Weekly Preaching: August 9, 2020

August 5th, 2020

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 appeals to me, as the idea of preaching through the narrative of Joseph (Gen. 37-50) is something I want to do someday. The lectionary, though, skips immediately to chapter 45 next week and then plunges ahead into Exodus. Maybe a sermon can capture the flow of the larger story — without the sermon being a mere retelling of that story.

And what a story! The drama, emotion, irony and vivid settings make this the Bible’s single greatest tale. The climax in chapter 45 (or is it in 50 after Jacob dies?) is stunning, undermining all our theological oversimplification. Joseph doesn’t let the brothers off, or give them another chance. He sees how God, without causing evil, uses it for good — and the preacher dare not over-trivialize that thought either. Perilous but precious stuff.

Just on chapter 37: Joseph, if we’re reading the Hebrew correctly, doesn’t get a “Technicolor dreamcoat” (a la Andrew Lloyd Webber!) but rather a coat with long sleeves. Short sleeves were essential for day laborers in the fields, where it would be hot and brambles would get caught in longer sleeves. So Jacob is saying Joseph gets to live in the comfort and authority of the house, while the older brothers bear the sweat of hard work out of doors. As happens in the case of Cain and Abel, brother rages against brother, when brother’s real problem is with the Father (or God).

Fascinating that, within a single family, we have class division. I wonder if, in my sermon, I might help people think about dashed dreams (especially during this coronavirus season?) - but not just for us but for the marginalized? I may have a soprano sing "I Dreamed a Dream" (from Les Miserables) and try to ruminate on crushed dreams among us and others. I also noted, at John Lewis's funeral, that James Lawson quoted Langston Hughes's great dream poem: 

"I dream a world where man / No other man will scorn, where love will bless the earth / and peace its paths adorn / I dream a world where all / will know sweet freedom's way, where greed no longer saps the soul / nor avarice blights our day. A world I dream where black or white, whatever race you be, will share the bounties of the earth / and every man is free, where wretchedness will hang its head / and joy, like a pearl, attends the needs of all mankind / Of such I dream, my world!" It's not a stretch! Joseph's dream, at the end of the day, was about securing enough for everybody, food for the entire world.

Jonathan Sacks notices how Reuben fairly quickly tries to intervene, but fails — calling him “the Hamlet of Genesis,” someone with good intentions he never completes, or they backfire; at the critical moment, he never comes through.

We have little hints in this opening scene of the story of how God superintends things. God is, as Sacks puts it, “already monitoring the sequence of events, arranging the necessary strategic interventions to ensure that the outcome will be as planned.” All this is concealed, not obvious at all — and so I wonder how the preacher opens up to listeners the idea that we are sort of “co-authors of our lives,” free to act, yet with God’s involvement, a far cry from the silly “God is in control” mantra people love.

I love it that the Bible seems utterly lacking in sweet, happy families. So much dysfunction — helpful to me, as a guy from an utterly dysfunctional family. Tolstoy’s opening to Anna Karenina is poignant: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek. Every family has its unhappiness. A pastoral challenge is to help people not to glibly say such saccharine things about family. During the COVID-19 crisis, how many people said “Oh, how cool to get more time with family!” – within earshot of the woman whose belittling husband now stays home instead of giving her the respite of leaving for work, or the divorcee who felt her loneliness more agonizingly? Don’t do this in preaching, ever! — and help people to learn how to talk with one another about family. Bible families oddly enough show us the way.

Romans 10:5-15. Like Genesis 37… unless you’re preaching your way through Romans 9-11, which would be daunting (is it more of a class?), perhaps best to avoid this text. Verse 9 gets isolated: “If you just confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved,” as if that’s a formula for a revival. Paul is leaning in to his Jewish relatives and friends who just don’t buy into Jesus. Complicates things – and then do we really want to name that anyone is saved who utters “Jesus is Lord,” and intellectually accepts that Jesus was raised – and that’s it?

What about the woman I counseled with who swore to me she’d never believe in Jesus because her daddy, who most certainly did as a Bible teacher and deacon in his church, sexually abused her through her teenage years? He’s saved and she isn’t? Or those who have only heard about Jesus from boring, vapid, judgmental people? They’re not saved but the dullards are? I don’t think it’s a problem to ask such questions in the pulpit. No need to answer them. Just let them linger.

And then take off your shoes: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” My surgically repaired foot is ugly as sin. Of course, Paul is seeing the beauty in the proclaimer, who’s been sent, actually going, walking, getting to the people to share.

Matthew 14:22-33 is, for me, one tough text. The setting is alluring. If you’ve been to Israel, you totally get “the other side.” When you’re by Galilee, you look across and – there it is, the other side. Jesus went up on a mountain by himself to pray: exemplary for us, a flawless sample of the way being solo need not be loneliness, but solitude. The sensational archaeological discovery of “the Jesus boat,” a real fishing boat dating to the time of Jesus, a boat he most assuredly saw and maybe stepped into, helps me feel my way into the reality of first century life on Galilee.

But then Jesus had to go and walk on the water. And Peter did too, acting very Bruce Almighty-like — briefly though. Peter, whose name means “rock,” sank like a stone. As we would expect. And Jesus fusses at him! Seems like he should give him credit for taking even a few steps on water.

There’s a Buddhist story of a disciple who walked on water, or sank depending on whether he focused on the Buddha. Easy story to spiritualize. We can even sing “Precious Lord, take my hand.” But I’m probably not the only guy in the room who will just shrug and say Gosh, not sure this really happened. The Gospel writers had to know skeptics as well. Maybe one or two were themselves skeptics. But they let the story stand — maybe to throw cold water on skeptics like me and invite me to suspend me for a few minutes and tread onto such a story that, if it happened or not, most clearly is about faith, and really about how utterly amazing and God-like Jesus really was and is.

This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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