A Deeply Moving Religious Experience
A Deeply Moving Religious Experience
It was Pentecost Sunday and I had been invited to speak at Washington Cathedral on that occasion because my background has something to do with earthquake, wind and fire. I suspected that I had been invited in anticipation that we could have at least a simulation of what the Pentecostal event had been. But halfway into the sermon it became very clear to me that background not withstanding, I would not get very much going in the National Cathedral of the Episcopal tradition. In fact, as I tried to rev up things for that moment, it would almost appear the people could not hear. There was not laughter in response to my jokes. I saw no gesture of anticipation of the fire of the Spirit. In fact the building itself seemed to conspire against my Pentecostal aspirations. It was almost as if I could hear the cathedral saying, "Slow down, Jim. You're not going to get very much going in here today."
Anyway, I gave it my best. Nothing much seemed to happen. Except at the end of the service, a man came up in the line along with those others who nodded a head of approval as they passed by. But he stopped. And extended his hand to me. And he said to me, "I want you to know that was the most deeply moving religious experience I've ever had in my life."
That response stuck with me and I want to preach on a deeply moving religious experience. I've chosen the text from Genesis 45 because there a man has a very deeply moving religious experience and it appeals to me. It appeals to me because in my work as minister and professor, I look at knowledge that the more rationalistic orientation of the seminary life renders me less and less susceptible to the kind of deeply moving religious experiences I used to have in the back woods of North Carolina. Somehow the visitations are not as frequent in that somewhat stilted atmosphere as in my Grandpa's church down in Williamston, North Carolina. And quite frankly, every now and then, I too like the man in the cathedral would like to have a deeply moving religious experience. I could stand one now.
But in a more serious vein, as I seek to proclaim the Good News across the land, I have become convinced that not only do we need deeply moving religious experiences as individuals, but the Church, all of them, those who are called mainline churches and those who were called the cults and those called sects, those that were the old centers of power, almost every denominational group I share with, there seems to be a need here and there for a deeply moving religious experience. For churches sometimes strain at being places where people experience the living God with power for transformation. I think we need not just a little stirring up, a little upbeat in a song or just a little more lively revised liturgy, I think churches all over need a deeply moving religious experience.
And what of our nation? As I look at the mandate of the Christ to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God, and to love others as God has loved us, to plead for those for whom no power has been made possible, to hear the high calling of the Kingdom of God and then to look at our nation and the erosion of humanitarian idealism, the loss of a sense of caring for others and an increasing rugged individualism whether expressive or utilitarian, somehow I get the impression as I preach that I'd be wasting my breath unless this nation's churches and individuals in the nation can somehow happen upon a deeply moving religious experience. Otherwise we seem to proclaim in vain.
But let's go back to Joseph, you know the one with the coat. The old book used to say "with many colors." That's the Joseph I'm talking about.
I want to talk about him because in our text he had a deeply moving religious experience. So deep was the experience that it became necessary for him to banish from his presence those who were in official capacities in Egypt. And was left there and felt something powerful going on inside himself.
I want to speak of that Joseph. For something happened there that day for him that I keep wishing would happen for myself. Before I come to the heart of what I see revealed in the 45 chapter, let's just take a quick backdrop and look at this Joseph. Perhaps we can pick up some clues about what went into this extraordinary experience he had, an experience that moved him so until he was crying aloud. And folks even who were outside of that room, way down at Pharaoh's house could hear him and wondered what on earth had happened to brother Joseph.
Joseph's dreams of power and significance were deferred by a life of ups and downs
But quickly let me review his life. I see two forms. First is that he was a person who had a dream of power and a real sense that he would make a significant contribution in the world. You remember his dream. And he had little enough sense to tell the dreams to his brothers.
"We were in the field and my sheaf of wheat that I had gathered, well it stood up tall and the sheaves of wheat that you had gathered bowed down to mine." And the brothers looked at him. "So you're going to be in charge of us, huh? So you're going to have dominion over us?"
