The Elephant Story
 — Katherine Johnson

August 17, 2014


Genesis 45:1-5
Matthew 15:21-28

There is an old saying that my father used to quote that goes… “Better to be silent and thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt”. This morning I may remove all doubt.

Speaking of my father as some of you know he was a Baptist minister so if I were his son he would most likely be proud at this attempt at a sermon but Baptist women do not preach, at least not from the pulpit. Baptist women do not assume authority over men, at least not from the pulpit. So I am about to lose whatever remnants of Baptist that remain and I think my father will understand. However I do not see this sermon, this chat, as me assuming authority or even as me telling you something you do not know already know about God but I see this moment as me sharing a portion of my current understanding of God, the greatest unknown. For the more I learn about God the less I know about God.

My journey to this current understanding of God started in that Baptist church as a child. I am grateful for that beginning it was a great foundation to start on but my journey took a sharp left turn when Rev Colson retold a fable many years ago of six blind people who had never seen or even heard of an elephant.

These six folks were each led up to an elephant…

one to her great long trunk,
one to her bushy tail
one to her broad side,
one to her enormous leg,
one to her billowing ear
and one was placed upon her back

and each blind person amazed at their current understanding of this great unknown started to describe their own experience to others.

The story is suppose to allow us to understand why others may describe their experience of God the greatest unknown and be so wildly different from our experience. At twenty-something and smug and being raised in a Baptist church the elephant story made me angry. I was very sure I knew all about God and anyone whose experience was different was just wrong. Eventually the anger changed to curiosity and it has become essential to me to listen to someone from the other side of this great unknown describe their experience. And yet this morning it is my turn.

On to the text at hand this morning. I’m not exactly sure how these two scripture readings fit together but I think it has something to do with famine and abundance and faith and perspective. This morning I want to talk primarily about the story in Genesis but I must comment briefly on this amazing women in Matthew. We don’t get her name and I used to take that as an insult to women in general that so few women get names but

now I see it more as a warning. This could be any mother advocating for her child. Beware. Don’t try to deter her or shoo her away. She has deep faith that Jesus comes from God and God has an overflowing abundance and her baby needs a crumb. Her name is not important her understanding of Gods abundance, her faith and her persistence is.

Now on to the story in Genesis about Joseph.

Wait!

Let’s back up a generation and do a Reader’s Digest version of the back story. Jacob, Joseph father, loved Rachel, yet he ended married to Rachel and her sister with the good personality and was given two handmaidens in the bargain. These women started quickly popping out sons and daughters except the Rachael the wife Jacob really loved so when Rachel finally after years of baby envy and sister wife derision gives birth to Joseph he instantly becomes the favorite and dad sees no reason to hide it.

Apparently Joseph got his looks from his mother a fancy multicolored coat from his dad and the gift of prophetic dreams and the ability to understand other people’s dreams from God. Now this favoring of one wife and her son over the others might have been a poor decision. It certainly set the whole family up for a lot of infighting about who dad loves best. The older brothers are extremely jealous and end up selling their smug spoiled little brother into slavery and letting dad believe that he was eaten by a wild beast. Joseph after some success as a slave and a bit of a rough patch in jail ends up in the employ of the Pharaoh of Egypt helping the nation prepare in seven years of plenty to survive the following seven years of famine. In year two of the famine along come Joseph’s older, wiser and guilt ridden brothers to beg for food not knowing that is the brother they sold a long time ago who now hold their survival in his hands.

Today’s reading from Genesis opens at the big reveal.

I’m never sure who to root for in this back story. It is not obvious.

In this story of the patriarchs of our faith shouldn’t there be an obvious good guy?

Let’s review the characters. It is hard to root for Jacob whose marriages to two sisters started the whole mess. This whole kerfluffle could have been avoided entirely if he had just managed to keep two wives and two concubines, twelve sons and his daughters equally happy. Let’s put this into a life lesson for today.

If Jacob could have treated each person in his life as though they had value how would his life been changed?

I would normally root for the wives, which I realize shows my personal bias, but as with most of these bible stories the women are not written as central characters and they seem just to be picking on each other. These women chose not to band together and help each other through the rough patches. They chose to let shame and envy divide them.

Next we have the brothers, the favorite and the rest of the gang. The favorite, Joseph, was given an abundance of gifts by both God and dear old dad. He is the lead character so I should probably root for him but he seems such a smug smarty pants. He was given supreme intelligence but it took many years of practice to gain the wisdom to apply his gifts well.

Now on to the rest of the gang. I probably shouldn’t lump them all together. Reuben stopped the others from killing Joseph and Judah convinced the others to sell Joseph instead of leaving him in a pit for the animals to feed on. I am not sure if Judah was motivated by profit or mercy but we could give him the benefit of the doubt. I do feel kind of sorry for these young men because dad didn’t love them much but it is hard to root for the bullies.

What are we left with? All of the characters are accounted for and not one of them has the admirable qualities we need for the hero of the story at least not in the middle of the story.

Fortunately the bible is not about the people it’s about God. Every story, be it historical fact, parable, a bit of poetry, a song or metaphor is basically the idiotic and occasionally brilliant things people did and how they understood God’s reaction and what they wanted to us to understand about their experience with the great unknown…. So we are back to the elephant story. In my opinion every chapter and is a blind person’s elephant story. Every verse is personal attempt to describe an experience with the great unknown….

At the end today’s text all of the characters show a brilliant bit of God’s grace is their lives with forgiveness and penitence and acceptance and generosity and family. There is a lot of weeping , there is a happy ending. As with the people in this book such happy endings often take years of struggling and a crumb of God’s grace to get to past the envy, shame and infighting to the peace.

So I guess I can root for Jacob because I have made crappy decisions that hurt and disappointed other people. He and I can do better.

I can root for the wives. I have picked on others. They and I can do better.

I can root for Joseph. I have been smug. We can do better.

I can root for the gang. I have struck out in anger and jealousy. We all can do better.

Hopefully this is just the middle of the story and God’s grace is yet to come.