We would be hard pressed to find anyone in scripture who suffered more setbacks in life than Joseph. His brothers were jealous of him and, finding an opportunity to do away with him, sold him to slave traders who were passing through the land. He was brought to Egypt and purchased by Potiphar, a wealthy and powerful Egyptian, who eventually recognized Joseph’s intelligence, honesty and hard work, and put him in charge of all that he had. Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him and, when he refused her, she accused him before her husband and he was imprisoned. Even in prison his character and his deep insight continued to impress others. He interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh’s servants and was promised freedom, but was then forgotten and left to languish in his prison cell. Finally he got his opportunity, when Pharaoh himself had a troubling dream and Joseph was called to interpret it. This he did, saving the land and its people from a deadly famine. He rose in Pharaoh’s eyes and became a powerful ruler, second only to Pharaoh himself.
And then we read that his brothers, experiencing famine in their own land, came to Egypt seeking food. Joseph recognizes them, but conceals his identity from them. He sends them home with food, but arranges for his younger brother to be brought to him. In the touching passage we read today, he finally breaks down and reveals his true identity to them. “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into slavery,” he says; “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (45:5).
2 Corinthians 4:1-6
One of my favorite places on the playground at school was the swing set. Today, I still enjoy the gentle sway of the swinging bench in the cloister garden. But, back then, I was interested in a more high-octane version of swinging. I loved to push faster and higher to see how high I could get. I tried on several occasions to swing all the way over the bar and have always been disappointed that physics just weren’t on my side in that endeavor.
As much fun as the swinging itself was, I also discovered the excitement of the dismount. You could just let yourself come to a gradual stop, or drag your feet on the ground to slow things down quicker. Or, you could time it just right and jump! The thrill of being propelled into the air and landing what felt like several yards away was such a rush! But it took a fairly careful calculation to get it just right. Too soon and I’d skid to a halt and faceplant in the gravel, which happened. Too late and I’d just kind of fall straight down and crumple to the ground, which also happened. The best was when I was when I found that sweet spot and launched in a graceful arc and touched down like an eagle. I had to be ready, I had to have momentum, and I had to have the courage to make the leap.
We remember two apostles today, by definition two who were “sent.” We know a few things about Philip and James, we know less… James was the son of Alphaeus and he is always listed among the twelve. Tradition has distinguished him from James the Great, the son of Zebedee, and it’s unclear if he is the same James as in the book of Acts, son of Clopas, the so-called brother of Jesus. But, his relics arrived from the East in Rome at the same time at St. Philips and so they have been joined in remembrance.
Joseph is one of those biblical characters who exists mostly in the shadows. He emerges just a handful of times, only to disappear once again, more or less for ever. Today in this account of finding the boy Jesus in the temple is the last time we see him in person. But what we have from this handful of references, is enough to weave together a portrait of a man who is good, and kind, loving, and compassionate. The thing is, he didn’t need to be, and no one would have thought any less of him.
Perhaps my favourite image of Joseph comes from the icon of the Nativity. There, away from the action, sits Joseph, with his head in in hands. Probably wondering what on earth was he going to do. Having sat this way more times than I can count, I have great sympathy with Joseph. Standing before him are two men, perhaps shepherds, obviously addressing him. Iconographic tradition calls this scene, Troubled Joseph. Matthew’s gospel tells us what is troubling him.
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
Had he done so, no one would have blamed him. No doubt, having heard the revelation of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph was scandalized, appalled, embarrassed, worried about his good name. He was perfectly within his rights to wash his hands of the whole sordid mess. And no one would have blamed him.
Much of God’s provision for us is mysterious, dark, and frustratingly hidden. I know this has been true in my own life, and I suspect it is probably true for many of us. Times when it’s hard to take Jesus at his word when he says, “Ask, and it will be given you.”
Not only now, in this time of seclusion, isolation, and separation, but in many parts of my life it has been tempting (and I use the word tempting with all of its sinister weight) to read the world and not see God’s provision whatsoever. I admit that this is frighteningly easy, at least for me.
Yet, in hindsight all of these situations that I have read as set-backs or crises—graves for my soul and my character—have really in fact been rich times of provision. And always right under my nose. And I am put in mind of these temptation as we continue our Lenten walk together.
It occurs to me that so often it is easy for us to talk about the disciplines we engage during Lent as “curbs”—to use a word that we brothers have used in our Rule to contrast the living reality of our life and the disciplines that form it. We say that the disciplines of our life are not mere curbs. And so then, what are they?
‘I have seen God face to face, and yet I live.’ But only just! Jacob had wrestled with the angel all night, and managed to come out alive – but with his hip put out of joint. Yet God blessed him through the struggle, and let him see God face to face.
Throughout Scripture, when the Spirit of the Lord comes down upon a person, there is so often a struggle; the Spirit is experienced as something traumatic and shattering. Dealing with God is not for the faint hearted! Listen to the prophet Ezekiel: ‘A spirit entered me and lifted me up and bore me away. Before the glory of the Lord I fell on my face, but the spirit lifted me up’. Daniel, standing on the banks of the river Tigris see a vision of a man, shining in glory, sent from God. The man spoke, and David fell into a trance, and then fell to the ground. Shaking with fear, he lost his strength and could hardly breathe. The prophet Jeremiah tries to get away from the Lord’s presence, but the Spirit overwhelms him, and he cries out, ‘If I say I will not mention him or speak in his name, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones.’ Well might the writer of the letter to the Hebrews say, ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’!
Yet, through each one of these powerful and life changing experiences, God was at work, forming and molding these very different characters to become men of God; able to speak for God, but most crucially, to see for God. Through their profound and life changing encounters with the living God, they would now see as God sees. They would become God’s seers, and they would proclaim what they saw.
Enter into the joy of your master.
