Sermon delivered by David Burrow August 10, 2014 - First Congregational Church, Algona, Iowa
Click here for an audio version of this sermon. (20 MB - .mp3)
Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is the one true Church, apostolic and universal, whose holy faith let us now declare:
We believe in the one God, maker and ruler of all things, Father of all creation, the source of all goodness and beauty, all truth and love. We believe in Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh, our teacher, example, and Redeemer, the Savior of the world. We believe in the Holy Spirit, God present with us for guidance, for comfort, and for strength. We believe in the forgiveness of sins, in the life of love and prayer, and in grace equal to every need. We believe in the Word of God contained in the Old and New Testaments as the sufficient rule both of faith and of practice. We believe in the Church as the fellowship for worship and for service of all who are united to the living Lord. We believe in the kingdom of God as the divine rule in human society, and in the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God. We believe in the final triumph of righteousness, and in the life everlasting. Amen.
This is the story of the family of Jacob.
Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers.
… . Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was
the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves (a garment
that older translations describe with the familiar phrase “a coat of many
colors”). But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all
his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words. …
Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock. … They saw [Joseph] from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, "Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams." But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, "Let us not take his life." Reuben said to them, "Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him.” … So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, … and they took him and threw him into a pit.
As they sat down to eat; they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites … with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, "What profit is it if we kill our brother …? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but not lay our hands on him …” And his brothers agreed. When [the] traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And the Ishmaelites took Joseph to Egypt.
Elijah came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" He answered, "I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away." He said, "Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by."
Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire the sound of sheer silence (a sound that older translations describe as “a still small voice”). When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave, where the LORD spoke to him.
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go to the other side. … After he had dismissed the crowds, he went up to the mountain by himself to pray. … When evening came, the boat, battered by waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And in the early morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.
But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.
But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”
When I checked the readings that the Revised Common Lectionary suggested for today, I was fascinated by what I found. In addition to the gospel, which follows along in Matthew from recent weeks, there were two different Old Testament readings suggested for this week: one about Joseph from Genesis and the other about Elijah from First Kings.
Now I’m generally not an Old Testament kind of guy. I most definitely don’t believe that every one of the 613 laws of Moses is meant to be taken literally today. Jesus himself didn’t believe that. He tells us his New Covenant supersedes the old. I’ve always found most of the Old Testament frankly boring and anything but inspirational.
The two Old Testament readings in this week’s lectionary were intriguing, though, and when I thought about writing a message, there were a couple of ways they vaguely seemed to go together. So that’s why I decided to include both of those Old Testament readings today.
A couple weeks ago Don Connor mentioned in his sermon about how sometimes a song can keep going through your head. Well, when I read through the story of Joseph in Genesis, a variety of music kept running through my mind. Much of it was from the show Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which was one of the first professional musicals I ever saw. Joseph is a short, but very impressive play that’s all the more fascinating when you realize Andrew Lloyd-Webber composed the music for it when he was in high school. The play uses music to trace the story today’s scripture, but then—like in the old Paul Harvey radio show—they tell “the rest of the story”.
Today’s scripture leaves off with Joseph’s jealous brothers selling him into slavery in Egypt. He ends up being imprisoned there. While in prison he shares other dreams he has had, which brings him to the attention of the pharoh. He uses his dreams to give advice to pharoh, which helps Egypt survive a famine. Jacob is promoted to pharoh’s chief assistant, but meanwhile his brothers are nearly starving to death back in Israel. When he returns home, the dreams he shared in today’s scripture come true—with his brothers bowing down to him.
I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with the story of Joseph, which seems—at least on the surface—to be about a father who plays favorites and jealous brothers who plot to murder their sibling. I don’t know if the story of Joseph is literally, historically true, and I honestly kind of hope it’s not. Like all of the Bible, though, I think there are important lessons we can learn when we look beyond this strangely dysfunctional family to see what the story is really about.
More than anything else, the Joseph story is about dreams, and it teaches us not to be afraid to dream. Our dreams are one of the ways that God communicates with us.
The story of Joseph also shows us that everything happens for a reason. The convoluted way that the brothers’ jealousy leads Joseph to the prison in Egypt, which leads him to pharoh, which leads to his greatness and then leads the brothers back to him shows that even things that seem strange and unrelated are somehow tied together.
Finally, the story teaches us to actively work to make the best out of every situation we face. Joseph could have just languished in prison, and his family could have just wallowed in pity when their food ran out back in Israel. Instead everyone involved in this story went beyond feeling sorry for themselves and made the best of a string of bad situations. The Joseph story is the Bible’s way of telling us to take our lemons and turn them to lemonade—or perhaps lemon bars or lemon meringue pie.
Another song that I couldn’t get out of my head when I read the reading from Genesis was Dolly Parton’s old country song “Coat of Many Colors”. Aside from mentioning Joseph in passing, the song has little to do with the Bible story. It does have a good message, though. It tells the touching and apparently true story of Dolly’s mother making a coat for her by stitching bits of cloth together and of other children making fun of her for dressing in rags. I love the final lines of that song:
… They didn’t understand it, and I tried to
make them see
That one is only poor, only if they choose to be;
Now I know we had no money, but I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors that mama made for me.
