Friday, August 29, 2014

“A New Pharaoh” - August 24, 2014

Text: Exodus 1:8-2:10

“There arose a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph.”

What kind of text is that for the beginning of a school year?  How relevant could a Pharaoh, or for that matter Joseph, be for the day before classes begin at ISU?

We often follow the lectionary in our worship services here at First Baptist.  The lectionary is a three-year cycle of scripture readings, which over the course of those three years covers a pretty broad range of scripture.  It can be a kind of “insurance” against just getting the preacher’s favorite Bible passage each week.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with the preacher’s favorite scripture verses.)  But in today’s reading, we have this passage from Exodus, and this verse: “There arose a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph.”

Last week we looked at the story of Joseph.  He was despised by his brothers because he was dad’s favorite, and sold by his brothers into slavery.  He winds up in Egypt, is able to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, sees famine coming, and is put in charge of all the grain in Egypt.  The famine comes, and Joseph again meets up with his brothers, who have come to Egypt looking for grain in the time of famine.  Joseph’s family winds up moving to Egypt, where Joseph is by now the Prime Minister, the number 2 guy in the kingdom after Pharaoh.  Joseph was a revered figure who saved his family and kept the nation of Egypt from disaster.

But times passes, many years go by, and “there arose a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph.”  The Israelites, once identified with Joseph, who saved the nation, are now seen as a threat by Pharaoh.

Now, this happened maybe 3400 years ago, but the thing is, it’s not just history.  It happens all the time.

You work hard, do a good job, but changes come.  There is a merger, a buyout, a restructuring.  And “There arises a new boss who does not know Bill, or George, or Kim, or Julie.”

You’ve taught the course for years, been a valuable team player in your department.  But a new dean is hired, and then, “There arose a department chair who did not know Joseph,” and there is a big reorganization, and the curriculum changes, and your class is altered and given to a brand new faculty member.

And what about students?  If you really ponder the matter, this may be one of the most relevant scriptures in the whole Bible for the beginning of a school year.  If you are a new student, chances are that none of the Pharaohs around will know you.  You could have been the star student in high school, but that doesn’t matter now.  You may have been a great athlete, or musician, or actor, or artist.  You may have been known for your friendliness, or character, or hard work, or sense of humor, or easy-going attitude, or for being caring or dependable, but nobody knows that.  You are starting over.  You are in a place where Pharaoh does not know you. 

This is not intended to scare the freshmen, and it’s not just the freshmen.  Even if you have been around for 7 years, still trying to get that bachelor’s degree, every fall means a new start, adjusting to changes, and dealing with Pharaohs who do not know you.

How important it is for us to be known.  That was part of the draw of the TV show Cheers – it was a place where “everybody knows your name.”  We all find ourselves in situations where that is definitely not the case.  We all find ourselves in places where Pharaoh does not know us, and does not seem to care to know us, and it isn’t easy.

Well, I suppose the question is, how do we act, and how do we react, when we are in those places where there arises a new Pharaoh – when we are in situations of change and uncertainty and perhaps some upheaval.  When we find ourselves in a strange land, whether it is the strange land of a murderous Pharaoh or a new boss or whether we are beginning our time at Iowa State.

We have a model in the Hebrew midwives, Shiprah and Puah.  Pharaoh is so threatened by the Hebrews that he decrees that newborn male Hebrew babies must be killed.  What’s a midwife to do?  The midwives feared Pharaoh, no doubt, but they feared God more.  They chose to honor God rather than Pharaoh.  Having given their lives to bringing children into the world, they are not about to start killing these children.

In their response, Shiprah and Puah model integrity for us.  Rabbi Harold Kushner (in Living a Life That Matters) speaks of integrity as “being whole, unbroken, undivided.  It describes a person who has united the different parts of his or her personality, so that there is no longer a split in the soul.  When your soul is divided, part of you wants to do one thing while part wants to do something else:  Do you tell the prospective buyer of your home about the plumbing problem or do you keep quiet unless he asks? ...  Like the karate expert who can break a board with his bare hand by focusing all his strength on one spot, the person of integrity, the person whose soul is not fragmented, can do great things by concentrating all of his energies on a single goal.  For the person of integrity, life may not be easy but it is simple.  Figure out what is right and do it.  All other considerations come in second.”

