Proper 14A

August 04, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 14: 22-33

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary

    Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    Life would have been better without the dreams. Things would have gone more smoothly, life would have been easier for all concerned without the dreams. Dreams of a better, brighter, or even just a different future are always a two-edged sword. We love to celebrate those who lived in such a way as to realize their dreams. We laud the entrepreneur who had the dream of inventing a better product, who did so, and who then went on to become spectacularly rich in overseeing the company that mass produced just that hot selling commodity. But for every person who realized his or her life’s dream, there are maybe a hundred folks who face the latter years of their retirement embittered because they never came anywhere close to seeing their dreams and ambitions fulfilled.

    Who needs dreams? Joseph would have been better off without them. His brothers would have been happier without them. Ultimately even father Jacob would have been happier without his young son’s silly delusions of grandeur. The dreams brought suffering. The dreams fomented anger and fostered resentment. The dreams caused Jacob years and years of grief over a beloved son he thought was dead and gone forever.

    So who needs dreams?

    Maybe God does.

    The God of Abraham, the Fear of Isaac, the Yahweh of Jacob’s Bethel and Peniel is nowhere mentioned in Genesis 37. God is not even hinted at. God is neither the subject nor the object of any verb. No title or word for God is recorded in these 36 verses. But even if you didn’t know the end of this larger story, you still would be hard-pressed to deny that throughout this text, you just know that God is behind the dreams.

    By now in the Book of Genesis the pattern is clear: God is always raising up the younger sibling to be the key providential player over the older siblings.   So you sense from the get-go that if Joseph has a dream, then it is a dream borne somehow of God. But we’re not told that directly. Joseph himself makes no divine claims for his adolescent fantasies of greatness. Indeed, throughout these closing chapters of Genesis, right on through to chapter 50, it is the hiddenness of the divine hand that is key.

    We sense from the start that this is of God, but if Genesis 37 is typical of what can happen to a person as a result of being given a divine dream of things yet to be, then some of us might just as soon not receive such a vision! The dream exacerbated the dysfunction of this family.  Resentment was simmering nicely as it was, so God gave some dreams that cranked up the heat and brought everything to full boil.

    Not once but twice Joseph tells of a dream in which he is the most honored one of the family.  Dream #1 went over like the proverbial lead balloon.  Dream #2 caused so much grief, even Jacob had to intervene to tell his favorite son to put a lid on it.   Talk like this was simply going to lead to something bad. Jacob could see that bad thing flickering in the eyes of his older sons.

    Still, verse 11 (which is such an important verse it is a crying shame the Lectionary technically skips over it) tells us that Jacob did keep the matter in mind. Jacob had learned a thing or two about God’s ways over the years. He was himself the younger sibling who rose to prominence, after all. Although Jacob couldn’t quite put his finger on it, there was something about the very possibility of Joseph being the chosen one that smacked of God’s work.

    Still, life went on. And the day finally came when Jacob thought Joseph was old enough to take a solo trek out into the wilderness to see how his older brothers were doing. Maybe the brothers had been drinking when they saw the figure of Joseph approaching from a distance. There was no mistaking that silhouette on the horizon. You could see that miserable flowing robe of many colors quite literally a mile off. So in what may have been a wine-induced, tipsy plan, they say to each other, “Let’s get ’em! Let’s end both the Dream Master and the dreams right here, right now!”

    So they rough Joseph up, toss him into a dry well, and then decide both to rid themselves of his miserable company and make some cash at the same time.  So they coldly betray him for pieces of silver and send him off to Egypt.

    The text does not tell us if Joseph cried, pleaded with them, but you suspect he did all of that and more. But the dreams have hardened the hearts of these brothers. The dreams had cinched things for them. There would be no sympathy. There would be no compassion. There would be just a cold transaction in silver. Joseph, like another beloved Son later in history, was betrayed for pieces of silver even as an innocent goat gets killed to make the whole thing look like a terrible accident that resulted in Joseph’s death my mauling.

    That’s the story. And it leads back to the question: Who needs the dream? Why must this God-inspired vision of Joseph’s future make his, and his family’s, present life so unhappy and miserable?

    We enter here the mysteries of providence. Mostly we ponder providence as a tender, lovely thing. Providence is getting the job you prayed for, providence is meeting Mr. or Miss Right at just the proper time in your life, providence is being saved from a terrible accident, or providence is the myriad of others ways by which the strong but sure hands of the Father maintain the functioning and order of this world and cosmos.

    All of that is true, of course, but among the things Genesis 37 and the Joseph cycle of stories have to teach us is that these dimensions of God’s providence do not tell the whole story. Sometimes the world resists God’s work, and so also the people in and through whom God is working. Because of the nature of this broken world, sometimes it is the work of God itself that brings a degree of unhappiness.

    At other times, although God’s work is steady and sure, God does this work in the midst of some of the worse things life dishes out to us. God did not have inspire the evil plot of the older brothers. Since we rightly affirm that God is not the author or instigator of sin, we’d have to say that God does not help people cook up rottenness. That does not mean, however, that God is unable to work toward a greater goal even in the midst of the rottenness.

