Sunday, August 28, 2011

Working In Love

Preached at Prescott Memorial Baptist Church
August 28, 2011
Genesis 41:37-57, 42:1-6

We made fun of her. We were teenagers and it was our job to make fun of anybody over age thirty. She was short, fat and had a name that rhymed with “turtle.” Her name was Pirtle so we called her Pirtle Turtle. We were the youth group at my church in Jackson, Tennessee. Mrs. Pirtle devoted herself to providing clean and Christian programming for the teenagers…skating nights, bowling competitions, pizza parties, talent shows, Bible quizzes, camping trips, hay-rides, ice cream suppers, car washes. Mrs. Pirtle had five children of her own and she wanted them to feel connected to the life of the church so she made things happen. No matter how awful we were she grinned in a good natured way and kept on doing what she loved to do—making a place for the young people in the church. We rarely admitted how much we needed her but she must have picked up some kind of personal reward through osmosis or something because she hung in there and kept her spirits up.

When I turned twenty-one I dropped out of college for no good reason and got a job at Rockwell Power Tools. I worked on the assembly line. Little grenade looking contraptions came by me on the conveyor belt and my job was to affix five wires into a cylinder on each grenade that came by. These grenade things came by quickly! And I could only get about two out of five before they moved on down the line. God help the person who actually purchased any of the power tools that passed by me during the time I worked there. I couldn’t keep up.

Hundreds of assembly-line workers sat on stools in a dimly lit warehouse. We had to focus on the conveyor belt in front of us constantly. A whistle blew at 2 hour intervals so we could have a bathroom and smoke break. All of us took lunch break, thirty minutes, at the same time. Any phone calls that needed to be made were made during the lunch break. The sameness coupled with my extreme frustration over not keeping up was deadening for me.

Mrs. Pirtle worked at Rockwell Tools. She worked there for 38 years, sitting on a stool and grabbing up assembly line pieces, contributing her part to the Rockwell products. I watched her while I was there. Mrs. Pirtle was the same person at work as she was at church. At work Mrs. Pirtle was faithful, productive and cheerful, full of life-giving joy. She came alive in that warehouse the same way she came alive in the church basement while MC’ing the annual teenage talent show.

She sat on a stool at Rockwell for 38 years. And she worked in love at the church. You could see the love in her face and hear it in her laughter. Mrs. Pirtle is one of those people I think of when I look through my memories for those who have been called to work for good in the world. She knew what her purpose was.

Pharaoh was pleased with his servant, Joseph, and referred to him as “the one in whom is the Spirit of God.” Pharaoh described Joseph as discerning and wise. So Joseph was given authority over all of Egypt. He received Pharaoh’s signet ring, garments of fine linen, a gold chain, a royal chariot and the daughter of a priest for his wife.

Joseph’s career blossomed. Suddenly he was the man he had dreamed of becoming, the one with work to do that came with respect, responsibility and power. He had dreamed dreams, endured hardships, remembered his strengths and gifts and was ready to be impressive as soon as he came up out of the dungeon. He had a strategy for feeding the nation. And his strategy was a success.

Between the day that Joseph first told his father and brothers about his dreams (You remember? The sheaves of wheat bowing down to him in the field, the sun, moon and eleven stars lining up to bow down to him in the sky…) and the day that the signet ring was placed on his finger there were many opportunities for Joseph to lose hope, to get down and depressed, to give up on himself and his strengths.

But Joseph’s purpose was to work for love of the God who created him, for love of the way God created him. It worked. He won his place in the dream.

Work is part of life. We want to be paid for the work that we do and we want, even more, for our work to be meaningful. Many of us will work for almost nothing so long as the work rewards us with a sense of truly sharing the best of ourselves. We want our work to be appreciated. We want our work to make a difference. It is the prize we keep our eyes on up ahead- sharing ourselves and seeing that the world around us is brighter and better because of the work we have done.

And don’t be thinking you don’t have what it takes to make a big difference in this world. You do. You are a human being created in the image of God and that qualifies you for amazing work.

In the year 1662 an ordinary foot soldier named Nicholas Herman noticed a dry and leafless tree in the middle of winter and he focused on it. He realized that spring would come and change that tree altogether. This ordinary man during an ordinary work day had a simple reflection on the cycles of life and that moment changed a foot soldier into a man of constant prayer.

