Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 13, 2017
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 Commentary
Almost all people walk the wide roads that are dreams for their children, work, future, and themselves. And while some of those dreams don’t come true, as long as they don’t disrupt current arrangements, they’re pretty harmless.
However, where dreams about the future conflict with current realities, they can be very disruptive. In fact, they can endanger people’s well-being. So maybe dreams should come with a Surgeon General’s warning: “Dreaming may be harmful to your health!”
Our text’s Joseph would have understood that better than most. Since he’s Jacob’s eleventh son, his job is mostly just to fit in. Joseph figuratively if not literally spent his life bowing down to his older brothers. Yet perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Joseph is also his father’s favorite son. He is, after all, the son of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. Jacob, in fact, seems to treat Joseph not like his youngest, but like his oldest son.
Joseph’s brothers hate him because their dad doesn’t even try to disguise his favoritism. Old Jacob gives his favorite son a fancy robe that’s like a walking advertisement for the old man’s partiality. The robe’s hint of royalty may even suggest to his big brothers that Jacob has bigger dreams for Joseph than for them. However, Joseph’s “richly ornamented robe” does nothing but fuel his brother’s hatred for him. In fact, they eventually hate him so much that even when they do talk to him, they never say anything nice to him.
Yet the straw that finally seems to break the camel’s back is Joseph’s brothers’ having to listen to accounts of his dreams. The teenaged Joseph seems so little self-aware that he has no clue his telling about his dream of their servitude will enrage them. In fact, over their breakfasts Joseph not once but twice recounts his vivid dreams about the disruption of the power arrangements in his family. They suggest that not just Joseph’s brothers but also his dad and mom will have to serve him.
Yet while Jacob merely remembers Joseph’s dreams, those dreams cause his sons’ hatred to flower into a murderous conspiracy. So when their dad sends the spoiled little snitch to check up on them, they hatch a plan to end both the dreamer and his dreams once and for all.
Reuben convinces his brothers to stop inches short of killing Joseph. So his brothers beat up Joseph and drop him down a dry well. In doing so they seem to work up such a good appetite that only the arrival of some travelling salesmen can disrupt their lunch.
Have you ever wondered what the ensuing conversation sounded like? “Hey, guys, we got this beaten-up, naked guy in the bottom of a well here. You want him?” “Uhhh … How much are you asking for him?” “Well, I don’t know. Maybe twenty pieces of silver?” “Ok. Dump him in the wagon there between the dishes and rugs.”
Most of us know a thing or two about disrupted relationships. An old man I knew back in the 80’s hadn’t spoken to his brothers who lived in the same city in more than 20 years.
But relationships don’t have to be that bad to be disrupted. Some of us know about the tensions that are as much a part of family meals as food and drink. Others know what it’s like to hardly be able to stand sitting in the same room as a co-worker or neighbor.
Sunni and Shia Muslims share not just a common heritage but also a common religion. Yet some of them are slaughtering each other. North and South Koreans share perhaps even more. Yet they can’t even share a border without at least threatening to harm each other.
So must such conflict get the last word? Apparently it does for Joseph and his brothers. They probably assume the last thing they’ll ever see of Joseph is his back as he rides off into Egyptian captivity. In fact, there seems to be nothing good about the ending of this story. Without peeking at it, it just seems to be full of a lot of figurative and literal blood shed.
After all, young Joseph rides off in the perhaps calloused hands of some travelling salesmen. And though he doesn’t yet know it, he’ll soon be sold again, this time to an Egyptian soldier named Potiphar. So Joseph’s effectively as good as dead – at least to his family.
Yet while Joseph’s brothers assume they’ve killed both the dreamer and his dream, they don’t dare confess that to their dad. They don’t even dare admit they’ve sold him to some travelling salesman. Instead Joseph’s brothers concoct some hair-brained tale about a wild animal mauling their little brother to death.
So Joseph’s off to slavery. Reuben is distraught. Jacob’s terrible grief will last a very long time. Joseph’s brothers return to their old, settled power arrangements. This whole story seems to end so very badly. Or does it?
After all, it could have turned out so much worse. Some ferocious animal might have actually mauled Joseph as he wandered around looking for his brothers. Joseph’s brothers might have really killed him. Joseph might have remained in that dry well so long that he eventually died there of either hunger or thirst.
