Sunday, August 24, 2014

Joseph Who?

Exodus 1:8-2:10
August 24, 2014

            Approximately three years ago, I was moving from Iowa to Oklahoma.  In the midst of packing boxes and making decisions and doing all the things you do when you’re moving, I made a visit to the community college where I taught for seven years.  At that time, I hadn’t taught on campus for over a year, although I’d been teaching online.  When I went, I knew that the majority of students I’d taught would no longer be there.  But I didn’t expect to know as few teachers as I did.  Although I was an adjunct, I still spent a great deal of time on that campus.  So it was disconcerting, to say the least, to be remembered by so few – or forgotten by so many.  I think I expected to walk in and be greeted like a long lost friend.  Instead, I received a few "Oh yeah, Amy.  You taught ethics didn't you?"  Even the folks who did remember me and were glad to see me had work to do.  They had papers to grade and reports to submit.  Life at the college had gone inexorably on, without me.  I walked away from that visit feeling as though my name was changed from Amy to Amy Who?  It is hard to be unremembered. 
            In the story before us today, life has also gone inexorably on.  Last week we completed our journeys through Genesis.  We left the Joseph Cycle with Joseph, the prime minister of Egypt, reconciled with his brothers.  His entire family has moved from Canaan to Egypt, to the land of Goshen.  Not only did Joseph save his own flesh and blood from the terrible famine devastating that part of the world, he saved all of Egypt as well.  Because of his salvific actions, you’d expect the name Joseph to be uttered in reverent tones for generations.  Yet at the beginning of this new act in the story of God’s people, many generations have passed.  Centuries have passed, and a new king, a new pharaoh, has risen to power.  If someone were to say the name "Joseph" to this pharaoh, I suspect his response would have been, "Joseph who?"  Joseph, the Hebrew man who saved Egypt has been forgotten.  Not only has Joseph been forgotten, but his people are now feared by this new king.  He fears them because there are just so many of them!  If Egypt goes to war, the Israelites might join with the enemy and fight against him.  How did he deal with this imagined threat?  He sought to control them by mercilessly enslaving them.  Perhaps they can be broken through hard labor.  Maybe, just maybe, working long hours in brutal conditions will keep their population in check.  But the Israelites continue to multiply.  It seems that even torturous hours of backbreaking work couldn't stop the Hebrew people from being prolific.  Even if Joseph was no longer remembered, the promise of God to Abraham that his descendants would number more than the stars seemed to be coming true – even in or in spite of, slavery. 
            Pharaoh’s fear of the Hebrew people made it easy for him to make them the scapegoat for any of Egypt’s ills.  As history testifies, when our political leaders tell us to be afraid of a group of people, we too often comply.  So not only did Pharaoh fear the Israelites, so did all Egyptians. 
            Slavery wasn't slowing the Hebrews down, so the pharaoh decided to try another course of action.  He summoned two midwives who helped with the labor and delivery by the Hebrew women, Shiphrah and Puah.  If I were to mention these two names randomly, outside of the context of these verses, you might ask yourself, "Shiphrah and Puah who?"  However these two names, these two women were well known by my fellow seminarians and I.  They made for a great trivia question.
            What were the names of the two midwives in Exodus?  Puah and Shiphrah! 
            Other students talked about naming pets after them.  Some joked, at least I hope they were joking, about naming their children after them.  Wouldn’t they be great names for twin girls?!  I think a couple of students dressed up as them for a Halloween party.  Yet outside of a specialized community like a seminary, these two women, Shiphrah and Puah, aren't well known.  But what they did set in motion an extraordinary course of events. 
            The pharaoh summoned them because he had orders for them.  When they were attending to a Hebrew woman in labor, they were to kill all newborn boys.  The infant girls could live, but kill the baby boys.  But Puah and Shiphrah feared God more than they feared Pharaoh.  They wouldn't kill innocent babies.  So they did something that tends to be overlooked and forgotten in the larger scheme of the Exodus.  They lied.  They lied to the king of Egypt.  They lied to a ruler who didn't just believe he was the monarch of a nation; he believed he was god on earth.  And the lie they told the pharaoh was fantastic!  Basically they told the man who ruled everyone and everything that the Hebrew women delivered their babies so fast and so easily, so "vigorously," the midwives couldn't get to them in time.  Egyptian women might deliver their children slowly, and with a certain amount of decorum, but babies born of Hebrew women were like cars shooting out of the final turn in a log ride.  They just came on their own!
