They Say That I’m a Dreamer

Gen. 37:3-8, 17b-34, 50:15-21

September 25, 2016 | The Rev. Robert Henry Hyde, Minister of Congregational Life

Two weeks ago, Pastor Dolan and I began to preach from this year’s narrative lectionary, which begins with passages from the book of Genesis. Two weeks prior, Lynne preached about the Garden of Eden and the temptation of Eve and Adam. One week ago, Lynne continued the cycle with the story of God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah. This week, we continue in the book of Genesis with the story of Joseph, a young man who was a bit of a dreamer with a great vision of a high and lofty future, but not first without troubles of his own. So accordingly, this week’s sermon is called, “They Say that I’m a Dreamer.”

Let us prayer:

God of our present trouble
and promised triumph,
Open our eyes to see you in the midst of our struggles.
Open our ears to hear your words of invitation and assurance.
Open our minds to recall your wonderful works and miracles.
Open our hearts to glory in your name and seek strength in your Word;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Chapter 37 represents a noticeable shift in the book of Genesis. Chapters 1-11 are best described as a narrative template, or prehistories that when formed together give birth to the first creation stories of a people and their God. Chapters 12-36 are woven together by genealogies, and in particular, the genealogies of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Chapters 37-50, however, form what’s called a novella – a single, continuous story with a central character, that being Joseph. In one sense, chapters 1-11 reveal the prehistories of Israel at 30,000 feet while chapters 12-36 reveal Israel’s prehistory at 15,000 feet. Our scripture readings for today, though, chapters 37-50, reveal their prehistory at ground level. Combining all of these chapters together and you have the book of Genesis. And in fact, these various prehistories make perfect sense to be placed at the beginning of the Bible. After all, the word Genesis means the origin, the beginning, or the coming into being of something. In our context, it is the coming into being of the universe and life as we know it, with God introduced as the source of all creation and the ancestors of Israel introduced as his chosen people.

And while this novella focuses primarily on Joseph and his rise to power in Egypt, chapter 37 begins in a peculiar way. It does not start by saying this is the story of Joseph, but rather, “This is the story of the family of Jacob.” Although Joseph is the central character in the novella, the story is ultimately not about Joseph, but about Jacob’s family line and how his sons – all twelve of them – ended up in the land of Egypt. Again, Joseph certainly plays a central role in that matter, but not enough to be included in the collective memory of the patriarchs, for we do not say, “Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph,” but, “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” when we refer to the “founding fathers” of Israel. This is a critical detail to the story because it reveals that Joseph’s dreams were never really about him, but instead about the Lord’s provisions for the people of Israel. As a young man of 17 years of age, Joseph misinterpreted the true meaning of his dreams. God did not intend him to be a lord over his brothers, but rather to be a servant to the community of Israel, saving them from their plight in Canaan.

The first two verses of our reading, verses 3-4, begin with a bold statement: “Now Israel (Jacob) loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.” Immediately, we learned that Joseph is favored by his father over his other eleven brothers. It should be noted that a little back story is helpful here to understand why this is the case: Jacob had two wives – Rachael and Leah. Jacob loved Rachael more than Leah, but Leah gave Jacob many children while Rachael was barren. Over time, God heard Rachael’s cries and opened her womb, and she gave birth to Joseph.

So, Joseph was the firstborn son of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachael, and consequently, Joseph became Jacob’s favorite child. And Jacob did not hide his favoritism of Joseph over his other children. Verse 3 says, “…he had made him a long robe with sleeves.” In the original Greek, this can be translated as an ‘ornamented tunic’ or a ‘coat of many colors,’ and of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice expanded this line into “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” In truth, Joseph’s robe meant one thing in particular – it was an outfit suited for a prince. The wearer of this robe would not be expected to perform labor or to get oneself dirty while wearing it, but instead the wearer would be seen as a supervisor or an overseer of others.

