11/5/17 Sermon - “A Way Out of No Way: Protecting”
One of the many phases I went through as a kid in thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up, besides an astronaut or a policeman, was the time when I wanted to be a gangster. This desire was initially inspired by the comedy action film, “The Doberman Gang,” about a couple who, after a failed bank robbery attempt, train a gang of Doberman Pinscher dogs to pull off the heist for them. The dogs, all named after famed gangsters, were trained to commit this crime without hurting anyone, which, I thought, was ideal.
In fact, so inspired was I by this idea at that point as a 12 year old, that when a stray cat that we had adopted as an outside pet had a litter of kittens,
I named them after gangsters as well: Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, Babyface Nelson, and so on. The effect, as you can imagine, was not nearly as menacing.
About this same time, author Gay Talese released his true story account of the Bonanno crime family in New York, titled “Honor Thy Father,” a 4” thick paperback that I devoured when it came out. The real clincher for me, though, was Mario Puzo’s novel, “The Godfather,” originally released in 1969, before I had reached my gangster phase, but that was released in paperback when the Francis Ford Coppola film adaptation came out in theaters in 1972.
“The Godfather” is one of my all-time favorite movies.
I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it. In fact, the original film is considered one of the greatest films of all time, having won the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor for Marlon Brando, and Best Screenplay in 1973. And the story was so good, the movie-making so strong, that the sequel, “The Godfather II” also won Best Picture in 1974 - the first and maybe only time a sequel has been named best picture.
“The Godfather” is the saga of a mafia crime family, the Corleones, in New York City in the 1940s and 50s. Brando plays the aging head of the family, the Don, and the story focus on how the other crime families want to begin moving into drugs and narcotics to make money, but that the Corleones resist, happy to make their money off gambling, extortion, and their protection racket. In a power struggle among families that turns into war, the patriarch, Don Vito Corleone, is gunned down and nearly killed, prompting the revenge killing of a mobster and a crooked police officer by Vito’s recently returned war hero, and favorite son, Michael.
Played by Al Pacino, Michael, until the attack on his father, had found his way clear of the “family business” by enlisting in the Army during World War II.
After some twists, turns, and an escape to another country, a series of events precipitates a changing of the guard in the Corleone family, elevating the reluctant youngest son Michael to head of the family, the new Godfather, over his older brothers, the hot-headed Sonny and the weaker sniveling Fredo.
At one point later in the film, Michael reluctantly sends Fredo to Las Vegas to head up their hotel and gambling operations there and to force a deal to purchase a hotel that the Corleones want to own so that they can move the entire “family business” from New York out west. Michael, in Vegas to close the deal, finds that Fredo had been living it up on the family dime and had become “buddy buddy” with the very competing mobster that he was supposed to be strong-arming. And he quietly seethes as Fredo defends both the other guy against the family as well as the “roughing up” he received at the hands of this competitor. And in a very powerful scene, Michael abruptly dismisses the other mobster with a demand to name their price, an inherent but unspoken “or else,” - the proverbial “offer that he can’t refuse.”
And then, turning on his brother, Michael delivers one of the classic lines of the film, “Don’t EVER take sides against the family in anything every again.”
In thinking about our biblical story, I couldn’t help but be reminded of many scenes in this film. And you’ll recall we left off last week with Abram and Sarai having been promised by God that they not only would have children in their old age, but that their offspring would be vast, and a blessing to other nations and to the entire world. And so to move from there to where our story picks up this week, we need to fast forward a bit.
Abram and Sarai, having received a name change by God to Abraham and Sarah, do in fact have a son, Isaac. Abraham also fathers another son, Ishmael, by his wife’s servant - more on that later. Isaac, in turn, has two sons, Esau and Jacob, whose storyline, in some ways, is also reflected in the Godfather films. Jacob, the younger son who stole his older brother’s birthright, through various machinations that you can read about in Genesis, ends up having twelve sons from four different mothers.
And scripture makes clear that Jacob favors one son, Joseph, over the others. Knowing that, and being either unwise or juvenile, Joseph plays it up among his brothers, ratting their misdeeds out to their father while gloating about dreams he has of them bowing down to and serving him. All this while wearing the fancy, colorful coat that their father had given to this “favorite son.”
As you can imagine, this didn’t sit well with the others, so the brothers begin to plot against Joseph, going so far as to consider killing him. Persuaded not to do that, they choose instead to take his colorful coat, rip it into shreds, cover it in blood, and tell their father, Jacob, that the golden boy had been killed by wild animal. Then the brothers sell Joseph into slavery to a group of passing Ishmaelites who were headed to Egypt. Did you catch that? The brothers, basically telling Joseph, “don’t ever take sides against the family,” sell Joseph to the descendants of Abraham’s other son, Ishmael. In effect, they’ve sold their brother to their cousins. And it is after Joseph is in turn sold to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s chief officer in Egypt, that our story picks up today.
The story of Joseph is one of the longest narratives in the Old Testament. And as such, we can’t tell his entire story today, I encourage you to read, or re-read, it for yourself. There are a couple of themes that emerge in that reading. The first of these is the idea of human unfaithfulness that emerges throughout at least the early parts of the story.
Bible scholar Rolf Jacobsen points out some examples, writing,
“Why is Joseph a slave in Egypt at the start of chapter 39? Because Joseph's brothers have been unfaithful -- they have betrayed him by mugging him, stripping him, selling him into slavery. And just to dress their betrayal up for dinner, so to speak, Joseph's brothers take Joseph's clothes and present them as false witness to their father, saying that Joseph is dead.”