    But if there is one thing Genesis has been making clear thus far, it is that conflict and a sometimes difficult life can, and often does, result from becoming the recipient of the covenant’s promises. All through Scripture the beloved son, the chosen heir, the called prophet, the appointed disciple turned apostle suffers as a result of the divine vocation. Eventually Joseph will be able to connect the dots.

    But the ability to see the meaningful, larger patterns to it all is not guaranteed to believers, and let’s just admit that there have been any number of people who have lived and also died without being able to look back, as Joseph one day will, and declare it all good because it was all of God (or at least it was all used by God). Genesis 37-50 does not tell us that we will always know the whys and wherefores of what’s happening to us. Instead, these chapters bear witness to the faith-informed hope that in the longest possible run, it will make sense. God will not be undone, outsmarted, outwitted by the events that may come. We are frequently undone, baffled, and so maybe even angry at how things go and turn out. There is a reason why the voice of lament and protest is a proper biblical mode of praying.

    But still the witness of Scripture remains: somehow God can and will make all things new, will right all wrongs, will return all things to how they should have been all along. Scholars believe that the Joseph story as we now have it was perhaps first set into written form during the period of Israel’s exile in Babylon. If so, then the original audience of readers and hearers of Joseph’s story were people well-acquainted with grief, with disorientation, and with the collapse of what they thought were the fondest dreams of their faith. Whether or not that original context is correct, certainly this story has been read by any number of Israelites, Jews, and Christians who found themselves in some measure of exile, at some remove from God, at some crisis point of faith. It’s a story for all of us, in other words.

    Starting in chapter 38, the narrative text of Genesis is going to take a surprising detour.   Joseph is going to disappear altogether for a brief time. And if Genesis 37 had concluded at verse 35 with the inconsolable weeping of Jacob over his apparently dead son, then as readers we might suspect we’d never hear of Joseph again. Instead we begin to hear stories about the remaining brothers, starting with Judah and his tawdry dealings with Tamar. Had verse 35 had the last word, then we readers would conclude that as far as Joseph was concerned, it’s over. We’re moving on now.

    Too bad about the dreams, though.  So too bad indeed.

    But the author of Genesis 37 is more clever than that. He has sown two seeds of hope: the first came in verse 11 (which the Lectionary skips) when Jacob, despite having just chided Joseph for his chutzpah, has the nagging sense that there will yet be something more to these dreams after all. The second seed is in the verse that actually does close out this account, verse 36 (which the Lectionary again stops shy of, alas!)   The verse opens with the tell-tale little transition word “Meanwhile . . .”    In verse 36 we discover Joseph has landed in Egypt, alive, and is sold to someone quite closely associated with no less powerful a figure than the Pharaoh himself. Both verse 11 and verse 36 are little nudges into the reader’s ribs to say, “Pssst! The dream is still alive! God is not dead, and neither is Joseph! Keep reading!” Those two verses remind us that even when people take matters into their own hands, with often disastrous consequences, faith is always still there on the sidelines to say, “Yes, but . . .” There is ever yet another word to be spoken. So long as God lives and is faithful and gracious and full of lovingkindness, the story will go on.

    Make no mistake, however: the story has taken a difficult turn. Joseph is now out of the land of promise, and before Genesis closes, the entire clan will likewise be in Egypt. That will be a long-term situation the final solution of which will require enormous work on the part of God and some latter-day figure who will one day be named Moses. As has been true virtually from the beginning, the story of God’s providence in history cannot be traced out with a straight-edge. It has zig-zags, peaks and valleys, high points and also low points. Yet Genesis 37 bears witness that God is ever and always still God, and so the dream doesn’t die, the promises are not at an end, and the universe still has a future. We must keep reading. We must keep following.

    Because as verse 36 nicely reminds us, when it comes to God and his people, in and through even life’s darker moments, there is one more word that can always be spoken: and that word is “Meanwhile . . .”

    Illustration Idea

    Who needs dreams? Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, but it made his life difficult right up until someone killed him for his dream. Some of us have perhaps seen the film Mr. Holland’s Opus in which a bright young man graduates college with the grand dream of becoming a great composer, with the bright hope of one day composing an American symphony that would be beautiful enough as to establish him as a kind of latter day giant in the music community. But first he needs to make a living for his wife and himself, and so he takes a “temporary” job as a high school music teacher. But years melt into decades, a son is born, life gets busy and complicated, and his temporary job becomes his career. But he is tormented throughout that whole time by the unfinished symphony, by the unrealized dream of being seen not as a teacher but as a world-class composer. It makes him miserable, it makes his wife and son miserable, and even though the movie has a kind of “happy ending,” you’d still be hard pressed to claim the man’s dream had been realized.

    Dreams can have a way of really messing up a person’s life!

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    Romans 10: 5-15

    Author: Stan Mast