When All Seems Lost (August 1 – 7)

Sunday, August 7, 2011
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Weekly Theme
When All Seems Lost

Weekly Prayer
Through the storms of life, O God, you are with your people in the person of Jesus your Son. Calm our fears and strengthen our faith that we may never doubt his presence among us but proclaim that he is your Son, risen from the dead, living for ever and ever. Amen.

Weekly Reading
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.

All readings for the Week
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

Focus Questions

1. Do you think his sons’ resentment of Jacob might have reminded him of Esau’s hard feelings toward him in their youth?

2. Where is the good news in this text?

3. What lesson did Joseph need to learn? What did his brothers need to learn?

4. How do you respond to this story: what feelings does it evoke?

5. With which characters in this story do you identify? How would you identify “Egypt” today?

by Kate Huey

This week’s passage from the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, is quite a challenge if we like a happy ending (and who doesn’t?). We’re 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 envy in his brothers so deep that they spill over into the ugly sin of fraternal violence, brother against brother, 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; Sidney Griedanus suggest that it may weigh on Jacob’s mind that they could get into some sort of trouble while they’re in that neighborhood. So he 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?” And 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 the whole time.

And that’s why it’s important to stay with the story, all the way to the end. Next week’s passage will help us to do just that. In fact, next week’s text brings this all together and, in a sense, brings the 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: “[Joseph] brought the book of Genesis to a happy end. 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 with the presence of God: “Earlier in the book of Genesis, God was never hard to find,” she writes, but now, in Joseph’s time, “God 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….”
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: “Dreams in that world,” Terence Fretheim writes, “were usually understood to be externally and divinely generated,” that is, not a product of Joseph’s overweening ambition. “Yet,” Fretheim continues, “the brothers interpret Joseph’s dreams as if they are the product of Joseph’s own arrogance rather than a divine word about destiny.” In a way, the brothers are remarkably modern in their response!

Not getting ahead of the story

We can look forward to next Sunday’s reading and a chance to reflect perhaps on destiny and God’s providential care not just for Joseph but for his people and, ultimately, for all people. 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 (Genesis 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 always blames the oldest). They 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 observes 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.”

Sitting with this for awhile

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” in Genesis 45:1-15. The story of Joseph is much longer than these two passages, however, and what happens in between them helps us to understand the man Joseph becomes through suffering. But in this week’s episode, there’s still 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.

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 not just for Joseph the brash, young boy, but 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, and next week’s text will give us the opportunity to reflect 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 (37:11). Hadn’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.” It is just that kind of openness that will help us as we await the rest of the story, in next Sunday’s text.

For Further Reflection

Annie Lennox, 21st century
This is the book I never read–These are the words I never said–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.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.