Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
This illustration is from Illustrated Children's Ministry. Our church gave each student and teacher present one of these tags to help them remember that they are beloved and that they can do important things as they return to school this week. You can find the tags here: https://www.illustratedchildrensministry.com/
*This Sunday was our Blessing of the Backpacks. Before the sermon, all students and teachers were invited to come up to receive a special blessing before the school year began this week. The whole church then offered the following blessing, originally written by the Rev. Quinn Caldwell, to the students:
O, God, bless these backpacks.
Make them strong for their job
of helping our children to learn.
May their straps never break,
Their padding never give out,
Their zippers never jam.
May they never be forgotten in strange places,
May the burdens in them be light,
And may the bodies that bear them be strong,
and growing, and whole,
and blessed, ever blessed, by your love.
In the name of the great Teacher
at whose knee we are all students, Amen.
One Body, Many Parts: Romans 12:1-8
Our reading from Romans today was written by a man named Paul, one of the people most responsible with spreading Jesus' teaching across the ancient world. Many of the books in the part of the Bible called the New Testament were written by him, or credited to him (there some that he didn't write but that people thought he wrote). Even though Paul never met Jesus when Jesus was alive, he was deeply moved by his teachings and felt as though Jesus' spirit had changed him for the better. He moved all over the ancient Roman empire, working and teaching about Jesus, starting churches and empowering them to continue after he moved on. He got arrested a couple times, too, often charged with disturbing the peace with his preaching. He found a way to continue, though, and often wrote letters to, and received letters from, the churches he founded to help them be better Christians. This book Romans was a letter to the church in Rome.
One thing about all these different letters that I think is really interesting is that, sometimes, even though the churches may have been really far from each other, even though they may be in different parts of the Empire, they have some of the same problems and questions. And, even more interesting, our churches, and the people in our churches, today also have some of the same problems and questions. Have you ever been a group of people that don't get along? Have you ever gotten mad at someone who you have to spend time with? Have you ever had to figure out how to get along with someone at church? The Good News is that so did the Romans and the Corinthians and the Galatians. Paul gave them some sound advice on how to be a church, that is, be a group of people who reflects the love and lessons of Jesus Christ.
One of my favorite ways that Paul tried to help people understand how to work together as a church was to think of themselves different parts of one body. He used this metaphor in today's reading and in another part of the Bible that we call 1st Corinthians. He explains it a little more fully in 1st Corinthians, so I'd like to share a little of that letter because I think it's helpful. Paul asked the reader to think about all the parts of a person's body. Answer these questions in your own mind:
When Paul talked to the Romans, he also told them about he thought the church was like a body. He said that God wants us to find a way to serve God by working together as a body works together to move. He said that it's important for us to not imagine the things that we each can do as an individual are more important or better than things the other members of our body can do. We must remember that we need all the different things that each one of us can do in order to be the church. Some of us will be teachers and some of us will be compassionate hosts and some of us will preach, and some of us will teach everyone how to share (and we'll all probably do a little bit of each one of these things). We really need to appreciate all the gifts each one of us brings. We need to love each other, be excited about our service together, be hopeful and empathetic when someone suffers, and we need to pray together. All of those things make our body stronger.
Since school will be starting soon for the students and teachers and everyone who works at the school, I've been thinking about how schools are kind of like bodies, too. Everyone has things they are supposed to do, that they need to do together, in order for school to work right. One of my friend's churches shared a list of things that are important to do at school so that school works well like a body. I think it sounds a little like something Paul would say to people at church. Here's some things that they said that the student part of the body could do to help the whole body:
Remember how Paul said there were somethings that we all need to do in church to work as a body? He said, we need to love each other, be excited about our service together, be hopeful and empathetic when someone suffers, and we need to pray for each other. I think loving each other, being hopeful and excited together, and trying hard to understand other people's feelings are probably important for school, too. Maybe we get to practice these things at both at church and at school. The more we get to practice, the better we can follow Jesus. I bet we can pray for the people we go to school with, too: the students, the teachers, the people who serve lunch, the janitors, the secretaries, and security guards. Everyone has a part to play in the body, be it at school or at church. For all of your returning to school soon, we pray that you will get many chances to be a helpful part of your school body. You make the body stronger just because you are a part of it.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Frank L. Crouch- http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3375
Alyce McKenzie: http://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/many-members-alyce-mckenzie-08-18-2014
Many thanks to the Congregational Church UCC in Exeter, NH for your excellent list of how students can be blessings to their school bodies.
