Sunday, February 18, 2024
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“Let’s Kill the Dreamer”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, February 18, 2024
Genesis 37:1-8 & 19-20 & 30-36


We preachers often bewail general biblical ignorance. There was a time when everyone knew the Bible, we say. Now that’s no more. Woe is us. Well, this is a story that people tend to know, because of Broadway. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat means folks have heard of the coat of many colours. It’s been performed on some 20,000. So, this is a weird phrase that you can drop with a stranger, and they might know it: the coat of many colours. By the way, there was never a time when everyone knew the Bible. No one needs to feel bad for not knowing it now. I know it enough to know I don’t know it. That’s a delight. There is so much more to learn about God. When someone doesn’t know something, anything, about God, our response is not “what? You idiot.” It’s oh, this is so cool, let me tell you how wonderful this is.

The coat of many colours might not be that at all. It might be a coat with long sleeves. That is, a coat for someone who doesn’t have to work. Long sleeves mean you’re not a labourer, you don’t have to work with your hands, other people do your work for you. The greatest Hebrew translator alive today, Robert Alter, just calls it an “ornamental robe.” Hebrew is very flexible. Let’s just say it’s a beautiful coat, it’s a special gift to Joseph, the young son, from his father Jacob. And it makes Joseph’s brothers jealous enough they want to murder him.

And you thought you had drama in your family.

The ornamental robe is not the whole of Joseph’s problem. He’s also a little bit of a snot. It’s hard to blame his brothers for resenting him. Joseph starts out our story by bringing a bad report about his brothers to their father. He snitches. Okay, typical littlest brother stuff. He ends it by telling them of his dreams. Hey, I had the most interesting dream. I was a sheaf in a field, and you guys were too, and I rose up, and all you guys bowed down to me, isn’t that interesting? Joseph doesn’t read social cues very well. His brothers are sharpening their knives, and he’s telling them how great he is.  Their dad makes it worse by rewarding the annoying kid with this magnificent robe. In patriarchal cultures the firstborn son is the most blest, gets the most land, property, blessing, and all that when the father dies. Here Joseph the last born gets this kingly gift while their father is still alive. He’s prancing around in their inheritance.

One of you asked the right question in Bible study: why does Jacob have a favourite at all? Every parent knows you can’t do that. This series we’re in at church is on sibling rivalry, and how much of that rivalry is based on favouritism? Mom loved you more. Dad never loved me like he did you. This family is the origin of the twelve tribes of Israel. Remember this is the people through whom God will repair the whole world, everything ruined in Adam. And yet they can’t repair themselves. How is God going to work through this broken family to unbreak everything else?

How many of y’all have a younger sibling? Lots of you. Our older two complain that we favoured the youngest. They’d get in trouble and Will would get a treat. It’s because he was littler and they’d gang up on him, so he needed a little protection. Anyone remember the teacher’s pet from school? The annoying kid who got all the right answers and was praised for it? Anybody else beat that kid up on the playground? (don’t raise your hands) Okay, admit it, some of you were the teacher’s pet. Dangerous. Our Jewish sisters and brothers see in this story the long violent history of anti-Semitism. Being chosen by God means resentment from everybody else. In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye prays to God at one point, if this is how you treat your chosen people, couldn’t you choose somebody else for a change?

I have no answer for you on this, why God chooses one people, a teacher’s pet, an annoying younger sibling, through whom to save the violent jealous brothers. I have no explanation why God chooses one family, Jacob’s, through whom to save the world. That’s just how God does things. God plays favourites. It’s ill-advised. If God asked my input, I’d say don’t do it. But God didn’t ask our input. God just goes about repairing creation the way God wants.

And this goes poorly for Joseph.

“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.”

The Hebrew is stronger, Robert Alter says. They don’t just say, “here comes this dreamer.”  They say, “here comes this dream-master.” This one who claims to rule us. They don’t just mean to kill him. They mean to discard the body so their father can have no proper burial for this favourite son. That’ll teach the old man. If you’ve ever felt the slightest twinge of envy, you are on the way to this kind of murderous scheme. And now you know why Jesus says hey, not murdering isn’t good enough. You can’t even get angry. That’s the first step to violence.

