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Faith in Adversity

Date: 10/08/2014/Speaker: Rev Yap Kim Hao Yap

The video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QSdLRU9veto) comes from the old Broadway musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

The opening lyrics are:

Close every door to me,
Hide all the world from me
Bar all the windows
And shut out the light
Do what you want with me,
Hate me and laugh at me
Darken my daytime
And torture my night

It reminds me of another song sung emotionally by Sebastian at our Inaugural service. The “God of the moon and the Stars.” God is for all people including the gays & straights, princess & whore, priest & paedophile.
The closing lines are:
God of our joy and grieve
God of the lawyer and the thief
God of our faith and unbelief, I come to you
God of the wounds we bear
God of the deepest dreams we share
God of our unspoken prayer, I come to you

God of a world that’s lost
God of the lonely cross
God who has come to us, I come to you

They reflect the situation of Joseph featured in our Lectionary passages for today. From the original version of the Joseph saga in Genesis we next have Psalm 105 singing about “Joseph, who was sold as a slave. His feet were hurt with fetters, his neck was put in a collar of iron; until what he had said came to pass, the word of the LORD kept testing him.” And then Matthew 14 recording “So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus but when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” The theme which runs through these passages of the Bible is that of faithfulness. As depicted in Psalm 85 “Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.”

Let us recall this story of Joseph and his brothers which brought this about. What kind of a family do we find Joseph in? It is a far cry from that with the mantra “One man one woman and children” propounded by our conservative Christians.They ignored other family structures like that of Joseph which is recorded clearly in the book of Genesis.

Father Jacob had 2 wives – Rachel and Leah. Wives were meant to be baby factories with sons favoured.. When they were unable to do so according to the custom, they offered their own maids as surrogates to Jacob. He had all in all twelve children in seven years and an only daughter. Quite a productive old man. And far from the one man and one woman and children family! It was acceptable then but we have a different view in our time. Joseph is the favourite son, a love child. He became a spoilt brat parading in his rainbow coloured coat.

Joseph was known as a dreamer. and shared his dreams with his brothers which annoyed them to no end. He had two dreams that made his brothers hated him. In the first dream, Joseph and his brothers gathered bundles of grain, of which those his brothers gathered, bowed to his own. In the second dream, the sun (father), the moon (mother), and eleven stars (brothers) bowed to Joseph. These dreams, implying his supremacy, angered his brothers..

Jacob sent Joseph out to look for his brothers in the field where they were watching their flock. When the brothers saw him they taunted “Here comes the dreamer.” Their jealousy and hatred were so intense that they decided to kill him. But Reuben the eldest son intervened and agreed to throw him in a hollow pit in the ground to die a slow death. Later they further relented and sold him to an Arab as a slave and joined the caravan to be an exile in Egypt. They then smeared his colourful coat with goat’s blood so that they could report to Jacob the father about his death when attacked by wild animals. He was only 17 years old then when he was abandoned by his brothers.

In Egypt Joseph worked as a slave for thirteen years in the home of one of Pharoah’s guards by the name of Potiphar. He was diligent in his work and won the trust of his master. He was promoted and assigned to be the overseer or manager of the entire household. Potiphar’s wife was attracted to him and made sexual advances which he rejected. When he refused her again and again, she maligned him and levelled charges of attempted rape against him. Her husband listened to his unfaithful wife and threw his faithful servant into Pharaoh’s dungeon where he was again forgotten

But just like when he was in the pit he worked hard while in prison. The chief jailer also recognized that Joseph’s character was unusual and good. He was given the task to look after fellow prisoners. Once again Joseph was faithful like he was under Potiphar.

Later two of Pharaoh’s servants. a butler/cup bearer and a baker were also thrown into the same prison. They came under Joseph’s care. Joseph was able to interpret their dreams for he was not only a dreamer himself but an interpreter of dreams of others. He interpreted correctly that one will be free and the other hanged. He reminded the butler who was freed to remember him and to appeal to Pharoah to free him from prison. The butler forgot for two years. It is now the ruler of all Egypt, Pharaoh, who had a dream and he was disturbed. What’s worse was when he summoned the wisest men of the land to give him some comforting answers and interpretation, none of them had a clue! Again when remembered by the butler, Joseph excelled and subsequently in his interpretation of Pharoah’s dream and saved the people from famine. Joseph predicted seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine, and advised Pharaoh to store surplus grain. Finally he was able to restore his relationships with his family that had forgotten him. They discovered Joseph when they came to Egypt to escape the famine.

