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“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen

Sometimes a crack in a vase is easy to see. Other times. . .not so much. You find a very nice vase in a pottery store. It is on the table with a sign that reads: “On Sale. Today Only. All Sales Final.” You pick it up. Admire it. Wonder why this lovely piece of pottery is discounted. Later, at home, you hold the vase up to the sunlight. Only then do you see it. A hairline fracture that you could not see in the store is obvious in the light. You think, “I’m taking this vase back to that store!” Then you remember. “On Sale. Today Only. All Sales Final.” Oh, right. So you decide to display this beautiful vase on the fireplace mantel. You just make a mental note not to pour water in the vase and put flowers in it. This cracked vase will never grace your dining room table. It must go where guests cannot see the hairline crack.

Yes, sometimes a crack in a vase is difficult to see. This is the case with Joseph, the next-to-youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons. When we think about Joseph, we usually remember that coat of many colors. A robe with long sleeves, which means the one who wears it won’t ever have to get his hands dirty. Daddy’s favorite. The privileged one. A braggart.

Joseph was a spoiled brat. When he was a teenager, his jealous, angry older brothers threw Joseph into a pit, then proceeded to enjoy their lunch. When a caravan of Midianite traders passed by, headed for Egypt, the brothers sold Joseph into slavery. Let the Egyptians deal with Daddy’s boy. The author of Genesis then follows the Spoiled Brat to Egypt. Joseph rises in influence, rising in authority over other other slaves. He is handsome and charming. This gets him into trouble, because his boss’s wife tries to seduce him. When he rejects her advances, Potiphar’s wife takes revenge. Before you know it, Joseph finds himself in prison “on (false) charges of sexual assault.”[1]

Eventually, Joseph’s skills at interpreting dreams—which we had first seen when he was a boy—is a ticket out of jail. He accurately predicts a famine. Seven years of bounty. Then seven years of famine. Joseph advises the Pharoah to store up 20% of the harvest during the good years to prepare for the bad ones to come. Pharoah rewards Joseph, promoting him to second in command. Joseph becomes what amounts to Secretary of Agriculture of Egypt. He has power over many lives—especially the livesof thousands of hungry people who travel to Egypt to buy grain during the famine. People such as ten men from Canaan who had sold their brother into slavery years ago and who now show up in Joseph’s presence.

Of course Joseph immediately recognizes his own brothers. Here is the moment he could show compassion, love, and forgiveness to reconcile with his brothers. He has the power to be generous. Yet he is not. Joseph is harsh, pretending he has never seen these men before. In fact, he accuses the brothers of coming to Egypt to spy. In a cruel, manipulative move, he says he will hold them hostage until the youngest brother—Benjamin—comes to Egypt. For three days, Joseph keeps his brothers in jail, toying with them like a cat with a mouse. Then he says he will send food back to Canaan if one of the brothers stays in order to guarantee that the others will return with Benjamin.

Not knowing that Joseph understands their language, the brothers squabble. Maybe God is paying them back because they mistreated their brother Joseph all those years ago. Reuben says, “I told you not to wrong the boy. But you wouldn’t listen. Now comes the reckoning for his blood.”

Joseph throws Simon in jail; the rest of them pack for home. But Joseph’s cat-and-mouse game continues. When the brothers stop for the night, their jaws drop. The money they had paid for the grain is lying atop their sacks of grain. They know they did not steal the money. But how will they prove that? Their old father has sent them off to Egypt to get food for the family. They’ve gotten food, but at a terrible cost. A powerful man holds Simon hostage in prison until the brothers return with Benjamin, the youngest son in the family. This will surely cause the death of old Jacob– a man who, we may remember, has also misused power. Back in the day, Jacob also practiced deceit and betrayal for his own purposes.

When Papa hears the demands of the powerful man in Egypt, he refuses. He has lost one beloved son. He will not lose Benjamin too. Yet eventually, the grain disappears. Food is running low. Only when Judah offers to be the bond for Benjamin will Jacob relent. So laden with gifts and double the amount of silver found in the sacks, the brothers stand before Joseph again. The brothers are scared. Will they all be taken captive and enslaved? No. However, Joseph continues to toy with them. They tell him, “We found this silver in our sacks!”   Joseph replies, “No problem. If there was money in your sack, God must have put it there. I got your money. All is well.”  Now the brothers must be wondering if they have gone mad. This just does not add up.

Then Joseph invites the men to have lunch with him. He seats the men in order, from eldest to youngest. They are further confused. How did this Egyptian Secretary of Agriculture know their birth order?  More cat and mouse.

