Rev. Melanie Harrell Delaney
August 24th, 2014
8Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
15The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16“When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”
2Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
5The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. 7Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”
“Did you know you should’ve been a Wingate instead of a Harrell?” My grandfather asked me with a twinkle of mischief in his eye. “A what?” I asked. “A Wingate. You should’ve been Melanie Wingate.” My heart started racing as my mind immediately ran to theories of adoption. Was I not really related to my family? What did my grandfather mean? I stared at Grandad with wide eyes. “Well,” he said, “I’ve been doing some research on our family history. Your great, great grandfather’s name used to be Wingate. But then he got into some trouble. Got caught up the KKK. Beat up an African American man. He went to prison for awhile. When he got out of prison, he realized what he had done. He was so remorseful that he changed his name to his mother’s maiden name. Eventually, he fell in love and got married. Had a baby boy (my father, your great grandfather) and gave him the new last name too. Harrell. That’s it. You should’ve been a Wingate, but because of a few bad choices and a few good ones, you’re now a Harrell!”
I was stunned. It had never occurred to me that I might have had a different name. That I might have had a different story. What if my grandfather hadn’t realized his mistakes? What if he hadn’t realized the sin of racism, the evil of what he had done? What if he hadn’t repented of his mistake, hadn’t changed his name, hadn’t met the woman who became my great, great grandmother? If I was a Wingate, I might have been taught differently, shaped differently, been a different person…if I even existed at all…
You could almost see the ripples of time, extending out like ripples after a leaf falling into a still pond. A decision made, a series of decisions to follow, with endless movement from then to now. Circles of disturbance or beauty, depending on your perspective, extending forever outward.
It’s sometimes hard to follow the ripples of our scripture when we read them only in bits and pieces on a Sunday morning – the way each event in Biblical history led to another. The story of baby Moses in the basket is a beloved tale that surely many of you have heard before. But do you know the connection to Joseph, who we were following the last two weeks? Do you know the ripples of Joseph’s relationship with his brothers, the animosity that got him sold into slavery in Egypt, his rise to power under the Pharaoh such that he could guarantee his family’s survival in the midst of famine, with the trade-off that they all become slaves in Egypt, the ripples of time that passed after that to get us to where we are today…
The story goes that because of Joseph’s success and power, the Israelite people, Joseph’s people, thrived. Sure, they were forced to do hard labor under the Egyptians, but they had enough food and shelter, enough of what they needed. Babies were born and their babies were born. Enough generations passed that no one yet lived who remembered the famine that brought the Israelite people to Egypt. No one had actually known Joseph, or his brothers. A new pharaoh reigned now, one who could care less about Joseph or the way he had helped the Egyptians, too. The new pharaoh didn’t know the history, only saw the present.
When he looked out on the land, the new Pharaoh saw a thriving population of Israelite people. Enough to get the work done, but also enough to revolt if the thought ever occurred to them. The new Pharaoh felt threatened. So he ordered the Israelites to work harder, to suffer more. And when that didn’t slow them down, Pharaoh became desperate. He sent for the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. Scripture says in verse 16 that he told them, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.”
When the Pharaoh realized that the boys were still being allowed to live, he sent his decree out all over Egypt, that no boys would be allowed to live. Without boys to grow into men, he knew, an entire generation would be lost. The Israelite community would be stunned.
This is the world into which a little baby boy named Moses was born. A world of inequality and slavery, of immediate danger for any little boy, of grief and sadness for mothers and fathers, of lost hope for an entire group of people.
But you’ll remember that we’ve been seeing in our scripture an important message: that even in the midst of hopelessness, of darkness and pits of despair, there are glimpses of light. Even in the most desperate of situations, there is always a pin-prick of hope. That is what Moses’ mother saw the day she gave birth to her beautiful son. She saw his face and knew there was hope. Scripture tells us that she hid her son for three months, risking her life to give him his, before she knew she couldn’t hide him any longer. So she placed him in a basket, cradled by reeds and rocked by the rhythm of the river, and although she was too sad to watch her baby float away down the river, she asked her daughter, Moses’ sister Miriam, to stand guard by the river and watch. To pray. To hope.
