Living the Dream (what's the dream again?)
“Living the Dream”
August 13, 2023 Cobleskill United Methodist Church, Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Yesterday June and I went to the fair. There’s this ride called Pharaoh's fury. I believe this is a reference to the way Pharaoh's army might have felt when the red sea collapsed back onto them after Moses had parted it allowing the Israelites to escape their captivity. The screams coming from the ride were certainly evocative.
Pharaoh's fury and the Israelites epic exodus is the famous ending to the Egypt experience in the Hebrew Bible. But did you ever wonder how did the Israelites become slaves in captivity in Egypt in the first place? For that all we need to do is remember where last week’s story left. Joseph, beloved 11th son of Jacob, grandson of Isaac, great-grandson of Abraham, was sold into slavery by his “loving” brothers after sharing freely about two dreams he had had in which his family bowed down to him as their leader.
It was a big and bold dream and 17-year-old Joseph may have made some poor decisions in not holding back the excitement he had in sharing about his dream of epic leadership over his family, but his brother’s reaction was still extreme, uncalled for and yet, somehow not altogether unexpected given the dysfunctional family systems we see at play in these patriarch stories.
Joseph was sold into slavery, thought to be dead by his family, his techni-color dream coat taken violently from him and returned to a grief-stricken father, Jacob. This would be a pretty sad ending to the story so thankfully there’s more. Turns out God doesn’t just give big, bold God-sized dreams and then leave you hanging. Last week I told you you’d need to come back this week to hear how the story ends. Before we get to our scripture reading today which comes at the climax of the story, what happened to Joseph in Egypt?
(There are lots of movies about this story, by the way. “Joseph” with Martin Landau. “Joseph, King of Dreams” (Dreamworks). “Joseph and the Amazing Techni-color Dreamcoat” (musical with music by Andrew Lloyd Weber then movie with Donny Osmond.)
So Joseph is sold as a slave. And he does serve as a slave when he arrives, but after being falsely accused of a wrong-doing, it’s not long before he ends up in prison. It’s in prison, in a land where he’s being held as a slave, that God nudges him again. This time it’s through another’s dream. The two prisoners with Joseph begin telling him their dreams and Joseph offers interpretations of the dreams that end up being pretty accurate. Soon enough this gift of Joseph’s makes its way to the Pharaoh himself, who has been plagued by dreams he can’t understand. Joseph is brought to the Pharaoh, hears these strange dreams and interprets to Pharaoh that 7 years of great harvest are coming, but that afterward, there would be 7 years of terrible harvest and famine. With this insight, Pharoah turns the tables and lifts this Israelite slave up out of prison and places trust in Joseph to be the one to manage the harvest at Pharaoh's right hand. And Joseph is great at it. He rises to a super powerful level within Egypt as he organizes a vast system of grain storage during a time of plenty as the country plans for a time of scarcity. And it works. People in Egypt don’t go hungry.
Other land and other countries were less fortunate. When the years of poor crops came, famine spread in the world outside of Egypt. It even spread to Canaan, the land where Joseph’s family was still living. What do you do when you become desperate for food? You do what you need to do. So Jacob sent his sons, all but Benjamin, the youngest, to Egypt to buy, barter and plead for grain.
Remember the dream Joseph had? He and his brothers were represented by chaffs of wheat and his brothers were bowing down to him? This dream is beginning to be realized. The tables have turned. Joseph is now a leader and his brothers are looking to him for help, without realizing it is their brother.
Now I’d like to say that when Joseph saw his famished brothers come into his new country pleading for grain, he immediately had mercy on them. He is the hero of this story, right? This was God’s dream for him, right? God’s chosen one in God’s chosen family. Yes. Right. But you know what? He’s also a human. A human who has deep, old wounds of deception and betrayal from his family. So instead of revealing himself to them and showering grain upon them, he uses his new found power to make them feel …shame and inadequacy. He accuses them of being spies, puts them in prison and demands they can only be released if they go back and bring their younger brother Benjamin, the only brother with whom Joseph shared a mother. As if that wasn’t enough, he then plants silver on them potentially making them look not only like spies, but also thieves.
He’s living the dream, right? Consumed with his own power and yet overcome with feelings of betrayal and past trauma, Joseph’s head is spinning. He longs for the love and acceptance of his family but he’s torn by how they’ve treated him. What even was the dream he was supposed to be living?
Back in Canaan, the brothers plead with their father to let Benjamin come and it’s hard. Jacob is still stricken with grief because he believes Joseph is dead. But they are starving. They need the food. So the brothers return with Benjamin. They repent for supposedly taking silver in their bags. And they beg again for food from Joseph. As soon as Joseph sees Benjamin the story starts to turn, though. When Joseph sees Benjamin and something in him lights up. It was the other brothers who had beaten and sold him into slavery, not Benjamin. He could suddenly feel the unfiltered feeling of love for his family without feeling torn and complicated by hurt and betrayal. Joseph lets this feeling carry him. He tells them that he will feed them but that Benjamin must stay behind and live in Egypt now. He wants to hold on to this feeling without dealing with the complicated emotions of reconciliation.
