Saturday, 26 September 2020

Joseph and his amazing technicoloured nightmare

A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation, 

the online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 

September 27 2020

Genesis 37.3-8, 17b-22, 26-34; 50:15-21

It is very hard, for some of us, to hear the Joseph story from the book of Genesis

            without feeling the overwhelming urge to break into song.


Many years ago, when Liz and I were studying Biblical Studies at Sheffield,

            one of the exam questions we were set related to the Joseph story,

and you could sense people all around the room

            running through the names of the brothers,

                        in descending order of age,

            by singing Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice quietly to themselves.


And brilliant though Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat may be,

            it is only one way of reading this story.


Whilst this story certainly lends itself to the genre

            of a child-friendly musical with a happy ending and a grand finale,

there are other themes here which are rather more troubling…


You see, the Joseph story is not, actually, a positive one.


In addition to the themes of sibling rivalry, deception, and violence,

            it is a story that functions, within the narrative sweep of the book of Genesis,

            to explain the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt.


The end of this story is not the happy reunion of Joseph and his family,

            it’s the slavery of the Jews at the hands of the Pharaoh.


The irony of the Joseph saga

            is that the very family sold their brother into slavery,

                        become those who have to sell themselves into slavery

                        to get grain to escape the famine.


This is a kind of story known as an ‘origin story’,

            and all cultures have them.

They are the kind of founding-myth stories

            that set the scene for the world that follows them.


In the case of the Joseph stories,

            they function to explain the socio-economic reality

            of Egypt as a land where all its riches are in the hands of a ruling elite,

            whilst the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob

                        are locked into multi-generational servitude.

In other words,

            it sets the scene for the story of Moses and the Exodus.


It’s often overlooked,

            but here we have the first example in the story of Israel

                        of what will become their experience down the millennia,

            of being prey to forces which will seek to scapegoat and enslave them

                        due to their ‘otherness’,

            to turn their religious and ethnic identity into a marker of oppression.


From Egypt, to Babylon, to Rome, to Venice, to Auschwitz, to our world,

            this is a story that echoes down through history

            in disturbingly contemporary ways.


And it all starts with Joseph.


The focus for today’s sermon is not specifically on antisemitism,

            but it is worth holding that long and violent history of oppression in our minds

            as we explore this story and its implications for us.


The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann

            raises a startling, but obvious question.


He asks, why is it that God is frequently described as

                        “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”

            but never as

                        “the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph”?


Joseph’s absence from Israel’s theological and origin-explaining mantra

            is on the surface mystifying.[1]


After all, Joseph at the beginning of his story

            is all-set to be the next great patriarch of Judaism.

He’s dreaming dreams of God’s promise,

            and by one reading of things, the unfolding of that dream into reality

            gives the shape of his entire story.


However, Joseph’s dream is also rather different

            to that of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

It’s not a dream of a covenant of blessing for the people of Israel,

            and through them the whole world.

Rather, it’s one of God’s blessing to him, personally.


According to Joseph’s dream, he would be first, in spite of birth order.

            And everyone would bow down before him.


And sure enough, in the story of his life, despite its traumatic moments,

            he ends up being rescued from death and prison,

                        to rise to the greatest heights in Egyptian affairs.

            And his brothers and father do indeed bow before him.


So, with such a story of success,

            why doesn’t Joseph have his place

            with the other three ancestors whose stories comprise Genesis?

Why is his name not remembered in the same way?


Brueggemann ventures an answer.


He suggests that Joseph’s name was dropped,

            because he conducted the imperial work of Pharaoh.

Instead of resisting, he collaborated with the figure

            who later threatens Israel’s very existence.


And here we find ourselves in the world of competing dreams.

            Abraham dreamed of faithfulness to God,

                        and of God’s blessing for his descendants and the world.

            Joseph dreamed of personal greatness.

            And Pharaoh dreamed of disaster for his empire.


And as we all know from Andrew Lloyd-Webber,

            The King, I mean Pharaoh, was deeply disturbed by a dream of his own,

                        a nightmare of a coming threat;

            and Joseph became not only the interpreter of Pharaoh’s dream,

                        but also the consultant, manager, and chaplain of that nightmare.


From his position of royal power,

            Joseph seized all the money, all the livestock,

                        and even all the bodies of Pharaoh’s subjects,

            all for the sake of establishing what became an imperial food monopoly.


The famine may have been managed,

            but the end result of the crisis was that the rich got richer,

                        the poor were impoverished and enslaved,

            and Joseph made it all happen.


So, Brueggemann suggests,

            Joseph traded in the old covenantal dreams of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob;

and in the interest of fulfilling his own visions of grandeur

            gave himself over to what Brueggemann calls

            “the deep, defining nightmare of the empire.”


And that nightmare remains with us to this day,

            co-opting us to its will,

            by fuelling our fantasies of grandeur and success.


But back to the story:

            Putting it bluntly, Joseph’s actions in Egypt

            paved the way for Israel’s slavery in Egypt.


Joseph isn’t a God-honouring hero,

            he’s a self-honouring survivalist.


And so as the Joseph story is retold and reshaped down the generations,

            Joseph’s name remains significantly absent

            from Israel’s formula of heroic and defining patriarchs.


So, how might we read and hear this passage?