The other morning some of us were together in church. The prayer leader said, “Let us pray for those whom we love.” That was easy. Then he said, “Let us pray for those whom we do not love.” And there rose up before my mind three men for whom I had to pray. They were men who have opposed me in my work. In this they may have been wrong. But my wrong was in resentment and a feeling of letting myself be cut off from them, and even from praying for them. Years ago, I read this from Mary Lyon: ‘Nine-tenths of our suffering is caused by others not thinking so much of us as we think they ought.’ If you want to know where pride nestles and festers in most of us, that is right where it is; and it is not the opposition of others, but our own pride, which causes the deepest hurt.

Barbara Brown Taylor once asked this: have you ever had anyone tell the truth about you so deeply that you wanted to kill them to shut them up? That’s why everyone wanted Jesus dead, because all he is, is truth.

This passage was read at the funeral of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Here comes this dreamer. Come, let us kill him, and we will see what comes of his dreams. The martyrs are the first Christians. And their death doesn’t end their dream. It brings it to fruition. But that’s awfully hard on the martyrs!

A few weeks ago, we had a really long reading in this series. That’s because these stories go on forever. And it’s never clear where to start or stop. The Joseph story goes on for 14 chapters, the entire last third of the book of Genesis. You can read it on your own for homework this week, it’ll take about an hour. Football season is over, you got the time, it’s Lent, we’re supposed to grow in holiness. The brothers aren’t very good at murder. Evil is always portrayed in pop culture as cool and efficient. In reality evil is incompetent. The brothers bungle the murder, they lower Joseph in a pit, they kill a goat and dip the coat in blood, meanwhile some Midianites fish Joseph out of the pit, they sell him into slavery in Egypt.

Incompetent evil. Chuck Colson was one of the Watergate conspirators for Richard Nixon in the 1970s. He became a Christian in prison and came out saying he had proof of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He could tell from firsthand experience how hard it is to get twelve people to stick to the same lie. These brothers bungle their evil and Joseph is spared. They have no idea that the brother they meant to sacrifice, slaughter like an animal, will save them all, and the whole world.

The story progresses on, spoiler alerts abound for your afternoon reading. Joseph is really skilled, so he comes to run the household of the family that enslaves him. But he’s accused falsely of rape and so thrown back into prison. There he interprets dreams and gets out. Pretty soon he’s running Pharaoh’s whole household, and so all of Egypt. Joseph has gone from the bottom of a pit, the target of a murder conspiracy, to being the most powerful person in the world. And he stores up food. Dreams told him a famine is coming so when the famine threatens the whole world, Joseph’s murderous brothers trudge to Egypt for food. They don’t know it’s their brother they’re begging from. And when they find out, they’re terrified. The annoying younger brother, the one we tried to murder! He’s in charge of the food. Of the world. The brothers indeed bow down to Joseph just like the dream said. Any proper tyrant would torture them to death for sport. What does Joseph vizier of Egypt do?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks used to tell this story of a Zionist freedom fighter against the British. He was in jail and knew the Brits were reading his mail. His wife wrote that she was proud of him, but the planting season was here, and the field was unplowed. He wrote back. My dear wife, I have buried illegal weapons in the field. The Brits hurried out with shovels and pickaxes to find the contraband. They found nothing. The prisoner wrote to his wife: my dear, now the field is plowed, so you may plant the potatoes. Sacks would conclude that we Jews are not many, but we are clever. And brave. And we can help bring peace. Joseph is not many. He is alone. The 14 chapters hardly mention God at all. Joseph hardly prays. But he is clever. He rises up the ranks and rules the world.