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, ‘Send everyone away from me.’ So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?’ But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come closer to me.’ And they came closer. He said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither ploughing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, “Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.” And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honoured in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.’ Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
Making A Way In Egypt- Genesis 45:1-15
Oh, these descendants of Abraham and Sarah know how to fight, don't they? Sarah kicked Hagar and Ishmael to the curb in order to secure a blessing for Isaac. Then, Isaac's boys, Jacob and Esau, continued the family tradition. Jacob was willing to trick his dad and his brother to secure his own blessing from God. Esau was enraged about this and planned to kill his brother. Jacob had to go into exile in order to save his own life, though he would eventually return to Canaan. Even after he got back to his homeland in Canaan, Jacob's family still wasn't settled. His own sons began to fight amongst themselves. You see, Jacob never learned not to show favoritism to family members, and he regularly made it clear that he loved Joseph the most. Joseph's brothers did not take this well, and eventually planned to kill him. Hm. That's sounds familiar to me. Does it sound familiar to you? Do you hear how some patterns in families repeat themselves generation after generation unless someone has the courage to stop it? Do you hear how favoritism, unjust cultural dynamics, scarcity thinking, and jealousy can so easily develop into violence?
Fortunately, fighting is not the only legacy of this family. As we have journeyed through these three generations, we have observed a people in the family develop a deep and mostly unwavering faith in God. We have watched a trickster learn patience and seen brave women build new lives for themselves in the wilderness and far from home. And, this family gives us some of the most beautiful scenes of reconciliation and restoration in the whole Bible. It was only a few weeks ago that we read of Esau and Jacob's tearful reunion. Something happened in twenty years that Jacob was away that softened Esau's anger with his brother. Honestly, I don't think it was all the livestock that Jacob sent him. Esau wept too much and held him too hard to have simply had his forgiveness purchased. It's too bad we don't have Esau's side of the story to hear what inspired his change of heart.
Knowing the story of Jacob and Esau, you might wonder if Joseph will be able to reconcile with his brothers. If Esau can forgive Jacob, then maybe Joseph can forgive the brothers who sold him into slavery (a fate that could have easily led to his death). It is not at all clear that he would be able to when he first sees them after many years in Egypt. Let me tell you a little about what has happened in the last several years of Joseph's life. After years in slavery, years that included imprisonment but also great success as a manager of the homes of the people who owned him, Joseph had developed a reputation as one who could interpret dreams. He had helpfully advised the pharaoh on how to plan for a famine that was foretold in one of the pharaoh's dreams. The pharaoh has such faith in him that he appoints him to a place of great honor and prominence in his court. He gave him an Egyptian name and an Egyptian wife.
When the terrible famine hit, Joseph had made sure that there was plenty of grain stored. People would end up spending all their money, selling all of their land, and, eventually, selling their own bodies into slavery in order to have enough to eat. He kept people alive and greatly increased the Pharoah's holdings, but at great cost to the people of Egypt and the surrounding countries who came to him for food. Perhaps he was getting revenge upon the people who enslaved him... becoming more successful than them and gaining more power than them. Or, maybe he was just using his good luck and great skill to replicate the unjust system he was sold into. He demonstrated a keen ability to assimilate, but little will to try to make their political system more just. His assimilation allowed him the power to survive and maybe even the power to keep people alive (if under his thumb), but, would it allow him the power to forgive?
Joseph once had a dream where his brothers' eleven sheaves of grain bowed to his one sheaf and a second dream where the sun, moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to him. I wonder if he recalled those dreams when he found ten of his brothers bowing before him with their faces on the ground, hoping that the Pharoah's representative would be willing to sell them enough grain so they themselves could survive. These brothers had no idea who he was, and certainly would never have imagined that their enslaved brother could have ended up a primary advisor to the Pharoah. When Joseph accused them of being spies and require them to bring their youngest brother Benjamin to him to prove their innocence, they have no idea that these actions could be rooted in a powerful man's need for vengance, though they did wonder if God might have been punishing them for what they had done.