Nicholas Herman entered the Order of Carmelites in Paris and became known as Brother Lawrence. His letters and conversations have been written and turned into a classic called “The Practice of the Presence of God.” Brother Lawrence dedicated himself to living in a constant conversation with God. At any moment in the midst of any work the soul can practice the presence of God. “All that I do,” he wrote, “I do for love of God.” He worked in the kitchen washing dishes and practicing the presence of God. Ordinary work with great purpose. Four hundred years later we are still being inspired by this man’s reflections on his work and his connection to God in the kitchen.

Like the birds that fly over our heads, each one of us has wings to fly in our work, to transcend the ordinary and create extraordinary transformative moments—simply by connecting our work to the power of God’s love within us.

We are the church. As a church we are called and equipped to work together. The purpose of the church is to be a transforming people who work together in the light of God’s grace. Everything else is up to God.

Our work is to engage the lonely in affirming friendships, comfort the broken hearted, heal the sick, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, protect and respect the children and vulnerable, remember those in prison and spend time with them, treat all people as we would want to be treated ourselves.

Like the birds that fly over our heads we spread our wings and fly when we work in love and for the love of God.

Joseph had two sons: He named the first child Manasseh which means God has made me forget all my hardships. And Joseph named his second child Ephraim which means God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes. Hard times were over for Joseph. His work made him a governor. God in Joseph’s life and work delivered the reward of a successful life in the palace.

Meanwhile back in the land of Canaan, the old man, Jacob, and his sons were getting hungry. The food had run out and they learned that food was available in Egypt. So the old man asked his sons, “Why are you standing around looking at each other?” Step outside the circle of your familiar here and see if there’s a cure somewhere for what’s starving us.

The brothers traveled to Egypt where they found food and they found a chance to be fed and forgiven by the brother they had wronged long ago. The story comes full circle. The story is all about love, God’s love moves with and through this story at all times. The story is all about trusting in God’s steadfast love.

So let me say a little something about the world in which we’re working… We live in a world where people are not motivated by oughts and shoulds. People in this congregation will not be shamed into dedicated service for the church. “If you really loved Jesus (or this church) you would volunteer to teach in Sunday school every week.” This doesn’t work. And that kind of emotional bullying is even less effective outside the church: You ought to be in church or else…People roll their eyes. Twenty percent of our neighbors, family and friends are quite comfortable today living without any kind of faith community or commitment to any particular religious belief. Compare that with around three percent in the 1950’s. This is the world we work in today.

Rather than tell our neighbors, family and friends what they ought or should be doing, it is more helpful to ask questions.

Peter Drucker, famed teacher of management and consultant to many of America’s corporations, has made a career out of asking two simple questions: “What business are you in?” and “How’s business?” For the work of the church these questions can be re-worded “What purpose are you serving?” and “How’s your purpose going?”

Anthony Robbins now serves a huge congregation in Seattle, a growing church--vibrant and effective in its outreach. But he tells about a time, twenty years ago, when his ministry seemed lifeless, his work meaningless. He says, “I had no notion what was going on. I felt hollowed out from the inside. Life had lost its pleasure. I went home from church after preaching one Sunday, lay down on the bed, unsure whether I would or could ever get up again. In time I did get up and went on about my work but savoring none of it. In time I came to know this experience as depression.”

He goes on to say- “It was not like having a sinus infection where the problem is clear and easily treated. The experience of depression required learning and change before I could get close to a solution. I learned that medication helped and I learned that other steps were required in order to find my purpose in life. I had to do some rethinking about ministry and the ways I worked. I had to do some rethinking about church and what its purpose is in the world.

I had to change my ideas about what work belonged to me, what work belonged to others and what work belonged to God. I had to learn how to trust and rely on God. I had to learn not only to preach grace but to experience grace myself. I had to learn to live less attached to outcomes and more open to letting God be God in the world, in the church and in me.”

Robbins says: “So far this has been the challenge of my life. Living with the questions, the learning and the changes have made my work what it is now, an ongoing conversation with God.”

Asking questions, learning, changing, growing. These are the things that life is made of. What is the purpose of this church? And what can you learn by asking that question?

Mrs. Pirtle devoted herself to providing clean and Christian programming for the teenagers…skating nights, bowling competitions, pizza parties, talent shows, Bible quizzes, camping trips, hay-rides, ice cream suppers, car washes. She worked at Rockwell and at the church. She worked in love, in an ongoing conversation that kept her connected and motivated, unattached to the outcome.

Brother Lawrence washed the dishes, dried them and put them away as he talked with God. It all began with a leafless winter tree and realizing that tree would be covered with green leaves when spring arrived. Life belongs to God, life of the trees, life of the birds, life of our families, neighbors and friends. The life of our church belongs to God.

