob and his sons,
was transformed
by the power of repentance and forgiveness.

God loved Jacob’s family, of course.
But God loved all the human families.
So God has no qualms
letting anyone help out with God’s shalom project,
whether they meant to, or not,
whether they even knew about it, or not.

As Joseph said to his brothers, in the final verses of Genesis,
“You intended to harm me,
but God intended it for good
to accomplish what is now being done,
the saving of many lives.”

Now, you might think—
what with all the hugging and kissing and crying in chapter 50
when Joseph and his brothers truly put the past to rest—
and extend forgiveness,
that this is one more sweet story with a happy ending.

Well, there were other dynamics going on
that will later come back to roost.
Not to mention, a new generation of Egyptians
will forget that the Hebrews saved their lives,
and they will enslave and oppress them for many years.

But the ironic and troubling fact about all that,
is that Joseph himself played into Pharaoh’s hand.
He aided and abetted the effort by Pharaoh
to amass wealth and power at the expense of the poor.

A part of the story we didn’t read (look at ch. 47 when you can)
is how Joseph actually operated
as chief administrator of the famine relief program.
But he didn’t just hand out the food, in MCC fashion.
No, he sold it, for Pharaoh, for the powers-that-be.
And when the people ran out of money,
he took their livestock as payment for the food.
And when that food ran out, and they had no livestock,
they offered their land and their very bodies for the food,
and they became slaves of Pharaoh.
Joseph was undeniably the mastermind and agent of Pharaoh,
in helping Pharaoh rise to even greater power,
and forced Egypt’s whole population
into indentured servanthood,
setting the stage for horrors yet to come.
In time, Joseph’s own grandchildren would pay the price.
The tables would turn,
and they would be the oppressed.
They would be slaves of the next Pharaoh.

It’s not a pretty picture, is it?
But that’s the picture.
God used deeply flawed people then, and still does.
But God’s dream of freedom and harmony
and shalom for all creation—
that dream survives and persists
in the face of the most horrific evil.

Even when God’s own people
make their bed with oppressors and dictators.
God’s dream doesn’t die.

Maybe that’s a word of encouragement for us today,
as we see power abused everywhere we look,
including at the highest levels of our own government.
We may rightly point fingers
at certain parts of our Christian family,
who have forgotten who they are,
and are now in cahoots with Pharaoh.

But we all fall for this temptation.
Might have been a different time and a different emperor.
But we are all enamored with wealth and power.
We are all prone to act like we’re God, if given the chance.

But our calling is a more humble one than that.
We are God’s collaborators, God’s junior partners.
We have to trust God’s time.
Because this is God’s narrative.

If you recognize yourself—as I do—in this indictment
of our temptation to trust in the power of coercion and violence,
instead of the power of love and mercy and surrender,
then please join me in this confession.

You will find the confession in the bulletin.

one    We confess that we have failed to trust in your expansive providence,
           We have deemed your love too narrow,
           We have made our love too tribal.
  all     Forgive us, God the Provider.
one    Help us to love as you love.
           Help us to notice where your shalom is absent, and enter there, 
           expecting you to be present and provide what is needed.
  all    Help us, God the Provider.
one    Hear these words of assurance:
           God our Shepherd is with us wherever we go,
           Taking us beyond our wants, beyond our fears, from death into life.

—Phil Kniss, September 27, 2020

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