Bridgewater, Massachusetts, November 4, 2001

Genesis 41:46-57 Storing up grain for the famine

Joseph was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt. And Joseph went out from the presence of Pharaoh, and went through all the land of Egypt. During the seven plenteous years the earth produced abundantly. He gathered up all the food of the seven years when there was plenty in the land of Egypt, and stored up food in the cities; he stored up in every city the food from the fields around it. So Joseph stored up grain in such abundance--like the sand of the sea--that he stopped measuring it; it was beyond measure.

Before the years of famine came, Joseph had two sons, whom Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On, bore to him. Joseph named the firstborn Manasseh, "For," he said, "God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father's house." The second he named Ephraim, "For God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes."

The seven years of plenty that prevailed in the land of Egypt came to an end; and the seven years of famine began to come, just as Joseph had said. There was famine in every country, but throughout the land of Egypt there was bread. When all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread. Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, "Go to Joseph; what he says to you, do." And since the famine had spread over all the land, Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe in the land of Egypt. Moreover, all the world came to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain, because the famine became severe throughout the world.

Matthew 6:19-21 Storing up heavenly riches

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Arcana Coelestia #5276 An abundance of spiritual grain

"An abundance of grain" means a multiplication of truth, since it is the opposite of "famine," which means a lack of truth. The word used in the original language to express "an abundance of grain" (which is an antonym of "famine") means, in the inner sense, a full store and sufficiency of spiritual knowledge; for "famine" means a lack of spiritual knowledge.

Spiritual knowledge is formed out of the truth in our material self that we have not yet made our own. It is the multiplication of this kind of truth that this Bible passage refers to.

Spiritual knowledge does not become truth dwelling in us until we accept it into our understanding--which happens when we firmly embrace it. Even then, the truth dwelling in us does not become our own until we live according it. Nothing becomes ours except what we make a part of our life. When we do this, it does become ours because our life is in it.

The seven years of plenty that prevailed in the land of Egypt came to an end; and the seven years of famine began to come, just as Joseph had said. There was famine in every country, but throughout the land of Egypt there was bread. (Genesis 41:53, 54)

Today's reading from Genesis is another example of how God's planning is better than mine. As most of you know, I am using the readings from the children's Sunday School lesson as the basis for my sermons each week. Today the children are learning about the story of Joseph interpreting Pharaoh's dream, and then becoming second-in-command to Pharaoh himself. It that position, he was charge of storing up grain during the seven years of plenty, in order to tide the people through the seven years of famine that he had predicted would come after the seven years of plenty, based on Pharaoh's dream.

How was I to know that this reading would come up on a Sunday when we are celebrating communion? Usually, we hold communion on Worldwide Communion Sunday, which is the first Sunday in October. However, not only was I away at the Columbus Day Youth Retreat that Sunday, but I completely forgot about it! So we scheduled communion for this week instead--when we had a reading on bread. Apparently God had a plan.

Sharing food and drink together always has a deep meaning, even when we are been aware of it. Those of us who live with family members or close friends almost take it for granted that we share meals. Usually we don't think anything of it--it's just a part of our routine. Sometimes we only notice how important our shared mealtimes are when someone dear to us is missing from the table. Then we realize that eating together is more than just feeding our bodies. It is feeding our souls, too, with the human, interpersonal bread of life.

At the table we share not only food and drink, but thoughts and feelings. We talk about what happened today, or some new idea we just had, or how we're feeling a bit down or confused, or especially happy. We respond to one another, adding our own ideas and experiences, giving some support, sharing a happy moment or a sad event.

It is no accident that when we share food and drink, we share our thoughts and feelings with one another as well. To use Swedenborg's term, one "corresponds" to the other. To us, this correspondence may not be immediately obvious. But for the angels, it is a part of their everyday experience. Swedenborg writes:

Heavenly and spiritual food consists of nothing but goodness and truth. These are the food with which angels and spirits are fed, and which they long for when they are hungry, and thirst for when they are thirsty. This is why material food also corresponds to these things. Bread corresponds to heavenly love, and wine to spiritual love--as does everything else that is a form of "bread" (meaning food) or of "wine" (meaning drink). (Arcana Coelestia #5360)

Angels hunger for the goodness of love, and they thirst for the goodness of refreshing truth. And so do we! We humans depend very much on the love and kindness that we share with one another. As children, if we are not loved and cared for, we waste away, and even die for the lack of care. As adults, we search out other people to share our thoughts and feelings with; to love and be loved by. Without this, our life has little meaning or joy.

