Sunday, 14 August 2011

Joseph could teach our politicians a thing or two about integrity

Genesis 45.1-15; Matt 15.21-28
St Peter De Beauvoir Town
Sunday 14 August 2011

In our Old Testament reading today we get the end of the story about Joseph that we began last Sunday. Joseph’s faithfulness to God shines through. In spite of his rise to power, influence and success he understands that God has a purpose for his life.

He could very easily have become pleased with himself for doing so well, letting his achievements go to his head and seeing himself as better than or above others. He is the second most powerful person, after the King, in a country which does not share his faith. He might have been tempted to adopt the religion of the Egyptians - with their many gods - to help smooth his way to the top. Yet Joseph’s rise to power comes because of his faithfulness to the God of Israel. He has the sort of integrity which makes him trustworthy, and earns him the respect of Pharaoh. Joseph understands that he is still a tool for God’s purposes and work in the world.

In our gospel reading, Jesus appears - unusually, for him - to be confused about God’s purpose for his life. A woman from the country of Canaan seeks him out to ask him to heal her daughter. Yet Jesus seems to think that his ministry is really only for the people of his own country, Israel: that his mission can only be understood in the context of Jewish scriptures. The woman sees what Jesus initially does not - that God’s blessing for Israel should spill over for the benefit of everybody.

The discussion about crumbs falling from the table may sound immensely condescending to our ears. It should be understood in the context of the feeding of the five thousand, the story we heard told a few weeks ago. After Jesus enables the feeding of a hungry crowd, there are 12 baskets full of leftovers at the end of it. The miracle tells us something about the abundance of God’s grace - that there is more than enough to go round, not just for Jewish people but for the whole world.

By the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is sending his disciples out to all the nations of the world. The point about Israel was that they were never intended to be the sole recipients of God’s blessing. They are to pass it on. But as the American pastor and writer Brian McLaren has written,
“The ancient Jews... often [became] preoccupied with being blessed themselves, forgetting or suppressing their calling to be a blessing to others...[Christians today have similarly] betrayed the message that the kingdom of God is available for all, beginning with the least and the lost – and have instead believed and taught that the kingdom of God is available for the elite, beginning with the correct and the clean and the powerful. We have been preoccupied with guilt and money, power and fear, control and status – not with service and love, justice and mercy, humility and hope.”
How, I wonder, do service, love, justice, mercy, humility and hope speak into those communities in London and other English cities, where violence and looting erupted this week? And where do we see them in the response of leaders and politicians who have been, quite rightly, quick to condemn the riots but rather more slow to agree on the underlying social problems that led to them.

Particularly appalling has been the language some politicians have used to describe the rioters, calling them "feral youths."

One former gang member interviewed on television this week, spoke of how his past behaviour of violence and drug-taking was rooted in a feeling of hopelessness. “I was bitter and resentful because I had a very abusive father. I didn’t feel I belonged, so joined a gang.” Asked by the interviewer what had changed, he told the story of how he had become a Christian after going along to church with a friend. When the minister told him there was hope for him, he broke down and wept. He began to understand that he was loved and could be somebody, could make something of his life. He’s now at university, and working hard to be a different kind of Dad to his little boy from the model of fatherhood he experienced.

If our social problems are to be solved then more people need to hear this voice of hope, to have positive role-models, to see the qualities of love, justice and mercy expressed in our communities and through our leaders. But what we have witnessed this week have been the most appalling double-standards on the part of some politicians.

One MP this week asked how we can “reclaim” these rioters for society. He’s already something of an expert on claiming, having received over £8,500 for a top-of-the-range television set on his parliamentary expenses. There is more than one way to grab what you want at other people's expense.

And what are we to make of a rioter who took bottled water worth £3.50 and was sentenced to six months in jail, when there is a government minister who wangled £7000 of decorating expenses on a second home before flipping its designation so he could claim back stamp duty on the purchase of another house? He got a seat on the Cabinet.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, said this week that those rioters who had committed offences would face the full force of the law. Yet it is only a few weeks ago that he was telling us that everyone deserves a second chance – meaning, of course, the job he gave to the former News of the World editor, whose paper had been routinely hacking into people’s mobile phones in search of the next big sales-grabbing headline.

If we want to name the gangs that have looted our cities and caused chaos, let’s start with JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, the Royal Bank of Scotland and their rival gangs in the City, where naked greed has brought the world economy to its knees.

In an opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph this week, Peter Oborne said this:
“Something has gone horribly wrong in Britain. If we are ever to confront the problems which have been exposed in the past week, it is essential to bear in mind that they do not only exist in inner-city housing estates. The culture of greed and impunity we are witnessing on our TV screens stretches right up into corporate boardrooms and the Cabinet. It embraces the police and large parts of our media. It is not just its damaged youth, but Britain itself that needs a moral reformation.”
Of course the rioting was appalling and wrong. There can be no excuse. But the hand-wringing and judgementalism from some of our leaders is rank hypocrisy.

The example of Joseph’s integrity stands in contrast to this. Someone who has risen to power but has not let go of his duties and responsibilities, or his sense of God‘s purpose in his life. He works to save the lives of the very poorest not only in his own country but in that of his forefathers. “God sent me ahead of you to rescue you... and to make sure you and your descendants survive,” he tells his brothers.

