A Father’s Love, the Brothers’ Hate

August 20, 2017 – 11th Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 37.1-28

This morning we begin yet another sibling rivalry story in the book of Genesis. This is the story of Jacob and his sons, specifically the son Jacob loved the most, Joseph, who was also the son of the wife he loved the most, Rachel. It is the story of the brothers who resented their father’s favoritism and hated the brother who was loved the most by their father.

This story takes up nearly a third of the book of Genesis but the lectionary only gives us two Sundays with the story of the family of Jacob. We jump in this morning at the beginning of the conflict between Joseph and his brothers and then hear the resolution of the conflict next week.

READ: Genesis 37

In a speech this week at the Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort, the President of the Louisville Urban League, Sadiqa Reynolds, said when she hears the slogan “make America great again” she wonders when it was that America was so great. And great for whom?

“Was she great when it was legal to own another human being?… [Reynolds asks.]

Was she great when the Chief Justice said to Dred Scott that a black man has no rights that a white man is bound to respect?…

Was she great when she made education illegal for black people?

Was she great in 1860 when rather than accept blacks as equals – American citizens decided to secede from America?

Was she great after the civil war when terrorist groups like the KKK were founded to keep her former slaves in a state of subservience and fear? Groups that our leaders are now empowering. Groups that we saw active in Charlottesville [last weekend].

Was America great in the 20th century when lynchings, terror and inequality were so pervasive that they mandated the founding of organizations like the National Urban League.

What about 1954 when southern states responded to the Brown v. Board [of Education] decision by reincorporating confederate symbols into their state flags…

When was America great for Black people?

Was she great when black veterans of World War II came home and couldn’t get jobs…

Was she great when she allowed and encouraged redlining of our communities, creating the urban challenges we now all live with in Urban America?”[1]

The history that Sadiqa is recounting does not yet have a good ending.

 

This week, I’ve been thinking about the movie “The Mission.” The movie is set in 1750. The Treaty of Madrid divided up land in South America between the Spanish and Portuguese empires. And there’s an ensuing conflict between the Jesuit missions and the indigenous people and the political empires. Near the movie’s end, one of the Jesuit missions is attacked by Portuguese and Spanish soldiers who murdered almost all of the priests and the indigenous men, women and children, who had sought sanctuary in the mission.

In a final conversation between a Catholic Cardinal and the Portuguese governor, the governor looks out at the destroyed mission and the massacre that has taken place and laments that what happened was unfortunate but inevitable because we must work in the world; the world is thus.’” The Cardinal replies, “No, thus have we made the world.”

 

The story that we hear of Joseph and his brothers doesn’t start well and it doesn’t end well either. Once again, we hear about a father loving one son more than the others. Jacob loves Joseph more than his other sons. He shows that love by making Joseph a special coat.

The Hebrew word describing the garment is uncertain but some translations now say, “a robe with sleeves.” The sleeves may indicate a life of leisure because you can’t do manual labor with sleeves flapping around. They get in the way. The story says Joseph is tending sheep with the sons of his father’s slaves. But it may also be that Joseph gets to stay around the house with his father. This love and favoritism shown to Joseph causes his brothers to hate him. And when Joseph starts telling his brothers about his grandiose dreams where everyone bows down to him, his brothers hate him even more.

One day Jacob sends Joseph out to check on his brothers. They are all out pasturing the flock—perhaps while Joseph has been at home with his father. Joseph is looking for his brothers and eventually they see him while he is still at a distance and they make plans to kill him.

On one hand, we could read this as purely a geographical detail. The brothers see their brother Joseph coming toward them while he is still a ways away.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book about confronting religious violence, Not in God’s Name, suggests we read this detail as an emotional detail. The brothers saw his robe but they couldn’t see his face yet and so they didn’t see him as a person. They saw him as a stranger.[2] From a distance, they planned to murder him. Even when he came physically close, they “would not let him come close emotionally.”[3] Stripped of his humanity, devoid of his brotherhood, he was stripped of his robe and thrown into a pit.

