August 6, 2011

Be a Joseph

Filed under: Financial Commitment,Lectionary,Legacy,Time and Talent — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 8:13 pm

What was Jacob thinking?

Don’t you think he would have had enough of the sibling nonsense by now? Yet here we are again—another bone-headed move, making a mess that God has to bring right.

And Joseph—Joseph reminds me of a rabbi who once said, “There’s no one in the Torah we’d want our kids to grow up to be like.”

Joseph’s story as we know it was edited from a number of sources, a gathering of histories and traditions, around the time of David and Solomon. This was a time when Israel as a nation was finally coming together and rising to international prominence. They needed a hero. The people needed stories that reminded them of their special election and that reinforced their place as “a light unto the nations.”

The story of Joseph and his brothers was just what the doctor ordered: It is rich in lessons of divine purpose; God is at work in the history of the people. As the story plays out beyond today’s reading, through the remaining chapters of Genesis, God repeatedly takes not just human folly, but outright intent to harm and do evil, and uses it for good, ultimately saving humankind from its own destruction.

And so despite his less than promising start, I’ve sort of grown to like this dreamer with the beautiful coat. I admire his confidence in himself and in his god. I appreciate Joseph as a model of stewardship at its best.

Joseph’s example first invites us to be faithful in the use of our spiritual gifts. Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams—the key to his rise to power and prominence—is actually two separate gifts of the Spirit: Many people in Joseph’s time, and I believe in our time as well, receive the gift of dreams. This is the simple ability to hear the voice of God, to receive a message from God, through vivid, prophetic visions while in a state of sleep.

Joseph, however, received the additional gift of interpretation. He was able to know what God was speaking to or through another. Being an interpreter of dreams differs from being a magician, a mere fortuneteller if you will, in that the power does not reside in Joseph himself, to be used in any way he wishes. It is given as it is needed and can only be used to further the Kingdom of God.

There are many such “gifts of the Spirit,” as Paul reminds us in his well-known passage from First Corinthians:

There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

Joseph was given the gifts of interpretation and prophesy—along with the wisdom to discern their right use. Even on his deathbed, Joseph continued to prophesy, assuring his brothers that God will bring them out of bondage in the land of Egypt.

There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. Among us today, in each of our congregations, I am confident that there are gifts in both variety and abundance, gifts that are being actively and joyfully used to further the Kingdom of God and gifts that are waiting for their moment: Gifts of wisdom and knowledge, of faith and healing, of miracles and prophecy. All are inspired by one and the same Spirit—the Spirit who gifted Joseph is the same Spirit who apportions to each of us, individually, as God wills.

Joseph’s second example is one of faithfulness in the worldly side of stewardship. Joseph’s rise to political power and prominence is one of the few examples I can think of in which we are shown that it’s OK to do well—and that it’s OK to think strategically about managing our resources.

Too often I attend stewardship conferences in which scarcity and abundance are presented as either/or—either we don’t give what we should because we have given in to scarcity thinking, or we are living fully into our faith, with an attitude of joyful abundance. There is rarely a middle ground, rarely a both/and.

I don’t think it makes me less a person of faith to acknowledge that the world in which I live—the world in which I give—includes the realities of health care, unemployment, gas prices, and debt ceilings. Joseph’s skillful administration of the “good years” and his governance of resources in the lean years give us permission to live in the tension of generosity and husbandry.

Through Joseph, we see that God rightly expects us to be generous and joyful in our tithes and offerings. And God expects us to be good stewards of the remaining 90%. Joseph would be the first to affirm our words of presentation: All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of Thine own, we give to Thee. Adding, “And we commit our hearts to the right use of what we have kept for ourselves.”

Finally, Joseph offers an example of faithfulness that has a specific resonance for seasonal congregations. Like many of Maine’s “summer people,” though for distinctly different reasons and circumstances, Joseph was called to hold two very different communities in the home-space of his heart.

Even in his rise to prominence in Egypt, Joseph never lost his love of home or his devotion to his family. Later in the story, through a number of comings and goings, trips back and forth among the brothers, Joseph’s constancy shines through. He is thrilled to see his brothers again, anxious for news of his beloved father and of his baby brother, Benjamin. The story repeatedly shows him overcome with emotion, withdrawing to pull himself together in the overwhelming wholeness of reunion.

Home has longed for him as well. At the end of Jacob’s life, we see a broken patriarch, grateful to see his family restored. He gathers Joseph’s sons to his knees—an act that in that time signified adoption, full acceptance, a full share—and Joseph bows down, his knees in the dust, his face pressed to the earth in deepest gratitude. After his lavish childhood, his gorgeous coat, his political power and life of luxury…. After a lifetime as the favorite son, his father’s love is the gift that means the most.

In the joy and humility of reconciliation, Joseph almost jumps off the page, telling our seasonal members, “Yes! Please! Write down your winter address! Make sure we have a good e-mail before you go—being connected is part of being human! Do everything you can to be here, even when you’re there.

As stewards of the Gospel, we are heirs to the story of Joseph and its lessons. There is a long and winding path through the millennia, through “the house and lineage of David,” through the early church, where the Word was near them, on their lips and in their hearts.

In our worship, that path brings us to a table where we are presented with “the gifts of God, for the people of God.” As we feed on them by faith, with thanksgiving, let us pray for ourselves and for one another. Pray that all our many gifts—our abundant gifts of time, talent, treasure, care, and presence in community—are rightly used for God’s divine purpose, that the story of our congregations will be the story of God, working in the history of God’s people in our communities.

And when you are ready, through prayer and discernment, to make your gifts, be confident in yourself and in your god; be “a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a spring.” Be a Joseph.


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