Pentecost 9 – Year A

Lord, how good and pleasant it is
when your children live together in unity.
Amen.

That first line of Psalm 133 always makes me smile.
I will forever associate it
with my cherished alma mater, Sewanee,
for the school takes its motto from this Psalm:
Ecce Quam Bonum.
Behold how good and pleasant it is
when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity.
I want to focus on that first word,
‘behold’.
It was, in fact, at Sewanee where I first pondered
what it means to behold.
In Professor Richardson’s Introductory Italian class,
we actually took turns beholding things.
Dov’é la porta?
Ecco la porta!
(Where is the door? Behold the door!)
Dov’é il libro rosso?
Ecco il libro rosso!
(Where is the red book? Behold the red book!)
The Italian language really gets across
how truly exciting it is to behold something.
In one sense, to behold something means
to simply see it.
But in another sense, to behold something
means to find it.
to discover it,
to see it with fresh eyes.
True beholding is a full-on emotional experience.

***

You might have noticed
that our Old Testament lesson for today
left out a few details…
like pretty much EVERYTHING
before that dramatic reunion scene we heard.
Just so we’re all on the same page,
let’s do a quick run-through of the events
leading up to this story of reconciliation,
a little refresher on
one of the great dysfunctional families of the Bible:
the clan of Jacob.
Jacob has four wives
and one very irritating father-in-law.
One of his marriages occurs through a case
of deceit and mistaken identity.
Two of his marriages are
purely for the sake of making babies.
And one of his marriages is for love.
But his favorite wife Rachel
has a hard time getting pregnant,
while the other three wives
seem to be procreating right and left—
lots of sons, and one daughter.
When Rachel finally conceives, they’re thrilled.
The baby, Joseph,
instantly becomes Jacob’s favorite of all the boys.
Then Rachel dies tragically
while giving birth to a second child.
Jacob is distraught.
His favoritism for Joseph
becomes even more pronounced
and young Joseph grows into an
earnest,
well-meaning,
but slightly spoiled teenager.
To his brothers, though,
he comes across as a total brat.
He parades around
in a special garment his dad gave him
and talks on and on about his dreams,
which always seem to feature himself
as the star of the show—a little obnoxious.
But his brothers take their frustrations
and jealousies a little too far
when they contemplate killing him.
Ultimately, they decide just to sell him into slavery
and make it look like he died in a tragic accident.
As poor Jacob grieves the death of his favorite son,
Joseph is actually down in Egypt,
serving as a slave to a member of Pharaoh’s cabinet.
Joseph turns out to be a very capable slave,
and his master Potiphar
is impressed with his work.
But, as the story goes,
Potiphar’s wife
was more impressed with Joseph’s good looks.
She is portrayed as a “cougar”
(which is a term I hate but it gets the idea across.)
We don’t have her side of the story.
Suffice it to say, things don’t end well
and Joseph ends up in jail.
But Joseph has this clever party trick—
he interprets people’s dreams,
and he gains quite a reputation
among the other prisoners.
Eventually Pharaoh himself has a dream,
a very confusing dream that needs interpreting,
so Joseph gets pulled out of jail
and he gives it a shot.
He speaks to Pharaoh
of a time of growth and abundance
followed by a time of drought and hunger.
Pharoah believes him and so,
when the horrible famine comes,
the Egyptians are prepared.
The Canaanites, however, are starving.
They didn’t have the benefit of Joseph’s insights.
So Joseph’s brothers travel to Egypt to seek aid,
and we find them begging for assistance
at the feet of their brother,
whom they do not recognize.
But he recognizes them.
At first Joseph gives them a chilly reception
and then he tests them and plays a few mind games.
But eventually he sees how they are suffering
and decides that they seem to have changed,
And he gets giddy with anticipation
as he prepares to reveal his identity.

***

Ok, we just covered nine chapters of Genesis
and now we’re all caught up.
It’s time for Joseph’s big reveal.
As someone who has always
been easily moved to tears,
the thing I love most about this scene
is what an emotional wreck Joseph is.
Before he even says anything to his brothers,
he’s already weeping, carrying on.
He’s so loud that
Pharaoh’s entire household can hear him.
But finally he chokes out his secret:
“Guys, it’s me, Joseph”
Dov’é Giuseppe? Ecco Giuseppe!
Behold Joseph!
As the brothers behold Joseph,
they are overcome with such shock
and shame that they are speechless
(and scared for their lives.)
But as he calms down and calls them closer,
They begin to see that his emotion
is not about vengeance.
It’s about unity and reunion
And tells them,
“It’s ok.
It’s all ok.”
These are men who plotted to kill their own brother
They stand before him,
repentant and amazed and terrified.
And he basically tells them
“Bygones.
It’s all bygones.”
Now they have been reconciled.
It is a beautiful, God-filled moment.
Behold how good and pleasant it is
when brethren live together in unity.

