[My sermon this morning at 6:8 Community Church continuing the story of Joseph. My thoughts on being forgotten, God’s hesed, and remembering others.]
We’re forgetful people: our keys, wallets, purses, phones (and wedding rings if you’re my wife). We forget all kinds of things. But the worst is when we forget another person… kind of like this: [show Home Alone “Kevin’s Not Here” clip].
I used to think that clip was ridiculous. How could you forget your son?!?! After 8 months of Isla, I totally understand how it could happen. My memory gets worse every day. For Kevin, being forgotten turned out ok. He even enjoyed being alone. And, sure, he had to face some challenges but he made it. Of course, we know it’s a movie, and a comedy at that.
Reality is far less humorous. Being forgotten is a deadening experience – emotionally, spiritually, even physically. When we’re forgotten by those we know and love, we begin to lose our sense of belonging and purpose and, eventually, hope. When I forget someone, it means that, in some way, there wasn’t space for that person in my life. This happens to all of us in all kinds of way. We’re forgotten by our friends, families, neighbors, co-workers, even our church.
But we find ourselves on the flip side too; we often forget those we know and love. And then once we consider those outside our everyday social networks, our memory problems only get worse. Do we remember the poor? The hungry, the homeless, the widows and orphans – the prisoners, the immigrants and refugees, those caught in violent conflict or abusive situations? What about the elderly, the home-bound, the sick, and the intellectually and physically disabled? Or even single parents, the long-term unemployed, or those caught in depression? Remembering those who live in these kinds of difficult, painful, and sometimes even oppressive situations can be especially hard. It feels easier to forget. Even if that person is us; sometimes we’d rather even forget about ourselves. What does it mean for us to remember when remembering is so hard?
I’ve met a handful of people who are all too easy for me to forget. I want to tell you about one of them. About 7 years ago on a mission trip to Liberia, West Africa, I met a shy little girl on a beach. I noticed her staring blankly at us white folks, watching in the distance as we played joyfully with other Liberian kids. I could tell she wanted to play too so I stopped to talk with her. I found out that, like many in Liberia’s capital city, she was a fisherman and was out selling her catch; probably 8 or 9 years old. It’s hard to stop and play when you know what not selling those fish could mean for you and your family. She told me her name… but I forgot.
I conveniently forget about this little girl because her life holds up a mirror to my own. In it I see God’s unquenchable desire for justice, righteousness, and comprehensive peace for all people. I see my complicity in sinful social structures that desecrate her life and deny the abundant life that Jesus desires for her. I see that she is my neighbor and, whether I realize it or not, I need her just as much as she needs me. My story is incomplete without hers. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly….”
When I forget that little girl’s story, I forget myself. Whenever we forget about others – rich or poor, strangers or loved ones – we all end up a little more forgotten, a little more lost, a little more alone, a little farther from God’s dream of justice lived out in diverse communities. No one should be forgotten. But we’re sinful people, wounded people: we all forget and, in differing ways, we’re all forgotten.
So let’s take a few minutes to remember Joseph’s story. At this point, Joseph reminds me of the lyrics of that Chumbawamba song circa 1997: “I get knocked down! But I get up again!”
He’s a natural born leader who gets sold into Egyptian slavery by his jealous brothers. But he gets back up and becomes the head of Potiphar’s household! He gets knocked down again when Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses him of raping her and he gets thrown into prison. But he gets back up: he’s appointed as the head prisoner. Joseph seems to keep landing on his feet… for now. Follow along as I read from Genesis 40 about what happens next to Joseph in the prison:
Some time later, both the wine steward and the baker for Egypt’s king offended their master, the king of Egypt. Pharaoh was angry with his two officers… [and] put them under arrest with the commander of the royal guard in the same jail where Joseph was imprisoned. The commander of the royal guard assigned Joseph to assist them. After they had been under arrest for some time, both of them… had dreams one night, and each man’s dream had its own meaning. When Joseph met them in the morning, he saw that they were upset. He asked [them], “Why do you look so distressed today?”
They answered, “We’ve both had dreams, but there’s no one to interpret them.” Joseph said to them, “Don’t interpretations belong to God? Describe your dreams to me.”
The chief wine steward described his dream to Joseph: “In my dream there was a vine right in front of me, and on the vine were three branches. When it budded, its blossoms appeared, and its clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, so I took the grapes, crushed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and put the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.”
Joseph said to him, “This is the dream’s interpretation: The three branches are three days. After three days, Pharaoh will give you an audience and return you to your position. You will put Pharaoh’s cup in his hand, just the way things were before when you were his wine steward. But please, remember me when you are doing well and be loyal to me. Put in a good word for me to Pharaoh, so he sets me free from this prison. I was stolen from the land of the Hebrews, and here too I’ve done nothing to be thrown into this dungeon.”
When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was favorable, he said to Joseph, “It was the same for me. In my dream, there were three baskets of white bread on my head. In the basket on top there were baked goods for Pharaoh’s food, but birds were eating them out of the basket on my head.”
