Thursday, August 28, 2014

Reflections on the text – Genesis 37 – Joseph, Part I

Read the text here: Genesis 37
Read the Gospel here: Matthew 16:21-28

In the Pits
We have finally come to the final story in Genesis of Joseph.  This story will leave the people of Israel – the descendants of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt at the end and get us ready for the stories in Exodus.  But for now, let us remember that way back at the beginning of the cycles, in chapter 12, God spoke to Abraham and gave him a promise: 1. You will be a great nation, your descendants will be as numerous as the stars (repeated in chapter 16); 2. I will be with you and will bless you unconditionally; 3. All of this so that you and your descendants might be a blessing to others.  Then we saw how the stories that followed focused on and worked through this promise.  The stories of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac all centered around the 1st part of the promise, securing an heir to carry on the promise.  The Jacob, Esau, Rebekah, Laban, Leah and Rachel stories all focused on blessing, and the basic mistrust that all these characters had in God’s promise of unconditional blessing, which leads them to acts of betrayal.
Finally we have come to the Joseph cycle, and now the future is secured – the descendants of Abraham and Sarah are now plentiful, the issue of blessing has been resolved and we come to the final part of the promise – so that you might be a blessing to the nations.  And so chapters 37 through until the end of Genesis in chapter 50 will show us how this family is able to be a blessing to the nations, preventing famine and starvation.  But not through any direct effort on their part, but rather God uses them in this way despite their self-centered behavior.
When we first meet Joseph he is a spoiled brat.  He is his father’s favorite, not only because he is almost the youngest (his baby brother Benjamin is actually the youngest).  But he is his father’s favorite because he is the first son of Jacob and Rachel, and Rachel is now gone, having died giving birth to Benjamin.  (Note – despite the popular Weber/Rice Musical, Benjamin is not a part of the events in the first part of the story, he is only an infant or toddler).  Now, you would have thought that Jacob might have learned his lesson, after all he was his mother Rebekah’s favorite and his twin Esau was his father Isaac’s favorite and this favoritism drove a wedge between these boys and led to much suffering.  But Jacob seems to have learned nothing for he is repeating the pattern.  He dotes on Joseph even goes so far as to give the boy a special long-sleeved ceremonial robe (the “coat of many colors,” which is how it is described in the Greek translation of the Old Testament – the Septuagint).  For his part, Joseph flaunts this favoritism.  He is a tattletale, he has these dreams where he is ascendant over his brothers and he brags about them, he wears the robe everywhere.  And his brothers hate his for this.
And so, one day the brothers can take it no longer and they resolve to murder their brother, though eventually they see an opportunity to profit AND get rid of Joseph at the same time, so they sell him to Ishmaelite traders (do you see the irony here – Ishmael is actually Joseph’s great uncle, who was driven away by his great grandfather Abraham when Abraham decided to favor Isaac).  And the traders take Joseph to Egypt where he is sold to a court official named Potiphar as a slave.  The brothers then take the hated robe, rip it up and dip it in the blood of a goat and tell their father that a wild beast has killed Joseph.  End of problem!  Well, not exactly.  For the brothers still have to learn the hard lesson that Shakespeare teaches us in the play “Macbeth” – murder (even a faked murder in this case), betrayal and deception changes everything!  Life will never be “normal” again.  The grief of the father is overwhelming and will not abate, and this changes the relationships among the family forever.
Before he is sold the brothers jump Joseph, strip him of his robe, rough him up and throw him into a dry well – into a deep pit.  This pit then becomes a central symbol for the rest of the story.  The pit represents alienation, depression, darkness, brokenness and imprisonment.  And there are lots of pits in this story.  Joseph is thrown into the pit and then pulled out of it only to be sold as a slave (another pit!).  Eventually Joseph will again be thrown into the pit of the dungeon where he will languish for a while.  There he will meet others – a baker and a butler – who have also been thrown into the pit.  But the ones who find themselves in the pit for the longest time in this story are the brothers and Jacob.  For Jacob is in the pit of his own grief and he cannot climb out of it.  He is in the pit that he, at least in part, dug himself and he will eventually come to see this.  The brothers have also dug themselves a pit.  Through their murderous and callous betrayal of their own brother they find themselves in a pit that they cannot escape from.  Only Joseph can pull them all out of this pit.  And that won’t happen for a while.  In the meantime, they exist and discover that nothing is as it was, and that joy has gone.
Life in a pit is not an uncommon experience.  We have all experienced this, and perhaps we are still experiencing it.  Sometimes, like the brothers or Jacob, the pits are those that we have dug for ourselves and we cannot manage to pull ourselves out of them no matter how hard we try.  Sometimes, like Joseph we find ourselves fallen into a pit and cannot find our way out.  These pits of ours can be a variety of things – a traumatic event; a bad decision that has had far-reaching consequences; an act of selfishness or of unkindness or hate towards another; a slow disintegration of a relationship.  Sometimes the pit can be things out of our direct control – economic or money concerns; health problems and worries and on and on.  We can all identify any number of pits I suspect that we find ourselves in or have found ourselves in, and from which we need to be freed. 
But God does offer us freedom and liberation from the pits we find ourselves in.  Often this freedom does not usually take the shape of having the pit just disappear for usually we need to look at ourselves seriously and honestly and take responsible steps in order to move ourselves forward.  But God still offers us freedom, and a way out of the pits.  In the Gospel text, Jesus tells his incredulous disciples that picking up the cross is the way to find freedom, and grace.  This is not what they want to hear.  They want Jesus to just take care of it for them.  They want the pit to just melt away, but no Jesus makes it clear that it is not so easy.  God’s love is constant, God’s blessings are constant, but we have responsibility and an obligation.  We have to take responsible steps forward. God will not just zap the problems away and make everything better through a wave of the hand.  The cross itself reminds us of this. 
And so, as we pause here in the story wondering what will come of poor Joseph, and his father Jacob and his brothers – especially little Benjamin – it is good to for us to think about the pits in this story and take stock of the pits we find ourselves in.  And then look to Jesus and the cross and ask for healing and strength, wisdom and determination, trusting that God’s love, grace and presence will provide us with these gifts that will help us get out of the pits.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Reflections on the text: Genesis 33:1-11

