“What am I going to do? How long is this going to last? Will I ever get out of here?”
Those are the kind of questions that must have been going through Joseph’s head each morning as he woke up in that Egyptian jail. Did he stare at the ceiling and think of his brothers who betrayed him? Brothers whom he had admired his entire childhood, whose games he always wanted to join, who he wanted to imitate? How could those big brothers try to kill him, and then actually sell him into slavery? “They don’t even know I am stuck in this foreign jail. No one cares about me here, there’s no end to my sentence. I might be here until I die.”
How does a person cope with that kind of situation? How do you get off the floor in the morning when the weight of despair sits on your chest, determined to smother you?
That is a question many people have been asking lately as this lockdown keeps getting extended. When do we get out of this? Why can’t the vaccine get here sooner? When does the door to this prison open?
How do we cope when we are stuck in a situation that we can’t change? I’ve asked that question of many of you as I have spoken to you on the phone, and at the end of zoom sessions. Some of you have shared your techniques with Judi and Allison, too. We’ve heard about the importance of daily walks in nature. Of taking up new hobbies. Keeping busy helping others has worked for many of you. So, has digging into books and projects that had been always waiting for a rainy day.
Joseph finds a way to cope while he was in jail, too. One of his coping strategies was by being useful to others. He gets promoted to supervise the other prisoners. He also has a skill that comes in handy – he’s good at interpreting dreams. The baker and the cupbearer have no idea what to make of their strange dreams. In the Bible, dreams are usually messages from God, specifically, the Holy Spirit. The people who can interpret them are special because they are on God’s wavelength, privy to God’s inner thoughts about what the future will bring. Prophets are given this talent - people like Elijah. He was the one who was taken up into heaven by the chariot, which we heard about earlier in the hymn, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Joseph is similar to a prophet in that through dream messages from God, he can see what the future holds.
But Joseph is more than an interpreter of divine dreams, he also receives them. At the beginning of his story, he has two prophetic dreams.
In one, he sees a wheat field where twelve stalks of wheat bow down to one in the middle.
In the second dream, he sees the sun, moon and stars bowing down to him. He tells his brothers this dream means that one day, they will all bow down to him.
To their ears, he sounds arrogant and boastful, so they decide to do away with him, sending him to Egypt as a slave, where he is now stuck in jail with no end in sight.
But Joseph doesn’t act like someone who has lost hope. He gets up every morning and gets busy, running the jail, supervising the prisoners. He has every reason to feel despair, but he doesn’t. He may remember that he has been promised a better future than this. One where his brothers will submit to him. The path to that future is utterly unclear, but it may be one of the reasons why Joseph can act like a person with hope.
The Joseph story is a Biblical romance - that is, it has all the markings of a story that you just know will have a happy ending. In romances and comedies, everyone makes up in the end, and there is usually a wedding. All conflicts are resolved, good people get what they deserve. And that will happen here, too, as we will see next week.
But in real life, when people get enslaved, they don’t instantly get promoted by their owners, and put in charge of everything. In real life, when people are enslaved, they are kept down, with only a few put in charge, and not of very much. That was the experience of the Black Africans who were brought to Canada and America against their will. Unlike the Joseph story, that enslavement did not result in promotions and nice weddings. Instead, it lasted for 250 years, and the people who were enslaved are still being held back in many ways, despite the formal end of slavery.
For all those hundreds of years, Black Americans and Canadians needed to find a way to get up in the morning. Many knew that they would likely die enslaved, and usually long before they reached old age. So how did they keep going? All this month, we have heard one strategy: they sang. African American spirituals were created by people of African ancestry who were introduced to Christianity. But where their white masters saw a faith that justified slavery, the Blacks heard something else. They heard a promise God to liberate oppressed people. In the Old Testament, it was a promise to liberate the Israelites, and oppressed individuals like Tamar, who we heard about last week. In the New Testament, enslaved people met Jesus. The god-man who spent every day among the oppressed, healing their physical and mental wounds, and even bringing a centurion’s slave back from the dead.
One of the messages which they heard loud and clear was that if they died before slavery ended, there was still paradise coming. The people who had been beaten and raped and killed in slavery would be greeted by a loving God in the next life. And at the end of time, their sinful masters would be punished while the innocent would be crowned with glory. They drew great solace from the Christian view of the afterlife and the final judgement. Victims will be embraced by God, while their torturers would face a reckoning and judgement. That prospect, that the afterlife would be a time of joy is what infuses many spirituals. That is why in “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” the lyrics sing of coming for to carry me home, a band of angels coming after me. There is a home worth going to, where all will be well.
It may seem like small solace to promise liberation in the life to come when things are so bad now. It may seem even less sensible to hold to the idea that one day Jesus will come back and set everything right at the end of time. All of this may seem like an instance of how religion can serve as the opiate of the masses, as Karl Marx put it. Hoping that things will be better later, especially after death, is of little use now.
But there’s another way of looking at this. James Cone was the founder of Black Theology.
In his book on African American spirituals, he points out that these songs gave enslaved Blacks a way to feel the joy of the afterlife now. African American spirituals were written by enslaved people who gathered at night after the work day was done.  James Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues, 56.