Except for one very important detail.
These men are starving to death
and their families back in Canaan are starving too.
They have no food
and it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Before things become really good and pleasant,
before there can be true unity,
their hunger must be addressed.
Joseph understands this
so he welcomes his family to join him in Egypt
and to share in the Egyptians’ food rations.
“You shall settle in the land of Goshen,
and you shall be near me,
you and your children and your children’s children…
I will provide for you there.”
Only after this assurance of survival
can the estranged brothers finally embrace.
And it is a wonderful embrace—
Joseph kisses each of his brothers
and weeps upon them.
The scene is full of
tears
and joy
and lots of raw emotion.
Behold how good it is
when brethren live together in unity!

***

Much has changed since the time of Joseph.
But also, of course, much has not changed.
And I can’t help but wonder
if this well-known story
about a famine that happened so long ago
might have some meaning
and relevance for us today.
That part of the world
is especially susceptible to drought.
It was then,
it is now.
And when drought is combined with
pre-existing poverty,
or war,
or ineffective government,
or misguided economic policies,
lack of rain
can result in lack of food.

If you set out from Egypt
and head straight down,
you’ll pass through the Republic of Sudan,
followed by newly independent South Sudan
(a place some of you know far better than I do.)
Then to the east is Ethiopia
and beyond that, to the south, you have Kenya,
and to the east of that,
Somalia.
This is the region known as the Horn of Africa.
And right now the inhabitants of this region
Are experiencing a horrific famine
not unlike the one that drove Jacob
and his family into Egypt.
The news coverage of tragedy has been fairly light,
But the gravity of the situation bears mentioning.
According to what I’ve read,
today, across East Africa,
more than twelve million people
are gravely in need of emergency food aid.
This is the worst drought there in almost fifty years.
Tens of thousands
of Somali women, men, and children
have already died.
Many have fled to Dadaab, a Kenyan refugee camp.
But not everyone finishes the journey alive.
Those who do survive the trip arrive at what is now
the largest refugee camp in the world,
with 400,000 people – over three times its capacity.
Yet they keep coming.
And now, we hear reports of cholera spreading.
They simply do not have enough
food,
water,
medicine,
and shelter
to go around.
And we feel heartbroken,
and maybe a little helpless and numb
because the need is so great.
And we start to feel twinges of guilt
because we have access to fresh groceries
and, like today, tasty brunches after church.
But before you start calling me Sally Struthers,
I want to clarify something.
This sermon is not meant to be a long guilt trip.
Access to adequate nutrition
is never a bad thing,
whether you’re in Mogadishu
or Mechanicsville,
or Michaux House.
And sharing a meal as a community of faith
is always good and pleasing to God,
whether it happens here at the altar
or after church in Valentine Hall.
I will be brunch after church
and I hope to see many of you there, for:
Behold how good and pleasant it is
when brothers and sisters live in unity.

There’s a tension here,
and while I can’t solve it for you,
I at least name it.
And together we can consume our meals
not overcome with guilt,
which can actually paralyze our activism
but (and this is vital)
with an awareness of our relative privilege,
And the desire share—
not the crumbs from our table—
but our prayer,
and our time,
and our resources
in significant ways.
We can make contributions to trusted organizations
like Episcopal Relief & Development,
in the knowledge that true unity
will not occur until everyone
in both Mechanicsville
And Mogadishu
have enough food to eat
and clean water to drink.
For as Joseph has taught us,
Before things become really good and pleasant,
before there can be true unity,
their hunger must be addressed.
We may not behold this unity in our time,
but we can try.
And we trust that we will behold it
in God’s time.

One of my favorite prayers
comes from Latin America,
and it sums up this tension
with a lovely simplicity.

Lord, to all who have hunger,
give bread
and to all who have bread,
give hunger for justice.

May it be so.
May we make it so, with God’s help.
Amen.

Comments are closed.