The rest of the story is history: Moses survived, pulled out of the river by Pharaoh’s own daughter.
Thanks to Miriam’s presence at the right time, Moses’ own mother was able to nurse and care for Moses through his childhood, until Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him as her own. Like Joseph, Moses grew into power there in the palace. Positioned to protect the God’s people and, ultimately, save them from oppression.
Ripples. From Joseph to his brothers, their descendents to the Hebrew people in our scripture. From one Pharaoh to the next, an evil decision here and a series of courageous decisions to follow. The ripples of each decision echoing out through time, setting up God’s story of liberation and hope.
But what if the midwives hadn’t been so courageous? What if they had been too fearful to risk their own lives for the sake of slave women’s babies? Thank God for their courage. Thank God for their willingness to stand against the tide of the powerful in order to do what they knew was right. Thank God for Shiphrah and Puah.
And what if Moses’ mother hadn’t the strength to hide him for three months? What if she had given up, given in? Thank God for her boldness, her smart thinking. Thank God for her courage, also, for everything that it would have taken her to build the basket, the tears that must have fell as she placed him so lovingly inside, the soft kisses of goodbye, and the trust in God that she mustered as she watched the basket float in the river…ripples moving outward in constant motion…
Historians know the power of a single moment in time; how a single decision made, whether conscious or unconscious, can change the world. Teachers know the same thing. I have a friend who taught for many years in Baltimore Maryland for Teach for America. Teach for America is a program that equips and sends young, passionate, teachers into inner-city schools to ensure that all children, even those living in poverty, receive an excellent education. It’s an effort to break the cycle of poverty through education, to invest and believe in children of all socio-economic backgrounds.
My college room-mate joined Teach for America right after graduation. She moved across the country to a city in which she knew no one, to teach in one of the most difficult environments. Her 2nd grade students were wild, angry, disobedient, and disrespectful. But, as she learned, they were also hungry most of the time, scared of their neighborhood gangs at home, and left to their own devices while mom and dad worked 3-4 jobs to pay the bills. The kids were rebellious because they were used to being on their own. They were wild because they were hungry and tired.
The first year that my friend taught in Baltimore, she cried a lot. She was exhausted and frustrated and I could tell that she rarely smiled. She told stories of situations in her classroom that I couldn’t have made up if I tried. My heart broke for my friend, and for the kids who she wanted to help so badly, but just couldn’t figure out how. She did her best to love, respect, and teach every child.
Since then, my friend has moved to another school, but her former students still reach out to her. They have gone on to middle school, learned to play the trumpet, joined the basketball team. They have gotten A’s and C’s and some have been more successful than others. But they have also written her little notes to say thank you, to invite her encouragement, to keep up a relationship that has mattered to them over the years.
Ripples. A choice to respect others in the face of disrespect. A choice to stand tall in the face of discouragement. A choice to love despite the circumstances. Who can say that my friend Emily hasn’t changed the world?
And as a matter of fact, who can say YOU haven’t changed the world?
Each day, every single one of us makes choices. Sometimes it’s the big decisions: will we stand up to the bully at school, argue with our boss on behalf of the custodial staff? Will we sacrifice some of our own paycheck, whether through increased taxes or by charitable giving or both, to make sure resources are more fairly distributed in the world? Or maybe it’s a smaller decision: could we give up our favorite cup of coffee in favor of a fairly-traded one? Or would you be willing to give an extra share of groceries to the Emergency Assistance Center, or buy the homeless man on the corner a hot hamburger, or you know, maybe just brighten the day of an exhausted family at the table across the restaurant by offering to pick up their meal tab? Or buy the person’s coffee behind you in the drive-through?
There are decisions that we know connect us with other people—whether we tip the barista who makes our afternoon latte or smile or scowl at the cashier at the hardware store as he tells us how many hundreds of dollars lighter our bank account will soon be. As a parent, I know that each time I yell at my children – whether they absolutely, completely deserve it, or not – I am affecting them for better, or worse, or both.
We all make ripples in the river of time every day. From the way we respond to one another, to where we give and spend our money, to what we’re willing to take a stand on and stand up to.