And through Jesus we see the sufficiency of God’s grace. Through him we know that there is abundant hope for all who feel angry, bitter or betrayed at their lot in life. The church has already been quick to respond to the needs of those who lost homes or livelihoods in our city this week. In the months to come I have no doubt that much thought will be given to how parish churches in London and elsewhere can better reach out to the lost sheep in our neighbourhoods. We must remember that God’s blessing is not just for us, but something that we should be passing on. That the message of God’s love is for the least and the lost, as well as for the self-satisfied who think that they are better than others.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

keeping faith in good times and in bad

Genesis 37.1-4,12-28; Matthew 14.22-33
St Peter De Beauvoir Town
Sunday 7 August 2011

Today's reading from the book of Genesis tells the start of one of the most famous stories in the Bible - that of Joseph. Or as many have come to know it, Joseph and his amazing technicolour dreamcoat.

It is not really surprising that Andrew Lloyd-Webber should have taken this tale of betrayal, tragedy, family feud, and triumph over adversity and turned it into a hit stage musical. It has all the elements that a budding composer and librettist could possibly want.

Sadly, our reading only covers the betrayal. Joseph's brothers, deeply jealous of their Father's favouritism towards Joseph (and, to be fair, their brother's rather obnoxious way of rubbing their noses in it) conspire to fake his death and sell him into slavery in Egypt. It is the cause of much grief to their Father, who we have been hearing about in previous Sundays' readings go by the name of Jacob, but is now called Israel. (Long story).

The best bits of Joseph's story come later on, where he does rather well for himself in Egypt - barring a few ups and downs - rising to a place of real importance in Pharaoh's service. It is in this role that Joseph encounters his brothers once more. There is a famine in their homeland and they have come to Egypt to buy food. Here is Joseph's opportunity for revenge. If this was a piece of French 19th century romantic literature, there would follow a very carefully plotted and elaborate vengeance, strung out over hundreds of pages with quite forensic precision. But Joseph is not a character from the fevered imagination of Alexandre Dumas or Victor Hugo. Aside from toying with his brothers when they fail to recognise him, Joseph's love for his father and for God shine through.

In Joseph we see a role-model of faithfulness to God in both the worst of times and the best of times. He remarkably keeps faith with God when his brothers sell him to slavers headed for Egypt. He keeps faith with God during imprisonment and in the face of temptation. Somehow he manages to keep hold of a bigger picture outside of his immediate circumstances.

Desmond Tutu calls this capacity to hold onto the big picture during tough times the ‘principle of transfiguration.‘

He writes:
During the darkest days of apartheid I used to say to PW Botha, the president of South Africa, that we had already won, and I invited him and other white South Africans to join the winning side. All the "objective" facts were against us – the pass laws, the imprisonments, the teargassing, the massacres, the murder of political activists – but my confidence was not in the present circumstances but in the laws of God's universe. This is a moral universe, which means that, despite all the evidence that seems to be to the contrary, there is no way that evil and injustice and oppression and lies can have the last word... That is what upheld the morale of our people, to know that in the end good will prevail. It was these higher laws that convinced me that our peaceful struggle would topple the immoral laws of apartheid... The principle of transfiguration says nothing, no one and no situation, is "untransfigurable," that the whole of [creation waits expectantly to be] released from its bondage and share in the glorious liberty of the children of God.
Joseph seems to understands this principle of transfiguration. Even in the face of his worst ordeals he is able to understand that God is bigger than the present circumstances suggest.

It is one thing to hold onto our hope in God during a time of suffering, quite another to do so when we enjoy the security and comfort that affluence brings. Then it is easy to believe that we can get by without God's help. And of course often we try. Yet Joseph rises to the position of second most powerful person in Egypt and doesn't let that go to his head. He doesn't dispense with God, but stays true to the principles and values of his faith. It is this that enables him to respond to his brothers with generosity and forgiveness. When we are free to live lives that are independent, under our own control, successful or powerful, the goodness of God is needed more than ever to help us live up to the responsibilities that come with good fortune and affluence.

Whatever our circumstances our choices should be made in the light of the character of God. His essential goodness is reflected in ourselves. His loving, gracious and merciful spirit is something we can tap into to enable us to be our best self in any situation. For me this is what lies at the heart of our spiritual life. How can I live my live so that God's goodness is even more self-evident? How do I step away from those decisions or behaviours that cause me to somehow be a little less than my best self?

It takes a big person, anchored in something outside of their self, to make godly choices of the kind Joseph made. He set aside the smallness of human revenge and judgment to let in the bigness of love divine.

It is not always easy to let go of the experiences that have scarred or damaged us in past. Events in childhood in particular can cause wounds that continue to pain us in adult life. It requires conscious effort through prayer - and in some cases professional help - to bring God's healing love to bear on such wounds. This is not to say that our wounds will necessarily vanish. But the ‘God effect’ can strengthen us to rise above them, to be our best self in spite of them. Even, perhaps, to be a source of healing to others through them.

Joseph, I am sure, would carry the wounds of his brothers’ betrayal throughout his life. But in the strength of God and with faithfulness to him, he finds restoration – a transfiguration – that enables him to be his best self even an opportunity for revenge presents itself.