The United Churches August 13, 2017
Genesis 37: 1-28
This week I met a woman who told a story filled with heartbreak and strength. Jade’s mom left when she was four. She and her brother were left with an abusive stepdad. Child Protective Services got involved a number of times, but she and her brother were always returned home to suffer more abuse. When she was 13 she was kicked out of her home.. At 15 she started the process of emancipation and was emancipated on her 16th birthday. She took a six week class and started work as an in home caregiver. She worked for years as an in home care giver, with a dream to someday to start her own business. Nine years after starting as a caregiver, at the age of 25 she launched her own very successful caregiving business. Today her staff provides loving in home care for those in need. She had a dream, and though she was off the chart in adverse childhood experiences, she was able to see her dream to fulfillment.
Our character today from the book of Genesis is a dreamer. I imagine the reading from Genesis is a little confusing. It might help to know that Jacob and Israel are the same person. You might remember that Jacob wrestled with the angel all night long and then his name was changed to Israel. So, this story is probably a compilation of edited stories, where one writer calls him Jacob and the other writer calls him Israel. In any case, it’s Joseph’s dad. Joseph’s mom is Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. Rachel was the woman that Jacob loved. He worked for her father Laben for 7 years to have her as his wife and was surprised on the wedding night when he found that he was married to her sister Leah instead. He worked another 7 years for Laban, and married Rachel, but also had children with both of his wives’ maids as well. This is one of those complicated family stories, filled with messy relationships and family dysfunction. Jacob has 12 sons. Joseph and Benjamin share the same mother: Rachel. Joseph was his father’s favorite. One of the ways that we know this is because his father gives him a long robe with sleeves.
It is hard to understand in our culture where clothes are cheap and ubiquitous, how generous this gift is. Remember during this period, clothes were passed down and always reclaimed from dead bodies. Clothing was hard to come by. Further, as you heard in the story, Joseph the dreamer has two dreams, which in the interpretation of the dreams have him ruling over his elder brothers and even his parents. In the dreams, they are all bowing down to him. The beautiful coat, being dad’s favorite, tattling on the older brothers and the dreams he shared did not make him at all beloved by his brothers. In fact, the text says that “they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
The whole rest of this reading is how they get rid of him after he has been once again sent out by his father to check on them. First, they want to kill him, but Reuben talks them out of that. He figured that he could sneak back later and rescue Joseph from the pit and return him home. He had his own issues with their father and it would help him to do this good deed. The brothers remove Joseph’s beautiful robe and toss him into a pit.
While they are having lunch, a band of Ishmaelite’s are coming down the road on this trading route and Judah puts forth the idea of selling Joseph to them, instead of leaving him in the pit. And that is just what they do. Joseph is on his way to Egypt as a slave. Many of you know how this story ends, and the rest of you can find out next week. (Or, you can read on in Genesis.)
For now, let’s just stay with our dreamer who has now found himself in this impossible spot. It reminds me of the story that I opened with, Jade’s story. She had some dreams for herself, but must have felt like things were impossible when she was kicked out at 13.
What character in the story do you identify with? Do you identify with Jacob/Israel? The father who loves one child perhaps a bit more than the others? A dad who is trying to get through the day as best he can making sure the family business stays afloat? How about the brothers? They are easy to identify with. They are hard working, moving the animals from pasture to pasture, putting up with their dad’s complicated relationships with his wives and concubines, angry that their little brother is favored. Do you identify with Joseph the dreamer? Do you have dreams for yourself? Are they dreams of greatness? What if they were?
I sometimes fear that I am the Joseph character in the story. I have always had dreams. They never involved my siblings and my parents bowing down to me, but I have always wanted to do big things. About 30 years ago, on one of those occasions when the world was predicted to end, Tim and I decided to meet this madness with a party. We hosted a “Come as you want to go” party. The idea was: what do you want to be, or what do you want to be doing when the world blows up? One couple came wrapped in a sheet together. Another came with a hook affixed to the top of a helmet labeled “heaven hook.” I guessed that they wanted to make sure they were scooped up to heaven. I wore a suit, with a nametag that said Dr. Tammy, carrying a book that I had written. It took many years, after my children were raised to enter that Doctor of Ministry program and write that dissertation, but that dream was fulfilled. That was a selfish dream. Most of my big dreams have to do with making the world a better place.
What about your dreams? What do you dream of?
I think that the clearest way for all of us to understand this dream stuff is to remember again the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he spoke on the National Mall in August of 1963 and as part of his speech said these words : I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.
That my friends, is setting out a dream. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther king Jr. gave his life to and for this dream. His life inspired many others to carry on his dream. I don’t know how far you think the needle has moved on the issue of race. I believe it has moved but the violence carried out by the white nationalists and white supremacists yesterday in Charlottesville, Virginia both breaks our hearts and reminds us that we still have so much work to do. The local UCC pastor in Charlottesville, the Rev. Seth Wispelwey said: “I think in a Southern city, Southern town, white supremacy is woven into the American DNA. There’s a lot of unreconciled history that has gone unchallenged.” How do we keep believing in the dream?
Our dreams are achieved with faith. I can’t imagine what Jade could see when she was 13 years old, with nowhere to go. I can’t imagine what Joseph could see when he was tied to the back of a camel on his way to slavery in Egypt. I can’t imagine what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King could see from inside the Birmingham jail. But each one had faith. Dr. King said: “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
Because, despite everything that we can see, faith teaches us that God is at work. God is at work in the midst of our human greed, pride, selfishness, favoritism, and jealousy. God is at work in the midst of our suffering. God is working around all of that to find a way toward reconciliation. God is working for the reconciliation of the human and global family. Sometimes we cannot see what God is doing.
We have to keep the faith, moving step by step forward doing the right thing with compassion and mercy. We keep dreaming the dream of peace in our world, even now with the leaders of North Korea and the United States breathing threats against the other. We keep dreaming our dreams, believing that God is at work, taking our own steps in faith.
I have a big dream for this congregation. My dream is that we will be a place of peace and welcome, of healing and wholeness…a place where people are rejuvenated in their faith and hope so that they can bring light to the world. A place where people keep working together for a just world for all.