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:
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.