We also thirst for understanding and truth. When we are facing a loss or a tragedy, we ask, "Why?" We seek to understand what has happened. When a friend or loved one grows cold and distant, we ask, "Why?" We want to know what has changed, and what we can do to bridge the gap once again. Even in our simple, everyday tasks, we are always looking for new techniques to make our work a bit lighter; new ideas of something to make or do that will give happiness to those we love; new skills that will make us more productive and better able to provide for ourselves and our families.

Yes, like the angels, we humans hunger for goodness and love, and thirst for truth and understanding. These are the food and drink that keep our hearts and minds healthy, strong, and growing. These are spiritual food and drink.

And sometimes we don't realize just how vital they are until they are missing. As long as we are living in good times, with our family and friends around us, and things going well, we take for granted the milk of human kindness and the bread of mutual love.

When Joseph interpreted Pharaoh's dream, this was just the situation in Egypt. As Joseph interpreted Pharaoh's dream, the land of Egypt was about to go into a sustained, seven-year period of great abundance. And what do we tend to do when things are going well? We eat, drink, and be merry, thinking--despite all experience to the contrary--that the good times will last forever.

Joseph led Egypt on a more prudent course. While the people did enjoy the years of plenty, Joseph also put them to work storing up some of that plenty for the seven years of famine that God had showed him was on the way. And because Joseph listened to God's warning, and Pharaoh listened to Joseph, when all the other lands began suffering with the severe famine, there was plenty of grain in the land of Egypt.

The meaning of this in our own lives is probably beginning to come clear now. Let's look at it a little more closely, first as we grow up, and then in our lives today.

In the course of our lives we go through a stage that can be compared to the time Joseph and his family stayed in Egypt. Egypt, Swedenborg tells us, symbolizes our eagerness to learn and store up plenty of factual knowledge for ourselves as a basis for understanding the world around us. We know from history that Egypt not only stored up grain as in this Bible story; it was also a land of great stores of knowledge--including spiritual knowledge. Its scholars were renowned in the ancient world.

The time when we are best able to store up plenty of factual knowledge is during our childhood and youth. Later, as adults, we will have to spend much of our time and energy supporting ourselves and our family, and making our way in the world. But as children, that responsibility is still in the future. We have plenty of time to learn many things about the world around us. This is the time when we traditionally attend school. Our society views the childhood years as a time of learning in preparation for our adult years, when we can draw on that store of knowledge as we make our way through life.

From a Christian perspective, the greatest knowledge we can gain is to thoroughly learn the stories of the Bible and the teachings of the church. Unfortunately, this most important of all knowledge is generally not taught in school. But fortunately, one of the reasons the church exists is to provide people with spiritual knowledge and understanding. We have our own form of school--Sunday School--to provide our children with a knowledge of the Bible and the church's teachings. This is knowledge they will need in order to do well not just materially, but spiritually in their adult years. Each Sunday the children come, they are storing up spiritual grain for times when their lives will be focused on other things.

Even children who do not stay with the church through their teenage or young adult years will have stored away priceless treasures of spiritual knowledge in their deeper selves that they can draw on throughout their lives. And those who do stay through their teenage years--when we can offer them a deeper knowledge of the Bible's inner meaning, and a more comprehensive understanding of the church's teachings--will be storing up such rich stores of spiritual "grain" that when their times of emotional struggle and hardship come--their times of inner famine--they will have the inner sustenance to carry them through.

And we adults do have our times of famine: times when we struggle with the difficult challenges and painful blows that life deals us. Just when we think everything is going well, and are relaxing in the goodness of life, something hits that takes away all our pleasure and peacefulness in life. We lose someone we love. An inner demon surfaces, and we are plunged into an emotional battle to keep ourselves together. Our work or home life changes, and everything we had taken for granted is suddenly called into question. Or there may not be a particular event to trigger the famine. In the ebb and flow of life, we may simply lose sight of the higher, spiritual goodness of God, so that our spirit sinks into doubt and depression.

These are our times of famine when we long for love and understanding, but find it painfully lacking in our lives. These are the times when we desperately need those inner stores of goodness and understanding to tide us over. And if we have not stored up spiritual knowledge and understanding, like the stores of grain Joseph laid up in the granaries of every city throughout Egypt, we will be find ourselves emotionally and spiritually starving.

We adults cannot survive forever on the stores of knowledge that we built up as children. Just as the seasons and cycles come and go, we must continually store up more knowledge in our mental granaries to tide us through our times of winter and famine. Attending church and Bible Study, reading the Bible at home, learning about the teachings of our church, learning from other spiritual perspectives: this is how we store up spiritual food that we can draw on to carry us through our times of famine and struggle.

Jesus said, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Amen.


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Artwork: I AM  Harry Antis and is
used with permission.
Christ-Centered Art Gallery

Music:  Heart and Soul
1999 Bruce DeBoer
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