I am grateful for the midwives who stood up to Pharaoh in our story, and amazed by Moses’ mother for her courage and faith to follow her heart. I am humbled by the wisdom of Moses’ sister, Miriam, to risk her safety by speaking up to the Pharaoh’s daughter. As I watch the news, I am also grateful for the nurses and doctors who continue to treat and care for Ebola victims, even risking their own lives. I am humbled by pastors in Ferguson, Missouri who are standing between protestors and police, offering prayers and vocal encouragement for peace. I am rooting for all of the young people who are returning to school and who will have the courage to stand up to bullying, to be kind to and befriend the one they see standing on the edge of the playground.
And I am rooting for each of you, as you put your own faith into action this week. I am rooting for the choices you make that will ripple out beyond you, that will, with God’s help, make this world a better place.
“For what does the Lord require of you? But to seek justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God…” (Micah 6:8)
Make ripples this week: of justice, kindness, humility, and love.
45Then 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. 2And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. 3Joseph 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.
4 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.5And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6For 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. 7God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8So 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. 9Hurry 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. 10You 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. 11I 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.” 12And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you.13You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.’ 14 Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. 15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
Last week was the pits. I could be talking about our journey with Joseph – hearing about his near brush with death at the hands of his very own brothers, how they threw him into a pit instead of following through on their idea to kill him, only pulling him out to sell him to the first group of traders passing through. Joseph was a dreamer, but his dreams were but a fantasy at the point of our scripture passage last week. And so we thought together about the ways that our lives end up in the pits every so often as well, how even the most devout and faithful among us can feel trapped, overwhelmed, or lost.
But there were other things about last week that I could refer to as well. Let’s start with the death of one of America’s most beloved actors: Robin Williams. He was a man who brought light and joy to oh-so-many and his death seems to have had a deeper impact than most. Robin Williams often played the role of a man who transformed lives through joy and laughter. So it’s shocking for us to discover that even though he brought joy light to so many, he experienced his own share of darkness through deep depression. Some of us know that experience all too well. For some this hits too close to home. The pits.
And then there’s the news coming out of Ferguson Missouri, yet another death of an unarmed black teenager and the anger and unrest of the community there, Questions about racism and injustice…or we could mention the escalating violence in Gaza and the spread of Ebola in Africa and…
It’s enough to cause us to stop and ask, why? Why do things happen the way they do? Why do bad things happen to good people, why does depression hit so relentlessly? why does racism still exist and why is there so much violence in our world? why?
Joseph must have been asking that question as he walked away from his brothers the day they sold him, beaten and shamed, into slavery. Now, it’s true that Joseph wasn’t exactly a most beloved hero at this point: a tattle-tale and a braggart, the spoiled youngest son in a large family. But as we follow Joseph’s story, we learn more about him in Genesis 39: that he is handsome and successful, rising to the position of overseer over his fellow slaves. Joseph’s piety shines through when he refuses Potiphar’s wife’s advances and is subsequently imprisoned on false charges of sexual assault.
In chapters 40 and 41 we learn that Joseph is skilled in dream interpretation, and when given an opportunity to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, he wisely advises the Pharaoh to store up 20% of the harvest for the next seven years to prepare for 7 years of famine. Joseph quickly becomes Pharaoh’s second-in-command: “Thus Joseph gained authority over the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 41:45)
Imagine Joseph’s surprise when, in chapter 42, Joseph’s brothers show up on his doorstep in Egypt. Facing starvation in Canaan, his brothers arrive in Egypt to buy some of the grain stored up there. As the second most powerful man in Egypt, in control of the largest known food supply during that time of famine, Joseph recognizes his brothers instantly, but they do not recognize him. Instead of the moment of forgiveness we might expect at first sight, Joseph is still angry. He manipulates his brothers at first: pretending not to know them, accusing them of spying, throwing them into jail for 3 days and holding their brother Simeon hostage in Egypt as the other brothers return to their father in Canaan.
It would be difficult to overstate Joseph’s position of power in this story; anyone who wants to eat must come to Joseph. He hoards the grain, and he decides who may purchase it and at what price, at a time when all the world is riddled with famine. Once powerless at the bottom of a pit, outnumbered by brothers who hated him, Joseph now gets to decide who will live and who will die.