Joseph responded, “This is the dream’s interpretation: The three baskets are three days. After three days, Pharaoh will give you an audience and will hang you from a tree where birds will peck your flesh from you.”
The third day was Pharaoh’s birthday, and he gave a party for all of his servants. Before all of his servants, he gave an audience to the chief wine steward and the chief baker. He returned the chief wine steward to his position, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. But the chief baker he hanged, just as Joseph had said would happen when he interpreted their dreams for them. But the chief wine steward didn’t remember Joseph; he forgot all about him.
Joseph doesn’t land on his feet this time; he’s face first. How do we know?
First, we notice the repetition of the word “dream.” It appears 65 times in the Old Testament. 22 of those are in Joseph’s story and 10 are in this chapter! Ten repetitions in the same story mean that dreams are a big deal! Up until this point in the story, dreams have been dangerous. Remember what happened when Joseph told his family about his dreams? His brothers wanted to kill him! His dreams have gotten him into this mess. When we hear “dreams” 10 times in Genesis 40, all our warning lights should be flashing red. We know what happened last time. Trouble is coming.
Second, we hear Joseph’s desperation as he pleads for help from the wine steward and laments his situation. He’s been stolen, kidnapped – a victim of human trafficking, a slave with no rights. And he’s a Hebrew in the land of Egypt – a foreigner, a stranger, one who doesn’t belong.
And one who’s easily forgotten. Joseph begs the wine steward to remember him, to be loyal to him. But when the wine steward is restored to his position in pharaoh’s court – just as Joseph said – he forgets to tell pharaoh about Joseph. Joseph gets knocked down, and he’ll spend two more years in prison before he gets up again.
The wine steward forgets. Joseph is desperate and forgotten. What’s God doing in all of this? At first glance, nothing! Joseph mentions God but we don’t hear God’s voice. But God is present and working for Joseph’s well-being. We can see it in v. 8 as Joseph boldly declares that interpretations belong to God.
Then Joseph takes a risk on this truth by offering himself as God’s dream interpreter. And guess what? God is faithful. Joseph’s interpretations are right on the money. This proves the intimacy of Joseph’s relationship with God. It also gives Joseph a reputation as an expert dream interpreter with a person who is very close to pharaoh.
What’s God doing? God’s remembering Joseph. In Genesis 39:20-21, just a few verses before our story in Genesis 40, right after Joseph is thrown into prison, we read that “the Lord was with Joseph and remained loyal to him” in prison. God’s loyal, steadfast presence enabled Joseph to be in a position of caretaker where he was given this opportunity to interpret dreams. God is loyal once again by giving Joseph these interpretations. God has not forgotten Joseph.
But Joseph is still rotting in prison! What gives God?! Joseph is doing everything right, but nothing changes. And all because the dang wine steward has a bad memory? Gimme a break God! Haven’t You forgotten Joseph too?
Let’s slow down. Remember when Joseph pleads for the wine steward’s help? He uses a very important word. Joseph begs the wine steward to “be loyal to me.” It’s the Hebrew word hesed. And, it’s the same word that appeared in Genesis 39:21, the verse we just read, to describe God’s “loyalty” to Joseph. God shows Joseph hesed in the prison and now Joseph asks the wine steward to shown him hesed. Why am I telling you this? Because this word hesed is the key to understanding how God is at work in Joseph’s life and in our own.
Let’s zoom out for just a bit to talk about hesed. It’s translated in a number of ways in the Old Testament: “mercy,” “kindness,” “steadfast love,” “goodness,” “faithfulness,” and “loyalty.” Basically, it’s God’s unrelenting love for God’s people which brings them back into right relationship. It’s the love that keeps God pursuing after us even as we continually reject God and run the other way. God is not distant from us – God created us because of God’s overflowing hesed for us; God continues to be with us because God is full of hesedfor us!1Hesed is God standing in solidarity with us through all our sin and suffering, refusing to leave us, always pursuing us, and always making a way for us to return home to God’s love. Hesed means that God NEVER forgets us.
So, let’s zoom back in to Joseph. God has shown Joseph hesed by empowering him to interpret dreams. In doing so, Joseph is given a potential way out of prison. BUT… Joseph can’t go anywhere unless the wine steward reciprocates God’s hesed. Without the wine steward’s willingness to identify himself with a Hebrew slave in front of the king of Egypt, Joseph is stuck. God remembers, but the wine steward forgets. God shows hesed; but the wine steward refuses to stand with Joseph. This leads us to hesed’s second dimension.
It’s not just about God’s relationship with us: it describes the way God intends our relationships to be with others – faithful love, mercy, kindness, solidary. It’s the heart of our community. God’s hesed for us empowers us and is made complete when we reciprocate it through our hesed for others. We see this dimension in none other than Micah 6:8, “[God] has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.”2Do you hear it: “embrace faithful love” or “love mercy”? That’s hesed. It’s inseparable from doing justice and walking humbly with God and others. As God stands with us and for us, we are called to be partners in God’s hesed and to stand with and for others as a community that tangibly, visibly embodies and enacts God’s hesed.
