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Joseph's Bones

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Sep 18

Texts: Exodus 13:17-22 and 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

The Exodus story we heard this morning is so familiar! It takes place as the Israelites are coming out of slavery in Egypt. Before they cross the Red Sea, before Moses receives the ten commandments, before the manna and the quail, before the grumbling against God. And long before they see so much as a glimpse of the promised land.

I’ve always loved this strange story of how the people of Israel find their way through the wilderness by following a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. A perplexing story, to be sure, if you take it literally. Who’s ever seen such things? But a powerful story if we take fire and cloud as symbols of God’s presence and guidance. And that’s how we should take them. In scripture, God often makes an appearance through extraordinary elements—fire and light and mist. Think of Moses and the burning bush, or Jesus and the Cloud of Presence in the story of the transfiguration. Shrouded in mystery and consumed by fire—signs of potency and presence.

Even if we don’t take it literally, there’s something powerful about this Exodus story. It tells us that God is with us, leading and guiding. And that’s welcome news because most of us—at some point in our lives—struggle to get our bearings. It often happens at moments of transition. College graduation, the loss of a job, retirement, the end of a relationship. Times when who we have been—how we have defined ourselves—begins to shift.

Twenty-five years ago author William Bridges wrote a book called Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. A national best-seller, Bridges says that “transition” is the inner, psychological process of adapting to outward change.

I suspect one of the reasons his book is so popular is that Bridges does such a fine job of describing what he calls “the confusing nowhere of in-betweenness.” What we—in biblical terms—might call “wilderness.” The stage of transition when something has ended and something new is about to begin, but you’re not there yet. That uncomfortable “neutral zone” where it can be so hard to get our bearings. Who am I? Where are we headed? What happens now? What’s the purpose of all of this?

We at First Church are in transition, finding our way toward something new. And while that is probably true of most people most of the time, and it’s true of any healthy and growing organization—like a church—it feels especially true for us right now. We are in transition, moving toward something new.

In the next few weeks we’ll be looking at architectural plans. We’ll be pouring over our capital campaign budget and making decisions about how to allot money for renovations and restoration and remodeling to care for this beautiful old building and to facilitate our ministry here in the heart of Cambridge. As we prepare to move in a new direction, we’ll do well to remember God’s presence and guidance. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, even if the terrain can feel a bit unnerving, God is with us.

As I was reading the Exodus story this week, I noticed something that had never caught my attention before. Perhaps I was too captivated by the fiery pillar and the Cloud of Presence to notice something much subtler. Did you happen to catch what the Israelites were carrying with them in the wilderness?

They were carrying Joseph’s bones! Yes—Joseph of the amazing, many-colored coat, Joseph who lived in Potiphar’s house, whose brothers betrayed him and threw him into a pit. Joseph the interpreter of dreams.

The story is this. Back at the very end of Genesis, Joseph is an old man, preparing to die. He and his father’s household had stayed in Egypt for all these many years. As Joseph nears the end of his life, he says to his brothers, “I am about to die; but God will surely come to you and bring you up out of this land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” And Joseph made the Israelites swear that they would carry his bones up from Egypt into the new land. (Genesis 50:24-25)

Everett Fox’s translation of this passage captures the spirit of it. “Now Moshe had taken Yosef’s bones with him, for he had made the Children of Israel swear, yes, swear, saying: God will take account, yes, account of you—so bring my bones up from here with you!” (1)

That is how the Israelites came to be carrying Joseph’s bones up out of Egypt. They were carrying them to a new world—to the Promised Land.

The conclusion of the story is found in the Book of Joshua. “The bones of Joseph, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem, in the portion of ground that Jacob had bought from the children of Hamor, the father of Shechem; it became an inheritance of the descendants of Joseph. (Joshua 24:32)

There’s something profound about this promise being carried from generation to generation. That Joseph, who had died in Egypt was carried up to the new land of his people. Joseph’s life was finite—like all of ours—and he knew it. But he also knew that he was part of something bigger than himself. A collective inheritance of freedom and of purpose. Joseph, the visionary, the interpreter of dreams, laid to rest in the Promised Land.

I wonder what it was like for the Israelites to carry Joseph’s bones. It was a way of honoring their past, for sure. A way of remembering God’s promise. A way of looking ahead to something new, and of bearing their inheritance—both the history of slavery in Egypt and God’s promise of a new start. But I bet those bones got heavy sometimes, out there in the desert sun. It must have been tempting to just lay those old bones down in order to move ahead without the burden. But they carried them.

Here’s the thing: Joseph’s story is part of God’s story. And we carry that story within us, even now. We all carry things inside us. Ancient stories, unspoken narratives, sometimes shameful or hidden things, or things that want to break free and find expression.

In his disturbing novel about the Viet Nam War, The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien writes this about memory:

"And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story." (2)

I wonder about the things we carry and about the stories that are written on our hearts. I wonder what we carry as individuals. What cultural roots, traditions, family histories, genetic endowment? What language systems, etched deep? What music, what art? What stories of disappointment, grief or trauma? What stories of wonder or hope? What stories of promise?

And I wonder about the things we carry as a congregation, as people together in this place. We have a long history—First Church in Cambridge—one of the very first congregations in New England. Called together in covenant in 1633. Founded in hope, a beacon to the world. In John Winthrop’s words about Massachusetts Bay Colony, "We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us."

The Mass. Bay Colony was founded in hope, yes. And also built on land taken from indigenous peoples. Founded in hope, but also in an era when you had to own land, and be “white” and of European descent, and male and Protestant to have the full rights of citizenship in the shining city. Founded in an era when people owned other people and slavery was permitted by law.
We carry those histories with us and in us. Our bodies know. Our hearts know. As a nation, as a congregation, we have come a long way through a wilderness and we have a fair piece still to go. And we need to get our bearings again and again. Together, we need to look for what is sacred and just and right, and to follow steadfastly. It will make us new people. This is God’s promise.

But the world spirals on. There was a pipe bomb attack in New York last night, injuring at least 29 people. A thirteen-year-old African American boy—Tyre King—was shot in Columbus, Ohio this week. The words that come are words of lament. Lament for senseless injuries and death, lament over hatred that fuels violence, lament over what feels like a war on Black and Brown bodies. We are angry and we are so weary. Rather than words in this moment, rather than lamentation, or even a rallying cry, let us take a moment of silence to rest into God’s peace. (Silence)

And this is God’s promise: that though the world may fall around us, that some of us may die in Egypt, but the wilderness does not go on forever. The messy, confusing, nowhere of in-betweenness, the place of feeling utterly lost, the mess we make along the way—are not the end of the journey. There is a promise that lies yet ahead. And as we journey, we carry with us the stories of our ancestors. Stories of failure and of striving. Stories that join the past to the future. Stories that draw us into God’s future.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “even though our outer nature is wasting away…we do not lose heart…this is a slight momentary affliction.” We know a little bit about those house churches at Corinth to whom Paul was writing. They were facing some serious challenges: persecution from without, growing pains within, internal conflict, the awkwardness of standing together as a newly-formed body—not quite knowing who they were. They must have felt the strangeness of being something new, in the world, and for the world.

Paul writes, “We do not lose heart, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”

This then is our hope, brothers, sisters, siblings— we spiritual descendants of Joseph, the interpreter of dreams, and of Jesus the man of Nazareth: That God is with us yesterday, today and tomorrow, calling us to a reign of justice and mercy and peace. So be it. Amen.

1) Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses, Exodus 13: 19, p 327.

2) Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried.

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