We can see where this is going, right? Joseph wasn’t the youngest brother, but he was pretty darn close to it. His older brothers did much of the hard labor and Joseph hung out in his pretty robe watching them, a robe that also served as a blatant reminder to the other brothers that their father favored Joseph over them. To make matters worse, Joseph started having dreams that seemed to imply that his brothers and parents would bow down to him, dreams that he had no problem sharing with everyone around him. We heard the dream of the sheaves already and how that angered his brothers. Well, Joseph had another dream too that had similar implications. It went like this: “He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?” So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.” As one could imagine, Joseph wasn’t doing himself any favors with his revelations.

And the ending of that second dream exchange with his father is rather interesting, isn’t it? “…but his father kept the matter in mind.” Did his father keep the matter in mind because he favored Joseph, because he secretly hoped for the success of his favorite son? Well, not exactly. Remember, Joseph was not the only dreamer in the family, for Jacob was a dreamer, too. Jacob had a famous dream about a ladder that went up to heaven where he could see all the angels of God descending and ascending the ladder. Jacob’s Ladder was a dream given to him by God that revealed God’s intentions for Jacob to settle in Canaan. So when Joseph started bragging about these dreams of self-perceived lordship, Jacob could not help but take notice.

Well, we know how the rest of the story goes: Jacob finds Joseph hanging out by himself around the house, most likely because his brothers didn’t want anything to do with him. Jacob prods Joseph to go and find his brothers, see how they are doing, and bring word back to him. Sadly, however, at this point in the relationship, Jacob doesn’t quite grasp how bad things have gotten between Joseph and his brothers. In truth, he should have known better because there are a lot of parallels between the relationship of his own kids and the relationship he had between his father, Isaac, and his brother, Esau (extrapolate). For example, Isaac loved Esau over Jacob. Jacob lied to his father in order to deceive him and gain his final blessing over Esau. In turn, this caused Esau to want to kill Jacob. Eventually, the two brothers were able to reconcile their differences, but not before some serious hardships. Therefore, Jacob should have known what his favoritism would stir between his other children – feelings of jealousy, envy, tension, anger, hatred, even destruction. Furthermore, Jacob should have remembered the old story of Abel and Cain. God’s favoring of Abel over Cain caused Cain to kill Abel. It should be noted in God’s defense, though, that God only favored Abel because Cain gave an inadequate offering to God, which revealed Cain’s selfishness while Abel provided a selfless offering.

Nonetheless, both stories provide a warning: feelings of jealousy and envy can lead to violence and have caused much pain throughout human history. It is no wonder that envy is considered one of the seven deadly sins and prohibited in the Ten Commandments. The last commandment is dedicated against envy in the form of thou shall not covet – thy shall not covet thy neighbor’s house, thy neighbor’s spouse, or thy neighbor’s things.

Rev. Dr. Geoffrey Hoare, the rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Atlanta, Georgia, describes envy likes this:

“Envy is the name given to either that desire we have for some possession or quality or talent that belongs to someone else, or the desire that the other not enjoy some possession, quality, or talent. Joseph’s brothers had plenty to dislike about Joseph, not least his favored position and his belief that in the end he would lord it over them. Envy can stem from the belief that there is not enough favor to go around, from a sense that life is fundamentally unfair, or possibly from simple greed. Any of these causes for envy are in direct opposition to the revealed purposes of God for the world, and so envy gives rise to rebellion against the Lord of the universe. In God’s economy, there is no limit on love and well-being, regardless of material circumstance. In God’s economy, material circumstance is the source neither of happiness nor of salvation.”

In some ways, Jacob was probably hoping that by sending Joseph to his other sons, it would be seen by them as an act of reconciliation and an attempt to restore their broken relationship. Unfortunately, however, it was not, for envy had filled the hearts of Jacob’s sons with violence. The Scriptures say, “They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”

Fortunately for Joseph, however, his oldest brother, Reuben, put a stop to any further thoughts of murder. In truth, Reuben did this more out of his own self-interest than out of love for his little brother. Since Reuben was the eldest child, he was responsible for all of his younger brothers. If Joseph was killed by them, Jacob would have blamed Reuben for not stopping it, and then Reuben would have been denied his father’s final blessing before he passed away. Therefore, Reuben convinced the other brothers to throw him into a pit rather than outright kill him. Joseph’s brother, Judah, apparently the entrepreneur of the group, reasoned that they should sell him to one of the passing caravans and at least make some money out of the venture, which is what they ended up doing, selling their brother for the going rate of a common slave – 20 pieces of silver.

