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.
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.
The last time I preached about Joseph and his jealous brothers, white supremacists had marched on the city of Charlottesville, Virginia. Christians and non-Christians alike gathered in to provide a counter-rally, because sometimes you have to stand up to the bullies, instead of ignoring them. Bolstered by interfaith worship and prayer, the counter-protestors stood up to the white supremacists, both the unarmed polo wearing ones and the armed white supremacist militia members who lined the streets. I later met a minister who stood in the line against the white-supremacists. She said it was terrifying. Even when they were in worship on Friday night, they knew that they were at risk of being attacked.
The white supremacists said vile things when they met them on the line in the city. The white supremacists yelled vile things as they marched through the city. They chanted "You will not replace us" and the Nazi slogan "Blood and soil." They yelled other things, too, epithets and slurs that I won't repeat. It was clear three years ago and it is clear now, as white supremacists continue to organize more openly than they have in decades, that what is important to them is to frighten certain kinds of people: 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 dream of a country that both never quite existed and also was too close to the reality of history. They want to “take back” a country when they never actually had a right to it to begin with. They killed one woman, Heather Heyer, that weekend three years ago. They’ve killed more since. And, continue to threaten the people they hate. In their minds, greatness is power and violence. And, their dreams continue to be twisted.
Before Charlottesville, when I thought of Joseph and his brothers, I mostly thought of that great Dolly Parton song, “Coat of Many Colors.” I’ve even read the book version to kids at church. Or, I thought of Donny Osmond and Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat. That is one of my wife’s favorite Broadway shows. Those are pretty kind and fluffy associations with the story. Now, though, since Charlottesville, I think if Joseph’s family, and the ways that the violence of this story seems like the violence of systems that never get healed. In the Bible story, the family of Jacob repeats the sins and jealousies of their past. In our country, we fail to address the sin of white supremacy, and it keeps getting repeated.
This part of Genesis is basically a long family history of the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. Their family, like many of our families, repeats unhealthy behaviors, even to the detriment of the family. In today’s reading, Jacob, who is also called Israel, whose own life prospects were once curtailed of his father’s favoritism, has not learned from his father and grandfather. He repeats some of their greatest mistakes. First favoring his wife Rachel over his wife Leah, then favoring his son Joseph, one of Rachel's boys, over his other children, Jacob helped pass along a heritage of violence and deception. It is not surprising that Jacob’s other sons would resent Joseph. And, unfortunately, it is not surprising that they would unleash their frustration, not on their powerful father Jacob, but on their less powerful younger brother, Joseph.
Joseph is a fascinating figure. He wears beautiful clothes, clothes a grown-up Dolly Parton would approve of. The scholar Arthur Van Seters, in his commentary on the text, notes that robes, here, more like dresses than pajamas, with long sleeves were a sign of special status. Tamar, David’s daughter, wears one to demonstrate that she was an unmarried daughter of a king in 2 Samuel 13:18. It appears that you could look at him and see that his father wanted to give him something special to mark him as the favored one. And, Joseph had dreams of greatness, vivid dreams that show him replacing his brothers as the presumed ruler of the family, and gaining dominion over them. This should not happen because Joseph was not the oldest. But, we know in this family that younger, favored sons end up in charge all the time.
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, become willing to resort to violence to secure the future they wanted. Rather than call out their father, they decide to sacrifice their brother. While Reuben makes sure that he is not murdered, the other brothers still sell him into slavery. The brothers lie to their father, telling him that Joseph died in an accident, ensuring that he would have no hope of finding him again.
Joseph’s story won’t end here. He will continue to dream, even while enslaved, and come to a position of power where he can one day save his family during a famine. He will one day find something holy at work, something divine that will save him. He’ll say that what some intended for evil, God used for good. He’ll end up making a place for all his people to come to Egypt for safety. And, unfortunately, within a couple generations of this saving act, his people will be enslaved by pharaoh because pharaoh will grow afraid that he will lose his power and status to the newcomers. Unfortunately, there continues cycles of fear and violence in our time, when federal troops get ordered to crush protestors for justice and refugees are treated like criminals for seeking asylum. When people are afraid of losing power, they get dangerous. This is true in this story and it is true today.
