August 20, 2017 – 11th Sunday after Pentecost
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?”
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. From a distance, they planned to murder him. Even when he came physically close, they “would not let him come close emotionally.” 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.” 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.” 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”—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].” 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.” 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.] ”
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.” 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.’”
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.” 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.”
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.”
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.”
* * * * *
 Sadiqa Reynolds, Facebook post, August 16, 2017.
 Ibid., 153.
 Ibid., 148.
 James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 30-31.
 Sacks, 154. Genesis 42.21.
 Ibid., 155.
 Ibid., 154.
 Ibid., 156-157.
 Unedited podcast with Ruby Sales, https://onbeing.org/programs/ruby-sales-where-does-it-hurt-aug2017/, accessed 18 August 2017.
 Patrick J. Willson, “Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 – Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, (semi-continuous supplement), (Louisville: Westminster John Knox), 6.
 Sacks, 157.
 Desmond Tutu, “Goodness Is Stronger than Evil,” © 1995.