The midwives are people of integrity.  They determine what is right, and they do it.  Because they are people of integrity, they break the law of Pharaoh, and lie when they are asked to explain how it is the babies are living despite Pharaoh’s decree.  Nevertheless, they are doing the right thing.  It’s not that truthfulness is unimportant, but in this instance, saving innocent life takes precedence over being completely honest with a murderous tyrant.  Weighing the choice of preserving life and being true to their vocation and their God versus submitting to a desperate and evil command of a fearful king, it is no contest.  They display integrity.

The midwives have to face Pharaoh.  They have to live in the real world.  But they honor God and are true to who they are.

In the broad sweep of history, two Hebrew midwives would not seem to be nearly as significant as an Egyptian Pharaoh.  But do you know what?  We know their names, while Pharaoh is nameless.  Pharaoh is the one who is scared and desperate.  Shiprah and Puah are not pleased with the situation, to be sure, but they are calm in the midst of the storm.  They are sure of who they are and what they are to do.

Robert Kennedy once said, “Each time a [person] stands for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he [or she] sends forth a tiny ripple of hope. And crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.  Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society.  Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence.  Yet it is the one essential vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.”

In their quiet, everyday way, as they went about doing what they do – bringing babies into the world – they sent ripples of hope.  They helped change history.  This is the beginning of the story of Moses.  If not for Shiprah and Puah, there is no Moses, there is no Exodus, there is no Promised Land.  Their quiet act of courage changed the course of history.

In Romans chapter 12, the Apostle Paul speaks of offering our lives as “a living sacrifice.”  Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, puts it this way: “Here’s what I want you to do, God helping you:  take your everyday, ordinary life - your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life - and place it before God as an offering.”  That is exactly what the midwives did.

The parallel between then and now only goes so far.  It is doubtful whether any of us will be asked to serve Pharaohs like this one.  I don’t want you to confuse your boss or your professor or your parents with the treacherous king of Egypt.  Coming to ISU is not the same as being in captivity in Egypt, even if it may feel like it when you pull an all-nighter studying in vain for your Physical Chemistry exam.

In fact, let me put in a plug for much of what you will find in the culture in which we live.  God has given us minds with which to think, and at its best, education can be God’s instrument to help us grow, to help us become the person we were created to be.  It can be a process by which we, as it was said of Jesus, “Grow in wisdom and stature and favor with God and others.” 

We find ourselves in a very different place from Shiprah and Puah.  A pharaoh with life and death power over us is not looking over our shoulders.  But what is true for all of us is that like Shiprah and Puah, we must deal with the dynamics of being a person of faith in society.  How do we relate to the culture?  Do we accept everything around us uncritically, assuming that if Pharaoh says it, it must be OK?  We have seen enough corruption in high places to know that is not the case.  Or on the other extreme, do we look upon everything in the world as essentially evil and try to separate ourselves into a Christian enclave?  Some take that approach.  Or do we engage the culture – the campus, our neighborhood, our workplace, civic and community life - with integrity, honoring God and being true to ourselves?

The question for us is, “As people of God, as followers of Jesus, how are we to live with integrity in the midst of all the cultural pressures and difficulties of living that we face?”

The scripture suggests three things:

1) Know who you are.  Shiprah and Puah knew who they were.  They knew what they were called to do.  They were not killers, they were midwives.  They did not serve Pharaoh, they served God.

In Romans, after Paul speaks of becoming living sacrifices, he goes on to speak of the various gifts we are given, the different callings.  We don’t all have the same gift, or the same call.  But if your gift is teaching, you should teach.  If your gift is in ministering to others, you should do that.  If you are a midwife, use your gifts of caring and bringing new life into the world.  And if right now you are a student, you are called to study, to learn.

But it is not simply that we are teachers or students or employees.  We are friends, we are family members, we are children of God.  We are brothers and sisters in Christ.  To live as a person of faith in our culture, we need to know who we are.

2) We also need to know what really matters.  This is sometimes more easily said than done.  Discernment can be hard to come by.  We see so many crazy choices made by so many people, that after awhile they don’t seem so crazy.  We hear the same stuff, see the same stuff so much that we begin to wonder if maybe it is true.  Maybe money is what it’s all about.    Maybe violence is the answer.  Maybe drugs aren’t such a big deal.  Maybe the problems in the world are so big that we should just give up on trying to solve them.  Maybe I should just look out for #1 and forget everybody else.

Discerning what is good and right and true, and what really matters, is not always easy.  But my guess is that we make it harder than it needs to be.  Sure, there are those times when we’re not sure which course to take, but most of us have a harder time doing those things we already know we need to do and going those places where we already know God is leading us.  It doesn’t have to be so difficult.  Paul’s words again speak to us: “Take your everyday, ordinary life - your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life - and place it before God as an offering.”

