Proper 15, Year A, 2008

Here we are.  We have arrived at the end of Genesis.  Well, not the real end of Genesis, but we have gone as far as the lectionary is going to take us. I encourage you to go back and re-read Genesis in its entirety.  The lectionary does not cover every story and has a particular habit of editing out sexy stories.  The stories that are not covered by the lectionary are the juiciest, most interesting stories in the book!

And of course, a lot happens in Joseph’s life between last week’s reading-when he is thrown into a ditch-and this week’s reading.

When we last encountered Joseph, he was a victim of terrible violence by his brothers.  We might come to today’s text expecting him to still be in that victim role, but instead he is an incredibly powerful figure, the right hand man of the Pharaoh.  How did he get here?

Joseph’s story takes up several chapters in Genesis, but the nutshell is this:  Joseph gets sold to a man named Potiphar in Egypt, earns his respect and ends up running his household.  Potiphar’s wife keeps coming on to Joseph, which completely flusters him.  Eventually she gets so frustrated that she accuses Joseph of rape even though he has always refused her advances and he is thrown into jail.  However, his integrity is so strong that the warden of the jail ends up using Joseph to manage the prison.  Two members of the Pharaoh’s court are thrown into jail and Joseph befriends them.  They each have weird dreams, which Joseph interprets correctly.  One of them gets killed, the other goes back to work for the Pharaoh.  The Pharaoh has a weird dream.  The former prisoner recommends Joseph and so Joseph is invited to meet with Pharaoh. 

When Joseph and the Pharaoh meet, Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream to mean that Egypt will experience seven years of plenty and seven years of famine.  He recommends to Pharaoh that a person be appointed to start saving food during the time of excess so it could be used during the famine.   Pharaoh appoints Joseph to be that manager.

Joseph, a foreigner, who was thrown into a pit, has ascended to the highest levels of the Egyptian government.  Time and time again, he has shown wisdom, integrity and competence so profound that no matter his position in life, those in power around him rely on his solid advice and management.  Joseph, who could easily live his life with a victim’s mentality, instead makes the best of every situation he is given and is rewarded at every turn.

Now, Joseph is no saint.  When his brothers come from Canaan hoping to buy food from the Egyptians, he does not reveal his identity right away.  In fact, he sends them all the way back to Canaan to pick up Benjamin, his full-brother.  He continues to toy with them for a while, even hiding a silver goblet in their bags and accusing them of stealing it, but eventually he reveals his identity and forgives his brothers.

Joseph is able to transcend a self-identity of victimhood because he sees God’s hand at work in the circumstances of his life.  In our passage today, Joseph tells his brothers,

I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.

Joseph is able to move past what his brothers have done to him because he has seen God’s work in his life.

And where Joseph is a victim from Canaan who trusts implicitly in God, in our Gospel reading today we have a victim from Canaan who teaches God something new!

The Canaanite woman in Matthew’s gospel is an outsider, just like Joseph was an outsider.  She has three strikes against her:  she is poor, she is not Jewish, and she is a woman.  But her outsider status is not going to stop her. The Canaanite woman has a daughter tormented by a demon.  While at first, the Canaanite woman adopts the posture of a victim-she pleads and begs and asks for mercy when Jesus dismisses her because she is not Jewish– she rises to the occasion in a spectacular way.  Joseph transcended his victimhood by his great integrity.  The Canaanite woman transcends her victimhood by standing up to Jesus and expanding his vision. 

Up until this point, Jesus thinks he is being sent to the people with whom God has already made a covenant-the Hebrew or Jewish people.  But then he encounters this woman who won’t take no for an answer. 

This woman’s love for her child, and complete belief in Jesus’ ability to help her, helps Jesus understand that his mission on this earth was not just to reach out to the community with whom God had already covenanted, but also reach out to all people.

When Joseph and the Canaanite woman were able to look beyond their own hurt and face their circumstances with honesty and courage, they ended up not only helping themselves, but helping entire nations of people!  While circumstances in their lives would have easily allowed them to define themselves as victims-they instead choose to turn the tables and use their circumstances for good.

Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of participating in the building of Region XV’s Habitat for Humanity house.  Habitat creates a partnership between their staff, volunteers, and future owners of their homes to build affordable homes for people with low incomes.  The person who is going to live in the home does 200 hours of physical labor on the home, as well as paying a down payment and affordable mortgage payments.

As you can imagine, I felt more than a little awkward standing on the open second story of a home trying to help frame a wall.  Everyone around me seemed really strong and competent and I felt silly as construction phrases I did not understand flew between the different volunteers.  I noticed one other woman who looked as out of place as I did and began a conversation with her.  She was a very elegant woman in her forties or fifties with short dark hair, a stylish top and a quiet manner.  Through conversation, I learned that she was going to be the owner of one of one of the homes on which we were working.  I asked about her background and she told me calmly that she was a refugee from Afghanistan.  She had been a schoolteacher and her husband had been a banker and when the Taliban took over, her husband, as an agent of the government, was murdered.  She took her three children and fled to Pakistan and then moved to the United States.  Her English is incredibly strong  for someone who has only lived her a few years, but it is not good enough for her to teach, so she is a housekeeper at UVA.

What struck me most was how calmly she recounted her tale.  I have heard more histrionics from fellow seminarians who did not get into a class they had hoped to take.  Heck, I’ve heard more whining from myself when I’ve broken a wine glass!

I haven’t been able to get this woman out of my mind and so, as I was thinking about Joseph and the Canaanite woman, I’ve been thinking about her, as well.

I think, as a culture, we are very, very pampered.  Yes, we still get hurt.  We can experience great tragedy.  We can be victimized.  But, on the whole our lives are so much safer and healthier than anywhere else on the planet.  And yet, we love putting ourselves in the role of victim.  We love blaming a lack of success on a bad boss, or bad parents, or a bad high school experience.  When a politician gets outed for having a scandalous affair, they paint themselves as victims of the press. There are entire morning television shows that are based on people screaming at each other about who has victimized whom the most.

And here we have a man thrown into a pit, a woman begging for her child’s life, and a woman whose life was shattered and they have nary a whine between them. 

What do they know that we don’t?  Maybe what they know is that we are more than what happens to us. We are persons who are made in the image of God and redeemed by the sacrifice of God himself.  We are persons who have enormous power-the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of prayer, the power of community.  That power is not just for our own use, but is to better the world around us-whether saving a community from famine; opening God’s grace to gentiles; or saving our children from a dangerous future.

We’ve seen that power in action as we’ve read about the patriarchs and matriarchs of Genesis and we’ll continue to see that power work as we move to the book of Exodus, which traces what happens to the Jewish people once they settle in Egypt.