[A sermon preached at Bethlehem Presbyterian Church and Douglas Presbyterian Church based on Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28.]
This part of Joseph’s story is hard to tell. I confess, as I was preparing this week, I found myself wanting to jump forward in the text, to bypass the tension, the family conflict, and the violence and head straight for the reunion and reconciliation that we all know is coming. But that’s not the story that we have in front of us today. The story that we have in front of us is unsettling and ugly. It’s a story about hatred and jealousy. It’s a story about favoritism. It’s a story about brothers conspiring to kill brothers, a story about betrayal. It’s a story about human trafficking. It’s a story that forces us to face the fact that the boogeyman isn’t necessarily the stranger in the dark alley; it’s the kids in the backyard. It’s a story that confronts us with the potential for violence in each one of us, a story that reminds us of the dangers even within our own households. It’s a story in which the word “God” never even shows up. And that’s exactly why it’s a story that we need to continue to tell.
This is a story that we know all too well, if not from our own experience, then from our television screens and newspaper headlines. There are plenty of women, children, and yes, even men, who find themselves trapped in hostile or unsafe living environments. There are plenty of children terrified of going to school for fear of being bullied physically, verbally, and emotionally by their peers. There are plenty of people who feel overwhelmed, confused, and unsure of what to do next as they watch tension and interpersonal conflict escalating to violence in their homes or workplaces. These are all too common occurrences, even if we are unable or unwilling to acknowledge their reality or, heaven help us, their pervasiveness. This isn’t just Joseph’s story. This is our story. It’s the story of our families and our communities, both ancient and modern, and it is also our global story. After all, isn’t this the story of Israel and Palestine? Two peoples and two religions whose heritage can be traced back to a single Father — brothers at war with one another, killing one another due to greed and conflict, jealousy and hatred.
This is a story that plays out not just in biblical stories, not just in world history, not just in our news headlines, and not just in our families, but in each and every one of our hearts. Though we may not all resort to physical violence, we all have experienced how rising tension and bitter conflicts can cause us to do, think, and say things that are mean-spirited, unkind, or hurtful. If we’re really honest with ourselves, we engage in interpersonal violence all the time. After all, gossip, rumors, judgmental thoughts, prejudice, and stereotyping are all just slightly more socially-acceptable ways of doing violence toward one another. We are no better and no worse than Joseph’s brothers. But we can’t help but wonder, when we look at the extreme conflict and violence in their story, how they ever let things so far out of hand. How could they step so far outside of God’s will for the covenant community and for creation? How could they engage in actions that threatened to extinguish God’s promises to them and to their forebears? How did they get to this point? How do we get to this point?
Of course, we can trace the conflict all the way back to Jacob. As we remember from the Old Testament lesson last week, Jacob, Joseph’s father, has never been one for protocol or propriety, and he has no problem being unscrupulous. He kicked his way out of the womb and tricked his way into the promise, and now he sees his own son as another case of the last becoming first. In his old age, Jacob dotes on this son born late to him, and he spares no expense for this special child who is more near and dear to him than the others. His favoritism is both deep and arbitrary, and the brothers definitely take notice. To make matters worse, as they plod out to the fields to do the hard labor of shepherding their father’s flocks, they learn that Jacob sent Joseph to supervise them. Now, keep in mind this is another upheaval of the traditional order of things. Jacob has ordered the youngest to supervise the eldest, and unlike the others, Joseph’s status as the favorite has spared him from ever working a day in his life. He’s always been the boy who’d rather have his head in the clouds than roll up his sleeves and lend a helping hand. He’s always been the tattle tale, the coddled youngest child, the apple of his father’s eye. We can’t help but sympathize with the brothers at least to some extent. And it doesn’t come as any surprise that Jacob’s luxurious gift of a fancy coat and Joseph’s self-important dreams would be the final straw in this conflict.
But even before they conspired to kill him, even before they threw him into the pit and decided to sell him into slavery, something else happened. There were some early warning signs that we would be wise to take notice of. Right after we’re told that Jacob was tattling to his father about the brothers, right after we’re told that Joseph was the favorite child and had been given a special coat, we’re also told that there was a breakdown in communication. In their anger and jealousy, the brothers stopped talking to Joseph. Scripture tells us that they “could not speak peaceably to him.” Isn’t this always where the problems start? When conflict arises, we get mad and we shut down. We become so angry at the other, we become so entrenched in our own viewpoints, that we close off all communication and thereby lose all hope of resolution. We choose being right over being in relationship. Without open dialogue and the ability to speak peaceably and respectfully with one another, we cannot hope to work things out, to bring healing, or to reconcile. Like Joseph and his brothers, when tension rises and we find ourselves in conflict, we forget how to use our words. We see these breakdowns in communication in our families, in our marriages, in our government, and in our international relations. If we could just learn how to talk to one another, how to stay in the conversation even when we’re frustrated and even when we disagree, then we would be able to solve a lot of our problems before they escalate.
In addition to their inability to communicate, another piece of what got the brothers into this situation, another early warning sign, was the scarcity mindset that pervades this story. There is an underlying assumption throughout the narrative that there isn’t enough to go around. After all, if there were enough love, enough attention, enough hands to do the work, enough fancy coats for everyone, then there wouldn’t be any conflict. No one would have to be jealous of one another. No one would have to jockey for position. No one would feel the need to be greedy. If the playing field were truly equal, there would be no reason to resort to violence because there would be no conflict or tension. However, this sort of abundance is no more the case in the ancient world than it is in ours. We’re all too familiar with the scarcity mindset that we find in this story. In our daily lives, there are never enough hours in the day to get everything on our to-do lists done. In our church life, we’re facing declining numbers and shrinking budgets, and there’s a great deal of anxiety across all mainline denominations that there won’t be enough – enough resources, enough people, enough positions – to sustain us. In our global context, we worry about having enough natural resources, enough food and clean water for everyone to get what they need, enough vaccines and doctors when epidemics strike. We’re constantly worried about this thing called “not enough.” And so we do what we can to make ourselves feel secure in an unsecure world. We invest. We build our 401K’s. We hoard what we have and maintain a white-knuckled grip on our resources because we worry that one day the well might run dry. Abundance seems like a myth at best or a delusion at worst, so like the brothers in the story, we let our fear dictate our behavior. We forget that there’s plenty to go around — enough food and air and love for us all – that we don’t have to constantly brandish our fork in order to protect our particular slice of the pie. I just really wonder what would have happened in this story if the brothers realized that they had enough, did enough, were enough? What would happen if we really believed this? What would our families be like? What would our government be like? What would our world be like?
Today we are called to bear witness to the story of a broken family. A family that, seeing no way out of their conflict, resorted to great violence against one another. This text calls us to sit with the devastation that we can cause in relationship with one another. It calls us to sit with our own human shortcomings. It reminds us of the fact that the bond between us is more fragile than we think, and our own capacity to do violence is greater than we think. It reminds us that we belong to one another, and that our life together in community is never easy, but it’s essential. The community is the bearer of the promise, God’s covenant with God’s people. Within the community, there is a potential for great violence and untold suffering, but there is also the possibility of abundant grace. And in every moment, in the quiet clearing of each and every human heart, lies the decision of which possibility we will choose to live into. By the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us, let’s choose grace. Let’s choose communication even when it’s hard. Let’s choose to live into abundance. Let’s choose being in relationship over being right. Let’s choose life. Amen.