So when you find yourself in a pit, maligned or misunderstood, allow it to make you better not bitter. He was able to overcome his adversities. We do not have to remain a victim. The story of Joseph shows that whatever we do and wherever we are, we don’t give up on ourselves

In one of my conversations with Nancy Tan who left last week to continue her work as Professor of Old Testament in Hong Kong, we talked about Joseph. She drew my attention to the concerns surrounding Joseph. There were the attempts to forget him. His brothers forgot him. Pharoah’s servant forgot him. Joseph had the problem of being remembered. When he was thrown into the prison Joseph requested the cupbearer to remember him to Pharoah. Remember me was the appeal of Joseph. At the end he was remembered.

Joseph in the pit became one of the slang expression about being in the pits or one’s life is the pits when one faces adversity and disaster. Malaysian Airlines right now is really in the pits.

While I was checking the internet for this expression “in the pits,” I was led to a Ted Talk by Andrew Solomon. After listening to it I opened up Facebook and I was surprised that someone had shared it. I looked at the name and it was Melody Lim and she has listed a number of you as her friends on Facebook. What a coincidence which I regard as serendipity moment. Andrew is known for his work in Depression and Sexual Identity. He gave one of the gay confessions and he described his life in the pits. He described how he was rejected, marginalised, discriminated, ostracised. There is a more descriptive word of being sinned-against. LGBT are the victims of the sinners who are anti-gay. You are the sinned-against.

Andrew narrated his life in the pit. When he was in second grade, Bobby Finkel had a birthday party and invited everyone in our class but me. My mother assumed there had been some sort of error, and she called Mrs. Finkel, who said that Bobby didn’t like me and didn’t want me at his party. And that day, my mom took me to the zoo and out for a hot fudge sundae. When he was in seventh grade, one of the kids on my school bus nicknamed me “Percy” as a shorthand for my demeanor, and sometimes, he and his cohort would chant that provocation the entire school bus ride, 45 minutes up, 45 minutes back, “Percy! Percy! Percy! Percy!” When I was in eighth grade, our science teacher told us that all male homosexuals develop fecal incontinence because of the trauma to their anal sphincter. He always kept to himself and graduated from high school without ever going to the cafeteria, where he would have sat with the girls and been laughed at for doing so.

He said, I survived that childhood through a mix of avoidance and endurance. What I didn’t know then, and do know now, is that avoidance and endurance can be the entryway to forging meaning. After you’ve forged meaning, you need to incorporate that meaning into a new identity and not the label that others pasted on you. You need to take the traumas and make them part of who you have come to be, and you need to fold the worst events of your life into a narrative of triumph, evoking a better self in response to things that hurt.

Some of our struggles are things we’re born to our gender: our sexuality, our race, our disability. And some are things that happen to us: being a political prisoner, being a rape victim, being a Katrina survivor. Identity involves entering a community to draw strength from that community, and to give strength there too. It involves substituting “and” for “but” — not “I am here but I have cancer,” but rather, “I have cancer and I am here.”

When we’re ashamed, we can’t tell our stories, and stories are the foundation of identity.Forge meaning and build identity. That became my mantra.Forging meaning is about changing yourself. Building identity is about changing the world.All of us with stigmatized identities face this question daily: how much to accommodate society by constraining ourselves, and how much to break the limits of what constitutes a valid life? Forging meaning and building identity does not make what was wrong right. It only makes what was wrong precious.

He was encouraging LGBT to come out if they can and quoting Harvey Milk to go out and tell someone and invite them to share their joy of being who you are, reconciled with your faith.

The gay activist Harvey Milk was once asked by a younger gay man what he could do to help the movement, and Harvey Milk said, “Go out and tell someone.” There’s always somebody who wants to confiscate our humanity, and there are always stories that restore it. If we live out loud, we can trounce the hatred and expand everyone’s lives.

Andrew was able to rise from the pit like Joseph when he forge meaning and built identity which was the slogan of his speech. Examine yourself and discover meaning in life and affirm your identity and help others to do likewise.

Each one of us here have fallen into our pits and have stories to tell. Allow me to be personal even though I am not in the same pit of yours. I have been in the pits too after coming out of the Japanese Occupation of Malaya and when the schools were closed for over four years. I had just finished my primary school and had to resume my secondary education after the war. The war left me at the age of fifteen to be fatherless and handicapped. What is my future as I was down in the pits. Should I moan and groan and look for sympathy. I resolved to improve my condition in spite of my limitations. When I was able to go to college there was no money to finance my further education. I heard about getting part-time employment and studying full-time opportunities in American.

