Message 53, “Redemption Tales:  In History and the Life of Joseph”, 4-10-11

Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved

Cyril Connolly, a well-known English writer of the 20th century, once said, “Those of us who were brought up as Christians and have lost our faith have retained the sense of sin without the saving belief in redemption. This poisons our thought and so paralyses us in action.What I want to look at in this month of high religious holidays like Passover and Easter, is the topic of redemption and how we might find spiritual but not necessarily religious meaning from the concept.  To redeem is, I believe, to change for the good and so over the next few weeks I’ll look at three well-known Bible stories and examine them with a redemption perspective – what do they tell us about life and about transformation?  This week, we’ll look at the story of Joseph – the one with the coat of many colors.  Along with that Bible myth, I also want to consider a true story of great personal change – that of John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace.  Next Sunday we’ll consider Passover and how we are called to remember, learn from and redeem our past.  Finally, on Easter, we’ll look at what it means to be resurrected – in a symbolic sense – and how life is one continuous Easter, or resurrection, event.  Perhaps after this month we might be able to redeem redemption – remove it from a religious context and see it in its broader and more approachable context.

It is said that the song “Amazing Grace” is the most famous and well known of hymns.  It is often performed in a secular context and its lyrics have acquired a universal appeal.  It is a favorite African-American spiritual and it is even sung in some Jewish and Muslim places of worship.  One music expert estimates it is publically performed over 10 million times a year – far more than almost any other song.

The story behind the song, as many of you know, is inspiring.   “Amazing Grace” was penned after a long period of soul searching by its author John Newton.  After years spent as a profane, dissolute and angry captain of a slave trading ship, Newton began to change.  While still participating in the slave trade, he gradually came to see his life as guided by God and the call to be a better man.  Eventually attending seminary and becoming a preacher in a small English town, Newton wrote the lyrics to “Amazing Grace” along with many other hymns.  Several years later, Newton joined with John Wilberforce, a member of the English Parliament, to become leading abolitionists, advocating for the end of slavery and the African slave trade.  Their abolitionist work culminated in the Slave Trade Act of 1807, ending slavery and its trade throughout the British Empire.

This spiritual journey of Newton’s, from slave trader to advocate for its end, was an amazing transformation.  Newton himself described how he had once personally inspected slaves he purchased along the African coast – many of whom had been brought in chain gangs over long distances from interior areas of Africa.  The Africans were put into leg irons and the men were forced below deck to lie in a foul smelling and cramped hold for weeks on end.  Newton insisted that women and children be left on deck – chained but still available for rape by his crewmen.  Because of disease, cramped quarters and poor food, one in five Africans died during the sea voyages to North America.   But that was simply calculated into the cost of his doing business.  Newton’s change into a Christian, a preacher, a famous hymn writer and an influential abolitionist  is profound testimony that nothing and nobody are ever so bad that they cannot be redeemed.  Only someone personally familiar with the slave trade could speak of its horrors, its inhumanity and the need to stop it.  The song “Amazing Grace” became a powerful anthem precisely because it chronicles the depths of human depravity from which Newton emerged – as a wretch blind to anything good.   After participating in one of the darkest stains on human history, Newton turned a horrifically evil life into one that worked for good.

As we consider the upcoming holidays this month, we note that Jews and Christians see them as deeply symbolic and central to their faith – that a theistic God has directly and supernaturally intervened throughout human history to restore creation to its supposedly perfect origins.  Whether or not we believe such theology, I propose that the ideas of change, redemption and creating something good out of something bad are universal and deeply spiritual.  Indeed, I believe that no matter how much hatred, killing, warfare, destruction and anger there is in our lives or in our world, the collective human spirit – what I choose to call god – works to transform such negativity.  Ultimately, and I firmly believe this, good does triumph over evil.

If any you have ever seen the Andrew Lloyd Weber production, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”, then you know the basics of the story found in the Biblical book of Genesis.  Jacob, who was the grandson of Abraham – the so-called father of Jews, Christians and Muslims – had twelve sons.  Living as a wealthy sheep herder, Jacob loved each of his sons but bestowed special favor on Joseph to whom he gave a unique and distinct coat – one of many colors – to designate his favorite son status .  For any of us who have had to deal with sibling rivalry, we can empathize with the reaction of Joseph’s brothers.  They came to resent and despise him.  And Joseph did not make matters any better – he allowed his father’s special favor to go to his head.  He tells his brothers of a dream he had – that one day he will be their ruler and that they will all bow down to him.