            This lie told by these remarkably brave women begins the events that led to the birth of Moses; to his ride down the Nile in a basket, which in Hebrew is the same word for "ark;" to his being saved by the Pharaoh's own daughter; to a burning bush and the call of the great I Am; to a hard-hearted ruler and a series of ever-worsening plagues; to the parting of a sea; to the wilderness, to the promised land. 
            In a commentary he wrote about this passage a few years ago, David Lose refers to a book by Andy Andrews called The Butterfly Effect.  Essentially, this effect is the idea that small actions can ripple out into big change.  Lose offers an example about Norman Borlaug from this book.  Norman Borlaug developed high-yield, disease resistant corn and wheat.  That hybrid corn and wheat saved millions of people from famine.  But Borlaug ran an office in New Mexico created by former vice-president Henry Wallace.  Wallace created this particular office for the development of seeds that would grow in arid climates.  Wallace was mentored by George Washington Carver, who loved flora and fauna and instilled that love in Henry.  George Washington Carver was an orphan who was adopted by Moses and Susan Carver.  And so on.  And so on. 
            This is the butterfly effect.  Borlaug was able to do the really big thing that he did, creating hybrid seeds that saved the lives of millions of people, because of smaller actions, smaller choices made by other people. 
            Who knows how many baby boys were saved because of Puah and Shiphrah?  We can’t know the answer to that question.  But we do know about one little guy their actions saved.  Moses.  He was rescued twice.  First, by Puah and Shiphrah, then by Pharaoh's daughter.  One child spared, one child rescued, grows up to rescue a nation. 
                Perhaps what we take from this story, from these two little known and often forgotten women, is that small, seemingly inconsequential actions can effect dramatic change.  It is the butterfly effect.  What was true for Puah and Shiphrah is true for us.  We can't predict how one small action on our part can set the gears in motion for a much larger change. 
            In his commentary, David Lose made the point that the world is changed by ordinary people one small act at a time.  It seems to me that this means that every single one of us has the power, the capability, the wherewithal to effect change.  Every.  Single.  One.  What we might think of as little more than a small gesture of kindness or compassion could initiate the butterfly effect that leads to a larger change. 
            In the midst of all the bad and sad news we've been hearing and reading lately, there has been a piece of good news.  For two days the customers at a Starbucks in Florida paid for the people in the drive through lane behind them.  One person randomly decided to pay for the latte of the next person in line, then that person did the same, then the next person, and so on.  For two days!  Approximately 700 people!  Sure, we can write it off as merely buying a cup of coffee for a stranger.  But we don't know the stories of the people who received that coffee.  We don't know their circumstances.  We don't know what one of them might have really received in that small gesture of kindness.  Perhaps there was a rekindling of hope and trust in the good will of other humans.  To paraphrase one of my least favorite campfire songs, maybe that rekindling will lead to a larger spark, and that spark will ignite a flame, and so on and so on.  We just don't know. 
            But what I do know is that there is no act of kindness, compassion, or generosity too small that God cannot work through it to do great and wonderful things.  Puah and Shiphrah were just ordinary women.  They weren't famous as Joseph once was.  For most folks their names are followed by "who?"   Yet their faithfulness, their willingness to do what some might consider small acts led to something great. 
            What supposedly small acts have you done?  What gestures have you made?  Who have you touched with a word or inspired by example?  Maybe what you think of as small or ordinary or inconsequential could lead to something much bigger?  Maybe a hundred years from now, all of our names might be followed by “who?”  But even if our names are forgotten, our actions won’t be.  When we act faithfully, even in the smallest of ways, big change can result.  So keep doing those small things, and let us trust that through them God has done and will do the big things.  Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”  Amen.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Stay Tuned

