Sep 09

The Passover Lamb

            As we journey through the Old Testament this summer and fall, we’re really getting the highlights reel version of the story: key moments rather than intense details. A week ago we encountered Moses at the Burning Bush, face to face with the Living God. This week we have skipped all the way to the Passover. A lot has happened in Egypt since last week’s reading from Exodus 3. Moses and his brother Aaron have confronted Pharaoh again and again, pleading and demanding that Pharaoh let the Israelites go. Nine plagues—water turned to blood, frogs, gnats, flies, diseased livestock, sores, thunder and hail, locusts, and darkness—have tormented Egypt, but Pharaoh has not been swayed. He has toyed with Moses and Aaron, pretending sometimes to respond to their complaints and changing his mind just as they thought they had tasted freedom. But Pharaoh’s heart was hard, and he refused to listen to Moses or to the Lord. The Lord’s deliverance will come without the cooperation of Pharaoh.

            Instead, Israel’s deliverance, Israel’s salvation, will come through a lamb. Not the powerful, zealous ruler of a famous people but the weak, innocent, powerless offspring of a herd animal, a sheep or a goat. The lamb is how God will save his people from the final, tenth, most terrible plague. The blood of the lamb will mark Israel’s doors as the judgment of the Lord passes through Egypt. The meat of the lamb will satisfy the hunger of a people about to embark on a journey. “You shall eat it [with] your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hands; and you shall eat it hurriedly,” the Lord tells Moses and Aaron. This is not a luxurious banquet, a feast to savor. It is the final rations of a people on the move. The exodus is coming, the Passover of the Lord is at hand: be ready to go at a moment’s notice.
 
             I wish we Christians would eat our Passover meal with such impatient expectation and haste. I wish we would receive the body and blood of our Passover Lamb knowing that his blood had already shielded us from God’s judgment, waiting for the moment when God would release our chains so that we can escape quickly in the night and follow our Lord along the Freedom Trail into the Promised Land. I wish that our celebration of Holy Communion each week would be as electric as that first Passover.
 
            Do not be deceived: God has not changed since that first Passover. God did not return to heaven after delivering Israel from Egypt. God still observes the misfortunes of his people; God still hears their cry; God has still come down to deliver them out of bondage. God still commissions us, just as God called Moses and Aaron, just as God sent Jesus Christ, to preach good news to the poor and release to the captives, to proclaim the time of the Lord’s favor.
 
            This is not a matter of liberal or conservative politics. It is a matter of hearing and responding to the whole gospel. The first Passover meal was not about delivering Israel from her sins. There is nothing about Israel’s sin in the first fourteen chapters of Exodus. The first Passover was not for the forgiveness of Israel’s sins. The first Passover was about freeing God’s people from bondage in this world, to a power of this age, into freedom in this life—and not just in the life to come. The first Passover was about physical bodies, physically enslaved, and physically released from Egypt. God is not indifferent to the suffering that happens in this world. God’s salvation is every bit as much about deliverance in this world as it is about deliverance for the world to come. The story that lies at the foundation of the Old and New Testaments, the story that Jesus himself reenacts in his own life, the story of the Passover and Exodus is a story of deliverance in this life.
 
            Do not be deceived: God has not changed since the first Passover. The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world—what John the Baptist calls Jesus in John 1:29—is the Passover Lamb who feeds us on the path to God’s deliverance. Christians have recognized for millennia the Christ is our Passover Lamb, but all too often we have emphasized that the Lamb has conquered sin and forgotten that our Passover Lamb is sacrificed for the world to free the world from its bondage.
 
            If we are to be Christ’s followers, his disciples, we must be the ones who proclaim the whole gospel to the whole world and do not give the good news of our Savior short shrift. Right here, in Harford County, there are people living in bondage. There are people who have been wrongly jailed, who have been arrested or imprisoned because of how they look or how they speak. There are people who have so much debt that they can see no way past what they owe. A new casino has opened down the road in Baltimore City, and already there are advertisements to help gambling addicts—gambling slaves—from the Maryland Council on Problem Gambling. Each week at Centre we serve people in our food pantry who are enslaved by poverty and cannot afford food. A new heroin epidemic has seized and destroyed the lives of thousands around us. And this past week I heard that BWI airport is the U.S. center of human trafficking, of modern slavery, and that Harford County is at the epicenter of Maryland’s human trafficking problem. When this was announced at our district meeting on Tuesday, one of our pastors revealed that his daughter, who died of a heroin overdose this spring, was trafficked by her drug dealers just down the road.
 