There’s a part of us that understands his desire for revenge, isn’t there? The tables have turned, his dreams have become reality, and Joseph finally has the upper hand. He could easily send his brothers away without food, to toil the land and still starve. He could easily have all of them thrown into jail with just the flick of a hand, to spend their days in a pit of their own. And for a few chapters, Joseph does mess with them. So he’s not the spotless hero of the story that we might assume.
But in chapter 45 something shifts in Joseph. Perhaps he has yet another dream, or maybe the realization just hits him suddenly. Whatever the cause, Joseph decides to reveal his identity to his brothers this time, in a tearful reunion woven with forgiveness and care.
“Come closer to me.’” he says in verse 4, “And they came closer. He said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.5And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6For 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. 7God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8So it was not you who sent me here, but God;”
“So that’s what all of that was about,” Joseph must be thinking. God had sent him to Egypt so that, years later, he would be able to help fulfill God’s plans for the chosen people whose survival would be threatened by famine. Somehow Joseph realizes that the hardship and struggle, the pain and grief of losing his family, have led him to a place where he is able to bless others. He tells his brothers not to worry or feel guilty, for he can see God’s hand at work in his life. Pastor Walter Brueggemann calls this Joseph’s transformation, a hard-won understanding that God has been at work well beyond him. Brueggemann imagines that Joseph says,
“I became aware that my life was more than the sum of my little fears, my little hates, and my little loves. My life is larger than I imagined.” In a big, really big moment, Joseph cries out and weeps loudly. He embraces his brothers in a moment of forgiveness that would have stopped time.
And that is where Joseph turns from spoiled tattle-tale manipulator into a maturing young man.
We call them God-sightings here at Good Shepherd: places and times where you can see and feel God at work in your life, no matter what else may be happening around you. We teach our kids (and by doing so, we teach ourselves) that God is always with us, always loving us, always offering grace, working for good and healing and hope. We teach and we remember that even though there are pits and pit-stops, there is always hope. Even when there is a lot of darkness, there is always at least a pin-prick of light.
There is a scripture passage that is often remembered in times of struggle: “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.” (Jeremiah 29:11) It’s a passage I love that brings us great hope when we are uncertain – the knowledge that God is always with us, working for good in our lives. It reminds me of Joseph’s realization that all of his pain and struggle was leading him to a place of prosperity. That God had a plan all along, and all of the bad was necessary to lead him to the good.
It’s like some say, “everything happens for a reason…”
But, really? REALLY? Is that the truth, or is it just something we tell ourselves to make sense of nonsense?
Is there really a reason that Michael Brown in Missiouri and Trayvon Martin in Florida and so many others were killed out of racism and fear? Is there a reason mental illness plagues some so severely that they cannot bear to live another day? Really, the hatred of Joseph’s brothers was a necessary part of God’s plan? God couldn’t have found another way, a more peaceful way, a more loving way to get all of us where we need to be?
If you can’t tell, I don’t buy it. I don’t buy the platitude that “everything happens for a reason,” but I do believe that despite all of the *explitives* that happen in our lives, despite the sin of racism and inequality and unfair judgment on those who are ill physically and mentally, despite it all, God is ultimately weaving a story of hope, shining a light into the darkest places of our lives.
That is the God I know -- not the puppeteer pulling strings up in the sky, but absolutely the one holding our hand as we cry, wrapping us closely when we feel lost, when we can barely make sense of what is happening around us.
It is important that we remember, even as we read Joseph’s declaration of God’s guidance, that God is not the one causing us pain. Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way: "No one explained it to him, but he could see God's fingerprints all over the place." God isn't a puppeteer, making things happen. God, Taylor says, is more like an artist, "like one of those genius sculptors who can make art out of anything." For this kind of artist, "Nothing is too bent to be used – not even tragedies, not even bad decisions, not even plain human meanness." Joseph, she says, is "a living work of art.”
As I thought and prayed about this week’s sermon, my thoughts and prayers were often side-by-side with those for all that is happening in the world around us.
