“Of Profits and Prophets” / Genesis 37:3-4, 18-28 / 13 August 2017
North Korea, nuclear arms, Russian hackers, Texan frackers, ISIS, Israel vs. Palestine… And now Charlottesville! Do you ever stop to ask yourself, “What’s it all…worth?” Wait, did you think I was going to ask, “What’s it all…about?” Please. No one asks what it’s all about anymore. This is a sermon, not an After School Special. The question nowadays is, “What’s it worth?” Or in the words of Joseph’s brothers, “What profit is it?” Profit? Worth? Surely we must change the conversation! Don’t you think it’s time for us, the followers of Christ, to change the conversation to something better than profits?
Who really knows what a thing is worth anyway? Someone from the neighborhood—a nice local fellow, not a church member—he donated a very high quality wheelchair to the church about two years ago. It was a good one, comfortable, sturdy, with small swivel-wheels, so it could turn on a dime. I wondered whether to accept it. We can’t become a repository for unwanted wheelchairs. But the thing had never been used, and I discovered online that the factory-suggested resale price was $450. That would be a nice little contribution to one of our many mission projects. And so, I put the thing on Craigslist, thinking that I’d sell it quick by asking only $400, then turn around and give the money to the Mission Committee. (This was before we bought the new organ.) There were no takers. How about $300? Still no takers. $200? Nope. Then I tried to give it away. Does anyone out there need a new wheelchair, a real Cadillac of wheelchairs, for free—all we ask is that you come and take it off our hands, so that it’s no longer blocking the landing to the rear basement? Crickets. The folks who made it might think it’s worth $450, but if it doesn’t come equipped with an engine, and a plugin cord, and handlebars, and a battery, no one wants the thing. What profit is it? Nada. It might be worth nearly half a grand, but if no one wants it, it profits us nothing.
Hey, while we’re thinking about cash values, what do you think these old blue hymnals are worth? Could we fetch anything for them on eBay? I mean, you’re aware that there’s a newer hymnal, published in 2013, that all the fashionable churches have switched to, right? East Liberty Church switched over. Sixth Presbyterian did, too. And you know Westminster made the jump. The new hymnals run $20 apiece. Could we get $2 for each of these? That would add up. I wonder what these old books are worth, with their old songs. What profit is there in them? That’s the bottom line.
What about these pew Bibles? What could we pocket if we sold these? Slightly sun-bleached covers, but good strong spines—from never having been opened. You and I both know that the safest place to hide a secret is in the pages of a church pew Bible. You could hide the nuclear codes in there, and no one would ever find them. Do you think we could sell these things at the flea market? I mean it’s the Bible, right? It’s a classic of world literature if nothing else. It’s got to be worth something to someone. Maybe not. We’d probably be lucky to give them away to the state penitentiary. Everyone there reads the Bible. But you’d never find anyone on the outside who’d pay money for old red or blue hardcover pew Bibles. Even if they haven’t seen much use, they’ve been fading in dusty sunlight for twenty years. They’re surely not worth much. The Gideons won’t take them, since they’re not the King James Version. I wonder if there’s any profit—any profit at all—in these old things.
What profit is it? That’s the question. What profit is there in things like the Statue of Liberty—that monstrous green effigy that looms over New York harbor? Sure, it rakes in about four and a half million dollars a year from tourists, but that’s hardly going to pay off the national debt. Besides, how much does it cost to maintain the thing, to staff it, and light it, and protect it from vandals? If the Statue of Liberty’s not turning a tidy little profit, could we sell it back to France? Sentiment is nice, but what about the bottom line? Maybe the Japanese would by her, huh? They like American stuff.
What profit is it? A little state park like Raccoon Creek, paid for by tax dollars, where a handful of people go camping and swimming, and an even smaller few could rake in fortune if only they were allowed to dig the coal from beneath it. Which thing is worth more: public open spaces or private fortunes? The place is crawling with poison ivy anyway, and the trees would grow back. You could pay more than $2,000 for an English bulldog, or you could get a used-up, middle-aged greyhound for free from a rescue shelter. Which one is worth more? And while we’re on the topic, what’s a polar bear worth, really? Sure, the polar ice caps are melting, but when was the last time a polar bear wrote an opera, or a novel, or even a sympathy card for you when you were in the hospital? What have those polar bears added to society? They don’t pay taxes; they’re not represented in Congress. And you know who else doesn’t pay taxes and isn’t represented in Congress? Refugees! Illegal immigrants! They say the fruit is rotting on the vine out in California, but still you have to ask yourself what profit there is in having them around. Do they save us more than they cost us?