            Friends, God is calling us to respond to the suffering of his people. Since I’ve been at Centre I’ve heard more than a few people say, “We need to grow.” I couldn’t agree more. But growth that matters—and not just growth that counts—will only happen if we come face to face with the suffering in our community and proclaim the deliverance, the salvation, of our Lord. We cannot solve every problem; we cannot address every situation. But we can pray for God to guide us as a congregation, so that the whole church is involved, to people in bondage in our community. We can find one situation, one form of bondage to work against. We can tell of the Passover Lamb who feeds all people for their journey to God’s freedom, a journey that may last forty years but that can begin tomorrow.
 
            Starting this past July and for most of the next year, I am engaging our congregation in an extensive study. The first part of this study involves listening to your stories of being part of Centre. I will be inviting you to share your story with me in the coming months. There will be several other components. The purpose of this study is to discern where God is calling Centre to put our resources and where God might be telling us to let go of some things we have done in the past. Please participate in this study as much as possible. Please join me in praying for the next year for our congregation as I, the church council, and other church leaders seek to hear God’s voice for our congregation.
 
Christian people, Christ our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed for us. “Eat this meal with your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hands; and eat it with haste. For tomorrow is the day of your exodus.” Amen.
Sep 02

The LORD

            Moses enters the desert to find food for his father-in-law’s sheep. Instead, he comes face to face with the Living God, the Lord. A flame catches Moses’ eye, a bush on fire but not consumed. Moses alters his path, turns aside to see this bush, this fire. Moses is willing to let God interrupt his plans. And God does not remain silent; he speaks to Moses. God reveals himself to Moses and tells Moses he knows what’s going on in Egypt. “I have observed the misery of my people.” Even more: “I have heard their cry.” More still: “I have come down to deliver them.” And then: “You, Moses, I’m sending you.”

            Moses is face to face with the Living God, the Lord. Before his eyes is a bush engulfed in flames yet not consumed. A bush, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins would say, “charged with the grandeur of God.” This is it, isn’t it: terrifying and amazing, wonderful and fearful. Standing in the presence of God—but who shall abide the day of his coming? Receiving an awesome calling to deliver his own people. Moses—who wouldn’t want to stand where he stands. Moses finds himself at the center of the universe, at the very heart of the cosmos, at the foundations of creation. Face to face with the Living God, the Lord, Moses could say anything, ask anything, offer every praise, fall on his face in worship and prayer. And of all the things he could have come up with, Moses asks, “What’s your name?”

            At first, the question sounds impertinent. Hasn’t God just told Moses everything he needs to know: “I am the God of your father, the God Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Why should Moses need further identification? But let the question sit with you a bit. Let it sink into your soul. Ponder it. “What is your name, o God? How shall I call you?”

            For centuries faithful Christians have asked Moses’ question: What is God’s name? Can human beings really even name God? After all, God is not a creature. All of our language, whether about God or anything else, is creaturely language. All of our names fall short of who God is. Some Christians have gone so far as to argue that we shouldn’t name God at all, that our best option is silence and darkness. But even our silence and our darkness are still part of creation; they bring us no closer to God than the babbling nonsense of people who think they’ve got God under their thumb by piling on his names.

            Most names for God, however much they fail to do justice to God, come from God’s acts of creation and salvation: Rock, Fortress, Deliverer, Creator, Redeemer, Shepherd, Shelter, Help, Savior, Strength, Shield, Jesus. Other names come from our awe of God: Holy One, Immortal One, Almighty, Glorious One, Omnipotent One, Love, Holy Spirit. Still other names take something that is familiar and amplify it to apply it to God. Soup is good; God is good—but God is not good in the same way that soup is good. Such names include: King, Sovereign, Ruler, Father.