Then they sat down to eat.

It is an odd detail. Brothers have just made a plan to murder their own brother, the outcast brother is held captive in a pit, and the brothers sit down to eat.

I found myself thinking about lynchings in this country. James Cone in his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, says during “‘the lynching era,’ between 1880 and 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women.”[4] Lynchings became a white social spectacle. They were announced in the paper. Photos were taken that were turned into postcards to mail to friends and family members. White families—adults and children—brought picnics to enjoy together at lynchings—as African Americans were tortured and murdered.

So Joseph’s brothers plot to kill him and then they sit down to eat—as if everything was ordinary. It’s a grizzly detail.

Soon they see a caravan of traders on their way to Egypt. They figure their brother is worth more to them alive then dead and so they sold him to the traders for twenty pieces of silver. They sell their brother into slavery and Joseph was taken to Egypt where he was sold to an Egyptian officer of Pharaoh.

The story mentions the traders as Ishmaelites and Midianites. It may be a mash-up of two stories traditions here. The irony in this part of the story is that Ishmaelites were descendants of the brothers’ great-uncle Ishmael, whose mother was Hagar, an Egyptian slave in the household of Abraham and Sarah. Midianites were also their relatives—descendants of their great-grandfather Abraham and his wife in old age, Keturah.

So descendants of an Egyptian slave in the household of Abraham and Sarah will now enslave an Israelite and after a few generations, Egyptians will enslave generations of Israelites.

And so the beginning of the story of Joseph and his brothers, the story of the family of Jacob, ends with estrangement, violence, and enslavement. This part of the story of a father’s love and the brothers’ hate ends with hate triumphing over love.

 

With the lectionary’s abridged version of the story of the family of Jacob, we miss hearing at the end of chapter 37 about the deep well of grief of Jacob when he hears and sees what he believes to be news of his beloved son’s death. The brothers lie and say they found a bloodied robe and they think it might be Jacob’s son’s robe (they have kept Joseph at such a distance they can’t even call him their brother). Jacob, assuming Joseph’s death, is inconsolable.

 

I wonder if mourning isn’t part of what we too must do these days as well. We can no longer act as if damage has not been inflicted, as if terror has not reigned, as if injustice lives only in the past. Whether we are on the side of “thus is the world” or “thus have we made the world,” neither proposition can protect us from the estrangement, violence, and enslavement that continues in our community, our nation and our world.

 

Part of Joseph’s story in Egypt includes being falsely accused of wrong doing and being unjustly imprisoned. Another person in jail will eventually help him get released and Joseph, quite improbably, is noticed by the Pharaoh and eventually becomes the second in command in Egypt and helps the Egyptians plan for and survive years of famine.

The famine was widespread and Jacob sent his sons to Egypt to try and procure food for their family. They end up in front of Joseph asking for food but they do not recognize him. He has truly become a stranger to them. Joseph recognizes them but keeps his identity a secret. Instead, he sets up several situations where the brothers must reckon with what they did years ago. Experiencing a piece of this they say to each other, “We deserve to be punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.”[5] They knew the truth that every time we harm someone, that harm rebounds on us and others. At another place in the story, one of the brothers is “willing to sacrifice his own freedom rather than let [one of his brothers] be enslaved”[6]—a reversal of what the brothers were willing to do years ago when they sold their brother Joseph into slavery.

In Judaism there is a “concept of ‘perfect repentance’…which is a simple demonstrable change of [action].”[7] Rabbi Sacks says “perfect repentance comes about when you find yourself in the same situation but this time you act differently. That is proof in action of a change in heart.”[8] We can say we’re sorry, but what are we going to do about it? “Repentance—true change of character—is difficult. Yet it is repentance and moral growth on which the biblical vision depends [says Rabbi Sacks]…Repentance is the proof that we can change. The [brother] who offers to sacrifice his freedom so that [his youngest brother] can go free is not the same man he was twenty-two years earlier [when he agreed to sell his brother Joseph into slavery.] ”[9]

 

In our country, it is white people who created the culture of white supremacy and it is white people who have continued to enforce it both legally and illegally; both overtly and covertly. It is also we who are white who can decide to dismantle the culture of white supremacy and take action to do so. We too, can change, repent and grow.