What really matters?  People matter.  Using the gifts we have been given matters.  Peace and justice matter.  Being true to God and true to ourselves matters.  Following the way of Jesus matters.

3) Don’t go it alone.  As we seek to live out our faith, regardless of what kind of Pharaoh is around, we don’t have to do it by ourselves.  There were two midwives.  That is important.  It wasn’t just Shiprah, it wasn’t just Puah.  Sometimes we feel like we are the only one, but we’re not.   

This is what the church is for.  This is why we have sisters and brothers in Christ.  We are here to support and encourage and challenge and celebrate with one another.  We are here to lift each other.  It is much easier to live and act with integrity when we don’t have to go it alone.

If this is your first time here today, we are just delighted that you are here.  But you may have caught something in the air – maybe a kind of somber feeling, like people are having to work to feel joyful.  There is a reason for that.  This time of year is always exciting, as new students arrive, but our church suffered a big loss this week.  Bob McCarley was a longtime and much-loved member of our church.  He was here last Sunday, full of life; we never would have guessed that his funeral would be yesterday. 

Last Sunday, I happened to sit at the table with Bob at Fellowship Time.  He had met a brand new college graduate who had just moved to Ames and was in church for the first time last week.  Bob invited him down for fellowship time and we all had a great conversation.  Bob understood that we are all in this together, we all need each other, and maybe the last thing he did as a member of this church was to welcome a newcomer – an 83 year old welcoming a 22 year old.  We need one another, and as we try and live with integrity, as we try to follow the way of Jesus, it works a lot better if we don’t go it alone.

We can sometimes find ourselves in new places, strange places, difficult places.  There may arise a Pharaoh who does not know us.  But whether Pharaoh knows us or not, supports us or not, gives a rip about us or not, we can live with integrity, knowing who we are, knowing what is important, knowing that God is with us, and knowing that we have one another.  How are we to live out our faith?  “Take your everyday, ordinary life - your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life - and place it before God as an offering.”  Amen. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

“Dreaming a New Dream” - August 17, 2014

Text: Genesis 37:1-11, 17b-28

There is a new app for smartphones called “Push for Pizza.”  Once you set it up, all you have to do is push one button and your favorite pizza will be delivered to you, piping hot, from the nearest pizza joint.  It is being billed as “a dream come true for lazy students everywhere.”

A man named D.C. Barns, a huge fan of the Star Wars movies since he was a kid, heard about a UNICEF fundraiser that involved the upcoming Star Wars movie.  He entered a random drawing and won the grand prize – a walk-on role in the movie.  He described this as “a dream come true.”

This week I was on the lookout for people talking about dreams, and when you are looking for something, it is amazing how often you will find it.  Ames High School grad Clifford Kwah-Mensah was a star high school football player but judged by recruiters to be a little undersized for major college football.  So now he is a freshman walk-on at ISU and enjoying fall practice.  “I’m living my dream,” he said.

Habitat for Humanity in Lexington, Nebraska broke ground on a new home for Lydia Saenz, a single mother of four.  She calls owning her own home “a dream come true.”

Chuck Spence was a high-powered Wall Street banker who loved his job in New York but gave it up a few months ago to move to Hawaii, where he now runs a small resort.  He said, “I knew I wanted to live on the island of Maui from the first moment I stepped onto her soil 36 years ago.”  This had been his dream for 36 years.

Holding on to a dream and living to see the dream come to reality is a wonderful thing.  And in our text today we have a young man with a very big dream.

Joseph wakes up one morning, comes to the breakfast table before the older brothers are going off to work, and says, “Wow, did I ever have a neat dream.  Do you want to hear it?”  Mistaking the silence for consent he continues, “We all had sheaves of wheat and all your sheaves of wheat bowed down to mine.  What do you think that means?”

Stone cold silence.  So Joseph continues, “And I had another dream -- the sun, the moon and the stars in the heavens bowed down to me.”  At this point his father told him to shut up and eat his cereal.

What is the dream of Joseph?  That he, the youngest child in the family, will be greater than all of them.  So great that all of God’s creation will bow down before him.