            All of these are names for God. But the name God gives at Mount Horeb, the name he speaks to Moses, this name is different. This name is so significant, so holy that the Jewish people eventually decided the name was too holy to pronounce or even to spell out. I myself have learned from the Jewish respect for this name, and I also refuse to say the name aloud. We sometimes see the name spelled out YHWH, which transliterates the Hebrew letters yod, he, waw, yod. When readers of Hebrew came across these letters in the Scriptures, they simply replaced them with Adonai—the Lord. And in some English translations you will see this practice continued whenever you see “the Lord” in small caps. “I am who I am”—this is the name of the Lord. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the Living God, the God of the living: I am who I am.

            We must not think for a moment that because we are Christians we have been released from honoring and glorifying the name of the Lord.In fact, Christians have developed our own way of showing ultimate respect for God’s name, our own vocabulary for obeying the second commandment. We do not just say the Lord, as Jews do, though we do say it and we do mean, as the Jews mean, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, and of Moses. We also say: Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We baptize in the name of the Trinity. We make our Communion prayer in the name of the Trinity. The foundation of all Christian worship is the name of the Trinity, for we believe in the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, of Moses, and of Jesus Christ. The Lordis Triune, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is the Lord.

            This is the name, the name that is above all names, the name that is given to Jesus Christ, Paul tells us in Philippians 2, the name… that will set the captives free. Moses wants to give the Israelites the name of their deliverer. God’s response to Moses is not an answer at all—I am sent me—and at the same time it is the answer, the only answer Moses could ever give. The name of Israel’s deliver is the Lord. And this is vital to catch. God does not give this name to Moses in a vacuum. God does not reveal this great name to Moses in a dream. God gives Moses this name that is above all names because God is going to save his people. The name of the Lord is given to Moses because the Lord is on the move. God’s self-revelation is inseparable from God’s mighty acts of salvation. The name of the Lord is given so that the people of the Lord might be saved.

            So it is that the burning bush is not just a fascinating spectacle on Mt. Horeb. Mary, the mother of God, the mother of Jesus, Mary also is the burning bush. Pregnant with the Son of God, she radiates the divine light brighter than any star, and yet she survives. She, too, is not consumed by God’s close presence. She gives birth to her child and gives him the name “the Lordsaves”: Jesus. And like Moses, we are invited to alter our paths, to turn aside and face Emmanuel, God With Us, the Living God, the God of the Living, Jesus Christ.

            God speaks a word at Mt. Horeb, and the course of Israel’s history changes forever. God’s Word becomes flesh at Bethlehem, crucified flesh at Calvary, and resurrected flesh at the tomb, and the course of human history changes forever. All praise be to the Lord, the great I am. All praise be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Aug 25

What Counts and What Matters

            When you focus only on what counts, you’ll end up losing track of what really matters. That’s the lesson Pharaoh learns, the hard way, in Exodus 1 and 2, our Old Testament reading for this morning. Years have passed since Joseph, the great prince adviser of Egypt, died. Once welcomed with open arms, the Israelites, or the Hebrews, have become a nuisance to the Egyptian monarchy. Pharaoh, a new Pharaoh, fears the Israelites. There’s no reason to fear them—they’ve done nothing, as far as we can tell, but live peaceably in Egypt. Like every other Pharaoh, Egyptian or not, this new king invents a problem so that he can satisfy his bloodlust.

            Pharaoh’s solution is horrifying. First, he orders hard labor for the Hebrews, forcing them to build new cities. But it’s not enough for Pharaoh. Next, he commands the midwives to murder Hebrew boys at birth. When that plan fizzles, Pharaoh orders every male Hebrew child tossed into the Nile.

            As cruel and inhuman a plan as it is, Pharaoh’s approach makes sense in the ancient Near East. Boys were the only ones who counted. Lineage was passed down from father to son; mothers and daughters were worthless. Get rid of the Hebrew males, and you eliminate the Hebrew people. But if you focus only on what counts, you’ll end up losing track of what really matters. And that’s exactly what happens to Pharaoh. Only the boys counts, so Pharaoh focuses on them. The real threat to Pharaoh is not from the men—it’s from the women.