Joseph, drawn up from the dungeon, found a place to work. Joseph and God fed an entire nation. The steadfast love of God provided for Joseph a place to work where he could reconnect with his brothers, feed them, forgive them and restore them to a life where the entire family could live together and work in love.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Gifted for Service

Genesis 41:1-36
Preached at Prescott Memorial Baptist Church
August 21, 2011

Lisa Anderson is a chaplain at St Jude. She’s been there for fifteen years. Families come from all over the world to get treatment for their children here in Memphis. Lisa tells about a Japanese couple who brought their baby to St Jude with hope and fear in their hearts. The baby had a rare and awful blood disease. Each day Lisa went by ICU and stood by the baby to pray. She spoke to the parents. They nodded and bowed. They were so broken hearted; it was difficult to look at the pain on their faces. Lisa couldn’t talk with them because she can’t speak Japanese. They couldn’t speak English. Somehow the translator and Lisa could never make it to the ICU at the same time.

One afternoon Lisa was at the dentist having her teeth cleaned when she got a call from the nurses in ICU. The baby was making her transition from this life to the next and the parents were asking for Lisa. “Are you sure this is what they’re asking for?” Lisa wondered how it could be that the parents, who she had never been able to talk with, were asking for her. She went to the bedside and the translator explained that they wanted their baby blessed for the journey. Lisa led them in a ritual, a blessing, and the parents were grateful. The parents who could not speak English understood that Lisa who could not speak Japanese was a connection to the divine, a connection to a love and hope that transcends all languages.

As people of faith we are gifted for service and our gifts are needed by so many people. There’s a famine going on in our world when it comes to our hunger for hope and human connection to the divine.

As people of faith we are richly blessed with gifts and not a day goes by in our ordinary lives that we aren’t called upon to share in hope filled ways. In fact it is our gifts that keep us faithful and grateful. When we begin to lose hope and the lights fade for us we find that reaching out to share and help another person is the most direct way to return to the light of hope. It is through sharing our spiritual gifts and strengths that we rise up out of our own pain and darkness – finding meaning and purpose as we move from morning to night.

Joseph had been in the dungeon for two years. He was there on a false charge. Potiphar’s wife, as you remember, came on to Joseph (who was apparently very handsome) and when he turned her down she cried out accusing Joseph of something he did not do. So Joseph’s master took him and threw him in prison.

And we are told that God was with Joseph. God showed Joseph steadfast love and gave him favor in the eyes of the chief jailer. I just want to point out that scripture says God was with Joseph in the dungeon. So when we talk as if God is with us when we get a good parking place, when we land the job we wanted, when we win the lottery…It is not only when the sky is rosy that we find God within us and beside us. God is the main character in our life’s story no matter where our life takes us.

So after two years in prison, Joseph, the one who had been rejected by his brothers and sold into slavery, earned for himself the respect and admiration of other prisoners as well as the chief jailer. Joseph did not hide his gifts. It is remarkable to think about it. He could have been lost in anger, bitter, reclusive, and depressed—and which one of us would blame him? But Joseph recognized himself as a person created and gifted by God. His gifts were intended to be used for service – whether he was wearing a coat of many colors in his father’s house, on a throne in the palace or down in the dungeon. And it was down in the dungeon where Joseph used his God-given gifts to interpret the dreams of the baker and cupbearer. And that is what ultimately set him free.

Because Joseph shared his gift as an interpreter of dreams, the cupbearer was pulled up into the light and later, when an interpreter of dreams was needed for pharaoh, the cupbearer remembered his days in the dungeon and that set Joseph free. Good stewardship of the gifts he had been given made the difference for Joseph.

The writers of the New Testament remind us over and over again that our gifts come from God and are intended for service. The purpose of our gifts is to increase the hope of the world. In Matthew and Luke we’re asked: If you know how to give good gifts to your children, can you imagine how God in heaven knows how to give good gifts to us? In Corinthians we’re told that although there is a wide variety of gifts given to believers-- all gifts come from One God. James tells us that every good and perfect gift comes from God above.

Our Old Testament friend, Joseph, wasn’t gifted so he could sit on a throne in the palace and feel special, powerful. He was gifted to make a difference in the world around him. So he came up out of the dungeon, into the light, interpreted pharaoh’s dream and –as a result-- all of Egypt and the surrounding regions were fed—grain was set aside during the seven years of plenty so that grain was available to eat in plenty during the seven years of famine.

