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:
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.