Jealousy is not new. Nor is favoritism. Nor is practicing violence to maintain power. These sins are old, so old that you'd think we would have learned to do better by now. But, just because people keep doing harmful things, it doesn’t mean we stop responding to the harm out of our Christian faith. I think Reuben, Joseph’s brother who tries to save him, points us in a more helpful direction, though we can’t stop where he did.
Did you catch that part of the story? Reuben stops the boys from killing Joseph. He even planned to double cross them by going back and saving him. Sometimes, if you are outnumbered, you make the best plan you can in the moment. In that moment, keeping Joseph alive seemed to be the most important thing and that’s what he makes sure happened. Unfortunately, though, his half-measure was not enough to make sure that Joseph stayed with his family. His brothers decided to sell Joseph for a profit. See, there are always people who look for profit in suffering. That’s a whole other aspect of this cycle of fear, violence, and power. We can’t be satisfied with the half-measures of Reuben. We have to find ways to undercut the fear and power-hunger before it starts.
Scholar Roger Nam, in his commentary on this scripture, wonders if we wouldn’t do well to spend some time examining the brothers who are angry to murder their relative. Because, frankly, we are more often in their place than in the place of the most favored, best dressed one. The last three years have shown us that lots of people are feeling threatened by movements that value Black lives, LGBTQ rights, and immigration. When we’re at the grocery store or sitting around family dinners, we’re right in the middle of the field with the brothers, conspiring, in big and small ways, to protect our way of life by inflicting harm on someone else.
Dr. Nam says that the word that gets translated into “conspired” also has connections to the word “deceit.” In allowing deceitfulness to grow in their relationship, they go against the stated values of their culture, which is, fidelity to their father’s wishes and the cultivation of right relationship among the brothers. The deceitfulness allows them to believe that that violence they are considering is not outside of bounds of acceptable behavior because it allows them to get more power in their family. It is this deceitfulness that allows them to violate the core commitments of their culture, that is, to harm a family member and to lie to their father.
If we don’t want to be like these brothers, we have to figure out what we do cultivate deceitfulness within ourselves. What are we afraid of losing if we live different than we live now? What are the cycles that we are repeating that only lead to more suffering? What really are the values we want to live by and how do we build relationship that honor them. The last three years especially have shown us that we don't have to stand by and watch Joseph get thrown in the well again. I mean we could. But, we shouldn’t. The greatness that we are dreaming of, and that God is inviting us into, won’t be found in half-measures. I pray that we will make the kind of choices to save the dreamers in our midst that Reuben wishes he had made for his Joseph. That is the kind of world God is dreaming for us.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Matthew 14:13-21 Feeding the Five Thousand
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Since early March, when I first began to hear of the spread of Covid-19 from my colleagues in Washington state and into the first weeks of safer-at-home policies, it became clear that we who live in Maine and have access to cars and woods are luckier than many of our neighbors across the country. Because as we realized we would need to create some space between ourselves and people that we don’t live with, we still had the wilderness as a place of sanctuary. We have been hiking and gardening and kayaking as much as we can, as safely as we can. I even began making videos of myself reading Psalms in the woods because, if we couldn’t meet safely in the church sanctuary, reading scripture in the sanctuary wilderness seemed the next best thing. The wild spaces feel like places of abundance here.
From conversations we’ve had, I’m not the only one who has felt like this. So, when you hear, at the beginning of today’s scripture reading that Jesus withdrew to a deserted place to be by himself, you may think of your favorite hideaway in the woods and the sense of comfort and maybe even safety that this place brings you. I'm going to ask you to imagine something a little bit different though. Rather than remember how peaceful you find the natural world around you, I'm going to ask you to imagine the wilderness as a place in your world where something bad is most likely to happen to you.
Imagine that you are in a place where it is hard to find enough to feed yourself and your family. Imagine a place where you can’t run to the grocery store for dinner, even if you have a little money. Imagine living in a way that the wilderness only reminds you of the work you have to do to clear it for farming, and the people and animals that might harm you in the process. Abundance looks pretty different in this place.
This world that I’m asking you to imagine is one in which what you have to eat will mostly come from what you can grow or what you can barter for or buy with meager wages. If you grew up in a farming family, this might feel familiar to you. Though, in the world of this Bible story, if you are lucky enough to have land, a significant portion of that food will go to feed the armies of the empire that have taken over your home-country. In this place, abundance isn’t the wilderness. It’s cultivated land with long, plowed fields. It’s enough rain to make the crops grow and no pests to ruin your harvest. It’s a time when no soldiers are trampling or stealing your months of hard work to feed their own bellies. The wilderness is where the foxes and jackals live and the bandits roam. The wilderness is where you have even less of a guarantee of finding food and often very little access to clean, potable water. It is a place of scarcity outside the bounds of cultivated farmland and walled, protected cities. It is probably not a place where you go for relaxation, unless, apparently, you are Jesus.
