A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Pentecost 10 ~ Genesis 37:1-4, 12-36
It’s challenging to tackle a story like this – partly because of the theological content, but mostly because in order to get the message we need to hear the whole story, and in this case that story takes place over many chapters in the book of Genesis. We’re used to looking at a dozen or so verses for a Sunday morning sermon. If I was just to focus on today’s reading it would feel very unsettled. Now, ‘unsettled’ is actually going to be where I circle back to, and where we pause today. But first I think I need to tell the whole story to give us some context.
Happily, it’s such a famous story that most of us are at least somewhat familiar with it. Most of that is thanks to the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
Anyway, in case you haven’t seen that musical, the story goes that Jacob – who we’ve been following for a few weeks now – remember last week he wrestled with God – Jacob does face his brother and father, and he is forgiven, and he settles down in that land and has his 12th son, Benjamin. Sadly, his beloved wife Rachel dies during childbirth. You may recall that Rachel was Jacob’s first love, and that she bore him 2 sons: Benjamin, and Joseph. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for our storytelling) Jacob made the classic parenting error of favouring certain children over others. He favoured Benjamin and Joseph – Rachel’s sons. Well, as you can imagine, the other 10 sons did not like that one bit.
Benjamin was so much younger than the others that he hadn’t earned their ire yet – but Joseph, well, let’s just say he didn’t do himself any favours. His Dad gives him a fancy ‘sleeved’ (perhaps multi-coloured) coat – with sleeves, and then to further endear himself to his already jealous brothers Joseph likes to share his dreams with them. And wouldn’t you know it – his dreams always seem to be about how he’ll end up much better than them, and more powerful than them, and how they’ll all bow down and worship him. Not good! It got to be so bad that even Jacob was becoming irritated by his son’s clueless boasting.
Joseph should have known better. It says he was 17 years old at this time. 17 back in ancient times was not like 17 now. We’re not talking about a naïve high school kid who maybe needs to mature a bit. At 17 he should have been a fully functioning member of the family – out doing the work. He might have already been married and starting his own family at that age. That’s how it was back then. But not Joseph. Nope, he’d prefer to flap around in his fancy coat, flaunting his father’s favour in his brothers’ faces, and dreaming of how he’d someday be ‘da man’.
Now, there’s no excuse for what his brothers did to him, but you can kind of understand why they were so miffed. At first they thought about killing Joseph. Yikes! But then the oldest son, Reuben, convinced them to just teach him a lesson by throwing him in a pit. Reuben made the mistake of turning his back and the other brothers sold Joseph into slavery and then they all made up a story of how he’d been attacked by wild animals and killed, shredding his dreamcoat and smearing it with goat’s blood in order to cover their tracks. Then they told their Dad, Jacob.
That’s where our reading stops today. But Joseph’s story goes on and on. He becomes the servant of an Egyptian captain of Pharaoh’s guards named Potiphar, and finds favour until Potiphar’s wife decides that Joseph is dreamy (pun intended) and when Joseph refuses her advances he gets falsely accused and thrown in jail.
In jail he hears and interprets the dreams of other prisoners. One of them remembers this years later when the Pharaoh starts having nightmares, and Joseph is called on to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. He does so, and ends up accurately predicting 7 years of bounty followed by 7 years of coming famine. Pharaoh is so impressed he makes Joseph into a governor and he becomes a very powerful man – just like Joseph dreamt about so long ago.
That’s the general arc of the story. Next week we’ll look at how it ends. But this week we’re going to circle back and look at the aftermath of how this family imploded.
You’ll remember that Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. But they knew they had to cover up this terrible thing from their father Jacob, so they chose to just say that Joseph had been killed by animals instead. Jacob receives the news poorly. He is inconsolable. He tears his clothes and sits mourning in sackcloth and ashes. He is utterly devastated.
What have we learned?
We’ve learned that anger, jealousy, pride, lying, arrogance, favouritism – our worst selfish instincts – can lead us to do very unloving things.
We’ve also learned that no one is pristine and guiltless here. Every single character in the story has contributed to this terrible, negative outcome. The brothers sold Joseph and lied to their Dad. Jacob showed blatant favouritism. Joseph rubbed his dreamy future in everyone’s face.
There is one word that encompasses every single character’s contribution to this catastrophe – unloving.
They were all unloving.
And when unloving abounds, people get hurt.
There’s no resolution in this scripture reading. It ends abruptly with everyone miserable – brothers guilty, Jacob desolate, Joseph enslaved. We happen to know the end of the story already, so we want to cheat and jump to the happily-ever-after part.
But I’m not going to let us do that today, and you’re not going to like it.
Not everything in life gets tied up with a pretty little bow after some nice words.
If we don’t sit with Jacob in torn clothes, and sackcloth, and ashes then we turn God into a fairly godmother who solves all our problems if we just wish hard enough. That may be good story-telling but it’s terrible theology.
Sometimes we have to sit in those hard places – those long, dry, socially-distant, seemingly never-ending pandemic seasons – and figure out how to be.