Yet at the end of our story Joseph is, against all odds, alive if not necessarily well. While his dreams may seem dead, he lives to see another day, albeit in the hands of some travelling salesmen. In fact there may even be a grace in those salesmen’s identity. After all, they’re Ishmaelites. So they’re Joseph’s shirttail relatives.
God seems largely silent throughout Joseph’s life. After all, while that story spans more than 13 of Genesis’ chapters, we directly don’t hear from God in any of them. Yet God isn’t just silent. God also seems uninvolved. Genesis doesn’t explicitly tell us God gave Joseph his dreams. God does nothing to stop Joseph’s brothers from grabbing him, beating him and selling him into slavery.
Maybe that makes Joseph’s story not so unlike that of the people whom we teach and to whom we preach. Sometimes God doesn’t just seem silent. God also sometimes seems completely uninterested. After all, God does nothing to stop family members and friends from rebelling against the Lord. God does nothing to stop co-workers and neighbors from harassing each other. God does nothing to bring peace on earth. And so even God-given dreams sometimes seem to die. Dreams of a better tomorrow for children and grandchildren. Dreams of a meaningful job or healthy retirement. Dreams of peace on earth and a creation that flourishes.
However, our text suggests maybe, just maybe, the dream isn’t dead, but simply delayed. Even Joseph may have initially assumed his brothers and slavery had killed his dreams. Yet since he’s still alive, the dream can still live too. Dreams delayed are not necessarily dead dreams. They may just be deferred dreams.
It’s easy to think of the misery people sometimes inflict the way Joseph’s brothers afflicted him as a sign of God’s anger. But maybe it’s a grace. Not necessarily the grace God’s adopted sons and daughters longed for, but God’s gift anyway. As miserable as it was, after all, Joseph’s situation could have been far worse.
So perhaps Genesis 37’s preachers and teachers can help hearers look a little harder for signs of God’s grace. To see how life’s 90-degree turns aren’t necessarily the end of hopes and dreams. Maybe they’re just detours. Or maybe they’re God’s way of redirecting lives in a direction God has planned out for them.
Of course, sometimes people’s dreams don’t align with God’s dreams. So God’s people always ask God and the Scriptures if our dreams are consistent with God’s plans and purposes. Yet we don’t stop dreaming of a world in which God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Of hungry people fed and abused and neglected children embraced. Of a world where broken marriages are repaired and lonely people have swarms of friends. Those dreams are not, after all, necessarily dead. They may just be delayed.
So Genesis 37’s preachers and teachers can encourage hearers to keep dreaming about a world where Israelis and Palestinians live in unity. To keep dreaming of clean water, air and soil. To keep dreaming God’s dreams for God’s whole creation. Those dreams are not dead.
We, after all, live in verse 36’s “meanwhile.” At its end our text’s Joseph’s brothers are gloating. However, meanwhile, Joseph survives. Jacob and Reuben grieve. Meanwhile, Joseph lives, albeit in slavery. You and I worry, mourn and sometimes suffer. Meanwhile, God is advancing God’s plans and purposes. So keep dreaming.
Some dreams don’t just disrupt a good night’s sleep. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamt the United States would eventually “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed … all men are created equal. He also dreamt “his four children … [would] one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Dr. King’s was a lovely and biblical dream. However, it was also highly disruptive. It made the lives of his family, followers and himself intensely difficult. You might also argue Dr. King’s dream cost him his life.
Yet his dream didn’t just disrupt his life. Dr. King’s dream also disrupted American society. Most white Americans, after all, had come to accept black people’s second-class citizenship. We’d come to accept that white and black children people go to different schools, sit on different park benches and drink from different drinking fountains. We’d come to accept as fact that black people weren’t smart enough to vote or hold political office.
Dr. King’s dream disrupted all that. It challenged the basic assumptions of class differences most white people had come to accept and even cherish. Dr. King’s dream rattled people who benefitted from the 1950’s American power structure enough to make at least one of them want to kill him.
Eventually, of course, James Earl Ray seemed to snuff out both Dr. King and his beautiful dream. Yet not before it began to challenge and even reshape white America’s perceptions of all Americans, including both black and white people.
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