This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.
The first reading this morning comes from the ancient story of Joseph, as it is told in the Torah. The Hebrew Joseph has been sold into slavery down in Egypt by his brothers, and though he had a kind master, after a time he was thrown into jail on unjust charges. Meanwhile, the rule of Egypt, Pharaoh, had a very unpleasant dream one night, and that’s where this reading picks up the story:
“In the morning, Pharaoh’s spirit was troubled; so he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was no one who could interpret them to Pharaoh.
“Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, ‘I remember my faults today. Once Pharaoh was angry with his servants, and put me and the chief baker in custody in the house of the captain of the guard. We dreamed on the same night, he and I, each having a dream with its own meaning. A young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. When we told him, he interpreted our dreams to us, giving an interpretation to each according to his dream. As he interpreted to us, so it turned out; I was restored to my office, and the baker was hanged.’
“Then Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was hurriedly brought out of the dungeon. When he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.’ Joseph answered Pharaoh, ‘It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.’ Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘In my dream I was standing on the banks of the Nile; 18and seven cows, fat and sleek, came up out of the Nile and fed in the reed grass. Then seven other cows came up after them, poor, very ugly, and thin. Never had I seen such ugly ones in all the land of Egypt. The thin and ugly cows ate up the first seven fat cows, but when they had eaten them no one would have known that they had done so, for they were still as ugly as before. Then I awoke. I fell asleep a second time and I saw in my dream seven ears of grain, full and good, growing on one stalk, and seven ears, withered, thin, and blighted by the east wind, sprouting after them; and the thin ears swallowed up the seven good ears. But when I told it to the magicians, there was no one who could explain it to me.’
“Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, ‘Pharaoh’s dreams are one and the same; God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good ears are seven years; the dreams are one. The seven lean and ugly cows that came up after them are seven years, as are the seven empty ears blighted by the east wind. They are seven years of famine. It is as I told Pharaoh; God has shown to Pharaoh what he is about to do. There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt. After them there will arise seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt; the famine will consume the land. The plenty will no longer be known in the land because of the famine that will follow, for it will be very grievous. And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about. Now therefore let Pharaoh select a man who is discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land, and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plenteous years. Let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming, and lay up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to befall the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine.’
“The proposal pleased Pharaoh and all his servants….”
The second reading is also from the Torah, from Exodus 20.17:
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
I have to tell you, Christmas is not one of my favorite holidays. You can probably guess why: it’s the commercialization of Christmas that I dislike. Here’s a holiday that started out as a celebration of the a celebration of the return of longer days after the winter solstice; then Christians turned the solstice celebration into a celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth; then in 17th C. Massachusetts, the Puritans banned Christmas and even made it illegal to celebrate the holiday; in the 19th C., Christmas got Victorianized into a sentimental holiday for families to celebrate together; and finally in the 20th C. Christmas got transmogrified yet again, this time into a holiday of excessive consumption.
If you recall the old medieval Christian list of the “seven deadly sins” — lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride — it will be immediately apparent to you that Christmas today, in the 21st C., is a blatant glorification of envy. Christmas envy is the natural outcome of the ongoing evolution of the commercialization of Christmas. These days, we expect to give and to receive lavish gifts at Christmas. Even those who don’t celebrate Christmas find themselves getting sucked into the Frenzy of gift-giving and money-spending — atheists buy generic holiday gifts, Jews give Hanukkah presents, and pagans have solstice gifts. And if we don’t have the money to afford expensive gifts for all our near relations and close friends, we feel that we have somehow failed. Worse yet, if we don’t receive lots of fancy gifts — the latest laptop of video game, expensive clothing, exclusive perfume, whatever it is you long for — if we don’t receive expensive gifts, we feel somehow cheated.
I define this Christmas excess as a species of envy. It is covetousness. We covet what we don’t have. We covet what our neighbors do have — whether those neighbors are our actual flesh-and-blood neighbors, or the virtual neighbors that we see on television or in photographs in magazines or on the World Wide Web. Rather than coveting our neighbor’s spouse or ox or donkey, we covet our neighbor’s toys and gadgetry and lifestyle.
But you already know all this. We all know about Christmas envy. Every year, pundits and preachers rail against the commercialization of Christmas, and every year we ignore them. Envy it may be, but it’s also good fun. It’s fun to find just exactly the perfect gift for someone you love. It’s even more fun to watch that person as he or she opens that gift, to see his or her face light up with pleasure. And it’s fun to receive gifts; it’s fun to get cool things, of course, but it’s also fun to see what someone thinks is just the perfect gift for you, because it reveals something of their character, and it reveals something of how they understand their relationship to you.
