In Genesis 37 we read a story that centers around a journey. Jacob asks his son to go check on his older brothers who are shepherding the flock far from home. Joseph is born to his father later in life. He is the firstborn of Rachel, the favored wife. Jacob keeps the boy close, letting the older brothers wander more than 50 miles from home to keep the flocks fed. Joseph was a dreamer and his father nurtured that in him. Joseph shares two dreams with his older half-brothers that point to his future power over them. This goes over like a lead balloon. In Joseph’s world, dreams were believed to be God-given. So the idea that this spoiled brat of a brother would rise above them was more than they could take. They reject the dreams and their hatred for Joseph sharpens. As we page through the family album in Genesis, we keep running into family dysfunction.
Shechem was 50 miles away from home. When Joseph couldn’t find his band of brothers there, he was directed to Dothan, a town that is another 14 miles down the road. Can you imagine sending your middle-schooler 65 miles on foot to do a sibling check? Even more impossible is the idea that they would accept the assignment! Joseph dutifully carries out his father’s request that he, when literally translated, would check on the shalom of the older boys. It’s an ironic word to use given the alienation that dominated their family life. Usually shielded by his adoring father, Joseph is way out of his protective reach. As the older brothers see him approach they bitterly refer to him as the “dreamer of dreams”. They cannot speak a peaceful word to him.
We read that the cistern is dry. It cannot preserve life. Likewise the brothers are emotionally running on empty. There is no peace between them and the favored boy. The very sight of him approaching in the full length coat his father had given him makes their blood boil. This sort of outer garment was a symbol of maturity and status yet it was given to the younger boy. It would be like dressing one of the youngest siblings in a suit and tie and making him foreman over his elders. Jacob, the father, is a schemer who had been ruthless in getting what he wanted in life, set Joseph up for failure by unabashedly preferring him. So, with their elderly father 60 miles away, the ten older brothers set out to crush the dream. They move from killing him to selling him as a slave but they cannot come to agreement. Perhaps they knew in their hearts that there is no place for such envy in a family. Eugene Roop, in his commentary, writes, “Despite all of their schemes, the brothers have managed no murder, no profit, no dramatic rescue, and they have no idea where Joseph is.” Joseph, the boy whose name means “Add” is no longer part of the family. The much beloved addition to Jacob’s clan is gone and the brothers fabricate one lie after another to hide their guilt. The hatred of ten sons prevails over the love of a father. The added one is irreplaceable. The family is set on a course of secrecy and sadness from which it will not recover. Generational sin leaves Jacob’s family gutted.
In this ancient tragedy the juxtaposition is between dreams and power. In Joseph’s case, the two are irreconcilable. Though they would have believed that their little brother’s dreams were from God, they did not honor them. God is the mover and shaker in this story but only in the background. Without the dreams, the siblings might have managed to co-exist. But the dreams God gives Joseph make for a heap of trouble. To resist them requires endless deception and heartache. Generations later the prophet Jeremiah gives us a peek into the broken heart of Rachel, the mother who had waited so long for this beloved son. Referring to the exiled descendants of Jacob who cried out to God for liberation, Jeremiah links them back to the family matriarch: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
But then we remember that Jacob schemed to take the privileged position that his older twin brother deserved. We remember that Rachel’s father, Laban, tricked Jacob into marrying the elder sister first even though he didn’t ask for her hand in marriage. Imagine the damage that did to the relationship between the sisters because of their daddy’s conniving. Add to the mix unbridled favoritism by the father toward one son who is honored with an extravagant robe. We begin to understand that evil didn’t amorphously jump out to claim the dreaming boy. Generations of scheming overshadowed the dreaming and power was chosen over love.
Walter Brueggeman writes, “Dreams permit the imagining of new political possibilities which immediately threaten the old and call it into question. One side resists. The other strives for it.”
Can we qualify some of our present-day angst as a conflict between differing dreams? Is there only fake news in the political arena today or are we hearing the articulation of a dream that speaks to us at a deep level? Are our hearts stirred in the fight for equality between the races? Are we working together to triumph over a deadly virus that has shut down the world? When a minimum wage employee is shot dead for asking a customer to put on a mask, we know that something profound is happening in our world. Is it the god of individualism that the Corona virus disrespects, indiscriminately claiming victims from all different camps. We will not tolerate that!
