July 2022: Pay Attention [Queering Genesis]

During this sermon series, Queering Genesis, with a focus on the life of Joseph, we’ve been exploring how God can be understood and made known through even the lives of unconventional people. 

It may be that you sometimes feel like a very conventional person. Or it may be that you don’t. Either way, you are a part of the image of God, and that image is complicated, manifest in part in you but not entirely, and in all of us – collectively – in just a slightly more complete way. 

At times, we can see God as through a dimly lit glass, like Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians. Or we can hear God as through a seashell. Or we can touch God’s face like our hands on the hide of an elephant, unsure what we’re feeling but certain that it is a part of the tapestry of God.

It’s because of that dazzling tapestry, that multitudinal nature of God, that we need to examine stories of scripture from a variety of lenses. It’s because, if we do not spiral back, again and again, we may miss God’s nourishment to us along the way.

In the last two weeks, you heard J and S preach on the dreams of Pharaoh, which Joseph interpreted. Joseph, this unconventional person from Canaan who finds himself jailed in Egypt, has the unconventional gift of interpreting dreams. And he has the unconventional courage to tell the truth, even if people don’t like the way it sounds.

He tried that with his brothers. And they hated it. But when he tries it with Pharaoh and tells Pharaoh about Egypt’s seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine, Pharaoh… believes him.

So, let’s pick up the story after Joseph’s act of interpretation. Genesis 41:37-57 says this, and though it reads like a movie, it’s long, so I may paraphrase a little:

This advice seemed wise to Pharaoh and all his servants, and Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find a man with more God-given gifts than this one?” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has made all this known to you, no one is as intelligent and wise as you are. You will be in charge of my kingdom, and all my people will obey your command. Only as the enthroned king will I be greater than you.” Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Know this: I’ve given you authority over the entire land of Egypt.” [Pharaoh then dresses Jacob in finery and tells the people of Egypt that they are to heed Joseph’s command, and that he’s second only to Pharaoh himself.]

Then Joseph assumed control of the land of Egypt. Joseph was 30 years old when he began to serve Pharaoh, Egypt’s king, when he left Pharaoh’s court and traveled through the entire land of Egypt. During the seven years of abundance, the land produced plentifully. He collected all of the food during the seven years of abundance in the land of Egypt, and stored the food in cities. In each city, he stored the food from the fields surrounding it. Joseph amassed grain like the sand of the sea. There was so much that he stopped trying to measure it because it was beyond measuring. Before the years of famine arrived, Asenath the daughter of Potiphera, priest of Heliopolis, gave birth to two sons for Joseph. Joseph named the oldest son Manasseh, “because,” he said, “God has helped me forget all of my troubles and everyone in my father’s household.” He named the second Ephraim, “because,” he said, “God has given me children in the land where I’ve been treated harshly.”

The seven years of abundance in the land of Egypt came to an end, and the seven years of famine began, just as Joseph had said. The famine struck every country, but the entire land of Egypt had bread. When the famine ravaged the entire land of Egypt and the people pleaded to Pharaoh for bread, Pharaoh said to all of the Egyptians, “Go to Joseph. Do whatever he tells you.” The famine covered every part of the land, and Joseph opened all of the granaries and sold grain to the Egyptians. In the land of Egypt, the famine became more and more severe. Every country came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because in every country the famine had also become more severe.

I’m struck by a number of things in this passage that aren’t really related to what I really want to say today. But I hope you’ll humor me because I really want to share them.

First, the scripture goes quickly over the way that the Egyptian people stored things up. It makes the whole ordeal sound easy. But I reckon that it was a little harder than that. Can you imagine telling Americans to hand over their surplus food for seven years so the government could safekeep it for an upcoming famine?

Do you think we’d so easily hand it over? I imagine that there were a lot of people who doubted Joseph and Pharaoh. I imagine that both Joseph and Pharaoh had to wield power and make demands that made ordinary Egyptians dig deep into their wallets. Undoubtedly some Egyptians, like some of us today, would have serious doubts about whether our resources could be stewarded well by someone else. Some probably wondered, “Why in the world should we trust this foreigner?”

Next tangent: I’m also struck by Joseph naming his oldest child Manasseh, which means “God made me forget my troubles.” We see this very human tenderness from Joseph remembering the sadness of his childhood experiences.

But anyway, on to the point I wanted to make today. 

I want us to remember the context in which Joseph finds himself suddenly in a position of power: he had been enslaved, sold off by his own family. He was an ethnic minority in a very powerful nation. He was gender non-conforming. He was the youngest of his many siblings, which meant he was out of luck as far as an inheritance went. He had just been imprisoned before he dared to tell the Pharaoh some potentially upsetting news about the future of the nation.

Joseph has in his 30 years of life learned a lot about times of plenty and times of need. In his father Jacob’s house, he was the favored child, given a lavish and unusual piece of clothing that brought him ridicule but made him feel beautiful. 

