"You shall be near me"-Sermon for Proper 15, Genesis 34:1-15
So, I have an addendum to my Easter sermon…a part two…if you will. Just in case you were not with us on Easter Sunday this past April, I used, as a sermon illustration, a story about my daughter Amelia getting locked in a bathroom when she was about 6 years old. I will not share all the details again, but we were traveling on vacation, hiking in Lake District in England. Specifically, we were on one of my most favorite hikes over there, which takes you from the village of Ambleside to the village of Troutbeck. The hike takes you over Wans Fell…fell being the word the English use for peak…with spectacular 360-degree views. From the top of Wans Fell, the landscape is dappled with picturesque villages, glacial lakes and other mountain ranges in the distance. It’s truly breathtaking. And, after descending from the fell…the hike ends, again, in Troutbeck…and more specifically…a magical old pub named the Mortal Man. As I said at Easter, I continue to love the fact that most hikes in the Lake District end at a pub.
And, following one such hike some 7 years ago, Amelia, who was, again, about 6 at the time, got locked in the bathroom at the Mortal Man. She could not get out and was understandably very scared. Once we arrived on the scene, we too couldn’t get the very old door open and neither could the people working at the pub. So, in the end…our only option was to kick in that very old door, with Amelia standing in the corner, facing away from the door, with her hands over her face. And, though we can laugh at it all now, it was a very tense 30 minutes or so. So, when the door was finally broken open, I was never so happy to have my daughter in my arms, as she ran to us and we to her all wrapped up in the profound and unending love, which is God’s own love, we have for one another…zero degrees of separation…nothing left standing between us.
And, as I am sure you recall or can sort of figure out, the point of connection between that experience and Easter is that through Jesus’ glorious resurrection God has utterly broken open, torn down, reduced to nothing anything, including death itself, that could possibly stand between the rainbow-colored people of God, meaning each and every one of us, and God’s own eternal arms of everlasting love. Easter promises us that in the fullness of time, and I would argue even now, through God’s alive and active Spirit, that there is zero degrees of separation left standing between us and the God who created us, who loves us across the universe and back again, and who gives us eternal and abundant life…in this world and the world to come. This is our great hope from which we find the courage and real power, fueled by God’s own love that lives within each of us, to persevere, to be resilient, to even thrive and overcome all the locked doors…that is all the real challenges we face…from the ordinary challenges rooted in imperfect human relationships…those times when we disappoint and hurt each other…to the existential challenges of climate change and social injustice and political unrest…to name just a few. Which takes me to part two of my story.
So, as many of you likely know, my family just returned from another vacation to England to, once again, visit our sister and brother-in-law and niece who live on the other side of the pond. And, this year we were joined by four friends from back home for a part of the journey. And, while in the Lake District, we took these friends on the very same hike over Wans Fell to the Mortal Man some seven years later almost to the day when Amelia was locked in the bathroom. And, it was a beautiful day…a perfect day for the hike…among many rainy days on the trip, which we did not mind considering the weather we are living through here at home. And, when we arrived at the Mortal Man, we all took a pilgrimage of sorts together to the bathroom that Amelia was locked in. The scars on the door remain. You can clearly see where the wood was splintered and then repaired and where the lock was replaced. It was all good fun…lots of laughter with pints in hand as we regaled our friends of the “Amelia getting locked in the bathroom fiasco”. We then returned to the garden to continued our revelry, followed by a delicious dinner in the pub. But, as Willie Nelson croons, “Turn out the lights. The parties over. All good things must end”, the time to leave the pub and return home, indeed, arrived. A large cab was awaiting us outside the pub to drive us all home.
Well, on the way out, one of our friends, Diana, needed to pop into the bathroom…while the rest of us piled into the cab. And, after waiting for what was an unusually long time for her to join us…one of us went back in to make sure all was well…only to find…and I am not making this up…that Diana was locked in the very same stall that Amelia was locked in seven years before, again almost to the day, and could not get out. Now, Diana was not just messing with us, though it would have been a good prank. Diana is a grown adult and accomplished therapist…a bright and capable person…and she was genuinely stuck behind the door. She could not get the lock open. We got a screw driver from the publican, and I literally dismantled the enter handle and it still would not open. The owner of the pub and one of her maintenance people joined in the fray…and they couldn’t get it open either.