In every action movie that forms our imagination, the lead hero gets beat to within an inch of life. Then Arnie or Bruce Willis, or Uma Thurman comes back miraculously and dispatches the villain. Usually with a witty line. The villain has to die. What about here? Joseph has all of its power and glory in his hands, and now he has his villainous brothers in his grasp. What does he do? Here's the conclusion to the story:

Please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father. Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”

This thing you did, trying to murder me, lying about it to destroy our family, all of that was a dark mystery woven by God. You meant it for murder. God meant it to save your lives and your families’ lives and the whole world. Joseph feeds his brothers. Feeds their families. And God saves his people, this broken compromised people through whom he has promised to save the world. Not a very Hollywood ending. But a very biblical one. I used to think Jesus was original when he commanded us to love enemies. Then I read the Bible, but as if for the first time. And I saw differently. Jacob, the father of the twelve, comes to Egypt himself, and blesses Pharaoh. Really. The patriarch blesses the tyrant of Egypt who would later enslave and try to kill every Jew. Now remember before Hitler, if someone wanted to name the personification of evil, they just said Pharaoh. If this isn’t enemy love nothing is.

These brothers deserve death. They get life. That’s the gospel. That’s the whole story of the Bible. That’s the story of the whole universe. What we mean for ill God uses for good.

Does this story remind you of anyone else?

Jesus comes among us, a fellow human being. He calls twelve disciples. That is, he reconstitutes the twelve tribes around himself. And do these twelve behave any better than the twelve sons of Jacob? Not a bit. They fail him. Betray him. Abandon him. He dies the cruelest death. And then he comes back. And does he crush them, like one of our movie superheroes? With a witty riposte? No, he eats with them. Says hey, I’m back, where were we? Ah right, I was washing your feet. Cooks breakfast for them. Hugely anticlimactic. But that’s God’s way in the world. We try to murder God’s chosen. God’s own Son. That’s who we are, friends, betrayers of siblings, murderers of dreamers. And does God grant us the death and hell we inflict on others? No God cooks us breakfast. Says oh, that worst thing you’ve ever done or imagined? I already used that to bring about your salvation, yours, and the rest of the world’s. Anybody hungry?

Another of you at Bible study wisely asked why does God allow evil in the first place? It’s a good question. In the kingdom there will be no evil, only good. Why? Some think whatever evil happens is God’s intention. Nope, that can’t be. God hates evil. God can never work evil, only for good. Dostoevsky once said that all the good in the world can’t make up for the torture of just one little girl. There is no good that can make that horror worthwhile, no math that balances those books. So why evil? Well, the church has figured, redemption in Christ must be better than if the world had never fallen. Somehow a world ruined and repaired, is more beautiful than a world that never fell. We don’t know what we’re saying here. We just know that God is nothing but good. And God is working to heal everything that we’ve ruined. Through Jacob’s terrible sons. Through the terrible disciples. Through us and our terrible sins. We don’t know why God does it this way. But we know whatever God does is better than we could ever imagine.

Let me leave you with a story. A friend of mine is one of the best pastors I know. But as a teenager she was sure her life was over. She got pregnant in high school. As a pastor’s kid especially, this was the definition of disgrace, she was sure her life was over. She had the child and gave her up for adoption. Then she went on to college, heard a call to ministry, got married, she and her husband had kids. And she became a leader in my Methodist denomination back home. And one day her birth daughter got in touch with her. Hey, I see you’ve become a pastor, would you do my wedding? They got to know one another, became friends, biological mother and daughter who didn’t know each other but were now sisters in Christ. And my friend said this thing so full of goodness I can hardly stand it, she said, “what was my greatest shame has become my greatest joy.”

That’s it. That’s the whole gospel. The thing we’ve done that’s so wicked we’re sure God hates us for it—God is using that to save us and the whole world. That’s how great, and creative, and good God is. God doesn’t just tolerate us, oh all right, if that’s the best they can do fine. No. God knows all. Knows us at our worst. And God enters into humanity as Joseph. Jesus. We gang up and kill him. And he rises to give us back life. Mercy. Healing. Breakfast. Joy in place of shame, glory in place of ashes. Amen.