But the brothers know their father would die from his grief if they managed to let another son of his disappear. They plead and beg Joseph to not do this for the sake of the boy’s father who loves him dearly. A love Joseph had once known himself. A love Joseph wanted to have again but didn’t know what to do with his pain in order to be able access it.
Whew. Now, you have heard all of what you need to know before today’s scripture reading.
45Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, ‘Send everyone away from me.’ So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. 2And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. 3Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?’ But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come closer to me.’ And they came closer. He said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither ploughing nor harvest. 7God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 9Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, “Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. 10You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.” 12And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. 13You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.’ 14Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. 15And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
This is a story of reconciliation. Of restoration. But if I had just skipped to this reading after where we left off last week…. If we had skipped from the kidnapping and selling into slavery to the moment of reconciliation, the story would be incomplete. It would be too simple. We would be missing the human elements. The struggle. The complication of feelings. The wrestling with the past. The parts of the story that maybe even reflect our own lives, messy and imperfect, vindictive and bitter.
I’ve got to say, when I had the idea of following the Genesis readings from the lectionary this summer I thought it was going to be an easy project filled with familiar stories. I confess that I wanted worship prep to be easy given all the other projects and ministries we have happening this summer. And yet every story we’ve read has presented challenges in interpretation. It’s not simple to take 3000-year-old stories and make them relevant and applicable to life in 2023. Stories that feature tremendous amounts of family dysfunction, complicated and primitive understandings of marriage, systems of patriarchy that are embedded in the culture, violence and deception as significant parts of the story. Every single week this summer we have wrestled with these texts trying to understand what God is saying in spite of all these cultural and contextual stumbling blocks.
And that’s why I think this story of Joseph is a fitting conclusion to our study of Genesis.
What’s the point of it all? What’s the dream about again? Where is God in these messy stories? Where is God in our messy lives?
Remember how I said last week that this Joseph narrative has almost no appearances or reference to God outright? And yet in these final verses it becomes clear. God is always working through us for something better. We don’t always see it, sometimes we ignore it, and other times we mistake it for a power-trip. The simple truth is, God is always working through us, despite us, for something better. When we look back on all of these Genesis stories of the dysfunctional families, this is the one thread that remains clear. The patriarchs of our faith kept messing things up. And yet, God still used them for something better.
Three different times Joseph says it in this passage. God sent him into this life. God used his difficult journey to bring something better. God knew that there would be hardship and famine and God had a way of using Joseph’s gifts to save lives, to save his family. It wasn’t a picture Joseph could ever see fully until this moment. It wasn’t a picture his brothers could ever imagine until this moment.
It was a fuller picture that came together only in God’s time.
And what was the dream again? It was literally that Joseph’s family would bow down to him and rely upon his leadership. But in a bigger sense, the dream was something different. It was something that could only be fulfilled when all of their humanness, their yearnings, their hurt, their deception, their grief, their hope, their ruthlessness, their angst, when all of this could move toward something more life-giving. Grain in their bellies, literally. But restoration and reconciliation in their souls.
Family is complicated. If we’ve learned nothing else from the Bible this summer, remember that. Family is complicated. Then and now. But God is there to use this complication to work out something bigger and more beautiful that we cannot yet maybe see.
I want to close with a poem by Steve Garnaas-Holmes written this week in reflection on this story. I’ve adapted it a bit here for our setting today.
Frost is mostly right that home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you. Mostly. But what would Hagar say? Or Joseph? Biblical families aren't havens of belonging, places of safety or unconditional acceptance. Think of them. Every one. They struggle to be decent. I can't break it to you easy: Loving or not, family is where your shit comes from. Where your problems start. Where conflict is inevitable. Where we treat loved ones as we would never treat strangers. Home is where monsters live under our beds, and in our closets, and maybe in the room next to ours. The monster is who we are supposed to be, expected to be, made to be. It swallows us.
Sooner or later we have to come home and reckon with family. It's the final frontier: the deepest wounds, the greatest fears, the heaviest failures, the sneakiest neuroses we have to wrestle with. Jacob and his angel. Face to face or elsewhere, we have to go back into that house and work things out. Engage in loving conflict. Accept without yielding. Take what's true and flush the rest. Forgive them, and ourselves. Honor the child of us, the one who protected and sustained us— and thank that child, and say goodbye. Let them stay there while we move on. It's how we get free. The Bible is right: family is where you work your stuff out. Today we pray for courage to go there. We pray that, alive or dead, our families will help us. It's our work. It’s God’s time.
O God, when that moment comes, help us to be ready to act with grace and truth and honor and generosity. Amen
Grace and Peace,