"What Knowing Our Purpose Provides”

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – August 14, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

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

    As I mentioned last Sunday, the Joseph story in Genesis provides one of the most provocative images in the Bible of what can happen to people when their purpose for living is defined by their faith.  The quality of our lives truly does depend on our interpretation of events.  When we see our lives through the lenses of our faith, we look at every experience either as a blessing or as a tool for refinement.  Pastors could spend a month of Sundays on the Joseph story and never exhaust the potential themes that are present in each facet of this drama.


    Last week we touched on how Joseph dealt with a number of life-challenges, and this morning we are going to conclude our visit with him by considering the driving purpose that allowed him to be so generous and compassionate with his brothers who had betrayed him.


    As Joseph had predicted while interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, the entire region was now in the second year of a seven-year famine.  Word had quickly spread throughout the region that Egypt had plenty of grain.  People from every realm came to Joseph whom Pharaoh had placed in charge of all of Egypt. Among these people were Joseph’s brothers from Canaan.


    The moment came when his brothers were standing before Joseph.  All they saw were the trappings of the most powerful man in Egypt.  His home, the guards and servants, the magnificence of Egypt became symbols that filled them with awe, respect and fear.


    Joseph could no longer stand the suspense of keeping his identity a secret from them.  His love for his brothers was too overwhelming.  He sent his servants away.  As soon as Joseph was alone with his brothers, he burst into tears.  In fact, he cried with such loud sobs that his entire household heard him. News of this emotional outburst quickly reached Pharaoh.


    He said to his brothers, “I am Joseph!”  When his brothers heard that name, they were so horrified and shocked that they were immobilized by fear.   Joseph said again, “Come closer.  I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold to that passing caravan when I was 17.”


    Imagine having the power to let go of every incident that had the potential to hurt you and every word spoken with the intent of criticizing and belittling you.  Imagine being able emotionally to rise above everything in this world that had attempted to define you.  Remember Joseph had been a slave and now he was the most powerful man in Egypt.  His spirit and energetic personality remained the same in the presence of feast or famine.


    All of us have been endowed with this magnificent, remarkable ability to rise above and overcome everything even when the patterns of change appear threatening.   Being created a little lower than the angels is no chump change.  Our problem is that we do not access this ability.  What we do not use within us remains dormant.


    In an adult Sunday school class in my past, I remember someone saying, “When you are the most powerful man in Egypt, it becomes easy to forgive everything your brothers did.”  This might be true if it were not for one thing.  Joseph did not have to forgive anyone because he chose not to remain preoccupied by matters over which he had no control.  He understood the unfolding of his life as a process of refinement and not a series of good and bad experiences.  What allowed him to behave in this uncommon way was the purpose he had chosen for his life.  Staying with that purpose defined each of his choices with great clarity. 


    There is an excellent example of this kind of purpose-driven life that found its way into print a number of years ago.  A man was killed by a hit and run driver.  He left behind a widow and five children.  Since he had been the bread winner, his wife had to become very frugal and resourceful with the proceeds from his two life insurance policies.   Her purpose was to launch five children into the world so that each would become a contributor to society.   


    She never once felt sorry for herself or lamented even for a moment that her skin was not the same color as countless successful people with whom she was surrounded.   She took in the laundry of her neighbors including the ironing of shirts, blouses, skirts and dresses, became a skilled seamstress, and even learned how to work on her husband’s car, i.e., changing the oil and rotating the tires. 


    Routinely, she took her three boys and two girls to art galleries, museums, concerts and to baseball games.  She gave each child their own individual moments with mom as she used to call it.  The television was on one hour after supper if all of them completed their homework.  They watched the news and discussed current events.  Television was never used as an escape or for entertainment.


    She reached her goal.  Today she has no idea where she found the energy or the finances to pack into her children’s lives all that they accomplished as a family.  One of her children became a practicing physician, one is an architect, another is a machinist, a fourth is the manager of a major department store and the last one became the director of a pre-school for an industrial complex with 460 students and 52 staff. 


    She ended her article with these words:


I suspect that I ignored every barrier that tried its best to discourage me from being the formidable mother I wanted to be. I was determined to awaken within each of my children the awe, mystery and beauty that our wonderful world inspires in us.  Each of them developed the desire to learn everything they could from study, reading and using their imaginations. They also learned that attitude creates the quality of everyone’s journey.  I am very proud of them.


    Anyone can place the purpose Joseph used for guidance right in the middle of his or her own life-issues.  That mother was right -- attitude is everything.  Nothing stood in the way of her purpose of directing the lives of her five children, stimulating their minds to remain hungry to learn and helping them to experience culture from visiting museums to becoming fond of opera. 


