Sunday, July 26, 2009

What Are You Waiting For?

Genesis 47: 27-31

Now the Israelites settled in Egypt in the region of Goshen. They acquired property there and were fruitful and increased greatly in number.
Jacob lived in Egypt seventeen years, and the years of his life were a hundred and forty-seven. When the time drew near for Israel to die, he called for his son Joseph and said to him, “If I have found favor in your eyes, put your hand under my thigh and promise that you will show me kindness and faithfulness. Do not bury me in Egypt, but when I rest with my fathers, carry me out of Egypt and bury me where they are buried.”
“I will do as you say,” he said.
“Swear to me,” he said. Then Joseph swore to him, and Israel worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

I heard this story once about a class taught by the great poet, Maya Angelou. Apparently all kinds of people signed up for this class, if for nothing else, trusting that sitting before this wise woman would be enlightening in and of itself.
Many grew disappointed however, because the entire first class involved nothing more than learning everyone’s name. These students wanted to be learning something important – something only this wise woman, this poet laurite, could teach them and learning names of classmates seemed like a great waste of time. They stayed on however, knowing that the second class would be better, but the second class was identical to the first – once again spending the entire class learning names. I think at this point a few students quit coming, but most stayed on knowing that by the third class Maya Angelou would get to the business of teaching. The third class however, began as the first two – the only difference was that at the end of this third class Maya Angelou finally addressed them saying, “I know that it seems strange to have spent so much time learning each others names, but what is required for this class is that you listen to and respect each other. The first step then has to be taking the time to learn each others names.”
Names are important. I had a professor myself who said that there is no sweeter sound to any individual than the sound of their own name – it seems the first step in knowing someone as we know we matter to someone when they have learned our name – whether we are loved or hated isn’t nearly as important as knowing that we matter.
But to the reader of this passage, knowing one of the key characters is difficult, because you don’t know exactly what to call him – as Jacob and Israel is the same person.
Jacob – like Paul, Peter, Abraham, and Sarah is given a new name, Israel. But unlike Paul, Peter, Abraham, and Sarah, Jacob continues to be known as Jacob.
Back and forth then between Jacob and Israel, as though scripture wrestles between two names never sure how to really call this guy.
Or, we can know this Jacob-Israel if we know him by the conflict between two names.
Even in the womb this man defined himself by conflict, fighting with his twin brother Esau, pulling him back by the ankle to be the first out of the womb.
Dissatisfied with second place, Jacob took it upon himself to swindle his older brother out of his birthright, and then tricked their father Isaac into giving him the blessing.
Wrestling with his brother for primacy, wrestling with his father for his blessing and approval, and on the bank of the Jabbok Jacob even wrestles God.
“I will not let you go unless you bless me”.
His adversary replied with a question, “What is your name?”
I’m confident that God already knows his name, only that God knows not only his name but his heart and so knew that this man would rather speak for himself - so “Jacob” he responded.
“Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”
But this wasn’t Jacob’s last struggle, he doesn’t stop fighting for many years, and we come to our passage for today – Joseph now a powerful man in Egypt, and Jacob puts his trust in Joseph, knowing that his favorite son will provide for his people, and that Joseph will return his father’s bones to rest with those of his ancestors.
In knowing that all his sons are settled in the land of Goshen in Egypt, far away from the famine that afflicted them in Canaan Jacob rests – his household and all his children acquired property and were fruitful and increased greatly in number.
And this is where Jacob’s wrestling with fate, wrestling and scheming to not only survive but to flourish is over, and “Israel worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.”
