Saturday, October 29, 2016

“God Meant It for Good” - September 25, 2016

Text: Genesis 37:3-11, 17-22, 26-34; 50:15-21

If you think about it, it is amazing that we gather together each week and consider scriptures written by people who lived in a completely different culture, with a pre-scientific worldview, two to three thousand years ago.  The way they lived was very different from us.  Housing was different, transportation was different, health care was different, retirement was different, family life was different, basic ideas about the nature of the world and the way the world worked were strikingly different.  And yet we turn to these writings week after week, seeking truth and meaning and seeking God.

But the things is, as different as these people may have been, we read stories – stories of real people, stories of real families, stories of real communities that know both struggles and joys, and as different as they were, we can see ourselves in these stories.  And we know that at some level, these are also our stores, and God speaks to us in the midst of this.

Last week we looked at Abraham and Sarah.  Though it seemed unlikely at the time, God told Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky – and God’s promise proved to be true.

Abraham and Sarah had a son named Isaac.  Isaac is not a part of our reading today, but some of the realities at play in the story can certainly be traced back to Isaac and his wife Rebecca.  As you may recall, they had twin sons named Jacob and Esau.  It would not be overstating it to say that the two sons had an intense sibling rivalry.  This was only encouraged by their parents, who each had a favorite.  Jacob was his mother’s favorite while Esau was his father’s.

Rebecca helped Jacob to cheat Esau out of both the blessing and the birthright that belonged to him as the oldest.  Jacob eventually fled out of fear of what Esau might do to him.  He went back to the old country and worked for his Uncle Laban, and eventually married his cousin Rachel – except that at the wedding, Laban pulled the old switcheroo and the woman under the veil, the woman whom he had married, was not Rachel but her sister Leah.  He worked for Laban another seven years for the right to marry Rachel.

Now Jacob is back home, he has made amends more or less with Esau, and he has many children.  His entire family history is one of favoritism and treachery and cheating and dysfunction, but Jacob, or Israel as he is known by now, has grown and learned along the way.  He was given the name Israel after wrestling with God.  But the thing is, while he has learned and grown, he hasn’t really changed all that much. 

Our scripture this morning begins, “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his children.”  Instantly there is a red flag.  We know that this is a problem.  We know that this is a really bad idea.

What the narrator does not tell us is that Joseph was the first child born to Rachel – the sister Jacob had wanted to marry in the first place and his favored wife.  (That’s another bad idea, but that is probably for another sermon.)

It is not simply that Jacob has a favorite child; he makes no pretense about it.  He gives Joseph a coat with long sleeves.  That is the Hebrew text.  For some reason, the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, has this as a coat of many colors.  Now you tell me: what sounds more appealing – Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat or Joseph and the Amazing Long-Sleeved Robe?  It’s really not much of a contest.

Clothing is important.  Clothing matters.  You may not be very particular about the way you dress and you may think that what a person wears really doesn’t make any difference.  And to an extent that is true.  On Sunday mornings here some wear shorts and some wear suits and ties, and it’s all fine.  It’s not about what we wear.

But the fact is, clothing can convey status.  I remember as a kid having some Sears Jeepers tennis shoes, and they were definitely not cool next to the kids who had Converse All-Stars.  What we wear can matter.
An awful lot of people in the ancient world owned only one coat, or robe.  If you wanted a new one, you couldn’t just run to Target or order one off of Amazon.  Every piece of fabric had to be woven by hand, and it was time consuming.  A person might spend months weaving fabric for a robe.  Clothing was a symbol of status, of importance, of wealth.

Whether it was a special long-sleeved robe or whether it was an Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – or maybe an Amazing Long-Sleeved Technicolor Dreamcoat – Jacob had given Joseph a robe that not only conveyed status, that not only made people take notice of how special Joseph must be, but that also rubbed it in to Joseph’s siblings every time they saw it.  Jacob did not even pretend to love his children equally.  And it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that there will be repercussions.

Joseph, for his part, is not embarrassed by the special attention; he seems to revel in it.  He has dreams of his own greatness and is only too happy to share these dreams with his brothers.  “I dreamed we were all binding sheaves in the field,” he says.  “My sheaf stood up and all of your sheaves bowed down to it.”  And then he told them another dream: “The sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”  Did I mention that Joseph had 11 brothers? 

Is Joseph arrogant, is he tone deaf, is he trolling his brothers, or is he just a teenager?  The answer is probably, “Yes.”  But this does not help family dynamics in this family that kind of had two strikes to start with.

Joseph’s brothers are out in the fields with the flocks, and Jacob sends Joseph out to them.  Knowing the way his brothers feel about him, you kind of have to question Jacob’s judgment at this point.  But then, if he were that aware of the results of his actions, he would no doubt have done a lot of things differently.

Joseph’s brothers can see him coming from a distance.  Maybe there is something to the coat of many colors possibility – that would stand out from a distance more than long sleeves.  Or, maybe it is just the way he walks, or maybe he is the only one who would be coming to see them out in the fields.  As he approaches, they vent their anger and hostility toward him.

They are so consumed with envy, with jealousy, with hatred that they would kill their own brother – even their younger brother they were supposed to take care of.  They want to kill him and thrown him in a pit and say that a wild animal got him.  But Reuben, the oldest brother, doesn’t want to do him harm.  “Let’s not shed his blood – let’s just throw him in the pit and leave him here,” he says.  He planned to come back and let him out later.  They listen to Reuben and throw Joseph in a pit.  Reuben wanders off apparently, and when some Midianite traders happen to pass by, Judah says that it would be better to sell him into slavery than to leave Joseph to die.  So that is what happens.  When Reuben returns to the scene, he is utterly distraught by this turn of events.  To explain it to their father, the brothers take Joseph’s robe, dip it in goat blood, and take it back to Jacob.  

