Sermon Seeds August 13, 2017

Sermon Seeds August 13, 2017

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 14) color_green.jpg

Lectionary citations:
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 with Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b or
1 Kings 19:9-18 with Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

Worship resources for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost Year A are at Worship Ways


Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Additional reflection on Matthew 14:22-33

Focus Theme:
Jealousy

Reflection:
by Kathryn Matthews Kate_SS_2017.jpg

It will be quite a challenge this week for those who preach on this text from the book of Genesis: we who like a happy ending (and who doesn't?) are easily drawn into the story of the charismatic and cocky Joseph, the "golden child" of his father Jacob's many sons. Handsome and undoubtedly precocious, Joseph stirs up feelings of jealousy in his brothers so deep that they spill over into the ugly sin of fraternal violence, brother against brother, the classic broken relationship, even to the point of murder.

Of course, Joseph's brothers have a history of striking out when they were angry or wronged: just three chapters back, their murderous rampage against Shechem avenged the perceived rape of their sister, Dinah.

Understandably, then, Jacob may be nervous because the boys are tending their father's flocks up near Shechem; perhaps, Sidney Griedanus observes, it weighs on Jacob's mind that they might get into some sort of trouble while they're in that neighborhood (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). So Jacob sends his beloved Joseph, just seventeen years old, to check up on his big brothers.

Looking for that happy ending

For all of his self-confidence born of dreams of a future of lording it over his family, the boy Joseph wanders, lost, until a stranger has mercy on him and helps him find his way. But that's the last good thing that happens to Joseph for quite a while. Today's episode ends on a downer; it's understandable if we finish reading our text by asking, "Where's the good news (gospel) in that?"

Like mourners at a funeral, we must not skip too easily over the suffering before us, or the questions it provokes, even if we do have a sense of where the story is going, and who is at work, behind the scenes, the whole time. (This is a rare biblical story that has been succesfully made into a Broadway musical, so the "happy ending" we long for may be familiar to many more folks.)

Perhaps a two-part sermon, even a cliff-hanger, is the solution for this problem: after all, next week's text brings this all together and, in a sense, brings the whole book of Genesis together, to a satisfying close that also sets the scene for the grand narrative of the Exodus from Egypt by the Hebrew people. Barbara Brown Taylor draws our attention to the fraternal struggles that frame this first book of the Bible: "The saga that began with banishment from the Garden of Eden and violence between earth's first two brothers ends with a family reunion in a land of plenty." Not to get ahead of ourselves....

Listening for God's presence

Taylor also frames the story of Genesis with the presence of God, who at the beginning "was never hard to find," but now, in Joseph's time, "had become silent." No more direct addresses from God, even in response to fraternal violence. So, Taylor says, "When Joseph wanted to hear the voice of God, he listened to his life--to his dreams, to the people he met along the way, to the things that happened to him each day…" (Thus, the name of her sermon, "Listening to Your Life," in Gospel Medicine). Aren't we called to do the same thing, to listen to our lives, even if we're not biblical patriarchs or matriarchs?

Unfortunately, Joseph's dreams have helped to get him into that pit and eventually on his way to slavery in Egypt. It shouldn't be his fault that he dreamed of his family bowing down before him, when, according to Terence Fretheim, dreams "were usually understood to be externally and divinely generated," that is, not a product of Joseph's overweening ambition, although his brothers see them as "the product of Joseph's own arrogance rather than a divine word about destiny" (Genesis, The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary).

Murder and mercy, vying

We can look forward to next Sunday's reading and a sermon perhaps on destiny and God's providential care not just for Joseph but for his people and, ultimately, for all people, including--amazingly enough--the mighty, but hungry, Egyptians (the "bad guys" of the larger story!). But today we sit with the awful reality of brothers plotting murderously against brother.

In the midst of their scheming, there are second thoughts and bumbling efforts to stop what's been put in motion, but a big enough group can take on a life of its own and end another one, and perhaps nothing can stop it…except, perhaps, greed. Reuben struggles with the urge toward mercy when he talks his brothers out of spilling the blood of their brother, or, Griedanus suggests, he remembers the blood of Abel that cried out from the ground to God (4:10).

