(There is no audio for this sermon.)
I don’t know about you, but I prefer to cry silently. Really. In a bathroom, with the door shut and plenty of tissues and time to regain my composure and make sure I look ok before I exit. Joseph embarrasses me in this story. Something about this crying on his brother’s necks is just really weird to me. And then there’s something about this, look at me, lord of Egypt and God sent me business that I find to be a little off putting.
Yet this is the good news of God for the people of God. And so I’ve tried to listen for what God might be saying to us here at Forest Hill from this story about Joseph. Usually the word of God is found in what makes us uncomfortable.
The problem with preaching to a church like Forest Hill is that you’re already good. That’s been part of my challenge all summer. Never have I been in a congregation that has such high levels of commitment. Never have I seen so many trained lay leaders.
It has been great to be here with you this summer. I really didn’t know what to expect. Forest Hill is a church unlike any other church I’ve been a part of before. I knew I was in for a challenge when John toured me through your building the first week I was here. I’m not sure all of you have ever been on a full tour of the church, but if you haven’t, you should try it some time. It’s absurd! There are so many rooms. I found myself pretty disoriented after that first tour. But all the possibilities! All the things you host!
I tried very hard all summer to figure out what all you do here. Sure, I talked to Lynda and looked at the official church calendar. But that doesn’t even begin to cover what happens through this church. This church, through individual members or otherwise, is this expansive, complex, high-functioning web of moving parts. Everything from gardening, to Labre, to all the different ministry meetings, to committees, to subcommittees, to bible studies, to social outings–there’s always something happening somewhere. And this was the summer, the supposedly quiet time!
Preaching to you is a challenge. We all need grace, yes, but in many ways, you are already taking part in the kingdom of God is ways far beyond what I, your intern, could come up with.
So let’s look to Joseph. If we look at Genesis, the interesting thing about Joseph is that even though his actions are generous, what is really radical and challenging is how he says it. It’s a case of it doesn’t just matter what you do, but how you do it.
Joseph offers food and care to his brothers. He let’s them know that he will help take care of them. But does he do this humbly? Oh no. Like this excessive weeping that just rattles my sensibilities, Joseph is incredibly bold. I keep coming back to what he was saying, I am the lord over Pharaoh’s house, ruler over all of Egypt. Which, at that point, was simply true. That is who he was! And it sounds ridiculous, because it was this high and mighty position, but so much of what Joseph did was simply claim who he already was.
In the same way, when I look at Forest Hill and say this is a dynamic congregation, I’m not just trying to flatter you. I’m just using my eyes and telling you what I see. This is an excellent congregation. I believe the good news, the word from Joseph this morning is just that. Joseph provides encouragement and the challenge to simply understand and claim who you already are.
You’ve got to claim who you are. I tell you this as a young woman, because I can tell you how tough it is to do that. At seminary I have a close group of friends, all women, and we get together for bible study, to complain about school, and just to have some people who understand what you’re going through. In this group, about 5 or 6 of us, not one of my feels like they are being called to be a senior pastor. Not one. I look at them, this immensely talented group of women, and cannot understand why they don’t see themselves as capable of leading a church staff. But I also understand it’s difficult. When I encounter people who tell me I’m going to hell for being a female pastor, as much as I don’t agree with that, I appreciate that some days it would be easier to just not have to worry about my career being so open to attack. As soon as women start claiming leadership roles as part of who we are, people still get uncomfortable. People still are dismissive. And sometimes it’s nice to not have all that responsibility.
This is to say it’s difficult to name our own gifts and we all need a little encouragement sometimes. What would it mean to name yourself accurately? This is no time for false humility, friends. Are you a skilled writer? Do you have corporate influence? Name your privilege and power. We spend far too much time avoiding our true selves. Imagine if Joseph did nothing with his power. Imagine if he didn’t reach out to his brothers.
