Sermon of the Week:
Some Things We Regret
Week two of a nine part sermon series:
I Feel Seen: Ancient Stories and Modern Wisdom
Keywords: Joseph, Dreams, Coat with Sleeves, Egypt, Modern Dreamers, Religion as Framework. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
Last week we started this sermon series
by introducing ourselves to Jacob,
Jacob the son of Isaac,
Isaac, the son of Abraham,
and when we did that we jumped into the deep end of the swimming pool, so to speak.
What I mean is that
there is so much to these stories in Genesis…
we could spend the better part of a year
productively talking about everything that has taken place
in the preceding 36 chapters.
But instead we started with Jacob,
wrestling with a stranger at the Jabbok,
a physical manifestation of the internal anxiety that was building up in him
given the way he had grabbed status and stature
by tricking his father and his brother.
Jacob is just one example of biblical patriarchs behaving badly, if we’re honest.
Doing to sorts of things we come to regret.
We would have seen many, many examples of that
if we had taken the time to start in the shallow end and waded our way here
to Jacob and his boys,
but we needed to start somewhere,
and the story of how Israel got its name made as much sense as any other choice:
Israel: the one who strives with God, and survives.
I like reading through Genesis.
Not so much because
the people who are the foundation of our faith tradition
are such a mess from time to time, even though they are,
but more because God sticks with them,
and works through them,
and by listening intentionally to these stories
we can learn something about ourselves,
and we can likewise explore what we understand God to be all about.
Or, to put that another way:
these stories offer a worldview,
a way of thinking about humanity
and about our relationship with the divine,
the one who, the story tells us, created us— created you and me,
with the divine ruach, the divine breath, that very breath that was blowing over the chaos
the very breath that is filling our lungs right now,
each of us with the image of God imprinted on us and in us.
That’s where the story of Genesis starts, right,
in the first few chapters of this book.
And so if there was ever any question in your heart whether you matter,
whether you are important,
whether you have a purpose,
even with as messy as our lives can get, from time to time,
well, there’s an answer:
these ancient stories affirm that we are created by God
and are loved by God
and are intended, each one of us,
to live fully the sort of lives God wants of the creation,
lives marked by that Hebrew Word Shalom,
which means some combination of peace, and wholeness, and justice, and community,
you know, where Lion will lay with the Lamb
and all will be fed, the whole bit.
That’s the biblical framework 101.
But we also know, from our own lives, from our own families,
from watching the news and dealing with pandemics
and watching our country fragmenting and fraying
that our lives are such a mess, too.
I’ve said this before, but one way to understand faith,
and the diverse religious perspectives out there,
is to see them as efforts at offering a coherent worldview,
a way to see and live in the world,
and these biblical stories are great because their lives are almost as chaotic as ours are.
These ancient stories are the foundation of our particular worldview,
bequeathed to us, given to us by our Hebrew ancestors,
the forebears of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
These stories work particularly well,
because there’s something familiar behind these stories,
the way the people act,
the emotions and the drama…it resonates.
We read about crazy jealousy, passionate yearning, family dysfunction, on the one hand,
and then the capacity for reconciliation, for learning from our mistakes,
for deep empathy and compassion, on the other,
and, again, throughout all of it,
the God who walks alongside,
inspiring, nudging, picking up broken pieces,
mending broken hearts.
You’d see that in Abraham. You’d see it in Isaac.
We saw it last week in Jacob too.
Last week, actually, I suggested that the story of Jacob reads a bit like watching a reality TV show,
I think I said Big Brother, if my memory serves,
because our family has watched that show as a sort of guilty pleasure for years
and it came back on CBS just this week,
after they figured out how to make accommodations for the ongoing pandemic,
quarantining all the contestants for a few weeks before they got started.
I thought I was being insightful, and maybe a bit clever, making that comparison,
but when I did more reading on Jacob’s family,
particularly in getting ready for this sermon today,
I found at least four other commentators who basically said the same thing.