As I talk about gifts I recognize that we live in a time and a culture where we have been trained to think about ourselves as individuals. If you are like me you are now wondering: What are my gifts? What gifts have I been given? How do my gifts compare to the gifts given to the person next to me? How do my gifts compete? We live in a world that has taught us to think that way.

And I would like for us to consider gifts in a different way. Not the gifts that each one of us has been given but the gifts we have been given together to create a vibrant and hope-filled faith community. I would like to gently lead us away from our individualized packaging and into the family-sized packaging. This congregation has been gifted by way of the individuals that make the congregational body--and those gifts are provided for service, to draw people out of the dungeon and into the light.

I am an infrequent visitor, a guest here, and I can easily point out several gifts this community has been given. Your warm welcome and hospitality are genuine. You are faithful. I have seen you act with absolute generosity, giving more than I would have thought you had to share. You embrace difference in a world that focuses on homogenizing everything. You don’t insist on an agenda of growth as if getting bigger is the only goal that matters for a congregation. You have integrity and a good sense of humor. You have compassion.

You have hope that sustains you and spills out into the community. You have rituals that keep you focused on your good intentions, rituals that remind you of the Source, the God who gave you your good gifts.

Gifts, like love, do not run out but I think they can dry up and blow away if they are not watered by the gentle and steady rains of faith and hope.

Elif Shafak, a Turkish novelist, recently provided a TED Talk titled “The Politics of Fiction.” She says that our social problems too often come from the circles that surround us and keep us comfortable. We choose to be inside circles of people and places that mirror the way we look, think, act and vote.

Shafak says, “If we have no connection whatsoever with the world beyond the one we take for granted then we run the risk of drying up inside. Our imagination might shrink. Our hearts might dwindle and our humanness might wither if we stay for too long inside our cultural cocoons.”

(That’s Technology, Entertainment and Design Talks. You can find these excellent addresses at Ideas worth spreading.)

Joseph, so wonderfully gifted for excellent service that his brothers hated him and sold him along with his gifts, was taken as a slave into Egypt. A strange land. A strange story. A trip he made by force and not by choice. He landed in prison. And he was called out of prison to live in the palace. None of it really by choice except that Joseph did choose to stay alive, alert, aware of opportunities to share the gifts he came with.

This church has a long, strange story that rides up and down like a roller coaster ride. It might be nice to have the sanctuary full of people. It might be nice to have offering plates filled with big checks every week. It might be nice to have a televised worship service that wows the world. Some congregations enjoy that kind of gift package.

The package of gifts this congregation has been given is no less stellar and no less valuable. You have chosen to step outside the circle and trust God to provide the meaningful ways to share. Just like Lisa, the chaplain at St Jude, you may be in ministry with people whose language you cannot speak but the divine connection is obvious and understood by all.

Rick Bragg wrote an article, “What Stands in a Storm,” for the August edition of Southern Living Magazine. Everything was vulnerable in Alabama and Mississippi on April 27 of this year when a tornado a mile wide ripped through those states. Rick Bragg lives on a lovely street in Glendale Gardens, Alabama. That day the winds ripped and roared. 2 by 4’s flew through the air like toothpicks. Trees splintered. Shingles flew from the houses like pieces of paper. Sirens screamed. Mothers held on to their babies in closets and bathtubs.

Outside, minutes after the winds died down, people gathered in the street. Tammy Elebash stood in the street with a phone to her ear. “Yes I see the Pitts, the Petrivics. Yes, Mrs. Brannon is fine. She’s on my arm right here.” Inez and John were together holding on to each other while Inez clutched their wedding album, the only thing they had grabbed before taking shelter in their tub.

They stood together in the street. Neighbors. Shocked. Bewildered.

Then one by one they began to notice the change. The once verdant place was laid open, stripped, flattened. They could see things they hadn’t been able to see before like a water tower that used to be invisible behind the curtains of green. It was like the storm had picked these people up and set them down some place ugly, broken and twisted.

They stood together in the street. Neighbors. Shocked. Bewildered. They moved closer together. How awful it would have been to have landed in this ugly, broken and twisted place—alone.

How awful for Joseph had he landed in Egypt, a strange land, alone and without benefit of his faith, without the good gifts God gave to him and the capacity to share them.

How awful for that Japanese couple at St Jude, standing helplessly by the crib had they not felt the connection of hope they found in Lisa?

How awful it would have been to be there alone.

When we think back over the tough times in our own lives it is most often the case that we made it through the struggle, moved from the dungeon into the light of another day, because somebody was there and their gifts connected us to a hope that transcends all things on earth.

It isn’t the gifts so much as it is our faith in the giver of good gifts that sets us free to be generous, compassionate, willing to reach out and grow in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. We are gifted for service.