I heard Krista Tippett on her podcast recently quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel said, “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”[10] Those of us who are white in this community assume we’re not white supremacists—and I don’t believe we harbor the same hate as the young men who demonstrated in Charleslottesville last weekend. But we have all been steeped in a culture of white supremacy and there are attitudes, assumptions, and actions we must excavate from our lives. Ways of being in the world that derive, often unconsciously but also consciously, from the culture of white supremacy that we have absorbed simply by being born in this country that was founded on the enslavement of human beings who were considered strangers. Who we did not see as human. Who we saw only at a distance.

 

I read this week that “at the Martin Luther King Jr., Memorial Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, worship begins with the opening sentences from the story of Joseph (this is the King James Version): ‘Behold, this dreamer cometh. Come now therefore, and let us slay him…and we shall see what will become of his dreams.’”[11]

Indeed.

The religious dream of Dr. King’s, and so many of the Civil Rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s, was drawn right from the biblical prophets and “shows the power of a religious vision to reframe history”—and thereby to liberate us, says Rabbi Sacks, “from the otherwise violent dynamic of revenge and retaliation.”[12] As much as we would like it, this liberation rarely seems to move in a straight line. It happens in fits and starts. It moves with energy and then stops abruptly. And at times it unwinds.

But the biblical story says that people can change. We can change, repent and grow. “And if we can change ourselves, together we can change the world.” This freedom God has given us “includes the freedom to reshape our understanding of the past, healing some of its legacy of pain.”[13]

That’s part of what the Tuesday Book study is doing in their choices of authors to learn from. It’s an opportunity we have when we tutor students at Coleridge-Taylor or Engelhard or Simmons College—doing our part to support all students to be successful. It’s what you do when you show up to a rally or a prayer service or write a letter to an elected official calling for an end to injustice. It’s what’s behind our campaign to raise money for a scholarship for a Simmons College student. It’s what happens on Wednesdays when we see our neighbors not as strangers at a distance but as sisters and brothers with whom we share Christ’s peace.

Sadiqa Reynolds, at the end of her speech in Frankfort, said, “Unity requires more than a rally, more than a conversation. Unity requires you to stand with us everywhere that justice demands.”[14]

The story of Joseph and his brothers that is told in the lectionary reading ends with estrangement, violence and enslavement. It ends with the brothers’ hate triumphing over the father’s love. But we know that this is not the end of the story. We know that we can change. And if we can change, we can change the world. That change comes from God’s goodness and love and light and life. So we trust the words of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu that we have sung so often:

“Goodness is stronger than evil.
Love is stronger than hate.
Light is stronger than darkness.
Life is stronger than death.
Victory is ours. Victory is ours.
Through God who loves us.”[15]

* * * * *

[1] Sadiqa Reynolds, Facebook post, August 16, 2017.

[2] Ibid., 153.

[3] Ibid., 148.

[4] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 30-31.

[5] Sacks, 154. Genesis 42.21.

[6] Ibid., 155.

[7] Ibid., 154.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 156-157.

[10] Unedited podcast with Ruby Sales, https://onbeing.org/programs/ruby-sales-where-does-it-hurt-aug2017/, accessed 18 August 2017.

[11] Patrick J. Willson, “Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 – Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, (semi-continuous supplement), (Louisville: Westminster John Knox), 6.

[12] Sacks, 157.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Reynolds.

[15] Desmond Tutu, “Goodness Is Stronger than Evil,” © 1995.