For instance, this line from Wendy Joyner:[i]
The story of Jacob’s family would make a wonderful television miniseries.
But Joyner argues that there is something different about these biblical stories
that you won’t get watching Big Brother or Survivor or The Amazing Race
or any of them, when they trot out a caricature of someone who is supposed to be the faithful type
but who then proceeds to offer an honestly awful image of what the life of faith actually is
and all the rest of us are left scratching our heads wondering why THEY get to be the example
the rest of the world sees.
That kind of protagonist makes for good TV.
But the bible chooses stories that are both honest about human failing
and honest about the potential for making things right again.
As we read through these stories, these Genesis stories,
we see people of faith wrestling with what it means to be human,
in faithful relationship with the creator.
And that, I would suggest,
is a valuable exercise for us to spend some time on.
One of the other commentators I read for today’s sermon is Elie Wiesel,
who wrote before the age of the television miniseries or reality television.
Wiesel was a respected commentator, author, holocaust survivor.
And he noticed something about Joseph that you might have noticed too:
Here’s how Elie Wiesel puts it:[ii]
This is a story of dreams and dreamers.
A frivolous, profane story.
Seemingly concealing nothing in its depths, it brings into play
every facet of human passion:
love and hate,
ambition and jealousy,
glory and spite.
Only one element is missing: the passion of God.
This Biblical tale is unlike any other. Wiesel says
Expressed in terms of psychological intrigue,
or political conspiracy,
there appears to be no metaphysical or theological dimension.
God is not part of the cast.
As if to illustrate that,
in a situation where brothers become enemies,
God refuses to participate,
and [instead] becomes spectator.
Or, to put it another way, sometimes we learn as much in these stories
by God’s absence, as we do from God’s activity.
God isn’t an active player here, in our reading today, at least not overtly.
Wiesel’s suggestion is fascinating, that God can’t condone
the discord between Joseph and his brothers,
and that’s why we don’t see God play a major part here. Maybe that’s true.
But if the story is of dreams and dreamers,
as Wiesel correctly points out,
then we also can say that
the author of Genesis knows, and implies that the reader knows,
that God is behind those dreams.
The dreams of Joseph.
Most people, when they think about the story of Joseph,
remember two things:
one—he had that snazzy coat, one that he liked to saunter around in.
The kid is seventeen, and blind to the arrogance he must have exuded.
It has been likened to a princely gown by some commentators. Extravagant.
Who wears that thing out on a several day journey to the fields?
Out of place, among the working attire of his brothers.
So there that.
People remember Joseph’s coat.
And two, people remember that Joseph was a dreamer.
Now, in Genesis, God comes to the protagonists in many different ways:
Through angels and emissaries, right?
Sometimes through wrestling partners, as we saw last week.
Maybe, depending on your reading, even face to face from time to time.
To Joseph, though, God comes through dreams.
So its not entirely true that God is absent,
but he’s certainly a subtle, behind the scenes character in Joseph’s story.
When we do find God, God is speaking to Joseph through these dreams.
Now, I don’t know about you, but my dreams
are rarely as vivid as Joseph’s:
they’re not clear, concise, to the point.
And my dreams are rarely all that relevant.
Last night, for instance, I dreamt about ice cream
sitting in a boat that was perched on a mesa in the New Mexico desert,
and I was wearing a Royals Jersey and boxer shorts.
Yeah, not all that germane.
Actually, come to think of it, maybe Joseph had some dreams like that, too.
Well, not like MY dream, Joseph in a Royals Jersey eating cookies and cream, come on…
but maybe he had frivolous dreams just like I do.
Joseph probably dreamed about all sorts of things:
family, games, romantic interests, snazzy clothes, you name it.
But that’s not the point.
The point was that there were other dreams that were relevant.
Really relevant, change-the-course-of-a-nation relevant,
Those will come later in Genesis, after he has some time to reflect on this quite amazing gift.
Here, though, the seventeen-year-old doesn’t quite know what to do with these initial dreams,
other than brag about them to his siblings.