Reuben, who had once tried to save his brother, also thought God was holding them accountable for their actions. Joseph wept when he heard his brother's words. Maybe he never knew that one of them had tried to save him. He then heard his other brothers express great fear, but, hearing their fear and Reuben's regrets was not enough to soften Joseph. He held Simeon as collateral until they are willing to bring back Benjamin, the youngest brother. Joseph also has their money, the money that they were supposed to use to pay for the grain, slipped back in their bags. This isn't meant to be a refund. I think it is done to make it look like they cheated the Pharoah. Their father, Jacob, is bereft at the idea of sending Benjamin back, remembering the loss of Joseph and assuming that Simeon has been killed, but, they run out of food again. Egypt, and an angry Joseph, are their only options for salvation.
Carrying with them double the money and their brother Benjamin, the brothers go back to Egypt. Joseph surprises them by claiming to have received the first payment and bringing Simeon to them, very much alive and in one piece. When Joseph, still unrecognized by his brothers, sees Benjamin, he nearly weeps in front of them. He hid his tears away in another room. When he sent them away with food the next morning, he had their money replaced again, along with his own silver cup in Benjamin's bag. Joseph then directed his steward to accuse them of being thieves. Certain that none of them had taken it, they promise the steward that he could keep any man whom he found carrying the cup. They tore at their clothes in mourning when they realized Benjamin had the cup.
So far, in this story, there is no Jacob and Esau-like reconciliation, only Joseph using his power to make his brothers suffer. They knew that he had the power to do much worse. Oh, and they still didn't know who he was. Judah, the brother who had originally suggested selling Joseph, stepped forward in one last ditch effort to save them. He explained to this man whom he thinks is a stranger just how much their father loves them, and loves especially Benjamin. He explained how this son and another, one who has died, were the only sons from Rachel and Jacob's relationship. He explained that grief over Joseph's death had already nearly killed his father. He said that his father will blame him, Judah, for the rest of his life if they don't bring Benjamin back. He offered to stay in his place, giving his own life to save the life of a beloved brother.
Judah had been the one who suggested selling Joseph into slavery, an action that could have likely led to Joseph's death. His legacy up to this point was violence. And, yet, here he is, stepping forward to save his brother and to honor his father. Judah demonstrates a care for the other that Joseph must have wished he could have shared with him. This is what finally softens Joseph. This is what stops the spiral to revenge. Joseph sent his Egyptians away, and stood to face his brothers, saying who he really is, asking after their father, and weeping. His brothers are initially terrified that this news certainly spelled doom for them, but, it didn't.
Joseph explained that he felt that God had turned what they intended for evil into good. Though God had never said this to Joseph, Joseph had begun to feel that God had placed him at that exact place for a purpose. In this case, the purpose was to save his family and all of his nation. He offered his brothers and the rest of the family a level of mercy that would surprise many people. He invited all of them to come to Egypt and live under his care. He told them to make sure to tell his father that he was alive and well respected. Then, he and all of his brothers wept in each other's arms.
Here's the questions I'm left with after reading this story, with the world's news in mind: In a world where entrenched unjust systems continue to breed violence, in a world where assimilation can still be the easiest way to survive but often asks us to reproduce oppressive systems to remain in power, in a world where plenty of Judah's haven't yet developed the courage to change for the better, where do we find reconciliation? How can we help create spaces for aggrieved parties to hold the ones who have harmed them accountable without resorting to revenge? What is the church's role in modeling and facilitating forgiveness? Reconciliation is possible. We just have to, with God's help, build a place where it can happen.
On my drive into church this morning, I heard one story that seemed like a space for reconciliation that we might learn from. There is a pastor named Robert Lee who lives in North Carolina. Yes, he is named after that Robert E. Lee, the former general of the Confederate States of America. He is a descendant, a nephew many times removed, of him. Rev. Lee has recently spoken out about his family legacy, stating clearly that he believes his ancestor fought on the wrong side of history and monuments to him should be taken down because they have become props for white supremacy. The part of the story (I will include the link to the report at the end of this sermon) that most cost my attention was that he had been emailed by a woman who was a descendant of the people whom General Lee owned. She shared that it meant so much to her that a descendant of the people who once owned her family was speaking out against racism so forcefully. Now, that sounds an awful lot like reconciliation to me. May we be inspired by their witness.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Beth L. Tanner: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3368
Wil Gafney: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1026
Jane Rachel Litman: http://www.beliefnet.com/faiths/2001/01/joseph-comes-out.aspx?
