Monday, August 8, 2011

Keys to Metamorphosis

Scripture for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-32

Our exposure to scripture this summer has featured the series “As Jacob’s world turns.” His saga, rife with treachery and deceit while also rich with perseverance and faithfulness, now rolls into the Joseph saga, featuring Jacob’s favorite son. Yes, batten down the hatches: we’re in for two or three more weeks of patriarchal stories.

Like the story of Jacob and his brother Esau, Joseph’s cycle of stories begins where brothers have become enemies. You would think that Jacob might have learned to avoid favoritism: it was his being the apple of his mother Rebekah’s eye that helped set the stage for a whole generation of trouble. But Joseph is the brightest star in his father’s sky, because Joseph is the son of Jacob’s first love, his deceased wife Rachel, “the son of his old age,” as we heard today.

That creates a whole nest of angry brothers. Do you remember the musical, “Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”? While the other boys, the older brothers, got their clothes at J. C. Penney, Jacob took Joseph to Ralph Lauren.

Having reached the ripe age of seventeen when we meet him today, he can’t be expected to be the soul of discretion. Add to this the fact that he’s a dreamer—literally, he’s his father’s boy, for you remember how Jacob was visited by God in a dream, way back when. Joseph’s dreams predict his own bright future, and while a more circumspect young man might have kept those nocturnal visions to himself, Joseph is neither endowed with humility nor likely to pass up an opportunity to announce to his his brothers his superiority. The natural results of such self-celebration we heard today. They hated him.

There’s no one better than Elie Wiesel to comment on the patriarchal stories of the Book of Genesis. He offers an overview of the Joseph saga, and says that what this story is all about is “man’s capacity for transformation. The tale of Joseph is the tale of a metamorphosis—no, a series of metamorphoses.

“First, a family metamorphosis: a favorite child falls victim to his own prerogatives.

“A social metamorphosis: a poor immigrant becomes a huge success in his adopted country,” Egypt.

“A political transformation: a servant turns activist and changes the socio-economic policy of the land,” as Pharoah’s Egypt struggles with severe famine.

“A philosophical or artistic metamorphosis: the slave turns into a prince,” the stuff of opera and drama.

“And finally, a purely Jewish metamorphosis: a young refugee, without friends or connections, builds himself an astounding political career culminating with his accession to the post of chief royal advisor,” right-hand man to the Pharoah.

“No wonder,” says Wiesel, “that in our traditional literature Joseph is the object of passionate admiration bordering on worship. Here is a Jew whose tribulations had a happy ending, who owed his success to no one, who imposed his ideas on hostile surroundings thanks only to his natural gifts, who transformed exile into a kingdom, misery into splendor, and even humiliation into mercy. He was indebted to no one and that made him a free man, a man free to do whatever he chose.

“…Abraham is respected and admired; Isaac is pitied; Jacob is followed; but only Joseph is loved.

“…Abraham was obedient, Isaac was brave, Jacob was faithful. Only Joseph was just.”

All this transformation, you recall, happened in the land of Egypt, a nation we watch changing before our eyes today. Let’s pray that the Mubarak trial will help the people of Egypt hear a calling to a finer purpose than revenge, will help that nation metamorphose out of violence into peace, out of corruption into justice. If not, the future of a free Egypt could be in peril.

The transformation of a people is underway also in our Gospel today. Crowds play a role in the birthing of a new social order: we have seen that in Egypt, and there has been a large crowd in an open place in our recent portions of Matthew’s Gospel. Last Sunday, Jesus gave his disciples the greatest challenge they had ever faced: feeding a hungry crowd that numbered in the thousands. He also gave those disciples the best object lesson ever: When faced with an impossible task, generously model the first step towards the remedy, then trust God to be at work among the people. We have seen a similar model at work in this Arab Spring: at its start, handfuls of protestors boldly, generously, modeled the first step toward remedy, trusting God to be at work in the people. Risky, for sure. So, it seems, five thousand men (not counting women and children) were fed.

It is fresh from that public demonstration that Jesus despatched his worn-out disciples to get some rest, away from the crowds. Fishermen that they were, the twelve took to their boats. Jesus climbed a steep hill for his solitude, and from that vantage point he kept an eye on the twelve, and noticed their emergency, how a storm was engulfing them. And while I have no pet theory about what happened next, I see the point: that Jesus is the Messiah who is forever with his people, right in the thick of all the changes and chances and storms of this mortal life.

Following his own model from the feeding story, Jesus generously models the first step towards the remedy, then trusts God to be at work among the people. He walks toward them, calls out to them when their terrors multiply at the very sight of him and they mistake him for the Grim Reaper. He urges them to take heart and not be afraid—not that feelings should be denied, but that fear distracts people from the metamorphosis they must make. Trust, only trust, will focus them on that transformation.

Peter, always first among the twelve (first to get it, first to flub it), does what he sees his Lord doing: he will lead his brothers through this crisis. Jesus agrees: “Lead, Peter, come.” And his first steps are God at work in him. Then Peter notices the wind. The force that makes him lose balance. The distraction that breaks his focus. The opposition. The distance yet to go. The improbability of it all. And it sinks him. And his next step is God at work in him: “Save me!” he cries, honestly, openly, while simultaneously Jesus reaches out his hand and catches him, all of a moment.

“You had it right in those first steps,” I hear Jesus say to him. “More of those, next time. And remember to choose who and what you pay attention to.”

There are keys to proper metamorphosis, as disciples, as nations, as people of God: Trust God to be at work in first steps. Lead by generous modeling of the first step, trusting God to be at work in the people you lead and serve. Pay attention to whomever, whatever, wherever you recognize the call of God to originate. Let distractions sink around you, as you keep balance. When you lose balance, reach for the hand that reaches for you.

And, to do justice to Joseph today, shed all illusions of superiority. We’re all in this metamorphosing of the human race together, and the sooner that religions and nations cease believing that they are called by God to be exceptional and exclusively special, the sooner we may be free to know and love and serve the one God who works in people’s transformation, meets people in their throes of change, steadies people for the work of metamorphosis (the reaching-out), and calls people to lead.

(For more of Elie Wiesel on Joseph, find his book "Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends", Summit Books, 1976. The quoted material here comes from pp. 139-141.)