In typical hospitable fashion, Joseph asks the men how their father is. They present him with the gifts they have brought. Then, amidst the brothers, Joseph sees Benjamin, his baby brother. Game over. Heart finally triumphs over calculated power. Joseph has to excuse himself before he breaks down in front of them all. When he returns, Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers. “I am Joseph. . .I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.” The brothers are dumbfounded. Silent. No wonder. Despite Joseph’s yearning for family and home, he has still used power and privilege to exact revenge on those who wronged him—even putting his father’s life on the line. This revelation is hard to believe.

We don’t see it in today’s reading. Yet even after Joseph reconciles with his brothers, they never really trust him again.  Joseph holds power. They do not. For years after this, the brothers fear that once Jacob dies, Joseph will take ultimate revenge on them. Despite Joseph’s assurance that God is in the midst of all this, he never really convinces his older brothers. Reconciliation in this family is uneasy at best. It is never really whole. Someone cracked the vase, and it will never be the same again. Maybe if they keep the vase as a show piece, and never fill it with water, no one will know. But somebody in the family knows better than to take that vase to the well.

Power is an interesting trait, is it not? You know when you have power. You know when you do not. What you do with your power matters.

In the past week, I have thought a lot about about biblical figures, political figures, human beings who hold power, those who do not. Power and privilege have determined much of history. Even in biblical stories, we must remember that the winners wrote the stories. It is true that they did not always write just the beautiful, perfect stories. They did include ugly stories where someone cheated on a spouse, someone betrayed a friend, someone murdered someone else. Yet the winners’ stories are ones that endure. Winners with power.

Those who have no power wonder if their day will come. They keep their ancestry by oral tradition. They write by candlelight. They hide in secret places. They travel the Underground Railroad. They sing spirituals whose meaning is known only to the powerless. They know that they really cannot trust the one who holds power over them.

This past week, the beautiful vase of what we call humanity—especially in the United States—has revealed an ugly fracture. This vase, held high in the light of hundreds of Tiki torches in Charlottesville, Virginia, was not pretty. It revealed the deep fracture of racism and white nationalism that some people hoped had disappeared—or at least diminished. Of course the people who thought that, or hoped, are the ones who have held power and privilege—people like the preacher standing before you.

Now I must say that I did not think for a minutes that racism was dead. However, I did not think that fifty four years after Dr. King’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom[2], a group of white supremacists would march near the University of Virginia and a man would deliberately drive a Dodge Challenger into the midst of people protesting their actions.

I did not think that in 2017, white nationalists and KKK members would march through the streets at night, chanting “blood and soil,” (a Nazi slogan) and “you will not replace us.”

I did not think that on a summer night in 2017, UVA students would hide in their apartments, peering out from mail slots in doors, in fear of a mob.

I did not think that in 2017, at the end of a peaceful evening prayer service, with over a thousand people in St. Paul’s Memorial Church, doors would be shut. Officials would ask worshippers to exit via the back and side doors of the church for fear that an angry mob would injure or kill them.[3]

The roots of racism are very old and very deep. They are far too old and deep to address in one sermon. Simply put, white people have long feared our brothers and sisters who have skin darker than ours. Confession: Some of my own ancestors weretitled Virginia landowners who owned slaves. There are whispers that somewhere on my Mama’s side is a slave woman. Of course she does not show up on Ancestry.com. No surprise there.

Black people often have a complicated heritage as well. I’m sure that some of the African Americans in our midst today can point to pictures of white ancestors in their family picture albums. Yet that painful truth reveals ugly cracks. Rape. Violence. Shame.

Yet before we can talk to one another honestly, or hope to work on healing and reconciliation, we must acknowledge who has power and who does not. In our Genesis story, Joseph was a slave in Egypt. Through a fortuitous set of circumstances, he gained power. Then he abused that power through manipulation and deceit. Did he finally do the right thing? Yes. Did he ultimately give God the glory for his situation—and his ability to save his family in a time of famine? Yes. Thanks be to God. Yet Joseph’s family was fractured.

We will all go home to God. I do not doubt that. Yet for the time being, we human beings are on a journey, and we journey with each other. I have to live with the one I see in the mirror every day. I live with other human beings—people whose skin is darker than mine, people who come from different nations than my ancestors did. People of different economic backgrounds. Yet we are all, all, all, beloved children of God.

When we stand before God’s throne, God will not be impressed with color—or the lack thereof. God won’t care about creed, or economic status or political status. No.God will care whether we have loved God first, then loved our brothers and sisters second. God will care whether we fed the hungry. Cared for the poor. Sheltered the homeless. Taken care of the elderly and children. God will care if we have done to and for others what we want done to and for ourselves.

Today, August 20, 2017, in the midst of unrest, marches, protests, and counter-protests. . . in the midst of political turmoil. . .in the midst of fear and violence and death and grief, I say to you that we have long, hard work ahead of us if we are to help God to heal, to reconcile, to be agents of God’s love in this world.