Genesis 45:1-15
August 17, 2014

            What would you do if a person from your past showed up at your doorstep needing help? However, this isn't just any random person that you once knew.  This is a person who made your life miserable.  This is the bully who chased you on the playground, or extorted your milk money from you.  This is the mean girl who called you nasty names; that girl who seemed to sense whatever it was that you felt most self-conscious about -- your skin, your weight, your hair -- and torment you about it.  What would you do if that person came to you, desperate for help? 
            I have a mean girl in my past.  I would like to believe that if she came to me needing help in any way that I would be true to the faith I profess.  I would like to believe that I would help her without question or retaliation.  I would like to believe that I would forgive and forget.  I hope that I have matured enough, both in age and in my faith, to see her not as a mean girl but as a child of God.  I would like to believe that if I am able to see her through that lens, that I would help her. 
            BUT.  If this former mean girl happened to show up at my door, and she had, I don't know, aged badly, I wouldn't cry. 
            I probably shouldn't admit that, but it's true.  It would be challenging not to break into a victory dance in celebration of Karma if the girl who made my life so miserable once upon a time looked as bad as she once made me feel.  Perhaps I should take a lesson from Joseph in this last passage that we read from Genesis.  His brothers, the same brothers who hated him, stripped him of his beautiful coat, threw him in a pit, and sold him into slavery to traders heading to Egypt, now appear before him needing his help.  What does Joseph do?  He forgives them.  He is overcome with emotion, and weeps so loudly that Pharaoh’s entire household hears him.  His brothers are dismayed and distraught at seeing him, because surely they were worried about his potential retaliation.  But Joseph embraces them, and assures them that they will not starve.  He will take care of them, their father, and their families.  Joseph even attributes all that has happened to God.  His brothers might have been the ones who actually sold him into slavery, but God was the one who sent Joseph ahead of them to "preserve life." 
            This sounds wonderful, and it should lead to a sermon on forgiveness and reconciliation.  But before we go there, let's look at the events that led up to this moment of forgiveness in the passage before us this morning.  A lot has happened since last week's text that kicked off the Joseph Cycle.  Joseph goes to Egypt as a slave and is bought by a man named Potiphar.  Potiphar recognizes Joseph's ability, and Joseph rises in the ranks to become overseer of the household.  Potiphar's wife also notices Joseph.  She notices that Joseph is handsome and young.  She attempts to seduce him.  When he runs from her, she falsely accuses him of trying to harm her.  This lands Joseph in prison.  But even in prison, he makes a name for himself.  He interprets the dreams of two fellow prisoners who once served the Pharaoh.  Joseph's interpretations prove true.  When the Pharaoh himself has disturbing dreams, the former prisoner who’d had his dream interpreted, told the Pharaoh about Joseph and his ability to read the true meaning of a dream.  After interpreting the Pharaoh's dreams about seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, Pharaoh makes Joseph the second-in-command over all of Egypt.  While different versions translate Joseph’s role as “governor,” I see his position being more like a prime minister.  Either way, Joseph is given immeasurable power.  He has the ability to determine who will eat and who will go hungry, who will live and who will die.
            The famine happens, just as Joseph interpreted that it would.  It affects not only Egypt but the whole region, including Canaan.  But while other countries had nothing, thanks to Joseph’s planning and preparation Egypt had grain and plenty of it.  So people from all over begin flocking to Egypt seeking food.  That includes Joseph's brothers.  As I understand it, anyone who wanted food had to go before Joseph and ask for it.  He had the power to meet someone's need ... or not.  When his brothers appear before him, they don't recognize him.  The last time they saw Joseph, he was the boy and the brother they hated.  But now he is the second biggest bigwig in all of Egypt.  He recognizes them immediately.  But he doesn't reveal himself.  He pretends not to speak Hebrew, and uses interpreters.  Joseph accuses them of being spies.  He insists they bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, to him.  He imprisons Simeon.  Joseph has the money that they used to buy grain put back in their sacks, which they see as a sign of misfortune from God.  When they bring Benjamin, Joseph orders an elaborate feast so that the brothers can dine with him.  Then Joseph frames Benjamin by having his servants put his silver cup in Benjamin's sack to make it look as though Benjamin stole it.  He threatens to imprison Benjamin, but Judah makes an impassioned plea on Benjamin's behalf.  Finally Joseph can take it no more.  That is where we find ourselves today.  Joseph sends all the Egyptians away and tells his brothers his true identity.  He forgives them, assures them of the divine intervention and purpose in the whole ordeal, and we have our happy ending. 
