Sunday, August 21, 2011

How We're Built

Genesis 37:2-11, 18-28

2 This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father's wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. 4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him. 5 Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6 He said to them, "Listen to this dream that I dreamed. 7 There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf." 8 His brothers said to him, "Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?" So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words. 9 He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, "Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me." 10 But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, "What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?" 11 So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19 They said to one another, "Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams." 21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, "Let us not take his life." 22 Reuben said to them, "Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him"--that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. 23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; 24 and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. 25 Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26 Then Judah said to his brothers, "What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh." And his brothers agreed. 28 When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

This Joseph story is fascinating. It is such a human story. It’s the story of every dysfunctional family - the story of every family, if we’re being honest. It’s the story of a bunch of almosts - people who are almost devils - people who are almost heroes.

We only get part of the story in this lectionary text. The full story of Joseph and his brothers encompasses the last thirteen or so chapters in Genesis. Interestingly, this text isn’t interrupted from other sources very much. Most scholars argue that the book of Genesis is made up of three sources: the Yahwist, the Elohist, and the Priestly. But this Joseph narrative, or novel, as it is sometimes called, is not a collection of these sources, nor does it have many interruptions from the Priestly, or Elohist sources. And some scholars even contend that this story comes from a source that is older than the Yahwist. It’s one long story, the longest continual story in all of Genesis. And an ancient one at that. So preaching on just part of the story has its challenges, and I encourage you all to crack open your Bibles and read the story in its entirety.

But there is a reason, I think, for us to focus on just one part of the story. This is the part of the story of Joseph that is all ugly. It’s all of the rising action with none of the conclusion. And the rising action continues even past our reading for today, complicating the plot and developing the characters all the way through the story’s arch. At this point in the story, there isn’t a single blameless person. No one is the hero here.

Jacob, the chosen father of the twelve tribes of Israel has manipulated his way into this birthright from the very beginning. In this part of the story, this chosen father of the Twelve Tribes of Israel spoils the child of his favorite wife, and doesn’t hide it from his other sons. He gives Joseph a long coat with sleeves, maybe multi-colored, but the Hebrew here is more accurately “sleeves.” It’s a coat made for a prince, a coat that would completely inhibit any physical work that needed to be done in the fields or at home.

And Joseph revels in his father’s treatment. He’s one of those stereotypical punk teenagers who knows all the answers and has it all figured out. He flaunts his dreams of future domination over his brothers, and has no problem tattling on his brothers when they step out of line.

And his brothers. His brothers are jealous bullies who beat up on Joseph, leave him for dead, sell him as a slave, and then lie to their father about it.

Even Reuben, the oldest, who sees the sin in all of this, who wants to save Joseph, doesn’t have the guts to do it.

And Judah restrains his brothers from killing Joseph, not because he cares for him, but because he knows that the bloodguilt that would result would haunt him and his family for the rest of their lives.

There isn’t any blameless person in this whole story:

But these are the people that God makes. This is you and me.

Find yourself in this story.

You could be a villain:

Are you Jacob, the one who has put his hopes on only one thing, neglecting your other responsibilities, blind to others who want and need your love? Blind to those who give you love?

Are you Joseph, maybe a little naive, flaunting your gifts and preaching your ideas at the expense of others?

Or are you one of the brothers, willing to sacrifice the life of another because you feel threatened by their potential?

You could be a victim:

Are you Jacob? Has the one thing you love most in the world been taken from you?

Are you Joseph? Have you been betrayed and hurt by those who you were supposed to trust the most?

Or are you one of the brothers, whose gifts have always seemed to be overlooked because someone else walks by with a sparkling coat and a flashy smile?

There isn’t a blameless person in this story. And there isn’t one person who is not a victim. Isn’t that like all of us?

Interestingly, God isn’t mentioned in this part of the story once. - Later, the narrator attributes some of the actions and outcomes to God, but the greatest reflection on God’s actions doesn’t come until the end of the Joseph narrative, and only in hindsight. It is after all the complications and actions of our protagonists, after all the deceit and corruption and pain has past, that God is finally given any credit for anything that has happened.

And yet, here it is, in our Bible. A story that somehow is supposed to point us towards God, or teach us something about God, and it doesn’t have God’s direct actions in it at all.

So the challenge is, can we see the work of God in the middle of the story, when things aren’t finished, when God seems absent? When the characters - even ourselves - are both villains and victims? Where is God when you feel like you’ve been thrown into a dry well? And when you feel guilty for throwing someone else into that well? Where is God when you’re in the middle of your story and there’s no evidence anywhere that God even cares? Where’s God when you’re in the middle of the storm?

Peter can do this, see God in the heart of the chaos. Sort of. He says in the middle of the storm, smack dab in the middle of Matthew’s Jesus narrative, in the midst of his fear and disbelief, “Hey, if it is You, in the middle of this crazy storm, in the middle of the sea, in the middle of all of this chaos, then I want to be with you.” And Jesus says, “c’mon.”