While Reuben is away, the gang of brothers has lunch while their younger brother lies in a pit, hungry and thirsty, and without even a drink of water. A caravan passes by, and that's when greed enters the picture. Judah suggests that they make some money from the situation; they "drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him" to the traders who took him to Egypt (37:28).

Treachery and deceit

It helps to read the entire story, with the omitted verses and the ones that follow, when Reuben returns and panics, knowing that he'll be held responsible for what has happened (one of the downsides of being the oldest--everyone blames you for not keeping the younger ones in line). The brothers come up with a great idea: killing a goat and soaking Joseph's beautiful robe, the sign of his favored status, in its blood, and tricking Jacob into thinking Joseph has been killed by an animal.

Griedanus marks the irony in this, for Jacob's long-ago treachery against his own blind father, Isaac, and his brother, Esau, is echoed by garments and goat's blood in this story of deceit by sons against their father and brother (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). It's fair to say that Jacob's trickery comes back to haunt him when his favored son appears to be lost to him.

People will relate to the story of brother against brother

With Joseph on his way to Egypt and his brothers on their way home, plotting to deceive their father, we might pause and sit with it all for a while, knowing that next week we'll get "the rest of the story." The story of Joseph is much longer than these two lections, however, and what happens in between them helps us to understand the man Joseph becomes through suffering. Still, in this week's episode, there's the greed, jealousy, and hatred, and the violence they provoke, and we don't have to go back thousands of years to know what that's all about.

We might feel like Joseph in the pit, or perhaps we can uncomfortably admit to understanding some of the brothers' resentment toward a tattletale brat who thinks he's better than the rest of the family. We might even relate best to Jacob, vulnerable, worried and then grief-stricken by the loss of his favorite child. The grand narrative that begins "in the beginning" with the creation of the cosmos closes, or at least pauses significantly, on one family quarrel. And that quarrel seems to live in every age. It will be the rare preacher who steps before a congregation without a number of hearers struggling with family discord and, in some cases, even violence.

God's hidden power in our lives

In the context of that family's struggle and Joseph's suffering, the question of "why?" arises, not just for Joseph, but for us, for our struggles and our suffering, too. Today's ending, which leaves us on that frightening journey to Egypt, with no hope in sight, leaves us too with the questions of meaning and of God's presence, of God's intention for Joseph the brash, young boy, and for us all. The ending reminds us that the answers are not easy or fast. Walter Brueggemann writes of the "hiddenness" of God's power in our lives ("Taking a Second, Painful Look" in The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness), and next week's text will prompt much reflection on how God was at work in the story of Joseph and his people.

For now, though, we sit like Jacob, who didn't like hearing about Joseph's dreams of lording it over his parents and brothers, but was wise and patient and trusting enough, the text says, to wait for more of the story to unfold. Hasn't Jacob already seen many amazing things from the hand of God at work in his life? He may wince when he hears the dream, but Terence Fretheim says that Jacob "takes these things and ponders them in his heart (see Luke 2:19), revealing an openness to future possibilities" (Genesis, The New Interpreter's Bible).

Such a beautiful phrase: taking and pondering these things in one's heart. It is just that kind of openness that will help us as we await the rest of the story, in next Sunday's text (Genesis 45:1-15). Perhaps all appears to be lost, but there is so much more to the story.

The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired last year after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Jane Austen, 19th century
"What strange creatures brothers are!"

Orson Scott Card, Ender's Shadow, 20th century
"...the thing with brothers is, you're supposed to take turns being the keeper. Sometimes you get to sit down and be the brother who is kept."

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale, 20th century
"You can only be jealous of someone who has something you think you ought to have yourself."

Friedl and the Children of Terezin, 20th century
"If in barbed wire things can bloom, why couldn't I? I will not die, I will not die."

Graham Greene, 20th century
"Despair is the price one pays for setting oneself an impossible aim."

Oscar Wilde, 19th century
"Why was I born with such contemporaries?"