As we dive into this story about Joseph,
right away we start feeling the acrimony that is building among these kids.
We are told outright that Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son.
Jacob “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” (Genesis 37:3).
Many of these early patriarchs seem to play favorites with their children,
and it almost always gets them into big trouble.
Jacob demonstrates his favoritism in his gift of that colorful robe,
the text doesn’t say “technicolor dreamcoat,” but read what you will…
and it causes significant resentment among the brothers.
I get that, don’t you?
Jacob is setting his so-called favorite boy up for a terrible confrontation,
and setting himself up for untold heartache, just a bit later in our story.
To make matters worse among the brothers, Joseph is kinda a tattletale.
We are told that he was a helper to his brothers in their work
and that he “brought a bad report of them to their father” (v. 2).
So, there’s animosity between the brothers and Joseph,
and “they hated [Joseph], and could not speak peaceably to him” (v. 4).
Literally, that line says “they couldn’t bring themselves to even say shalom to him…”
Yet the straw that broke the camel’s back
causing the deepest division among the brothers, leading them to contemplate evil against him,
was not simply the favoritism, or the tattling, but Joseph’s dreams.
The text goes on.
Joseph dreams vivid dreams, confusing dreams
dreams of sheaves of wheat bowing down to his sheaf,
dreams of the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to him.
What is up with that? What is a youngster supposed to do with visions like that?
One might argue, and they’d be right,
that human beings often dream of grandeur, of power,
of being in charge.
And quite often, those sorts of dreams aren’t very noble.
In fact, they can often be destructive, if dreams of power are not constrained by noble ends.
But lets bracket those concerns for now.
We’ll see next week how Joseph’s dreams end up for him,
what kind of leader he becomes, whether he’s sought after the good,
or if he perverted the power that he dreamt about here.
Instead, we need to make note of how the reader, how you and I know the rest of the story.
Joseph does become powerful, one of the most powerful people in the world.
Somehow, God will use Joseph
along the trajectory of God’s fulfilling God’s covenant promise
to make of Abraham a great nation.
But in the narrative, the reader doesn’t know that yet.
The reader doesn’t know that this is a foreshadowing.
All they know is that this vision of his ticks the brothers off.
“They hated him even more
because of his dreams and his words” (37:8), says the text we read this morning.
Yet, we know, with hindsight, that these dreams are from God,
and speak to their actual future, not only of Joseph
but also his family for generations to come.
So the dramatic tension is set,
and the story unfolds with the brothers plotting against him.
Things come to a head rather quickly in the story after Joseph
goes to find his brothers as they shepherd the flocks.
“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’” (37:18-20).
Their articulated anger isn’t about Joseph’s arrogance, bad though it was,
or their fathers inequitable love, which is hurtful and psychological damaging,
or Joseph’s position of managing over them while they work,
elevating the youngest over the others…
No, it’s those blasted dreams.
And they capture him, and throw him into a pit.
They would have left him for dead if not for Reuben,
and instead they sell him off to passing traders…
And in doing so, this story explains how the Hebrew people found themselves
connected to Egypt, where Joseph would end up in servitude.
The Hebrew people would be there for centuries,
and Egypt will eventually be the scene for the most powerful act of God in the old testament,
the liberation of the people in the exodus from slavery.
Joseph was a dreamer, and it got him betrayed by his brothers and sold into servitude.
We have come to learn a lot about God in the years between then and know.
Jesus would have a thing or two to say about dreams of grandeur, of power
and the dangers of associating power with claims of God’s design
especially, particularly when that power is wielded in such a way
that keeps people hungry
or subjected, and not free.
Remember that when we talk about Moses and the Pharaoh in a few weeks.
But I’m so intrigued by the way God works through dreams.
Other dreams. More life affirming dreams. Godly dreams.
I have been inspired by people of faith who have dreamed big dreams,
even in the face of danger and possible harm.