            Do we?  First, Joseph's actions are not those of a truly forgiving person; at least not as I understand it.  Biblical scholars seem to have mixed opinions about this.  One commentator says that Joseph does all this to test his brothers, to make sure they have truly repented of their sins against him.  Another commentator sees Joseph's actions as an abuse of power.  He uses his power in order to exploit, torment, and manipulate his brothers for as long as possible.  His weeping is merely crocodile tears.  Second, what about the role of God in all of this?  Joseph claims that while his brothers intended what they did to him as evil, God intended it as good.  Does that mean that God caused all of this to happen, or did God work through the evil of humans to bring about good? 
            While we wrestle with these questions, what we can't take lightly is the function and acceptance of slavery throughout the entire story.  Joseph was sold into slavery.  He rises out of slavery to a position of unchecked power.  Yes, he does forgive his brothers.  But what we won't read about Joseph is that he created slaves out of all the people in Egypt.  It was Joseph who made people give him everything in order to receive food.  When the wealth from the people dried up, he enslaved them instead.  Joseph made possible the system of slavery and oppression in Egypt that would devastate his own people for hundreds of years.  Was God the cause of that?  When Joseph invites his entire family to come to Egypt and live and be well, God comes to Jacob/Israel in a dream.  God assures Jacob that it is all right for them to move to Egypt.  God will continue to be faithful.  God's promise of a multitude of descendants and a great nation will not be forgotten in the land of Egypt.  Again, does this mean that God will work through the evil we perpetrate against one another, or is God evil’s cause? 
            I think we have to take the issue of slavery in these stories and in the stories to come seriously.  With human trafficking on the rise, slavery is not something that only occurred in the past.  It is a real and present evil.  I don't believe, I can't believe that God is the source and cause of this institution of slavery.  If anything, I think God calls all of us to do whatever we can to fight it, just as we are called to fight injustice and oppression wherever we encounter it. 
            But I think there is another aspect of slavery to be found here.  Something I'd never given much thought to before preparing to preach this passage.  Jacob and his family were already living in the Promised Land.  They were inhabitants of Canaan.  Canaan is the land God will lead them to in the Exodus.  When we think of the Biblical Egypt, not the modern nation, we associate it, consciously or unconsciously, with oppression, evil, slavery.  God's chosen people must be rescued from this terrible place.  That’s all I’ve thought of the Biblical Egypt.  It was a terrible place from which to be rescued.  But in our story, in the Joseph Cycle itself, Egypt is where the food is.  Egypt is where salvation from starvation is possible.  Joseph rose to power in Egypt.  Joseph will rescue his family by bringing them to Egypt.  Egypt was, in a sense, the new Promised Land.  While Joseph was brought there through slavery, his family wasn't.  They went willingly. 
            I wonder if we don't do the same.  I wonder if we don’t go towards what we think is good, what we think will save us, and wind up being enslaved by that supposed good instead.  The philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote that nothing can be considered as absolutely good except for a good will.  Other things, attributes, qualities that we consider good can also be bad.  Intelligence, fortune, fame, power, talents – all these can be distorted for bad as well as used for good.  So maybe we willingly go towards what is good, but wind up needing rescue as surely as the Israelites will need rescuing from Egypt in centuries to come. 
            Here’s another thought.  While I don’t agree with Joseph that God caused his slavery and famine and suffering so that God could make good happen, I do believe God intends us for good.  I do believe that God created us as good, wants good for us, and never gives up on bringing us back to what is true, what is right, what is good.  Not only does God work through each of us, through our mistakes and bad choices and failings, to bring about good for all, God calls us – always calls us – to do what is right.  God works through us, and God calls us to work for the good for all of God’s children.   We may be unsure in the moment of God’s grace and intervention, but God is indeed working through all of us, bringing good out of bad, hope out of chaos, love out of evil.  God continues to call us to be the people we were created to be.  Stay tuned.  Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”  Amen.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

