Shuck and Jive

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Myth of Power: Two Josephs--A Sermon

The Myth of Power:  Two Josephs
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 18, 2011

Today I finish my sermon series on the myths of Genesis.   We have been working our way through these patriarchal myths through Fall.  We finish with the story of Joseph, Jacob’s favored son from his favored wife, Rachel.     It is a long story in terms of Biblical space.   It spans 13 chapters.   It took only eleven chapters to get from the creation of the universe through Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, the scattering of the people at Babel up to Abraham.     But it takes 13 longer chapters to tell the saga of Joseph.

When we get to Joseph, God, who is a literary character in our text, becomes more removed from daily life.    He doesn’t swoop in sending fire and brimstone down on bad cities.  He does not negotiate like he did with Abraham, or wrestle with people like he did Jacob, or walk in the garden in the cool of the day as he liked to do with Adam.   By the time we get to Joseph, God is distant.   He is not directly involved in human affairs.   He acts behind the scenes.  He communicates through dreams. 

Joseph dreamed that his brothers would one day bow down to him.  They didn’t like his dreams.  So they sold him to some traders and told their father he had been killed by an animal.    Joseph’s dreams came true.  He became the most powerful person in Egypt next to the Pharaoh himself thanks to dreams.   

He interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh about the seven skinny cows eating the seven fat cows.   Joseph said the dream meant that there would be seven fruitful years followed by seven lean years.  So he engineered a plan to store up grain when the sun shined and sell it to all the poor saps who didn’t get in on the dream.    Those saps included his brothers who during the lean period came to him to buy grain.  They bowed down to him, not recognizing who he was.  After a lot of manipulation, Joseph finally revealed himself to them.    He said to them:
“And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”
This is the heart of the patriarchal myth, brothers reconciled.     Patriarchal mythology is not all negative.    It resides in the hope that brothers will make amends and live in peace.    Joseph has his father and brothers all come to live with him in Egypt.     The irony is that Joseph is the one responsible for buying up all of the land and the wealth in trade for this grain.  Through this process the people lose their land and become slaves.   This eventually leads to the slavery of his own descendants.     That is the setting for the next series of stories, with a new hero, Moses. 

We are familiar with another Joseph in our scriptural tradition.  He takes the stage at Christmastime.  He is Joseph the wife of Mary and according to the mythology he is the surrogate father of Jesus.     In Matthew’s gospel, angels communicate with Joseph in dreams.    The angel tells Joseph to take Mary as a wife.   Later when Herod kills all the boys under two years old, angels communicate to Joseph to escape to Egypt and then to return when all is safe.   This is an echo of the Exodus story, where Pharoah tries to kill the Hebrew boys and Moses is hid in the bulrushes.    

These are birth of hero stories and divine providence stories.    It is more than coincidence that both characters are named Joseph and that they are dreamers.    They both participate in this divine plan of salvation.   The dreams are about providence, destiny, and power.    I am going to talk more about power in a bit. 

I should say something about the virgin birth.    As far as the gospels are concerned, it is a minor event really.   It is like the pagan birth of the hero stories.    Miraculous births were common in mythology.      Why was Augustus such an incredibly gifted and powerful ruler?  Well, he must have been born of a god.   Stories were created of his miraculous birth.

In the Hebrew tradition as well, a miraculous birth indicated the hand of God’s providence.     The birth of Isaac was miraculous.   Isaac was born to Sarai who at 90 was long past child-bearing age.    Moses, too, was miraculously destined to be a hero.   The whole point of these myths is to call attention to the hero or to divine guidance.    The storytellers, Matthew and Luke in particular wanted folks to know that Jesus was important and used the storytelling device of miraculous birth to make that point.    

Christianity made much more of the virgin birth than was warranted in the texts.  It became a doctrine of faith.   The reason it was important for Christianity is because of the sin of Adam and Eve.    According to the dogma, because they disobeyed God they brought punishment upon themselves and the entire human race.  Their sin is passed down through procreation.     

The Virgin Birth allows the hero, in this case, Jesus, to save the world from sin because he is not tainted by sin.  He is the seed of God who is planted in Mary’s womb.   This is pre-modern patriarchal procreation.   In this understanding, the woman contributes nothing to the child.   She is the fertile ground, the vessel, the oven.   Jesus is thus the son of God in a literal sense. 

Christianity ran with that.   From the Apostle’s Creed to the Fundamentalists at Princeton in the early 1900s, belief in the virgin birth was an essential of the faith.    Fundamentalists today still insist that unless you believe that the virgin birth is an historical event (as opposed to a legend) you can’t be a true Christian.    O.K.  Others of us think the whole notion is rather silly.   Although we still like to sing Christmas carols.  

The other day my Lovely asked me if I experienced the magic of Christmas.  I lied to her and said I didn’t.    But I really do.   I love it.  I love it all.   I do love the stuff of it and the busy-ness of it.   I love the music.   I love the mythology and the legends.  There really is something magical about it.  There is a feeling that something might break in to our mundane existence at Christmas.    

At Christmas, if we allow ourselves to get beyond our “bah humbugs”, we notice that maybe people are nicer than we give them credit for being.    And maybe we are not so bad ourselves.  Perhaps there is hope for humanity after all.   There is something beyond us that we cannot see or touch that is on the side of goodness.   Therefore we can trust.