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The Rejection of Rejection

August 6, 2017 – 9th Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 29.15-30.8

The Rejection of Rejection

As we pick up our story this morning, Jacob is on his way to his uncle’s house; fleeing the anger of his brother, Esau, from whom Jacob has stolen his father’s blessing. Somewhere on that journey, Jacob comes to a well and meets a woman named Rachel who happens to be the daughter of Jacob’s uncle who has come with her sheep to the well for water. Jacob tells Rachel who he is and she returns to her father with the news that his nephew is nearby. Uncle Laban runs to meet Jacob and brought him to his house where Jacob stayed for a month.

READ Genesis 29.15-30.8 As you hear this story, you might listen for any parallels between it and the story of Jacob and his brother Esau.

Notes on the text: 29.18: Meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain. Leah had “tender” eyes which might mean “lovely” or it might mean “weak”; Rachel was “shapely and beautiful.”[i]

29.25 – An ironic question for Jacob, who deceived his father, to ask of his uncle.

29.32 – All the names of the children carry some part of the meaning of the emotional expression of Leah or Rachel.

 

I thought about titling this sermon “What Goes Around Comes Around.” Jacob the trickster is tricked by his uncle. The deceiver is deceived. He is burned by the privilege of the elder child over the younger child. He wants to marry Rachel. He’s gets Leah instead (and then Rachel in exchange for a total of 14 years of labor).

Coming from a family where Jacob’s father loved Jacob’s brother more than he loved Jacob, Jacob repeats a version of that in loving Rachel more than Leah. Which sets up sibling rivalry between the two sisters—another family dynamic Jacob knows all too well. (Two weeks ago when I preached on Jacob and Esau I said all the stories of sibling rivalry were among brothers, I obviously forgot about Rachel and Leah.) Leah wants what Rachel has which is her husband’s love. Rachel wants what Leah has which is children.

Each of these sibling rivalry stories is a story of rejection. One sibling is loved more than the other. The other sibling feels rejected. Isaac and Ishamael. Jacob and Esau. Rachel and Leah. And at the end of Genesis, Joseph and his brothers.

It is a human reality to love one person more than another person. Most of us love people we know more than we love people we don’t know. We love friends more than we love strangers. In a theoretical way we could say we love all people but in reality, it’s human nature to love some people more than others. It’s probably not a stretch to understand that Jacob would love one of his wives more than the other. We may not think it’s right but we understand how it happens.

And at the same time we can probably feel how painful it would be to be Leah—the one who is loved less. The one who is rejected. You’ve probably had the experience of being shut out of a circle of people you thought were your friends. Or being the one who was broken up with. Or feeling unable to measure up in comparison with a sibling who seemed to be unable to do anything wrong. Or discovering who you are or what you value leaves you on the margins, or excluded from, of your family.

More than just individually and personally, we can also think about this systemically. Take systemic racism, for instance. Systemic racism and white supremacy culture both establish those who are chosen (primarily people who are white) and those who are rejected (primarily people of color). And just as it feels terrible to be rejected in a personal circumstance, it also feels terrible to be rejected in a systemic circumstance. For those of us who are white, we have more and more opportunities these days to comprehend the rejection experienced by people of color, especially African Americans, in the history of our country: enslavement, Jim Crow, lynching, red-lining, mass incarceration, education inequality. And experiences of the exclusion and exploitation of immigrants from the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 1880s to today’s Muslim Travel Ban.

While religion is often used to exclude people, and we see that even in some places in the Bible, in these stories of sibling rivalry in Genesis, God always sees and hears “the plight of the rejected.”[ii] And reading these stories we cannot escape feeling the anguish of those who are rejected. And God feels it too because in each story, God comes alongside the one who is rejected and provides a blessing.

God saw Leah was unloved. And in God’s compassion God gave Leah children.