From a Fan

Warning: The following blog contains some strong language.  Please, if you find it objectionable, don't read it.  

I found out about Robin Williams' death this past Monday, August 11, when I arrived in my hotel room in St. Petersburg, Florida.  I was excited to be there with three of my parishioners for a conference; ready to learn, think, process, and most importantly, go to the beach.  But the terrible news about Robin left me reeling.  That night I sat up late watching every clip of him that I could find on the internet, laughing and crying in equal measure.  So many people -- fans, admirers -- are grieving his loss as if he were family.  I can only imagine how much worse the pain and grief is for his actual family and close friends.  I also know I can't add anything new to the tributes and discussions that have followed since his death, but he's been my hero since I was 11.  So I write this because that's what I do when the unimaginable happens.  

Along with millions of others, I fell in love with Robin Williams when he first appeared as Mork from Ork on an episode of Happy Days.  From that moment, I was hooked.  I received his first live comedy album Reality, What a Concept, for Christmas in 8th grade.  A friend of mine posted a picture of that album on my Facebook timeline, and commented that it was this album that helped two misfits survive Junior High.  How right she was.  I listened to track after hilarious track over and over, memorizing every word.  (A New York echo.  "Helloooo?!'"  "Shut the fuck up!")  In seminary, my friends and I rented and watched his special, A Night at the Met, so often we not only memorized the routines, we'd act them out as well.  (On the late Libyan leader, Khadafi, "When you look at Khadafi, doesn't he look like a cross between Omar Sharif and Charles Manson?  He's got the handsome face, but the eyes are going 'Helter Skelter!  Helter Skelter!'")  I have the dvd of his Live on Broadway special from 2002.  When the country was trying to make its way in this scary and strange post September 11 world, Robin made us laugh, not only with silliness, but with what he did best; pointing out the absurdity of the things in life we take with too much seriousness.  (On Donald Rumsfeld.  "Every so often Donald Rumsfeld will come out and say, 'I don't know where.  I don't know when.  But something awful is going to happen.'")

Robin Williams was a brilliant comedian, and he was a brilliant actor.  Basically, he was just brilliant.  A genius, whose mind seemed to work at a dizzying pace.  I've read post after post from people sharing their favorite Robin Williams movie.  Dead Poet's Society.  Mrs. Doubtfire.  Good Morning, Vietnam.  Aladdin.  Awakenings.  The Fisher King.  Night at the Museum.  This is just a fraction of the roles he made his own.  His range as an actor was just one more testament to his enormous talent.  His dramatic roles elicited tears as effortlessly as his comedy made our stomachs hurt from so much breath stealing laughter.  

It is incredibly difficult, then, to wrap our heads around the truth that this brilliant, talented, gifted, funny man took his own life.  I've heard this described as a "tragic, senseless death."  True indeed.  Yet anyone who has faced the demon of depression knows that there are moments,  perhaps fleeting but there, when death seems to be the only thing that makes any sense.  Just as someone dying of a terminal illness wants to have the pain over once and for all, someone caught in depression's grip may want that as well.  In the wake of his death, well-intentioned people have opined that if you're sad, talk to someone.  Yet depression is more than sadness.  It is more than grief.  It is the "black dog," that Winston Churchill described.  It is a bad dream from which you can't awaken.  It turns the world into a dull beige; no color, no joy, no hope.  Depression doesn't affect just a few folks, it is the third most prevalent disease in the world.  It is a first world problem and a third world problem.  Yet even its pervasiveness has not erased depression's stigma.  We don't want to talk about it.   But our silence kills.

In Live on Broadway, he references self-immolation by Buddhist monks as a form of protest.  In answer to the question of why someone would do this, Robin answers as the monk, "To make you deal with your shit."  It seems to me that in his life, and now in his death, Robin Williams never backed away from making us deal with our shit.  Considering the hatred and the violence that is happening in faraway places like Iraq and Gaza to our own backyard in Ferguson, Missouri, we have a lot of shit that we need to deal with.  As societies and cultures, we can't seem to learn the lesson that hatred and violence in response to hatred and violence doesn't solve anything.  Laughter may not solve our conflicts either, but when all the proverbial doors close, it might just open the window to more understanding, more tolerance, more peace, more love.  Robin Williams gave us the gift of laughter.  He pointed the way to that window.  I hope that he's not only found peace in heaven, but that he's found his laughter again as well.  