But the dream was stronger than that. For he dreamed again. And this time he dreamed that the sun and the moon and the eleven stars or constellations of stars had somehow bowed down to him. This time his daddy thought that it's time to tell that boy a little something about sibling rivalry. "Listen, if you're going to have those kind of dreams, you are making it look like mother and father and your brothers are going to bow down." But there was nothing that Jacob, the father of Joseph, could do about this dream. It was deep in him. Something inside himself that You are a person of power. You are going to make a very significant contribution. The world will be a different place because you passed through it. That was in him. It was in him as he walked around. It was with him when he went to sleep. There was this deep dream in him. Keep it in mind because I think it is going to have something to do with why he was so deeply moved.
But there's something else about him. Not only was there this great dream of power and of significance, but his dreams as far as the story goes seem to be deferred. It appeared to reach fulfillment and then it would back up on him. He was almost there and yet he would miss it by a leap. In other words, the unfolding of his life was not according to an instant fulfillment of the dream. His dream was deferred by a life of ups and downs. A dream of standing up tall, but the reality was that his life like everybody else's was up and down.
Here he is a boy who stands high up in his father's admiration. But his brothers always looked forward to an opportunity to put him down. Daddy sent him down to the field to check on the brothers one day, riding high up on his beast of burden.
And they said, "Look at him. Here comes this dreamer. Let's put him down in the ground. Let's destroy him." But one brother came up and said, "No. Let's don't destroy him. Let's not spill his blood. Let's just put him in a pit." So there he goes, down in a pit. And would have perhaps stayed there until another brother came to rescue him, but along came some traders. They now take him up out of the pit.
And no sooner than he's up out of the pit they sell him down into Egypt. And down into Egypt his history continues. He arrives with power in the service of Potiphar. That man in charge, the captain of the guard, in fact became a chief steward in Potiphar's house. And he was so efficient, so successful was he, that his natural charm began to be irresistible for Mrs. Potiphar.
But brother said, "I will hold up high my virtue," and ended up down in prison. She managed to find a way to get him. She claimed that he had made the improper advances on her. She managed to take his coat. She said he did the wrong thing and so he was put into prison. And he did time.
You know the story, how he interpreted the dream of the butler and the baker. And although down in prison, he even rose high up there. Every time it looks like he was about to make it, something seemed to go wrong. As he said to the butler, "You're going to return to bear the cup of the king and when you do, by all means, remember me for I have been unjustly condemned and placed in this dungeon. Remember me, will you?" he said to the butler.
The baker of course was executed. He could not speak. And guess what. The butler let him down. People do that even today. They let you down. Two years there he was in that rotten stinking dungeon and the butler didn't even think of him until Pharaoh had his dream.
When Pharaoh had his dream, the dream disturbed him. And nobody in all of Egypt could interpret the dream of the king. And it was then that the butler said, "Oh yes, I remember. A guy down in prison named Joe. Yes, I remember Joe. Oh King, I believe Joe will be able to somehow interpret your dream."
And so it was that he got himself all straightened out and went to stand before the king. And he interpreted the dreams. "Okay it is not my interpretations; interpretations belong to the Lord," he said, "but the dream that you had of seven fat cows eaten by skinny cows and the grain, seven ears beautiful eaten up by lobby grain of corn as if the east wind had parched them, the dream is that there are going to be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. And it would be wise, oh King, to manage to save, to conserve, to preserve that there might be food in the time of famine."
And the king pressed, "Where can we find such a man?" Well my brother Joseph had set it up so well and so they did not need to look for a wise man. The king said, "Here he is. Let's give him the job." And so his reign began.
His ups and downs seemed to stop at a high point. The king took off his signet ring and put it on him. Then put the medallion around his neck, and furthermore gave him new attire. He looked somewhat official now.