Now we can answer the question: if God doesn’t forget Joseph, why is he still locked in prison? Because the wine steward didn’t share in God’s hesed. He therefore failed to bring God’s desire for Joseph’s freedom and justice to fruition. The wine steward could’ve participated in God’s hesed by standing with Joseph and giving him an audience with pharaoh. But he forgot. God is full of hesed for Joseph but this hesed must be extended and shared in a mutual relationship between Joseph and the wine steward. It’s incomplete because it’s unreciprocated.
As we turn now from Joseph’s story back to our own, I want to be sensitive to the fact that some of us here this morning may feel a lot like Joseph: desperate and forgotten. Even if no one here feels that way, we know that our world today is full people who do. We actually don’t even have to think outside our own city limits to find desperate, forgotten people. Others of us may be more like the wine steward. Life is no piece of cake, but we probably wouldn’t describe ourselves as forgotten. And we may even admit how we struggle to remember others. In reality, I think we’re all a mix of both Joseph and the wine steward – both forgotten and forgetting others.
What is God saying to us today? First and foremost, we are not forgotten; you are not forgotten. No matter what kind of prison our lives have become – nothing separates us from the faithful love of God. Does this mean that the doors to our prisons will suddenly swing open? I don’t think so. What I think it does mean is the same thing it meant for Joseph: God’s hesed is providing a way out for us but we have a role to play too. Like Joseph, we need faith to take a risk on who we know God to be. Joseph knew God as the giver of dream interpretations and he took a concrete step of faith based on that truth. Who is God to you today? Is there a step of faith you can take with God?
But notice also that Joseph would’ve never been in a position to interpret those dreams had he not cared for the wine steward and baker first. He noticed they were upset and asked what was wrong. Could it be that the way out of our prison actually begins with caring for others? How might God be empowering you to care for someone else? Maybe the healing for our forgotteness begins when we remember others?
In any case, what we trust and believe is that God’s hesed– God’s faithful, steadfast remembrance of us – always come first and isn’t dependent on our actions. It’s a gift of grace: God has not forgotten you.
For the wine stewards, what does it mean for us to remember others, especially those we find it convenient to forget? When the wine steward is restored to his position of authority in pharaoh’s court, he’s given the opportunity to influence pharaoh – the most powerful man in the world. At this point, we might think that Joseph needs the wine steward to be his “voice” before pharaoh. You know a “voice for the voiceless.” We hear that a lot when discussing how to help forgotten people living in desperate situations. But that’s not it. Joseph has a voice! The man interprets dreams! He’s not voiceless. Let him speak for himself! The wine steward didn’t need to be Joseph’s voice. He needed to use his own voice to get Joseph an audience with the pharaoh. See the difference? Why stand in someone else’s place when they can stand for themselves?! Open the door for them and stand beside them! Don’t be their voice… be their audience!
This is what it means for us to remember others: we make space for them beside us. We become an audience, ones who listen, a people who show hospitality, whose hearts are open to the pain and suffering of others, and share that burden with them. This morning, you might just be a “wine steward” to someone else. You may be the person positioned to partner with God’s hesed to bring someone else one step closer to the redemption, healing, and wholeness God desires for them. Who are we forgetting? Who in our lives needs an audience? Who is God calling us to remember?
I want to end by saying that we, as a church, are already doing this. We remember and partner in God’s hesed every time we collect items for the Ardmore Food Pantry as part of our communion celebration. We remember as we serve with organizations like Chore Connection who put us in relationship with the elderly and home-bound, people like our friend Owen. With each game of bingo at PALM and every day of work with Six:Eight Cares, we remember. Every time we gather with our neighbors at Linwood Park, who knows – maybe we’re listening to a Joseph who feels desperate and forgotten? When we take the opportunity to remember, we make space for the kingdom of God to break in; for God’s hesed to be made tangible and visible.
These intentional practices of remembrance over the past five years have rooted us in this community. We’re tied to this place by the bonds of hesed. Through our roots of remembrance here in Ardmore, God is now preparing a way for us to link ourselves with communities on the other side of the globe. As Jason mentioned this morning, we’re now exploring a partnership with Vineyard churches and ministries in Indonesia – a place that we probably don’t remember very often. It’s the most populous Muslim country in the world, plagued by political and social upheaval, struggling against various forms of poverty; a place where Christian communities face real suffering for their faith. Part of the work we’re being invited into is to listen, to be an audience, to stand with our Christian sisters and brothers, remembering them with arms linked together for the journey into God’s global kingdom.
Even though we forget each other, the God of Joseph has not forgotten us! We’re invited as a faith community to be partners in God’s faithful, saving love, to stand in solidarity with one another and all those who are forgotten so that all people – in Wynnewood, Ardmore, Havertown, and Indonesia! – would know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are remembered, that they belong, and that God loves them more than they can know. So now may God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
1 See Psalm 136, Exo. 34:6, and Jer. 9:24 for examples of the centrality of hesed in Old Testament theology.
2 See also Hosea 6:6 and Ruth 1:16-17.