Jacob surmises for himself that a wild animal got Joseph.  But it is interesting that his sons give Jacob back the gift he had given Joseph – with blood on it.  They are not just getting back at Joseph; they are also getting back at their father.

OK: this is a seriously messed-up family.  I guess one of the things that happen when you read stories like this in the Bible is that you can look at your own family and think, “Hey, maybe we’re not that bad.  Our family isn’t perfect, but at least we don’t plot murder and sell our siblings into slavery.”  We read this and our families seem pretty good by comparison. 

It is a wild story.  The coat may or may not be Technicolor but the characters and the story certainly are.  From Abraham and Sarah down through the generations – to Isaac and Rebecca, to Jacob and Leah and Rachel, to Joseph and his brothers – the promise has been that God will use these people as a blessing to others.  A blessing to others.  Right now, they are not even a blessing to each other, much less to the nations.  How will this ever happen?

Our second reading comes much later in the story.  In the intervening time, Joseph almost miraculously rises in Egypt, largely on his ability to interpret dreams, to become second in command in all the nation.  In a time of impending famine, he is in charge of all the grain in the country.  And when his brothers come to Egypt, desperate for food, they meet up again with their long-lost brother Joseph.  There is a reconciliation of sorts, but the brothers are still scared to death.  When Jacob dies, they figure that Joseph was just biding his time, just waiting until the old man was gone to get his revenge.  And so they fall down before him and beg for their lives.  They fall down before him, just like in those dreams that Joseph had as a kid.

But time and life have given Joseph perspective.  He tells his brothers, “You meant this for harm, but God meant it for good.”  In retrospect, Joseph can see that what had happened actually served to save his family.  Somehow, improbably, impossibly, Joseph is in charge of all the grain in the one place in the whole region that has any.  In the end, good came out of what was meant for evil.

This is not to say that God orchestrated the whole thing.  This is not to say that God led his brothers to want to kill Joseph.  This is to say that God has a way of working even in the midst of treachery and human sin to bring about good.  God is faithful even if we are not.

Now, if you look at this story and want to find a few practical applications, it’s not that hard.  I’m going to lay it out and just be real blunt about it, if you don’t mind.

#1 – Don’t play favorites.  It’s just a bad idea.  Now, I have to admit that I do have a favorite child.  But if you only have one child, that’s OK.  Or maybe another way of putting it is that they should all be your favorite child.

#2 – Don’t be a jerk.  You probably thought there would be something more profound when you came to church this morning, but this is one of the takeaways from the scripture.  Joseph was severely handicapped in this regard, because his father, Jacob, is maybe the biggest jerk in the Bible, and the apple did not fall far from the tree.  As a teenager, Joseph only thinks of himself, he rubs his favored status in the face of others, and surprise, surprise: the result is not pretty.  We have probably observed similar things.  Maybe we have lived it ourselves. 

#3 – Think things through before you do something stupid.  Again, it’s pretty simple.  Reuben was distraught over what they had done to Joseph.  As the years went on, everybody regretted their actions.  This altered life not just for Joseph, but for the entire family – the brothers carrying guilt and shame and regret, Jacob carrying the burden of loss and grief for many years.  A little foresight on the front end would have gone a long way.

I have a friend named Ken who has several nephews and other family members, all young adults, who live in a place where guns are plentiful.  Along with nearly all their friends and social group, they are almost always carrying a gun.  They are young, they are a little on the wild side, they tend to drink too much and get into arguments.  Now, conflicts are a part of life and disagreements are going to happen.  But when you compound that with alcohol and when everybody has a gun, bad things happen.  Nearly all of Ken’s male young adult family members in that area are in jail, they have been shot, or they are dead.  It’s tragic.  I wonder if Joseph and his brothers were kind of like that.

Thinking things through before doing something stupid applies not only to those who turn quickly to violence when conflict arises; it also applies to a culture that allows that to happen.  And lest we get sidetracked by a big societal issue, important as gun violence is, we all face those decisions and situations where thoughtfulness rather than an impulsive reaction would be really helpful.

#4 – Remember who you are.  Remember who you are.  God made a covenant with Abraham that his descendants would be like the stars in the sky and a blessing to the nations.  It was a covenant passed on generation by generation, a covenant God renewed with Jacob, who came to be called Israel.  Israel’s children knew that they were heirs to that promise. 

But to observe their behavior, you wouldn’t know that.  To see the pettiness and arrogance, to see the envy and jealousy, to see the treachery and violence in their hearts, you wouldn’t know that.

We need to remember who we are.  We are brothers and sisters in Christ.  We are Jesus’ hands and feet in this world.  We are children of God.  When time are difficult, when we feel down, when we feel alone, when we are discouraged or troubled or bewildered, it can be helpful to remember that we are God’s children.

And then, #5.  This is where the story ends.  Even if we fail miserably on numbers 1-4, even if we make a terrible mess of things, even when we forget who we are, God is there and God loves us.  Even in our world of dysfunction and violence and sin and evil and just plain meanness, God does not forget us and God does not abandon us.  Even when we are not faithful, God is always faithful.  Even in a world in which so much is meant for harm, God is always working for good.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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