August 10, 2014 – Family portrait

Romans 8:35-39

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Genesis 37:1-13

Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a coat of many colors. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words. He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?” So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.”

Genesis 37:18-36

They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer.Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.”Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” —that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father.

So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his coat, the coat of many colors that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt. When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes. He returned to his brothers, and said, “The boy is gone; and I, where can I turn?”

Then they took Joseph’s coat, slaughtered a goat, and dipped the coat in the blood. They had the coat of many colors taken to their father, and they said, “This we have found; see now whether it is your son’s coat or not.” He recognized it, and said, “It is my son’s coat! A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” Then Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and all his daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father bewailed him. Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.

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Pentecost 9   August 10, 2014   Romans 8:35-39, Genesis 37:1-13, 18-36  

Family portrait

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Throwing young Joseph in the pit is horrible. Planning to kill him is demonic. Talking about killing their own brother out loud, in his hearing is unspeakably despicable… Selling him into slavery is almost as bad as killing him…

But assuming perhaps, all this happens in the heat of passion. And acknowledging young Joseph must have been rather difficult to love – he was, after all, a spy and a tattle-tale, and his dad’s spoiled-rotten favorite – the only one given special privileges, especially that royal coat, symbolizing his father’s intention to make him chief-child-in-charge when dad passes away – and Joseph flaunting his favorite-son-status, talking about his dreams of everyone else bowing down before him. Young Joseph surely gives his brothers plenty to be angry about.

Still, his brothers guilt is very deep, very dark, and very hard to forgive. And perhaps the worst of all their sins against their brother and their father – even as bad as selling Joseph into slavery (perhaps) – is the cover-up.

The deliberate, calculated, elaborate cover-up of what they’ve done. Slaughtering a goat, spreading it’s blood on Joseph’s multi-colored coat. Lying about it… Lying, probably, even to themselves… about what they’ve done.

***

The last fourteen chapters of Genesis are the story of Joseph and his brothers. But the bible says (quote) “This is the story of the family of Jacob.” Jacob, who just last week, remember, wrestled all night with the angel of God to win the blessing and the new name Israel, meaning God-Wrestler. And the bible tells us this is the story of the family of Jacob… to let us know we’re talking family patterns.

Today we see the sons of Jacob reverting back to old family patterns of deception, favoritism, and jealousy…Starting with a pattern of brother against brother that’s old as Cain murdering brother Abel. A pattern Jacob’s brother Esau threatened to revive… Now here’s sons of Jacob doing likewise.

Here too is the old pattern of family deception that’s as old as Abraham telling the king of Egypt (and another king later) that his wife is his sister, to protect himself…Never mind the risk to his wife. Then in the next generation, his son Isaac says the same to another king about his wife Rebekah. The pattern repeats.

And expanding this pattern of deception, their son Jacob, with mom’s help, impersonates his twin brother Esau to steal their father’s blessing. Jacob and Rebekah slaughter a goat — notice this too is a family pattern — pretending it’s wild game, supposedly caught by Jacob-impersonating-Esau. Now yet another generation keeps the family tradition going. As trickster children trick tricky dad… And –

Here’s the pattern also of family favoritism…that goes back at least as far as Abraham’s son Isaac, favored over son Ishmael. In the next generation there’s Isaac and Rebekah, with their twin sons. She loves Jacob best, he loves Esau best. Now their son Jacob loves the son of his favorite wife more than all his other children combined…

And all this favoritism, deception, and resulting jealousy all seems to be coming to a raging boil and a crashing conclusion… As brothers sell a brother into slavery… And we’re looking at a family portrait etched deeply in blood-stained-shades-of-darkness….

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I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised when we’re reminded that God’s chosen people have clay feet… We’re all cut from the same cloth, all made from the same dusty mud of the earth in the beginning… We all have the same human tendency to mess up that all the children of Adam and Eve still (all of us) seem to be born with.

And we’ve been noticing all through this Genesis sermon series that even our heroes of faith still fall, fail and falter frequently. The themes of Genesis are Creation, Fall, and New Creation. Or, as bible scholar Victor Hamilton says it – Generation, Degeneration, and Regeneration. New creation or regeneration is constantly required — because God’s people keep degenerating and falling.