As you might expect, this dream did not sit very well with Joseph’s brothers.  If you were with us for worship at the park a couple of weeks ago, we talked about Joseph’s father, Jacob.  Fearful that his past would catch up with him when he reunited with his brother Esau, Jacob had arranged his very large traveling party into two companies – figuring that if Esau and his men attacked one, the other might escape.  Then finally came Jacob’s family, with those less favored in front, presumably closer to danger.  Joseph and his mother Rachel, the most favored, were at the back.

From the moment he was born, Joseph was his father’s favorite – he made no bones about it.  Among other things, he had given Joseph a special coat.  Joseph wore this brand-new $1500 Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, while all the other brothers got was windbreakers on clearance at Wal-Mart.  This favoritism did not exactly make for good family relationships.

And now, Joseph shares this dream of ruling over his brothers.  It was more than they could stand.

In time, Joseph’s dream becomes a nightmare.  His brothers sell him into slavery.  They tell Jacob that he has been killed by wild animals and bring back the coat, with blood on it, as evidence.

We read much of chapter 37, but we are going to jump ahead and pick up the story as it continues in chapter 39.  Joseph winds up as a slave in the house of Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials in Egypt.  He has an amazing aptitude and good leadership skills and before long, he is in charge of the entire household.  He prospers.  He does have potential.  Maybe his dream wasn’t all that crazy.

Mrs. Potiphar sees potential in this young man as well.  Apparently, Mr. Potiphar wasn’t home very much.  Joseph is young and good-looking.  And Mrs. Potiphar doesn’t beat around the bush, she says to Joseph, “Come lie with me.”

What this is really about is power.  Mrs. Potiphar is used to getting exactly what she wants.  Joseph is just a slave in her house.  And right now, Joseph is what she wants.

The question for Joseph becomes, which dream to pursue?  Hey Joe, you’re in Egypt now, we do things differently here.  Lighten up, go with the flow, go along to get along.

In this foreign land, just a slave but rising up the ladder, who could blame him if he opted for a different dream? 

We all face obstacles as we pursue our dreams.  There are competing dreams.  Temptations.  Attractions.  Roadblocks.  Other people who tell us what to dream or what not to dream.  Alternate visions can be seductive.

A young woman dreams of making a difference by teaching inner-city children.  With loans to pay, she opts for a more lucrative career, intending to someday get back to the dream.  But as the years go by and life moves on she realizes that the dream is passing her by.

A couple dreams of raising a perfect family.  At first, it seems they are living the dream.  Wonderful children, active in church, they are happy.  But over time, their faith commitment wanes.  More and more time and effort are aimed at accumulating things.  A big house, the latest technological wonders, a nice boat.  There are a couple of risky investments that turn bad.  The couple drifts apart, and they find themselves talking both bankruptcy and divorce.  How did they ever get to this place?  And what became of their dream?

Joseph finds himself in a position where his dream could die, or where he could easily latch on to another dream.  But facing the power of Mrs. Potiphar, the power of the empire, he seems to know what real power is and where real power comes from.  He tells her No, saying that he cannot do this to his master, who has placed great trust in him, and he cannot sin in this way against God.  Joseph understands that the real power belongs to God.

Mrs. Potiphar is used to getting what she wants.  One day she finds Joseph alone.  She grabs his coat and he runs, leaving her with the coat.  She concocts a story for her husband of how Joseph made unwelcome advance towards her, and once again Joseph’s clothing is evidence.

Potiphar is furious and has Joseph thrown in prison.  But this punishment is less severe than it could have been and you wonder if Potiphar really doubts his wife. 

In prison, Joseph still prospers.  Time and again we read, the Lord was with Joseph.”  Even in slavery, even in Egypt, even in prison, God was with him, God sustained him.  God helped him keep the dream alive.  Because this wasn’t simply Joseph’s dream, it was a dream given by God.

In prison, Joseph quickly gains the favor of the jailer and is given responsibility, put in charge of things.  He is able to interpret dreams.  When Pharaoh is plagued by a troubling dream, Joseph is asked to interpret it and winds up not only being sprung from jail, but he becomes Pharaoh’s Secretary of Agriculture and eventually chief-of-staff.  An Israelite slave rises to become vice-Pharaoh.

Joseph’s family eventually came to Egypt during the famine.  And his dream did come true.  But it wasn’t exactly the way Joseph had thought of it in his younger days.  The dream had shifted and could now be seen in a new light.  Ruling did not mean being a dictator over his brothers.  Rather, Joseph found himself in a position to serve and protect his family, to provide for them during the famine, and keep his family together.