Please note - I am replacing the Lectionary text appointed for Proper 14 with this text. This text is the climax of the narrative we have been hearing for the previous 3 weeks.  I will say that I think it odd that this text was not included in the series of texts appointed this summer.  Leaving the story and jumping to the Joseph cycle over this climactic story is kind of like following Captain Ahab on his quest for Moby Dick and then jumping to a new story just about the time that they lower the whaling boats.  So, here is the climax of the story: Genesis 33:1-11
As morning breaks Jacob moves from his campsite and there he sees his brother approaching with 400 (armed?) men.  After the experiences of the previous night his fear and foreboding seems to have been replaced with a sense of inevitability.  He spent the night wrestling with an unknown and unknowable assailant and in the morning he has determined that in this assailant he has experienced and come face to face with God-Yahweh.  He is now resolved and moves forward intentionally towards the confrontation with his wronged brother.  He arranges his family by order of most importance – the slaves first with their children, then Leah and her children and finally Rachel and Joseph.  And then Jacob and his family move slowly towards Esau, Jacob bowing seven times during the approach (this being a tradition and expectation of court life when approaching a king or important and powerful person - this says something about how Jacob now sees his relationship with his twin brother). We are not kept in suspense for very long, for as soon as Esau sees Jacob he runs to him and embraces him, and the text tells us they hold each other and weep.
It is hard to find words to describe this scene.  It is a powerfully emotional scene. After the intensity of the loss and sense of betrayal back when Jacob first deceived Esau; after the intensity of Jacob’s fear during the build up to this meeting it is hard to find words to describe the intense emotion of the scene.  And this is true for the two men as well, for there are no words that pass between them.  There is only action – the action of repentance and forgiveness and it brings weeping – weeping of joy, but also weeping of sorrow and regret. It is one of the most powerful scenes in the bible.
Finally Esau looks up, the two men, presumably, compose themselves and only then does Esau speak and ask about Jacob’s family.  Then he asks Jacob what was with all the presents, “I have plenty of property, keep what you have” he tells Jacob.  But Jacob persists and Esau relents and accepts the gifts.  And then the scene is over.  Esau suggests they continue on together for a while, but Jacob gently refuses and they part.  And as far as the biblical narrative goes they never meet again.
It is important to note what is and what is not contained in this story.  It IS a story of forgiveness – intense forgiveness.  It is important to notice that Jacob makes no attempt to make excuses, or to seek any kind of self-justification.  His behavior from the beginning of this part of the story to its end reflects the actions of complete and honest repentance.  But this IS NOT a story of reconciliation.  This is not a story of a restored relationship.  Jacob and Esau may have put the anger, mistrust, fear and betrayal that had characterized their previous relationship behind them, but it is not forgotten.  There is no “forgive and forget” here in this story. 
What then can this incredible story teach us about God, relationships and forgiveness?
1. Forgiveness does not mitigate consequences.  There have been some terrible consequences to Jacob’s behavior towards his brother.  He may have successfully stolen the birthright, but it nevertheless resulted in his being a fugitive from his own home.  Afraid to return, he lived as an exile for 20 years.  It is true for us as well.  If you have been victim of a betrayal you might very well be able to come to a point where you can forgive your betrayer, but this does not mean that then there are no consequences for either of you.  There may in fact be serious, life changing consequences for both of you.  Forgiveness does not eliminate consequences.  Jacob’s life is forever, shaped by that act of betrayal, as is Esau’s. 
2. Forgiveness does NOT mean – “forgive and forget!”  Repeat: Forgiveness does NOT mean – “forgive and forget.”  This is not a biblical imperative or value.  How this attitude to the contrary ever developed I do not know.  But it is completely unbiblical.  The ending of this story makes it clear that there is no forgive and forget between Jacob and Esau.  They will never be able to restore their relationship.  But they can learn and grow and live the rest of their lives now knowing that they have made peace with each other.  When we forgive we too need to have learned and grown through the experience – and the same with the one whom we are forgiving.  This comes up all the time – but if forgetting is part of the equation then we will never move forward. 
3. Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation.  Jacob and Esau do not completely reconcile.  They do not restore their relationship.  We also may be able to come to a point where we can forgive a hurt or betrayal that we experienced, but it does not necessarily follow that we can be reconciled with the perpetrator.  Maybe, but it is a very different process.
After his night of wrestling with the mysterious assailant Jacob notes that he had “seen God face to face” (32:30) in his night’s struggle.  The experience of repentance and the forgiveness he receives from Esau prompts him to say this: “…truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God…” (33:10). True and honest repentance and forgiveness is a truly holy experience, through which we receive an experience of the Kingdom profoundly come into our lives.  There is a lot of confusion about the Kingdom of Heaven in our society, but the New Testament is pretty clear – the Kingdom of Heaven is not off in the future in some distant place removed from our earthly lives.  The Kingdom of Heaven is here and now, and to truly repent and to receive the gift of forgiveness is a gift of a “foretaste of the feast to come” when we shall experience God’s presence eternally.  True repentance and forgiveness is an experience of God – maybe that is why it is so hard, for like Jacob, we too often must wrestle, for it requires complete honesty – which is not always very easy!

