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Claiming Hopeful Agency

St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church, San Francisco

Proper 15, Year A: Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

The Rev'd Cameron Partridge

August 16, 2020

Good morning St. Aidan’s.

It seems to me that for an extended period of time – weeks, months, or actually years – we’ve been talking about hope. Where and how to find and claim hope in the midst of terrible circumstances in our world, in our country, in our region, and in a range of ways the lives of individuals in our community. We are a hopeful people – ‘a joyful community of the Spirit,’ in fact – yet we cannot but be challenged in these days. A couple of weeks ago this focus on how to identify and claim hope was raised by our deacon Margaret Dyer-Chamberlain in our COVID Connect pastoral team meeting, and it has stayed with me and I know with others ever since. Hope lies at the very heart of our faith. It is proclaimed in the incarnation, God with us in the person and ministry of Jesus. Hope is proclaimed in his resurrection, life unable to be contained by death. Hope is shared in Jesus’ statement at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, “lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20). Hope abides with us, sustaining us. Yet as we make our way day by day, we are sometimes beset by a sense of struggle, fear, sadness or overwhelm. Hope is not always on the surfaces of our consciousness or the tips of our tongues. We need hope to sustain us when we find ourselves submerged, to give us floaties or a life jacket in choppy waters. This morning’s readings offer powerful, complex, very human examples in which hope emerges as a practice of agency, an opening of new possibilities, gifted by God in the face of difficult, seemingly impossible odds.

Our first reading is the conclusion of the Joseph story, an incredible saga of betrayal, conniving, and resilience. As we heard last week, Joseph’s older brothers were deeply jealous of their father’s favoritism toward him. Jacob/Israel had made Joseph a special coat with sleeves (Gen. 37:3 rendered in earlier English translations as “a coat of many colors”). Joseph was known for his vivid, prophetic dreams and interpretations that he had ill-advisedly shared with his brothers (in passages that were excluded from last week’s reading). In one dream, the grain the brothers were all gathering in the field bowed down to Joseph, whose own grain rose above them all (Gen. 37:5-8). In another the sun, moon and stars all bowed down to him (even his father rebuked him for sharing that one – Gen 37:9-11). In reaction, the brothers decided to get rid of Joseph. As we heard last week, the first plan was to kill him, throw him into a pit, and blame it on a wild animal. The second plan (concocted by Reuben) was to throw him into the pit and then rescue him, “restoring him to his father” (Gen. 37:22 – though how they were going to keep Joseph from telling their father how he’d gotten into the pit in the first place, I don’t know). Then plan 2b came along when they saw a group of traders coming toward them. They decided to sell their brother to this group and take his coat, deceptively mangled with blood, back to their devastated father who believed his son had been killed (Gen. 37:25-28).[1] This is how Joseph was brought to Egypt. In Egypt, Joseph’s dream interpretation became renowned, ultimately inspiring Pharaoh to release him from prison and place him in a position of great power, as governor.[2] When a famine overcame the land, which Joseph had foreseen, Joseph was in charge of the food supplies. Over time, his family among many others suffered from hunger, and his long-lost brothers now came before him seeking food, failing to recognize the one whom they had so terribly betrayed. Joseph’s dream of the family sheaves bowing before him was coming to pass.

