“The question I seek to answer this week is ‘What matters?’ ” said the Rev. Martha Simmons at the 9:15 a.m. Monday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. “I hope that if this is the only sermon you hear this week, you will ask yourself, ‘What matters to me, as a person of faith, at this juncture in my life?’ ”
Her sermon title was “Lessons from a Pit,” and the selected Scripture was Genesis 37:12-24, the story of Joseph.
“Living your divine purpose matters,” she said. “The main character [Joseph] started from the bottom. He came from a dysfunctional family.”
His father, Jacob, showed him great favoritism.
“You know nothing good can come from favoritism,” Simmons said.
She told a story of taking her three adopted sons shopping. One of them looks like her, and the store owner asked if he was her son.
“I made a big mistake,” Simmons said. “I said the tallest was mine and the other two were just with me.”
A few weeks later, the youngest of the three reminded her of it and what she had said.
“I had to make a long apology and show him that I had loved him equally,” Simmons said. “Never, never, ever show favoritism. He got an extra set of Nikes for that mistake.”
The congregation laughed.
People should be careful with whom they share their dreams, she said. Joseph dreamed of wheat sheaves bowing down to him. He shared his dreams with his brothers, who were jealous of him, and it made them hate him more.
“Joseph was going to be the shot-caller, and they were going to be losers,” Simmons said.
In his second dream, the whole family bowed down to him.
Jacob sent Joseph to check on his brothers, and the boys decided to kill him. Joseph’s brother Reuben said no. He said they should throw him in a pit instead.
“What matters is living your divine purpose,” Simmons said. “Joseph was down low with no water.”
Simmons related Joseph’s story to those of Maya Angelou and Nelson Mandela, both of whom struggle through early life as well. Angelou was raped as a child, was a single mother at 17 and was living in a brothel as a prostitute, Simmons said. Nelson Mandela survived 27 years in prison.
“Many of our children are in pits today,” Simmons said. “They are left behind educationally with parents who cannot cope. The boys are dodging bullets and having oral sex in middle school and saying it is not sex. The girls are in the pits because of the pressure to look a certain way, but they eat fast food, and they are under pressure to engage in gratuitous sex. They are morally misguided.”
These misguided people have a chance, Simmons said, if they look to the past for guidance. Angelou and Mandela knew a pit was not grave, and because of this, they would not be stopped from making it out alive.
“A pit has an opening,” she said. “You are down, but you are not buried. You can look to heaven, and God is always up to something.”
Sometimes, people hit more than one low point: Joseph reached his second pit when he was sold into slavery.
“Each pit you get out of prepares you for the next pit,” Simmons said. “Every life has multiple pits. You are a survivor, so don’t end up in the same pit.”
Joseph realized God had not forsaken him; he was still alive, and he ended up in Potiphar’s house. Potiphar saw the Lord was with Joseph and put him in charge of the household.
“You can make it if the Lord is with you,” Simmons said. “Whatever your lot in life, make sure the Lord goes with you.”
Even though Joseph was a slave, he never let misery consume his state of mind. He was making things better for himself by keeping steady. When it seems as though his life is on the upside, Joseph encounters pit No. 3: Mrs. Potiphar and jail.
When Mrs. Potiphar chased Joseph down, he held on to his integrity.
“As my kids say, ‘You can’t live raggedy and still expect God to co-sign your life,’ ” Simmons said. “Good character is a channel for the blessings of God.”
When Joseph was in prison, he used his gifts and interpreted dreams. He found favor with the warden, and someone recommended him to Pharaoh when he had a dream no one could interpret.
“Joseph told Pharaoh he could not interpret the dream,” Simmons said. “He said the Lord could interpret it and Joseph would tell him. Pharaoh saw that the Lord was with Joseph and believed what Joseph said. Living your divine purpose matters.”
Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of keeping the coming famine away from Egypt.
Life came full circle for Joseph when his brothers came to find food during the famine. They bowed down to him 22 years later, just as Joseph told them they would. But, Simmons said, when people make it out of the pit, they can’t think solely of themselves.
“Whenever you make it out of the pit it is not just about you; it is about family and community,” Simmons said. “Some scholars say that this story is about the covenant promise to Abraham, but what matters is that you are living out your divine purpose.”
She told a story about a young woman, Maria, who was the daughter of an itinerant horse trainer. Maria’s education was constantly interrupted, but at the end of high school, a teacher asked her to write an essay about her dream for her life.
Maria wrote about a 200-acre horse farm where she and her family could live. She received an F and was asked to stay after class.
The teacher told Maria she failed because her dream was unrealistic, and she needed to be more realistic to succeed. Maria could write another paper and the teacher would reconsider her grade.
Maria went home and talked with her parents, who told her it was her decision if she wanted to rewrite the paper, but the consequences would affect her life.
At the end of the week, Maria turned in the same paper with a note to the teacher that said, “I will take the F because I am keeping my dream.”
Fifteen years later, Maria received a letter from the school asking alumni for money. Maria wrote back, saying she was actually not an alumnae because she never graduated.
“If Miss Scott is still there, please tell her thank you for me,” Maria wrote. “She said my dream was unrealistic, and today, my family is enjoying life on a 200-acre horse ranch.”
Maria also knew something about pits, Simmons said.
“She knew that even a pit could not bury a God-given dream,” Simmons said. “What matters is living your God-given dream. That is a lesson from a pit. Amen.”
The Rev. Robert M. Franklin Jr. presided. Ron Cole-Turner, professor of ethics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and co-coordinator at the United Church of Christ Headquarters, read the Scripture. Jared Jacobsen, organist and worship coordinator, directed the Motet Choir. The choir sang “How Can I Keep from Singing?” with text by Anna Bartlett Warner, music by Robert Lowry and arranged by Z. Randall Stroope. The Samuel M. and Mary E. Hazlett Memorial Fund and the J. Everett Hall Chaplaincy support this week’s services.