Ultimately forgiveness is a gift from God.  Jacob and Esau could not do it alone and neither can we.  We need to pray for God’s help in being able to honestly repent and forgive others, and to forgive ourselves.  God is offering this gift to us abundantly and extravagantly, but too often we would prefer to turn our backs on the gift so we can continue to nurse the hurts, live with our constructed delusions and remain in the familiar surroundings of our prisons. But the gift God is holding out to us is the same gift that Jacob accepted: forgiveness.  For in forgiveness we will see the face of God.
The listen to the preached version of this sermon go to and look for the sermon on the media player entitled "Confrontation and Forgiveness."

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Reflections on the text – Genesis 32:22-31

Read the text here: Genesis 32:3-31

Who Are You?
When we left off the story last week, Jacob had finally been able to marry Rachel after working for his Uncle Laban for 14 years.  He now has two wives – the sisters Leah and Rachel who have born him 7 sons and a daughter; and 2 female slaves who have born him 4 sons – that is 11 sons and a daughter (a 12th son, Benjamin, is still to be born).  But after all of this time Jacob is getting tired of working for his manipulative and exploitative uncle and decides it is time to return to his own home.  There is some further trickery, and angry confrontation with Uncle Laban and a final reconciliation with him.  But he no sooner bids Laban farewell then he receives truly terrifying news: Esau is on the march north to meet him, and he is bringing 400 (armed?) men. 
When we last saw Esau it was right after his twin brother and mother had conspired to successfully deceive and betray their father Isaac, steal the blessing and heritage that was rightfully Esau’s.  It is a passionate and painful story (Genesis 27).  At its conclusion a hurt and angry Esau swears to exact revenge and to kill Jacob.  And now – 20 years or so later – Esau is on the march to finally have this confrontation.  And Jacob is terrified.  He has not had any communication with his brother and as far as he knows Esau is still angry and still looking for revenge.  Jacob then goes to great lengths to prepare for this meeting: he divides his property (which is quite extensive) into two separate camps in hopes that at least one will survive (note – everything in this story is in twos – 2 brothers, 2 sisters, 2 slaves, 2 groups of sheep and the struggles occur when a division is not possible – such as Isaac’s blessing which cannot be halved!); he sends his family across the river, he sends a series of extensive and expensive gifts ahead of him to Esau, but receives back no word from Esau, only confirmation that he is on the march.
So the stage is set, he will meet up with his wronged brother in the morning.  There is no way to avoid this.  And so, alone and afraid he camps for the night, but he does not sleep.  Instead he wrestles all night with an unknown “man” whom he does not or cannot recognize. Jacob is not defeated, but neither does he win this wrestling match either.  As dawn begins to break the match is a draw.  “Let me go,” cries the assailant.  “First, you must bless me!”  Responds Jacob.  This cycle has centered on the issue of blessing, and the receiving of blessings.  But for Jacob a blessing is something to be taken by force or trickery or deception; for Jacob blessings are rare and are to be pursued.  He tries to force a blessing in this situation, perhaps as a way of hoping that this will help him in his confrontation with his brother Esau.  But the assailant counters with the central question of the story – Who are you? What is your name?
This is a good question and one that has come up before – kneeling before Isaac he is asked by his old father, “Who are you my son?”  The response is a lie – “I am Esau, your firstborn.”  But now he answers truthfully, “I am Jacob.”  The name Jacob means “heel or one who struggles” indeed – Jacob means “the one who wrestles.”  And certainly Jacob’s life has been one of constant wrestling for domination – with Esau, with Laban and now with the unknown assailant.  “No longer will you be called Jacob, you shall be called Israel.”  And the name Israel means: “God contends or God struggles.”  And this new name constitutes the blessing Jacob receives, an insight into God, and into God’s own struggles. 