The real test came when the old man died.  After Jacob, now called Israel, was buried, the brothers worried that the only reason Joseph was letting them live was to keep his father happy.  They went to Joseph, bowed down before him, pled with him to spare their lives.

And Joseph responds, “Of course you’re pardoned.  Of course I forgive you.  Do you think I’m God that you should grovel before me like this?”  And the ironic thing is, God is exactly who the old Joseph thought he was.  The dreams he’d had where they all groveled were his favorite dreams.  Now the dream had been fulfilled, but not quite in the way he had imagined.  But it wasn’t just the dream that was different; Joseph was different.

Frederick Buechner said, “Almost as much as it is the story of how Israel was saved from famine and extinction, it is the story of how Joseph was saved as a human being.  It would be interesting to know which of the two achievements cost God the greater effort and which he was prouder of.”

This morning, I hope all of this has got you to thinking about dreams.  Dreams you have, dreams that have perhaps been dormant, maybe some new dreams.  Maybe it’s been a long, long time since you’ve let yourself dream.  Some of us need to recover the ability to dream.

Our dreams can come from God.  That was Joseph’s conviction, and it can be true even of our wide-awake dreaming.  God gave us a heart and mind and imagination for dreaming, and when our dreams help to build God’s kingdom of peace and justice and goodness and wholeness, they may rightly be spoken of as dreams given by God.

One of the best-known dreamers of recent times was Martin Luther King, who dreamed of a time when people would not be judged on the color of their skin but the content of their character.  Jesus, too, was a dreamer.  In his very first sermon, he quoted from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  This was Jesus’ mission statement; it was the dream he followed.

What are your dreams?  Where do you dream of life taking you?  What are your hopes and aspirations – for yourself, for your family, for our community?  What are your dreams for First Baptist Church?  It is important that we continue to dream.

Last week we helped Zoe move to Muncie, Indiana for graduate school at Ball State.  It was hard leaving her there, as it will be hard for a lot of parents as they leave students here at ISU this week, but it is exciting to see her pursuing her dreams.

This I week I happened on an article written by Dan Boone, a university president - “My Top Ten Must-Haves for College Students.”  Rather than listing essentials like a dorm refrigerator and flip-flops for the shower, the article listed some of the more intangible qualities that would serve college students well.  It said to bring your roots, your history, your uniqueness.  Bring space for new friends and bring social courage, a willingness to interact with others.  And number one on the list was, bring your dreams.  The college experience is supposed to help ignite one’s dreams.      

We all need dreams, and at some level, we all have dreams.  But sometimes, somebody needs to mess with our dreams.  Some dreams need to change, as Joseph’s did.  Some dreams need to die so we can dream new dreams.  Some dreams may be too self-centered, or too small, or maybe we have just come to have a better dream.  Sometimes circumstances in life change and with them our dreams change.  But I suspect that often, we give up too easily on our dreams.  Sometimes we accept dreams that others have for us, and sometimes we just plain stop dreaming.

But the good news is that the book is not closed on any of us.  Even when he was sold into slavery, the book was not closed on Joseph.

Last year, Willadene Zedan graduated from Marian University in Wisconsin.  She was a dean’s list student and graduated with a job offer.  This doesn’t sound like much of a story, except for the fact that Willadene was 85 years old.  She started taking a few classes several years after her husband died, found that she loved the college atmosphere, and wound up earning a degree.  “All the students liked me,” she said, “and if you bake enough cookies they will love you.”  She even spent five weeks studying abroad in Rome.  In her new job she assists a doctor who makes house calls on homebound patients.

“Everyday is a new adventure.  Everyday,” Zedan told the Fon du Lac Reporter.  Up in years and having lost her husband, it wasn’t too late for a new dream.

No one would expect an 85-year old woman to complete a college degree and start a new career--but she did.  Nobody could have guessed while Joseph was a slave and in prison to boot that he would become a powerful leader in Egypt, saving his people in the process--but he did.  No matter who we are or in what situation we find ourselves, God can work in us and through us as we pursue God-given dreams.

How do we know if a dream is from God?  Well, God gives us the ability to dream, so it’s not simply a matter of our dream vs. God’s dream.  A better question might be, is yours a godly dream?  Is it a dream that will help bring wholeness and happiness and healing, a dream that will use the best you have to serve God and others?  A dream that will make the world a better place?  We all need those kinds of dreams.  The world needs those kinds of dreams.

And so I challenge you this morning to keep dreaming, and know that in your dreaming, God is with you.  Amen.