Kimberly Dawn Russaw: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kimberly-d-russaw/acknowledging-our-divine-positioning_b_5668016.html
John Holbert: http://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/revenge-is-sweet-john-holbert-08-11-2014.html
Another story about a complex reconciliation by Eugene L. Pogany: http://www.aril.org/pogany.html
The story about Rev. Lee and his family's legacy: http://www.npr.org/2017/08/20/544817830/robert-e-lee-s-descendant-on-confederate-statues?utm_campaign=storyshare&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. 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. 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.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.
Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, ‘Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.’ He answered, ‘Here I am.’ So he said to him, ‘Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.’ So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.
He came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, ‘What are you seeking?’ ‘I am seeking my brothers,’ he said; ‘tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.’ The man said, ‘They have gone away, for I heard them say, “Let us go to Dothan.” ’ So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer. 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.’ But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, ‘Let us not take his life.’ 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.So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
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. Then Judah said to his brothers, ‘What profit is there if we kill our brother and conceal his blood?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. 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.
*Before you read this sermon, I invited you to take a moment to pray for the families of Heather Heyer, who was a counter-protestor killed by white supremacists this week, and Lt. H.J. Cullen and Trooper-Pilo Berke M. M. Bates, two Viriginia State Police Officers who died in a helicopter accident while they were monitoring the protests, as well as the many people injured in the violence.
Here Comes The Dreamer: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Much of the news this week seems dreadfully familiar. One of my friends who is a professor in West Virginia posted a sign she saw on campus. The sign was afixed to a set of railings for the steps of a basement entrance to one of the buildings. The sign said, "Coming Soon: Fallout Shelter." Reminding me of news coverage before the fall of the Berlin Wall, I repeatedly saw headlines that were some version of "what to do in case of a nuclear attack." I saw some Christian leaders claim that God gives our president to right to use nuclear weapons, a stance Christians have taken before. I'm pretty sure they were wrong about it the first time, too. I read reminders from people who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis about just how scary it was then to be on the brink of nuclear war, and how they had hoped they'd never live to feel that kind of fear again.
History repeated itself again on Friday night and Saturday monring. Reports that seemed right out of Civil Rights era marches and protests came alive on my television and across my social media accounts. Christians and non-Christians alike were gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia to provide a counter-rally to a white supremacist gathering that hoped to take over the city on Saturday. Friday night, on Facebook, I watched part of an interfaith worship service in an Episcopal church where hundreds of people prayed, sang, and spoke together, preparing themselves to disrupt the white supremacist gathering on Saturday morning. They sang, "Oh, Freedom, oh Freedom, Oh Freedom over me... and before I'd be a slave, I'd be a buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord and be free." Then, on Saturday, as armed white supremacist militia members began to line the streets, the counter-protestors (Christian pastors, Jewish rabbis, regular people just doing what was right) stood in front of them and linked arms, singing, "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine." Everything I saw looked like it was straight out of a history book, but it is happening right now.
The white supremacists, a terrible mix of supposedly old-fashioned racists like the Klan and various neo-Nazi groups, joined with other white supremacist people in polo shirts and khakis to first surround the church on Friday night, in order to intimidate the people worshiping inside, then surround and attack a small and brave group of college students who were counter-protesting. On Saturday, they marched through the city, chanting "We won't be replaced" and the Nazi slogan "Blood and soil." They yelled other things, too, epithets and slurs that I won't repeat from this pulpit. Hateful words that made it clear who they want to frighten: black and brown people, immigrants, LGBT people, Jews, Muslims, white people who believe that diversity is a gift and that all people are made in God's image. They've made it clear what they want to do: "take back" the county from the people whom they hate. And, it some cases, get rid of those types of people by any means necessary. White supremacists are planning another rally like this in Boston next Saturday, in College Station, Texas on September 11th, and today Washington (Since the writing of this sermon, the rally in Texas appears to have been cancelled).