But what’s helpful about the example of Joseph, is that it’s not just about claiming who you are. It’s claiming the work of God in your life. As it says in Galatians, not I, but Christ that lives within me. It’s really important that Joseph doesn’t see his brothers and immediate say, “See? I didn’t need you. Look what I accomplished without you. Aren’t I so great.” No. He didn’t say that. He said, “Look! God has sent me ahead. God has done this. God has used a terrible situation and turned it around.”
And that’s really what claiming who you are means.
And that’s why I stand up here and preach to you. Not because I think, I, Rachel McDonald, am so great. Sometimes I feel pretty good about myself, but most of the time it feels ridiculous to stand up here and say something of meaning. But I do it, and many of you asked why I look so comfortable up here. I’ll tell you the secret. It’s not because of me. It’s because when I stand here, I trust that it is because God has sent me ahead. Preaching is not about saying nice things you come up with, but claiming that God has something to say through you. I am a preacher because God has sent me.
Let me tell you, claiming that that’s the way it works changes everything.
And you cannot be timid. It is very easy to get spooked about claiming God’s role in our lives. We all know about the extreme actions done in the name of God. Not even extreme, but I know there are so many things done in the name of God, in the Christian, American church, that I am deeply uncomfortable with. So I get the caution. I understand wanting to not be arrogant and presumptuous and the importance of being humble before God.
But God is also forgiving. I believe it is better to speak loudly, to tell the world why you have been sent ahead, to name who you are, than to sit back. No matter how calm and in control I want to be, Joseph reminds me of the value of not holding back. To be a little, okay, more than a little emotional. That there’s something about truly saying who I am, in all its fullness, and to name how God is working, is a vulnerable thing to do. Claiming the work of God in your life is putting yourself at risk. But that it is also the faithful way to use our power.
What do you need to claim, Forest Hill? Where has God sent you ahead?
Last week I had a chance to go on a tour of Cleveland Heights with Susie Kaiser, who is an expert on the local civil rights movement the 60s and 70s. Apart from being a fascinating experience, it also revealed to me some of what I’ve known about Forest Hill all along. You guys do incredible work. Forest Hill was part of the movement that stared at racism and said no more. This congregation stood up for fair housing. This congregation found ways to deliberately welcome neighbors. I was blown away by the work this church did in the community.
And that’s not even mentioning what I found out about some of you individually!
I want to be clear about this, because I don’t want you to forget. I know that being within this congregation for a while means that you all forget how extraordinary you are. Not perfect, but extraordinary. And if you don’t remember to name what you are so good at, not only the newer members of the church will not know, but the community will forget. There are always new generations who need to hear who Forest Hill is.
Because I know going on this tour impacted me deeply. Not just because of my pride for you, but also because it gave me hope and a vision for what I am called to do. I am part of communities that still need to get fair housing laws on the books. I am part of churches that are deeply segregated. I needed to see a witness as to what on earth I could even do. Like Joseph’s brothers, I needed someone to go ahead. Having your story revealed to me sustained me and is now sending me forth. And there are so many other people who need the wisdom of a church like Forest Hill. In a world where young men like Mike Brown are being murdered, having your testimony of what to do in the face of racism is hugely important. The world needs people to weep loudly with them.
How important is that in times like these, to name our gifts? What does it mean when you can look out and see your brothers and sisters in a famine, in need of assistance? What does it mean for you to claim that God has sent you, to bring justice? To use your experience to help others?
Now is the time, Forest Hill. The world needs you to continue to reveal yourself, as Joseph revealed himself to his brothers. To show yourself for who you are, to boldly name your gifts, and to continue to keep offering who you are to the world. If you can feel this deeply, if this influences how you view yourselves as individuals and as the congregation, it changes the confidence and the boldness you can have going forth. I want this to always be influencing how you view yourself.
Listen to the words of Joseph. “God sent me here before you.”
You need to claim that, and name that, and keep letting people like me know what God’s purpose for you has been.
So please, let loose. Get out there. Thank you for being who you are, for revealing your gifts to me, and for giving me help. Thank you.
Now, go. You have been sent, Forest Hill.