Rev. Ryan Slifka
A couple weeks ago, I was getting ready to come to the church. I was all dressed up, including my clerical collar. You know, the black shirt with the little white dot. I usually wear it to the hospital because then no one ever asks me “what are you doing here?” So I’m all ready to go and there’s a knock at my door. I open it up and it’s one of my neighbors. She looks up at my face. Then down at my collar. “Are you a minister?” she says. Apparently I never shared that information. We got to talking, and one thing she said to me was “I don’t go to church. I’ve known plenty of people who believe in God who are total jerks. And I know plenty of people who don’t who are good people.” Then came the phrase I’ve probably heard at least a thousand times before, in plenty of variations. “You don’t need to believe in God to be a good person,” she said. “And you don’t need church to be a good person.” You’ve probably heard it before, too.
And it’s a true statement, of course. Our culture is diverse enough now for us to all know atheists who show generosity and kindness. For Buddhists to help out people in need. Some of my best friends in University were Muslims from completely different places. With completely different customs. And when I say this, it doesn’t contradict the Bible or the Christian tradition. To be fair, I think being a disciple of Jesus Christ certainly helps us become better human beings. But the Bible—for the most part—seems to understand that God can use anyone for God’s good purposes. Believer or not. So it’s true. You don’t need God to be a good person.
But that leaves us with an important question. The question is, then, what difference does God make? What difference does faith make? Or following Jesus Christ make? If you can do good without believing in God?
I think our passage this morning is pretty helpful in helping to answer this question.
Our passage this morning begins with a dream. The Pharaoh of Egypt, who is basically the king, the most powerful man in the country has this dream he can’t figure out. Seven cows emerge from the Nile river. Seven sleek and fat cows, well fed, step out on to dry land and graze. But then as the fat cows are enjoying their meal, the heads of seven other cows poke out of the water and make their way to the shore. But these cows are different. They’re mangy. They’re sickly looking. Skinny and hard on the eyes. Now, you’d expect these cows to be hungry, and maybe join the fat cows in nibbling on some of that good grass. But they actually waddle over and nibble on the fat cows instead. I’m not really sure how a cow would eat another cow. If it’s like one huge bite like a snake and then swallow for later digestion. Or it’s like bite after bite. But the story says they just eat ‘em. Cow on cow crime.
And so Pharaoh sits up in bed, middle of the night. Maybe he’s dripping with sweat. And you can sympathize—it’s a disturbing dream. “Phew,” he says. “Only a dream.” And he goes right back to sleep.
But then he has a second dream. And this one is even weirder than the first one. There are these seven ears all growing on one single stalk of corn. Seven ears which are “plump and good” it says. A high quality product. But right beside this wonderfully productive plant is another other that’s taken a while to grow in after it. But this stalk is full of skinny, sickly ears of corn. And the wind bends its branches over towards the healthy one. And all the scrawny corn swallows up the healthy corn. And so Pharaoh wakes up again. In a cold sweat.
Now this dream’s different than the first in some ways. The first one was weird, but this definitely weirder (maybe the corn was genetically modified or something). But they’re also pretty similar. Seven of a skinny, sickly thing shows to seven of a fat and healthy thing. The dream don’t repeat. But they do rhyme. So Pharaoh can take a hint on this one. He keeps having this recurring dream so it’s gotta mean something. And in lieu of a therapist or a counselor, he goes to his magicians for a diagnosis. These are his wise men, his scientists. Egypt is one of the world’s great empires, a center of knowledge. So it’s like he’s sent to all the best professionals at UBC hospital. If anyone can figure it out, it’s these guys.
These are world-renowned professionals. The best in the business. But after close analysis none of them can figure out what the problem is. No doubt when you’re a powerful person like Pharaoh, there are plenty of things to keep you up at night. He doesn’t know what the dream means. But it’s gotta mean something. But no one can figure it out. So it eats away at him. It keeps him up at night.