One of us then asked the owner of the Mortal Man if this happens often…and her response was no. But, she had heard of some little girl getting locked in the stall some years before. And, we told her that was us. We pointed to Amelia, and her face went utterly blank. So, friends, we faced the inevitable, once again, the door was going to have to be kicked open. And, though, the irony of the situation was utterly hilarious, we were all in a bit of shock, and Diana was certainly not having as much fun with it on the other side of the locked door. So, indeed, we kicked in the door and Diana emerged…a little shaken…but with a smile on her face as we all joined in a great big group hug…zero degrees of separation…that which had separated us entirely destroyed…and love, once again, filled that tiny space. On our way out the owner, still in obvious shock, asked us if we planned to return. And, it being only the first of two weeks we were spending in the Lake District, I cheerfully responded, “Probably next week.” Her jaw dropped open…but she said nothing, as we made our way out the front door.
Now, though I really wanted to tell you all that story, genuinely what got me thinking about it this week, was of all things Joseph’s story in our Old Testament lesson. His story, which we have heard for the past two Sundays, from the very first book of the bible, truly is one of my most favorite stories in all the bible. It contains all the emotion, all the depravity and triumph in human life, and all the plot twists one could possibly hope for…much like the most binge worthy family dramas that we love to lose ourselves in for hours. There is jealously and the fear and dislike of difference that leads to fateful and unthinkable choices like Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery in Egypt. And, there is story of the outsider, left to languish in prison whose ingenuity, supernatural giftedness, and tenacity lead him through trials and tribulations to the very highest echelons of power and influence, as Joseph eventually becomes the steward of the great kingdom of Egypt. And, as we heard today, there is even a happy ending, when, through the power of forgiveness, a family is reconciled and saved, as Joseph forgives his brothers’ unthinkable transgression and brings their father and all of them to his own home in Egypt, saving them from a famine that certainly would have led to their painful demise.
But, friends, though the story may feel like it gets tied up neatly in the last chapter of Genesis, it doesn’t actually end there. For, as you well know, Genesis in but book one of the bible. There are many more seasons left to be viewed…many stories yet to be told. Thus, whenever I come to the end of Joseph’s story, though deeply moved, even at times to the point of tears, as Joseph weeps himself over his brothers…as a family is reunited and reconciled through he power of forgiveness…a family saved by God’s providential love, moving in Joseph’s life, that keeps them and countless descendants from being snuffed out of human history. Even after that most happy of endings, I am always left, for lack of a better description, with a haunted and unsettled feeling in my gut. For, in the very next book of the bible, we learn what eventually happens to Joseph’s family, the people of Israel, over the generations that follow as they grow and multiply in Egypt. For as you well know, they find themselves, once again, locked back up in their own proverbial bathroom. As the title Tolkien uses for the 6###sup/sup### chapter in the Hobbit, they end up out of the frying pan and into the fire…that is slaves in Egypt…their paradise becomes their hell. Locked up, once again, behind a metaphorical door that is not this time a divided family and a famine, as in Joseph’s day, but under Pharaoh’s brutal whip. That is…that is till a son is born…another child of Israel…Moses…and the door begins to shake…God begins God’s loving work of breaking down the door again.
And, friends, this is not the last metaphorical locked bathroom the people of Israel, our own spiritual ancestors and family members, will find themselves in…there is forty years in the desert, there is war, there is unfaithfulness before idols, there is the neglect of the poor, there is exile, there is the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem…but then…always then...despite our best efforts to always work against God’s loving purposes…certainly even by us and in our own day…God’s love arrives…and the door begins to shake…God begins God’s loving work of breaking down the door again and again and again.
Israel’s continuous story of being bound up and set free, that finds its fulfillment in Jesus’ resurrection at Easter, that has broken down the last two powerful doors of sin and death…promises us, reminds us that every time, for it surely won’t be once, as we proved at the Mortal Man, but every time we find ourselves all locked up by the wounds inflicted upon us, the prisons of our making, the existential threats that we feel powerless against…God’s unending love for us will continue shaking and remaking the lives we live and the world we live in until there is nothing left to stand between us and God’s everlasting arms of love…zero degrees of separation…lost in each other’s arms…love filling every space we find ourselves in. So, take heart, be of good courage, do not be afraid, do not give up, keep seeking your way in the dark, keep fighting the good fight…the locked door, once again, is ready to burst open. Amen.