May we celebrate those gifts in our worship together. And may we find this body of faith affirmed to go out from this place and time together to spread hope in the streets of Memphis, to spread a spirit of compassion in this neighborhood, and to connect with the gifts of all God’s people wherever we meet them.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Preserving Life

Preached at Prescott Memorial Baptist Church
August 14, 2011
Genesis 45:1-28

We all come from a place where there are no enemies. We come into this world without defense and without any awareness that we might require defenses. Just look at a newborn baby. Bend over the crib in the early morning light when a baby is first waking up. The expression is beatific. You will see that babies expect the world around them to be full of wonder, glorious, kind and safe.

And then we experience family life. We get our assigned role: the hero, the mascot, the scapegoat, the trouble maker, the pet…And we fall into our script. We learn our lines. And we sharpen our skills for survival against all manner of attacks and enemies.

In his study, “The Life of Birds,” David Attenborough tells about the tragic dodo bird. A turkey-sized flightless pigeon, the dodo lived on the tropical island of Mauritius. A fruit eater it had little reason to fly. With no natural predators the dodo didn’t even know how to move quickly. So it was easy prey for humans when they came to Mauritius Island. The sailor, Volguard Iverson, shipwrecked on the island in 1662, gave the last eye witness account of the dodo. “Instead of wings,” he wrote, “these large creatures have small flaps…” And those flaps proved useless for getting away from the men who hunted them into extinction.

We think of a dodo as a stupid creature. In reality it was a creature that had no enemies, no reason to fear. So it had no reason to fly. Most birds have developed wings and they fly—not just for the pleasure of feeling the wind beneath their wings- but as a way to survive. A way to preserve life.

Human creatures learn to walk and then we learn to run. We learn to ball up our fists, pick up weapons and defend ourselves from enemies. And most of us learn these survival skills inside our own homes. In our relationships with our family.

We all have families. None of us came into the world absent contact with another human being and all the relationships involved there. Even if the connection is a deep disconnection there is a family connection of some size and significance for all of us. Somebody picked us up and put food in our mouth. And a family—for evil or for good-- came into being.

Tavis Smiley, host of NPR’s The Tavis Smiley Show, tells a story about his family. When Tavis was in the seventh grade he and his sister, Phyllis, were accused of doing something at church that they did not do. Their parents were leaders in the church: his mother was a missionary and their father was a trustee and on the board of deacons.

They had attended an afternoon service at church and some disruptive behavior took place during the program. Somehow the finger of blame got pointed at Tavis and his sister as the ringleaders—even though they were innocent. In a later church meeting the minister of the church stood in front of the entire congregation and accused Phyllis and Tavis of being the culprits. He scolded them publicly.

The brother and sister knew they were in deep trouble. They tried to convince their parents that they were not responsible for the disturbance at church. But their parents had been embarrassed and would not listen to their children. They took the minister’s word over the word of their children.

Their father was absolutely enraged. It was clear when they got home and behind closed doors that a beating was on the way. It didn’t happen immediately. The father had to go to work and he didn’t return home until 3 in the morning.

That’s when he came into the bedroom, turned on the light, got Tavis out of bed and gave him the worst beating Tavis ever had. The father beat his son with an extension cord. He beat Tavis and then he went to Phyllis room, dragged her out of bed and beat her. The father beat his children so badly that the children’s’ flesh was ripped and torn. They were in so much pain that they could not lie down. Their bleeding wounds stuck to the sheets. The next morning they could not take a bath for the open wounds that stung so badly.

Both children dressed and went to school. But they would not put on their gym shorts. They refused to change clothes in the locker room because they were too embarrassed at what the other kids would see on their backs and legs.

So Tavis was sent to the principal’s office. The coach thought Tavis was hiding something. And he was. The principal ordered Tavis to take his clothes off. When the principal and coach saw the condition of Tavis body, they called Phyllis in too. After seeing the cuts and wounds on her body the police and an ambulance were called. Phyllis and Tavis were in the hospital for seven days while their wounds were treated. Then social services took the matter to court and both children were put into foster care, taken to two separate foster homes.

After many months of living in foster care, Tavis went home to live while he finished high school. The relationships were strained and uncomfortable all during high school. Phyllis never returned home; she remained in foster care until she was an adult and on her own.

To this day Tavis Smiley and his sister are healing from that experience. It was painful, an embarrassment. Because the police were involved there was something written in the local newspaper. It was a small town and everyone was talking about the family, even the people at the church. Phyllis and Tavis felt that they had brought deep shame on the family even though they had been innocent of the original disturbance.