I also like the radical message of hope for the powerless in the Christmas texts.    Mary when she learns she is pregnant sings a song with some very radical lyrics.     Listen to this:

My soul extols the Lord,
Ad my spirit has taken notice of the low status of his slave girl.
So behold, from now on every generation will congratulate me.
The Mighty One has done great things for me,
And holy is his name,
And his mercy will come to generation after generation
Of those who fear him.
He has shown strength of this arm,
He has routed the arrogant, along with their private schemes;
He has toppled the mighty down from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.
--Luke 1:46-55 Scholars' Version

Sounds like she was part of the Occupy Nazareth movement.

The scandal of Christmas is not that Jesus was son of God.    Images of the son of God were seen everywhere.  The Roman Imperial cult was filled with son of God propaganda.   Lest there be any doubt, Caesar was the son of God and he had the standing armies to prove it.    That is what a son of God has—power.   Power to fund armies.  Power to move populations from one place to another.    Power to build.  Power to destroy.  Power to feed and power to let starve.    

The scandal is not that Jesus is son of God as if that is something supernatural.  No, the scandal is that Jesus, the nobody,
the one without any army,
who wrote nothing,
who held no office,
who owned no property,
who was nobody in his own lifetime,
whose legacy is
welcoming and offering dignity to the marginalized,
pointing out and poking fun of the hypocrisy of the elite,
and resisting evil with non-violent transformative love,
that nobody who was tortured and executed by authority of Caesar, the son of God,
was the son of God.    

That is what the gospel writers claimed.  And everyone laughed at them for making up such preposterous stories.   These stories  weren’t preposterous and scandalous because of the legendary material, such as the virgin birth or other miracles like walking on water, turning water to wine, and rising from the dead.   Those stories in that culture were a dime a dozen.   Those stories were preposterous and scandalous in the gospels because they were attributed to a peasant not a king—to Jesus and not Caesar—to the 99% not the 1%. 

The scandal of Christmas is a choice.   It asks us where is divine power?  Which side will we take?  Where is the sacred?  Where is the holy?  Is it found in the powerful, the wealthy, and the 1 percent?    Are the powerful ones those with the most weapons?  Are the powerful ones those who control buying and selling?   Are the powerful ones those who have the politicians in their pockets?   Are they the sons of God? 

In a world in which divine favor was seen as power over, it would be obvious who the son of God was.  It sure wasn’t Jesus.     The scandal of Christmas says no, not Caesar, not the 1%.  It is in the 99% that we see holy, sacred, liberating, transformative power.    It is power with.     I am not making this up.   If you think it is not seemly to be political at Christmas then listen to Mary, the virgin mother of God:

He has routed the arrogant, along with their private schemes;
He has toppled the mighty down from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.

You know those politicians who love to court the “Christian vote” and wear their Christian jewelry and hold up their Bibles while they allow corporate greed to destroy our mountains, I say to them, “Merry Christmas.   By the way, whose side is the son of God on?”

The scandal of Christmas is a choice.  
The choice is not whether or not to believe that Jesus was historically and biologically born of a virgin.    
The choice is where do we want to put our energies. 
To whom do we want to share our lives?    
It isn’t about judgment and heaven and hell.  
It is about what is sacred for you and what matters.   
Where will you put your energy, intelligence, imagination, and love? 
Where do see sacred power?  
Power that shares, strengthens, liberates, and sustains. 
Power for everyone including Earth and our more than human relations.   
Christmas is that magic time.
It is time to allow that sacred power to be born in us.   

It is in the interests of the powerful to turn our religious texts and traditions into superstitious trivia.       That is why I sound so critical of Christianity.    Much of it is superstitious trivia.   Despite that, I find that its message, its scandalous message is far deeper and far more interesting than believing in life after death or supernaturalism.  It is about the possibility of living a life that matters here and now.  Not a big life, just one that matters.  In fact, Jesus, more than anyone, was one who didn’t matter in the scheme of things.   The story of Jesus is the story of a non-person who is every person who was no person.    

Historically, we know virtually nothing about him, but his legacy is the legacy that giving your life to good things is a good thing.   Jesus, the son of God wasn’t great.    Augustus was great.   Jesus was instead good.  

That is the calling isn’t it? 
To be decent. 
To be good. 
To be on the side of those who are hungry and without health care. 
To be on the side of our mountains, trees and streams.  
To value intelligence over greed.  
To think of the future in terms of generations of lives not just next quarter’s profits. 
To provide a decent wage for decent work. 
To not blame the poor for being poor.   

Being good is a powerful force.

The two Josephs have a common theme.   That is providence.    Through their dreams both are guided by Divine Providence.    I don’t always know what to make of Divine Providence.  I am suspicious because it is so trivialized.   God led me to score this touchdown.   It can be used to justify the status quo.    In the Christmas story, in Joseph’s story, in Mary’s story, and in Jesus’ story, Providence is on the side of the poor and the hungry.    Providence is on the side of those who have been put down.  

Providence means that there is something beyond us that we do not know and cannot touch and see, but yet it guides.   Intellectually, I am not sure I know about that.  But my heart says, “Yes.”  There are times when we feel urged, called, and guided.   There are times that I know what I need to be doing and that it wasn’t my own doing that put me here.    Most of the time I don’t know.  I don’t have a clue.   I just show up.

You may wonder what your life is to be about, what it is you want to be.   It could be a transition time for you.    Enter the magic of Christmas and the magic of the Winter Solstice.  It is one of those times when the fabric between the divine and the human is thin, and that we might get a notion, a dream, a nudge, a word that all will be well and that the Sacred is guiding us,
so we can trust,
and try to be on the good side. 



  1. I hope at some point you plan on compiling and publishing your writings. This series of sermons on Genesis would be a natural.

  2. I agree about publishing, but I think lots of your earlier writing is equally worthy.