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Family Systems

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
August 10, 2013

            One of the most enduring skills I learned in seminary was the ability to create Genograms.  For those of you who may not be familiar with the term, genograms are a diagram of a family tree.  However, instead of only tracing family lineage, a genogram shows patterns of relationship.  Struggles, issues, ways of dealing with conflict both positive and negative, and the connections between family members can all be diagrammed in a genogram.  If something happened in your grandparents’ family, there’s a good chanced it affected your parents, and that in turn affected you.  I find the genogram to be a powerful tool in understanding how family systems and dynamics work, in good ways and in bad ways. 
            In today's passage we come to the story of Joseph.  Although we only touch on a small part of his story this Sunday and next, these last 14 chapters of Genesis are known as the Joseph Cycle.  These are the final stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs of our faith.  Quite frankly, the stories that we have about the patriarchs and matriarchs of our faith make the Ewing family in the television show Dallas look rather tame.  Because of that I decided it would be interesting to create a genogram for Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants. 
            As we’ve already reviewed this summer, Abraham and Sarah finally had the son they had been waiting for, the son they had been promised.  Isaac, the son of laughter, is born.  But we also have to remember that Abraham first had a son with Sarah’s handmaiden, Hagar.  Ishmael, the older brother who upset Sarah by teasing Isaac in some way, ended up being put out into the wilderness with his mother.  God rescued them and promised that Ishmael would father his own nation. 
            Abraham and Isaac have a good father and son relationship, except for that brief moment when Abraham is told by God to build an altar and sacrifice Isaac on it.  Abraham is ready to do it, but an angel of the Lord steps in at the last minute and stops him.  Isaac then grows up and meets Rebekah.  They marry, and she, like her mother-in-law before her, struggles with infertility.  She and Isaac finally have twin boys; Esau and Jacob.  Esau the older brother is exploited and tricked by the younger brother.  Esau also goes on to father a nation, but for a long time he’s determined to kill his little brother. 
            Jacob flees Esau, but meets God in a dream and Rachel by a well.  Jacob is promised by Laban that he will be able to marry Rachel, but when he thinks he’s marrying Rachel, he ends up with Leah.  Jacob does marry Rachel, but he also fathers sons with Zilhah and Bilpah.  With Leah he has Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, and eventually Dinah.  With Zilhah he has Gad and Asher.  With Bilpah he fathers, Naphtali and Dan.  And with Rachel, his beloved, he has Joseph and Benjamin. 
            There are several patterns that emerge from this genogram.  The younger son always manages to usurp the eldest.  That usurpation happens in different ways; through banishment, deceit, or dreams, but it does happen.  There is a pattern of barrenness.  Is this solely an issue of infertility, or is it about the disparity between our time as we perceive it and God’s time?  How and why do the promises of God, the covenants of God, seem to come to fruition after a time of intense waiting?  Another pattern is favoritism.  Abraham and Sarah play favorites with Isaac over Ishmael.  Isaac plays favorites, loving Esau more than Jacob. Rebekah favors Jacob.  Finally, Jacob plays favorites with Joseph.  That’s our jumping off point today. 
            Jacob and his entire clan have settled in Canaan.  The first detail we read about Joseph is that he’s 17 and has been with his brothers, helping them tend the flocks.  For some reason, he brings a bad report about them back to Jacob.  The text doesn’t mince any words about Israel’s love for Joseph.  “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age.”  Because of Israel’s love for Joseph, he made him a special coat for Joseph.  While the traditional interpretation has been “a coat of many colors,” the closer translation is what we read in our text, “a long robe with sleeves.”  Why would this long coat with sleeves have been such an extraordinary gift to receive?  Why would it have signaled Israel’s favoritism for Joseph, other than he took the time to make only one son a coat?  Clothing was much more than a way to cover your body.  It signified your place, your position in society.  A common laborer wore the clothing of a common laborer.  A shepherd wore the clothing of a shepherd.  Someone who had a long coat with sleeves probably wasn’t destined for the fields for very long.  Besides the impracticality of that kind of garment for shepherding flocks or harvesting crops, it would have been a coat worn by someone with status.  Joseph is17, but his father has made it clear with the gift of this coat that Joseph ranks higher, not only in Israel’s affections, but in status and position over his brothers.  That does not go unnoticed by the rest of the boys.  A friend of mine preached a few weeks ago that for people of our generation, there are three words that sum up sibling rivalry.  “Marcia.  Marcia.  Marcia.”  If you don’t know, that’s a reference to the television show The Brady Bunch.  Jan, the often overlooked middle sister was envious of her older sister’s looks, popularity, style, privilege, you name it.  She expressed this by saying, “Marcia.  Marcia.  Marcia.”  Although verse 4 may actually read, “But when his brothers say that their father loved Joseph more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him,” perhaps the contentious words they spoke to him began with, “Joseph.  Joseph.  Joseph.” 
