A Sermon at St. James the Less Episcopal Church, Scarsdale, New York August 24, 2014
“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”
The Old Testament lesson last week was from near the end of the book of Genesis. Joseph, who had become the chief administrator of Egypt, revealed himself to his brothers and was reconciled with them, thus bringing the imperiled family of Jacob (who was also known as Israel) to Egypt where they would live a comfortable and prosperous existence due to his patronage. This is the culmination of Genesis—God saving Israel from famine through the love of Israel’s son, the visionary and prophet Joseph.
For a long time, it looked like this was a good move that brought security and happiness. It actually was a good deal—prosperity lasted for generations, perhaps centuries. And when things get good we like to think of that state of affairs as permanent.
So we finish the book of Genesis and we move to the next volume, the book of Exodus. The first seven verses summarize that end of Genesis with a genealogy and a note: “the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.” All due to the heritage and good will of our brother and father Joseph.
Then, right as the new story opens, it reads: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” Things changed in the space of one man’s life when all the things that these generations had come to count on were taken away.
Christians have lived over the last two millennia in many different circumstances. We in the United States are relatively blessed because we live without persecution, not like many Christians—or other religious groups—throughout the world.
And, as Episcopalians, we’ve had a pretty good deal going, especially in the century between the end of the civil war and the early 1960s, not unlike the Israelites in ancient Egypt. It was a common stereotype to think of us as the prosperous church of the prosperous.
Whether that was really the case or not, Episcopalians as well as other mainline Christians came to assume by the mid-twentieth century that well-appointed and well-staffed churches with well-attended programs were the norm. There was a time in the 1950s when everyone assumed that everyone would attend church somewhere. There was even a period of time, when my father, a confirmed non church-goer, was persuaded to attend church for a few weeks. I remember that the argument that convinced him to try was that he would make good contacts for his beginning insurance business. He lasted a little longer helping with the Boy Scout troop than he did attending church.
Of course, let’s be real. The American mainline churches even back then wasn’t the same for everyone. I think of my good friend from Union Theological Seminary, Professor James Melvin Washington who had a very different experience growing up as a black Baptist in Knoxville, Tennessee in the 1950s and sixties than I had growing up as an Episcopalian in Idaho at about the same time. Things haven’t changed on that score as much as we might have like to have imagined either, as we see on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and other of our cities, where people of color are still struggling against injustice.
Yet, in general, up until the 1960s, it was taken for granted that the church was a prosperous part of an ever-more prosperous America.
Then something changed. The first priest I worked for blamed it on the birth control pill. Certainly one year that parish baptized thirty infants and the next year three. Forty years ago, it was thought of as a blip, thirty years ago it was a problem. Now it’s an established reality. It is no longer assumed that all people attend church. In fact many nowadays question whether church is a good thing at all. The privileged position of the church has almost completely disappeared.
Like the prosperous Israelites living in Egypt, we have reached a time when Joseph, or whatever once formed the foundations of our prosperity, is no longer known in the society in which we live. We are not enslaved. Christians are not persecuted in this country. But the church has ceased to be the comfortable and secure solution to people’s problems that it once appeared to be. Why?
One reason is that we have not been reliable followers of Christ and thus, we are simply not convincing to the majority of people any more as they face life’s troubling questions and a still filled with terrible things: like prejudice, war, famine and disease. So how do we get back to becoming a place where people can come for answers?
In the Gospel lesson today, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus says—Yes! But as we read further it becomes clear that Peter did not appreciate at all fully what Jesus being the Messiah entailed or what life would be like as a follower of that Messiah. It is no accident that the Gospels, the book of Acts and even the letters of Paul portray Peter’s blundering: he is the real disciple in the real world struggling to find an authentic way to follow Christ, and that mostly involves blundering, mistakes, and anxiety. One could say the same of the story of Moses—there’s enough human blundering on the part of the Israelites, and even of Moses, to fill the whole Pentateuch, but especially this book of Exodus.
So how do we live now? How can we be Christ’s disciples? It is not by worrying about the church or our comfort or our lost privilege. Let’s listen to what St. Paul says today: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice… Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.”
We are called to be transformed, to be willing to change, not according to our fears, but by the free gift from God. Our hope is not in the past, but in Christ who leads us into the future. We have gifts that differ, but we are united in one body in Christ. We can and will live as authentic worshippers of God in each thing that we do and on every day.
Grant we beseech thee that thy Church, being gathered together in unity by thy Holy Spirit, may manifest thy power among all peoples, to the glory of thy name.