Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Promises Made, Promises Broken: Love Withheld

When we left our story last week, God had promised to Abram that he would have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky. God made good on that promise, and Abram and Sarai, who later became known as Abraham and Sarah, became the parents to Isaac. Isaac married Rebekah, and they became the parents to Jacob and Esau. After this, their story gets pretty complicated. But, the thread of the narrative we will follow is the one where Jacob, who is also known as Israel, becomes the father to twelve sons and one daughter, living in the land of Canaan. Jacob’s youngest son is Joseph. Our story begins in Genesis, chapter 37. 

Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons because he was born when Jacob was old. Jacob had made for him a long robe. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him and couldn’t even talk nicely to him.

Joseph had a dream and told it to his brothers, which made them hate him even more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had. When we were binding stalks of grain in the field, my stalk got up and stood upright, while your stalks gathered around it and bowed down to my stalk.”

His brothers said to him, “Will you really be our king and rule over us?” So they hated him even more because of the dreams he told them.

Joseph had several dreams like this. In fact, they were visions. These dreams did not win him any love from his brothers. Yet, Joseph remained his father’s favorite. One day, Jacob sent him - his favorite son - to go check on his other sons as they pastured the flocks. One of Joseph’s eleven brothers was Reuben. 

Joseph went after his brothers and found them in Dothan.

They saw Joseph in the distance before he got close to them, and they plotted to kill him. The brothers said to each other, “Here comes the big dreamer. Come on now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of the cisterns, and we’ll say a wild animal devoured him. Then we will see what becomes of his dreams!”

When Reuben heard what they said, he saved him from them, telling them, “Let’s not take his life.” Reuben said to them, “Don’t spill his blood! Throw him into this desert cistern, but don’t lay a hand on him.” He intended to save Joseph from them and take him back to his father.

The brothers threw Joseph into a pit. Then, they sat down to eat and to contemplate what to do with him next. Another of Joseph’s brothers was Judah.

Judah said to his brothers, “What do we gain if we kill our brother and hide his blood? Come on, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites. Let’s not harm him because he’s our brother; he’s family.” His brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they pulled Joseph up out of the cistern. They sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver, and they brought Joseph to Egypt.

When Reuben returned to the cistern and found that Joseph wasn’t in it, he tore his clothes. Then he returned to his brothers and said, “The boy’s gone! And I—where can I go now?”

His brothers took Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a male goat, and dipped the robe in the blood. They took the long robe, brought it to their father, [Jacob] and said, “We found this. See if it’s your son’s robe or not.”

He recognized it and said, “It’s my son’s robe! A wild animal has devoured him. Joseph must have been torn to pieces!” Then Jacob tore his clothes, put a simple mourning cloth around his waist, and mourned for his son for many days.

Though his brothers and their father, Jacob, thought he was dead, Joseph had actually been taken to Egypt. There he was sold and kept as a slave. Yet, over time, his master saw that the Lord was with him and placed him into a position of responsibility. Joseph was very successful at all that he did. He became very powerful as an interpreter of dreams and, eventually, came to be in the service of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. 

The dreams Joseph interpreted for Pharaoh came true. The first seven years in Egypt were plentiful and Joseph, working as Pharaoh’s assistant was able to store up grain and other produce abundantly. But, then, as Joseph had predicted, a famine came to the land. This famine, which lasted seven years, also affected Canaan. Joseph’s brothers, hearing that there was grain in Egypt, traveled there, hoping to keep their families alive. They came into Joseph’s presence, but did not recognize him in his position of power, even though Joseph recognized them. Eventually, Joseph revealed himself to his brothers. And he shared that God had sent him ahead of them to help them through this terrible famine. When Jacob heard that his beloved youngest son was alive, he packed up and brought his entire family to Egypt for the reunion of a lifetime. Jacob was able to die in peace and his remains were taken back to Canaan for burial, as he had requested. Our reading continues in Genesis, chapter 50.