And when he forgets that Jesus is out there, when he sees the waves crashing all around him, when he feels like he is going to be swallowed up by all that’s around him, when he’s smack dab in the middle of that raging sea, that’s when he begins to sink. So even someone like Peter, who has Jesus right there, performing miracles right in front of him, even Peter still sinks.

So there’s Joseph, dumped in the cistern, sitting in that giant pit used to collect water for the dry season, and it’s empty. There is no water for the future. The land is dry. His brothers have abandoned him. You’re not going to last long exposed out there in the desert, alone. It’s a hopeless situation, and a prediction of how things will be in the land for a long time to come.

Both the Joseph narrative and the story of Peter on the water give us the opportunity to ask the hard questions. Where is God when the land is dry and your support system is gone? When the wind is against you? When you look for God but only see a ghost?

Where is God when you’re being sold out to insurance companies, and mortgage companies, and political systems that can’t seem to get their acts together in order to avoid a complete financial meltdown? Or when you’ve lost your job or your spouse or you’ve been the one to have left someone alone in the desert?

And yet...

Joseph dreams dreams he’s not “supposed” to dream. Crazy dreams that upend all of society’s expectations. Dreams that disrupt the balance. He’s the youngest; he’s not supposed to be the greatest. He’s supposed to get the dregs of his father’s inheritance, not become richer and more powerful than even his own father.

But in order to understand the impact of these dreams though, we need to rewind our psychology to a time before Freud, before Realism, before Modernity. Dreams in the time of the formation of the Hebrew Bible were more than just fantasies of the subconscious. Dreams were portents of the future, they came from God, and they had power.

Joseph predicts his rise to power. He predicts that his brothers and father and mother are all going to need him to save the day. He predicts that his life is going to be different from what it is now.

And we have that seed of those dreams throughout the rest of the story. It’s the promise that God won’t leave us, even when we’re in the pit, even when we’ve thrown someone else in the pit, even when we’ve cursed God and found that what we’ve loved has been torn to shreds. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s something. And the dreams don’t really come to fruition in the way that Joseph expects. The way that they happen is far more humbling, far more life-changing, and far more transformative than any of our characters realize at the time that Joseph reports them.

But the fact that there were dreams, that there is a promise, that is what Joseph and his brothers and Jacob have to hold on to - even when they think Joseph is dead or sold off as a slave. Even when they no longer believe in the dream. Even when they never believed the dream in the first place. The dream is still there.

Those with great faith aren’t those who are sure of themselves or of the presence of God, or are certain things will turn out ok in the end. Those with great faith are the ones who can sit in the pit, sink into the water, and still stretch out their hands to God, or maybe just think about stretching their hands, or even wish they had the strength to stretch out to God. Those who stretch out their hands to God may not even be sure that someone’s going to be there to grab it on the other end. They don’t know if God is going to make everything right again. If you shout down to them as they sit at the bottom of that well and ask them if they even believe in God, they may not even answer. It’s a faith so deep in their bones that they may not even know that it’s there.

It’s like a reflex - something you can’t control anymore because you’ve practiced it and practiced it. It’s a faith that runs so deep that if one day you began to question everything you thought you knew, if you started to think that your faith is just a hoax of incredible proportions, you’d still live it out anyway because that’s just how you’re built.

Like Mother Teresa, who, even though, at the end of her life, questioned everything that her life had been based on, she still got up in the morning and prayed to a God she questioned existed. The believing of what is truth vs. what is false, the modern idea of “facts” versus “lies” - even though these are important questions - isn’t the faith; the persistence is. The shouting out to God even when you doubt God’s existence - that’s the faith. The remembering that there was once a dream - maybe it came long ago, and maybe you only remember it in pieces and whispers - that’s the faith. That’s the something deep inside of Peter, deep down in his bones that reminds him to call out, to reach up, to grab a hand.

And that IS how we’re built.

We are made by the creator, God’s very self. We have the essence of who God is deep in our flesh. When we breathe, we are in communion with God. When we enjoy a great meal with good friends, we are enjoying it with God. When we are hungry, or lost, or when we’ve just thrown our brother into a dry cistern, God is there. This is the beautiful and terrifying thing about the incarnation.

‘Cause when we throw our brother down there, we realize we’ve thrown God down there too. And when we’re the ones down there, when we’re in despair, hungering and thirsting for a God who only seems silent and distant, God’s there, too.

That’s why we come to church, why we listen to these stories. We come to be reminded that we’re not alone. We come to be reminded that the dreams were dreamt, the histories happened, that the God whose presence was felt two thousand years ago, and even further back in history, can still be felt today. We are both villains and victims, but we’re dreamers, too. And just remembering this, just remembering that there was a dream once, even when we feel so far away from it now, even if we can’t believe what it claims, we have enough to hold on to, to stretch out for. God has built us to have faith, deep in our very bones.

May we always remember that that’s how we’re built.

Thanks be to God.

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