When his chariot went down the road, they would say, "Bow the knee!" Feels almost like the dream that's about been fulfilled. And the king gave him a brand new name. Named him ZPaaneah. And in addition gave the beautiful, intelligent, resourceful Asenath to be his wife.
God blessed and added to this union of ZPaaneah and Asenath two beautiful bouncing boys, Manasseh and Ephraim. And even the name suggests I've made it now. I've reached the pinnacle of my anticipation. My dream has been fulfilled for God has caused me to forget all of the hardships in the land of my father, and has allowed me to be fruitful in the land of my afflictions. It almost seemed like he had reached the point. He had almost fulfilled the dream.
In fact things turned out just as he said: seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. And yet he had conserved wisely and was distributing daily. And I suspect that in the evening when he finally got home to Asenath and Manasseh and Ephraim he could speak in his mind, "Oh the Lord has brought me from a mighty long way. Look where I've come to. Look what God has done for me. If I can be prudent, I can live out my life and they will tell stories about one Hebrew boy who went down in the land of Egypt and done good."
And yet you are waiting for the time when it begins to be unclear as to whether the dream is completely fulfilled. For there was a day when those brothers, yes those same brothers who sold him into slavery, came before him for distribution of food, for times were tough in Canaan. He was moved because he recognized him, but they did not recognize him. And after a little playing around, testing they say, maybe expressing some of his residual resentment at what had been done to him, sent them back, called them spies, put them up for three days in prison, demanded that they bring back their younger brother whom he had inquired about skillfully.
Then he says, "I am going to keep that young brother Benjamin with me and the rest of you may go." And the brother had promised old man Jacob that we cannot let them take Benjamin. But if we take Benjamin the old man says, "I'll die."
So it was Judah who gave that report that I was reading to you. It was Judah who came to him. And I like the way Judah did this. He said to him, "Now sir, we do not wish to show you any disrespect, but we can not leave Benjamin here." All of this was said through an interpreter, for he was now speaking impeccable Egyptian and had on the attire of royalty. But Judah asked, "Let me get close enough to say, "We can't leave this Benjamin with you because our father would go down to his grave, for he has already lost one son of his wife Rachel whom he loves. The son of his old age, and if we don't take him back, father will die."
To have a deeply moving religious experience we need to tell the truth about who we really are
It was at that point that this deeply moving experience that I was talking about happened to him. Which I wish could happen for me, maybe for you. As Judah got close to him and began to speak, he felt something deep down inside himself. It was as if how Judah was speaking to him, God recognizing that the dream had been blurred through the years, began to stir up the dream. And after the dream had been stirred that he felt something that was happening inside of himself that was bigger than himself. He felt a power at work that he was no longer able to control by imperial decree. He felt that he was in the hands of something bigger than himself.
And he didn't know what was going to happen. So he decided to clear the house. He said, "Everybody else other than these men who are standing here with me, you all leave please."
And as everybody had left, then he really let it all hang out. He started yelling to the top of his voice. The text says, "He could not control it." I do not know what it sound like. I do not simulate it. But out of the depths of his being, the place where his longing for fulfilledness had somehow been put on hold, but he began to cry to the top of his voice.
And these brothers didn't know what to do about it. They were dumbstruck. What is going on with this man who is in charge?
He first of all said to them, "Listen y'all. I'm Joseph." They didn't understand that. He probably said it with an Egyptian accent. They didn't understand that. But he then came out at them again, "Look I'm your brother Joseph."
That's the first thing I see happening that I can say quickly that I wish would happen. You see, when he said "I am Joseph" I wonder when was the last time he had said those syllables "Joseph"? Do you think he told Asenath? There are men of power who cease to bare their souls. They can't afford it. Do you think Ephraim and Manasseh knew of the days back when? You see when you come into royalty, it is not always convenient to have the closets clean as completely as they might need to be clean. I do not know when the last time was that he said anything about Joseph. And that's one of the things that moved him. I think the hand of God moved him, first of all, to tell the truth about who he really was.
