“Selling Out or Standing Up” – Sermon 8/6/17

By: Rev. Dr. Rodney Kennedy

The stories of Joseph are stories of survival, compromise, intrigue, lies, resentment, but also courage, truth, and conviction. His life has more ups and downs than a roller coaster at Disney World. Here is Pharaoh and Joseph – the dark side. 

The story is about power and truth. This is repeatable history and a recurring plot always performed in the world. Politics is always about power and truth. Power, of course, includes money. Power holds the gun on truth and truth stands on the ledge of a high tower always in the precarious position.

First, there’s Pharaoh. There is always a pharaoh at the center of world power. “If you have seen one pharaoh you have seen them all.” Louis XIV, King of France, was famous for saying, “Lâtat, cest moi – ” I am the state” a metaphor that a king could live by, or at least try to. They all act the same way in their greedy, uncaring, violent self-sufficiency.” There’s always a tendency for a politician to grasp for all the power in the world. So in our story pharaoh is a metaphor. He represents raw, absolute, worldly power.  

Pharaoh does not care about his own people. He cares about power and money and control. During a crisis, a drought, Pharaoh leveraged his wealth to buy all the land from his fellow Egyptians and the text reads, “and the land became Pharaoh’s.” Acquisition matters most to the powerful. As for the people, he made slaves of them from one end of Egypt to the other.” Look, the people gave up their animals, their land, their lives in desperate attempt to survive. When poor people make a deal with Pharaoh for the promise of benefits, the people lose.  

Now, the text tells us an interesting piece of evidence at this point. Pharaoh did not buy the land of the priests “for the priests had a fixed allowance from Pharaoh, and lived on the allowance that Pharaoh gave them.” There’s nothing uglier than priests selling out to the power of the empire.  

Pharaoh is raw power in all its dark, sinister, evil guises.  

Joseph is the second main character in the story. Joseph jumps at the chance to be Pharaoh’s number one man. Leon Kass says that Joseph was fully “Egyptianized.” He turned his life toward the pharaoh and away from God. This is always the temptation of political power. Joseph’s head had always been filled with dreams of greatness and he mistakenly thought it was all about him. As Toby Keith sings,  

I want to talk about me Want to talk about I Want to talk about number one Oh my me my What I think, what I like, what I know, what I want, what I see I like talking about you, you, you, you usually, but occasionally I want to talk about me.

Joseph forgot that his job was to serve the people of God and he served himself. Can you think of other people who forget that they serve the people?  

Joseph is a sellout to Pharaoh. Genesis 47 contains Joseph’s rap sheet – the record of his calculating economic practices. He strips the people of everything: Money, cattle, land, and life. He enslaves the entire population. Remember in the movie The Lion King, when the evil lion, Scar, becomes king? The streams run dry. The herds move away. The mocking bird stops singing. The flowers stop blooming. The praise of all creation turns to incessant murmuring and only the hyenas roam the land. An evil wind blows across the land.  

Joseph shows no sign of a moral consciousness as he does the dirty work of Pharaoh. He does not express any compassion or signal any regret about his harsh actions on behalf of the empire. Joseph could have easily said what Marlon Brando said in The Godfather: “It’s just business.” The lines between godliness and greediness are totally blurred. It is Walker Percy’s Southerner who has morphed into a crooked Christian: he does business, he goes to church. Joseph is what Luke Skywalker would have become if he had gone to the dark side.  

What angers me about Joseph is the way he uses power to enrich himself and to ingratiate himself to Pharaoh. If I could speak to my fellow clergy, I would ask of them not to be caught up in the worship of political power. William Sloane Coffin: “I’d say people in high places make me really angry. The way corporations now behave and the way the United States government is behaving are about the same thing.” I shudder when someone tells me they want to run the church the way they run a business. We don’t need more business experts in government; we need more people who actually want to serve the interests of the people of the United States of America and the world. Why do we worship and adore cut throat competition? Why do we laud people who work 80 hour weeks in order to be number one? Why do we idolize the rich and the famous?

And what makes me angry is callous, really callous, pharaohs. I’m serious. Pharaoh really ticks me off. He is so callous. He doesn’t care. I’m mad at Pharaoh this morning, really mad. There was a wonderful layperson in England, von Hugel. And he said in his dying breath, “Caring is the greatest thing. Caring matters most.” Now when you see uncaring people in high places, everybody should be mad as hell.