When Joseph’s brothers realized that their father was now dead, they said, “What if Joseph bears a grudge against us, and wants to pay us back seriously for all of the terrible things we did to him?” 

So they approached Joseph and said, “Your father gave orders before he died, telling us, ‘This is what you should say to Joseph. “Please, forgive your brothers’ sins and misdeeds, for they did terrible things to you. Now, please forgive the sins of the servants of your father’s God.”’” Joseph wept when they spoke to him.

His brothers wept too, fell down in front of him, and said, “We’re here as your slaves.”

But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I God? You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it, in order to save the lives of many people, just as he’s doing today. Now, don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your children.” So he put them at ease and spoke reassuringly to them. --Genesis 37:3-8, 17b-22, 26-34; 50:15-21 (CEB)

As I’ve been reflecting on this story of Joseph and his brothers over the past week, I think we simply need to acknowledge at this point that this is a horrifying story. There is what seems to be the deepest of hatred and evil at work. It’s a story of the harm love can cause, when love is given abundantly to some and more scarcely to others. Because it seems that everything begins with the favoritism shown by Jacob to his youngest son, Joseph. This story shows the damage that can come when one is loved more than others. 

And, yet, Joseph’s brothers are not blameless. Not at all. Even jerks do not deserve to be thrown into a pit to die, much less sold into slavery. Brothers selling brother. It’s almost unimaginable, isn’t it? And, yet, we see it in families, perhaps to some degree, even in our own families - what happens when love is given unequally. And we can even look more broadly than our families. All we need do is notice what has been happening in our own city this past week. As we witness the result of a people not loved equally, not given the privileges of others, not experiencing justice in the same way as others. As those of us who are white. 

Love withheld. Or love given out in unequal measure causes harm. Results in evil. Brings death. In so many ways.

At the end of this story, after Jacob has died and his remains have been taken back to Canaan for burial and after Joseph and his brothers return to Egypt, we see how the power dynamic has shifted. No longer is Joseph at risk of being harmed by his brothers. No longer is Joseph the weaker brother. No longer is Joseph afraid of his brothers. They are afraid of him. They are afraid of what he might do. Because the evil they perpetuated has bound them all of these years, just as it had bound their father to his grief. This one evil act bound them to the guilt of what they had done and the potential fear of what might now happen to them. Joseph held their very lives in his hands.

I wonder, if we were Joseph, what our response might have been? All those years of slavery. The grief of losing his family and being torn away from his father. To strike out against them - to pay them back for their evil act - would have been justified. I wonder, if we were Joseph, what our response might have been?

But, Joseph doesn’t. Because he has the broader vision. Just like in our story last week in which God showed Abraham, Joseph’s grandfather, a broader vision, Joseph, the dreamer, has that vision. That he has been blessed to be a blessing. So, his response, when his brothers come to him begging for his forgiveness is to forgive. And that, my friends, is where redemption happens and the unbinding begins.  

What will it take for redemption to happen in our broken families? For the unbinding to begin in our broken city? In our broken world? 

In their public statement this week, issued after the decision in the Breonna Taylor shooting, Bishop Eaton and Bishop Gafjken said it best. “Our baptismal covenant with God calls us to better relationship with one another...We are called to be the hands and feet of Christ’s presence in the world. The covenantal relationship we have with God in Christ leads us to our neighbors in a common cause to confront the reality of systemic racism [or any other ism] in our country. We come together at the cross.” 

We come together at the cross. Because it is at the cross where we meet Jesus, the One who reconciles. It is at the cross where we meet Jesus, the One who shows us God’s vision in flesh and blood. It is at the cross where we meet Jesus, the One who unbinds us. And it is at the cross where we meet Jesus, the One who teaches us that, even in the most evil of situations, God will reckon it for good. 

Because of this One, we have peace. We have hope. We are loved. Amen.

Preached September 27, 2020 online at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 17
Readings: Genesis 37:3-8, 17b-22, 26-34; 50:15-21; Luke 6:27-36

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