Gen. 37:  3-8; 17b-22, 26-34; 50:15-21
September 27, 2020
[You can see the preached version of this sermon on YouTube and the worship playlist here.]
Oh friends. Things are a mess right now. And the future, frankly, seems rather frightening. Fires still rage out west. The Supreme Court is shifting. The president has indicated that he will not accept a peaceful transition of power if he loses the November election. None of the police officers involved in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor were charged for her murder. . . Oh. Also there’s a world-wide pandemic that has killed over 200,000 people in the United States.
“Dumpster fire” is the phrase that comes to mind. (At least the most sermon-appropriate phrase that comes to mind.)
It’s times like this that I turn to scripture.
I should probably tell you that I look to the Bible for reassurance of God’s love. That I go to passages that remind me of God’s faithfulness and care, that point me to the bigger picture and offer peace.
The truth, though, is that I find myself most appreciating stories like the one Jenny just shared. Stories from thousands of years ago and thousands of miles away where, just like today, everything is a hot mess. Where people are unjust and arrogant and petty. Where none of the characters are particularly commendable and just when you think it’s really bad, it manages to get worse.
This story we are looking at today is a troubling story. Part of the fault, of course, lies with Jacob—also called Israel. Not only does he pick a favorite child, but he makes it very clear to all the children that Joseph is his favorite by giving him a fancy robe and, apparently, letting him hang out at home while his brothers work in the fields.
This is not a healthy family dynamic that Jacob sets up. Of course, Joseph could have handled it better. The truth is, Joseph’s kind of a brat. Just before the reading for today, Joseph brings a “bad report” about his brothers to Jacob. It may or may not have been a true report, but the Hebrew word used here is used in other places to refer to “gossip, plotting, and misinformation.” And then Joseph tells his brothers about his dreams—dreams that obviously suggest he will rule over his family members. And he wears his fancy special robe from Dad when he goes out into the wilderness to find them. Remember, Joseph is seventeen at this point. Theoretically old enough to know better.
The brothers, though—they’re certainly no better than their dad or Joseph. When they see Joseph coming, they say, “Let’s kill him and throw him in a pit.” Now that seems a bit extreme, even for the brattiest of bratty brothers.
Ruben, the oldest, suggests that they throw Joseph in the pit without killing him—to my mind only a minor improvement over what the other brothers had planned. He doesn’t say that he’ll come back later to rescue him. And then, of course, Judah comes up with the winning solution: sell Joseph into slavery so we can at least get a little spending money out of the deal.
Then there are the Midianites heading to Egypt, just casually buying people along the way.
It reminds me of the line in William Butler Yates’ poem “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
It’s hard to see where God is in this story. It’s hard to discern a moral or glean any words of inspiration and solace.
Yet, for me, it’s somehow comforting nonetheless. To realize that this time we are living in, even though it seems uniquely awful and terrible and horrific is, in the grand scheme of things, just your run-of-the-mill mess that humans tend to make of this world. Despite how it feels, 2020 USA does not win any lifetime achievement awards for most corrupt leaders, most unjust systems, most dysfunctional relationships, or even most violent tendencies. I mean, frankly, I think we could legitimately be nominated. But the Bible reminds me how stiff the competition is.
The Bible also reminds me that these terrible, petty, violent, unjust people are, in fact, God’s people. And God is there, even if we can’t see it. Even if they aren’t listening.
Of course, the story doesn’t end with Joseph in slavery and Jacob in tears. Through some exciting twists and turns, Joseph moves out of his position as slave and into a high-ranking role in the court of Pharaoh. He predicts, based on Pharaoh’s dreams, that Egypt will experience seven years of plenty followed by seven years of drought. And Joseph is put in charge of managing the food storage so that there will be enough food in the lean years.
When the famine indeed comes, Jacob sends his sons to Egypt to buy grain. Eventually, after some more sibling dysfunction and crying episodes, Joseph tells his brothers who he is and reunites with his father. Joseph’s family moves to Egypt and, eventually, Jacob dies. That brings us to the last chapter in Genesis, and the second part of our reading for today:
Genesis 50: 15-21
5 Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” 16 So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17 ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20 Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as God is doing today. 21 So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
This is a welcome shift from the earlier story of Joseph and his brothers. Where there were grudges, there is now forgiveness. Where there was arrogance, there is now care. Where there was cruelty, there is now kindness.