The incident affected Tavis and his sister differently. Tavis used the incident to motivate himself. He sought to be empowered so he would never be humiliated in the eyes of the community again. He decided he would not let his scars determine his destiny. Tavis focused on achieving and more achieving.

Phyllis allowed the incident to beat her down. She never recovered emotionally. She has never forgiven their father. She had a number of babies without having a husband to help her. She got hooked on crack. Her life has spun out of control. The scars are still visible on her arms and legs. And the scars are still evident in most of her life choices.

Tavis reports that not a single day goes by that he does not think about the beating and his father’s rage. And not a single day goes by that he does not work to heal from the pain.

The real damage happens when family members are afraid to talk about their pain. The real damage happens when families get stuck. The permanent damage happens when families refuse to admit they have been hurt. Evil takes control when family members deny that they need each other in order to heal. Families need each other in order to preserve life.

Tavis says that his father and mother have asked for forgiveness. The pain has been acknowledged between them. The mother and father have grown from acknowledging their own guilt and shame. Tavis prays for his sister. He says, “No matter how severe the pain in our lives, we must strive to do whatever is necessary to turn our pain into power.”

Keeping the Faith: Stories of Love, Courage, Healing and Hope from Black America, Tavis Smiley, Anchor Books, NY, 2002

This is how we preserve life. This is how we preserve our own life and the lives of those around us. We learn to turn our pain into power.

“Don’t be distressed,” Joseph said to his brothers when they came to Egypt for food. “Don’t be angry with yourselves because you sold me here. For God sent me before you to preserve life.” Turning pain into power. We can do that by recognizing and depending upon the power of God’s providence.

Just because God brought us into this world doesn’t mean God brought us here to abandon us. Just because God brought us into a family filled with enemies doesn’t mean God doesn’t have a powerful plan for each one of us in our family. Just because we have pain in our family does not mean there will not be power to come from the family pain. Despite the fact that Joseph was sold into slavery, he was not trapped as a victim of his past.

Edwin H. Friedman has written a classic text book on family theory. His book is Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. It’s a book about family systems therapy. Family systems therapy focuses not on the personality of the identified patient and not on one person’s individual conflicts and anxieties but, rather, on the relationships surrounding the identified person.

The family is a unit and can only be reconciled, healed and transformed by seeing it as such. To focus on an individual is to miss the point that we live and behave in relationships. Jacob didn’t have a favorite son without having other sons for comparison. Joseph’s brothers didn’t get jealous without Joseph, his coat and his dreams. And Joseph didn’t end up in Egypt by his own choice.

He may have been a tattle tail and a bragger but how many families do you know who would actually sell their brother into slavery for that? This was a family system that needed a therapist if there ever was one.

With family therapy the therapist doesn’t look to treat the sickest or most conflicted family member but, rather, the family member who has the greatest capacity to bring change to the system. And in Jacob’s house the one most likely to bring change was the one who allowed himself to dream big dreams. God preserved Joseph in an effort to preserve life… life for Joseph, life for the family and life for the entire region.

Family therapy does not intend to calm the family down but treats crisis in the family as an opportunity to bring change to the entire system so everyone in the family has a chance to be reconciled, healed and transformed.

Joseph’s family had to deal with favoritism, jealousy, selling a brother into slavery, lies, cover-ups, guilt and shame.

Then the brothers had to travel to Egypt to secure food for the family. Just as Jacob had long ago sent Joseph into the field to take lunch to his brothers, now Jacob sends those same 10 sons who were in the field to Egypt where they will get food. And they will get that food from Joseph, the family’s change agent. This family, whether they realize it or not, depends on Joseph for nourishment. And Joseph depends on God to bring power from his pain and to preserve life.

We enter the story in pharaoh’s palace where Joseph has been made governor. Since Joseph last saw his brothers he has had to fight against enemies that were life threatening. There have been false accusations and a long imprisonment for something he did not do. Joseph had to fight in order to maintain his strength, his integrity and his wisdom. Joseph, the younger brother who was dismissed by his brothers as nothing more than trouble, has now grown and healed so that he knows himself as a man, a man capable of forgiving his family and preserving life.

Joseph says, “You meant to destroy life but God meant to preserve life.” Joseph’s life was spared from ruin and bitterness. He found a place to know his own power, enough power so he could forgive those who had hurt him, enough power so he could help to feed an entire region. And his brothers had the opportunity to be fed at the hand and by the mercy of the one they had tried to destroy. They were given a chance to be reconciled, healed and transformed.