            The lectionary skips over these next verses and moves us quickly to the end of chapter 37.  But we can’t fully understand this opening scene from the Joseph cycle without knowing what happens next.  Joseph has two dreams.  The first was about him and his brothers binding sheaves of wheat in the fields.  His sheaf of wheat stands upright, and his brothers’ sheaves gathered around his and bowed down to it.  Joseph then makes the mistake of telling his brothers this dream of his superiority. They didn’t much like him before, but now they hate him.  What makes it worse is that Joseph has a second dream.  This dream is even grander than the first.  The sun, the moon and eleven stars bow down to Joseph.  Joseph foolishly tells his family about this dream as well.  Even Israel has a hard time with this one, and he chastises Joseph for it.  “What?!  Your mother, your brothers and I are going to bow down before you?”
            Let’s be honest.  Joseph isn’t coming off so well.  He’s a tattletale.  He is dad’s favorite.  He gets the special coat.  And he keeps telling his family about these dreams where they all pay homage to him.  Sibling rivalry being what it is, Joseph was, as some folks in my family would have said, cruising for a bruising.  But Joseph gets far worse than he really deserved.  Israel, who apparently doesn’t remember how real and how deadly a sibling’s wrath can be, recklessly sends Joseph out to find his older brothers.  When they see Joseph coming near, they devise a plan to get rid of “this dreamer” once and for all.  They want to kill him and blame it on a wild animal.  But Reuben the eldest stops them.  He convinces the others not to harm him, but throw him into a pit.  Reuben’s plan was to rescue his little brother later.  The brothers agree, so they grab Joseph, strip off his coat, throw him into this dry pit with no water, and then in an act of pure callousness, sit down to eat their meal.  When they see a caravan of Ishmaelites on its way from Gilead, they decide to sell Joseph instead of kill him.  He is their flesh and blood after all.  So they make some money off him.  When the traders, described as both Ishmaelite and Midianite, pass by, the brothers pull Joseph out of the pit, sell him for 20 pieces of silver, and Joseph is taken from Canaan to Egypt. 
            Reuben now returns to the scene.  When he sees what his brothers have done, he’s distraught.  What will they tell their father?  They resort to their original plan.  They kill a goat and dip Joseph’s coat in it. They bring the coat home to show it to dad, and Israel is convinced that his beloved son has been killed by a wild animal.  Israel, Jacob, who once deceived his own father with the skin of a wild animal, is now deceived by his sons to believe that Joseph is dead.  Family systems indeed.
            I’ll be honest, o faithful folks, I don’t really know where to go with this story.  It’s been both fun and challenging to look at this from a family systems theory standpoint.  But how to make this applicable to us today, how to find the good news in it, how to wind this up to the final “God moment” that I try to come to at the end of each sermon, I’m just not sure.  I know that my recurring theme this summer has been that these people were real people.  The formal terms patriarch and matriarch sound so noble.  Those words make it easy to elevate our spiritual patriarchs and matriarchs to superhero status.  Yet perhaps it can’t be said too many times, that these were real people.  This was a real family, with problems and pettiness, jealousy, conflict.  Each person that we read about is flawed.  They make some terrible choices and act without thinking.  It’s hard not to question their judgment.  In other words, they were really real people.  And this was a really real family, messy and imperfect just like our own.  While we may not actually sell our siblings into slavery or trick our parents out of a blessing, our family systems are messy.  I bet any of our genograms would show lines of relationship that are both loving and strained.  There’s tension and reconciliation, anger and love. 
            But maybe what we take with us this morning is that God was always a part of this family’s story; even when God wasn’t mentioned at all, as is true in our passages today.  Beginning with Abraham, God made promises to them, covenants with them, and those covenants never faltered.  God was always able to work through this imperfect, flawed, and rather dysfunctional family to bring God’s purposes for them and for all the families in the world to fruition. 
            In Leonard Cohen’s song, Anthem¸ there is a line that says, “There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.”  There are so many cracks in this family tree from Genesis it’s more like a sieve than a system.  But that’s how the light got in.  That’s how God got in.  That is the good news, for the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob -- and for ours.  Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”  Amen.