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.

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