So I will not join the preachers and pundits who tell us that we should stop giving gifts at this time of year. If you want to give Christmas gifts or Hanukkah gifts or solstice presents at this time of year, I say: Go for it! Moderation in all things, of course, so don’t go into debt, but if you find gift-giving to be fun, then why not have some fun.
And having said that, I want to turn to the old story of Joseph that is found in the book of Genesis, beginning at chapter 37, and really extending right through the end of the book of Genesis into the beginning of the book of Exodus. Te weekly Torah portion for the sabbath which comes during Hanukkah comes from the middle of the story about Joseph, and we heard part of that weekly Torah portion in the first reading this morning. But before I get to the first reading, let me remind you of the story of Joseph.
It all begins in the land of Canaan. This is the beginning of the story as it is told in the Torah:
“Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan…. At seventeen years of age, Joseph tended the flocks with his brothers… And Joseph brought bad reports of them to his father. Now [Jacob] loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic. And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.” [Genesis 37.1-4, the New Jewish Publication Society translation]
As you can see, envy lies at the beginning of this story. Joseph’s brothers are envious of his coat of many colors, a coat given to him by their father. Actually, his brothers are envious of the fact that their father loved Joseph better than any of them, but the coat serves as the symbol for the greater love their father bestowed on Joseph. And they are really annoyed when Joseph tells them about a dream he had one night, in which all his brothers and even his father and mother would wind up bowing down to him.
So what do Joseph’s brothers do? They attack him, tie him up, rip off his distinctive coat of many colors, and then they sell him to a passing caravan as a slave. Off went the caravan, taking Joseph with them. Joseph’s brothers smeared his coat with some blood, then off they went to tell their family that Joseph must have been devoured by wild animals. They may have been envious of Joseph, but I feel that was taking things a little too far: selling your brother into slavery just because you’re envious of him!
Fast forward a little bit, and we find Joseph, now a slave, taken to Egypt and sold to one Potiphar, who is the chief steward of Pharaoh, the king and ruler of all Egypt. Joseph prospers for a while, but then winds up getting thrown into prison on the basis of false testimony — of course, as a slave, we can be sure that Joseph was not allowed to testify in his own defense. So now Joseph is not only a slave, he is in prison: this is what his brother’s envy has done!
While Joseph is in prison, he gets something of a reputation as an interpreter of dreams. He manages to correctly interpret the dream of a fellow prisoner, and that prisoner is later pardoned by the Pharaoh, and returned to his old job as Pharaoh’s cupbearer. Well, one night, Pharaoh has a dream: In the dream, he sees seven beautiful cows come up out of the Nile River, the greatest river in Egypt, and the cows grazed contently in the grass along the river. Then seven scrawny, emaciated, sickly cows come up out of the Nile River, and they ate up all the beautiful cows. At that point, Pharaoh awakened. But he fell asleep and dreamed a second time: this time, he dreamed of seven plump ripe ears of grain that sprout, only to be swallowed up by seven thin, scrawny, misshapen ears of grain.
And this brings us to the second reading this morning. In the second reading, Pharaoh called all his magicians and other wise people, and asked them the meaning of these dreams. No one was able to figure out what these dreams meant. But Pharaoh’s cupbearer remembered that Joseph could interpret dreams accurately, so Pharaoh brought Joseph up out of prison. Sure enough, with the help of the God of the Israelites, Joseph was able to correctly interpret Pharaoh’s dreams: there will be seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. Therefore, said Joseph to Pharaoh, during the seven years of plenty you must put aside enough grain that when the seven years of famine come you can feed all the people.
Pharaoh liked this idea — and that’s where the second reading left off. Pharaoh gave Joseph oversight over all food production, with the power to take surplus grain and store it in the Pharaoh’s granaries. By this point, some six or seven years had passed since Joseph was kidnapped by his brothers and sold into slavery. The seven years of prosperity came, just as in Joseph’s interpretation of the dream, and Joseph went out and bought up something more than a fifth of all the grain produced throughout Egypt. And then the seven years of famine came. The farmers produced very little grain. The Egyptians came to the Pharaoh’s granaries and bought grain from Joseph, the Pharaoh’s representative. The famine continued over the next few years, and when the people ran out of money, Joseph took their cattle in exchange for grain, and when they ran out of cattle, he accepted title to their land in exchange for grain. So it was that by the end of the seven years of famine, Pharaoh owned all the land and all the cattle in all of Egypt — thanks to Joseph’s good management.