Joseph, having sold out, forgets God. Even in prison, he never calls out to God. There’s no praying in Joseph’s life. He lives by his wits, intelligence, and his good looks. He may be God’s man but there’s no evidence that he is paying any attention to God. After all, he was “Daddy’s favorite.” Joseph was a spoiled brat. We understand if we are paying attention. My generation grew up like Joseph. Our parents willingly sacrificed everything for us. We became spoiled brats. We were given everything that our parents could give us. We were the family pet and we gladly accepted the coat of many colors. We were filled with world-conquering dreams, told we could do anything, that we were everything. A false self-esteem filled our heads until we felt privileged and above the law. Pampered, spoiled, and catered to, we thought we ruled the world. Oh yes we know Joseph. He is our patron saint. And like Joseph we too have left God for Egypt. This is our story.  

Joseph completely absorbs the identity of Pharaoh: the signet ring, garments of fine linen, a gold chain around his neck, and a company chariot – all the symbols of empire power. He gets an Egyptian name: Zapehnath-paneah. And an Egyptian wife, Asenath, daughter of the high priest of On.  

But there’s trouble on the horizon. The king is having nightmares of insecurity and anxiety. He’s up in the middle of the night fretting about hanging on to his power. He has a knee-buckling, white-knuckled nightmare that scares him to death. He begs his priests to interpret his dream. No Egyptian priest, academic, or economic expert could explain the nightmare to the king. All the king’s aides, staff, cabinet, press secretaries, luminaries were clueless. Even the political consultants were stumped.  

But the case was a no-brainer for Joseph. He tells Pharaoh the truth: “You dreamed famine! You dreamed scarcity! You dreamed your empire under threat! You have a nightmare that will undo your power.” Joseph grew up as a member of God’s family. He knew what other nations did not know – that YHWH was a faithful, merciful, covenant-keeping God. Joseph was raised in faith and therefore he had intelligence not available to the empire. Look at how easily Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream. After all, he had been a dreamer his entire life and he knew his way around dreams. Joseph is using God-skills that he hasn’t used in decades and yet they are still there. They have been there all along waiting for him to recover their power and their potency. That’s true for us. Everything we needed to know we learned in Sunday school. Even if we are out of practice, even if we have sold out, we still have God knowledge.  

Listen, God’s people know stuff. We know that we are loved. We know that life is a matter of grace. We know that we are called to serve others rather than self. Joseph temporarily forgot what he knew. After interpreting the dream, Joseph forgets to credit God and in the fog of forgetfulness, he uses his ambition to claim the top spot in the Egyptian administration. He was already walking like an Egyptian, talking like an Egyptian, now he becomes that terrifying creature “a consultant,” the man who has the ear of Pharaoh, the man who can walk into the king’s office without an appointment. Brazenly, maybe arrogantly, Joseph nominates himself to handle Pharaoh’s nightmare. He becomes the manager and chaplain of the nightmare of the empire. What Joseph now does to his people resounds to his shame across the centuries. The sellout sells out his own people.  

People say, “Once a sellout always a sellout.” But that’s not God’s way. Joseph sold out but there’s a moment in the story where he stood up. Joseph could no longer control himself and he cried, “Send everyone away from me.” He threw out all the Egyptian consultants and aides that catered to his every need and he threw off the shackles of Pharaoh. There was no one left in the room but his brothers. Joseph wept so loud that the Egyptians heard it and the household of Pharaoh heard it and they asked, “What’s up with the brother?” Then the redemption, the amazing moment of clarity and revival and renewal. A sellout becomes a stand up guy with these words: “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” His brothers didn’t believe him. It was that funny accent. It always throws people. “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. God sent me before you to preserve life.” Suddenly God, who has been there all along, God who has been everywhere except on the lips of Joseph, now centers stage right. Joseph is moved to recover his true identity. “I am your brother Joseph.” No more false airs. No more Egyptian politics. No more pretending to be someone else. “I am Joseph.” He drops his Egyptian name. Not sure what happened to his wife. Joseph steps up and reclaims his corporate identity – his sense of community. He is moved to swear his allegiance to God’s cause. After years of blinding himself to human need, Joseph saw the light of day. “Human beings who blind themselves to human need make themselves less human” (William Sloane Coffin).He names the name of God, and right there Joseph came home.

Now, do you get it? Do you see why we should never throw anyone away? Do you get that we shouldn’t give up on people or condemn people? There is hope even when we sellout. It’s not how we start but how we finish that matters. If after cowardice, there comes courage, we have become stand up people. If after not caring, we start caring for others, we have become stand up people.  

Once Joseph came home to his people and to his God, he provided for his family and their little ones. And when Joseph reached the end of his life, he instructed his brothers: Make sure you carry my bones out of Egypt. Joseph was now so committed to the way of God that he didn’t even want his bones to stay in that coffin in Egypt.  

It’s all here for us now. We too can reclaim our identity with the people of God. We can regain our sense of belonging to a community greater than we are. We can swear our allegiance to God. We can give our lives to the service of the people. It’s all right here for us.