What is the first step?

I believe the first step is to be honest. As a first step, hold your vase up to the light. Say yes, there’s a crack. My vase has a crack in it. And don’t put something in that vase that the vase won’t hold.  Go and look for some really expensive, precious glue. Glue that is made of honesty. Glue made of the ability to speak truth. The willingness to enter difficult conversations—especially if we are the majority culture—and to bear pain when difficult truths are spoken. Glue that is made of light and love. God’s light and love.

I do not have the answers to these difficult questions about race and privilege. All I know is that first, I must acknowledge my own place of privilege, born out of the chance circumstances of birth. Then I must be willing to engage in relationships with those who are different from me. Lastly, I must be willing to stop turning that vase up on the fire place mantel to hide the crack. I must take it down, hand it to my sister or brother, and ask them to help me mend it. And if we cannot mend the fracture with our human, broken selves, then I ask my brothers and sisters to help me hold the broken vase up to God’s light. Together, we will ask God, the Potter, to heal us all. Amen.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

 

[1] Cameron B.R. Howard, “Commentary on Genesis 45:1-15,” at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2168.

[2]http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_march_on_washington_for_jobs_and_freedom/

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/traci-blackmon-trump-lies-charlottesville_us_5994a805e4b06ef724d602de

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Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that a massive Antarctica iceberg—almost the size of the state of Delaware—broke loose from an ice shelf. This iceberg was already floating,[1] so may not add to the global sea rise. Yet it may de-stabilize the remainder of the Larsen-C ice shelf. It also gives map-makers more work to do, because this break-off will require “a redrawing of the Antarctica coastline.” Long-term? No one knows. Yet anyone who cares about global air and water temperatures is uneasy today.

I live on the East Coast of the United States, near Washington, DC. I am not a scientist. I don’t ship freight in Antarctic waters. I don’t own ocean-front property that would be destroyed by rising sea levels.

Why should you and I care?

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First of all, I invite you to follow along with the Genesis text* in your bulletin, as it will serve as a guide to what I have to say this morning. Second, I offer two caveats before I actually begin to explore the text with you.

A. We cannot ignore the fact that throughout the centuries, this text from Genesis 22 has been mis-used. Just as some have selected particular scripture passages to justify slavery, others have used passages like this “to justify the abuse of children.”[1] Specifically, in some artists’ renderings, Isaac is not only silent, but we do not see any personal features.  Isaac is rendered by many artists, for all intents and purposes, as an object, not a human being.

Rembrandt The Angel Prevents the Sacrifice of Isaac c 1635.jpg

This passage is also not meant to justify the very ancient pagan practice of child sacrifice. In fact, some scholars argue that one reason this text was included in scripture was to set the Israelites apart from pagan tribes who followed this practice.

B.  Abraham calls his son “the boy” when he speaks to the servants—“The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you”—so we interpret that to mean Isaac is a child. However, the evidence in the text itself does not really support this. In the 21st chapter of Genesis, just before this story, we read that Abraham was gaining power, land and sheep as he made deals with some local tribes. Chapter 21 ends with this sentence: “And Abraham resided in the land of the Philistines a long time.” Chapter 22 begins: “Some time afterward. . .”

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Summer Journeys

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Picture of “The Way” accessed through On Being website

Many of us will go on a trip this summer–on vacation, or to visit family, or to be with good friends. That means trips to the beach, or to the mountains, or other places. Some will have a “staycation,” and get some stuff done around the house.  And the children will, of course, get to enjoy some pool and play time.

A summer trip has a beginning, and an end. A journey? Well, it’s hard to pin a journey down in that way. We do begin our earthly journeys when we are conceived, spend (about) nine months inside a human mother’s body, and then emerge to take our first breaths in “this” part of existence.

So there is a physical, human journey. Yet there is also a spiritual one, and this kind of journey takes some meandering paths, some dead ends, some detours that we never imagined. Recently, I received a manuscript, all typed in capital letters, written by a great-uncle of mine. He was born in 1897, and according to this manuscript, he was eighty and “nearly blind.” It seems as if he had a wonderful imagination, as I cannot imagine that all of his tales are true. But the ones of my ancestors crossing a mountainous terrain with wagons, with only the ill and children riding, and forging their own trail (none visible) was compelling. He told of one man who had gone on ahead two years earlier, but none of them had any idea whether that man had lived, or died. And I could almost feel the disappointment when the group ended up not in the west, as they had hoped, but north, in Kentucky.

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Photo by Stefan Steinbauer on Unsplash

You may ask, “How did people not know in which direction they were headed?” A good Boy or Girl Scout would have figured that out. (See where the sun is!) Yet it sounds like the dense growth and forest cut out much of the sunlight, and I suspect that without the help of Native Americans (one of whom was a common-law wife of my great-grandfather), they would have died. I can only imagine what a journey they took. What a difficult, demanding one it was.