            Again and again, so many times in this relatively short passage, the women in Egypt undermine Pharaoh’s genocidal intentions. First two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, refuse to kill the Hebrew boys. They know what matters, not just what counts. They fear God and disobey the king, even lying to his face: “The Hebrew women are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them,” they say. God does not reward their lying, but God does honor their refusal to kill and grants each midwife a family of her own.

            Stymied by the midwives, Pharaoh orders all male Hebrew babies thrown into the Nile. So a Hebrew woman, Jochebed, marries Amram and bears a son. After hiding the child for months, she obeys the king’s command and throws the boy into the Nile. Oh, the Pharaoh thinks he’s so smart; he will “deal shrewdly” with the Israelites. Jochebed, though—she’s the crafty one. Pharaoh only said the Hebrew children had to be thrown into the Nile. Pharaoh never said the boys had to be thrown in without any help. And he didn’t say anything about pulling them out again. So Jochebed outsmarts Pharoah. And, by the way, let me say that 3000 years later there are men who still haven’t learned Pharaoh’s lesson, who still treat women as inferior, as second-class citizens at work, at home—even at church. Thank God that God knows better than Pharaoh and us men. But I digress.

Jochebed outsmarts Pharaoh. She puts her son into a homemade boat, an ark, really, and sends him down the river. Surely Jochebed trusts in the Lord as she gives up her son.

            A fourth woman now enters the conspiracy against Pharaoh: Miriam, Jochebed’s daughter. Miriam follows the reed boat as it sails along until it reaches—Pharoah’s daughter. And Pharoah’s daughter, she picks up the child from the boat, recognizes him as a Hebrew boy, and keeps him anyway. Pharaoh’s daughter becomes the fifth woman to stand up to Pharaoh. And as soon as she’s pulled the boy from the water, Miriam boldly steps out from the shadows and offers to find a wet nurse for the child—his own mother. Pharaoh’s daughter names the boy Moses. This might be the funniest story in the entire Bible. Think about it: by the end of our passage, Moses, the boy who will one day lead Israel out of Egypt, just as Pharaoh had feared, is living in Pharaoh’s house, raised by Pharaoh’s daughter, who is paying Moses’s mother to nurse her own child, whom she was supposed to kill. All because Pharaoh focused only on the boys who counted and ignored the women who mattered. Pharaoh feared the thousands of boys growing up into warriors and rebels, but it was five “insignificant” women who brought him down.

            God, on the other hand, does not care about what counts according to human standards. God cares about what matters. God cares about the faith of these women, who trusted God enough to stand up to oppression and injustice, women who risked their lives and their children to thwart the cruel intentions of a powerful ruler. God cares that these women respect and love him more than they fear the Pharaoh on the throne. God does not focus on what counts; he keeps track of what matters.

            You know, there are so many examples from today, right now, of people focusing on what counts and losing track of what matters—I could go on all day. But let me bring this home to our church, the United Methodist Church, and to our congregation, Centre UMC. I love the United Methodist Church. I don’t always like it, but, God help me, I do love it. Our denomination, the United Methodist Church, loves things that count. We count every dollar to make sure our apportionments are sufficient. We count every church, every congregation, every Annual Conference member. Above all, we love to count members. Our church is obsessed with new members, losing members, big member churches—we love to count members. And I am convinced that our love of counting members distracts us from tending to what really matters.

            Today at Centre we are about to welcome three new members to our congregation. So what? If we don’t provide discipleship opportunities for Ann, Libby, and Nathaniel, who cares whether or not we added them to the rolls? If we don’t let them challenge us in our journey as disciples in Christ together at Centre, who cares if we can report our membership gain next month at Charge Conference? And if Ann, Libby, and Nathaniel force us to grow deeper in our faith, how do we count that in our record books? If they teach us to stand up to injustice and oppression, what number do we put for the Charge Conference report? If God works through them to lead us to the cross of Jesus Christ, what line number do we enter that on?

            Now before we get too judgmental of our denomination’s love of counting, let’s remember that we can fall into the same trap here at Centre. I’ve spent a lot of time in my first eight weeks here talking about how we need to focus on this problem or that repair. Stewardship of our resources, including our buildings, is one thing. If we’re not careful, it’s easy for these conversations to take over, for all our attention to be devoted to things that count. Are we sure we aren’t also letting what counts keep us away from what matters?