For many people watching the news, this news all seemed so mid-century... like something we should have gotten over 60 years ago. And, yet, here we are. Old sins, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, still living, gaining new life, in fact, in the anonymity of the internet and the callousness of our current political discourse. Our scripture felt familiar, too, as I read it, almost as familiar as those news stories that crossed my screens (though I hesitate to make too many connections to ancient Jewish scripture and white supremacists). As I read from Genesis, I saw that once again, like several generations before, a family is torn apart because of old sins never quite addressed. Jacob, also called Israel, whose own life prospects were once curtailed because of familial favoritism, had not learned to avoid the same pitfalls as his father and grandfather before him. First favoring his wife Rachel, then favoring his son Joseph, one of Rachel's boys, over his other sons, Jacob helped create a family system where violence and jealousy easily took root. His other sons grew resentful, taking their frustration out not on their father, who made the decision to demonstrate his favoritism, but on Joseph.
It doesn't help that Joseph was quick to tell their father when they do something wrong. It also doesn't help that Joseph had vivid dreams that seem to show him replacing his brothers as the presumed ruler of the family, and gaining dominion over them. The brothers, who had bought into the idea that they should rule because they were older, who are threatened by their father's love for Joseph and imagine that they will lose material goods because of Joseph and Jacob's relationship, who are annoyed at Joseph's adolescent dreaming, became willing to resort to violence against him to make themselves feel better. They decide he is the problem (not their father who owed them all love, not the cultural system that they were all a part of that valued elder sons over younger sons and daughters). The sins of the parents and grandparents had deep roots. In this story, we see just how far those roots extend. New violence erupts out of old sins and a young man is sacrificed at the altar of his brothers' fragility. While he is not murdered, he is sold away into slavery, and his father is told he has died in an accident, ensuring that the man will not go looking for him.
White supremacy is not new. Nor is jealousy. Nor is favoritism. These sins are old, so old that you'd think we would have learned to do better by now. But, new Josephs, dreamers sacrificed by the fearful, angry, and threatened, get knocked down every day. Every day, black folks, LGBT folks, religious minorities, and immigrants live with major acts of terror, like cars ramming through peaceful protest lines, and more common assaults to the soul... fearful strangers holding their purses tighter when they meet them on the street, questions about they are "really from" and assumptions that they can't be "real Americans" because of the color of their skin or the accent with which they speak. We were reminded yesterday by herds of young white men and women, shouting "We won't be replaced," that there are plenty of people who are willing to fight, and kill, because of what they assume they are owed due to the accident of their birth.
Now, Charlottesville may seem pretty far away, but the Klan has leafletted four different towns in our area in the last 6 months. Nazi symbols have been painted in parks and along the interstate in Waterville. Synagogues in Portland have been threatened. Muslim women in hijab and Iraqi men in traditional dress have been harassed in the streets and in their places of business in Auburn and Augusta. People who sit next to us in restaurants and hair salons share anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, and anti-black sentiments with a level of entitlement and pride that has only increased in the last year. Racism and fear aren't far away from us. They're right here, sometimes right inside of us right now. Now, we are called respond faithfully as followers of Christ to finally put an end to these old sins that keep us from living fully into the vision of love that God calls us to.
So, what do we do? First, we pray, and maybe sing a little. That's what Jesus did to help himself be brave. That's what the counter-protestors did Friday night. That's what we can do, too. But, we don't stop at the singing and praying. We educate ourselves, we offer compassion, we work with our neighbors, and we organize with others to make sure that white supremacists know that their hateful rhetoric has no place in our churches and no place in our community. Let's follow the examples of our neighbors in Lewiston who, in 2003, when two different white supremacist groups attempted to organize an anti-immigrant rally targeting the Somali community, were able to effectively silence the hateful rally. These folks called in experts for help and were advised that creating a separate, stronger message of love and appreciation of difference would help drown out the white supremacists.