We must strive to do whatever is necessary to turn our pain into power…in order to preserve life.

God brings us into this world and shares us with a family…mother, father, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents. We might be the favorite. We might be the scapegoat. We might be the youngest. The oldest. No matter. We always belong to the Family of God.

No matter what our family does or does not do. We belong to God. No matter how deep our wounds. We belong to God. No matter how many enemies we encounter. We belong to God. We belong to God and to a world full of wonder, glorious, kind and safe. We always belong to a Love so strong it can bring good out of anything. This is our family story. This is your story. A story of steadfast and eternal love.


Sunday, August 7, 2011

Living the Dream

August 7, 2011
Preached at Prescott Memorial Baptist Church
Genesis: 37:1-36

Let’s talk about dreams and dreamers. We all dream. That’s what the experts say. Some dreams stand out in our memory after we wake up. Some dreams get lost in our sleep. I think dreams are important so I try to show them respect by paying attention to them. I regularly saw a Jungian therapist for seven years. He helped me to focus on the significance of dreams. I learned that dreams can be clarifying, healing and motivating. Dreams can help us recognize how valuable our life is. How valuable all life is.

When we think about Joseph, the dreamer and the interpreter of dreams, we see that coat of many colors that his father (Jacob) made for him. Those of us who are my age probably remember the picture on our Sunday school papers when we were children: this good looking boy wrapped in a stunning coat with full, flowing sleeves. Younger people think about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat.”

This coat of many colors with its flowing sleeves represented a father’s deep love. Clothing fit for a king. Tragically that same beautiful coat came back to the father covered in blood and surrounded by lies and deceit. The coat came to represent deep hate as well as deep love.

Joseph was a tattle-tail. The older brothers had reason to hate him. He was seventeen and tending sheep in the field with his brothers. He was old enough to know better than to carry a bad report about his brothers’ behavior to the old man. Nobody likes a tattle-tail.

Although Joseph wasn’t making himself popular with his brothers, he did manage to get himself out of the hot field and the sheep tending business. I see Joseph as clever. Cute.This is just my interpretation of the character: I imagine him at home spending the mornings in the kitchen whipping up delightful meals, sashaying around wearing a Liza Minnelli apron. Then I see him spending his afternoons in the courtyard with a design board cleverly wowing his father’s wives with a trendy color scheme for renovations in the new bathroom. I imagine the design star, David Bromstad, dimples and all! Joseph was special and he knew it.

This was the favored son, the dreamer. And although that special coat seemed to anger the eleven older brothers, it was not the coat but the dreaming that made the older brothers want to murder this clever, tattle-tail, big-headed braggart.

He was a dreamer and he dared to dream about his own power, a power that follows Joseph everywhere, a mysterious power that seems to be part of the boy who grows up to be a successful man in pharaoh’s court. Joseph knew his power through dreams. His dreams and his respect for the dreams of others ultimately set him free.

We’ve known dreamers… Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon, John Gilmore. Do you know John Gilmore? He teaches anthropology at the University of Memphis. He is a minister at the Open Heart Spiritual Center on Broad. Back in the early 90's, he was the pastor for a conservative CME church in Memphis. John says that church has unfortunately entrenched itself in an anti-LGBT stance over the years.

While living in the parsonage of that church, John had a powerful dream. He dreamed that people were in his house. These people had guns and they were shooting out the windows. They turned to John and said, “Don’t worry! We’ll get rid of those gays!” John screamed at the people in his house to stop shooting. He said, “I stand with those men!” And, as John tells the story, that’s when he realized God was calling him to be part of a vision of an inclusive community where all people can be safe to be who God created them to be. John dreamed of a world where all people can value themselves and know they are valued by their neighbors, co-workers, church members and family.

John had a dream and rather than ignore it, brush it aside as a symptom of last night’s spicy lasagna, John Gilmore got on his knees and asked God for the courage he would need to respond positively to the call that came with his dream.

I remember when John processed with a group of clergy people into First Congregational Church on World AIDS Day in 1994. For many of us it was another nice service. For John it was a symbol of his dream and the courage he had been given. John lost his job as pastor of that CME church and he lost his marriage as a result of the dream. He lost friends too. John would also say that the dream set him free to realize the amazing power of God’s love within him.

You’ve known dreamers, people who imagined a different and better way to do something, people who have become part of a new vision. Maybe you have a dream and with that dream you have the key to open doors for a better life for all of us. We all dream.