What did Joseph do? At first, he manipulated. He made them wait. He put them in prison. He held their brother Simeon while returning them to Jacob to bring their youngest brother back. He had an item hidden in their belongings to make it seem as though his brother Benjamin had stolen it from him (Gen. 42:1-2). In various ways, cyclically, he reenacted deep family pain inflicted on him. It is clear from the story that all of them were experiencing their losses over and over, even as the wider circumstances of their world were also suffused with suffering. Yet there comes a moment in this saga when Joseph chooses to break the painful cycle. That conclusion is what we heard today. In it, Joseph finally breaks down and weeps in front of them – he had previously cried in secret. He tells them he is their brother. He has to tell them twice (saying, “come closer”) because they cannot believe it. He tells them not to be angry with themselves for how they had treated him earlier (he had in fact overheard them expressing just that – gen. 42:21-23). And this is where the story gets especially interesting. He declares “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt” (Gen. 45:7-8). He is pointing out that had Joseph not been in a position to use his dream interpretive powers for good in Egypt where they could make a region-wide difference, all of them would likely be starving. He attributes this action to God: “God sent me before you.” And just in case they, or we readers/hearers, might have missed it, he reiterates “so it was not you who sent me here, but God.” Whew. That’s a tough one. Tough not because God is being proclaimed as a God who saves, who feeds, who provides. But tough because that same God can be understood, according to Joseph’s logic, to be one who had allowed Joseph to suffer, allowed his brothers to betray him. Indeed, stories such as this have been (and in some contexts still are) interpreted as suggesting an understanding of divine sovereignty in which human agency is in some sense overtaken or even nullified by God. Which would suggest that the justice of God can be deeply inhumane. How are human beings to be held accountable for atrocities if God can be said to be somehow behind it all? These are deeply difficult questions.

Yet here I am reminded of Walter Brueggemann’s comments in The Prophetic Imagination, in reading the later story of what he calls “the alternative community of Moses.” He notes how God intervened on behalf of the Israelites to harden Pharaoh’s heart as part of “bringing the [Egyptian] empire to an end.”[3] This action on God’s part is not finally something we can understand, Brueggemann says, and he charges us not to try render these stories into coherent theological insights about how God works in all times and places.[4] When I bear these cautions in mind, what strikes me in our Joseph story is the transformations that occur. We hear how the brothers came to experience remorse for their actions, even before Joseph revealed himself to them. And we hear how Joseph came to interpret God’s presence with him in the worst of circumstances. Somehow in a situation of massive human injustice and natural disaster, Joseph came to understand that he was placed in a position to make a difference. He claimed that place. He chose to use the power he had gained for good—though not before succumbing to some impulses toward revenge. He is a deeply human figure who found and claimed hope in a dire, bleak time and chose ultimately to share it with a family by whom he had been deeply hurt and betrayed. He chose healing. He chose repair. He chose to cast his own story within a larger, more mysterious trajectory of hope.

Our gospel passage very differently yet no less powerfully describes a woman who claims hope in the face of nothing less than a Messiah who initially refuses her. Only Mark and Matthew share this story (Mk 7:24-30 & Mt 15:21-28), and they differ in intriguing ways. While in Mark Jesus is in a house that the woman then enters, in Matthew’s version, Jesus is outside, in public. And while in Mark the woman is identified as “Syro-Phoenician” in Matthew’s version she is “the Canaanite woman,” linking her with the people with whom the Israelites had come into conflict in order to inhabit the promised land. She is portrayed as in some sense an ancient foe.[5] In Matthew’s version she loudly shouts, in a verb that can be associated with liturgical speech, “have mercy on me Lord, son of David” (Mt. 15:22).[6] She insists on being heard and engaged. She will not back down. In Matthew’s version, Jesus’s actions are arguably more troubling than in Mark’s. He first ignores her, our text states. Then he says he was “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt. 15:24). This statement in fact repeats the exact instructions he had given to his disciples in chapter ten (Mt. 10:6).[7] Yet in this context it resounds as a rejection much more than a clarity of mission. Finally, Jesus utters the shocking phrase, “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mt. 15:26). It is hard not to recoil at this epithet. There is no way around it. As Anna Case-Winters notes here, rather than trying to somehow explain away the word “dog” as some scholars have done, Jesus here shows his humanity—more of it than we might want to see, frankly.[8] But then comes the woman’s response: “yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Mt. 15:27). As the biblical scholar Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza puts it, “the woman, characterized ethnically and culturally as an outsider, enters theological argument, turns it against itself, overcomes Jesus’ prejudice, and achieves the well-being of her little daughter.”[9] I love the way the Canaanite woman enters the offensive terms of the debate and turns them on their head. I’m reminded of the practice of reclaiming of the epithet “queer” as some of us who are members of the LGBTIQ community have done (though this is not universally agreed upon within the community, I should add). I’m also reminded, in the midst of our series on the memoir of Bishop Barbara Harris, of a memorable exchange in the book that we chuckled about this week. As Bishop Barbara made her way toward consecration as a bishop in Massachusetts, there were people who tried to “dig at negative stuff in my life,” as she put it. She described one such instance to her interviewer, the Reverend Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas.