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Genesis 21:1-21

Eyeglasses clem-onojeghuo-143743

Eyeglasses clem-onojeghuo-143743 from http://www.unsplash.com

What does it mean to you, as a human being, when someone sees you? When you, as a human being, really see someone else?  How do you know that you are really being seen?

In the 20009 science fiction movie Avatar, the alien people, the Na’Vi, greet each other this way: “I see you.”  “Like mystics here on Earth, the Na’Vi have an experience of unity of consciousness with other beings, all of which (themselves included) are really just manifestations of one Being, which they call Ai’wa.”[1] Now on some level, one can argue that this is like people of faith who say to each other, “the God in me sees—and acknowledges—the God in you.” Or as we say in yoga, “Namaste.”

Now I don’t mean that we are all gods. Yet there is God’s DNA in each of us. It is this spiritual connection that offers the potential of seeing and of being seen. In today’s Old Testament stories from Genesis, we have some clear examples of people who see and do not see each other. People who hear and do not hear each other. People who allow their own selfishness and jealousy to push aside compassion and welcome for the other.

Last week, we reflected on the story of three angels who visited Abraham and Sarah. The LORD promised that in their old age, they would finally have an heir. You may remember that as Sarah overheard the divine visitor promise this, she laughed in disbelief. Yet there is nothing “too wonderful for the LORD,”so the next year, Isaac was born. Isaac’s name means “He laughs.” So the baby laughter of Isaac joins the childish laughter of Ishmael, the son born to Abraham and Hagar, his Egyptian slave.

When Isaac is weaned, Abraham throws a big party to celebrate, because in the ancient world, a baby’s survival to childhood merits celebration. Yet on this feast day, Sarah sees Ishmael, Hagar’s son. But she does not see him in a positive way. What is Ishmael doing? Laughing. Probably enjoying the feast, along with everyone else. Yet as Sarah watches Ishmael, she does not see a happy teenager. Instead, she sees the heir-apparent—someone to threaten the future of her own son.

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Whether you look in the mirror, see someone you love, or look online at the news, you know that lots of folks need healing and connection. There is no doubt that reading newspapers or listening to/watching news or reading news online is discouraging.

“Is there no balm in Gilead?” Contrary to the reassurance of the old gospel hymn, we may wonder if the answer is “No. None.”

I have decided that at least three times this summer, I am going to offer the chance for you to have healing prayers–either for yourself, or for someone you love–on Sunday morning during the liturgy. Alternatively, if you don’t need healing, or need prayers for that, then perhaps you would just like a prayer of blessing.

In case you didn’t realize this, we have a rite for this in our Book of Common Prayer. “Ministration to the Sick” begins on p. 453. On p. 458, you will find “Prayers for the Sick” and on p. 461, there are several prayers “for use by a Sick Person.”  The prayer that I learned many years ago is one I almost always use (with a small variation at the end) when I make the sign of the cross on someone’s head, then lay my hands on top of their head:

“I lay my hands upon you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, beseeching our Lord Jesus Christ to sustain you with his presence, to drive away all sickness of body and spirit, and to give you that victory of life and peace which will enable you to serve him both now and evermore. Amen.”

So this Sunday, bring someone with you who needs prayers–whether those are healing prayers or prayers of blessing and peace. Drink from God’s well. Drink deeply. Be refreshed. Be seen. Be heard. Be healed. God loves you.

And if it would help you to listen to the hymn “There is a Balm in Gilead” sung by the late, great Mahalia Jackson, here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DFMY4V7RdbU

Photo of water taken by Samara Doule. Accessed at http://www.unsplash.com

Unsplash

 

Genesis 21:1-21

Genesis 21:1-21  (translation from the TANAKH, the Jewish Bible)

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The LORD took note of Sarah as He had promised, and the LORD did for Sarah as He had spoken. Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken. Abraham gave his newborn son, whom Sarah had borne him, the name of Isaac. And when his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God had commanded him. Now Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Sarah said, “Go has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she added,

“Who would have said to Abraham

That Sarah would suckle children!

Yet I have borne a son in his old age.”

The child grew up and was weaned, and Abraham held a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.

Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing. She said to Abraham, “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

The matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned a son of his. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed over the boy or your slave; whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you. As for the son of the slave-woman, I will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed.”

Early next morning Abraham took some bread and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar. He placed them over her shoulder, together with the child, and sent her away. And she wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.  When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes, and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears.

God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What trouble you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink. God was with the boy and he grew up; he dwelt in the wilderness and became a bowman. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.