            In preparing for the exodus of his people Israel from Egypt, God looked for what mattered. Pharaoh looked for what counted. May we today be found insignificant enough that God would call us, also, to great faithfulness. Amen.
Aug 18

The Tears of Joseph

            The scene is tense. The sons of Jacob stand before the throne of Egypt’s most powerful prince. They are tired and hungry—they are desperate. Already they have been before this throne and sent away. Now their youngest brother, Benjamin, has been detained and accused of stealing the prince’s silver. If they had anyplace else to turn, they would have done so, but they are poor, and they need this prince’s help. Their family will starve without it.

            The prince, for his part, has been toying with the sons of Jacob. He knows something they don’t. He has helped them bit by bit, but he hasn’t decided yet what he’ll end up doing. Will he get his revenge for his brothers’ betrayal? Or will he turn away from his anger and hurt in order to help out his family, Jacob’s family? For the prince, as we know, as he knows, and as his brothers only learn in this morning’s story, is Joseph, son of Jacob, brother of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher.

            A lot has happened to Joseph since Genesis 37, which we read last week. He has been put through the wringer in Egypt, but it has worked out for the best for him. His dreams, which got him into so much trouble back home, make him a trusted advisor to the Pharaoh in Egypt. Meanwhile a famine has struck the region. Egypt, because of Joseph’s dreams, is prepared for the famine and has good stores of grain and food. But the wandering sons of Jacob have had no such fortune. This famed Egyptian prince, whom they did not know was their brother, was their last chance. The big reveal—that this prince, on whom they depend, is the brother they tried to kill, the brother they sold into slavery—the big reveal is not exactly good news for the sons of Jacob!

            Ah, but the big reveal is not really that the prince is Brother Joseph. The real news, the good news, in this morning’s story is that God has sent Joseph to preserve life. Jacob’s sons had thought they were in charge when they tossed Brother Joseph into the pit. But God had sent Joseph to preserve life. They were sure power (and money, of course!) was in their hands when they sold him to their Ishmaelite cousins. But God had sent Joseph to preserve life. And now, face to face with the brother they had betrayed, Jacob’s sons found themselves emptied of all their power, convinced that Brother Joseph, this prince of Egypt, now had all the cards. But God sent Joseph to preserve life.

How like God it was to choose this young brother, this nobody, to become the salvation of his people. The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone, indeed! How like God it was to make Brother Joseph, abused and mistreated most horribly by his brothers, the herald of good news for Jacob’s family. Despised and rejected by others, a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity, cut off from the land of the living—this was our Brother Joseph.

You see, Joseph is not just the story of a younger brother in an ancient Semitic tribe God happened to rescue. Joseph’s story, the last story in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, Joseph’s story sets up a pattern that God follows over and over again. The pattern of Joseph’s story is the pattern of King David’s story, the pattern of the prophet Jeremiah’s story, the pattern of the story of the people of Israel. The pattern of Joseph’s story finds its fulfillment in the story of Jesus, the unexpected Savior who is despised, rejected, and crucified for the salvation of Israel—and the whole world.

Up to the moment he disclosed his identity to his brothers, I don’t think Joseph himself knew that God was working in his life for the good of Jacob’s family, that God had sent him to preserve life. I’m not sure he had yet decided whether he was going to help his brothers or return their evil deeds tit for tat. Joseph had to take a risk—the risk of being a peacemaker. The risk of choosing reconciliation over revenge, love over hatred, peace over violence. It may not have been an easy decision. But once Joseph committed to the path of reconciliation, he set himself on a journey with God toward a more peaceful future.

It’s interesting—the Bible does not say, at this point, that Joseph forgave his brothers. The journey toward reconciliation begins here in Genesis 45. Not until Genesis 50, after Jacob has died, do the sons of Jacob seek forgiveness from Brother Joseph. Forgiveness even at that point is not inevitable—Joseph’s brothers fully expect their request to be denied and even offer to become Joseph’s slaves. But Joseph does forgive them and reassures them that though they “intended to do harm to [him], God intended it for good” (Gen 50:20). In this case, starting down the path of reconciliation leads to forgiveness, but there are no guarantees.

