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You might recognize the name Elizabeth Gilbert as the author of the bestselling novel Eat, Pray, Love.  Along with her fiction writing, Gilbert also writes and speaks about creativity – how it works and how it sometimes doesn’t work.  She tells stories about her own experiences with writer’s block and the fear of failure that can stop creativity dead in its tracks.

The Power Behind the Throne

The Power Behind the Throne
Genesis 41:39-47
September 21, 2014
Jennifer Browne

The gift for which Joseph is best known is, of course, the coat his father his gave him.  It was part of what got Joseph in trouble.

But the gift for which Joseph really ought to be best known – and what really got him in trouble – was not a “thing” at all.  It was a talent, a skill, a gift…from God.  Joseph could interpret dreams: his own and others’.  Joseph understood his own dreams to mean that someday his older brothers would bow down to honor him. Unfortunately he shared his understanding with his brothers.  Tact was not his gift.  

The result was that Joseph found himself sold by his brothers into slavery and taken to Egypt.  But unlike the coat, which his brothers kept, Joseph kept the gift God had given him.  Even his new Egyptian master, one of Pharaoh’s officers named Potiphar, could see that Joseph was blessed with the knack for getting things to work out right.  Soon Joseph was running Potiphar’s household…and attracting the attention of Potiphar’s wife.

Although Joseph’s diplomatic skills had improved since the time he was a boy in Canaan, he couldn’t manage to turn down his boss’s wife without making her angry.  Spurned by this foreign slave, Potiphar’s wife denounced him to herhusband and – once again – Joseph found himself without his freedom.  Imprisoned unjustly in the king’s prison.

He’d lost his coat, and he’d lost his freedom.  But he hadn’t lost his God-given gift for understanding dreams and knowing how to make the best of any situation.  Soon enough, the jailer put Joseph in charge of all the other prisoners.  This included two other officials from Pharaoh’s court who had managed to upset the king: the chief cupbearer and the chief baker.  The cupbearer’s dream, Joseph said,meant he would soon get his freedom and his job back.  The baker…not so much.

Of the cupbearer, Joseph had asked a favor.  Remember me when it is well with you, he asked.  Make mention of me to Pharaoh so I can get out of here.  I was sold into slavery and brought to Egypt; I was set up by my master’s wife and unjustly imprisoned.  I don’t deserve this. Please, mention me to Pharaoh.

The cupbearer was restored to his previous position in Pharaoh’s court…where he promptly forgot all about Joseph.  For two years.  Until one day Pharaoh told his court magicians about two peculiar dreams he’d had and not one of them could come up with the meaning behind them.

“I once knew someone…” the cupbearer searched through the recesses of his memory.  “What was his name?  It’s on the tip of my tongue…Joseph! I wonder where he is now?  I suppose he’s – he’s – still in prison.”

Pharaoh sent for Joseph who, as Pastor Bill related last week, knew exactly what Pharaoh’s dreams were all about and had a solution for the dilemma they predicted.  There will be seven years of good harvest and seven years of famine, he explained.  While the harvest is good, have 1/5 of the nation’s produce set aside, so that when the harvest is bad and people are hungry, you will have something set aside to feed them.

“Brilliant!  See that it happens just as you propose.” Joseph became the power behind the throne.

The biblical text makes it sound like a piece of cake: During the seven plenteous years, Joseph saw to it that food was stored up in all the cities of Egypt.  And when the seven years of famine came, just as Joseph had said they would, Joseph opened the storehouses and there was bread for the people of Egypt.  

Surely it was more complicated than that.  It’s hard enough just to get the kids up and fed and out the door to school; it’s hard enough just to get yourself up and fed and out the door!  Can you imagine trying to administer a national program ofstockpiling 1/5th of the nation’s grain output…without the internet or even telephones?  

There must have been farmers who objected to Joseph’s plan; there must have beenother government officials who were sure it wouldn’t work.  

    •. We see no signs of a famine coming.  There’s no need for this hardship.  

    •. And who is this man anyway?  A foreigner!  An ex-convict! A slave!  Why should we trust anything he says?  

    •. This is the wrong time to ask our citizens to sacrifice.  Let’s wait a year or two and see what happens.

What would be the modern equivalent of the administrative tour de force that Joseph managed to pull off?

    •. It would be as if the head of the Center for Disease Control – a foreigner with an accent -- had predicted the epidemic caused by the ebola virus, and prevented it.

    •. It would be as if one world leader – someone without any of the usual elite credentials -- had heeded the warnings of climatologists and persuaded western leaders to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels before the world’s climate actually changed.

    •. It would be as if the Secretary of State – himself an ex-convict - had anticipated 9/11, and figured out how to keep it from happening.

