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.

Tuesday, 1 September 2020


Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

6 September 2020 

Acts 3.1-10  

My thesis for this morning is this:

I think that the least interesting thing about someone who is homeless

is the fact that they are homeless.

There is so much more to a person

than where they sleep at night, 

or how much money they have available to spend.

And yet, the irony is that for most people who live without stable housing,

this is the defining aspect of their lives

particularly in terms of their interactions with others.

And as we come to the end of our short series looking at justice issues,

in which we’ve considered 

a Christian approach to rethinking the benefits system,

the importance of ecological justice, 

and the welcoming of refugees,

today we’re going to be thinking about homelessness,

and what a Christian approach to this might be.

The scene which Luke paints for us 

in our reading this morning from the book of Acts 

is as contemporary as it is ancient. 

It could be any street, in any city, in any country. 

From Bloomsbury to Bangalore, 

the picture is as familiar as it is troubling. 

A man has placed himself on the pavement at a busy intersection, 

and is begging for money. 

And if you have walked the streets of London over the years, 

you will be no stranger to those who sit and beg. 

Whether they present you with a disability 

or a note written on a piece of cardboard, 

the message, the request, is constant: 

‘Please can I have some money?’ 

And I wonder, what do you do? 

Do you walk on by, 

ignoring the person to the best of your ability, 

pretending not to have noticed them? 

Do you, perhaps, genuinely not notice them, 

having become so habituated to their presence 

that it is indeed possible to pass by unseeing. 

Do you mutter a prayer for them? 

Do you give them some money? 

Do you make eye contact and offer an apology, 

or perhaps more accurately 

an expression of sorrow for their condition, 

before moving on ? 

Do you offer to buy them a coffee, 

or a sandwich? 

Do you stop for a conversation, 

to try and find out more about their circumstances? 

I have done all of these things, and more. 

And what breaks my heart 

is that I genuinely don’t know 

if any of it has actually made any difference.

And it was no different in the first century, 

with our anonymous friend sitting outside the Temple in Jerusalem, 

strategically positioned in prime location 

by the gate called ‘Beautiful’.

In a scene with disturbing similarities to street theatre,

he had carefully positioned himself 

to contrast his own deformed body

with the soaring sublime architecture of the Temple,

carefully constructing the scene 

to elicit maximum sympathy (and cash) 

from those entering the temple 

The sight poses a troubling question to those passing by:

how could a person with their eyes turned to God 

ignore the plight of one of God’s suffering children? 

I’m sure that many of those who came to the temple 

gave to the beggar at the gate, 

believing that by doing so, 

they were offering to this unfortunate man 

a tangible expression of the care that God had for him. 

There was a strand of ancient thought 

that regarded misfortune in life as a curse from God. 

As if, in some way, a person deserved their deficiency. 

In our sermons earlier this year from the Book of Job

we saw how that ancient text 

challenged this way of looking at things.

But here, in the scene before the Temple,

we find an ancient echo 

of the more contemporary debates we often hear 

around the deserving or undeserving poor.

Those who enjoyed power, wealth, and health in the ancient world

believed that they had received these things 

as a deserved gift from God.

And this left those from whom such benefits had been withheld 

to fill the role of undeserving scrounger.

And so it is that Peter utters his famous line, 

‘silver and gold have I none, but what I have I give you.’

And on such a sentence the world turns upside down. 

In this simple statement from Peter, the basic transaction 

which lay at the root of the Jewish Temple system was subverted. 

The beggar knew how it was supposed to work, 

the worshippers knew how it was supposed to work, 

the temple officials knew how it was supposed to work. 

The Temple system represented middle class religion, 

and was primarily populated by those who had money. 

The moneyed worshippers’ job was to give alms to the poor; 

whilst the job of the poor was to receive the handouts. 

It was a tried and tested system, and everyone felt better in the process. 

The small acts of kindness, 

directed towards an undeserving (or even culpable) poor, 

appeased the conscience of the rich, 

and kept the poor in a state of dependency and disempowerment.

It was a system of mutual meeting of needs,

but one which was ultimately powerless to effect genuine change.

It was into this context that Peter and John 

conducted their transgressive act against this system of inequality 

that everyone had become complicit in. 

They didn’t give alms to the beggar. 

They didn’t give him silver, or gold, or even a few copper coins. 

They refused the transaction of handing over money 

in exchange for a temporarily salved conscience. 

Rather, Peter looked the beggar in the eye, 

and reached out a hand to him to lift him up. 

This is deeply subversive stuff, 

because it challenges all the implicit and unspoken assumptions 

about the way the world works. 

In most societies, including our own,

the poor are not to be lifted up, 

they are not to be looked upon as equals. 

They are to be ignored, vilified, 

blamed, stigmatized, and done unto. 

If you don’t believe me, just read the newspapers.

In the first century, they were there to provide the ‘weak’ 

to the temple system’s ‘strong’,

and I don’t think it’s so different in our world today.

