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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

We Are the Rock and the Gates of Hades Will Not Prevail - 08/23/2020

I do not believe God willed for this to happen to Joseph. I do not think it was all “part of God’s plan” that there should be so much jealousy and favoritism between the brothers and their father Jacob. I cannot in good conscience suggest to you that God somehow incited the brothers to imagine killing Joseph or putting him in a big pit or selling him into slavery because God was “only giving Joseph as much as he could handle.”

Similarly, I do not believe God has willed COVID 19 on us. I do not think it is “part of God’s plan” that there should be so much jealousy and favoritism between today’s children of Abraham. I will not suggest to you that as a nation we are mourning the deaths of more than 160,000 people now, with no reasonable end in sight because “God only gives us what we can handle.”

Rather, I would suggest these things have and do take place at the hands, because of the falleness, of God’s beloved creatures, humankind – us.

It was not God who made it seem like Joseph was so much more worthy than Rueben or Judah, or Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son, who Rachel died giving birth to. It was Jacob, who like most of us parents, did the best he could with the knowledge, learned behaviors and family systems he had.

It was not God who thought for even a moment that one possible solution to this tension was to kill Joseph and then lie to Jacob about what had happened to him. It was not God who felt some compassion or guilt and pulled back to a less lethal but still detrimental alternative like abandoning Joseph in a waterless pit or enslaving him. No, that was his brothers, their immature and rash thinking and little mob mentality.

And for us, in this time right now, it is not God who brings about this pandemic. It is the result of the disease and illness that is part of this world, part of our human vulnerability, connected also to our stewardship of the planet.

It is not God who has divided the people of this nation. It is not God who created inequality and privilege based on the zip code one is born in. It is not God who turns a blind eye to the way some of us hoard opportunity while others remain disenfranchised from the “American dream.” It is us who have created and who often enable those divisions.

It is not God who has deemed that we can handle as much as a pandemic and fevered cries to finally and truly address the brokenness of our justice, health, education and religious institutions, especially when it comes to the lives of our black and brown and indigenous siblings. It’s that the virus has served as a sort of contrast die in our nation and all our places of brokenness have been lit up like a scary MRI result. That’s on us. And it’s a lot to handle.

What I will say with confidence is that all of this is exactly why we need these stories, these reminders of God’s covenantal promises to us, these examples of the way God and God’s people get things done, even, and maybe especially, in strange and lamentable times. Such as Joseph’s story here. Such as our stories now.

So let’s pick up this storyline we’ve been traveling for the last eight weeks and, hopefully, hear how God’s covenantal promises of life and connection speaks to us today.

As I mentioned, Rachel died in childbirth when Benjamin was born. This happened after the reconciliation of Esau and Jacob, who had been renamed Israel after wrestling all night long on a river bank with his faith and his God, his past and his future.

Esau and Jacob did not really live side-by-side after they reunited. One gets the sense that tension remained between the two households. They had been apart a long time, after all. These men and their families had matured in different places and experiences, so perhaps there was always a little bit of uncomfortable air between them. Still, they did the hard and important relationship work of putting the life-sucking days of revenge and fear behind them. The story also mentions that the households and flocks they each possessed were too large for a small area, and so they separated physically for very practical reasons too.

And when their father Isaac was 180 years old, “he breathed his last ... and was gathered to his people, old and full of days; and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.” (Gen. 35:29)

Esau had many descendants himself, bringing God’s promise to Abraham closer to fulfillment: descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky.

And that brings us to our reading today: the telling of Jacob’s descendants … who, remember, by themselves, become the 12 tribes of Israel.

This genealogy, however, starts out differently than so many others. It’s not line after line of who begat who, but rather a narrative about one son of Jacob. And it’s not the oldest son, it’s not even the baby, but the second to the last child, Joseph … a very unlikely candidate to be singled out and lifted up over the others.

Check it out –

Here’s how it starts for Esau. “These are the descendants of Esau ... Esau took his wives from the Canaanites: Adah daughter of Elon the Hittite, Oholibamah daughter of Anah son of Zibeon the Hivite, and Basemath, Ishmael’s daughter, sister of Nebaioth. Adah bore Eliphaz to Esau; Basemath bore Reuel; and Oholibamah bore Jeush, Jalam, and Korah. These are the sons of Esau who were born to him in the land of Canaan.” (Gen 36:1-5) And it goes on, for 37 more verses of difficult-to-pronounce names of descendants and clans and kings of Esau.

And then it’s Jacob’s turn: “This is the story of the family of Jacob … Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers …. (Gen 37:2)

Well, that’s odd, you might think. And you’d be right.

It’s meant to get our attention, to bring up questions. Like “why Joseph?” and before we even realize it’s happened we are pulled into this unlikely story.

We find out right away that like his father Jacob, Joseph has dreams that are vivid and seem to challenge the status quo.

“Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, ‘Listen to this dream that I dreamed. There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.’ His brothers said to him, ‘Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?’ So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.

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.” (Gen. 37:5-11)

The dreams threatened the brothers and unnerved Jacob. They must have detected some kind of Divine activity and intention in them.

 And then this odd genealogy plunges off a cliff of jealousy, deceit, betrayal and profiteering before we even get beyond the first generation of Jacob’s descendants.

Our reading today leaves us in a dark place of this story. A real, and – for some of us – an all-too-familiar portrait of a wounded, broken, scraping family.

At first I was a little offended or at least non-appreciative that the lectionary decision makers – God bless their souls – left us here. I mean the Joseph story is huge. There are a lot of choices.

But the more I thought about it, the more I thought perhaps this was very appropriate for this August 9 of the Year 2020.

Because we have kind of plunged off a cliff too. We too are inhabiting some dark places of this global and collective experience.

And maybe stopping here in the story is a crucial reminder to someone among us today who needs to remember that God’s people have faced calamity and radical change before. We are not alone in humankind’s history or future.

And perhaps there is just one among us who needs that flicker of hope and a brighter future that comes when we also remember that in previous times of calamity and radical change our God has unfailingly accompanied us as the steadfast loving-kindness God we are promised.

Perhaps you are the one who needs to be reminded in all of this that our difficult times are not about suffering through God’s plan, it’s about God’s plan moving forward through us and even through our suffering. It’s not a matter of God only giving us what we can handle. It’s a matter of God who promised to never forget us, to hold us up with eagle wings and protect us like a mother hen. With that God, we can endure much because we already know what that God endures for us – and particularly what God endured for us on the cross.

And finally, I think we are safe to rest here in this tense part of the story because most of us know there is more to come – there will be powerful activity of God through Joseph, there will be healing, reconciliation, reunion.

So for now, we leave it here – Joseph is carried off enslaved and probably terrified and the brothers are preparing to deceive Jacob and live with the guilt over what they have done. We remain under the reality of pandemic and we hear and even add our own voices to the mounting cries for justice and deep change in response the racism and othering that has divided God’s American Children of Abraham for far too long.

But remember, there is more to come. It’s just as the Psalmist sings today in in a psalm aptly entitled “God’s faithfulness to Israel.”

“Remember the marvels | God has done, the wonders and the judgments | of God's mouth, O offspring of Abra- | ham, God's servant, O children of Jacob, God's | chosen ones.”

Remember. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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