Sunday, September 23, 2012

Playing Favorites: A Sermon About Joseph (Genesis 37:3-8, 26-34; 50:15-21) -50)

The scripture can be found here...

Let’s begin by talking about jealousy. And when I say “jealousy,” I’m not speaking of a passing sense of wishing you had what another person has… a great house, or pair of shoes, or even, a relationship. I’m talking about the kind of deep-seated resentment that stays with you, perching on your shoulder like a malevolent pet, or burrowing into your gut, crowding out all other feelings. Jealousy, as in the feeling that you have a rival, and while that rival has success, or advantage, or superiority, or love, you can never have enough.

And jealousy is the force that tips over the first domino in the story of Joseph. We are in a great transition moment in the story of God’s people: that moment when they move into Egypt. This sets the stage for what is surely one of the key stories of scripture. And for us to be in Joseph’s story now we have sped past countless other remarkable stories. I commend them all to you, but especially those of Jacob, the scoundrel. Joseph’s father Jacob, whose name is eventually changed to “Israel,” the one from whom God’s people take their name. I particularly commend to you the stories of Jacob’s particular biblical model of marriage: First, his marriage to Leah, by the trickery of his father-in-law, and then his marriage to her sister Rachel, his first and true love. In addition to these two wives, Jacob takes as wives the two slave women, Bilhah and Zilpah. By these four women Jacob has twelve sons and a daughter.

Why start with jealousy? Let us count the ways.

The first line of our passage tells part of the story: “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children… and he had made him a long robe with sleeves” (Genesis 37:3). Imagine being a son of poor Leah, the woman Jacob was tricked into marrying. Imagine being a son of one of the slave women, used as surrogates and tangled up in the rivalry between the two sisters. Joseph is none of these. He’s a son of Jacob’s old age. And he’s the first born of Rachel, the love of Jacob’s life, the favored wife. And that favoritism, now passed from mother to son, is openly displayed. Jacob, whose early career included some time in the kitchen, continues to show his domestic abilities by crafting an unusual and somewhat royal garment for his favorite son, a coat with long sleeves. If you’re wondering where we get the “coat of many colors,” this is what happens sometimes with bible translations. In the era of the King James translation, as today, coats with long sleeves were common, so to translate it literally would have left the reader puzzled. “What’s so special about a coat with long sleeves?” So the team of translators decided that a coat “of many colors,” would convey the coat’s uniqueness, and the extravagance of Israel’s gift to his youngest. Jacob was playing favorites. And when Josephs’s brothers saw that coat, they hated him for it.

But that is not the only way in which Joseph provoked his brothers. Those dreams! Joseph has this incredibly annoying habit of sharing dreams with his brothers, dreams whose general theme is that Joseph is in charge and everyone else must bow to him. The dreams are pretty telling. In one sense, they betray a sort of cluelessness that we might just chalk up to his youth—he’s seventeen, and a culture of bragging isn’t exactly unheard of among teenage boys. In another sense, they show an arrogance, maybe even a meanness of spirit that is kind of breathtaking. Even his father gives him the verbal equivalent of a smack to the head after one of these episodes. Just who does he think he is? His brothers hate him, we are told. They cannot speak peaceably to him.  Jealousy, burrowing into the gut, crowding out even the ability to speak a word in peace.

But none of this—not the favoritism, not the arrogance, not the hate, not the soul-consuming jealousy—nothing can justify what happens next.  In a scene we didn’t read this morning, the brothers first discuss whether or not to kill Joseph. The plan is to return the beautiful coat to their father covered in blood, pinning the death on a wild animal. Reuben, the oldest and the child of the unloved wife Leah, has an attack of conscience, and persuades the rest of them not to kill Joseph, but to simply throw him in a pit. (His plan is to spirit Joseph back to their father at a later time.) They agree. They strip the clueless kid of his beautiful robe, throw him into a pit with no water to drink, and sit down to lunch.

When Reuben is gone, the brothers see a band of traders passing by. Judah, the youngest of Leah and Jacob’s sons, says, hey. We can kill two birds with one stone here: get rid of the dreamer and get ourselves some cash at the same time. When Reuben returns and learns that Joseph has been sold into slavery, he goes wild with grief and horror, tearing his clothes, trying to imagine what on earth they will tell their father.

They decide to go with the wild animal story. Jacob is presented with the exquisite garment he made for his favorite son, smeared with blood. He is told the boy is dead. In response, he tears his own clothes, and puts on sackcloth (the traditional garment of mourning), and weeps for many days.

And the brothers? Even though most of the remainder of Genesis focuses, not on them, but on Joseph, it’s good for us to imagine just how things go for them from this point on. The brothers have done, if not the unthinkable, then something approaching that. What they have done to Joseph, it is fair to say, will haunt them.