    Last week a friend of ours sent me a short video-clip about Hazel McCallion, the Mayor of Mississauga.  She is mayor of the third largest city in Ontario, Canada.  She has been elected 11 consecutive times for a total of 31 years.  She has outlasted eight prime ministers.  What a powerhouse of energy she exudes.


    She was asked how she has lasted that long in office and she described her driving purpose as a political leader:  “Care for your people, keep taxes low and attract companies to do business in your city.  Companies create jobs!  Our city is debt free and has 700 million in reserves.”  What makes this story so compelling is that Hazel is 88 years old and still maintains a deadly accurate stick when she plays ice hockey.  She has no plans for retiring.

    Purpose drives us to say, “Please be patient with me, God is not finished with me yet.” Knowing his purpose drove Joseph to say, “Do not be upset or blame yourselves because you sold me to that passing caravan.  It was God who sent me ahead of you to save people’s lives from starvation. God has made me Pharaoh’s highest official.  I am the ruler of Egypt.”  (Genesis 45:5f) Developing such a purpose for our lives can shield us from countless distractions that produce little more than a vast number of detours. 


    Our purpose, however, may not have any similarities to the one that kept Joseph’s emotions in check and his spirit open to what God may be doing.  Societies need purpose-driven people at every level from trash collecting to Members of Parliament.  It is the spirit by which we live that makes the difference in every vocational category. 


    One day a district manager of a large chain of grocery stores was standing with one of his managers in his store.  They both were observing the checkout process for the store’s customers. The district manager said, “Look at that young man bagging groceries for registers 5, 6 and 7.”   


    The young man was running back and forth bagging groceries for three cashiers.  Many of the other baggers were slowly picking up grocery items and looking at them before putting them into the bag.  Sometimes cashiers had to stop what they were doing to help with the bagging process.


    During a slow period in the store the district manager approached that young man and asked him what his motivation was for keeping three lines going.  The young man said, “Today’s customers want to get in and out of our store as quickly as possible, sir.  There is a science to packing a grocery bag.  Bags can’t be too heavy for customers and you can’t put bread, eggs and potato chips on the bottom.  Everything has its place in that bag and baggers have to understand that. My goal is to keep four lines going at once and I am almost there.” 


    The GM said, “Son, with motivation like that, one day you will own your own grocery store.  Here is my card.  When you are finished with your education, give me a call.”  Purpose-driven people stand head and shoulders above the rest.  They do not look at their vocation as a job, they look at what they do as an extension of how they live -- their value system, their beliefs and their character strengths are always on display.


    Potifer immediately noticed Joseph’s ability.  The jailer recognized that Joseph had management skills.  Pharaoh learned that Joseph had a plan for his nation. There are no perfect jobs.   However, highly energized people that are eager to do anything to get a job done well are purpose-driven.  It is interesting that companies everywhere cannot find enough people to hire who have the spirit of that young grocery store worker.


    The program 60 Minutes once produced a segment on a thriving business in a community filled with elderly people. The cause for the visit was that the owner, Charlie Graham, hired only retirees.  


    For example, the average age of the 12 women that were making boxes by hand was 84. People in the shipping department ranged in ages from 76 to 91.  There were two machinists that were in their early 90s doing very close work with their milling machines. Charlie’s business manager had run the numbers for a branch of IBM for 42 years. 


    The workers still had very marketable skills and years of work experience.  An added benefit for Charlie was that he did not have to pay them high wages or offer a benefit package. Everyone already had adequate coverage.  Camera crews went into the facility to interview the owner and workers. 


      Everyone interviewed said about the same thing. 


None of us needs to work, but we absolutely love it here. We are not worried about wages.  If for some reason Charlie couldn’t pay us, we would come to work anyway.  We are family. The women fold boxes and gossip all day long about everyone else’s business.  Some of us came here suffering from depression.  Working together made that condition disappear. For the most part, our aches and pains are gone too.  We bring experience to what we do while having fun being productive again. The best part about working for Charlie is that we work in an environment where we laugh constantly. This is great therapy for us seniors. Charlie has given us a new purpose for living.  It is great to feel needed again.


    Joseph’s spirit made him a quality servant, a model prisoner, a remarkable administrator for Pharaoh and finally, the best brother anyone could have.  He had few answers along the way.  He experienced challenging outcomes.  Joseph’s spirit, however, communicated, “God is in charge of my destiny and all I ever had to do during my life was show up enthusiastically and do the very best I can with what is being asked of me.”


    The world might be a different place if more of us looked at our lives as bristles in God’s paint brush.  God makes the brush strokes on the canvas while we add texture with our unique colors.