To cover their tracks, before selling Joseph, they had stripped him of the one reminder that their father loved him most – his beloved princely robe – his coat of many colors – and then they slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in its blood. Much like how Jacob had deceived his father, Isaac, in order to receive his final blessing over his brother Esau, now Jacob’s sons deceived him by showing him Joseph’s robe all torn up and blood stained, therefore making it look like a wild animal had devoured Jacob’s favorite son. Naturally, Jacob recognized the robe immediately and preceded to lament for he feared that his boy was dead.

Now, for those of you who have heard this story before, if you recall, and also for those of you who are unfamiliar, years went by and a time came when there was a severe famine that reached the land of Canaan. The famine made the situation so dire for Jacob and his sons that Jacob was forced to send most of his sons to Egypt to buy food from Pharaoh. Unknowingly to the brothers, they were placed before Joseph, who had risen to second-in-command in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself. Pharaoh had put Joseph in charge of handling the food crisis because Pharaoh had discovered Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams. It should be noted, however, that the older, more mature Joseph realized that his dreams, and the dreams of others, came from God, and it was God who revealed the true meaning of these dreams, not his own misguided interpretations. So when his brothers came to him, he immediately recognized them, although they did not recognize him because they thought he was long dead and certainly not one who would be in this position of power and authority in Egypt.

In the end, Joseph’s compassion and mercy saved his family from starving to death from the famine, and so they relocated from Canaan to Egypt where there was a surplus of grain due to the leadership of Joseph, and with God’s help of course. Hence, the bloodline of Israel was saved, and God’s true purpose for Joseph revealed. In fact, the climax of the story occurs in the last chapter, chapter 50, when Joseph’s brothers beg for his forgiveness. Imagine this scene for a moment: After being betrayed by his own family, his own brothers, sold into slavery when still only a boy, separated from his parents for many years, and thought to be dead, the tables have turned and now he is in a position of power and authority where only one word from his mouth would bring down the hammer onto his brothers. His brothers convey their father’s last dying wish – spare your brothers from the harm they have done to you. Joseph is weeping as they tell him their father’s last words. His brothers are weeping, too. Finally, Joseph says to them, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” Joseph is essentially saying that God’s intentions cannot be thwarted by human actions.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer echoed this notion in a letter he wrote on Christmas in 1942 in war-torn Germany, saying, “I believe that God can and will let good come out of everything, even the greatest evil…. I believe that even our mistakes and shortcomings are not in vain and that it is no more difficult for God to deal with them than with our supposedly good deeds.”

This is ultimately the lesson of the cross, isn’t it? Jesus the Christ, God in the flesh, walked among us and we crucified him. But the story didn’t end there, did it, because three days later Jesus was raised from the dead. Murder of the Messiah, even by brutally nailing him to a cross, could not overcome God’s intentions. Crucifixion was our method, resurrection was God’s answer. Isn’t it sad, but true, that we tend to kill all the dreamers in our lives. Jacob was a dreamer, and Esau tried to kill him. Joseph was a dreamer, and his brothers tried to do him in. The prophets were dreamers and many of them were killed. Jesus was perhaps the greatest dreamer and I already noted what we did to him. And there are modern examples as well. Dr. King was a dreamer; John and Bobby were dreamers; Gandhi was a dreamer; John Lennon was a dreamer, although his dreams were a world without religion, but we’ll forgive him for that one, and even he was killed. Why do we kill our dreamers? Is it due to envy? Are we afraid of what it would mean if we actually had to live into their dreams? Are we that scared of change?

At Dr. King’s memorial service, the service began by quoting a verse from the King James Bible of our Joseph passage: “Behold, this dreamer cometh. Come now therefore, and let us slay him… and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”

In addition to the gains Dr. King helped make for the Civil Rights movement, perhaps God’s response to those who kill dreamers can also be heard in one of John Lennon’s songs:

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one…

May we all have the courage to dream and know that God alone holds the answer to our dreams, always turning our misgivings into good intentions.

And that’s the Good News for today.

The Word of the Lord.

Praise be to God.

Amen.

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