The thing is, if Peter and John had simply given money to the man, 

they would have become complicit in the very system 

that was keeping him in his poverty. 

But they didn’t give him money,

they took a different, dare I say more Christ-like path, 

which challenged the system 

and opened the door to transformation.

Doing this was not without its consequences; 

and the traumatic events of the next three chapters in Acts 

all arise from this specific incident 

of healing of a lame man in the Temple grounds. 

If you take action to subvert systems of control, 

you distort the imbalances of power 

on which our hierarchical religious institutions 

and stratified societal structures are built. 

And those powers will always fight back, 

seeking to close down the transgressive power of raising up someone 

whose ‘place’ in life has been predetermined as disadvantaged. 

And so Peter and John were arrested and put on trial. 

And, dare I say, so it will be with us also. 

Let’s bring this story up to date, and hear it speak to our world. 

Have you noticed that our church, here at Bloomsbury, has a Beautiful doorway? 

Our beautiful gateway, with its Normanesque arch, 

has always marked the entrance to a building 

from which the church has ministered to the poor and the disadvantaged. 

Our historically strategic location,

on the boundary between the wealth and privilege of Bloomsbury, 

and the grinding poverty of the St Giles Slums, 

speaks of a commitment from the very beginning 

to reach out into the diverse communities around the church.

The congregation of Bloomsbury has always sought 

to bring wealth and poverty together 

in ways that are genuinely transformational,

and which challenge the transactional basis

of much of what is classed as charitable giving.

At its best, here at Bloomsbury,

this has never just been about giving to the poor.

Bloomsbury is a church where, from its founding day, 

we have sought to reach out and touch, 

where we have extended the hand of friendship to raise people up,

where we do not stand on our dignity.

And so we have a proud history of effective engagement

with those who are homeless and disadvantaged.

Did you know that even during lockdown we have been active,

working with other churches through London Citizens,

to campaign for the reopening of toilets in the West End, 

and for better sanitary provision for those still living on the streets.

We are currently in the early stages of conversations

about ways in which better mental health support 

can be offered to those who live with homelessness.

The thing is, the best way of offering the love of Christ 

to those on the streets is changing:

no longer do the homeless go hungry unless we feed them,

and there are better equipped agencies than us ensuring people get food.

So as we consider our future engagement with those who live without housing,

my challenge today is for us to start thinking differently

about how we might reach out to them in the name of Christ.

Here’s a thought:

What if we stopped inviting people to queue for food?

We already do less of this on a Sunday than we used to,

but pre-lockdown there were still queues outside our gate

as people were stood in line to come to the Evening Centre.

If you offer something for nothing,

it’s not hard to get a queue to form.

The question is, is it the right thing to do?

I wonder what it might mean, instead, 

for us to take people by the hand and lift them up, as Peter did, 

so that they no longer need to queue for bread?

What would it mean for us to look people in the eye 

and see the person behind the circumstance?

What if we could discover 

that the least interesting thing about a homeless person

is that they are homeless.

Lockdown has forced us to stop many of our engagements with the homeless,

from those who still came to lunch on Sundays

to the Evening Centre,

to the Choir with No Name.

And it is quite likely that some, if not all, of these

will be unable to restart within the foreseeable future.

So instead, let’s ask the question 

of what it is that we can do, before God, 

that is genuinely transformational for the needs of our city.

Let’s ask what the needs are, 

and be prepared to listen to those 

who might tell us that the genuine needs 

are not what we think they are.

Let’s be prepared to let go of our own programs and structures, 

and instead construct new systems 

built on relationships that are genuinely transformational.

Peter said, ‘silver and gold have I none, but this I give you’. 

It doesn’t have to be about giving alms, providing food, 

or offering a service that users can access. 

It can be about creating a place of refuge, 

of safety, of friendship, of creativity.

Where each person who comes is known and valued 

as a person loved and unique in God’s sight;

where we take them by the hand and raise them up.

Transformation is God’s responsibility, not ours. 

We are not the ones who do the miracle. 

We just have to be prepared to look the person in the eye, 

and to reach out our hand in openness and trust, 

to see the individual behind the circumstance. 

This is a risky task, and it’s dangerous because it’s disruptive. 

It messes with our systems, 

and plays havoc with our expectations, 

every bit as much as Peter and John’s actions 

outside the Beautiful Gate to the Temple 

subverted the systems that the Temple had in place 

to ensure the poor got enough money 

to tide them over until tomorrow.

But I suspect that in the example of Peter and John

we find a model for our own future engagement with the homeless,

where we resist the seductions of superficial solutions

such as throwing money and resources at the problem,

and instead we invest in relationships and holistic engagement,

making ourselves vulnerable

and responding creatively to the needs of the city.

Bloomsbury’s ministry to the homeless is not finished, far from it,

but it will have to change, to evolve, as the needs of the city evolve.

But in that change we will discover the rich resources of scripture

calling us into paths of transformation

not just for those we are ministering to,

but for ourselves as well.