It’s no tragedy that Israel made it to the point where he could worship – as it’s a point we all strive for – to rest, finally, knowing that our children are taken care of, that our people will be provided for. To finally reach the finish line. To have sized life with both hands and made something of himself, something that would last, something that ensured the safety and wellbeing of the people he loved – yes Jacob’s wrestling is over, and he “worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.”
But the words that describe the people’s prosperity in Egypt, “They acquired property there and were fruitful and increased greatly in number” are haunting words, because these words are used by the Pharaoh generations down the road, “Look he said to his people, the Israelites have become too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave our country.
So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor.”
And when this oppression doesn’t work to stifle the growth of Jacob’s decedents, Pharaoh gave “this order to all his people: “Every boy that is born you must throw into the Nile.”
The death of a son is something that Jacob knew only too well. When he was lead to believe that his favorite son Joseph was killed by wild animals he refused to be comforted. “No,” he said, “in mourning will I go down to the grave to my son.”
If he knew that this same pain would be felt by so many of his descendents.
If he knew that just when he rested and worshiped, leaned on the top of his staff his family wasn’t safe and poised to prosper, but by leading them into Egypt he had set the stage for the horror of slavery and the slaughter of the innocents.
In wrestling, it was as though fate rested in his hands, and just as he thought all was well, that he had wrestled life into submission, we readers know that Jacob’s people will soon be at the mercy of powers bigger and stronger than they.
For so long he trusted in his own strength, his own wisdom, and he thought he had finally gotten where he needed to be.
But only God would get him out of Egypt again.
I don’t know of a hero of the Bible with a stronger will – more determined to make it by his own means, wrestling with this God whose will works beyond his own. But here he worships God, and it almost seems sad to see the fight end, seemingly too soon.
Maybe he is just too old to do anything else besides trust – to lean on his maker as he leans on his staff – unable to stand any longer on his own two feet.
Or maybe in this moment he reflects on the providence of God – the invisible hand at work taking the evil deed of his older sons – throwing Joseph into a cistern and then selling him into slavery – and through this deed making a way for his people to prosper on the banks of the Nile rather than starve in the famine of Canaan.
But more likely, and more consistent with his character, Jacob had waited until his work was over and his wrestling done, waited until he had ensured the prosperity of his people – but we know from the perspective of the Exodus, that this belief of ensured prosperity is built on false pretenses, and that further down the road their prosperity leads directly towards their oppression.
Like those who trusted their retirement to Bernie Madoff, the security Jacob rested in wouldn’t last.
Is it a tragedy then, that the patriarch Israel isn’t able to ensure the prosperity of his people? That he rests and worships before his work is done?
It would only be a tragedy if we waited to rest in the Lord until we thought everything were in it’s place, all our ducks in a row, because we know from this story of the end of Jacob’s wrestling that all our ducks will never be in a row.
We know, not that Jacob worships in vain, but that he didn’t need to wait to worship the God who not only got the people out of famine and into Egypt, but who will get them out from under Egypt’s slavery and into the promised land.
We are here to worship the one who controls what is beyond our control – who takes what we intended for harm, and intends it for good to accomplish what is now being done – we worship God, today because there has to come a time where wrestling ends and worship begins.
So what are you waiting for?
Are you waiting for conflict to end so that worship can begin?
Are you waiting for security, guaranteed stability before you can look out on the future with hope?
Are you waiting for peace on earth when peace in your heart is possible now?
There must be a time when wrestling gives way to worship, when worry gives way to hope, when faith in ourselves gives way to faith in God.
We don’t need to wait to worship God – because what we know from scripture is that our God will make a way, our God will provide, and our God will prevail.
Here we are, to worship the God whose will prevails when we can wrestle no longer.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Open to Not Having All the Answers