And of course… the hurt inflicted by those we’re closest to cuts the deepest and hurts the most. Family feuds usually hurt much more than hurts inflicted by neighbors and strangers. And the patterns of human behavior are transmitted most powerfully in our families of origin… Where we observe and absorb more than anywhere else… the patterns that shape our lives…

And just like in our own families… The patterns of our dearly beloved and indisputably dysfunctional first family of the bible keep repeating … And the bible keeps calling attention to our problem behaviors, constantly… Attempting to teach us to notice our patterns… so we can break out of them. (Patterns we don’t see are just about impossible to break… Those we do see we can learn to break free of… Muhammad Ali the boxer used to say, “any punch I can see I can dodge… It’s only the ones I don’t see that can take me out…”)

And the bible keeps letting us know these patterns persist in all of us… To let us know that we are, like the first family of the bible, dearly beloved, in spite of all our failings. And to remind us we need to take the logs out of our own eyes before we can remove splinters from other people’s eyes… The whole first book of the bible is about fixing ourselves first… A job that’s never completed in our lifetime, to be sure…

But if we let the bible convict us of our own sin first, before we go looking for sin in anyone else… The story will indeed keep getting better and better…The darkness will yield to light…more and more… over time…

***

If we stop reading at the end of today’s scriptures from Genesis, we’re stuck in a very dark place… There’s really nobody here in this chapter who looks good. Certainly not Jacob – who, even with his new name Israel, God-Wrestler, we can now see, has not been an effective parent for his children. His favoritism of one over all the others sets the stage for the disastrous family violence of this episode we’ve witnessed. The family patriarch is not looking at all righteous today in our family portrait.

Nor is his son Joseph. Though he’s for sure the least guilty and the most hurting. We surely must sympathize with him more than all the others, of course, as he’s the one sold into slavery. But we also hear just enough to guess he probably contributed to his own downfall… Even Joseph is not looking very righteous in today’s family portrait.

Nor is Reuben, eldest son of Jacob. Who almost sounds good for a moment, as he persuades the brothers to throw Joseph in a pit instead of killing him. But then he disappears when he’s needed most. He apparently walks away — maybe taking a really long (half-a-pack-long)cigarette break… letting the situation slip way out of control…Awfully irresponsible behavior for the first-born-son, who’s supposed to be in charge when dad’s not around. But here’s Reuben, back too late from his ill-timed break… Back in time only to lament about what’s gone down. No help.

Then there’s Judah, proposing selling Joseph into slavery… A compromise only a little better than death… Not looking even a little righteous…And there’s really no brightness I can see in today’s biblical family portrait.

And if we stop here, there’s no good guys, only shades of bad and worse… and very little hope in the story of the family of Jacob.

***

But of course there’s no good reason… to stop reading here…

Any more than there’s any reason for us to stop caring about our own families when things go wrong… Or stop praying for our families, our neighbors, our towns, the Cape, the commonwealth, the nation, God’s world… when times are tough and our story’s looking dark…

Our reading of the bible of course, is only as good as our commitment to struggle with what the bible tells us…

A passive hearing of the word, as the letter of James tells us, bears no fruit. Hearing the word of God without acting on the word can’t save, can’t revive, can’t restore the health of our families, our churches, our neighborhoods. Hearing the word without doing the word doesn’t get it… Any more than saying we care for our family without participating in the life of our families and doing our parts as to our basic family responsibilities…

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We aren’t reading on through the next chapter today, Genesis 38 — partly because of time constraints, partly because I guessed we might have kids with us. Chapter 38 is an R-rated story (though now days it’s probably scored PG-13, I still think it’s R-rated). Read it at home.

Without trying to retell the whole next chapter in a hurry — there is a woman, here, Tamar, heroine of that story. Tamar has been deceived and mistreated by Judah, son of Jacob, brother of Joseph. Now she acts decisively, at great risk to herself — and changes the course of biblical family history. She even gets her father-in-law (and father-of-her-children) Judah to make the first kind-of-sort-of-almost apology and confession of sin in the bible. Well, ok, technically, all he actually says is “she is more in the right than I…” Which does make him the first man in the bible to admit a woman is right and he, the man, is wrong. Which, as I said — is pretty darn close to confessing his sin and apologizing for the first time recorded in the bible. And this is enough to change the story forever…

And now instead of being burned at the stake as Judah had first proposed… Tamar becomes instead mother of twin boys… One of whom will grow up to be great-great-great-grandfather of King David…

And to this day, ever since… Somebody still has to step out in faith and break the family patterns we’re stuck in…Like Tamar does…. If we are to thrive and be fruitful as people of God….

If we’re deeply concerned about broken families, broken church, broken communities… We must, unlike all the sons of Jacob today, but a lot like Tamar in the next chapter, be willing to go beyond making good suggestions… and keep showing up, consistently, to help implement the solutions we say we believe in…

Some courageous persistence is likely to be required.

A whole lot of trusting in Jesus and listening for a word from Jesus will for sure be required.

Thankfully these are things we know how to do. We can do all this.

So let’s thank the Lord.

And let’s sing the Lord’s song…

(Be Still My Soul…)

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