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The Reverend Matt Gaventa
August 16, 2020
A Reading from the Book of Genesis
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
Joseph has been through it. This summer we have been preaching through these family stories in the Old Testament, but none of these stories quite gets the short shrift like Joseph’s, which is a good fifteen chapters long. It’s basically its own novella tucked into the end of Genesis, and the lectionary gives us two readings. Last week you heard the beginning, the story of Joseph betrayed by his brothers, thrown into a pit, and sold into slavery, though ultimately, they are left believing that he is dead and gone. This week, we fast-forward. Some years later, and Joseph has been through it. He has been reduced to nothing and brought into Egypt. He’s enslaved, scandalized, and imprisoned — but, unbelievably, from there, he has risen. It turns out that Joseph has the power to interpret dreams, and in prison he has shown this power, and very quickly he then comes to the top, and by the time of our reading today Joseph has become the Vizier, chief advisor to Pharaoh, second-in-command of all of Egypt. Joseph has been through it. And he has come out into this amazing position of power and authority.
Joseph’s brothers, of course, have been on their own journey. In the midst of famine, they came to Egypt to buy goods, not realizing that the Vizier with whom they are negotiating is in fact the brother they once discarded. Joseph lets the masquerade play out for a while; he sends them back and forth, he makes them jump through a few hoops. But finally, in today’s reading, he can’t quite keep it in anymore. The reunion is too powerful, and the old emotions are too powerful, so Joseph sends the Egyptians out of the court and drops the mask. It’s me. It’s your brother. It’s Joseph. And we kinda know where this story goes, so it’s hard to live into the suspense of the moment but just for a second consider the perspective of these brothers. They are perhaps not expecting glad reconciliation. They are now seeing the ghost of their dead brother lording over them as Vizier of all of Egypt. Joseph, after all, has achieved what conquered people in the Old Testament rarely achieve. He has amassed for himself tremendous political power. Military power. Cultural power. He can do whatever he wants with these brothers who once threw him in a pit and left him for dead. He has all the power he needs. The only question is: what will he do with it?
I had a brief run at political office, once. It was my freshman year of high school, and I decided to run for class treasurer. I don’t entirely remember why. It was not a life-long ambition of mine to be treasurer of the freshman class. I had certainly not mapped out my ascendancy to the upper echelons of high office but even if I had that map would almost certainly not have run through the office of treasurer of my freshman class. I had only lived in the area for about a year, and I think what happened was that nobody was really running, or at least it wasn’t a competitive race, and I needed something to do, so I decided I might as well put myself forward. Maybe I could learn something or meet some people or see how the sausage gets made inside the room where it happens, which, obviously, is a high school student council meeting, where you are the treasurer of the freshman class. So I ran and I think I gave a speech where I said something about moving the soda machine further away from the gym and closer to the cafeteria, which is not a thing that was going to happen, and is certainly not a thing that was going to happen just because the treasurer of the freshman class said so. Nonetheless, much to my surprise. I won.
So now I’ve got it. I’ve got the brass ring. I am Treasurer of the Freshman Class. Supreme executive power bestowed unto me. Well. You get the joke. In one sense, the problem was structural. The Treasurer, by design, is in charge of the money. But high school freshmen have no money. We’re not even at the raising-money-for-junior-prom stage of having money. So my job was, fully and entirely, pointless. It meant nothing. But the other problem was me. Because aside from the ill-conceived idea about the soda machine, I really had no particular goals or desires or suggestions that could leverage my new standing. I mean, as small an office as Freshman Class Treasurer might have been, it was something, and something in that school could have happened, or would have happened, if I had taken my authority out for a spin. If I had wanted something. Or had a vision for something. If I had spoken for something. I had power. Well, not much of it, perhaps. Not enough to move the soda machine. But still, I had gotten power. But now that I had it. I had no idea what to do with it.
Last weekend the New York Times ran a substantial feature on the modern Christian search for power, as it resides especially in the movements of some of our more fundamentalist fellow believers. The article takes its headline – “Christianity Will Have Power” – from a speech given by our current President at a Christian College in Iowa, early in the days of the 2016 campaign — a speech that from my perspective says so much more about what Christianity in America is in this moment than it might about whoever occupies the White House. Writing for the Times, Elizabeth Dias recalls it this way: “Christians make up the overwhelming majority of the country, [Trump] said. And then he slowed slightly to stress each next word: ‘And yet we don’t exert the power that we should have.’ If he were elected president, he promised, that would change. He raised a finger. ‘Christianity will have power,’ he said. ‘If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power, you don’t need anybody else.’” And regardless of what you think about the President, something in this message clearly clicked. Fundamentalists in this country backed him overwhelmingly and continue to do so. Which means there’s a question on the table for us as believers in the same God. What does it mean for Christianity to want power? To hunger for power? To have power?