Some of my biggest heroes were dreamers:
I think about Martin Luther King, Jr., articulating a dream of equal justice,
of a unity that can come about with the end of white racism.
I know we often simplify Dr King, and his work was complex and challenging,
and we cannot domesticate his efforts.
We’re still waiting for King’s dream to be fulfilled.
But we remember his sermon on the Washington Mall,
where he spoke of a day when people
would be judged by their character and not the color of their skin.
This was a dream from God about a future of possibility and inclusiveness,
an end to systemic racism.
That dreamer was a threat to the status quo,
and, ultimately, those who resisted his words and his dream silenced him.
I think of Archbishop Oscar Romero,
leader of the Roman Catholic Church in San Salvador.
Archbishop Romero was a pioneer in liberation theology,
and he worked with the poor and oppressed.
He spoke with a strong, clear voice
about the need for basic human rights to be observed,
in the middle of a brutal civil war.
He lived his life among those who had the least in terms of material possessions.
Romero was a dreamer, and he was assassinated as he presided over worship.
I got to visit that church in San Salvador, back when I was a teenager,
and was forever grateful for the witness to peace, to shalom,
that remains there as an homage to Romero’s work.
I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
a German Lutheran pastor who fought against Nazism in World War II.
He was a leader in the Confessing Church of Germany
and became involved in the anti-Hitler resistance movement.
He was arrested, charged, and found guilty of sedition
in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
He was hanged for his resistance to Nazism,
but he continues to speak to us through his writings,
as he encourages the church to live out its prophetic calling within community.
Bonhoeffer was a dreamer who bravely lived out what his conscience dictated,
even when it meant going against the powerful structure
of Nazism and public sentiment.
These three major figures of the last century
are just a few examples of those who have been spoken to by God,
and who showed great courage in living out their convictions.
They had a dream of what a just world would look like.
They spoke the truth of God to all who would listen.
God often works through dreamers,
and not just these sorts of dreamers,
but everyday dreamers,
people with a vision of the future that is more hopeful, more just, more life giving
than the reality of our current world.
I think, if we were to look and listen at this particular moment,
quiet our anxieties and our stresses and our worries
still the storm of the world around us,
we will see people dreaming of a better world
marching and organizing and working to do something about it
a world where people care for one another
regardless of the color of their skin or their political affiliation
or their sexual orientation or their status in life,
a world where people are free from state violence,
and have enough food to eat
and access to medical care and good jobs and a future with hope.
So it is that our church, the Presbyterian Church USA
is in the middle of its Matthew 25 initiative
and actively pursuing anti poverty, anti racist dreams
through everyday congregations like ours.
So it is that groups like Cherith Brook,
which as many of you know
is a intentional Christian community downtown here in Kansas City
offering welcome and dignity for people without homes or a place to live,
so it is that Cherith Brook dreams of a day when the poor in things
along with the poor in spirit, are treated justly as neighbors and friends.
So it is that our church, The Kirk,
dreams about how we can be a place
where all are welcome to experience the love of God in Christ Jesus
through worship, authentic relationships, and meaningful work together
as we pursue peace and justice in the world.
This is a time for dreaming big dreams
dreams that aren’t arrogant, or rooted in power over others,
but dreams of God’s good world, alive.
And while it may feel like all this chaos has muted our dreaming,
I actually think that our dreaming might be more clear now than ever before,
and we remember that our God can draw Joseph up out of the pit…
our God can lift Peter out of the sinking water
and our God is working, this very day, through ordinary people,
who are guided by God’s vision of love and care for one another,
and through them, is helping piece this world back together.
So may we know
that God is there in every faithful dream
and may we trust where God is leading us
as we seek to serve and to love
as Christ has loved us.
May it be so.
[i] Some parts of this section of the sermon draws from the work of Wendy Joyner at http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/5245/dangerous-dreamers accessed August 8, 2020.
[ii] Wiesel, Elie. Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends (New York: Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, 1976) p. 139
Image: Joseph’s Dreams by Shoshanna Brombacher.