François de La Rochefoucauld, 17th century
"Our envy always lasts longer than the happiness of those we envy."

Anne Lamott, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, 21st century
"Jealousy has always been my cross, the weakness and woundedness in me that has most often caused me to feel ugly and unlovable, like the Bad Seed."  

Additional reflection on Matthew 14:22-33:

Much of our Bible reading and our faith life itself tend to focus on the gospel solely as a message only of personal comfort and assurance. Certainly, Matthew's story about Jesus encountering the disciples in the stormy sea and his conversation with Peter out there on the water, could be heard as just such a message: Jesus will rescue us in the storms of life, even pulling us up out of the depths when we feel like we're drowning. But there is more than one way to read this story.

What if the boat full of disciples is the church, not only then but today? In our own day, the church is rocked by storms of one kind or another, from inside or from without, including the forces of chaos and uncertainty that may threaten to up-end or even destroy a community of faith. Perhaps a church has even felt "gripped" by powers stronger than they are, helpless to do anything to save themselves.

It would be only human, just like poor, very human Peter, to feel despair and panic in such a situation. And yet we also know how it feels for the power of Jesus, reaching out to us to give us strength, to fill us with calm and strength and endurance.

We're here because God called us here

Perhaps a sermon on this text, then, could reflect not just on moments of personal comfort and reassurance but on the times when "the boat has been rocked" in the church (isn't a boat one ancient symbol of the church?). What are the times and ways that God has provided what was needed to ride out a storm, or even to conquer it, in your congregation?

If the disciples were in the boat in the first place because of a command, or call, from Jesus, then we in the church are also here because God has called (commanded) us to be here. Do the members of your church think of themselves that way: that they are in the church not because they shopped for it, and found one that met their needs, but because God has called them there?
 
Consider the ways this text will fall on the ears of your congregation: how will it strike the members of your church if they see this story as revealing who Jesus is? Perhaps they will struggle with the suspension of the laws of nature that the story implies. Undoubtedly, the people of your congregation have both doubts and faiths that act as filters when they hear a story like this one.

Who is Jesus here?

Douglas R. A. Hare describes Jesus in this text: "As Messiah he is the one charged and empowered by God to shepherd and care for God's people." Not just each of us personally, but the community, the church that he loves so well. When have you kept your eyes fixed on Jesus, and when have you turned away, and what were the effects? What are the things that make us turn our attention--and our hopes--to other things and other assurances?

According to Hare, the story "graphically depicts what it means to be a Christian caught midway between faith and doubt." Perhaps you feel caught at times, midway between faith and doubt, just as the people of your congregation do. This story speaks about both faith and doubt, but Hare reminds us that faith "speaks of realities that are of more ultimate importance than the things we can see and touch. To believe in the saving power of Jesus is to take a risk--faith is not a possession but an activity---like a song that disappears when we stop singing" (Matthew, Interpretation).

Layers of meaning in faith

In the midst of a materialist and scientific culture, we might reflect on what it means to "believe in the saving power of Jesus." Yes, we can say that it refers to going to heaven, but it also says much more: this short phrase has more layers, more depth, of meaning than that. This story about a storm in the night, about human fear and the reassurance of Jesus, relates to our lives here and now, to the life of faith day in and day out. A sermon might explore the way we think of faith: as a possession, or a stand, or a decision, or words, or even as an activity, "a song that disappears when we stop singing." How might such a change in perspective affect their life as a church?
 
Jesus is full of commands in this story. But he doesn't simply tell people what to do and leave them hanging there, helpless. "Whatever Jesus commands, Jesus makes possible," Charles Cousar writes. "The commands of Jesus, taken seriously, create miracles; they open an incredible reservoir of divine resources" (Texts for Preaching Year A).

Facing the storms alone or together

What are the commands of Jesus that your church is hearing? How is the Stillspeaking God gathering disciples together, in the life of your congregation, and speaking words both of command and reassurance in the storms of life? How is the Stillspeaking God calling the United Church of Christ, in the midst of storms, to have faith and to keep our eyes on Jesus?