Real life is not a Hallmark Card – magic wands are imaginary.
To our detriment I think we’ve tended to try to sell a “don’t worry, everything will work out” message in our churches.
Knowing God, following Jesus, being inspired by the Holy Spirit – these are amazingly wonderful things for living life and living it abundantly.
Yeah, I know – every week there’s a ‘but’.
But the holiest person on earth still has to sit in sackcloth and ashes by times.
The greatest saint you could ever know has to endure long, hard seasons of inbetween-ness, of unknowing, of unsettledness, of dis-ease.
Just like us.
We just don’t have to endure them alone.
Yes, God will move through the characters in this story, and yes, there will be a positive resolution.
Yes, God’s way will prevail in the end – because God’s way is love, and love is what underlies our existence, and its power cannot be stopped.
But we’ve been conditioned by television sitcoms that our challenges and struggles in life are all easily resolved in 22 minutes (half an hour with commercials).
Must I remind us that real life just ain’t like that?
We’re in Genesis chapter 37 here. Yes, love and forgiveness and reconciliation all happen – in chapter 45 – 239 verses of scripture later – 20 years later!!!
And we don’t get to talk about the happy ending until next week.
The usual evening pattern at my house is to watch a bit of TV before retiring. We typically have a drama series and a comedy series on the go – we have an ‘on demand’ subscription service. We like the dramas, but we don’t really like to end the evening on that usually heavy tone, so we always try to save enough time for a comedy. Happy thoughts before sleeps! We even call it ‘a 22 minute’ show. “Hey, do you want to watch a 22 minute show?” Or, “do we have time for a 22 minute show?” And sure enough, every night, by the end of that 22 minutes whatever problems or catastrophes the characters had to endure in the episode, no matter how convoluted or complex, are all fixed, and resolved, and forgiven, and happy. That’s the appeal of these shows. 22 minutes later you feel better.
Sermons usually work the same way!
A preacher pokes and prods at a scripture passage and sure enough, by the end of the 15-18 minutes everything gets tidied up and a feel-good bow gets wrapped on it so the congregation can feel good.
But we know that real life is much messier than that.
Real life is much more ambiguous than that.
Real life problems and mistakes – especially the unloving ones – usually take a lot longer than 22 minutes to resolve.
Jacob did not get resolution for 20 years!
Unlike my TV, reconciliation does not happen on demand.
It takes time. It’s a journey.
It begins in confession and repentance, and those may even lead to forgiveness and reconciliation, but just saying the pretty words doesn’t make everything instantly perfectly right again.
The first time I really understood this powerful idea was when I listened to an Indigenous elder speak at a General Council gathering.
They were talking about the idea of reconciliation.
Our Church, our denomination, has done important and meaningful work in the area of Indigenous injustice and right relations.
The elder acknowledged that work, even appreciated it, but then they said this. (I can’t remember the exact phrasing, but this is the core of it). They said,
“It took many decades to walk into this forest. Now there is a realization of where we are. It will take much time to walk back out.”
I’m pretty sure they added the word “together” – as in we’ll walk out together. But honestly, that may be my wanting to remember it that way. I was just so convicted by the truth of being in the middle of the forest.
A forest that we wandered into by being unloving.
And just because we’ve become aware of where we are – just because we’ve made that realization, doesn’t remove the forest.
A great awakening seems to be happening in the world right now in matters of racial injustice – of how the dominant culture has been systematically unloving to Black, and brown, and Asian, and Indigenous people.
Awakening is wonderful.
Thank God we’re awakening.
But awakening doesn’t magically fix everything.
It’s just the first step in a long journey toward reconciliation and justice.
It’s just the realization of how big the forest is, and how long the journey is going to be to walk out of it.
22 minutes ain’t gonna cut it.
Life is not a TV comedy.
But it’s also not hopeless. In fact, it’s pretty hopeful.
And while I’m not going to tie a pretty bow on this I will absolutely point out that the journey out of the forest can be a blessing too.
We all lead complicated lives with a complex set of relationships.
And we’re human.
So that means from time to time we’re going to trip up and do or say something unloving – and unloving things will be done or said to us.
Think about what it would take for you to forgive an unloving wrong that has been done to you.
Now think about how long you want it to take when you realize you’ve been the unloving one.
It’ll be a lot longer than 22 minutes, I’m afraid.
Hopefully it won’t take 20 years.
But it might.
Sometimes the hurts are that big.
And the only words of comfort I have to offer are the ones we use all the time – because they’re the right words.
We are not alone.
We don’t walk out of the forest on our own.
We are enfolded in the always loving arms of the Holy One we call God.
And for me, that makes all the difference in whether or not I can muster the strength to walk out of that forest.
However long the journey takes…we are not alone.
That’s not a magic wand, but I hope it helps.
Shalom as you make whatever journeys toward reconciliation that are yours.
And know that as you go you are not alone.
Thanks be to God!