— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ 10th Sunday after Pentecost ~~~
Genesis 37:1-28; 50:20
The patriarchs and matriarchs of our faith tradition showed amazing courage and faith following a divinely inspired dream. These men and women could not see to the end of their journeys, but they ventured forth with a sense of God’s call and presence in their lives. They took leaps of faith and landed in the unfolding of God’s plan for the blessing of all humankind.
These same matriarchs and patriarchs were fallible. Their families were dysfunctional to point of creating generational divides. The sins of parents were often repeated by their children who repeated the sins with their children and on and on the dysfunction went. Such is the case with the story of Joseph and his brothers. Jacob showed partiality toward his son Joseph at the expense of his older sons, and they allowed their jealousy of Joseph to manifest in violence.
The good news of all these stories in Genesis is that God stayed active and continued to work God’s purposes out.
Listen now for the Word of God in Genesis…
Jacob lived in the land of Canaan where his father was an immigrant. This is the account of Jacob’s descendants. Joseph was 17 years old and tended the flock with his brothers. While he was helping the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives, Joseph told their father unflattering things about them. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons because he was born when Jacob was old. Jacob had made for him a long robe. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him and couldn’t even talk nicely to him.
Joseph had a dream and told it to his brothers, which made them hate him even more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had. When we were binding stalks of grain in the field, my stalk got up and stood upright, while your stalks gathered around it and bowed down to my stalk.”
His brothers said to him, “Will you really be our king and rule over us?” So they hated him even more because of the dreams he told them.
Then Joseph had another dream and described it to his brothers: “I’ve just dreamed again, and this time the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”
When he described it to his father and brothers, his father scolded him and said to him, “What kind of dreams have you dreamed? Am I and your mother and your brothers supposed to come and bow down to the ground in front of you?” His brothers were jealous of him, but his father took careful note of the matter.
Joseph’s brothers went to tend their father’s flocks near Shechem. Israel said to Joseph, “Aren’t your brothers tending the sheep near Shechem? Come, I’ll send you to them.” And he said, “I’m ready.” Jacob said to him, “Go! Find out how your brothers are and how the flock is, and report back to me.”
So Jacob sent him from the Hebron Valley. When he approached Shechem, a man found him wandering in the field and asked him, “What are you looking for?”
Joseph said, “I’m looking for my brothers. Tell me, where are they tending the sheep?”
The man said, “They left here. I heard them saying, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.’” so Joseph went after his brothers and found them in Dothan.
They saw Joseph in the distance before he got close to them, and they plotted to kill him. The brothers said to each other, “Here comes the big dreamer. Come on now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of the cisterns, and we’ll say a wild animal devoured him. Then we will see what becomes of his dreams!”
When Reuben heard what they said, he saved him from them, telling them, “Let’s not take his life.” Reuben said to them, “Don’t spill his blood! Throw him into this desert cistern, but don’t lay a hand on him.” He intended to save Joseph from them and take him back to his father.
When Joseph reached his brothers, they stripped off Joseph’s long robe, took him and threw him into the cistern, an empty cistern with no water in it. When they sat down to eat, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with camels carrying sweet resin, medicinal resin, and fragrant resin on their way down to Egypt. Judah said to his brothers, “What do we gain if we kill our brother and hide his blood? Come on, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites. Let’s not harm him because he’s our brother; he’s family.” His brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they pulled Joseph up out of the cistern. They sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver, and they brought Joseph to Egypt.
Of course the story continues… Joseph was sold to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s chief officer and Joseph was given a special place of honor in the family, but he was accused of attacking Potiphar’s wife and sent to prison. In prison he fared well again and was put in charge of the other prisoners. He accurately interpreted the dreams of a wine steward and a baker and later he was called upon to interpret two dreams of the Pharaoh. Joseph was made to be in the second in command for all of Egypt and his interpretation of the Pharaoh’s dream and subsequent action taken by the Pharaoh to store of grain in abundance allowed many to survive a great famine.
Indeed, as his dream had indicated, his brothers and eventually his father bow before Joseph and then he revealed himself to them and all was forgiven. Joseph says to his brothers – You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it, in order to save the lives of many people, just as (God) is doing today (Genesis 50:20).
We are in dangerous territory with this sermon!
We will tread on a subject that is usually excluded
from polite conversation.
We have all been taught to stay away from the big three –
politics, sex, and religion
when engaging in conversations with our neighbors.
Today we will go into one of these three taboos
which has divided folks for generations.
I am not talking about politics. Today’s sermon is not a political one…completely… but we must acknowledge that the Scripture is not shy about addressing politics. Since the time of slavery we southerners have a tendency to divide the spiritual from the political, but the Scripture makes no such division. There’s Nathan confronting King David about his sins. There’s the prophets speaking to the powers that be saying …Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. There’s Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgement where the nations are judged by how the hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, imprisoned were treated. But we don’t have to go that far in the Scripture to get to the politics playing a part of the story and the call of God’s faithful ones.