The famine extended even as far as Canaan, where Josephs’ father Jacob and all his brothers still lived. Starving, Joseph’s brothers came to buy grain from Pharaoh. They didn’t recognize Joseph when they came before him to buy grain; and they did indeed bow down before Pharaoh’s representative, just as Joseph’s dream had predicted all those years ago.
In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi tells us that twenty-two years elapsed from Joseph’s first dream, the dream that predicted that his brothers would all bow down to him, to the moment when Joesph’s brothers actually did bow down to him in reality. Twenty-two years to wait for a dream to come true! Twenty-two years of kidnapping, enslavement, and imprisonment! Twenty-two years is a significant portion of a human lifespan. And based on this, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi tells us that that we ourselves can expect to wait as much as twenty-two years to fulfill our own dreams. ["Miketz," Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Miketz&oldid=175158548 (accessed December 7, 2007).]
This is a good story to remember at this time of year; it is a good antidote to Christmas envy. Envy arises in part because we want something now; we see our neighbor’s ox or donkey or video game, and we want it now. Even if it’s completely impossible! Envy arises in part when we are hard on ourselves, when we set ridiculously high expectations for ourselves. It is easy to think that we must have perfect lives. And too often, “perfect” is defined for us by someone else; someone else defines perfect for us as we should all be living in a house in the suburbs with 2.5 children, 3 cars, a dog, and a lucrative career in business that allows us to buy fun electronic gadgets. Nor should we have to wait for this dream of perfection to be accomplished.
Or maybe perfect is defined like this: if you’re a man, “perfect” means you look like Matt Damon, and if you’re a woman “perfect” means you look like Lindsay Lohan, and if you’re transgender, or don’t have white skin, or are over 35, well you’re just out of luck and you can never be perfect. In other words, our society makes it impossible to be perfect, and too often we wind up striving for a kind of perfection that just doesn’t exist.
The story of Joseph reminds us that mostly life is not perfect at all. Our lives, just like Joseph’s life, our lives are full of setbacks and disasters and impediments, and our lives most certainly lack perfection. Yet like Joseph we have dreams, and our dreams might not be unreasonable. But Rabbi Joshua ben Levi reminds us that dreams can take decades to come true. And the story of Joseph reminds us that even if our dreams do come true, they may come true in ways that we could not have imagined. When Joseph first dreamt that his brothers would bow down to him, do you think could possibly have imagined how that would come true? — with Joseph working for Pharaoh, so that really his brothers weren’t bowing down to him at all, they were bowing down to this representative of the all-powerful Pharaoh.
If you want to go out and have the perfect Christmas, and spend thousands of dollars and get the perfect lavish gift for everyone on your list and host the perfect Christmas party in your suburban house with 2.5 children, I for one won’t stand in your way (especially if I’m one of the people for whom you will purchase the perfect lavish gift, and by the way I could use a new computer).
But I’m also here to tell you that it’s OK to lower your standards for Christmas, or Hanukkah or solstice or whatever you celebrate. You do not have to give the perfect gift to everyone — and if your children complain that they didn’t get very good gifts this year, feel free to do what a mom of my acquaintance did; when her son complained that he “didn’t get anything good this year,” she told him that if he didn’t want his gifts she would be happy to send them to someone who would appreciate them. You do not have to give the perfect gift to anyone, and you do not have to receive the perfect gift yourself. You do not have to send out Christmas cards (or the Hanukkah cards which I see in the stores these days) — it is perfectly fine to delay and send out Valentine’s Day cards instead. You do not have to decorate your house unless you feel like it. You do not have to attend parties unless you want to do so.
In fact, as your minister I will tell you that there are only two things you have to do to meet your complete religious obligations as a Unitarian Universalist at this time of year. You must give a gift to, or otherwise help, someone less fortunate than yourself; and you must take the time to light a candle and sit in silence watching it burn. If you want, you can meet both those religious obligations by coming to the Christmas eve candlelight service here on December 24, lighting a candle, and giving some money when we pass the collection plate for a charity. Or you can simply go home tonight and light a candle after sunset, and after the candle burns down write a check to the charity of your choice. Or whatever.
Everything else about this season is optional. If you want to go all out and celebrate madly, that’s fine. But this can be a stressful time of year, and you don’t need to be hard on yourself. Which means that you don’t need to envy anyone else’s gifts, or anyone else’s celebration.
So take it easy. And I really mean it about lighting that candle: it really is a religious obligation to sit quietly on a regular basis, even for a minute or two, and do nothing. Sitting quietly gives you a chance to put things in perspective, to reflect on dreams deferred, to understand that you and your soul are more important than whatever gadget your neighbor owns. It’s the sure cure of Christmas envy.