And that was simply too much for the eleven brothers.  This impudent and spoiled Joseph had to be put in his place – literally gotten rid of.  The brothers conspire to dig a pit, place Joseph in it, and leave him to die.  They returned to Jacob where they showed their father Joseph’s coat and claimed he had been attacked and killed by wild animals.

But Joseph was just beginning his amazing journey.  Left by his brothers to die in a deep pit, he is found by a passing caravan of slave traders who simply add Joseph to their ranks of people to be sold.  Arriving in Egypt a few weeks later, Joseph finds good luck.  He is sold into the home of Potiphar – a high Egyptian official – to serve as the butler and house overseer.  There he succeeds by making the household very profitable.  Unfortunately, however, fate again knocks Joseph down when Mrs. Potiphar casts a lustful eye and begs him to sleep with her.   Joseph refuses but she grabs a hold of his tunic and rips it off his body as he runs away.  Brandishing the tunic before her husband, Mrs. Potiphar accuses Joseph of attempted rape whereupon he is promptly thrown into prison.  If you’ve seen the movie version of “Joseph”, you’ll recall that Joan Collins played Mrs. Potiphar to Donny Osmond as Joseph .  Personally, I cannot think of better casting – the choir boy Mormon, Donny Osmond, against the lusty cougar Joan Collins!

In prison, Joseph employed his skills.  He found favor with the prison warden and is made a trustee – a prisoner who is put in charge of all other prisoners.  In this manner, he befriended two officials of the Pharaoh who were in prison for crossing their leader.  The Pharaoh’s baker and cup bearer – persons responsible for his food and drink – became friends of Joseph and eventually asked him to help them interpret some of their dreams.  He does so in a way that proves true – that they will be pardoned and restored by Pharaoh.

The two are released from prison but promptly forget all about Joseph until, several years later, the Pharaoh tells them of a troubling dream and his desire to have it interpreted.  Remembering Joseph, the baker and cup bearer arrange for him to interpret Pharaoh’s strange dream about seven fat cows and seven starving cows each emerging out of the Nile.  While the interpretation seems obvious, Joseph impresses Pharaoh with the idea that seven years of plenty and seven years of famine are ahead for Egypt.  Again, if you have seen the musical, you know that Pharaoh is hilariously portrayed as an arrogant Elvis Presley like figure.   Amazingly, Joseph is appointed to lead Egypt’s agriculture and to insure that sufficient grain be stored and saved for the predicted years of famine.  Joseph succeeds and saves all of Egypt.

The predicted famine was so severe and so widespread that it also affected Palestine – where Joseph’s brothers and father still lived.  When they, in the midst of their suffering, heard that Egypt was doing well because it had saved food, the brothers agree to travel there to seek food for their father and their families.  The story comes full circle when the brothers meet Joseph in Egypt – now a very high official – and plead for food to bring home with them.  Joseph does not reveal his true identity but conspires to have the youngest brother Benjamin held in Egypt while the others return to Palestine to bring Jacob back with them.  They do so, Joseph finally reveals himself, his father is overjoyed realizing his son is not dead, and the eleven brothers eventually do fulfill that first dream of Joseph’s – they bow before him, pledging their obedience.  Joseph forgives them and utters one of the more famous lines in the Bible.  He said, “Do not be afraid.  As for you, you meant to hurt me, but God turned your evil into good to save the lives of many people…Redemption had come.