Harris: I don’t know if I ever told you this, people called 815 and said ‘well she’s divorced’ and they said ‘yes’ and they said ‘well what is her sexual preference?’

Douglas: They asked that?

Harris: Mmm hmm. And when I found out about that I said I wished they had called me directly, I would have told them that you don’t always get your preference, but mine would be for several times a week.[10]

Thinking about the Canaanite woman’s manner of turning around Jesus’ question in connection with Bishop Barbara’s amazing retort to her outrageous detractors makes me think about how humor can assist in the claiming of agency. There’s no indication of this in the text, but I wonder, what if the Canaanite woman’s response was uttered with humor? If it was, the joke was definitely on Jesus. Whatever their reactions, Jesus rose to the occasion. He changed his mind. He changed course. He engaged the woman and her request, saying “great is your faith,” and her daughter was healed (Mt. 15:28). Hope in this story lies chiefly in the woman, her chutzpah, her audacity, her courage and determination. Hope is also to be seen here in the actions of Jesus changing course, ultimately responding to and engaging the Canaanite woman, honoring and upholding her agency, and healing her daughter.

We need hope in all of its forms in these difficulty days. As COVID continues to rage, as the Presidential election heats up with the major party conventions nearing in the coming days, as we continue to see epithets and racist and sexist language hurled against strong women such as newly named VP candidate Kamala Harris[11], we need to identify, to hold onto and to actively claim hope. Hope in the form of God with us. Hope in the form of agency named and claimed by those whom our world marginalizes in so many and various ways. Hope in the ability of people in power to change, to expand, to turn. Hope that our everyday actions truly matter, that we can reach out and take one another’s hands even when we feel overwhelmed or in despair. Hope that, as our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has put it, “the Providence of God means that with God there is always, even in the bleakest of circumstances, another possibility. A creative, a hopeful, a life giving possibility.”[12] May we seek out those possibilities even when we have been ignored or mistreated. May we open up new possibilities for life and recognition, turning when we have been short-sighted or outright wrong. May we uphold one another as a people of deep, transformative hope in the days to come.

[1] Reuben, who came up with the idea of sparing Joseph’s life by throwing him into the pit and then bringing him back to their father, expresses dismay when he discovers Joseph had been taken, so he seems not to have been in on the idea to sell Joseph (Gen 37:29-30). [2] Joseph came to be imprisoned when he was falsely accused of assaulting the wife of Potiphar, the captain of the guard, in Gen 39. In Gen 40 his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams about impending famine inspires Pharaoh to put Joseph in charge. [3] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1978, 2018), 14. [4] Brueggemann, 15. God’s statement at Exodus 11:7 that “Against any of the people of Israel, either man or beast, not a dog shall growl; that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between the Egyptians and Israel” is “too terrible to be contained in a ‘doctrine of election.’” [5] Anna Case-Winters, Matthew in the series Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 200. [6] Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 99. [7] Case-Winters, 200. [8] Case-Winters, 202 [9] Schussler Fiorenza, 12 [10] Barbara C. Harris with Kelly Brown Douglas, Hallelujah Anyhow!: A Memoir (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2018), 79. Italics in original. Quotation marks added for clarity. [11] [12] Michael B. Curry, Songs My Grandma Sang (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2015), 77.

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