Saturday, 16 August 2008
More than enough
This week, I am preaching for the first time since being inducted to my new parish. A fresh start all round:
Readings: Genesis 45 v 1-15
Matthew 15 v 21-28
That Old Testament reading we read this morning reminded us of that moment of triumph that Joseph experienced when he was able to tell his brothers:
You sold me into slavery. You led my father to believe that I had been killed by wild animals. But here I am, safe and well and chancellor of the exchequer for all Egypt.
But, instead of the gloating that we might have expected in Joseph’s revealing of himself, instead of the bitterness or even note of revenge, we find Joseph moved to tears because he has finally been re-united with his family.
Even after all they had done to him, Joseph is overjoyed to see them again and, what’s more, be in a position to help them out.
That’s a huge display of grace and of forgiveness and of love.
I’ve always read the story of Joseph as a story of the power of love and forgiveness.
A story that illustrates beautifully how evil can be defeated by love.
Joseph’s brothers, incredibly jealous of Joseph the favourite son, finally found a way to get him out of their hair.
They could have no idea that he would land on his feet and rise to a position of such importance in the land of Egypt and, many years later, be able to save his family from starvation.
They could have no idea either that, when he caught up with them that he wouldn’t want to exact revenge but that he would be overcome with love and want to look after them, putting the past firmly behind him.
For me, the story of Joseph has always illustrated how God can bring about good things from some of the worst circumstances.
And that’s a lesson that I’m sure some of you know from first hand experience.
How, even in the depths, God reaches us and lifts us up.
And so, from earliest days, Joseph has always been, for me, one of those great biblical heroes.
But this week, I came across another reading of the story of Joseph that has intrigued me.
In fact, its really gotten to me this week.
And it ties in with our gospel reading for this week – that difficult reading, where we see Jesus being apparently less than helpful.
So rather than keep it to myself, I thought I’d share it with you, so that you can struggle with it too.
Walter Brueggemann, a contemporary Old Testament scholar, suggests that the story of Joseph describes a pattern that is often perpetrated in our world economy today:
Pharaoh had a dream – more of a nightmare.
And, as a result of that nightmare, a whole new economy of scarcity was dreamed up and policies to deal with that scarcity were planned and implemented.
The River Nile had always ensured that Egypt was a land of abundance – lush and fertile.
But the Pharaoh’s nightmare provided a dreadful scenario.
You remember the dream of the seven thin cows and the seven fat cows.
Joseph, languishing in prison, made good his escape by interpreting this dream that troubled the Pharaoh as a sign that there was going to be famine in the land.
Seven good years and then seven years of famine, if you remember the story.
So Joseph was freed from prison and put in charge of managing the seven good years so that the nation would survive through the seven bad years.
Joseph implemented the government policy of acquisition.
Wherever there was plenty, it was Joseph’s job to acquire that abundance for the government.
Until the Pharaoh had the monopoly throughout the land and then everyone was at his mercy.
He could supply demand as and when he saw fit.
He had total control.
Bruegemmann suggests that peasants were turned from their lands, had their crops possessed and were forced into slavery because of the government’s policy of requisition – a policy Joseph enacted on behalf of the Egyptians.
It went against all that Joseph and his people believed in, to imagine that their God would not continue to provide abundantly for them as had been the case for centuries.
Yet, Joseph bought into this idea of scarcity – and so his own kith and kin were uprooted, impoverished and became subject to the whims of a superpower.
That’s some alternative reading of the story of Joseph.
And my first reaction was to discard it for my long held notion of the idea that God can use all sorts of circumstances for good.
And so to see in the story of Joseph, the story of a God who uses the brothers jealousy and their evil act of selling their brother into slavery as a way of saving a people when hardship befell them.
A God who rescued Joseph from slavery and raised him to great things.
I think the reason, however that I gave Brueggemann’s alternative reading a second glance, however, is that it resonated with some of the things that Paul Russel, the moderator said at my induction here.
About how often, in the church, we believe that what we have to offer will not be enough.
That we don’t have enough people.
Or enough money.
Or enough talent.
And that, until we have all the resources in place, there’s no point in doing things.
And we too often forget that the God in whom we trust is a God of abundance and of grace.
A God who uses our limited offerings and resources and, who more than that, transforms all that we have to offer, so that it becomes more than enough.
For the fact is that our gifts are multiplied when offered to God.
The story of this congregation is a story of faith in God’s abundance.
It was faith that called people to come out here and build a church.
Already I’ve spoken to quite a few folk who remember the days of the barn church.
Days when the blessing of God was very evident.
It was faith that called people to build a sanctuary.
And, every step of the way, that faith has witnessed God’s blessing and extravagant giving.
Why should we assume that, in this day and age, God should treat us any differently.
Why should we assume that God will not bless us now as God has blessed us in the past as we offer what we have today.
Ourselves, our gifts, our time, our talents, our money.
Offered to God, that will be more than enough.
So why do we fall into that uncertainty of scarcity?
Idris (my husband) had two maiden aunts who lived together.
They were the family matriarchs.
They kept the family together and whenever anyone was in need, Aunt Isobel and Aunt Lizzie were the first called on.
They would always help out.
From scrubbing floors to dishing out good advice, theirs was the place to go.
Eventually they both died and we assisted with the task of clearing the home they had shared.
It seemed that everywhere you looked in the house, there were jars and tins and boxes of sugar.
I don’t think either of them actually used much sugar, but their cupboards were full of it.
Because they had lived through rationing.
They knew what it was to do without.
And so, when times were good, they bought sugar.
They would never be short of that again!
Perhaps that sounds just the tiniest bit eccentric, but these weren’t two old, eccentric ladies. They were down to earth, hard working ordinary folk. But folk who had known scarcity.
And so they bought into that idea that it might happen again.
You just could never know.
So they set about ensuring that, should sugar rationing ever come back, they would have plenty – and so would their family.
All of us can so easily get caught up in that myth of scarcity.
And never quite relax enough to realise that our faithful God is a God of extravagance and abundance.
And so to our gospel reading this morning.
One in which Jesus does not show up very well.
Can he really be saying no to this poor woman who has asked for healing, not even for herself but for her daughter?
Can we believe that of our Lord?
Again there are various interpretations of our gospel reading this morning.
Interpretations that point to the new order that now reigns.
That God’s mercy and God’s love are not just for a particular people in a particular place – but for all people everywhere.
And some interpreters point to the fact that this was such an unheard of concept, in a culture that thought that God was only interested in the Jewish people, that even Jesus had difficulty with it and had to learn from the woman’s persistence that there was more than enough to go around.
Whether it was something Jesus had to learn.
Or whether he just delayed granting the woman’s request so that the disciples would learn this lesson by puzzling over his actions, the message is the same:
God’s love, God’s healing, God’s forgiveness, God’s abundant grace – is for everyone.
There is more than enough.
All of us can so easily be seduced into believing that love is scarce, that resources are limited, that giving somehow diminishes us.
And yet, the good news that Jesus came to live is that God’s blessing multiplies whatever we have to offer – and, in God’s purpose, there will always be enough.
It’s a lesson that we have to learn and a promise that we have to grasp hold of.
For unless we take risks, we cannot find security.
And unless we love we cannot know God’s extravagance.
And so as we enter this new phase together, making history here in Castlehill, lets not be seduced by the notion of scarcity, but lets step forward in the faith that God’s grace is sufficient, that God’s goodness is abundant and that, right now, we have all that we need to go forward, to take risks and to glorify God in this place.