Dreaming seems like something we do in our sleep, tucked in between layers of soft sheets and surrounded by the stillness and familiarity of home. But there’s another side to dreaming, the dangerous and risky side. Dreams can set us apart from the crowd and free us to experience the mystery and power of God within us. Dreams can set us apart from the crowd and make us targets of other people’s anger—anger born from fear of realizing their own dreams and power.

Joseph got out of bed and put on his house slippers. He padded down the hallway to the communal bath. He rubbed his eyes and put toothpaste on his brush. Standing by the sink he called out to his brothers, “I had a dream! We were all binding sheaves out in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright while your sheaves bent and bowed down to my sheaf. How about that?”

“That” didn’t please his brothers at all. I can see them standing absolutely still, stunned by Joseph’s wide grin. They didn’t appreciate the dream or the dreamer.

On another day Joseph got out of bed and went to the table. The old man, Jacob, was buttering his toast and the brothers were scooping up spoonfuls of Cheerios. Joseph leaned back in his chair and grinned widely. “I had a dream. I dreamed that the sun, moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” Even Jacob had to object. “What kind of dream is this?”

It’s the kind of dream that lands a brother in the bottom of a pit. It’s the kind of dream that gets a brother sold into slavery. It’s the kind of dream that takes a brother away from home and into a strange land. It’s the kind of dream that won’t go away.

It’s the kind of dream that comes with great courage and vision. It’s the kind of dream that calls us by name. It’s the kind of dream that comes with a promise. It’s the kind of dream that shows us what personal power is all about.

It’s the kind of dream that allows us, once and for all, to stop wishing we were somebody else. Respecting our own dreams can set us free us from resentment toward those who seem to be full of great dreams.

It’s the kind of dream that leads us to realize we are, each one of us, the favored child. We all come from God, the creator and giver of great dreams. The God of abundance and life provides dreams for all of us and clothes each one of us in colorful coats that signify the beauty and power of our personal potential.

It’s the kind of dream that takes a boy into Egypt where he became a hero in Pharaoh’s court. It’s the kind of dream that allows an abused boy to become a forgiving man, a brother (faithful and wise) who provides food for those who wanted desperately to kill both the dream and the dreamer.

In an interview about his song, “Imagine,” John Lennon was asked: Isn’t it unrealistic in such a large and complicated world to talk about world peace? Lennon’s response: “It's not a new message: "Give Peace a Chance"—I don’t think that’s unrealistic. Just saying "give it a chance." With "Imagine" we're asking listeners to simply dream of a world without countries, religions or wars."

You may say I’m a dreamer; but I’m not the only one.

What a different story Joseph’s story might have been had his brothers been inspired by their younger brother’s dreams and consequently chosen to attend to their own dreams while out shepherding sheep in the field, perhaps listening to the songs of angels overhead, making art from the clouds that passed by, inspired to write a requiem by the sound of breezes blowing through the reeds.

Instead the older brothers chose to view the world and themselves through an economy of poverty. If one brother was favored with a coat and dreams, then all the other brothers could only feel robbed. They could only see what they did not have, a special coat or dreams. The angry brothers could not imagine any dream that included them. They could not imagine a closet with a special coat for everyone. The older brothers were trapped in their self-imposed jealousy.They saw God's world as limited, as limited in love as they were.

The book of Genesis is filled with good stories. The story of Abraham is a story about God being present in radical trust. Abraham left home and followed God’s call to a destination that was a total mystery. The only thing Abraham knew about the Promised Land was that God promised to be there too. Jacob’s story plants God smack dab in the middle of human conflict and family struggles for an inheritance. Joseph’s story involves God in the mysteries of life, in dreams.

God is in the story. Genesis includes the story of beginnings. The Creator created the world and created us in the image of the Creator. We have the power to co-create with God, to continue to dream new things into being, to repair and reconcile.

“I have a dream,” Dr. King announced to the world on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on a very cold January day. “A dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal.' I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream today.”

That particular dreamer was assassinated right here in Memphis and the dream lives on in our city and in our hearts—creating space and inspiration for our own dreams.

Dreaming is dangerous. Sharing the dream can be downright lethal. Why would we want to do it? Because to dream is to bring about the Kingdom of God on this earth.

This is my dream, that all will be well. I dream of the day when all people will feel safe to share their dreams and know that their dreams are valued. God is calling us to be part of a vision for an inclusive community where all people are free to value themselves and know they are valued by their neighbors, co-workers, church members and family.

I invite you to awaken the dream within you. Feel the courage that comes with valuing your dreams and wearing the colorful coat that identifies you as a favored member of God’s family.