So often we’re concerned about what others think of us, but in the great scheme of things that really isn’t important at all. What is important is that we make the best of what we have and be the people God would have us be.
The other two readings today deal with encounters with God, and they show us that God doesn’t always show up the way we might expect. When Elijah is told the Lord will pass by, he expects to find God in the might of an earthquake and a fire, and is surprised that the Lord is not in either of those. When God finally does speak to Elijah, it is through a “still small voice” or “the sound of sheer silence”, an unexpected voice in an unexpected situation.
That jukebox in my head started playing when I read this scripture, too. I thought of the old movie Urban Cowboy and its theme song “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places”. That’s how it sometimes seems when we search for God. It seems like often we have pre-conceived notions of where we’ll see God. It may not be an earthquake or a fire, but we all have certain ideas of just where God hangs out. If we go to those places but don’t recognize God there, we get frustrated. Other people go out of their way to avoid certain places or situations, precisely because they think they might encounter God there. What both groups don’t realize is that God is everywhere, and we’re most likely to encounter the Almighty at unexpected times and places.
There are whole religions that think they know exactly when, where, and how to encounter God. Some churches feel Jesus will only be at home in the most elegantly appointed sanctuary. Others think you can only feel the Holy Spirit with a rock band and a video screen. Some think we can talk to God only through formal liturgy, while others feel the only real prayers are spontaneous.
Well, the fact is all of these churches are right—and all of them are wrong. I strongly believe that God speaks to different people in different ways. God is both liturgical and spontaneous, rousing and simple. We don’t find God in just one of those places, but in all of them.
Today’s Gospel reading is fascinating, particularly when it is paired with the account of Elijah looking for God. Peter isn’t looking for God. He knows, at least on the surface, that he is with Jesus. He even witnesses a miracle, but he can’t convince himself it’s real.
In our own lives, we’re a lot like Peter, who Jesus referred to as “you of little faith”. We’re scared, and we don’t always believe it’s prudent to put everything in our lives in God’s hands. On the other hand, if something does go wrong, we often blame God—even though it is we alone who got ourselves into the mess.
Today’s Gospel reminds us that we must have faith. When our life is hectic and full of challenges, we need to sit back, take a deep breath, and call on God to help us sort out everything. God can help us sort out what’s important and what’s not, and then help us to get through the problems we encounter.
I’m reminded of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel whenever I hear people on the news proclaiming that there’s some kind of a “war on Christianity” in modern society. While these people are very devout, they seem to be afraid of freedom of religion. They think their religion will suffer if others are free to believe differently than they do. I think Jesus would look at these pious people, shrug his shoulders, and say “you of little faith”. He’d remind them that there’s no need to be threatened by what other people believe. If Jesus can walk on water, he can stand up to secular society. Christianity has flourished for two millennia, and even our modern world will not harm it. We need to stop worrying about what others believe and pay attention to what God is saying to us.
… And right there is one of the main themes of our modern United Church of Christ. Our church proudly proclaims that “God is still speaking,” and I think that’s something all of us believe. As another of our national slogans says, “Our faith is 2,000 years old, but our thinking isn’t.”
The problem with believing that God continues to speak, though, is that we need to shut up and listen to what he has to say. Too often we either think that we already know it all, or we feel we’re too busy to stop and hear God’s voice.
That’s what today’s readings are saying to us. They remind us to always be on the look-out for God—not just in big dramatic places and events, but everywhere and all the time, in the sound of silence and in our dreams. They remind us to have the faith to recognize God when we see him at work in our lives and to listen to God’s voice as he guides us.
Our church does believe that God is still speaking, but we also believe that we need to go beyond just listening to God and move to put our faith into action. God calls us to be his hands and feet in the world, continuing the work of creation.
With that in mind, I want to close today with the very first thing that came to my mind when I saw today’s readings. Two of the themes in the scriptures are dreams and walking with God, and both of those come together in an old prayer that’s one of my favorites. The prayer was written back in the ‘40s by Stephen Vincent Benet, and President Roosevelt read it at a conference that planted the seeds to establish the United Nations. I think it’s one of the ways God continues to speak to us in modern times, a vision of what with God’s help our world can be. It’s called “A Prayer for a Better World”:
Our earth is but a small star in the great universe. Yet we can make of it, if we choose, a planet unvexed by war, untroubled by hunger or fear, undivided by senseless distinctions of race, color, or theory. Grant us faith and understanding, wisdom and courage, patience and brotherhood, that we may move forward toward that goal.
We are all children of the Earth. Grant us that simple knowledge. If others are oppressed, then we are oppressed. If they hunger, we hunger. If their freedom is taken away, our freedom is not secure. Grant us a common faith that we shall know bread and peace, freedom and security, an equal opportunity and an equal chance to do our best, not only in our own lands, but throughout the world.
In that faith, let us march toward the clean new world our hands can build.
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