Well, maybe a starting point is to recognise

            that Christians and Jews alike are heirs to a vision of God

                        who is in the process of healing and reconciling all creation,

            and that God’s covenant promise made to Abraham

                        is the calling out of a people of faith in each generation,

            through whom all the nations of the world will be blessed.


Therefore the people of God are always to be a people

            open to both receive God’s blessing,

            and to being used for God’s good purposes in the world.


And this calling will, or at least should, always contrast

            with Pharaoh’s “deep defining nightmare”,

                        of an empire that obsessively grapples

                        with the threats to its security and scarcity.


So, what kind of people are we going to be?

            What dream, what vision, is going to drive us?


Are we going to be God’s people of faith,

            or Pharaoh’s agents of empire?

Will we be the heirs of Abraham, or of Joseph?


Are we going to be a people of covenant,


            focussed on bringing the blessing of God to all the nations of the earth;

or are we going to be an imperial people,

            inward-looking, focussed on defending ourselves, at all costs,

            from those things that threaten our unity or security.


The tension between these two defines the story of Israel as we find it in scripture,

            just as it defines the history of our own Christian faith tradition.


From Joseph’s story, we learn the hard truth

            that it is perfectly possible for people of faith and vision,

                        to become so focused on the threats to their “empires”,

            that the covenant promise of good news to all people

                        is ignored, distorted, diluted, seduced, and co-opted.


This can happen ever so subtly,

            because the language of both

                        the dream of covenant and the nightmare of empire

                        use a common religious vocabulary.

It’s very easy to dress up a defence of empire

            as God’s will for God’s people.

Just look at those Christians who defend Donald Trump

            as God’s anointed leader.


But it’s too easy to throw stones across the Atlantic.

            What about us, here in the UK?


Well, we don’t exactly have a unambiguous track record,

            of the British Christianity focussing on the transformation of society,

            and the blessing of all people without distinction.


Too easily churches become centred in on themselves,

            defending their theological position against all threats,

whilst condemning the vulnerable to exclusion

            or enslavement to destructive ideologies.


The continuing theological justification of sexism, homophobia, and racism

            are evils that have yet to be banished from our communities of faith.


Christians can be very good at distorting the vision

            of a God who is good news for all people

into something that is far more insular

            and self-serving of our own ends and purposes;

and we do it by re-writing our history.


Just as Israel re-cast Joseph in the re-telling of his story,

            so we too can re-cast the complexities of our own histories.


Just this week I chaired a session (available on YouTube if you’re interested)

            on how our Baptist story of dissent

can be a resource and inspiration

            for our engagement with those

            who are marginalised, disempowered, and enslaved.


But we also reflected that sometimes Baptists have a tendency to re-write their history,

            to one where we are the only people who have got their theology right,

                        and where our separation from others who think differently

                        is a God-ordained means of protecting our own righteousness.


Just as Joseph gets excluded from Israel’s defining mantra,

            and survives as a feel-good family drama perfect for musical theatre,

so we all face a temptation to recast the darker moments of our stories,

            excluding or hiding the uncomfortable reality

            of our complicity in the forces of empire.


We might laud the fact that we used to be a ‘Christian country’,

            or feel pride that Britannia used to rule the waves;

            and we might feel suitably patriotic watching the Last Night of the Proms!

But this makes it all too easy for us to forget the flip side to our story

            which is that British history includes us being colonial monsters,

            and that this has effects that affect the world to this day.


And then, when someone points out the ongoing evils of systemic racism,

            we have the mechanism to absolve ourselves of our cultural guilt,

pointing to the evils of others, those who lived in a different time and by different rules,

            all the while resisting our own ongoing complicity in and benefit from such systems.


We need, as individuals, churches, and nations,

            to learn to tell our stories more honestly.

We need to resist the temptation to disconnect Joseph from Moses,

            to hide the fact that our stories are complex and compromised.

No one church has got it all right,

            no one nation has a glorious and golden history,

                        none of us is immune from complicity

                        in actions that are destructive of others.


So what about Bloomsbury?

            We like to see ourselves as inclusive and liberal,

            and we are - to our immense credit.

I genuinely believe we are one of those congregations

            that keeps the dream of a loving God alive.


But if we are honest, we can still detect within ourselves

            those tendencies to stand in judgment

            on others who see their faith differently.


How do we feel about those who espouse exclusive theologies?

            How do we feel about those who deny the ministry of women,

            or the validity of LGBTQ inclusion?


The temptation is for us to feel superior,

            to make ourselves righteous, to the exclusion of others.


And of course, we have no moral high ground on which to stand.

            We are all just sinners saved by grace - each one of us.

We are not Abraham to their Joseph,

            we too can be Joseph if we want to,

            defending our own empire against the forces that threaten it.


So, we need to be willing to examine ourselves,

            willing to look back at the story of our church with honesty.


As Paul put it to the Corinthian church:

Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith.

Test yourselves.

Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you? (2 Cor 13.5)


Our calling is to be the heirs of a vision

            not the chaplains of the nightmare.

Our calling is to stand against the forces of exclusion and oppression,

            to resist both the powerful and petty empires of this world,

            whether they exist on the national stage or the parochial.


We are the custodians of a vision of good news for all people,

            in all places, without exception.

We need to keep awake from the seductive daydreams of power and prestige

            that lead to the nightmares of protectionism,

and to learn to dream again in our time the ancient dream of covenant blessing,

            where God is for all,

            and where God’s people are the means of God’s blessing.

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