Out of Memory
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
April 6, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Exodus 1: 1-14
Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
1 These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: 2 Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, 3 Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, 4 Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. 5 All the offspring of Jacob were seventy persons; Joseph was already in Egypt. 6 Then Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation. 7 But the descendants of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong; so that the land was filled with them.
8 Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war befall us, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens; and they built for Pharaoh store-cities, Pithom and Ra-amses. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. 13 So they made the people of Israel serve with rigor, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field; in all their work they made them serve with rigor.
Here the book of Exodus starts. . . a new episode, entering into the life of a nation rather than a family. These 12 tribes united through the struggles and forgiveness we talked about last week have come together, as foreigners in Egypt, they were to hold a special place in the land. Joseph had saved the Egyptians from famine. Joseph was made the governor, he was the right hand man of the pharoah, but that generation had passed, and many in between. The Israelites, as they were now called, the twelve tribes of the sons of Jacob flourished in Egypt. They were fruitful. They multiplied. They grew strong. Everything was great, but then eventually everything changed, and they became a threat. . . and there arose a new pharaoh, who did not know Joseph. He did not remember, or had not been taught his history, so he did not know.
He did not know that Joseph had saved his throne, saved his country, saved his people. He did not know that Joseph, favored by God, had found success with everything he touched. That Joseph having been sold into slavery to some Ishmaelites by his brothers, was bought by a wealthy Egyptian officer, a captain of the guard, named Potiphar. The Lord was with Joseph, so everything that Joseph did prospered, Potiphar could tell so he put him in charge of everything, becoming the overseer of all of Potiphar's property. From the moment he became overseer, the Lord blessed Potiphar's house, everything Joseph did, everything Joseph touched just seemed to work out. Joseph became an important and beloved servant. Potiphar trusted Joseph with everything, leaving for times at length, never worrying about his property, his house, his wife. He trusts Joseph completely, and of course Joseph's character gets put to the test.
Potiphar's wife makes advances at Joseph. He refuses of course, but she is persistent. She tries again and again, and he refuses again and again, until one time Joseph comes in from the fields and Potiphar's wife is extra aggressive, she grabs his clothing, and a scrap of it rips into her hands. She uses the cloth to get revenge from him turning her down by framing him. She says that it was him who had made the advances. . . and so Potiphar was angered, and threw Joseph into prison, to be forgotten again, but again God was with Joseph. So he quickly finds favor with a new benefactor, this the prison guard. The prison guard, like Potiphar, knew that he could trust Joseph, and put him in charge of all the other prisoners, knowing that whatever Joseph did he would do well because the Lord was with him, showing him favor, giving him his steadfast love.
So while in prison two of the Pharaoh's men, the baker and the butler make Pharaoh mad, and when you make Pharaoh mad it doesn't go well for you, so they get thrown in prison with Joseph, and while they are there they dream dreams, and Joseph interprets them for them. The butler asks first, and Joseph tells him he will be restored to his job in three days, and Joseph asks him to remember him when he is restored. . . but the Baker is not so lucky, his dream means that he will be hanged in the same three days hence. All of this happens. . . just as Joseph said it would, but the butler does not remember Joseph like he said he would. He does not remember him. . . and so Joseph remains in prison. People have forgotten Joseph but God never has.
Two more years pass by, and finally Pharaoh himself has a dream, and finally the Butler remembers, he goes to Joseph and gets him to interpret the Pharaoh's dream. Joseph does, predicting seven years of plentiful harvest, to be followed by seven years of famine. So Joseph is put in charge of storing up the grain during the plenty years, and then becomes governor during the famine years. He effectively administers the grain, saves the Egyptian people, saves his brothers and his father. . . and the rest is history, like Yogi Berra said, "History's great and all, but it don't last forever." Yogi, always so idiotically prescient. History made is often history forgotten, and when we forget, we run the risk of peril. Joseph, the reason that the Israelites are there, the reason that they have a place, the reason that they can prsoper, has now been forgotten by the powers that be. .. but we see in the story of him that I just recapped for us all that this isn't the first time that Joseph has been forgotten.