Genesis 39: 13-23, page 30
When she saw that he had left his cloak in her hand and had run out of the house, she called her household servants. “Look,” she said to them, “this Hebrew has been brought to us to make sport of us! He came in here to sleep with me, but I screamed. When he heard me scream for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”
She kept his cloak beside her until his master came home. Then she told him this story: “That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make sport of me. But as soon as I screamed for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”
When his master heard the story his wife told him, saying, “This is how your slave treated me,” he burned with anger. Joseph’s master took him and put him in prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined.
But while Joseph was there in the prison, the Lord was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.
Beautiful women can get you into trouble – Just the other day I was reading the paper, and my eyes found a picture of actress Katie Heigl.
Actress Heigl shares Keys to success the headline read.
I thought to myself, what would these keys to success need to be other than to have blond hair and the perfect body?
“You have to be open to not having all the answers,” says star of Grey’s Anatomy.
On that same front page there was also an article on Gov. Mark Sanford – describing once again how his indiscretions with another beautiful woman had de-railed his hopes for a Presidential run.
And then we have Joseph – his life also seemingly de-railed because of a beautiful woman, but unlike Mark Sanford, Joseph didn’t do anything wrong.
In our passage from Genesis, he is not a guilty man claiming innocence, but an innocent man made a victim because of a likely story from a manipulating woman.
So, while it is often the case, this morning’s scripture lesson is not a moral lesson on how men must be strong in the face of beautiful women, but something else.
While there are plenty of times when Joseph deserved the punishment he got – thrown in the cistern by his brothers we say that bragging kid had it coming – here, the victim of unfair circumstances, Joseph gets a taste, not of his own just desserts, but of bitter unfairness.
How chaotic the world seems from this perspective of unfairness.
How out of wack the world seems when it is so unjust that everyone stands against you making you pay for a crime that you didn’t commit.
How horrible it is to pay for another person’s wrong doing.
It is a shame to admit that there are men who have been freed from death row after serving sentences, years of solitary confinement, for crimes they didn’t commit. In these instances we so often see the cruel realities of racism, where black men are judged guilty, not according to evidence but according to skin color.
It’s a reality we don’t pay much attention to because it’s just too hard to face – but in this story about Joseph’s unfair conviction what can’t be denied is that it is a passage describing injustice and unfairness, causing the reader to wonder, how once the victim of such unfairness could Joseph not grow cold to the world, give up, waste away in his cell.
How many nights do you think he lay awake asking, “why God why. I thought you had a plan for me, and this cannot have been that plan.”
“You have to be open to not having all the answers,” Katie Higel says.[1]
And I believe that she is exactly right.
All God gave Joseph was a destination – a dream that showed him something amazing, his 11 brothers bowing down to him in the form of sheaves of grain – but God gave Joseph the destination, not a road map of how he would get there.
And here lies our temptation – as having a destination doesn’t stop me from planning out in my head my life story – how God will get me from point A to point B.
I see certain things unfold in certain ways: standing on the stage at graduation who doesn’t look out seeing a clear path towards success, wealth, and happiness.
Standing and looking out at friends and family on your wedding day, who doesn’t expect to walk down an aisle of rose petals and out into years of happiness, growing old together?
Standing in the Dr’s office with a pregnant belly who doesn’t imagine a perfect birth, a healthy baby, and years of laughter and joy, years of growing into a family together? Standing there tending the flocks with his brothers in the land of Canaan and dreaming dreams. Joseph must have imagined, if not a smooth path, at least a direct path to making his dream a reality.
While looking out from these high places the path seems easy – the path meets a dead-end from the perspective of a prison cell – and left alone in that prison cell I don’t think anyone would ever blame him if he started to give up on that dream.
Who could possible blame him if he looked out from his prison cell and no longer believed he would make it?
No one would blame him; no, no one would blame him because we have all been in his shoes.
Steadily on the path towards our career we are rejected from graduate school and suddenly, with the wind taken out of our sails, loose direction and start dreaming smaller dreams.
Settling down into a happy retirement, health fails, savings crumble and the secure future of growing old together seems so far away. The dream put in the works so many years ago seems like it will remain nothing more than a dream.
On track for the perfect family, a pregnancy ends in miscarriage or infertility strikes, and we’re suddenly unable to do the thing we never even questioned we’d be able to do. A pit replaces dreams of a full belly.
Having found the perfect partner, fulfilled by another person, out of no where we find out that everything is not what we though it was, that we were living a lie, that counseling, separation, or even divorce, are now real and possibly necessary options.
To save ourselves from the pain of it – little by little we give up on reaching the destination by saying things like, “I never really wanted it to work out any way.”
Or, “That dream wasn’t really a dream, more the effect of indigestion then divine intervention. God doesn’t really have great things in store, I’m just Joe, and I’ll learn to be satisfied with something less than happiness.”
So it is the unfairness of life that works to dissuade us of our dreams.
Looking out on the world from the jail cell, looking out on the future from disappointment, just laid-off, just broken-up, just rejected, looking at life from the perspective of miscarriage, death, unemployment, debt, disease, adultery, divorce, or depression. But Joseph, the victim of unfair circumstance, still had the power to choose between two options – the option to give up, to give up on God, to give up on faith, to give up on justice, to give up on hope – or to believe according to the words of the prophet: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
You see, Joseph, even at the mercy of powers bigger and stronger then he still had two options – to curse God and rot away in his prison cell, or to have faith in the God who promised a destination but left the road to that destination unclear.
We were never promised a road map, but we have our destination.
To get to this Promised Land we must keep the faith that we will get there, ready to serve where ever we find ourselves, always open to not having all the answers.
[1] The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Thursday, July 02, 2009