Sermon: A Question of Faithfulness
It’s entirely possible that when the creators of the lectionary offered up an alternative set of Old Testament readings for the summer season, they didn’t intend for preachers to choose to use both texts.
Yet when I read through the lectionary choices for this morning, I was immediately struck by both the similarities and differences in these two texts that we read this morning.
In the story of Joseph, God does not appear to be present—God is never mentioned and the content of the narrative (in which Joseph is thrown into a pit and then sold into slavery by his older brothers) seems entirely driven by human actions and motivations.
While we might know, or at least suspect, that in the end, the narrative will reveal God’s presence, the Joseph story is a long one, and so we are left (for this week at least) without a resolution.
Which begs the question, why would the creators of the lectionary choose to include this text? Why not simply tell the end of the story? There are so many texts in the Bible that didn’t get picked for the lectionary, why include this unresolved snippet of Joseph’s story in which God doesn’t even merit a mention?
Unhelpfully, the common interpretation seems to be that this text is a means to an end & unless you want to focus on family dynamics or jealousy, it’s generally considered wise to pick a different text
They may very well be right, but when I read the text for this morning, I was struck by the stranger in the story. If you recall, Jacob sends Joseph to check on the well-being of his brothers, but when Joseph came to SHEE-kehm, where his brothers were meant to be, he finds his brothers missing. Before he can turn around and go back home, a man finds him wandering in the fields and asks him, “what are you seeking?” When Joseph responds that he’s looking for his brothers, the man points him to Dothan saying that he overheard their conversation about heading in that direction.
Who is this man and why does the narrative take the space to recount Joseph’s detour? Despite the heft of the Bible, Scripture is quite spare in its language and choices (and it’s been edited so many times that people have created entire careers out of trying to tease out who the different authors might have been, and there is still no consensus); so given all of that editing and the text’s natural reticence, why this episode? Who is this man?
In his reflection on this text, Rabbi Marc Gellman points out that without the intervention of this stranger, Joseph would not have found his brothers, he would not have been sold into slavery, would not have ended up in Egypt, would not have been in a position to save his family from the famine that was coming, and the list goes on.
The man, Gellman argues, was not just a man, but also an angel.
Referencing earlier stories about Abraham and Jacob, Gellman points out that the Bible is notorious for confusing people with angels.
The reason, he argues, is because the Hebrew word for angel actually means Messenger. Anyone with a message from God is an angel, Gellman argues, regardless of whether or not they are even aware of it. (In his Letter to the Hebrews, the apostle Paul wrote something similar saying, “do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing, some people have entertained angels without knowing it.)
So, on the one hand, we have a text in which God’s presence is only hinted at by the presence of a stranger who points the way forward. And on the other hand, we have the quite well-known text from Elijah in which God appears in the form of the still small voice.
Not only that, but for Elijah, God seems to always be present. Granted, this fact has landed him in hot water with the political powers of the day, but where the Joseph narrative doesn’t seem to have a role for God, in the Elijah narrative, God is a major character.
Yet, even for Elijah, there is an element of uncertainty—a question about where God is. God tells Elijah to wait on the mountain, but then the text details all of the ways in which God was not present. God wasn’t in the wind, God wasn’t in the earthquake, God wasn’t in the fire. Again, one wonders why the text didn’t just skip to the point and tell us where God actually was, in the still small voice, or the calm gentle breeze, or the sound of sheer silence (depending on how you want to interpret the Hebrew).
Yet what becomes evident as the story continues is that God is appearing in a new way to Elijah. Elijah is used to a God who appears in flames of fire, a God who is willing to show off in front of an audience. Elijah is living in a time when other gods are popular and prior to this morning’s passage, Elijah and God were in something of a divine showdown with the god Baal and his prophets. And there are fireworks. And, in the end, a lot of dead prophets, which is why Elijah is now running for his life.
But Elijah is no longer able to find God in the pyrotechnical displays of natural wonders. Rather, what Elijah gets on the mountain is one small moment of repose, one brief breath of a peace that runs entirely counter to what the world has laid before him.
We’ve all experienced it. Those fleeting, far too brief moments of calm in the midst of a storm, the peace that passes our understanding. Those are the moments that keep us from being pulled under. They are the way-stations on whatever hard road we happen to be traveling.
Unfortunately, for Elijah and for ourselves, and for Joseph as well, those holy moments don’t exempt us from the hard work that still lies before us.
When Elijah finally encounters God on the mountain, God asks him what he’s doing there. Elijah explains that the queen wants to kill him because he did what God asked of him. God unceremoniously tells Elijah to get back to work. God may have granted Elijah a moment of repose, a holy instance, but there is little sympathy expressed for Elijah.
We, too, know that the moments of relief are just that, moments. The world is still the world, and we will still have hard roads to walk. The man Joseph met may well have been an angel, but Joseph was not headed to heaven, at least not yet. For Joseph, God’s call led him to his brothers, and his brothers sold him into slavery, and while the resolution of the story might reveal that God was able to take a bad situation and transform it, that doesn’t change Joseph’s experience, which couldn’t have been pleasant.
In his commentary on Genesis, Walter Brueggemann argues that the first book of the Bible, and we might argue the whole of the Bible is centered around the question of faithfulness: will this God who has called the worlds into being be faithful? And what does a life of faithfulness on our end require of us?
In light of the alt-right rally in Charlottesville this weekend, I find myself asking the same question. Faced with preaching the morning after such a blatant and frightening display of hatred and evil, what is there to say? Of what use are words 750 miles away? Of what use are words against such stunning hatred no matter the distance?
When I take my questions to the text, two things stand out for me:
- God is always with the oppressed. When I told Caleb, our five-year-old, that I was preaching about Joseph and I was wondering where God was in the story since the Bible doesn’t say, he said that God was with Joseph in the pit. When I asked him how he knew that, he gave me a look and said because that’s always where God is. Indeed.
- The second thing I notice is that even when God’s presence is abundantly clear, like for Elijah, the work we are called to do is still hard and it is not without danger.
I don’t know what a life of faithfulness looks like for you in the wake of what happened in Ferguson four years ago, yesterday in Charlottesville and every day to one degree or another. I can’t tell you exactly what God is calling you to do in the face of the fear, hatred, and intolerance that is pouring out of our country’s highest offices and now feel free to parade unmasked in our public squares. But I can guarantee that God is calling you to do something. And after spending yesterday wrestling with that question for myself, I know that for me, the call begins with remembering and trusting in the power of words and the importance of bearing witness.
I can’t change what happened yesterday, I don’t even know what I can do to help turn the tide in the other direction, but I do know that what I saw and what I heard was the face of evil. Plain and simple. And it goes entirely against what I believe about God, about who Jesus was and who Jesus calls us to be, and what it is Jesus calls us to do.
If you have a way to respond to the hatred that is happening in the world and in our country right now, then I hope you engage it and use whatever resources you have to work against it. But, if like me, you are still a little shell-shocked and wondering what on earth we can do that will have any impact, I invite you to join me in trusting in the importance of bearing witness and the power of words. Rather than assuming that everyone believes what you do, say it anyway. Rather than believing that everyone sees the news the same way you do, share your view anyway. If ever there was a time for evangelism, for proclaiming God’s love for the world, for all people, now is that time.