Our world is a very different place now than it was six months ago. We felt that as we sat in our sanctuary, six feet apart, wearing masks when we reconvened in our building last Sunday. We long awaited the moment we could meet again face-to-face. But we couldn’t help but feel the wedge between us not just because we couldn’t see each other’s smiles but because of the emotional distance traveled since March. I suspect those who made reservations to be in our sanctuary felt a mix of joy and sadness. Whatever dreams we held onto for our church reunion were no doubt unmet to some degree. Some of us met in the sanctuary with finances challenged, job futures uncertain and increasing depression as we realize our planning for what’s next may amount to nothing. We rejoice that our children are back to school but worry about their emotional well-being. What social skills do they miss when study happens in front of a computer at home and not next to their buddies? When classmates reunite in the school building we worry that an invisible virus being passed from one to another as children wrestle on the playground or share their colored pencils with each other. Our dreams for our kids’ education drift anxiously on eggshells because we know that tomorrow could bring school closures anew.
We listen to the news and find that we envy those who seem to have it better. Those folks already fought the COVID battle and it barely touched them. They probably have immunity now. These folks have the money to hire a tutor for their children so that they can head off to their jobs that still support them. Those folks live in an area that is virtually untouched by the disease. That family has thrived during the quarantine whereas ours has had to face its demons. Our envy may be more subtle than that of the ten murderous older brothers. We make comments that put others down so that we look good. We say kind words but look for a way to get things done our way. When our dreams are crushed and our future so very uncertain, it’s almost impossible to keep bitterness out of the weary creases of each day. Why is their life going so well when mine is in a shambles?
In some ways we gathered in our sanctuary on Sunday as a beaten people. When we closed our doors on March 15 and headed to our homes, we imagined we would open our church doors in a matter of weeks and pick up where we left off. But that dream, along with so many others, was crushed for me with the first news reports of refrigerator trucks lining the streets outside NYC hospitals to hold our dead. So what did we bring with us through our sanitized church doors on the long-awaited day of reunion?
Faith. God wants us to be faithful to the dreams of divine origin, no matter our circumstances. When our journey takes a sharp turn and we find ourselves on a lonesome trail, God asks us to remain true to the dream. It would be easy to become bitter about our changed circumstances. Just listen to the news tonight to meet folks who have countless reasons to be bitter about the hand they’ve been dealt in COVID 19. But the very nature of faith is to hang onto the assurance of God’s presence particularly in the worst of times. The very nature of faith is to reach out to each other lovingly when we don’t know if we will be able to pay our lot rent. The very nature of faith is to offer a word of encouragement to a discouraged child who can’t understand how the easy life they so recently lived seems now as only a distant memory.
Perhaps you remember that Joseph ends up a slave in Egpyt where he languishes in prison for a time. A woman of high standing falsely accused him of lurid advances when, in fact, he turned down her bedroom invitation. Joseph was an ancient Emmit Till who didn’t stand a chance as an enslaved foreigner who had the audacity to hang onto a dream that upheld his dignity. But it is his faith in those God-given dreams that protects him from bitterness. He doesn’t ever allow himself to be written out of the narrative in spite of his brothers’ dastardly deed because he carries within him the belief that God is still at work in his life and may yet redeem his poor circumstances. Joseph remains faithful to God while shivering on the floor of a dank prison because of false allegations. His devotion in hardship is as noteworthy to God as the salvation he offered his people when promoted to stand alongside of Pharoah as a trusted advisor.
Maybe you were able to watch the Broadway show, Hamilton, while locked away in your homes? In the final song Alexander Hamilton’s wife sings, “I put myself back into the narrative.” She had every reason to be bitter about the loss of both a son and a husband to gunshot wounds sustained in duel fights. She could carry with her a desire to avenge her husband’s unfair treatment from peers who envied his sizable talents and sought to bring him down. But she puts herself back in the broken pieces of her narrative by honoring Alexander’s legacy. Her proudest achievement was the establishment of the first private orphanage in NYC to provide a safe haven for children orphaned, just as her husband had been. She sings, “In their eyes I see you, Alexander.”
We arrived in our sacred space having said goodbye to some dreams. But we met because we still believe that God is sovereign in spite of the chaos around us. We left the comfort of our pajamas and the luxury of good coffee in bed because we hang onto the dream that through our worship together we can accomplish much more for Christ than we can do alone. We can become embittered by the legitimately unfair turn of events that have rerouted us. But I suspect we left our homes to worship together because we keep putting ourselves back in the narrative by recommitting, time and again, to living the dream that God has given us.