And Jacobsen continues in this vein, “Why is Joseph in prison at the end of chapter 39 -- even though he has caused Potiphar and his house to thrive? Because Potiphar's wife has been unfaithful -- she betrayed her husband's trust by seeking to lie with Joseph, then betrayed Joseph when he denied her. Potiphar's wife takes Joseph's clothes and presents them as false witness to her husband, saying that Joseph tried to rape her.” And finally, “Why is Joseph still in prison at the end of chapter 40 -- even though the chief jailer entrusted all of the other prisoners to Joseph's care? Because the cupbearer, whom Joseph saw would be freed from prison, was unfaithful to Joseph: ‘the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.’”
So, as we read the saga of Joseph, we mustn’t be in too much of a hurry to get to the “good parts,” the “happy parts.” It was in the suffering that he endured as a result of the various acts of unfaithfulness on the part of so many, in his family and elsewhere, that “Joseph the spoiled brat” transforms into “Joseph, head of the family” by the end of chapter 50. So, when you read these stories, spend some time with Joseph as he contemplates the betrayal at the hands of his brothers. Consider the implications of being treated as a piece of property to be bought and sold against your will to whomever desires to own you. Consider what it must be like to face accusations about inappropriate activity, sexual or otherwise, in which because of your race, gender, or status, you are assumed to be guilty. These ideas are as real and newsworthy today as then, and if we don’t take the time to consider the real world ramifications of this kind of human unfaithfulness then we don’t really open ourselves to learn what these lessons can teach us about life and faith.
A second theological theme present in the Joseph saga, and the one that I want to focus on in the setting of All Saints Day, is that of God’s presence and activity in the midst of suffering. We understand that God is present with Joseph early in life through the dreams and the gift of interpretation that he has been given. And while Joseph is never described as a prophet, in these acts we see prophetic gifts displayed and are reminded of Jesus’ words centuries later that a prophet is never accepted in their home town, nor we might add, within their own family. Nevertheless, the theme of God’s presence with Joseph is made clear in several verses from our reading today:
"The Lord was with Joseph [in slavery], and he became a successful man" (Genesis 39:2a),
"His master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands." (Genesis 39:3)
"The Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love" (Genesis 39:21a)
"The chief jailer paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph's care, because the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper." (Genesis 39:23)
So we’re told explicitly of God’s presence with Joseph in his suffering, and we also understand that God is present with him through this gift of interpretation of dreams, about which he confesses in the next chapter,
“Do not interpretations belong to God?” (40:8).
With age comes wisdom.
Joseph, through the suffering he endures both from his own immaturity and the unfaithfulness of many people around him, has come to understand that God is with him on this journey, and he and we begin to recognize that that presence is leading towards a particular end or purpose. And as Jacobsen puts it,
“God's presence is not merely, well, a presence.
Rather, God's presence makes a difference. God meets Joseph in his suffering, but God does not leave Joseph there. God enters into Joseph's suffering in order to bring Joseph out of it, to another and better place…and in the process, God blesses others through Joseph. Not only does Joseph prosper and thrive -- but through God's presence with Joseph and the [resulting] blessings, others are blessed: First Potiphar and his household, later the chief jailer and all those in prison, and finally Pharaoh and all of Egypt. In the end, even Joseph's brothers receive blessing -- through Joseph.”
That is, we see the promise made to Abraham - that he and Sarah and their descendants were blessed to be a blessing to all the world - had been fulfilled.
And to connect this with how we started, it is almost as though Joseph, having turned the tables on his brothers, in a grace-filled but not vengeful way, tells them “don’t ever take sides against the family.”
In the broader scope of the book of Genesis, Joseph's story brings the "family" story of Abraham and Sarah to a culmination. In Genesis, the people who God elected in order to be blessed to be a blessing are a family. This family has grown from a childless old couple into a fairly large, extended family -- but they are still a family. When the Book of Exodus starts, the family has become a nation. . . but that story is for next week.
So what are we to take from the story of Joseph on this particular Sunday, All Saints Day? Well, we are reminded that even in the midst of suffering, of loss, of sorrow, God is present with us. In those times when we hurt, when we feel abandoned, God is there. God doesn’t bring the sorrow, but God doesn’t abandon us to it either. God doesn’t will pain, but God helps see us through it. God has surrounded us with family, with our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters in the faith, to lift us up in faithfulness. And as a family, as a church family, our responsibility is to be faithful to one another as God is faithful.
God never promises us that a faithful and faith-filled life will be one without suffering or without loss. God promises to protect us from ever having to bear it alone. In this past year, we have lost five sisters in faith. We remember and celebrate them today. And we celebrate God’s faithfulness to them and to the promise that God made to them, as we celebrate God’s presence with us in their loss.
Jacobsen reminds us that “God's presence with those who suffer and the way God works almost never seems fast enough for those who are suffering.
The psalm writers usually scream, "HOW LONG, O LORD!?" Some people in the tradition have said that, 'God's timing is always the best time,' but this never seems the case for those who suffer. Even after the fact, many who have suffered wonder why God could not have acted more quickly.But nevertheless, the biblical promise is that God meets us in our suffering. And God does not leave us there. God meets us in suffering and moves us to what one psalmist called more "pleasant places" (16:6). And in the process, God will bless others through us.”
Those we remember today were blessed, and knew it.
And in knowing them, living with them, loving them, we too are blessed. God’s presence knows no limits, God’s love has no boundaries of time, place, or space.
We know and take comfort that God was present with these, our sisters, as they transitioned from this life to the next. And we know that we can trust God’s promise, that as God blessed them and is present with them even now, God also is present with and blesses us - that we might be a blessing to all the world. May it be so. Amen.