My widowed mother bought me a one way ticket to sail by a freighter for about a month to the United States. With four hundred dollars I was to look after myself for the next six years and either sink or swim. She had to take care of the family with my three younger siblings and waiting for me to return after graduation to take over the responsibility to care not just for myself but for the family. This was her last investment she made for our future as a family then. I dare not fail her.

I landed in San Pedro, the port in California and connected directly to a train to the heart of the United States in Kansas and in a small college town in the farming community. The very next day I reported for work and they assigned me to paint the grape arbor like a gazebo at minimum wage. It was the first time that I dirtied my hands with a paint brush and I had more paint on me then on the benches. I worked as a common labourer collecting and disposing the rubbish from the college to the dump, mowed the lawns and mopped the floors. When the college was in session I washed the dishes in the college cafeteria and worked myself up the scale to be a chemistry lab assistant and biology demonstrator since I majored in the two subjects. In the last year my board and room was covered when I was trusted and assigned a house-boy in the women’s dormitory keeping the common areas and the toilets spick and span. I was in the pits too. I had to take care of myself for six long years without a chance to be home and studied enough and worked all year round, saved enough to buy my ticket home on the ocean liners that took me to London and then via the Suez Canal home. The rest is history.

Maya Angelou writes about overcoming the heritage of slavery and prejudice in her moving poem entitled, “Still I Rise.” Her words could well have been written by Joseph, a slave in Egypt. I wonder if you can face your own difficulties with this kind of confidence.

“You may write me down in history.
With your bitter, twisted lies.
You may trod me in the very dirt.
But still, like dust, I’ll rise…

“You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness.
But still, like air, I’ll rise…

“Out of the hurts of history’s shame
I rise
“Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise…

“Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

“I rise
“I rise
“I rise.”

This poem seems to capture the spirit of Joseph. I wonder if you have that kind of confidence that you can rise in spite of the pitfalls of life. The theme of today’s lectionary readings is on faithfulness. Joseph is mentioned in the New Testament as an example of faith (Hebrews 11:22).

“Now, faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). . Faithfulness is taking a stand for something you are confident is true based on the things you know but about which you continue to have questions.

Faith and fear are opposites. Fear deadens and paralyzes; faith enlivens and liberates. This saying was a rebuke from our Lord after the disciples awakened Him during a frightening storm. That is the gospel story about faithfulness instead of fearfulness.

The question is whether we can do this by faith. Can we bring our lives to Jesus in full trust even when we have no clue what He will do with us or where He will send us? We must develop a robust and vibrant faith in spite of the odds before us. Only if we trust and have faith in God.

Faith in God can mean for most of us to be mere blind faith. We are blinded by the belief that we lay all our burdens upon God and just let God carry them. We are blinded to pray in earnest for God to provide us the answers and do not accept the task of working them out with God’s help. We have short-circuited the whole process of our responsibility as a follower of the way of Jesus. We fold our hands together in holy prayer and praise without opening and dirtying them in love and service to God through rendering help to our neighbours and those in need around us.

Joseph did not give up and resigned himself in the pit. Although rejected and abandoned by his brothers he did not moan and groan and lament. He began to explore what he must do to in times of adversity.When he was alone as a slave in a foreign land he was determined to find the way to survive. He did not succumb to his wounds. From his wounds he became a healer for himself and then for others. He never gave up his dream to be free and lived as faithfully as he knew how. He was always in the process of helping others while he was healing himself from his misery. Though in the pit by the treachery of his brothers, in slavery in Egypt and in prison for years, he will not let himself be forgotten and did not allow others to forget him. He wanted to be remembered for his life as a human being seeking to be free and to be remembered for what he has accomplished at the end. He wanted to live and did not resign to death. He lived on the promise that he is not alone and that the presence of God is always with him in all sorts of situations and all kinds of circumstances.. This is what faithfulness means for you and for me.

I was moved when I read Eugene’s report about cleaning the home of Emily in Commonwealth Crescent.

“Between taking turns mopping and after, we chatted with Emily, inquiring about her health, how she met Ah Loy (her sworn brother!) and how they came to depend on each other.

It wasn’t just about the cleaning, it was giving, connecting and making Emily feel that someone cared – that made the time spent that morning worth it.”

We are called to rise from our pits and in faithfulness examine our lives in our adversities.
Find or forge meaning. Build identity. Serve others. And then invite the world to share your joy.