Friday, August 15, 2014

The Holiness of Each Moment

Scripture for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”—do you remember the musical that brought the Joseph saga to the stage and screen?

That coat of many colors—notice how the New RSV translates the phrase “a long robe with sleeves,” suggesting the play that is possible within a biblical text, not to mention what keeps Bible scholars at play—whatever this sartorial splendor was, it only intensified the hatred Joseph’s brothers bore against him. That stemmed from the special love their father Jacob (who is also named Israel) felt for this youngest son of his old age, who reminded him of his beloved late wife, Rachel.

So the stage is set for a long blockbuster series of stories centering on Joseph. As we hear today, he is sold into slavery by his brothers, sent in chains to Egypt—the kind of radical demotion Jesus would feature, centuries later, in his story of the prodigal son. Once in Egypt, Joseph, by his beauty, his trustworthiness, and his managerial skill, rises to prominence in the household of Potiphar, a high muckety-muck of the Pharoah.

Mrs. Potiphar falls head over heels for this young slave, but he resists her wiles, proving his integrity but caught in a web of circumstantial evidence that lands him in jail. As bleak as that sounds, the skillful storyteller in Genesis is creating the drama that will elevate Joseph to the very pinnacle of power in Egypt: as far as he has descended—down into that pit, down into Egypt, down in Pharoah’s dungeon—just as high will he rise, in time becoming Pharoah’s right hand man. I would bet that the early Church treasured this story as a forecast of our Lord’s betrayal and vindication, his descent into the jaws of death and his rising to the right hand of God.

What saved Joseph from rotting in prison was his extraordinary gift for interpreting dreams. Back in Hebron, he had shamelessly explained to his family his own dreams as a young man about whom it could be said that he was full of himself, for his dreams foretold the day that his brothers, even his father and mother, would bow down to him. That gift failed to endear him to his brothers, but in Egypt it was his ticket to freedom as he reveals the meaning within the dreams of two of Pharoah’s servants who displeased their master and wound up jailmates of Joseph. After word of his success traveled, Joseph was summoned by Pharoah to interpret his royal dreams, and with that Joseph becomes a royal advisor on his way up the ladder of power.

And there he will face, and help Egypt survive, longterm devastating widespread drought and famine. Having become the chief administrator in all the land, he devises bold, cold ways by which the poor would survive, but at the expense of losing title to their land which passed into the hands of Pharoah. What we are to make of this steely competence is hard to say—though historians tell us that exactly this kind of shift in land ownership happened in ancient Egypt.

It isn’t long before Joseph’s family, back in Hebron, runs out of options and turns to Egypt, where they’ve heard it is still possible to buy food. So the stage is set for dramatic reunion between Joseph and his brothers in scenes that are among the most affecting in the Hebrew Bible.

Whenever we get a story from the Book of Genesis, we get a time-treasured answer to some big question, bigger than just the cast of characters and their interactions. Here the question answered is, “How did the Hebrew people wind up in Egypt?” The answer: economic necessity, as the tribes of Israel, represented by those sons of Jacob, made their way to the storehouses Joseph established. And how is it that they became slaves to Pharoah? At first they weren’t, with Joseph’s prestige protecting them; but in time the same harsh realities that reduced Egyptians to landless slavery reduced also Israel’s offspring.

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel says of Joseph that he was the first Jew to link Israel to the wider world. “Everything happened to him, and never on a petty scale. In defeat, he touched the bottom of the abyss. In his glory, he was the peer of kings who regarded themselves as peers of the gods… He aroused hate or love, fear or admiration. Never indifference. .. Nobody failed to take a stand for or against him. He was to be found everywhere, embroiled more often than not in incredibly complex situations which he usually enjoyed confusing even further. While still a child, he behaved like a king. When he became a king he often behaved like a child… He loved to shock people and knew he could do it with impunity… In the context of the Biblical narrative, he was a new kind of hero, heralding a new era.”

For countless generations of Jews, Joseph “is the object of passionate admiration bordering on worship… a Jew whose tribulations had a happy ending… 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.”

Later Judaism would yearn for the Messiah, the anointed agent of God who would accomplish the doing of God’s will on earth as in heaven, righting all ancient wrongs. The worse life got for the Jews, the more deeply they longed for the Messiah. When pressed to describe him, they would point to their great King David. They would point also to Joseph.

As does the New Testament, where followers of Jesus declare their belief that the carpenter from Nazareth is the Messiah of God, and the Christian scriptures point to Joseph’s significance to the Church. His saga is re-told in chapter seven of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, as if Joseph helps establish the pedigree of Jesus. And because little in the Gospel narrative is coincidental, notice that Joseph is the name of Jesus’s earthly father, and it is through dreams that God reveals to this Joseph the wisdom of a hasty retreat to Egypt, saving the holy family from King Herod’s wrath.

Do our two New Testament readings play well with Joseph’s story? Both St. Paul in his letter to the Romans and Jesus in Matthew make clear that Jesus the Messiah is master of the present moment. No story says that better than Matthew’s snapshots of Jesus on the sea, the disciples in the boat, Peter rising, falling. Freeze-frame moments full of Jesus’s presence.

First, their moment of fear, into which he speaks: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then the moment when Peter dares to go where Jesus is, and Jesus commissions him: “Come.” And after moments of focused obedience, one foot in front of the other, Peter is distracted by strong wind. In the moment of terror, the kind known by every one of us who has lost bearings in an attack of panic, Peter throws himself forward to Jesus, who catches him. Then, the stilling of sea, sound, silence. Finally, the boat rocks with praise.

It all resembles steps, stages, phases in faith formation, doesn’t it? In each of these powerful moments along the wet windy way, Jesus is Lord. None of these steps is more or less holy than the next.

St. Paul also draws us to locate the Messiah, God’s presence, not up in heaven or down in the abyss, but in the present moment. Jesus Christ does not need to be sent for from heaven for a rare appearance in ordinary life; nor is he confined in some mausoleum of the past. His word is near us, on our lips and in our hearts. Faith is the heart’s ability to trust.

With every Bible story, every portion we hear from the Hebrew scriptures and from the Christian, something is being said that is bigger than the actions and words of the characters on the page. Each encounter we have with the Word of God invites us, challenges us, to discern what that bigger message is… and to welcome it.

Today, the holiness of every present moment is the theme that draws our attention. In the long saga of Joseph, every moment of his descending and his ascending is of equal importance to the whole story of his life’s transformations. Each moment is a fresh opportunity for choice to be made, justice to be shown, inspiration to be trusted, opportunity to be claimed, responsibility to be shouldered, gratitude to be expressed.

We may long for mountaintop experiences, and we may dread anxious times—but our readings call us to recognize that no moment is more or less holy than another, no more or less valuable, playing its part in transformation whether or not we understand what that part is, or just why it happens as it does. In what moment of that stormy boat ride is grace not active on behalf of those disciples? God’s grace is not a stranger to any of our moments. The hand of Jesus Christ is within reach of us. The Spirit is already present in the moment ahead.

The bigger message, the good news, of these readings is clear: “Take heart, it is I: do not be afraid.”

(Elie Wiesel’s commentary on Joseph is found in his book “Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends”, Elirion Associates, Inc., 1976.)