Local churches, college students and dozens of other citizens worked together across all walks of life, creating the Many and One Coalition. They planned teach-ins and a diversity rally for the same day as the white supremacist event, but in a different place. Four thousand people attended the Many and One event. Fewer than 100 were willing to attend the hate rally. But, let's remember: racism isn't just the big rallies. It's the small stuff, too, the passing comments about weird-sounding foreign names... the jokes about people's ethnic identities... the times we make assumptions about people based on how they look or where they are from. If we ignore these kinds of everyday bigotry, we become like Reuben, only working in half-measures to try to save Joseph. We have to be braver in everyday conversations, too. Those are the kinds of actions that allow us to organize to prevent larger demonstrations of bias in our communities. I found a great resource about everyday bias that has really helped me come up with some language to push back against family members and neighbors when they share racist ideas that do not reflect Christ's love. I'm happy to share it with you all, too (the resource can be found in the list at the end of this sermon).
The events of this weekend and the hearing anew of this scripture remind us that we don't have to stand by and watch Joseph get thrown in the well. We don't have to live into the systems we've inherited that tell us that there's not enough love or material goods for everyone to have what they need. We can learn to live differently, welcoming the dreamer into our midst instead of selling him away to be punished. We can learn from our history, and finally help bring us one step closer to the world Christ once imagined for us. That's a Dream we all can participate in.
Pastor Chrissy found the resources helpful when writing this sermon:
Commentaries on the Genesis passage:
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
The Hip is a Reminder: Genesis 32:22-31
In her novel, The Parable of the Sower, the author Octavia Butler once wrote these words, "All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you." Jacob, the central character in today's scripture, has sure been changing alot of things up to this point in his story. The younger son destined to always be in his brother's shadow, he has changed his fate by tricking his brother into giving up his birthright and has tricked his father into giving him the blessing that was to be guaranteed to elder son. Some might call him sneaky. Others might call him wily. Either way, certain that he had a part to play in God's plan, he managed to secure a divine blessing in a world that would have much rather honor his brother.
These acts have changed Jacob, too. They have strained his relationship with his brother Esau so much that Esau is planning to kill him. His mother, brave Rebekah, found a way to save him, at least until Esau calmed down. She and his father would send him away, back to her brother Laban's home, to find a wife. It is in Laban's home that, either due to complacency because he feels as though he has already won his blessing, or due to distractedness after meeting a lovely young woman named Rachel, or just because he finally met someone craftier that himself, Jacob gets outsmarted. Jacob ends up giving up 14 years of free labor and getting tricked into marrying two of Laban's daughter, both Rachel and Leah, even though he only wanted to marry Rachel. I'm sure those weren't awkward family suppers at all.
Living with another trickster changes Jacob. Having already been outmaneuvered, when Jacob is ready to leave with his wives and children, he does not try to outwit his uncle Laban. He simply says to him, "I have worked the 14 years I promised. Let me go. I'm done." Laban initially seems amenable, saying, "I have seen by divination that your God has blessed me through you. Name your wages. I'll give it." Jacob, knowing Laban's flocks, asked to have all of the speckled and spotted sheep and goats. I've learned that these sheep and goats were uncommon. Jacob would have only been taking a minority of Laban's flocks. It would have seemed a fair, maybe even overly, small wage. Laban tries to cheat him anyway. He removes all the speckled sheep and goats and puts them in herds far away from Jacob, so when Jacob goes to the fields to gather his animals, he finds none. Jacob, changed though he may be, is not so different that he doesn't try to get back at Laban.
Remember, everything you change, changes you. Maybe one thing living on the run with Laban changed about Jacob is that it has made him patient. Remember, Jacob was once so impatient to receive God's blessing that he figured out how to take it from his brother. Now, we see him patiently rebuilding Laban's flocks. Through methods that seem both magical and technical, in six years of patient animal husbandry, still working for Laban, Jacob amasses two separate flocks: One sickly but with pure white coats, and one healthy and hearty, and speckled. Guess what he intends to do with that speckled flock... That's right. Keep it. Once again, Jacob has looked at a world stacked against him and changed it. He leaves, well, sneaks away from Laban's home with his wives, children, and gobs of livestock, to head back home to Isaac, hoping that Esau has changed, too. Or, maybe hoping that he can change Esau.