It is a remarkable gift that these stories can be read for the community and for each one of us, facing life alone or together, in the church, for all of the followers of Jesus do face boats that rock fearsomely, and nights of terror and doubt. The disciples, on the sea that night, experience "an epiphany--an appearance of Christ not unlike a resurrection appearance," Fred Craddock writes: "On a dark night of fear and helplessness, Christ comes to his disciples" (Preaching through the Christian Year A).

Does your congregation sense the presence of Christ, the active presence of God's love, in their midst, even in the most violent storm and the darkest night? What is the Stillspeaking God commanding them to do?

For further reflection:

A.A. Milne, 20th century
"Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. 'Pooh?' he whispered.
'Yes, Piglet?' 'Nothing,' said Piglet, taking Pooh's hand. 'I just wanted to be sure of you.'"

Arthur Conan Doyle, 20th century
"'I felt Holmes's hand steal into mine and give me a reassuring shake.' - Watson"

Sylvia Plath, 20th century
"I talk to God but the sky is empty."

Patrick Rothfuss, The Wise Man's Fear, 21st century
"There are three things all wise men fear: the sea in storm, a night with no moon, and the anger of a gentle man."

Dante Alighieri, Inferno, 14th century
"Do not be afraid; our fate
Cannot be taken from us; it is a gift."

Paul Tillich, 20th century
"Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith."

Frederick Buechner, 21st century
"Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving."

J.M. Barrie, 20th century
"For to have faith, is to have wings."


Lectionary texts

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob.

Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father's wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel 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.

Now his brothers went to pasture their father's flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, "Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them." He answered, "Here I am." So he said to him, "Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me." So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.

He came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, "What are you seeking?" "I am seeking my brothers," he said; "tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock." The man said, "They have gone away, for I heard them say, 'Let us go to Dothan.'" So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. 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." But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, "Let us not take his life." Reuben said to them, "Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him"—that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, "What profit is there if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh." And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

with

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

O give thanks to God,
  call on God's name,
make known God's deeds
  among the peoples.

Sing to God,
  sing praises to God;
tell of all God's wonderful works.

Glory in God's holy name;
  let the hearts of those
who seek God rejoice.

Seek God
  and God's strength;
seek God's presence
  continually.

Remember the wonderful works
  God has done,
God's miracles,
  and the judgments God uttered,

O offspring of God's servants
  Abraham and Sarah,
children of Jacob,
  God's chosen ones.

When God summoned famine
  against the land,
and broke every staff of bread,

God had sent a man
  ahead of them,
Joseph, who was sold
  as a slave.

His feet were hurt
  with fetters,
his neck was put in a collar
  of iron;
until what he had said
  came to pass,
the word of God kept
  testing him.

The king sent
  and released him;
the ruler of the peoples
  set him free.

He made Joseph lord
  of his house,
and ruler of all
  his possessions,
to instruct his officials
  at his pleasure,
and to teach his elders wisdom.

Praise be to God!

or

1 Kings 19:9-18

At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" He answered, "I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away."

He said, "Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by." Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" He answered, "I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away." Then the Lord said to him, "Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him."

with

Psalm 85:8-13

Let me hear what God
  the Sovereign will speak,
for God will speak peace
  to the people,

God will speak
  to the faithful,
to those who turn to God
  in their hearts.

Surely God's salvation
  is at hand
for those who fear God,
  that God's glory may dwell
in our land.

Steadfast love and faithfulness
  will meet;
righteousness and peace
  will kiss each other.

Faithfulness will spring up
  from the ground,
and righteousness will look down
  from the sky.

God will give
  what is good,
and our land will yield
  its increase.

Righteousness will go
  before God,
and will make a path
  for God's steps.

Romans 10:5-15

Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that "the person who does these things will live by them." But the righteousness that comes from faith says, "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?'" (that is, to bring Christ down) "or 'Who will descend into the abyss?'" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say?

"The word is near you,
   on your lips and in your heart"
(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, "No one who believes in him will be put to shame." For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."

But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"

Matthew 14:22-33
 
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."

Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."


Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:blains@ucc.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.  
    
Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday"--not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."

So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the "received" tradition!