And yet . . . this, too, is a troubling passage for me. Not because of what is happening here, but because of what we will learn when we turn the page and begin reading Exodus. The Israelites—the descendants of Joseph and his eleven brothers—multiply and fill the land of Egypt. Eventually “a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph,” and the Israelites become slaves of the Egyptians.
Knowing what is to come, there is a dark irony in the brothers’ words to Joseph: “We are here as your slaves.”
Joseph, of course, rejects this offer of servitude; but it comes to pass anyway—in future generations. Even though Joseph doesn’t want to enslave his people, he has unknowingly laid the groundwork for their enslavement. He has designed and implemented an economic system that puts farmers and other laborers at the mercy of the rich and powerful. He is a complicit participant in a ruling body that uses intimidation and incarceration against people who present any kind of offense or threat to their power.
Joseph doesn’t want his brothers to be slaves. He doesn’t want his brothers to be slaves. But the system he has helped to create and uphold is one of exploitation and oppression that easily devolves into slavery.
Considering this warm scene of the re-united brothers against the bleak opening chapter of Exodus has gotten me thinking about unintended consequences; about complicity—and particularly my white complicity—in systems that enact oppression and violence.
We are all, I trust, horrified by the killing of Breonna Taylor and the lack of accountability for the officers who killed her. An innocent woman was shot in her home and nobody was charged in her death. We are heartbroken that this has happened; yet, in many ways, this is the logical outcome of the criminal justice system our white ancestors designed and those of us who are white have benefited from for generations.
We are all, I trust, concerned about issues of poverty—unhoused people, lack of access to healthcare, growing income inequality. But isn’t poverty an inevitable reality in the capitalist economic system that is so central to U.S. identity and “greatness”?
We are all, I trust, aware that the unusual intensity of the blazing fires out west is a result of human-aided global warming. We care about how our actions affect our planet . . . and the vast majority of us rely on fossil fuels to maintain our lifestyle—even to participate in worship.
The point here is not to denigrate the U.S. justice system or capitalism or our energy infrastructure. I do not have the expertise or time to fully examine and critique the role these systems play in the problems we are currently facing.
The point is that our actions have consequences—not just for today or next week, but for generations to come. The point is that the kindling and fuel for this dumpster fire that is 2020 has been accumulating for a very long time.
The point is that we can be blind to the larger systemic forces at work, paying more attention to meeting immediate needs than establishing community practices that will sustain us all for the long-haul.
Earlier in this biblical story, Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams: seven fat cows are consumed by seven skinny cows; seven plump ears of grain devoured by seven blighted ears. Rabi Arthur Wazkow notes that, while Joseph says he will consult God about these dreams, he actually just charges ahead with his own interpretation and plan of action: Egypt will experience 7 years of plenty and 7 years of famine. Joseph’s solution is to have the government stockpile grain for seven years, then sell it back to the people during the famine. While this plan does provide food for people when the famine hits, it is also a vehicle for economic exploitation.
And, as Rabi Wazkow points out, it was not the only path possible. Perhaps, if Joseph had truly listened to God, he would have heard the instructions about caring for the land and the people—about letting the land rest every seven years—that God later gives to the Israelites. Maybe the famine could have been avoided altogether. Or maybe Joseph would have heard from God a plan for feeding people that did not lead to widespread poverty and eventual slavery.
In the final scene we read, Joseph asks his brothers, “Am I in the place of God?” It reads as a rhetorical question, but there is a sense in which Joseph has actually put himself in the place of God. At the very least, Joseph is serving a ruler who expects to be treated as a god.
I think the story of Joseph gives us a lot to think about in our current context:
–Even as we are being kind, are we enabling systems that do violence?
–Are we so focused on today and next year that we are inadvertently causing problems for our great-great grandchildren?
–How do we live faithfully in a culture that regards some leaders as virtual gods?
–And how do we avoid seeking a god-like role for ourselves in the process of working against those leaders?
–Are we truly listening to the voice of God?
I don’t find any clear answers from Joseph. But I do take some comfort in the questions; some comfort in the fact that pride, jealousy, pettiness, obliviousness, and family tensions have been a part of the human condition since the beginning; some comfort in the fact that dumpster fires have been flaring up all over the world for the past few thousand years. We are in—if not good company, at least substantial company.
And I take comfort in the fact that God has been with God’s people through it all. Providing for our survival. Leading us to kindness. Ready to speak to those who listen.
I take comfort in the fact that, despite what Pharaoh might claim and despite all those willing to worship him, there is only one true God. And that God is a God of peace, a God of love, a God of justice.