After one last go 'round with Laban, who tries to keep the family in his land but is outwitted by Jacob and Rachel (Rachel might be been changed a bit by living with such scheming men for so long), Jacob realizes that he has come to his brother's land. He wants, needs, to go through this place and return to the Land of his father, the Land that God is calling him to. If Jacob has ever been anything, it is certain that God has a plan for him, even when he feels like he has to enact the plan on his own. At this moment, Jacob is another thing, too. He is terrified. While he has changed... has grown more patient, is shifting away from trickery as first resort to trickery as second or third resort... he has no sense of how the last twenty years has changed his brother. He has never received word from their mother that Esau has tempered his anger. All he knows is that when he was last in touch with his family, his actions had helped change Esau into an angry man. Would Jacob be able to soothe, and survive, that anger?
Remember: All that you touch, you change. Here is how Jacob tried to change his brother's feelings towards him. He takes all those herds and herds of goats and sheep, plus cattle and donkeys, and sends them at the hands of his slaves to his brother as a gift. He hopes hundreds of animals will communicate his apology, or, at the very least, be a sufficient bribe. And, he sits down to wait for word from his slaves that his gifts have been accepted. Soon, though, his fear preempts the patience he learned with Laban. He gets back up and sends the women and children from his family (his wives, his concubines, his eleven sons and one daughter), and sends them across the stream, towards his brother, hoping their domesticity softens Esau. And, that, right there, at that moment when he is alone, hoping that he has done enough to change his brother's mind, is where today's reading began. Jacob, alone, by the side of the stream, waiting.
But, we couldn't get to this point without remembering what came before. Everything Jacob has touched up to this point... everything thing he has changed... it is still changing him. This reading tells us that a figure wrestles with Jacob until daybreak. Scripture is not clear about who this figure is. Some interpret this wrestling as being a dream Jacob had, with the figure being part of his own psyche that he is wrestling with. We should also remember that scripture gives us multiple examples of God appearing to people in dreams. Other interpreters, like a scholar I read this week named Wil Gafney, note that throughout Genesis, mysterious beings are interpreted to be the very presence of God. Perhaps this encounter is best understood as Jacob physically wrestling with God as he waits for word of his brother. Whether a dream or an actual physical test with the Divine, Jacob leaves the encounter changed.
First, his hip is wounded. He will forever walk with a hitch in his step as a reminder of this long night. Second, he is given a new name and a blessing. He didn't need to trick God into blessing him. He just needed to hold on until God did. The being names him "God-wrestler," a name that might be more familiar to us in the original Hebrew: Israel. The being says that this name is a reminder that Jacob, once called heel, grasper, usurper, cheat, has striven with God and humans and has prevailed. Jacob stiffly stood up and gave the place a name (of course he named a place that changed him... that's what Abraham did... that's what Hagar did... it runs in the family).
Jacob, now Israel, then began to limp towards his family, and towards his brother. After holding on tight to God, he was finally ready to face his greatest fear, his brother's response to his return. Isn't it amazing the difference it made in Jacob's life to be called "God-wrestler" instead of "heel/usurper?" In just a few verses, we see him shift from a fearful, conflicted, if persistent, man into a man who bravely steps out to meet his brother, not sure of his response, but certain that he has been changed through God's blessing, and hoping that Esau can feel that change. He is still nervous, still unsteady on his newly injured hip, but he has also become steadfast and resolute, knowing that he is prepared for whatever happens next. In case you're wondering what happens next, Esau forgives him. He embraces him and kisses his face and they weep together. They reunite as family and live as neighbors. Jacob's whole world changes. And, so does Esau's.
So, what are you changing? How are you being changed? What is God changing through you? Are you ready to wrestle with God and with all that you have done? Are you ready to walk away with a sore hip as a reminder of all you've been through? I'm not sure Jacob was ready, but, it happened anyway. Maybe this story is here to remind us that this kind of change can happen with and through us, too.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing:
Beth L. Tanner: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3366
Amy Merrill Willis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2132
Wil Gafney: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=988
Kathryn Schifferdecker: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=116
David Lose: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1597
And, thanks to Dr. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder for the reminder of Octavia Butler's powerful words during a lunch event at the recent United Church of Christ General Synod event.
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.