Last week we heard the story of Joseph: from being sold into slavery by his brothers, to his rising in Egypt to considerable power. Ultimately, Joseph chooses to be reconciled to his brothers: realizing that even though they did evil to him, God sent him forward with great purpose.
The high note that last story ended on is quickly dashed by this morning’s opening line :
“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8)
It may seem on the surface to only represent the passage of time, but it is so much more. Joseph and the former Pharaoh had became close. Joseph was a trusted and powerful person for Pharaoh, and the king respected him. There was unity between the Israelites and Egyptians, even in the midst of their differences. They lived for many years together in peaceful harmony: united for each others benefit.
But for some reason, the closeness ended. We don’t know why. Perhaps the peoples stopped working with one another, and stopped seeing benefits in each others differences. Ultimately, the stories of valuing each other were lost.
And so, a new Pharaoh looked upon the Israelites as a numerous and powerful people, and started to fear them. “...they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.”
The new Pharaoh in this story is responsible for the change to hardship afflicted on the ancient Israelites. It is an all to familiar story of those with power getting fearful about losing it, and to preserve power they turn people against one another, creating discord where there is none. But it is worth remembering that peace and unity must be constantly worked at by everyone. The generations had the responsibility to not forget the relationship formed between Joseph and Pharaoh, Israelite and Egyptian.
There are two other moments in this story that contain both a bit of humor and an important message. The Egyptian midwives to the Hebrew women, despite not having much power in their society, are held up as heroes. They defy Pharaoh himself to keep from killing the Israelite boys. (The funny part: only a man who has everything done for him would believe their story that Hebrew women give birth before the midwives can reach them...) And then there is the very daughter of Pharaoh who takes Moses as her own child. The humor in the story is that Moses’ mother is ultimately paid to nurse her own child. Of more importance to the reader is that, for some reason, Pharaoh’s daughter comes to the Nile to bathe, instead of her wealthy palace where she could of easily had her bath drawn. Is she coming specifically to look to save a Hebrew child? Or perhaps she felt dirty from the policies of the palace, and wished to bathe outside it to be mentally as well as physically clean. Clearly she uses her power to defy Pharaoh in her own way. The story establishes from the start that, among the Egyptians, at least the women worked against Pharaoh and his ruthlessness.
I now want to remind you of my point in last week’s sermon.
I suggested the Joseph story counters the popular saying “when God closes a door, God opens a window.” Joseph recognized that it was his brothers that had done evil: God did not cause the evil act...closing the door on his former life. God does not cause bad things to happen.
God, however, may be the one who opens windows, by which I mean that is is often God who shows and sends us on a way forward. God sent Joseph forth into slavery, where he found both a new life and connection to the old. The promise of God is not that bad things won’t happen: what God promises is to be with us, even within the bad, and that it is never the end. Even in the midst of death and destruction, there is always new life.
One can see how our lesson from last week informs these stories: despite the dark times within Pharaoh’s command to kill, both the midwives and Pharaoh’s daughter find their own way to serve God.
But as it turns out, I personally needed a reminder of this...
In the summer of 2002, I came to Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland. They wanted me to be their Curate, but it was still (God willing) six months until my ordination, so I couldn’t be a Curate yet. They gave me the title of “Pastoral Associate”: my areas were to be youth and young adult ministries, coordinating pastoral care, and newcomers. One of my very first meetings with a newcomer was with a guy named Bryan Schwegler. He was younger than my 30 years (a bit rare for a church newcomer, for the most part), but I was amazed by the extent of his church experience and the depth in his search for a new church community. We sat and talked, and talked, and talked for a few hours in a coffee shop. Led by his enthusiasm (and perhaps my inexperience), I did two things you’re not supposed to do. First, it’s a bad idea to immediately put a newcomer into a position of responsibility. Second, you NEVER...EVER...place a newcomer in a position of working with youth. I did both: and it was one of the greatest calls I ever made. Bryan was a spectacular youth leader: greatly appreciated for his questioning and fun loving nature, and a wonderful mentor for the youth. He, along with his co-mentor Kim, journeyed with a group of Jr. High students as their mentor all the way to their High School graduations
I was blessed with a friendship that spanned my entire ministry at Trinity. He went to my ordinations, my installation as a Canon of the Cathedral, and was part of the farewell celebration to send Darlene and I off to New Hampshire. I in turn spent countless hours with him and Kim, led his confirmation class and was there at the celebration, and I also saw him become a member of Cathedral Council and worked with him there. Bryan was the first of what would become a core of young adult friends at Trinity that shared significant parts of our lives together.
Bryan died Thursday night after a sudden, unexpected brain aneurism. I am stunned from the loss of my friend. I am sick with sadness for Adam, his beloved, for Barb, his mother, and for the many family and friends who are heartbroken.
It is shocking when someone young dies suddenly. We are often compelled to as the unanswerable question: why. Was there some purpose in what has happened?
It’s a complicated subject.
I believe that there is no "purpose" in Bryan's death: in other words, God didn't do this for a reason...God didn't do this at all. I believe God’s actions in the aftermath of this difficult time are comfort and care of those who are hurting.
But there’s more to the question of purpose. You see, Bryan lived with his life with great purpose. He was engaging, generous, and kind. He loved and was loved by family and friends. We who know him might think his life was too short, but we can also honestly say that he fully lived the life he had.
And that leads us to this: as we are reminded that life is precious and fragile, we are called to live our lives with purpose.
The unexpected death of someone we care about is a reminder to live our lives with a real sense of urgency. It is a reminder that real purpose in life comes in the sacred moments we share with others. Perhaps a moment like this might call you into action on behalf of others, as the midwives and Pharaoh’s daughters were...but at the very least, it is a reminder to not wait to tell others what they mean to you.
“...a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”
(Because no one continued to tell the stories.)
Don’t let this happen...
Tell and listen to your stories of one another.
In doing so, you honor their memory: and with God, you find a way forward.