How many of us live our lives halfway between ZPaaneah and Joseph? How many of us live our lives behind the roles we play? Behind the faade of public reputation? How many of us carry the heavy load of an assumed character and tell me how deeply moving it is to just go ahead and be yourself?
I'm speaking to ministers tonight. One of the afflictions of ministry is that somebody puts a "Dr." or a "Reverend" in front of your name and all of a sudden you've got to act like somebody about two or three feet off the ground. Oh that a meeting like this could revive the opportunity for us to be just who we are.
Yes, we are both ZPaaneah and Joseph. But it ain't no good trying to pretend that we're only Zaphnath. We are the whole thing, multiple roles, multiple responsibilities, multiple dimensions of character. We are not as holy as we would like to be. We have not come as close to perfection as we like to claim. We have not lived up to all that we announce on the day we said 'yes' to the call. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could just go ahead and be who we are? Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could just say "this is who I am"?
I had to learn it the hard way. I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. I was invited back to be a speaker at the Sir Walter Raleigh Hotel. When I was growing up we couldn't even go in that hotel except to serve. But I got a chance to back in there to speak. But I spoke. I did the best speech I could. Almost to say, "Y'all see what you missed keeping me out of here?"
Them people were shaking hands, shaking hands, and at the end there was a woman who been a member of my daddy's church for many years. And she stood in line while all these people said, "Oh Dr. Forbes this" and "Oh Dr. Forbes this," "Oh Dr. Forbes this." And they were just holding up the line, holding up the line.
And the sister couldn't stand it any longer. She broke out of the line, ran up in front of the lady that was getting ready to shake my hand, and say, "You come on down here and shake my hand. You ain't no Dr. Forbes to me. You ain't nobody but Jim Forbes. I know you."
It was a liberating moment to stop being so uptight with titles, so saturated with an elevated sense of self, to just be deeply moved to be just who we are. Both the role as well as that individual that we are beneath that role. The center of power.
To have a deeply moving religious experience we need to affirm our solidarity with our people
Something else happens which is very serious. And that other thing was that somehow he was moved to affirm his solidarity with his people. He had forgotten that. Even named his son "I forgot that."
The importance of being deeply moved, and the real reason why I speak of deeply moved, we have come to a point as a nation and as people in a nation where the nuclear family is becoming almost as detrimental to the kingdom of God as the nuclear power is in general. All our concern is about my nuclear family. My wife. My child. And my close relatives. That brother Joseph looked out for himself. Zaphnath, Asenath, Manasseh and Ephraim and thought that that was what God was interested in: satisfying his life at that level.
No! God moved him that day. I'm so glad. God moved him to say, "Man, I have not raised you up primarily that you should be able to enjoy yourself. The resources I've given you, the opportunity I've given you, even the dream I gave you was not about you standing tall for yourself, but standing tall that my people might survive."
And therefore in that context, he recovered a sense of caring. He asked, "Is my father yet alive?"
And then furthermore, he said, "I want you to get ready to tell them that God has honored me here in Egypt. And tell them to go get ready to come. They must be with me."
And some of us, when we get it made, forget about the rest of the folks. And we live in the shade while our brothers and sisters die from a lack of basic subsistence needs. Oh, how I wish Proclamation 86 would be an occasion that folks would be deeply moved. So deeply moved that they decided not to forget about the folks in East Tennessee, just because they lived in West Tennessee.
So deeply moved that they would not decide to forget about the people in Central America just because they lived on the main line. So deeply moved that they would not forget about my African brothers back in South Africa, and your African brothers and sisters back in South Africa, both black and white.
Oh that God would deeply move us so that we in the United States of America would learn how once again to promote liberty and justice and freedom for all the brothers and sisters in the various lands of salvation around the world. I am not just for excitement. Oh that we would be deeply moved, deeply moved.