A sidebar about that: The Bible has lots of stories about the capacity or incapacity of women to bear children. The Bible’s perspective much of the time is that to bear children is to be blessed and to be unable to bear children is to be not blessed and even cursed. That’s the biblical view from a different day and time. It is not an easy view for women, especially, and also men, who long to be parents and have been unable to have children. In our day and time, this is not a theological perspective that we should make normative. Because people have all kinds of reasons for not having children and not being able to have children and now we know from science it has nothing to do with the absence of God’s blessing.

I want to emphasize God sees and hears and responds with compassion for all those who are rejected. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says “Genesis is the story of two covenants…between God and humanity on the one hand, and between God and Jacob’s children on the other. God unconditionally affirms both.”[iii] It is not the case for God that as one group is chosen, the other is rejected.

It has been easy for people to read these stories as about inclusion and exclusion. Isaac is included. Ishmael is excluded. And from there it’s not far to: Judaism is good. Islam is bad. Or push ahead to the New Testament and say Christians are good for accepting Jesus and Jews are bad for rejecting him. That’s a poor reading of the Bible.

Rabbi Sacks, in his book titled Not in God’s Name, which confronts religious extremism and violence, says, “Dividing the world into saints and sinners, the saved and the damned, the children of God and the children of the devil, is the first step down the road to violence in the name of God.”[iv]

And to divide these stories about siblings into the children of God and not the children of God is a misreading of the stories. Because, as Rabbi Sacks says, God has a covenant with everyone—one covenant with all of humanity, in fact, with all living creatures, established back in Genesis 9 after the flood, and a covenant with Abraham and his family and the descendants of Jacob, the stories of whom we hear in Genesis.[v] The message in Genesis is no one is excluded. No one is rejected. In these stories, God rejects rejection.

In this day of globalization, we know we are all one family. We know about people and events all around the world. What happens to one person or one community or one country has effects beyond individual or communal or national borders.

Rabbi Sacks says, “Every time we harm someone, that harm rebounds on us and others.”[vi]

Wendell Berry says we all live downstream from someone and what they throw into the river will end up affecting us. And what we throw in the river will end up affecting the people who live downstream from us.

If what’s in the river is rejection and hatred, that’s what we all get. If what’s in the river is compassion, that’s what we all get. Scientist turned Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard talks, writes and teaches about meditation focused on compassion. We know the importance of exercising our physical bodies regularly. Ricard emphasizes the importance of also exercising our mind and spirit by meditating on compassion. It’s a skill that can be cultivated just as playing the piano is a skill that can be practiced and improved upon.

Compassion is an antidote to rejection. It’s a skill for opening our hearts to others. A skill for training our minds to encounter others as blessed children of God and responding to others from a well of compassion. We know from modern neuroscience that our brains can change and meditation and focused attention on compassion will change our brains. Our mind will change. And, says, Ricard, “what we are will change.”[vii]

We can also practice compassion at this table. While it will physically be those of us in this room who share this feast, as the traditional communion liturgy says, “People shall come from north and south, from east and west, to sit at table together in the realm of God.” As we come to this table, where all lives are fed and blest, we can practice a prayer of imagining a person and holding them in God’s light and love. Invite God to bring a person or two into your mind and hold them in God’s light and love and bring them with you as you come to the table.

As we hear the stories of pain and struggle in Genesis and see God’s compassionate response with blessing for each person, may we too practice and cultivate this compassion that comes from God, that we might experience God’s blessing and in turn be a blessing to others.

* * * * *

[i] Danna Nolan Fewell and David M. Gunn, Gender, Power, & Promise: The Subject of the Bible’s First Story, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 78 and Miguel A. De La Torre, Genesis, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 267.

[ii] Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, (New York: Schocken Books, 2015), 168.

[iii] Ibid., 169.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid., 195.

[vi] http://rabbisacks.org/quotes/, accessed 5 August 2017.

[vii] OnBeing podcast, “Happiness as Human Flourishing,” https://onbeing.org/programs/matthieu-ricard-happiness-as-human-flourishing-jul2017/, accessed 5 August 2017.