There is, however, a cost. Even at the start of his journey with God to reconciliation with his brothers, Joseph cannot turn to his brothers in love without weeping. He doesn’t just shed a few tears. He sobs. He wails. His weeping is so loud, the household of Pharaoh hears him. Over and over again, Joseph weeps. He weeps as he turns down the path of reconciliation. He weeps as he embraces his brother Benjamin for the first time. He weeps over the other sons of Jacob as he offers them the kiss of peace.

Joseph’s tears are the salve, the healing balm, the anointment desperately needed for the wounds separating him from his brothers. They are tears of sorrow over being separated from his family for so long. They are tears of joy for the reunion that has finally happened. They are tears of lament over the evil deeds of his brothers. They are tears of relief from the burden of anger and revenge that has weighed on Joseph ever since he was thrown into the pit. Joseph weeps, and his tears are the beginning of Israel’s salvation.

If only we would learn to weep like Joseph! If only we would have enough faith in God to risk reconciliation with those who have hurt us. If only we would learn to shed tears as Joseph does in Egypt, and as Jesus does on the road to Bethany and in the garden of Gethsemane. If only our tears could mark the beginning of the path to forgiveness and healing! Do you not yearn for the faith of Joseph as I do? Do you not wish to weep as he did? Pray that God would heal our hardened hearts.

Sadly, like the sons of Jacob, everyone but Benjamin, we watch Joseph’s tears in dumbfounded silence. What do we say? What do we do?

All of us—whether as individuals, as a church at Centre, as the body of Christ—all of us have a Brother Joseph, a friend, a relative, a neighbor whom we have harmed, someone who owes us nothing more than the evil we have committed. Today, for those of us Christians who happen also to be white Americans, our Brother Joseph is Michael Brown and every other black teenage boy who cannot leave his house without fearing for his life, either because of the ghettos this country’s policies have created or because of the anger of an insane vigilante, or because of the prejudice of a militarized police force.

If our lives have been preserved thus far, it is not so that we can lord God’s grace over those around us. It is so that we can seek forgiveness and mercy from our Brother Joseph, in the hopes that we might yet be saved.

It turns out that it wasn’t really Jacob who favored Joseph more than all his other sons; it was God. And God’s faithfulness and love for Joseph went ahead of him to the pit, into the bonds of slavery, and up to the throne of Egypt’s Pharaoh. God did not love Joseph in order to spite the other sons of Jacob. He loved Joseph in order to save all of Israel—and the whole world. As Christians, we benefit from God’s love for Joseph thousands of years later. God’s love for Joseph spared Israel and prepared the way for the birth of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. When we claim the benefits of this love, however, we must realize that this love of God makes a claim on us as well. We must flee to our Brother Joseph to seek his forgiveness and mercy. We must learn from our Brother Joseph to weep for reconciliation with those who have hurt us. For if we would claim Jesus as our Lord, we must always remember that Joseph is our brother.
Aug 11

Brother Joseph

Starting today, and for most of the next fourteen weeks or so, our sermons here at Centre are going to be based on the Old Testament lesson. We are going to pay careful attention to God’s covenant love with Israel, starting this morning with Joseph and continuing through the birth of Moses and the Exodus to the entry into the Promised Land under Joshua. Along with the story of the life of Jesus Christ, this long story is the core story of our Christian faith.

            Now, when I say, “The Old Testament,” what do I mean? Well, the Bible, our Scripture, is divided into two unequal parts. The second part is the New Testament, which has the gospels, Acts, and letters of the early church. The first and longer part is the Old Testament—sometimes called the First Testament, the First or Old Covenant, or even the Hebrew Bible—because most of it (though not all) was written originally in ancient Hebrew. We share the books of the Old Testament with Judaism. The Old Testament is in four parts: the Five Books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy; the histories, Joshua through Nehemiah; the literature, Esther through Song of Songs; and the prophets, Isaiah through Malachi. The sermons over the next few months will take us from the end of Genesis into Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Joshua.