God struggles!  That is an interesting image for us isn’t it?  We don’t often think of God struggling or God grieving or God experiencing loss.  But yet, reading through Genesis to this point we get to see and to know a God who is constantly struggling to establish and maintain a relationship with the creation God has made and the humans to whom God has given the gift of creation.  And God is rejected and thwarted all along the way.  But God stays involved. God does not abandon the struggle in disgust but continues to look for new and unique ways of accomplishing this goal.  And this culminates in Jesus, God incarnate – who is rejected and crucified but who is also raised to new life!  God’s struggles are the abundant blessing with is freely and generously bestowed on Jacob and on Jacob’s heirs – which include us!
“And who are you?”  Asks Jacob.  Good question, and a question that is left unanswered.  We are left to wonder along with Jacob who this mysterious assailant is.  It is not an angel or one of God’s messengers, this is certain.  Despite the popularity of artists depicting Jacob wrestling with an angel there is absolutely nothing in the text to suggest that the assailant is an angel or messenger (transplanted from the 1st dream – Genesis 28).  So then who is it?  There are all kinds of suggestions in the history of interpretation of this text.  Some have suggested it is the spirit of Esau and the wrestling match is an anticipation of the coming morning confrontation.  Some have suggested that Jacob is wrestling with himself since his entire life has been a life of wrestling and struggling and contending.  And Jacob himself seems to believe that the assailant is none other than God – Yahweh.  Maybe the assailant is all three.  Note that when asked his name the assailant refuses to give it.  God-Yahweh will finally reveal the holy name to Moses on Mount Sinai during the story of the burning bush (Exodus 3).  But despite the refusal to give a name remember God-Yahweh has appeared to Abraham and to Jacob himself during the ladder dream. 
Perhaps the most significant piece of evidence regarding the identity of the assailant is the fact that after wrestling the night away the match is nevertheless a draw.  Neither Jacob nor the assailant is victorious.  In fact, Jacob is injured.  Jacob has always managed to some extent to be victorious, but the victories have often been hollow.  Jacob is victorious over Esau in stealing their father’s blessing, but it has resulted in Jacob’s exile and the enmity of his brother – so it is a hollow victory.  But if the assailant is God-Yahweh, then how is it that a human is able to emerge from this match undefeated?  But remember, this is what God does.  God sets aside God’s power and enters into human life and into the creation.  God is born in Bethlehem as a weak and powerless infant.  This infant grows into adulthood where he contends with the powers of the world and looses.  Jesus is pinned to a cross and crucified for us.  Yes ultimately God wins a decisive victory in the resurrection, but only after loosing, being pinned to the cross.  And only after calling on those who would follow to also set aside power and take on weakness for the sake of the world - loving God and loving our neighbor – as God through Christ loves us!
God is struggling to continue to shower blessings upon the creation and we are called to wrestle as well; to struggle in this world for the sake of God’s love and grace and for the sake of our brothers and sisters.  We are however not called to win, but simply to enter into the struggle knowing that like Jacob we may be injured but also out of the struggle we are blessed beyond words.  In fact the struggle itself is part of the blessing! 
Jacob awakes and limps now toward the final confrontation.  He will meet up with his wronged brother Esau…