This solitary phrase from twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel has rung like a bell through my praying imagination this week. As he discloses what we commonly call “The Parable of the Talents,” this phrase rings twice from the lips of Matthew’s Jesus. Enter into the joy of your master. Most of us know the well-established reading of this parable.
It goes something like this: A wealthy man goes on a journey, leaving his wealth in the hands of three slaves. Each responds to the responsibility in one of two ways. One we might call a wise stewardship that produces more of what has been given. The other, a refusal to wisely use the gifts so graciously given, leading to waste and suffering. Traditionally read, this parable speaks an urgent call to responsible stewardship of all God gives to us that we might be invited to enter into the joy of our master.
“Are you greater than our father Abraham?” They were confused and upset. How could those who kept his word not see death? They clung to what they knew and could not hear or see something more. They clung so tightly to being Abraham’s children, that they missed really seeing Jesus.
What might you be clinging to so tightly such that it’s hard to recognize what is real? What is getting in the way between you and Jesus?
Perhaps it’s who we are or what we have: heritage, group-identity, connections. Perhaps it’s the people we love or who love us best, our meaningful relationships. Perhaps it’s comfort or privilege, standard of living, status or success. Perhaps it’s abilities, gifts, how we serve, what we do well—including for God.
One of the appealing characteristics of Father Benson, but also surely one of the more baffling for many, perhaps also for you, was his grasp of a heavenly reality, in the midst of a worldly existence. We know the famous story of the old woman, when asked is she could understand his preaching responded, that gentleman just opens heaven to me, and I can look right in.
Over and again, Father Benson calls us to an awareness of this heavenly reality. He writes, [do] I realize to myself that as I pray, I am truly in heaven, and that I ought to be experiencing the joys of heaven? If we would but look to heaven with more consciousness of present joy therein, we should find its power to set us free from earthly difficulty.
It is this consciousness of the present joy of heaven that was a motivating factor in much of his life. Reading Philippians, as we do today, he would have been perfectly comfortable with the notion that our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation, that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.
Our reading from the Second Book of Kings would make would make for a great scene in an adventure movie or mythology novel: the Prophet Elijah’s ascending into heaven in a whirlwind with horses of fire and in a chariot fire. And there’s also the scenes when Elijah’s cloak – his “miracle mantle” – is used two different times to strike the Jordan River, which then miraculously divides in two, one side to the other, to open a dry passageway for a walkthrough. It’s such spectacular power!
A fascinating and inspiring way to read the Scriptures is through the lens of power. In virtually every page of the Bible, there is a supernatural manifestation of power, the intervention or infusion of God’s power in everyday life:
- Power in the form of words being given to someone who is otherwise inarticulate.
- Power in the form of knowledge about something which is otherwise unknowable.
- Power in interpreting signs, experiences, dreams, languages, or what could seem as “coincidence.”
- Power to be wise amidst what is otherwise so confusing and undecipherable in life.
- Power in the form of physical strength, or moral integrity, or courage when confronted with strong opposition.
- Power in the form of an inner peacefulness in the face of strife, violence, or threat.
- Power in the face of disaster, imprisonment, censure, or banishment.
- Power in the form of provision: food, money, shelter, access to people of influence.
- Power in the form of healing mediated through words, through touch, through oil, through spittle.
- Power to forgive the otherwise-unforgivable.
One question trailed Jesus throughout his earthly life: “Where did he get all this power?” because Jesus teemed with power.[i] And Jesus’ parting promise to us was about our being able to do “even greater works of power” than he did because of God’s abiding presence with us, because of God’s Spirit.[ii] Christianity without power is like a country club for nice manners and good taste. Christianity is about engaging the powers and the powerful needs of this world with the force and provision of God.
Annie Dillard writes, “Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour…? Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? …It is madness to wear ladies’ velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.” [iii] We have been created by the power of God to know and mediate the power of God.
There are lots of things in life for which we could be fearful. And so Jesus speaks endlessly about our not needing to be afraid, about our not needing to be anxious because he is with us, always.[iv] You may be in touch right now with fear or anxiety where you feel your vulnerability and need. But there’s more. You may be equally afraid – maybe even more afraid – of how you are powerful. If you are afraid of your power – and you do have power – you need not fear your power. Don’t be afraid. Remember the Blessed Virgin Mary who was visited by an angel announcing Mary’s life mission, a very powerful calling.[v] Mary was afraid, afraid of being giving such power, and then she found the grace to say “yes” to God. She finally prayed, “Okay. Be it unto me according to your word.” And so for you. You probably already pray about poverty and need, yours and others’. Also pray for God’s power. Pray your “yes” to God’s power to be at work within you and through you.
[i] Matthew 13:54, 26:64; Mark 6:2, 14:62; Luke 6:19; John 1:12.
[ii] John 12:12-14.
[iii] From Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, pp. 40-41. Annie Dillard won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1975 and in 2014 received the National Humanities Medal.
[iv] Matthew 28:20.
[v] Luke 1:26-38.
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10, Year A
Isaiah 55: 10 – 13
Psalm 65: 9 – 14
Romans 8: 1 – 11
Matthew 13: 1 – 9, 18 – 23
My father was never much for television. Except for the nightly news, and the occasional serial drama like Upstairs, Downstairs, I don’t remember him watching TV in the evening. He and Mum would sit in their chairs reading, either a book or the newspaper, while we kids watched whatever it was we watched, splayed out on the living room floor.
What I do remember is how quickly he would get up and turn the TV off, the instant something came on that he did not think suitable for children. This was especially true if something about the Second World War came on. In a flash he would be up, out of his chair, and across the living room, to turn the TV off and say, by way of explanation, too tough for kids. I never knew what he was talking about, until as a teenager, I began to learn about the Holocaust.