And so one day the chief cupbearer comes to Pharaoh. This guy is in charge of making sure the wine cellar is well stocked and Pharaoh’s cup is always full. An important guy in any kingdom. And he remembers this time when he was in the dungeon and had his own dream. And there was this young Hebrew who’s, a slave to the prison guard captain who was able to interpret it for him. If you remember last week, you’ll remember Joseph. Joseph whose brothers were jealous of him sold him in to slavery. This is where he’s ended up. And so the chief cupbearer brings Joseph to Pharaoh.
He brings him to Pharaoh. And Joseph interprets the dream for him. And it ain’t good. Pharaoh was right. It was a bad omen all along. The 7 weird skinny ugly cows eating the fat healthy cows points to famine. A seven year famine throughout the land. So does the second weird dream with the 7 nasty corn eating the good corn. But the fact that the dream happened twice means it’s fixed by God to happen. Unavoidable. It’s gonna happen and there’s nothing Pharaoh can do.
No way around it. It’s gonna happen. It’s going to happen, but… God helps Joseph see a way forward. He says that Pharaoh can’t get around the famine. But he can prepare for it. God says to build grain silos, instituted a 20% grain tax on the whole kingdom. So when the famine comes you’ll be ready. And, of course appoint somebody skilled and intelligent to manage it all. Which ends up being Joseph (maybe a little self-interested). And it works. The famine’s avoided. The kingdom is saved.
So let’s unpack this whole thing. There’s Pharaoh, the king. Pharaoh, the wealthiest, most free, most powerful person in the kingdom. Maybe even in the world. And then there’s Joseph. A little guy. And immigrant outsider sold into slavery. The poorest, most oppressed, least powerful person in the kingdom. These two see the same dream. One sees destruction, sees his end. But the other sees God at work. Though hidden. Creating a future for the whole kingdom. Where there wasn’t one. God is making a way through famine and disease. The difference God makes here is interpretation. It’s sight. The difference God makes here is hope. The difference between Pharaoh and Joseph is hope. Pharaoh may have all the power in the world, but he’s held captive to his circumstances. Joseph may be a slave, but he’s free. Free from fear. Free from anxiety. Because he knows that with God, there’s always a way forward. There’s always another day. With God the story’s never over. This is the difference God makes.
This is the difference God makes. Before Pharaoh met Joseph, he’d been assigned his fate. But through Joseph, God not only gives Pharaoh hope for the future. This hope makes a future for the whole kingdom.
Hope is the difference. Life-giving hope is the life giving difference that God makes. That faith makes.
Where Pharaoh looked at his dream and only saw destruction, Joseph saw God, though hidden, at work. Creating new possibilities where there were none before.
Where some look and see a junkie. A life scarred permanently by addiction. God sees a beloved child of God. And a life that never is too late to be made whole. That’s the difference God makes.
Where some see poverty and violence as inevitable. As just the way things are, and the way things gotta be. God sees the possibility for justice, and freedom. For Pharaoh to open granaries to ensure all are fed and cared for. That’s the difference God makes.
Where some see a cross. An implement of torture and death. We see through it, we see an empty tomb. We see resurrection, even in death. That’s the difference God makes.
This is the difference God makes. As I heard the former Moderator of the United Church Peter Short once say “hope enlarges the present.” That when the walls close in on us, hope expands them outward, giving us breathing room to move and act. Life with God means that we are not consigned to fate. God may be hidden. And to see God takes eyes looking through the lens of faith. But that God always makes a way. Even if there’s no way. That’s the difference God makes.
So friends. Brothers and sisters in Christ. My neighbor was surely right. You can be a “good person.” Regardless of your faith, your tradition, or lack thereof. But the difference faith makes, the main difference God makes is hope. That no matter the situation. No matter how difficult life is, no matter how broken the world seems. No matter what keeps us up at night. No matter quantity, or the quality of our nightmares. No matter the dead end, God always makes a way where there’s no way. There’s always a way forward. There are always possibilities for full life in face of sin and death. With God, the end is never the end. Because where there is a cross. On the other side is an empty tomb.
With God we’re freed from all fear. Which means we’re freed to love God more deeply. To love our neighbors, the poor, the downtrodden and the helpless more fully. And to be people who have empowered by hope. A hope to share with, and inspire the world.
This is the difference God makes. One of them, anyway. And for this, thanks be to God.