As a boy, Joseph knew he had been gifted by God.  But he used his giftedness to boast and brag, to promote himself above his brothers.  So his God-given talents were of no use to him or anyone else.

Now, many years later, Joseph still has those remarkable powers.  He knows he has them and isn’t shy about using them.  But now he uses them not just for himself, but for the good of others.  Despite all that he has suffered – being sold into slavery, being unjustly imprisoned, being forgotten there by someone he helped – Joseph speaks truthfully and wisely to Pharaoh.  He doesn’t take the easy way out by sugar-coating what he knows to be true.  He names the problem and proposes a solution.  He shows wisdom and courage and compassion for the nation that has treated him so badly.

What made the difference? Somewhere between his involuntary trip from Canaan to Egypt and his unjust incarceration in the king’s prison, Joseph has figured out what the gifts God gave him are for.  Maybe it was the years spent running Potiphar’s household.  Maybe it was the years spent running the prison in which he was an inmate.  Wherever and whenever it happened, Joseph has come to understand that his uncanny ability to envision the future and to shape the presentfor the best possible result in the future is meant for much more than his own well-being.  God means for Joseph to use those skills for the benefit of others.  

Joseph has figured out who the real power behind the throne is: not him, God – whose power works for the good of all the world.

This story is not an argument for sitting patiently in whatever prison you have found yourself trapped in, waiting for God to fix the problem and get you out.  This story is a call to self-knowledge, to discovering the gifts you have been given, to using them courageously in concert with the movement of God’s spirit in the world.

Several millennia later another man would find himself unjustly imprisoned.  InApril of 1963 a non-violent campaign of marches and sit-ins against racism and racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, was coordinated by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  The campaign began on April 3.  On April 10, Circuit Judge W.A. Jenkins issued an injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing.”  Leaders of the campaign announced they would disobey the ruling. And on April 12 – Good Friday --- King and other leaders and marchers were arrested and jailed.

What hurt more than the injustice of his situation, King said, more than the harsh conditions in which he was kept, was the timid response from the white clergy of Birmingham who professed to believe in racial equality.  Someone had smuggled King a copy of the April 12 edition of the newspaper in which was printed the “open letter” signed by eight religious leaders, including 2 Methodist bishops.  

The eight clergymen agreed that social injustices existed but reprimanded King for his methods of protest against them.  

    •. There’s no need to take this to the streets, they said.  The courts are where this problem should be worked out.

    •. And who are you anyway?  An outsider, brought in to cause trouble in a town you don’t belong to.

    •. This is the wrong time to hold this kind of protest.  Wait a little longer, be patient.  Let’s see what happens.

For years now, King wrote back [“Letter From Birmingham City Jail”], I have the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity.  This “wait” has almost always meant “never.” It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration.  We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers.  First I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.  I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negroes’ great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the…the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice, who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; […] who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

Actually time is neutral.  It can be used either destructively or constructively. […] We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.  We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.  It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of [those] willing to be co-workers with God….

Like Joseph Dr. King did not despair about the future, despite his ability to see how bad things would become.

But even if the Church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future.  I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are presently misunderstood. […] If theinexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail.  We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.

Like Joseph, Martin King knew how to use his gifts – leadership, courage, persuasion – in concert with God’s will and the movement of God’s spirit in the world.  

The witness [of the protesters] has been the spiritual salt that preserved the true meaning of the Gospel in these troubled times.  They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.

And like Joseph, he understood that the gifts he’d been given were intended for the good of the whole nation, not just those of one skin color of social class:

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.  

Brothers and sisters, it is not only the dream interpreters of biblical times and charismatic civil rights leaders of the civil rights era who have gifts to share for the good of all.  It is each one of us!  From the youngest to the oldest, from the least certain to the most confident, each of us has God-given gifts that are meant to be shared for the good of all.  

    •. Patience with children,

    •. artistry in the kitchen,

    •. musical talent,

    •. passion for feeding the hungry,

    •. hospitality to strangers,

    •. the ability to share the good news of Christ,

    •. the yearning to study the Bible,

    •. a love of gardening,

    •. the skill to run a committee meeting,

    •. a knowledge of boilers,

    •. a deep concern for the poor, the sick, and the isolated.  


Each of us has a gift, or more than one, meant to be used for the good of all.  

What is yours?  How is God calling you to use it?  

 Do not wait for a more convenient season, but be attentive to the Spirit of God and listen for God’s call.  Because – Joseph knew and and Dr. King knew it -  humanprogress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.  It comes through the tireless efforts and persistence work of [those] willing to be co-workers with God.