This story of Joseph and his relationship with the Pharaoh, the world’s most powerful man at the time, is clearly a story of politics. The known world was saved by the prudent action of a government. The Pharaoh you will remember stored away the abundance of seven good years and in this action the Egyptians were able to provide food for their country and the peoples of nations around Egypt. This is a clear example in Scripture of government being effectively used to provide massive help in times of need, scarcity…pandemic.
But hold on – those of you on the right side of the political spectrum – there is something here for the limited-government crowd as well. The end of the Joseph story was that eventually a Pharaoh arose who did not remember Joseph and that Pharaoh used government, used his power, to begin to exterminate the Hebrew people out of fear of their number in the country. Government and political power in this instance was used to oppress, to eliminate political enemies and threats. In this instance government had too much power and control over the everyday lives of the citizens of that nation.
The challenge of politics and governments was and is to strike the balance between providing that which can only come from an establish way of governing diverse people and interests and that which should be left to individuals and smaller communities. The challenge for a healthy government has always been to limit the concentration of power such that the people of a nation are not subject to the whims, ignorance, and greed, narcissism of despotic leaders. There always needs to be checks and balances or else we fall into the clutches of one who rises to power with no morals and no true commitment to the common good. In our nation we have a separation of powers between the three branches of government because human beings are sinful and will abuse unchecked authority. Our founding fathers were well aware of this tendency in the human heart. We do not have a king in the United States of America because, as we have learned repeatedly in history, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
But this sermon is not about politics…
This sermon is not about the second taboo of polite conversation either; this sermon is not about sex or marriage. We need to acknowledge, however, that the Bible has various ways of addressing such matters. There is not exactly a consistent message about these things, no matter what those who would trumpet a Biblical morality on sex and marriage might say. Most of the Scripture accepts as normal and righteous a man having more than one wife and a man have intimate relationships with slave women. We need look no further than the story before us today… Jacob had at least two wives and he had children with Bilhah and Zilpah, handmaids to Leah and Rachel, and there is not a word in the story that condemns this family structure.
And I have to say in terms of models of behavior for family relationships, the majority of the examples we have about family life in Scripture teach us by the negative examples they provide. Parents showing favoritism, children acting out of jealousy toward one another, duplicitous behavior toward other members of the clan.
There is much here and in the rest of Scripture to talk about with regards to sex and family structures, but this sermon is not about sex, marriage, or family life.
This sermon is about the last of the big three taboos among polite conversation; this sermon, surprise, surprise is about religion. To state it more directly this sermon is about a matter of religion that is impossible to prove but comforting and empowering to embrace. I speak now of God’s providential care. Providence is the idea that God is working God’s purposes out in the world.
To say that a person believes in God’s providential care for the world and for each one of us is to take a leap of faith. It is easy to take that leap when good things are happening in our lives and in our world; it is easy in the good times to believe that God is in control. To say, however, in the midst of grief, darkness, broken-ness, famine, failed governments, oppression, rejections, broken families, broken bodies, unchecked viruses … to say even in the deep of a dry well that God is in control, well, then, we are in more difficult faith territory.
It is not an oversimplification to say that the entirety of the Joseph saga had been leading to that verse I read at the end of the summary of the story. Joseph said to his brothers – You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it, in order to save the lives of many people, just as (God) is doing today (Genesis 50:20). This story, the story of Joseph, is a proclamation that God was and is somehow working God’s purposes out even when we can hardly see it.
The danger here, I believe, is to think that God is causing bad things to happen in order to bring good things out. That seems a step too far. I suspect God would much rather have things brought into harmony by the good and decent work of people who know the importance of love, compassion, kindness, and justice in the unfolding of God’s plans for God’s creation. So, I do not accept radical predestination – meaning, everything that happens is God’s doing. Rather, I accept that God has given all of us freedom to make decisions to be in line with God’s purposes or not. The final outcome, however, the ultimate destination is the land of redemption and to that shore we will all one day arrive.
So, this story and this sermon invite us to take some time and contemplate if we are able and willing to make the leap of faith and to trust that God is alive and working in the direction of a time when all shall be well and all shall be brought into God’s fullness of love.
There is a Midrash – a contemplation by the ancient rabbis – about Joseph on his way to back from his father’s funeral. The rabbis said:
Coming back from his father’s funeral, Joseph made a detour and visited the site where long ago he touched the bottom of the abyss; for a long time he stood at the well’s edge and looked into the darkness. The brothers assumed that he did this to remind them of their misdeeds, but in truth he wanted to recall his past to himself so as better to express his gratitude to God; he was thankful for what he had been allowed to experience up to that moment (Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends by Elie Wiesel, pages 171-172).
It is a healing balm to believe God
can turn evil events and intentions
into that which can bring life and wholeness to many people.
It is a comfort and a source of courage
to open our minds and hearts
to the belief that God remains at work in this world
and that we can be a part of that work.
It is a source of hope and light
to trust that even though the evil seems oft so strong
God is ruler yet.
Maybe you can believe it?
It is a leap. Take it. Amen.