While the story itself is likely myth, it appears to be rooted in some historical fact.  Many Jews were enslaved in Egypt around 2000 BCE and there was a significant famine in the region when the prudence of a Pharaoh and his advisers saved the nation from starvation.  The power of this myth and of many other Bible stories, however, is not in whether they are true or not – and most of them I do not believe are literal history – but in their inspirational nature.  The lesson of Joseph and, indeed, of most Bible stories is that redemption is possible. Evil and despair do exist in our world – the daily news is full of it – but they do not dominate.  We can choose to see life as an endless series of mishaps and setbacks or we can choose to be transformed and to actually be agents of change.  If we think about any act of great evil in our history, I believe we will find that humanity learned, grew and changed the bad into good.  Out of the inquisition came the enlightenment and the Reformation.  Out of slavery came abolition, civil rights and leaders like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and our own African-American President.  Out of the holocaust came the nation of Israel and the United Nations.  We can find this in our own lives as well – are we defeated and knocked off our feet or are we inspired to change and redeem our mistakes and setbacks?  From the despair and darkness of our past comes new life, wholeness and restoration.  Indeed, if we each are, as I believe, little gods, then it is us – each one of us – who redeem and transform the ugly, bad and evil in ourselves and in our world.

Lessons for us from the Joseph story are numerous.  First and foremost, in my mind, is the idea that we are generally responsible for the good things that come into our lives.  Other people or outside forces may cause us harm, but we alone determine the positive karma we receive.  How do we react to negative situations in life?  What plans do we undertake to redeem the bad stuff that inevitably happens?  How are we proactive in creating good things for us and for our world?  These are questions which I believe determine our own redemption.

Joseph is an inspirational mythological person due largely to his persistent and positive attitude.  The setbacks he faces become almost comical as he negotiates and interacts with memorable characters like jealous brothers, greedy bureaucrats, a middle-aged woman on the make, and a crazy, self-indulgent ruler like Pharaoh – who seems to almost personify the present day Muhomar Quadafi.  But Joseph refuses to become a victim to any of them or to wallow in self-pity.  He employs his skills and his intelligence to rise above his ordeals.

To find redemption throughout life – to turn bad into good – I believe we have to retain the positive outlook that Joseph held onto.  This involves refusing to see any setback as 100% bad – nothing is ever completely and totally negative.  There are always opportunities to find something good – much like the amusing story of an overly optimistic young boy who is asked to clean out a barn filled with piles of manure.  The boy enthusiastically dives into the task of shoveling out the manure.  When asked how he could be so happy, the boy cheerfully replies that with all of the manure in the barn, there had to be a pony in there somewhere!   Sometimes, when life hands us a pile of manure, the best thing we can do is to pick up a shovel and start looking for a pony!

Joseph also leveraged his skills and his abilities to create good.  He was creative, he looked for better opportunities and he understood his own potential to help others.  And that remains a hallmark, I believe, of those who bring good karma into their lives – no matter how much manure is thrown at them.  They remain unfailingly polite, kind, generous and helpful to others.  Such people always speak and act with kindness, they are generous with their resources and their time and, above all, they continually find ways to serve others beyond themselves.  I often tell friends – as much as I must often tell myself – that if we seek a cure for the blues or for depression, we should simply go out and volunteer.  In the process we forget our own small problems while seeing the larger life trials that others face.  We also gain the satisfaction and feel-good attitude of knowing we have helped.

Be polite, respectful and kind to all we meet.  Give away money or things that are dear to us.  Serve others in ways that are helpful.  When we make a mistake or hurt someone else, always accept responsibility and seek forgiveness.  By practicing each of these things, good karma will flow into our lives.  Manure will still happen – to paraphrase a common bumper sticker – but the good we create will outweigh the bad.  Redemption will assuredly come.

I believe there is at work in our universe, my dear friends, a force that is mighty and powerful.  It inhabits the hearts of most people and it informs the minds of many.   It may be as simple as love but I believe it is a force that moves history and our universe towards goodness.  Through cooperation, understanding, reason and basic moral imagination, humanity refuses to allow darkness and evil to envelope our world.  Whether it be a figure from history like John Newton or a character from a story like Joseph, we act as little gods to ever re-create the world for the better.  Our capacity to kill and hate one another never seems to end and yet……………our impulse to love, affirm and forgive also has no end.  We seek solutions.  We embrace change.  We learn.  We grow.  We serve.  We find redemption.  We turn the ugly and the evil into beauty and light.  In this Easter and Passover season, let us remember we have within us the power of goodness…