And he also knew times of spiritual hunger and, most likely, bodily hunger. On the way from his homeland to Egypt, 300-400 miles… and then in a jail cell. Processing his anger and fear after he rejected the advances of a royal family member… Joseph had become familiar with the heights and depths of life. And through it, he learned to pay attention. 

Pay attention to where God is asking you to save up. Pay attention to where God is asking you to give. Pay attention to what is coming to your community, your neighbors, your planet.

The scripture tells us something beautiful there at the end of this chapter, which is that Egypt didn’t just have enough to feed its own people through the famine. Egypt also became a beacon of provision to other nations. From the whole region, people turned to the people of Egypt, who were willing to listen to the unusual advice of an unusual man who had an unusual gift.

People were hungry. And they came to Egypt and found food.

Or, put another way: God gave a dream to Pharaoh and a gift to Joseph not so that together they could feed the people of Egypt only, but so that Egypt could help to feed the world.

God transgressed human-made boundaries. Time and again, he transgresses our boundaries in service of a love greater than the labels we put on ourselves.

He dared a Canaanite to speak truth to power in Egypt. And he dared the nation of Egypt to feed its neighbors. And the result was life. The result was sufficiency.

Egypt built up its reserves, and because of that, it had something to offer to a hurting world.

And so I think the Spirit issues some invitations to us through this part of Joseph’s tale. The invitations that come to the surface when I read this with you are these two:

First: what do you have in reserve, or what can you be building in your reserve, so that during times of crisis you can be a beacon to a hurting world?

And second: what self-constructed boundaries are you ready to cross to feed someone with a hunger that you can feed?

With a new strain of COVID that’s more contagious than ever, and with a national low on civic trust, and with more than enough reason for despair, I wonder what reserves of strength, courage, and consistency we might store up so that we can respond to a world in pain. 

Some of us are finding that we are in that season of drought, and that it’s time to pull nutrients from our roots. It’s time to withdraw and to take in what is available in the soil where we’re planted.

But if you happen to find yourself in a season of plenty, a season of some peace and some stability: I invite you to stir in Joseph’s story, in the story of Egypt and famine and sufficiency. 

What do you have in abundance now that can be issued to your neighbors – to God’s children in need of nourishment?

Ruth and the Gift of Attention

I want to talk to you today about a woman named Ruth – perhaps a familiar figure to the United Methodists in the room. Ruth Coker Burks had a few things in abundance. She owned almost 300 plots at Files Cemetery in Hot Springs, Arkansas. She had a salary from working in real estate. And she had something else that could not be quantified.

Because I finished this sermon too late to include a photo of her, I’ll just describe what Ruth looked like for you. She was a person who frequently wore immaculate makeup, her hair in sprayed voluminous waves, and dressed up with a little formality and glamor.

In the 1980s, Ruth was visiting a friend in the hospital who was receiving treatment for cancer. 

And she noticed that the nurses at that hospital were afraid to go into a room belonging to a patient who was living with HIV/AIDS. It had been only two years since people in the U.S. stopped calling AIDS “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency.” 

The man was in his final days of life, and he longed to talk to his mother one more time in this life, but his mother refused. So Ruth tended to him for the last 13 hours of his life. When no one would bury him, she had his body cremated and buried his ashes in the cemetery that she owned.

After that, Ruth started getting calls from hospitals and then patients themselves, asking for her attention. 

That’s what she gave that could not be quantified: attention. And that attention led to curiosity, which led to openness, which led to courage, which led to solidarity, which led to generosity.

It is hard to resist God’s call if we are willing to wage our attention.

Over three decades and at a time when much of the world was gripped in fear of the AIDS pandemic, Ruth Coker Burks gave her attention and love to over 1,000 people who died of AIDS. And over 40 AIDS victims were buried in Files Cemetery. She became a major advocate for LGBTQ+ people, even when the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses on her lawn and when her local community blackballed her. She didn’t avert her attention. She transgressed the boundaries of what was acceptable to people like her. She gave of what she had.

We don’t all own 300 cemetery plots. We don’t all have the disposable income Ruth had. But the greatest gift she gave to the individuals who wouldn’t be seen by nurses, whose families and communities refused to speak to them, who were abandoned at the ends of their lives: was her attention. 

Her presence at their bedsides. Her love, her tender words, her assurance of love and life eternal.

If attention is something that you can give, something that you have in reserve, then what a powerful gift that could be to the people, indeed all life, in need of it.

And if not your attention, then perhaps your humor, or perhaps your courage, or perhaps your power, or perhaps your consistency…

And I know these are abundant. I know this is a community where attention and humor and courage and power and consistency are not scarce. You awe me and inspire me constantly, and I feel honored to be in a faith community with you.

I hope these stories of a queer young Canaanite, an Egyptian Pharoah, and an ancient nation – and the life of Ruth Coker Burks – fall among the stories in our midst, on which we are not short, of those who transgressed boundaries to give of what they had in reserve.

We dream dreams. We harvest. We feast. We experience hunger. We experience fullness.

And through it all, the Spirit of God is saying: Pay attention. Pay attention. Pay attention.

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