February 24, 2019
Standeth God within the shadow – J. Barry Vaughn – Feb. 24, 2019
Years ago I helped lead a Bible study at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama. It met every Thursday morning at 7 am. If that doesn’t get me into heaven, nothing will! We spent months reading through Genesis. During that period I was especially struck by a phrase in the story of Joseph and his brothers.
It’s a marvelous story. Joseph, the young, rich, spoiled, favorite son of the patriarch Jacob, is despised by his brothers. One day, Joseph goes out to visit his brothers in the fields. Notice that his brothers were in the field tending the sheep. Where was Joseph? In my imagination I can see Joseph back at home, lounging on silk pillows, being fanned by slaves, and one slave peeled the grapes and another fed them to Joseph. Who knows? But at any rate, he was not doing his share of the work. Joseph didn’t have to; he owned the world. You know the type of person I’m talking about.
When he came out to see his brothers, they said, “Here comes this dreamer, let us kill him.” (Gen. 37.19-20) Dreams play a central role in Joseph’s story. Up until this point, Joseph’s dreams had been mainly about how his brothers would serve him, but his brothers had a different dream, a dream that was a nightmare for Joseph: They decided to kill him.
Although most of his brothers wanted to kill Joseph, Reuben, the oldest, advised them to throw Joseph into a pit and send his blood-soaked robe back to their father Jacob. At that point, a caravan of nomadic slave traders came along, and seeing the opportunity to make some money, they sold Joseph to the slave traders who carried him to Egypt where he became houseboy to Captain Potipher and nearly became the boy toy of Mrs. Potipher.
Joseph, a good Jewish boy, would have none of Mrs. Potipher’s advances, and since “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”, she had Joseph thrown into an Egyptian prison. And it is at that point that the text tells us that “the Lord was with Joseph; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.”
That is a strange statement to make at such a point. When I am at my lowest point, I find it very difficult to believe that God exists, much less that God is with me and will make all that I do prosper.
Today’s reading takes place years later. Through an incredible series of events, Joseph had become a member of Pharaoh’s cabinet. According to the text, Joseph says that “God… made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” Although I think it would be more accurate to say that Joseph was the minister of agriculture or something like that, because he was responsible for making sure that the Egyptians had enough grain to get them through seven years of famine. The famine had spread to the land of Canaan where Joseph’s brothers and his father Jacob still lived. When the brothers came to Egypt hoping to buy grain, they encountered their brother Joseph again, long after that had sold him to a bunch of slave traders.
The most remarkable lines in today’s reading from Genesis are these: “Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life…. it was not you who sent me here, but God.” And it is at this point that Joseph’s story links up with the Sermon on the Plain in Luke’s gospel.
I imagine that Joseph did not always feel that God had sent him to Egypt “to preserve life,” much less to preserve the lives of his brothers. I imagine that he had probably spent years being very angry toward his brothers. Perhaps, like the main character in Alexander Dumas’ novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, he spent those years in prison plotting revenge against his brothers. But ultimately Joseph moved beyond his anger and came to the remarkable insight that God had turned what was evil in his life into good.
In today’s gospel reading Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” I think this is one of the hardest sayings of Jesus.
Many of you know that Furman Stough, the bishop of Alabama from 1969 to 1988, turned me down for ordination. Most of my divinity school classmates were ordained right after our graduation in 1982, but I had to wait ten years. I spent years being angry at him, feeling something close to rage at times. But now, like Joseph, I can say that regardless of what Bishop Stough intended, God turned it to good. Waiting ten years for ordination made me a better priest. I have had a great career. It has had a lot of ups and downs, maybe more downs that I would have liked, but it brought me to where I am. And I am overjoyed to be here, to be rector of this parish full of wonderful people.
One of the most important things I take away from Jesus’ advice to “love your enemies,” is this: Ultimately, your enemies have no power over you. Only God has power over you. To a large degree, your enemies only have the power over you that you let them have.
One of the most amazing examples of this in my lifetime is the story of Nelson Mandela. As you know, Mandela served 25 years in the prison on Robben Island. While he was in prison the anti-apartheid movement gained more and more power. More and more countries condemned South Africa for its apartheid policy. Finally, the government of South Africa found itself negotiating with the prisoner Nelson Mandela to create a new government, freely elected by all its people, black and white. There’s an amazing scene in the movie about Mandela’s life, Long Walk to Freedom, when Mandela, still a prisoner, is sitting in a room with a team of negotiators sent there by President F.W. de Klerk, and it is obvious that the most powerful man in the room is the prisoner, Nelson Mandela. Like Joseph said to his brothers, Mandela could have said to his captors, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”
It is never easy to love our enemies. Jesus didn’t suggest that loving our enemies was a useful tactic for changing their hearts; it usually doesn’t work that way. But when we remember that it is God who has power over all lives, it becomes a little easier to love those who are intent on our harm.
I have never seen an Egyptian prison or a South African prison, but I have seen a medieval Scottish prison. In St. Andrews, Scotland, where I lived for two years, there is a castle with a bottle dungeon. It is underground, and the entrance is a narrow hole in the floor of the castle. Twenty feet beneath the hole is the floor of the dungeon. The walls gradually slope upward, narrowing as they move toward the entrance. Hence, it is called a “bottle dungeon”.
Life sometimes seems like that bottle dungeon. From time to time, I feel as though I’ve fallen through a hole into a deep, dark, cold pit. Sometimes I see a narrow spot of light above me, but the walls are slick and I feel as though I can’t climb out.
Do you ever feel that way? I can’t tell you how to get out of your bottle dungeon, I only know that somehow, by God’s grace, one does get out of it. Slowly, ever so slowly, the prison becomes warmer and brighter, and one does, somehow, manage to climb out.
Then, in hindsight, I can say, “God was there”. While in the dungeon, God seems absent, but looking back, I can see that God was there.
Sometimes God lets us fall into bottle dungeons, because there is something there that we must learn and can learn no other way.
Sometimes, looking back, we can see and say with some certainty that suffering and pain have given us new insights. It has often been that way in my life. But many tragedies are of such a magnitude that it is obscene to suggest that they are merely God’s way of instructing us.
On the eve of the Civil War, poet James Russell Lowell, wrote “Once to every man and nation.” It was turned into a hymn and included in the 1940 Hymnal but was omitted from our current hymnal. It contains these lines:
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above his own.
–James Russel Lowell, 1845.
Where is God? Not in the bright sunlight, not where we can see God clearly. God is “within the shadow”.
Why? was also the first question that occurred to Jesus in his “bottle dungeon experience”. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was the cry of desolation from the Cross. And then, as now, there was no answer, only silence. Three days of silence, and then the great shout of the Resurrection, the great answer to all questions.
Why do bad things happen to good people? Where is God? The faith of Joseph and Jesus and our faith is that it is precisely in the darkest moment that God is present: “Standeth God within the shadow / Keeping watch above his own”.