Sermon by Kenneth Padley for Evensong on 21st July 2019 in St Michael St Albans
Psalm 81; Genesis 41.1-16, 25-36; I Corinthians 4.8-13
Who would have thought that ancient economics could make such a gripping story? Genesis 41 begins with the strange and vivid imagination of Pharaoh, King of Egypt, dreaming that he is standing in the river Nile. Pharaoh would have known as well as any that the lifeblood of his nation flowed from that river. Beyond the fertile valley, Egypt was a barren desert, but on either bank there were crops and cattle aplenty. Pharaoh’s dystopian dream was filled with disturbing portents: emaciated cows guzzling fat ones and plump ears of corn being eaten by thin grains. Note that we are dealing with a double dream here: the two metaphors echo one another, underlining their significance and reinforcing the immediacy of their message. No wonder Pharaoh was eager to fathom the meaning of his nightmare.
This tale of surplus and shortage reflects the hopes and fears of farmers down the centuries. A flourishing harvest is an occasion for rejoicing; a failed harvest is a harbinger of famine. What is unusual in tonight’s story is that it includes insight into the plan of God. Joseph, in offering an interpretation of the dream repeatedly insists that its meaning comes from above. ‘It is not I, [but] God [who] will give Pharaoh a favourable answer’, he says in verse 16. This dream is a window into God’s plan, into divine providence.
As Christians, I don’t think we don’t talk enough about providence. We’re so wrapped in our own little worlds that we never consider the perspective from the other end of the telescope. By contrast, our early modern predecessors in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries talked about providence rather a lot. They lived before the inward turn inaugurated by the so-called ‘Enlightenment’. The Enlightenment made people more self-centred because they suddenly thought that they were the determinants of truth and the source of ultimate authority. The Enlightenment was grounded in that Cartesian principle of ‘I think therefore I am’, but I wonder how Descartes would have answered the fundamentally prior question, why ‘I am’ at all? Surely I can only think because I exist, and that existence flows from the loving will of the Almighty. God is a creator. And as Lord of all time and space (including of the future) God has a plan. So what does it mean to talk about God’s plan? As we will sing in our last hymn, at least one writer reckoned that providence takes the form of a perambulating marine mammal – ‘God is walking his porpoise out’.
I am being a little frivolous, about the Enlightenment as much as God’s porpoise. The great difficulty of discussing providence is the challenge of verification: how do I know that something is of the Spirit and not just my own flight of fancy? I have no easy answers to this, other than to say that I regard God’s will and our will as working in parallel. I say in parallel because, ordinarily, there is no physical interaction between God’s will and my actions. He foresees and forewills everything that I do, yet I remain morally responsible for my choices because God does not force my hand. So I suggest that God’s will and our wills, Her providence and our freedom, work in parallel. She wills and we will. Her will does not force our hand physically, but ultimately, mysteriously, Her plan will out. The challenge of the life of holiness is so to attune our will to God’s will that our decisions reflect the values and choices of the heavenly Kingdom.
And it is crucial to recall that it is my will and it is your individual wills that are being called to do this, because God’s providence operates at the micro-level of individual lives; it is not just concerned with big-picture stuff like the futures market for Pharaonic grain and cattle. Remember that Genesis 41 is not part of a history of Egypt; rather it is a chapter from the story of one person, the man Joseph. We only hear today’s story about Pharaoh because it fits into the vicissitudes of fortune which saw Joseph enslaved by his brothers, sold into the house of Potiphar, and thrown into prison on trumped up charges. The lens of this part of Genesis – and this part of God’s providence – is firmly focused on the one man, Joseph.
Nonetheless, through the unfathomable wisdom of God, there is global significance to this one man’s life. In Genesis chapter 50 we reach the denouement in which Joseph forgives his brothers for selling him into slavery. ‘Even though you intended to do me harm’, he says, ‘God intended it for good’. God needed Joseph as steward over the resources of Egypt in order to support His chosen people through the depredations of that famine. At the outset of his adventures, Joseph had no idea what path his life would take, but near its end, looking back, he realised that his trust in God had achieved something amazing. ‘Even though you intended to do me harm, God intended it for good’.
Now don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that we should stop planning and let God sort everything out. I am saying that we should plan, but that, if the plan is prayerfully and carefully laid, God will be in the plan. That is true of us as individual Christians and it is true also of our corporate life as a church. Too often churches are hopeless at planning. We claim to be in the business of eternity yet we can barely see beyond own our noses to what we’re doing next Sunday.
As a parish we have carefully and prayerfully worked out our plan, our Mission Action Plan – available from all good leaflet racks and the parish website. Our MAP draws on the principles of deepening spirituality, effective evangelism and transformation of communities – three priorities which the diocese rightly wishes to see bubbling away in all churches of Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.
Within our MAP, part of our planning is about music, the musical present (and future) of this church and, through what we nurture, the musical future of other churches as well. This is the hope and rationale which underpins the organ and choral organ scholarships in which George, Louisa, Emma, Vanessa and Tomas have been participating in the last two years.
St Paul in tonight’s second reading seeks leaverage over the Corinthians by using the language of poverty and riches as if they were a zero-sum game: he has impoverished himself in order that the Corinthians might be enriched by the gospel. Paul is actually making a pretty crude argument in order to win obedience from the Corinthians. It is a crude argument because the bigger picture of Paul’s own life, and the outcome of the story of Joseph, and – even dare I say it – the life of a bog standard parish church, shows that God’s plan is not about beggar my neighbour; God’s plan is about mutual benefit and complementary flourishing. My spiritual utility does not impoverish yours, nor vice versa. There may be bumps along the road of faith but God’s plan is like the children’s song about the magic penny: the more you love, the more you have love, until with saints in every time and place we come to the One whose mysterious Providence is to fill all with the melody of his praise. Amen.