To have a deeply moving religious experience we need to find a cause to give our lives for
The last chapter in Genesis has a funny ending. The last thing that I see is that Joseph, having grown old, having brought the brothers and the sisters down to be with him, to stay in the land of Goshen and raised up children's children, and yet at the endand this is the thing that excites meat the end Joseph says to them, "I want you to make me a promise." He said, "I am about to die. But God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land which he swore to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob." Then Joseph took an oath, saying, "When God visits, you shall carry up my bones from here."
Oh, that's what I'm looking for. You see, I have decided to be myself. And I have decided to serve community, not only my black brothers and sisters in the United States, but I've decided to be concerned about Native Americans. And I decided to be concerned about other minorities in my own land. I decided to be sensitive to the needs of the oppressed. It does not matter what form of oppression, whether it is oppression by virtue of sexual orientation, whether it is oppression by virtue of choice. I've decided to do that.
But there's more, don't you see. For what I'm looking for is not a series of either conservative or liberal causes or bandwagons to get on. Something deep inside me is close to what was in Joseph. I'm tired of being on one bandwagon and then another. And something in me wishes to find a call that's strong enough and serious enough and important enough and noble enough that I could not only work hard when I live, but when I come down to die that I'd be so confident that this call is the winning call that I would like to offer my bones. Lord, I've given my blood. Lord, I've given my sweat. Lord, I've given my kids. But now I'd like to dedicate to you my bones, my charred remains. Take my bones.
How many of you have found something strong enough, clear enough, that you were willing to suffer for, to bleed, to die for, to give your life and then what's left for? Have you found it? If you haven't found it you haven't been moved deeply enough yet. If you haven't it, you really don't know what it's all about. Joseph found out that he had been chosen by God to be a connective link between God's promise and God's fulfillment. That was where his satisfaction was. That was where his dream was going to be fulfilled, when he found the opportunity to stand between the promise and the fulfillment.
That's what I'm looking for. I do not care what title they give me. That won't help me. I don't care what the books say about bowing the knee. That won't help me that much. I don't care so much about the honor on the face of the earth if I could just find my spot, my spot between promise and fulfillment, that spot in the will and plan of God, that God earmarked for me, that God gave me a dream for, that God buried down in my heart, it's to die for. If I ever find that, then I know I'm on my way.
And while I talk about that, Jesus is gonna say, "Hey man, what you talking about finding? Didn't I find a spot for you? Didn't I hang on the cross, suspended between earth and heaven for the sake of the kingdom? Didn't I stand there and declare that God's reign is at hand? And didn't I invite you to become a part of it? What you looking for? I gave my blood didn't I?"
I said, "Yes, Lord."
"I gave my tears, didn't I?"
"And when I didn't have anything else, I gave blood and water, didn't I?"
"And then, I gave my body."
"Yes you did, Lord."
"And in my giving, I found the fulfillment of my dream. That's why on the third day morning, I got up feeling good."
I wish that would happen for you. And to tell the truth, I feel it coming on now. I feel it! I feel a new sense of readiness to find my place, to fulfill my responsibility to live out the full meaning of the dream of God in my life. What I hope is that God would somehow move in on us, begin to make it so clear that you'll be able to say with Joseph of old, now it was not anything of the world that did it for me, but it was the purpose of God working out. We can find the capacity to say, "Lord, take my life and my hands and my feet and when these have been consumed, take my bones."
And by the way, the last chapter in the book of Genesisit's an awful thing for me to mess up by saving such a low note for the end, but here's the way the chapter ends, and then I'm throughso Joseph died, being a hundred and ten years old. And they embalmed him and he was put in a coffin in Egypt. And that's the way the first book ends.
But if you turn the page, at the top, what do you think you'll see? Exodus.
James Forbes is senior minister of The Riverside Church in New York City.
(c) James Forbes
Preaching Today Tape #59
A resource of Christianity Today International
James Forbes is the senior minister emeritus of the Riverside Church in New York, New York.