Sermon Seeds: When All Seems Lost/Broken Relationships

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 14

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

Sermon Seeds

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

Weekly Theme: 
When All Seems Lost/Broken Relationships

You’re invited to share your thoughts and reflections about preaching on these texts on our Facebook page.

by Kathryn Matthews Huey 

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 had 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, 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. 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 that we may 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 one of those rare biblical stories 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 book of Genesis together, to a satisfying close that nevertheless 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.” She 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” (“Listening to Your Life,” in Gospel Medicine). 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….” (Aren’t we called to do the same thing, even if we’re not a biblical patriarch?)

Unfortunately, his 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 writes, 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).

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. But today we sit with the awful reality of brothers plotting murderously against brother. In the midst of it, 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 have 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). 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 that “Jacob, ‘the deceiver,’ who had deceived his blind father Isaac with his brother Esau’s garments and goat’s skin on his hands and neck (27:15-16, 23-27), now is deceived by his sons with their brother’s garments and goat’s blood” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).

With Joseph on his way to Egypt and his brothers on their way home, plotting to deceive their father, we might sit with it all for awhile, 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. 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.

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). 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 Matthews Huey serves as Dean of the Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

For further reflection:

Annie Lennox, 21st century
“This is the path I’ll never tread–These are the dreams I’ll dream instead.”

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.”

Bruce Springsteen, 21st century
“Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?”

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?”

Don McLean, 20th century
“This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”

 Additional reflection on Matthew 14:22-33:

Much of our Bible reading and even our faith life itself tend to turn the gospel into 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. 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.

Perhaps a sermon 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? After all, 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. What are the doubts and the faiths of the people of your church, and how do those act as filters when they hear a story like this one? 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” (Matthew, Interpretation). 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” (Matthew, Interpretation). In what ways do you feel caught midway between faith and doubt, and how might this story speak to the people in the pews about both? Hare also 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.”

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). 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.”

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.

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!

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.”

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.”

Liturgical notes on the readings

In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:

First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel

The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.

The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.

A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.

During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.