August 13, 2017 at Old First Reformed Church, Brooklyn
Joseph's Dream by Evelyn Dunbar
Joseph’s dreams get him in into trouble.
Does it seem outrageous that someone’s dreams could enrage others to the point of murder?
Little Joseph, the youngest of all his brothers, has no regard for the way things are supposed to work in a family.
Being the elder sibling entitled you to advantages in ancient society.
In the previous generation, before Joseph, Isaac intended to give a birthright and blessing to his elder son Esau-- and Jacob in order to receive the blessing, had to steal it with trickery.
When Jacob entered Laban’s house, Laban refused to let Jacob marry his younger daughter Rachel, until Jacob married his elder daughter Leah first.
And the rights of primogeniture, the rights of the firstborn child, are not merely ancient custom. Anyone coming from a family with multiple siblings can attest to the authority that older siblings wield. In my family, a coveted privilege reserved for the eldest child was the right to ride in the front seat of the minivan.
Perhaps especially among children, age is power. My older brother was almost 4 years old when I was born. All throughout our childhood he knew more than I did. He played sports better than I could. He was always bigger and stronger. (My brother, by the way, has grown up into a wonderful man. He and his wife just a few days ago had their second child, a baby girl.)
I remember one time, when I was little, before I could read very well, someone gave me a candy bar. And I showed it to my brother. And he took it, and spent some time studying the small print on it, maybe the list of ingredients.
And he asked me, can you read what this says?
I said, no.
He told me, it says, if your older brother asks you for the candy bar, you have to give it to him. That’s what it says.
So I gave him the candy bar!
Children come into the world without a clue. But older siblings know how the world works.
So we can begin to understand how infuriating it must have been for Joseph’s older brothers, to have this child undermining their authority.
They have the skills to handle the flocks of animals out in the wilderness. They spend their days and their labor working for their father’s prosperity.
And here comes this little kid Joseph, daddy’s favorite, in his special robe, who dad sent to watch us and tattle on us!
On top of all that, his ridiculous dreams!
Our lectionary removes Joseph’s dreams from this reading, but I want to read one of them to you. From Genesis Chapter 37:5-8:
“Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, ‘Listen to this dream that I dreamed. There we were, binding sheaves of wheat in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.’ His brothers said to him, ‘Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?’ So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.”
And what older sibling wouldn’t hate him?
There’s a way things are supposed to be, we older ones are in charge and powerful, and you little weak ones do what we say. That’s the way it’s always been. Those are the rules. Maybe they believed that’s how God wanted it to be.
Seventeen-year-old Joseph, in his innocence, and maybe his teenage arrogance, doesn’t care about the rules. In his dream he saw something different. And he’s not afraid to share what he saw.
From what we read in the story, it appears Joseph has never been respected or loved or accepted by his brothers. They are quite ready in this story to attack him, to steal the precious robe his father gave him, to throw him to the ground. I’m sure that’s not the first time he faced such abuse.
Just because he was the baby, and because Jacob loved him. His brothers hate him from the beginning. Joseph didn’t earn this hatred. He was born into it.
So Joseph’s beautiful dreams are a wonderful gift for him. Joseph’s dreams show him a vision of a world different from this hard reality, in which he is abused by those in power. In Joseph’s dream, the smallest sheaf of wheat becomes the greatest.
Dreams can be very powerful.
As we get older, as we learn more about the world, we come to know our skills, our capabilities. What we can do and cannot do. We learn about other people, what to expect from strangers, from our friends and loved ones. We start to live and behave under the logic of our knowledge.
We become somewhat like Joseph’s older brothers, attached to our knowledge and the ways of the world, and scornful of those who dream something different.
But a dream is not depend on knowledge, on what we think is possible. A dream does not care what the rules are.
There are no rules in a dream. Dreams are guided by something deeper than rules-- by hope, by fear, by desire, by love. Dreams live in the deep parts of us that haven’t been colonized by the rules of the world.
God works with those who dream.
Paul, in our reading from Romans, reminds us of this.
In Paul’s time, it seems, there was a tendency to think of God as distant from the world.
But Paul warns us not to think of Christ as distant-- as if someone needed to journey far into heaven to bring Christ down, or deep down into hell to bring Christ up to us.
No! Christ lives with you, on your lips and in your heart!
Paul reminds us to open our imaginations and our dreams, to the God who is with us now and always.
Yes, Jesus was a man who lived and died and was raised all 2000 years ago. But by the power and mystery of God, Jesus is also present with you right now.
I want to try something a little bit different than usual.
If you’re feeling up for it, close your eyes.
Imagine you are the Apostle Peter on the boat, from our Gospel reading.
It’s early in the morning. Maybe 3 am, 4 am. It’s dark. And you’re in the middle of a terrible storm. The wind is blowing your boat out of your control. You’ve been rowing all night, and are hardly making any progress. You’re in the middle of the sea, exhausted, cold and soaking wet-- the waves are splashing into the boat and you are trying to toss the water out, but it just keeps coming in.
And you don’t even know why you’re here. You’d rather be back on land with your Lord, your teacher, Jesus. But he made you get into this boat, he even gave it a big push out towards the sea.
And now you’re starting to think you might die out here. You’re terrified.
And then, in the darkness, you see a shadowy figure walking towards you through the storm. You can’t see their face. But they are walking on the surface of the water, through the wind and the waves. It must be a ghost or a demon, something horrible.
This is like a nightmare. Why are they coming towards you? What are they going to do? You’re totally trapped. You’re ready to jump overboard.
But the figure speaks. It’s Jesus! The one you love. And he tells you not to be afraid. He’s so strong and brave and loving.
He opens his arms and calls you to come to him. And because he is with you, you’re not afraid of anything. You step out of the boat and you are walking on the water towards him!
And then… a gust of wind blows you down into the water, and you are suddenly drowning, afraid to die.
But Jesus pulls you up and catches you, and takes you into the boat, and suddenly the storm is gone. The water, the air, all around you is perfectly calm.
And Jesus looks at you and says, “you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Feel free to open your eyes.
I invite you to return to this story, if you feel afraid sometime this week.
We live in a world amidst a storm of fear and violence.
Yesterday white supremacists and Nazis gathered in a display of hatred in Virginia, and a woman was killed when a car drove into a crowd of protesters.
Let us pray today and this week for all those harmed, for our country and our world at this time.
I believe God is calling us to act, to speak, in response to the evil and injustice we see.
But action and speech, in a storm of anger, hate and fear, so quickly become futile and exhausting, like rowing a sinking boat in a storm.
The actions, the life, of Jesus, which is love, and forgiveness, does not follow the rules of this world.
In the moments when I face fear and hatred in my own heart, loving and forgiving seems nonsensical, frightening, painful, if not impossible. But that is what Jesus calls us to.
God is building a different world, the kingdom of Heaven, and is calling us to be a part of it.
Living in the kingdom of heaven is like walking on water, or like trying to remember a dream. We don’t see anyone doing it around us, so we don’t believe it’s possible, or we forget that it even exists.. .
That is why God sends Jesus to be with us, to heal us, to love us and forgive us, to give to us the true food and the true drink to sustain us on this journey. For in Jesus’ life, his words, his crucifixion, his giving up his life for the sake of the world, and in his resurrection in which God overcame all the powers of death and evil, Jesus shows us the path into a new life.
God’s dream is a blessing for all the families of the world, freedom for the oppressed and liberty for the captives, comfort for those who mourn, sight for the blind. Justice rolling down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
That dream is the reality God is building in our world, in each of us.
Congregation, I invite you this week to ask God to guide you into that reality.