They gathered to sing and move, with their entire bodies, singing of a joy that would be theirs in the future. But by singing about it now, that future promise became real in that moment. There is nothing fake about the joy people feel when they are singing.
It is as though time has folded over on itself, like a prophecy or dream of the future taking hold in this moment as people sing right now of joy, with joy. I suspect we have all felt it while singing hymns, whether African American spirituals or European based. In singing we get a sense of joy now that is utterly real.
And that joy gave the people the courage to change their lives in the here and now. African American slaves sang with joy about being loved by God, and then they acted on it by finding ways to escape. In fact, they often used their spirituals not just to feel better, but as a concrete tool for liberation. With so many hostile ears around them, enslaved people plotting their escape needed to be able to signal to each other when it was safe to go - which night was the night they would leave. The spiritual we sang at the beginning of this service, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” was one of those coded messages. The chariot referred to the underground railroad, which was coming south, swinging low, to carry someone home, that is, to the north.  When you heard this song, it was time to get ready. Joy in the afterlife became a way of finding joy in this life.
Hopeful dreams are what get you up out of bed in the morning when it seems like you are locked in, and there is no way out. Singing about a future joy changes the way we feel, allows that future to find a home in the present. The present becomes pregnant with the future, carries it, and, way ahead of schedule, seeks to make it happen. Knowing that God loves you and wants you to be free, that you will be free in the future – that kind of dream is enough to provide a source of freedom right now.
Rev. Dr Martin Luther King drew on this powerful tradition 50 years ago when he gave his famous “I Have a Dream speech.” He quoted from African American spirituals, dreaming of the day when Blacks would be “free at last.” That dream helped inspire the end of segregation. But it did not defeat racism. That monster continues to this day, embedded in policies, laws and values which are as strong as ever. How that happened is something that will be discussed this Thursday night when our Lenten anti-Black Racism book challenge has its first discussion night. We’ll be talking about Ibram Kendi’s book, How to be an Anti-Racist.
Kendi belongs to a new generation of activists who do not draw on Christianity for their inspiration. His parents were Christian activists, who were inspired by James Cone, whom they met. But Kendi is a secular activist. And he is not alone. Last summer, we saw the streets filled with anti-Black racism protests led by Black Lives Matter. But BLM is not a Christian movement. The dream of liberating Black people from the prison of racism is being led by people who are secular. And they have not been openly endorsed by Black churches in the United States. The reason for this is partly because BLM was co-founded by Alicia Garza, a lesbian, who is now married to a trans man. Black Lives Matter supports abortion, and it stands for the rights of LGBTQ+ people. This is problematic for many Black churches which espouse a more conservative view of Christian values and a male-led family.
Indeed, when we remember the civil rights movement, we tend to think of heroic straight men leading the way. Yet that Black community included women, gays and trans people, but they were kept out of leadership positions. The mainstream press likes to tell the story as one man’s dream, but in reality, it was a dream of liberation for people who belonged to all genders , sexualities and abilities. And in this, the Black Lives Matter movement speaks more clearly than its predecessor. This time, they declare, the liberation of all oppressed people must be the goal. The idea that one colour of human being is normal, and all the others are inferior is the problem, the original sin that holds everyone back.
In the Joseph story, almost as soon as he lands in jail, he gets promoted. Pretty soon, he is the jailor’s favourite, in charge of all the prisoners. If anti-Black racism is the jail we have created, it is no longer good enough to be satisfied when the people in jail get promoted. That isn’t progress, that is tokenism. Joseph knew that being the jailor’s favourite was not freedom. He begged the baker and the cupbearer to remember him, to help him get out of prison. But today, we can see that the problem of racism will not be solved by promoting a few people, or even pulling them out of the system. The only kind of liberation that matters is to dismantle the prison of racism altogether. It cannot be reformed or tinkered with. And to do that, we will need to conquer and expel the idea that one type of person is better than everyone else. For the jail to come down, we must also fire the prison warden.
We need to replace that jail with a vision of liberation that will benefit everyone. We need to embrace a vision of a holy chariot that will sweep down to get us when this life ends. And in that chariot, we will find ourselves shoulder to shoulder with every kind of human being . God ’s sweet chariot will be full of trans people, non-binary people, drag queens, Blacks and Asians, whites and musicians and astronomers, and people whose passions were never defined by the colour of their skin. We need to see that chariot as a party of people, some of whom we may have never understood, but who we never hated or oppressed, either. That chariot will lift into the sky filled with the people of God. That’s the kind of chariot that is coming for to carry us home, and if we can get that, we won’t have to wait for the afterlife for that party. We can embrace that vision right now, and by singing it and fighting for it, we can have it right here, right now. Way ahead of schedule.
 James Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues, 16,  http://www.harriet-tubman.org/songs-of-the-underground-railroad/  Ibram X Kendi, How to be an Anti-Racist, 17.  Jelani Cobb, “The Matter of Black Lives”, The New Yorker, March 7, 2016.  Bobby Ross Jr., “Why The Black Lives Matter Movement Is Controversial To Many Christians”, Religion Unplugged, July 8, 2020  Marcia Chatelain, “Making a Movement, “ Berkley Forum, January 12, 2018  Black Lives Matter, Guiding Principles section, 2017 report.