As for Joseph?  His path is one of peaks and valleys—literally, as well as figuratively. From his high position as daddy’s favorite he is cast down into an actual pit, and sold as a slave. But he ends up in the household of Potiphar, a captain of the Pharaoh’s guard, where he is given a chance to shine. “The Lord is with him,” we are told—which is interesting, because we never heard that God was with Joseph when he was being coddled by his father at home. And for all his arrogance, for all his teenage bravado, qualities begin to emerge in him we might not have imagined. The Lord is with him, and Joseph turns out to be a man of talent and character. He rises to another peak in the house of Potiphar, only to fall again after he spurns the advances of Potiphar’s wife. Once again in the valley, Joseph finds himself in prison.

But even in prison Joseph manages to land on his feet. The head jailer entrusts him with care of the other inmates, and Joseph rises to the top of the heap there as well. And suddenly an opportunity to truly distinguish himself arises: Someone has a dream.

Did you ever meet someone, and upon first meeting them, you had, well, not the greatest impression of them? In fact, you didn’t really like them at all? But then, you met them again… under other circumstances. And you felt that maybe, just maybe, you had misjudged them. I bring all this up because this is not the first time dreams have played a major role in Joseph’s story. And that first time, everyone—Jacob his father, all his other brothers, and, yes, we, the readers, thought. Hey. This guy is kind of a creep. He’s annoying. Of course people want to throw him into pits and worse. If he were in high school in Lima, Ohio, he’d be getting Slushies in the face on a regular basis.

But when Joseph is in prison interpreting dreams, we learn some key information. When it comes to dreams, Joseph is a veritable Carl Jung. His knowledge and intuition are stunning. He has a gift. And we begin to wonder… might those other dreams of Joseph’s have meant something after all?

It’s dreams that finally bring Joseph out of the pits and to the heights of power. When the Pharaoh, the Egyptian king, hears about Joseph’s impressive abilities of interpretation, he brings him out of jail and into the royal court to interpret a dream of his own. Joseph correctly tells Pharaoh that his dreams are warning him of a time of famine for which they will have to prepare. Three guesses who Pharaoh puts in charge of the preparations! By the end of this episode, and forever after in this story, there is no one in Egypt, save the Pharaoh himself, more powerful than Joseph.

Meanwhile back in Canaan… the famine hits. And after many years, during which Joseph has been making his peaks-and-valleys climb to power, and the brothers have been living in guilt, in daily contact with their forever grief-stricken father, the men’s paths intersect again. The details of the story are less important than the big picture: the brothers come, with their proverbial hats in hand, to the land that has prepared well for the famine. And they have no idea whatsoever that the very Egyptian looking overlord who is dealing with them is the brother they sold away so long ago.

Joseph toys with them. Just a bit. Joseph manipulates his brothers so that they are made to twist in the wind with the guilt he can see they are still carrying. And so Joseph indulges his desire, for a time, to exact a kind of emotional revenge on his brothers. But in the end, in a scene that I dare you to read without weeping yourself, all is revealed. The brother whom they sold into slavery makes himself known. And he forgives them. “Do not be distressed,” he tells them. “[Do not be] angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:6).

And, in some storybooks, that would be the end of the story. But the bible is not just any book of stories. The bible, in many places, shows such depth of insight into the human psyche that reading it is like looking into a really good, really well-lit magnifying mirror. Ever look into one of those? And see, really see, all those things we manage most of the time not to notice? Reading the bible can be like that. The nature of the human being on full display, in all its glory and all its decay. Joseph forgives his brothers. But… they don’t feel forgiven. Oh, they relocate permanently to Egypt, which is a key moment in the Biblical narrative: How’ God’s Chosen People Get to Egypt. This is how. And there, in Egypt, all their cares are taken away, and they are well housed and well fed and the family of the very powerful and well-loved Joseph. But they carry with them the memory of what they did to their brother because their father played favorites with him. They carry it with them for years and years, and after Jacob’s death, many years later, they turn to one another in certainty that the other shoe Still. Might. Drop.

‘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?”’ (Genesis 50:15). And all Joseph can do when the brothers, even now, even years later, come to him begging for mercy, is to weep. When he can speak again, he says, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”

If the story of Jacob, the very flawed father of many children, and the story of Jacob’s children, including the arrogant and annoying Joseph, can tell us anything, it can surely tell us this: God works through the actions of flawed and broken people and actions. God worked through Jacob’s misguided favoritism, endowing Joseph with the sure conviction that he was all that and more, and sure enough, when the time was right, he was. God worked through the jealousy and anger of Joseph’s eleven brothers, making Joseph a stronger and better man in the process, and saw to it that this chosen family had a safe haven in time of famine. And God worked through Joseph, not only to provide food and shelter for his family, but also to provide the unexpected blessings of grace and reconciliation.

God uses flawed people, broken people. God uses us, even when we’re not at our best. God even uses us at our worst, though the outcomes of those moments can be hard to foresee… they may take years to play themselves out. Listen: I’m not saying God uses us like puppets, I’m not saying that God made those brothers do their dastardly deed. I do believe we have some measure of free will. But once the deed was done, even that was not beyond God’s power to somehow redeem, reclaim and repurpose. God uses us—in all our goodness and all our frailty—to bless the world. And God uses us—in all our beauty and all our brokenness—to convey God’s message of grace and forgiveness to one another. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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