In one sense, there’s a long history of Christian thought that would shudder at the very idea. God tell the Apostle Paul that “My power is made perfect in weakness,” perhaps not surprising to follow from the story of an itinerant Messiah who broke bread with lepers and outcasts, who preached something about turning the other cheek, and of course, who died at the hands of an empire. Nothing in Jesus’ story is about rising through the ranks, and so of course, we find no small Christian wisdom that warns of no good that can come when those of us who follow this crucified savior find our way into high office. Power corrupts, after all, and we know a little something about sin, too. On the other hand, Christians have been bound up in the highest offices of this country since its very beginning. Whatever theological tradition might want to run away from political power, it has not been universally adopted. People who follow the same Messiah you do and I do have been making most of the decisions around here for most of the time, which makes it really difficult to imagine being in that crowd and hearing this promise of Christianity’s return to power as if it was something that had ever really truly been taken away.
But in the Joseph story, the question about power isn’t is about whether you should have it. After all, this was a story told to Jews in exile, for whom power and access to the Babylonian court wasn’t just for its own sake; survival itself was on the line, and much like Joseph, you would do whatever it took. For better or worse, in this story, power itself isn’t a bad word. But of course, that still leaves our brothers in suspense. They are at his mercy. The ones who betrayed him and abandoned him and left him for dead are now his to control, their fates his to decide. The scene is set for some ultimate revenge fantasy, some Hollywood B-movie where Joseph rips off his mask and cackles with vengeance and . . . . But of course, that’s not what he chooses to do with his power. Instead, as you know, hesaves their lives. He guards them from the famine. He shelters them from the drought. And he falls at their feet in tears, tears of mercy, and reconciliation, and love. “He fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all of his brothers and wept upon them.”
Christianity Will Have Power. Not really so much a campaign promise as it is a statement of fact: our churches have enough people with enough money and enough privilege that whatever this Jesus-following movement is, it’s going to have plenty of power for plenty of time yet to come. The question is: for what? What do you want to do with it? You want to do justice? You want to love kindness? You want to call your brothers and sisters in from the precipice of death and fall in tears at their feet and cry out to God in thanksgiving for mercy, and reconciliation, and forgiveness, and hope? You want to send them into the world with food and shelter and safe passage? You want to do something that feels like the work of the kingdom of God? You want to do something that feels like following in the footsteps of the ministry of Jesus Christ? You want to do something that feels pushed and called and animated and inspired by the winds of the Holy Spirit? Or do you want to climb up there and have the feel of it. Power for its own sake. Status for its own sake. Authority for its own sake. Treasurer of a Bankrupt Class with an Even More Bankrupt Imagination. All the power in the world and no idea what to do.
Well, maybe not all the power in the world. There’s a long way yet to go from Freshman Class Treasurer, and Joseph knows it. “Don’t be too angry with yourselves because you sold me here,” he tells his brothers, “for God sent me before you to preserve life. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” The more powerful Joseph becomes, the more he begins to recognize the power that truly surrounds him, the power that truly guides him, the power that has brought him there, the power of God. It’s a remarkable moment, him confronting his brothers — don’t worry about it, you didn’t really mean to betray me and throw me in a pit and sell me into slavery and leave me for dead. God made you do it — it’s a staggering turn of events. But for someone who has risen nearly as high as Pharaoh himself, someone who sees Egypt almost as a god would see Egypt, someone who has the fate of the people in the palm of his hand. For Joseph, this is also a profound statement of humility, to see the hands of true power at work right under Pharaoh’s nose, a reminder that there is no power in heaven or on earth equal to the power of the one who created all things and sustains all things.
Especially with an election bearing down on us, I don’t need to tell you what it means to fret about who gets to have power. You’re going to hear lots of speeches, and you’re going to hear lots of promises, and I hope somewhere in there you will hear somebody you believe promise to use whatever power you might give them for the sake of something real, something better than moving the soda machine up or down the hallway, something like mercy, and reconciliation, and forgiveness, and hope, something like sending God’s children into the world with food and shelter and safe passage, something like building up the kingdom of God for all of God’s children. But, no matter what you hear. And no matter what you believe of what you hear. And no matter what you choose to do with the power that you have. Remember this. We call it the kingdom of God because it belongs to God. We call ourselves God’s children because we belong to God. And because there is no power. Well, let’s let Paul do it. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
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