No Joseph is forgotten often, Joseph was forgotten by his brothers in the pit, forgotten by Potiphar, when his wife framed him, forgotten by the Butler after the dream came to be, and he was restored, and now forgotten by the Pharoah, once a few generations have passed. He is forgotten, the Isreaelites are enslaved, people have forgotten Joseph's importance, but like all those times when Joseph was forgotten by people, he was never forgotten by God. That is the message here of the text. Things are about to happen. God is about to act. The cries of the Hebrews in slavery will make it to God's ears and he will again provide for them. God has not forgotten. . . but why do we? Why do we forget the important stuff of history?
It's a common theme in literature, especially modern literature. It is as if we know that we often forget. It usually finds its ways into fantasy books most often because they are usually allegories, parallels of our world, written to warn us about our own human tendencies, and it seems that forgetting is one of them. I chose the prayer of preparation, taken from the Lord of the Rings, by Tolkien. . . that
And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth. And for two and a half thousand years, the ring passed out of all knowledge.
Somethings just shouldn't fall out of our memory, nor out of our history but they do, and we suffer for it. Like many people I have watched the Game of Thrones show on HBO, and read the books, and that is another example. The people of these southern kingdoms have built a great big huge wall at the north of their kingdom. They believe it was to separate them from people who have chosen not to live with them, refusing to bow their knee to the kings. Their history has forgotten, that there is a much darker, dangerous, and sinister enemy lurking just north of the wall. They have forgotten. . . and now winter is coming, and they will be reminded. . . harshly.
In some ways it is amazing to me that world war II ended less than 70 years ago, because often it seems like it was another world, so long ago, and out of many people's minds. How much of that history has been forgotten already? Does the generation of kids today even know what a Totalitarian regime is? Would they know one if they saw one? Would they know why they are problematic? Would they know why the pose a threat to freedom? Do they even know what freedom really is? And if those of us in this room haven't forgotten, how about the next generation. We may not forget it all, but we will forget alot of it. Even more recently is the Cold War. . . most of my students were never alive while the Berlin wall was standing. Never knew what it was like to have another superpower in the world, never knew what it was Communism is like? Never heard of the Iron Curtain? The Warsaw Pact? Do they remember? How often are they taught that stuff? I know that most modern US history classes in high school barely make it to World War II, leaving so much recent history, untaught, and forgotten. It happens so fast that memory goes away, generation to generation, falling completely out of memory. Important things, crucial things.
It becomes an important aspect of the religion of the Israelites, to simply remember. So much of it all is to remember the faithfulness of God. Deuteronomy talks about so many different things that Israelites must do to remember while they are in the land. Remembering that God saved them and brought them up out of their bondage by hand, parting the Red Sea, feeding them in the desert, and even then they forget. They are to bind reminders to their arms and foreheads, to their door posts, everywhere, to teach their children day and night, dripping repeatedly from their tongues, reminders of God and his steadfast love for them. And they still forget.
Jesus says to us Remember me. He gives us the cup, he gives us the bread and he says remember me. In the next few weeks we will be remembering together the two most amazing saving acts of God. Easter, the resurrection, the cross. . . and the Exodus, the plagues, the crossing. God sets us free, but we often forget. The day to day happens, the immediate takes over, and we forget to look back. We forget. . . and we have forgotten since the beginning. There in the midst of the garden, God had created the world, in six days, and left the seventh as a special day of rest, a day each week to remember all that God had done, but Adam and Eve forgot, or chose to ignore at least. . . what God is. In what we have studied in the last few months, we see generations forgetting what their parents knew. We see parents unable to pass on their faith, their walking with God. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, there is a disconnect of knowledge between them, of how God works with them. . . It is easy to forget. . .
But we must remember. . . and God knows us, just like he knew the Israelites, he knows we are prone to forget. . . so he works to constantly remind us, by giving us church, giving us each other, giving us spring, and most importantly giving us the sacraments, giving us Communion. To come together and experience, to remember in our minds but also in our bodies, a multisensory memory of God's love found in Jesus Christ. As we share in the holy feast of our Lord. . . let's try to remember what it means, who we are, where we are going, where we've been, and that God has been, is, and will be with us every step of our journey. We can remember the story of Joseph and his steadfast love from God, and perhaps our own history is similar, God walking with us throughout. . . can we pass that love on, pass that story on, so there is never a time where it is forgotten. . . as if God would ever let that happen. Amen.