|Sunday, August 21st, 2011||
Saint Bartholomew's Day
The Reverend Nina R. Pooley
Sermon Preached by the Reverend Nina Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Church, Yarmouth, Maine
Sunday, August 21, 2011 ~ Saint Bartholomew’s Day
There are No Small Parts…
In our Old Testament journey this summer we’ve walked with Abraham and generations of his family, but with the conclusion of the Joseph story we’ve reached the end of the book of Genesis. So how does the next great installment begin? With the story of Jacob and his descendents setting the stage:
“These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. The total number of people born to Jacob was seventy. Joseph was already in Egypt. Then Joseph died, and all his brothers, and that whole generation. But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.”
Our lectionary lesson picks up here beginning with the next line: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” Cue the music here… danger… nothing good is going to come from this new king’s ignorance.
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who didn’t understand the interconnected nature of the Israelites and the Egyptians, how they had survived the great famine together, how Joseph while ‘from away’ (as we might say) he was one who helped to save them. And that these were his people, his family…Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know how they needed one another. Whose understanding of the world was of Egypt and ‘those people’, whose perspective was a very black and white ‘us against them.’ And so this Pharaoh oppressed the Israelites with forced labor. And the Israelites were treated harshly by their taskmasters.
If we take a step back for a second we can set this part of the stage too. For this form of institutional slavery in Egypt, this well organized system of forced labor, was set up awhile back - by Joseph. Certainly there had been slavery and indentured servitude in Egypt before Joseph got there, but remember when he was overseeing the distribution of grain during the years of famine? Well, as we talked about last week, he could have done better – he could have given the grain away to the people who were hungry, at least those whose fields had grown it during the years of plenty. But instead of being merciful, Joseph was shrewd – he advised Pharaoh to collect one fifth of all the grain grown in the kingdom during the 7 years of plenty, (and no where does it say that the farmers were compensated for that fifth), which was then stored and sold to the people when the 7 years of famine followed.
Sounds neat and clean enough – good business sense really. But consider how it really played out – early in the years of famine people came and purchased food but after years of the land not earning them any money, they could no longer pay. So they traded their livestock for food. When the people have nothing else, they beg Joseph to allow them to become slaves to Pharaoh, and Joseph agrees. From that moment onward, they are servants of Pharaoh and they owe him a fifth of their land’s yield. It could have been worse, but it could have been better.
From Genesis 47: “So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh. All the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe upon them; and the land became Pharaoh’s. As for the people, he made slaves of them from one end of Egypt to the other.”
So Joseph institutes a form of slavery in service to Pharaoh so that that people may survive the famine years.
Thus the hands of Joseph are involved in the building up of the very institution of nation-wide slavery, that will become the problem that the Israelites will battle next. And God will be present with them. Though in this, the beginning of the great story of the Exodus, one of the great moments of God’s salvation for God’s people, we hear of God only obliquely. The midwives fear the Lord, the Lord repays them. What do we hear instead of God swooping in and fixing everything?
We hear of people – ordinary people playing unexpected roles as opportunities to act present themselves. We hear of the ability to make a difference, even for those who seem powerless… those whom the powers that be barely even see.
Joseph rises from foreign slave to overseer of the lands of Pharaoh, the one to save them all from starvation.
The Israelites themselves, the extended family of Jacob through the generations, thrive in Egypt and become a force to be reckoned with. The midwives, the mother, the sister, the daughter of Pharaoh, the child.
This is a story of where true power lies. This new Pharaoh wants to deal with the Israelites shrewdly because he’s afraid they will overwhelm the Egyptians, and turn on their host nation, and his actions contribute to creating a situation wherein that’s exactly what happens. Power says they are too many, kill the sons – but God responds through the otherwise powerless– midwives who refuse, and through whom the population continues to thrive despite Pharaoh.
Power says the midwife thing didn’t work, so you shall throw the baby boys into the Nile… and God responds through a mother who hides her baby boy until she feels he could survive on his own, and then she does as she’s told – puts him into the Nile (great idea Pharaoh) and he is saved, and becomes the instrument of salvation for them all.
God responds through Pharaoh’s daughter who drew the baby out of the Nile and, suspecting it was one of those Hebrew babies her father wanted killed so badly, (why else would he be in the river?), she takes him for her own. And with the help of his own mother as wet nurse, the child is raised and then claimed as Pharaoh daughter’s son…a Hebrew raised as a member of the royal household – perfect. Moses, the one drawn out of the water is claimed as an Egyptian child, more than that, as Pharaoh’s own grandson.
Moses, who will lose this position of power and privilege and then from a place of powerlessness will return…and God will respond through him to save this family of the promise, grown so numerous and strong that they are to be feared by the king of Egypt.
It’s quite a story, but it’s not our only story today – for today is St. Bartholomew’s day – when we celebrate our patron saint, a little known saint really, whom scholars think is synonymous with Nathaniel, not known in the Gospels for any great acts, not the greatest among them for certain, but one of the apostles, one of the 12.
Willing to serve, willing to be sent out into the world, willing to heal and to teach and to feed, and to go from place to place with only a staff and a pair of sandals and the clothes on his back, with so many people to reach. And on this road as an apostle he will suffer persecution and will be killed, a martyr’s death.
In this story too, we see power dictating and God responding through the seemingly powerless ones, for the apostles go forth into a hostile world to proclaim Christ crucified and risen and they are killed for their words and actions. As power tries to squash this little movement that was causing a nuisance in Jerusalem, a small corner of the Roman Empire.
The powers that be didn’t realize how their actions of persecution would only strengthen the movement – drive it underground and give it passion which would feed the faithful.
As the power of the Roman Empire put to death witnesses to the resurrection for their faith, for refusing to deny Christ, for following him to their deaths, the movement gained validity. If these men and women would die for this story, it must be true. And within a few generations this annoyingly persistent, not to be stopped even through persecution group of faithful people had spread the Good news of Christ to the ends of the Empire and beyond. Through powerless people who believed and who were willing to risk everything to tell the story, to live a different life, to care for the poor, the sick, the needy, to worship God in this new way. And yet, that’s not our only story today either, as today in our prayers of the people, we honor the fallen servicemen whose helicopter was hit in a battle with insurgents on August 6th and whose names have now been released.
Regardless of our politics, we pray for peace, we stand as witnesses to peace and mercy, in the tragic gap of the death and destruction and grief war brings.
We are witnesses to the sacrifices of these servicemen, and all those who have been killed in the fighting, and those whose lives will never be the same.
Does it matter? That we pray, that we grieve, that we give thanks for these lives, and acknowledge the pain of their families? Of course it matters – we know it matters.
God responds through the actions taken by those whom the world thinks have no power. God acts through both great and small deeds of faithful people throughout the generations. These acts have shaped the world, bending it toward justice and mercy, waging peace, freeing people who are enslaved, feeding and healing and telling the story, we know it matters.
We know the story of this people over thousands of years: through Joseph and his family, through the midwives and Moses, and over a thousand years later, through Bartholomew and the others who witnessed the resurrection of Jesus. We know this story, and we play our part in it in our own day.
“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” This new king was powerful, perhaps, but no match for God working through: two Hebrew midwives, a resourceful mother, a little sister who knew how to pay attention and meddle, and a small Hebrew baby plucked from the waters.
There arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Joseph – boy, was he in for a surprise.