Now, imagine being so desperate that you willingly follow Jesus into danger. Maybe you are very sick. Your illness makes it hard for you to plow your fields and mend your fishing nets. Maybe your illness has left you isolated and disconnected from your community and your family. Or, maybe your child is sick and you cannot bear to watch her die. Thorns, thieves, and wild animals may not seem more frightening than a life lived in such pain. So, you go to the dangerous wilderness to find Jesus. That is where we begin our story today. A crowd of needy people in a place of great scarcity looking for healing. What they get is an added measure of compassion that they may not have been able to imagine.
Even though Jesus was in the midst of his own grief, he saw these sick, desperate people and had compassion. You’ll remember that Jesus went to the woods after learning that his cousin John had been violently murdered by the king. Upon hearing of this grisly death, Jesus withdrew to the wilderness. He did not seem to fear what lurked there. It couldn't be worse than that which lived inside the palace walls. And, as he left the town, the sick and the ones who loved them, followed him out into the unknown.
Most of the time, when we talk about this reading, we talk about two incredible acts: the healing of all the sick people and the feeding of these same people with what looks like very little food. These were incredible acts. But, we should remember, that even in the biblical record, Jesus isn’t the only one who can perform miracles. Others might have had powers that allowed them to heal and feed people. I’m going to suggest to you, following the work of a scholar named David Lose, that the most powerful thing Jesus did in this story wasn’t the food or the healings. It was the compassion at the foundation of the acts that tells us the most about Jesus.
In his commentary on this passage, Dr. Lose talks about how in Jesus’ time, and too frequently in our own, people with greater power in a society have an easier time getting food. The background that isn’t explicitly mentioned in this story is that there was small group of elites who had ready access to good and healthy food. There was an enormous group of poor people who did not. I learned from other scholars that in Roman society of this era, the Empire used food as a tool to manipulate people into service and fealty to the Empire. It was taken for granted that with the cost of a few pieces of bread and the spectacle of the circus that the Empire could leverage the desperation of the poor masses into cooperation with the ruling elite. If you do what you are told, you get food. If you don’t, you won’t.
Psychologists remind us that when you feel like you don't have something that you really need (like money, food, emotional support, housing, a meaningful worship community), all of your mental and emotional energy is oriented towards managing that scarcity of resources. It is hard work being poor. People in this church know that. While you may become quite adept at the strategies that allow you to survive and find the things that you need that are scarce, in the long run, spending so much time managing that stress of not having enough is not good for people. Study after study shows us, and we know in our own bones after the stress of the last several months, that living without what we need prevents us from functioning at our most full and healthy capacity. And, it can even negatively affect how we make decisions about our long-term well-being. The empire of Rome counted on the poor people they conquered being unable to manage anything more than merely surviving in order to stay in power.
But Jesus demonstrated that the Empire of heaven lived by different standards than the Empire of Rome. The empire of heaven would not manipulate your need in order to demand your allegiance. The empire of heaven would not create scarcity within your community to ensure that a small group held onto power. The empire of heaven would be generous without conditions. In healing and feeding the people, Jesus demonstrated that God does not demand you suffer so that God can reign. No, God is not the emperor and you are no longer simply a peasant. You are a beloved child of God, and you will be fed.
While our lives are very different that the lives of the people in this story, we know that there are hungry and sick people who would walk out to the scariest place they can imagine if they thought it would help them feel well again. We know that there are people who haven’t worked or haven’t worked enough to pay their bills since March. We know that there are people at risk of eviction. We know that students, parents, and teachers are worried about school in the fall. And, we know that there are people worrying that they will never get better from a virus that we have no cure for. Just as the empire was part of the context of the original story, Covid-19 and our national response to it, are part of ours and affect how we read and respond to it. That compassion that lived in Jesus still lives in the Body of Christ, in this body of Christ. How will we gather up our loaves and fishes and make sure that the people who are in the wilderness right now get fed?
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
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.