(Paint a dark purple arch) I thought about Joseph’s time in the darkness of the pit, and then thought about the darkness that Robin Williams, and all who know the suffocating shadow of despair, experience. I thought about how isolated Joseph must have felt, and then how isolated those in the grip of depression feel – even when they’re surrounded by people who love them deeply. I thought about how important it is that there are people willing to reach down into the pit and help: counselors and pastors, friends and family. And I thought about how important it is that we stop the stigma of depression and start encouraging one another to take care of our mental health in whatever way is right for us.
(Paint a blue arch) And as I thought and prayed about Joseph’s relationship with his brothers, I couldn’t help but think and pray deeply about the violence and strained relationships in Ferguson, Missouri, where an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by police. News reports of police in riot gear and armored vehicles, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into peaceful protests filled the airwaves. Questions abound – did racism fuel the injustice in a changing community where a majority of citizens are black, but the police force is primarily white? Clearly relationships are strained there, as in so many of our communities across the nation. Brother against brother, sister against sister. Instead of protecting and trusting one another, we are oh-so-quick to judge and fear that which is different. What can we do to mend such brokenness?
(Paint a green arch) And then as I thought and prayed about the abundance of resources that Joseph controlled – the largest supply of food in the region at a time of famine – I thought about how those in privilege often control the largest share of resources in the world. My prayers shifted also to the Ebola crisis in Africa and how news reports that the greatest contributor to the spread of the virus is inadequate healthcare resources. They don’t have enough trained doctors, not enough hospitals, and most disturbing of all, they don’t have enough GLOVES! The virus is spreading rapidly because the doctors and nurses caring for the sick do not have such a simple item as latex gloves to act as the crucial barrier between themselves and the virus. Can you imagine – we have an abundance of gloves here in the united states – how is that even an issue?
The darkness and isolation of pits and depression. The grief and fear of broken relationships then and now. A global inequality of resources – food, water, medical equipment—that could save lives if only more fairly distributed. What, in God’s name, do we do with all of it?
(Paint a yellow arch) We pray. We pray, and we listen, and we learn, and we pray again. And then we put our creative, compassionate, faithful hearts and hands to work in mending that which is broken, healing that which is hurting. If you know someone who is depressed, or you are in the grip of depression yourself, seek help. Find a friend, or a pastor, or a doctor you trust and be the courageous person you are – ask for help. And as you hear stories of inequality and racism, broken relationships and violence, listen well to the stories told by those who are different from you. Learn from them. Try to understand. Do your best to build new relationships of trust, starting with those around you today and extending outward. Give what you can, share what you can, love as best you can.
The common denominator in all of this, the story of Joseph and his brothers and all the news reports that concern us so greatly, the thread of truth that weaves in and through and ties it all together: it’s that relationships matter. (Paint an orange Arch) We are not isolated individuals floating around in the world. What you experience affects me, and what is happening around the world needs to matter to us.
Because it matters to God. And God is already there, working with the brokenness, all that is bent and worn, to sculpt it into something beautiful. To redeem and to renew. The good news in our scripture this morning is that if Joseph is a living work of art, sculpted and blessed by God despite his faults and failures, there’s hope for the rest of us too.
(Paint a Red arch) Hope that we, too, might be able to look at the mess of our own lives and still see glimpses of God’s grace.
Hope that even in the midst of our pain and broken relationships, we might also be able to offer the kind of forgiveness that reconciles and renews. Assurance that even the most complicated and confounded of us can be led by God into the future that God most desires.
I’d like to close with another quote by Pastor Brueggeman: "When we live according to our fears and our hates, our lives become small and defensive, lacking the deep, joyous generosity of God." However, "[l]ife with God," Brueggemann writes, "is much, much larger, shattering our little categories of control, permitting us to say that God's purposes led us well beyond ourselves to give and to forgive, to create life we would not have imagined"
In the midst of the darkness, there is always light. In the midst of pain, there is always hope. And rainbows are God’s artistic promise that all can, and will, be redeemed in the end.
Pastor Melanie is a preacher, mother, singer, and too-much-coffee-drinker. She is passionate about creative worship and finding God in the midst of our every-day.