            Over the centuries Christians have struggled with the Old Testament. For the writers of the New Testament, the Old Testament is“the Bible.” Jesus quotes it, Paul refers to it, and when 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is inspired by God,” it means the Old Testament. But it didn’t take long for problems to crop up. Some people thought they saw a difference between the God of the Old Testament and the God of Jesus Christ. They wanted to get rid of the Old Testament altogether. Others thought that God was done with Israel and that the Old Testament was only meaningful in reference to Christ. Many Christians today have gone their whole lives without reading the Old Testament.

            We Methodists, joining with Christians of various stripes from across the globe and across time, believe that God is the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rachel, Moses and Miriam, David and Bathsheba—and the God of Jesus Christ. In fact, one of our Articles of Religion (the standards of United Methodist doctrine) says that “The Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ… Wherefore they are not to be heard who feign that the old fathers did look only for transitory promises… [and] no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.”

            Now, please forgive the language, which is more King James than Facebook. What this article means is this. When we read the Old Testament, we need to read it on its own terms. That means, first, that we listen to the stories, psalms, and prophecies for what they have to say on their own. If we have trouble with them, we keep reading, searching for God’s presence in these passages. Then, we can listen to the stories for Christ’s silhouette and for what God is saying to us today. You see, Israel—the people of God in the Old Testament, not the modern nation-state created by the vestiges of Western colonialism—is whom God loves. God never gives up his love for his people Israel. Jesus Christ is the ultimate sign of God’s love for Israel, not the end of it.

            Let’s turn our attention to this morning’s Old Testament lesson. Here we are introduced to the story of Joseph. Joseph is one of the sons of Rachel, Jacob’s wife. Jacob is the son of Isaac, who is the son of Abraham. Confused yet?

            Genesis tells us that Jacob favored Joseph more than his other children. In the ancient near East, this would have been a scandal; the oldest child was the one who was to be given preference. But already in Genesis there has been a pattern of turning this on its head: God prefers the younger Abel’s gift to that of the older Cain; God chooses the younger Isaac instead of the older Ishmael; Jacob cheats his older brother Esau out of their father’s blessing; and now, Jacob loves his young son Joseph more than all his other children.

            The Bible does not praise Jacob for giving Joseph preferential treatment. In fact, Jacob’s love for his young son gets Joseph into trouble. Joseph’s brothers are jealous and plot against him. Of course, Joseph’s dreams don’t help, either. We skipped over that part today, but Joseph’s dreams are all about how his brothers will serve and bow before him. Not the kind of thing that might cool down a simmering sibling rivalry. Joseph’s brothers decide to kill him. They band together and grab their unsuspecting little brother, tear off the beautiful coat Jacob gave him, and throw him into a pit. Only the intervention of Reuben, the eldest brother, prevents the others from murdering their own flesh and blood. Instead they sell him to caravanning Ishmaelites—distant cousins—and Joseph becomes the first Israelite slave in Egypt.

            It’s a depressing tale, all the more so because it is so familiar and so—common. After all, for the first hundred years the U.S. depended on slave labor for its economic success. At first slavers traded in Africans—distant cousins. When the Middle Passage finally closed, however, slaves were still bought and sold—the children of other slaves. Because a master owned the body of his women slaves, often the slaves he bought and sold were his own children, or, when the elder master had passed, were the stepbrothers and stepsisters of the new master. Every slave bought and sold was a Joseph, a brother or a sister done wrong by another brother or sister. Sadly, slavery did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation. The sins of our slaveholding forefathers have been visited on generation after generation. And new forms of slavery, legal and illegal, continue to grip our world. We live in a land where the cries of so many Josephs still echo from the pit.

            Joseph is not just the brother of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher. He is my brother and yours.

            We read of slavery ancient and modern, new and old, and we ask, “Where is God in this?” We hear of brothers throwing brothers into pits, of loved ones turning on each other over petty grievances, and the world asks us, “Where is now your God?” The text in Genesis 37 is silent; God’s name is not mentioned in this story. But we know the answer. Where is God? God is in the pit.

            Joseph was stripped of his blessing, his coat and his father’s love, thrown into the pit by his brothers, and sold into slavery in Egypt. Jesus was stripped of his seamless garment, betrayed by his friends, hung on a cross, and thrown into the pit right next to him. And if we would claim Jesus as our Lord, we must never forget that Joseph is our brother. Amen.