You see how quickly it turns ugly whenever value is measured in dollars or shekels! When the dollar is our ultimate measuring stick to assess the worth of a thing, then it’s not long before we’re slapping price tags on human beings. And when that happens, when all things are assessed according to their market value, everything is cheapened—human life included. We will always want to know how many dollars a thing is worth. But you and I are called first not to turn profits, but to be prophets. In this beautiful, complicated life where most of us get no more than seven to nine decades, is it really enough to spend our numbered years asking after profits? Better by far than seeking profits—with an “f”—is to be prophets—with a “ph.” For in the scriptural text, a prophet is not one who foretells the future. A prophet is one who speaks out for worth that cannot be measured in dollars, one who speaks truth to the power.
We’ve all seen sibling rivalries taken a little too far, but this reading in Genesis takes the cake. The brothers are probably only half joking when they see Joseph coming from afar, the youngest with his spindly legs, and wearing his fancy colorful robe. “I’d like to kill that little twerp,” one of them mutters. “You and me both,” says another. “Yeah,” says a third. “Dad doesn’t even pretend to care about us half as much as he cares about Joseph.” A fourth one chimes in, “And what about those dreams of his! He dreamed that all of us would bow down to pay him homage.” That really makes them mad, and that old mob mentality starts to take over. As a gang of eleven, they will do things to Joseph that none of them would even consider doing alone. Their idle talk about killing him starts to become a…plan. “Kill Joseph! Kill Joseph! Kill Joseph!” The eldest brother, Reuben, stands alone. He says, “Hey, guys, I hate the little schnook as much as you do. But let’s just throw him in a pit to teach him a lesson.” So they throw him in a pit, and in time they begin to think that maybe the little dreamer Joseph could be worth something to them after all. “What profit is it,” the jealous brother Judah asks, “what profit is it to kill our annoying little brother Joseph, with his fancy robe, a special gift from our father, who loves him more than he loves us? What do we gain by killing him, for then we’ll have to cover up our crime, and feel guilty about it. Instead, let’s sell him into slavery, then we can split the money between the eleven of us!” And that’s what they do.
Estrangement is usually a group effort, isn’t it? Estrangement is never the fault of a single person or party; it’s the accumulated effect of many hurt feelings piling up weighing down on a group of people. Joseph himself bears some blame—broadcasting those egotistical dreams! Estrangement this bitter begins at the top—dad really does love Joseph best. But they all see Joseph through eyes of anger and pain. Then one brother adds his grievance to that of another brother, and before long the time for diplomacy and family counseling is past. What’s Joseph even worth? Twenty pieces of silver? That’s ten fewer than Jesus’ price, but you have to adjust for inflation. What can repay the pain Joseph has caused his brothers?
Ours is a world that is forever asking what things and people are worth, a judgmental world that would slap a price tag on human life. Ours is a world where we pool our common hurts, and then we look around us for someone to blame. The crowds will always have a scapegoat for their unhappiness. The czars of old Russia used to tell the peasantry that the Jews were making them poor. Of course, the Jews weren’t to blame at all; it was the Russian nobility. The kings of France blamed all sorrows on the Protestants. But in the end guilty king and guilty czar met the same fate as innocent Jew and innocent Protestant. The Ottomans slaughtered Christians of every ethnicity, but especially Armenians. All these were deemed worthless and scapegoated for the suffering of the nation. And in our day, there are those who would make the claim that gays, or refugees, or Muslims, or Latin Americans are to blame for the sorrows of the white man. Disenfranchised Anglos of today might ask the eternal question of Judah, “What profit is there? What are they worth?” But remember that the masses are just individuals pooling their private stores of anxieties and woes. They bring their feelings of alienation and pain to larger crowd, where they get bigger than they might otherwise have been. In the end, things escalate, and people start to ask what these other folks are worth. But in asking that, they cheapen us all.
