Ordinary 25A– September 21, 2014

What Dreams May Come

I don’t know how many of you are old enough to remember the Smothers Brothers Show from the 1960’s, but if you do, you probably also remember the line that Tom Smothers uttered to his brother, Dick on nearly every show:   “Mom always liked you best.”  It always got a big laugh.  All of us have had the nagging suspicion at some point that one of our brothers or sisters was, indeed, mom or dad’s favorite.
We are dear friends with a family who has four accomplished and beautiful adult daughters, but the dad has a habit of saying out loud that the third daughter, Iris, is his favorite.  Every time Iris comes home to visit, and we are with the whole family, dad points to his daughter and says, “That’s Baby Iris.  Did you know that she’s my favorite?”  The other daughters are so used to dad’s routine that they just roll their eyes.  In fact, it has become a family joke.  Our friend dearly loves all of his daughters.  But I sometimes wonder how it affects the other three sisters to hear their father’s preference for Baby Iris. 
If you know anything about Joseph, you know that the problems with his brothers began even before he was born.  Joseph’s father, Jacob, loved Rachel more any of his wives, and Joseph was one of two sons that Joseph had with Rachel.  As a result of his great love for Rachel, Jacob doted on Joseph, and unfortunately for everyone – particularly for Joseph – Jacob didn’t keep his family favorite a secret.  If nothing else, you may recall that Jacob loved Joseph so much that he gave him a really beautiful coat, which annoyed his older brothers to no end.  Maybe as a result of all that spoiling by his dad, Joseph thought quite highly of himself and made sure everybody knew it.   Joseph even had dreams about how awesome he was, and freely shared his visions with the family. 

Eventually, his brothers from another mother decided they had enough of their annoying younger brother.  They had had enough of Joseph and his coat and his boasting and most especially his dreams.  So they got rid of Joseph about as completely as they could without actually murdering him.  They beat Joseph up, threw him into a deep pit, left him for dead, and ultimately sold him into slavery. 
And that is where our story begins today.  Joseph has been sold by his brothers to the Ishmaelites for 20 pieces of silver and is taken to Egypt.

Genesis 39:1-23 

Now Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. 2The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man; he was in the house of his Egyptian master. 3His master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands. 4So Joseph found favour in his sight and attended him; he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. 5From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field. 6So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge; and, with him there, he had no concern for anything but the food that he ate.

Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking. 7And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, ‘Lie with me.’ 8But he refused and said to his master’s wife, ‘Look, with me here, my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my hand. 9He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?’ 10And although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not consent to lie beside her or to be with her. 11One day, however, when he went into the house to do his work, and while no one else was in the house, 12she caught hold of his garment, saying, ‘Lie with me!’ But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside. 13When she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled outside, 14she called out to the members of her household and said to them, ‘See, my husband* has brought among us a Hebrew to insult us! He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice; 15and when he heard me raise my voice and cry out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside.’ 16Then she kept his garment by her until his master came home, 17and she told him the same story, saying, ‘The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to insult me; 18but as soon as I raised my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside.’
19 When his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, saying, ‘This is the way your servant treated me’, he became enraged. 20And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined; he remained there in prison. 21But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love; he gave him favour in the sight of the chief jailer. 22The chief jailer committed to Joseph’s care all the prisoners who were in the prison, and whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. 23The chief jailer paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.
Last week we heard God’s promise to Abram, that he would be the father of many generations, and that his descendents would become a blessing to all the families of the earth.  In this text today, we see how God’s blessing is working out for one of the Abraham’s descendents.  And the answer is – not so well.  While Abraham had plenty of intimate conversations with God, by the time we reach Joseph’s generation in the book of Genesis, God has gone quite silent and maybe even gone missing, at least from Joseph’s perspective
After being literally ditched by his jealous brothers, Joseph is sold as a slave to one of Pharaoh’s guards.  Although Jacob’s favorite kid is soon promoted to head of household operations, things go from bad to worse for Joseph.  Pretty soon, Joseph finds himself sitting in prison, unjustly accused for doing the right thing by resisting the advances of his master’s double-crossing wife.  Joseph’s situation is the perfect illustration of the old saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Thanks to his master’s scheming wife, Joseph finds himself back in another kind of pit. 
“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called to his purpose.”  It may be that Paul was thinking of Joseph’s story when he wrote these words in Romans 8.  Because the story of Joseph’s life tells us something of the hidden ways in which God works.  The story begins with Joseph’s childhood dreams of glory, which gets him into trouble with his brothers.  Joseph experiences a completely unearned ascent to become the favorite son of his father, only to find himself abandoned down in the depths of a dark pit.  Although he is rescued and becomes Potiphar’s most valuable household employee, even that momentary recovery of status leads to Joseph ending up in prison. 
But Joseph keeps dreaming through the ups and downs of his life. It is his ability to dream that fuels his ascent to become the second most powerful man in Egypt. Still, it takes Joseph a very long time to finally put together the pieces and see that God’s hand was in all of life, the good, the bad and the ugly. After his father has died and he faces his brothers many years after their cruelty to him, Joseph is able to finally look at his life in the eye and say, Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today (Gen. 45:20).
The narrative about Joseph is the complete story of a complete human life, lived sometimes fearfully, often foolishly, but faithfully.  In the fullness of time and maturity, Joseph lives fully into God’s purpose to make the descendents of Abraham a blessing for all the families of the world.  God takes this dysfunctional family and this deeply flawed son of Jacob, and puts all the fractured pieces together to turn it into something good. Joseph survives terrible parenting, sibling rivalry, blatant betrayal and political scheming to make it through.  Joseph becomes a blessing, despite it all and despite himself.   Even when he didn’t recognize it, Joseph experienced something more real than any dream could be – the steadfast love of God. 
Yet, I still wonder…how did Joseph cope? 
What would it feel like to have my brother decide I was the worst person ever – so bad, in fact, that he decided he wanted nothing to do with me?  For reasons I couldn’t control?  I can’t imagine he’d do sell me into slavery, but my brother could certainly cut me off or walk away from me.  Wouldn’t I seethe with anger?  Wouldn’t I want revenge?  The prospect of losing my brother is something I can barely imagine without feeling hurt beyond description.
How did Joseph cope?
What if someone accused you of something that was completely untrue, and that accusation cost you your job, your family, your freedom?  How would you deal with that anger?  How could you ever trust another human being?  How did Joseph manage to stay sane while he was in prison for a crime he did not commit? 
Think about the prophets like Jeremiah.  How would it feel to be beaten, dragged to the center of town and placed in the stocks to be humiliated in front of everyone simply because you were doing exactly what YHWH called you to do?  No wonder Jeremiah is called the weeping prophet.  You would be weeping too if you saw Jerusalem burning to the ground, all of your hard work going up in flames.
How did Jeremiah cope?  How do any of us cope when we are laid so low by life that we feel like we can never get back up again?
One of the reasons these Old Testament stories are so valuable for us is the very fact that they are not portraits of perfect people or perfect families.  And for that we should be grateful, because if you imagine your family is somehow immune from the sorts of crazy that infected Joseph’s clan, I have a bridge I’d be happy to sell you.
In fact, the sons and daughters of Abraham throughout history and right up until this day have been flawed and sinful and yet, God has continued God’s work in us, regardless of human attitudes or actions.  Walter Brueggemann says that the primary theme of Joseph’s story concerns God’s hidden and decisive power, which works in and through and also sometimes against human forms of power.  God is working out God’s purpose through and sometimes in spite of Egypt, through and sometimes in spite of Joseph and his brothers. 
The purpose of God is established early in the narrative of Joseph’s life when he announces to his brothers that he had a dream about them bowing down to him – in other words, Joseph dream suggested that he would become a leader of people.  And that is exactly what Joseph becomes – a leader who winds up preventing the starvation of thousands of people.  His brothers could not have known, nor could Joseph, the significance of the dream in announcing God’s purpose for Joseph.  It is only in hindsight, when Joseph meets his brothers many years later that Joseph can see what it all meant: Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.  
If someone standing on the edge of the pit had whispered down to Joseph that God had a plan for his life and everything would turn out fine, it would not have helped Joseph one bit, at least not at that point in his life.  Joseph had to move through the pain, a pain that mattered very much to him when he was in the middle of it.  And the promise of this story for us is that Joseph’s pain mattered to God, too.  God hung in there with Joseph, proving yet again that God’s blessing is not a bubble which protects us from pain or even death, but a promise that neither pain nor death will have the final word.  Someone has said that, “God is like one of those genius sculptors who can make art out of anything. Give him a tire rim, a wrecked bicycle, a brass bedpost, and some old duct tape and he will weld it all into an eagle.  Nothing is too bent to be used – not even tragedies, not even bad decisions, not even plain human meanness.”[1] 
We have been talking together as a congregation, looking at where we are as a community of faith, and trying to see where it is that God is calling us.  As Jon Stellfox and many of you said over these past six weeks, “This is so hard.”  And it really is hard. It is hard to imagine what kind of changes God may be calling us to make and what those changes will mean for us.  How painful will they be?  How much do we have to lose? It is even harder to think that a decisions we make might be the wrong.  It is hard to avoid the deep fear that we might totally mess this up and end up in a dark pit.  It is hard to imagine that despite every good intention, we could very well fail. 
Here’s the thing.  The church is not called to be successful.  The church is called to be faithful.  A preacher wrote, “You are never going to be of great use to God until you get the illusions of greatness knocked out of you so that there is some room for the Spirit of God to dwell.”[2]  In other words, this is God’s work to do, not ours.  God is the one who make sure that God’s promise always has a future in the human history.   God may work through us, sometimes even against us, but God will never leave us.  There is nothing we can mess up so thoroughly that it cannot be redeemed by God.  Not the church.  Not our families.  Not even our own lives.  It was true for Joseph.  True for Joseph’s family.  True for us too.
Sometimes God’s work is obvious, and sometimes it is not.  Sometimes our awareness of God washes over us like an ocean wave, and sometimes it is only a distant blip somewhere in the dry desert of faith, when we are just holding on for dear life. Sometimes God seems to speak to us in a joyful shout from the center of our being, and sometimes we have to strain to hear God through the voices of our families, our friends and sometimes even our enemies.  God will surely come to us, too.  In whatever dreams may come to us, we can trust we are a part of the great story of God’s goodness, which is everlasting. 
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine. 118.
[2] Craig Barnes, “Faith is for Dreamers,” June 8, 2008, Shadyside Presbyterian Church.