“What profit is it? What’s it worth?” Those are not the right questions, for few things can be evaluated in monetary terms. Only the most wounded soul could ever believe that people can be evaluated according to their net worth. No, the best question is, “Does God delight in it, or him, or her? How is God glorified in them? How is the greater good of humankind served? How are compassion and kindness shown? Does it—or he, or she—promote the causes of hope, faith, or love?” But it takes a prophet (with a “p-h”) to change the conversation away from profits (with an “f”). Reuben is not often referred to as one of the biblical prophets. He’s certainly no Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or Ezekiel. He’s not even a Haggai. But wasn’t it Reuben who changed the conversation when the brothers talked of killing? Wasn’t it the prophet Reuben who introduced a new possibility that ended up saving Joseph’s life? And—as many of us know—Joseph’s survival ends up being good for everyone. In turn, Joseph himself, many years later, will save the lives of all these treacherous brothers. You never know the power you wield by simply changing the conversation.
The estrangement that exists in the human family today has been a group effort, not the fault of any one nation or people, but steadily escalated by the unhappiness of the many. Some years ago, I was leaving the home of one of our shut-ins. This person lived on one of the upper levels of Concordia, and though I usually take the stairs, I’d come down with a touch of Lyme disease that gave me a lot of pain in the knee, and so I took the elevator. As I hobbled down the interminably long corridor toward the elevator, I couldn’t help but dwell on the pain in my knee, and the pain in my heart, quite frankly. The kind old soul I’d been visiting was on a downward slide. Some people say I look mad when I’m thinking. Maybe that was part of it, too. But whatever the reason, I must have looked unwelcoming. And in my distraction, I caught myself looking at an employee without even seeing her. She was a black woman, young enough to be my daughter, with a round, scared face. She looked back at me with sadness in her eyes, and just a touch of anger. My first reaction was to look away and think, “Hey, why’s she looking at me like that? What did I ever do to her? I’m one of the good guys!” As I was getting into the elevator, it occurred to me that she thought I was glowering at her. And since race is always the unspoken issue here in America, she may have thought I was doing it with hatred for her race. Ever since Mohammed Ali tried to buy a house in this town, it’s had a certain reputation among some ethnicities. And I felt awful. Can’t I hobble along in pain without it becoming a racial issue? But she was young, and black, and alone in a very white part of town, serving a very white clientele in a pretty nice retirement home. Perhaps she felt vulnerable there.
Of course she thought I was glaring. History, and geography, and all the social cues of time and place told her that I was looking at her with hatred in my eyes. And so, in an effort to redeem myself, and in case she was from out-of-town, to let her know that Mt. Lebanon really is a pretty nice place, I held the elevator door. I asked (with what I hoped was a friendly but not creepy smile), “Are you coming?” Much to my surprise, her face broke into the loveliest smile of—what?—of relief. She simply shook her head, “No.” I don’t want the conversation in America to still be about race. I’m more than ready to move on to something else. But that’s an easy thing for me to say, isn’t it? There are those who’ve been deemed unprofitable because of their race, and those on whose race others literally turned a profit by selling them like Joseph. Estrangement is a group effort. She came at it with her pains and preconceptions, and I came at it with my own private and literal pain, and voila: misunderstanding, alienation. But not beyond repair!
Well, this is the point in the sermon where I usually make a joke, but I don’t have a joke about all of that. And this sermon’s been all over the map. Maybe that’s what happens when you try to write at Chautauqua. But if you take something home today, make it this: Our world will forever try to turn the conversation to profits. What’s it worth? And when we measure all things by their monetary value, we will inevitably start to see people as commodities, too. It cheapens all of us to judge people according to the profitableness. But we are called to change the conversation away from what we can get from things and people. Like Reuben, we are called to speak like prophets, calling attention to new possibilities, worth that the eye may not see and the dollar cannot evaluate. We are called not to think about profits, but to speak out like prophets wherever the divine image is violated in any of God’s children.
What then of North Korea, and nuclear arms, and ISIS, and Charlottesville? What of these pew Bibles, and hymnals, and polar bears, and greyhound dogs? Our job is not to name their worth, nor perhaps even to fully understand their worth. Ours is to own the complexity of the world we live in. Ours is to admit that estrangement is never just the fault of one party. Ours—yours—is the calling of a prophet, to speak with a prophetic voice whenever others want to demean us all by speaking merely of profits and market values. As followers of Christ, let’s change the conversation to something better. Amen.