A short one today. Because there is not much I could say.
37 Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. 2 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. 3 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.[a] 4 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.
12 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13 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.” 14 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, 15 and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” 16 “I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” 17 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. 18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20 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.” 21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22 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. 23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves[b] that he wore; 24 and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
25 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. 26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 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. 28 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.
This is the Word of the Lord.
This Word is hard to hear today. There is no good news promised in these words. It is messy and it is violent. The words here end with Joseph's own flesh and blood — in their anger and in their hate and jealousy and meanness — rip his coat and toss him into a pit. Then they sell him into slavery.
It seems especially brutal in this day and age, when such actions would be supposedly totally unconscionable. We likely see this move by Joseph’s brothers as barbaric, as a terrible way to treat a fellow human. But, I’m going to burst the bubble here, and remind us that we do this kind of thing all the time. Slavery is still a world-wide market, in our own country you need only go on a website and you can purchase a child in this very city for an hour or two. The things we do to each other and the pain we inflict today is no better than this act thousands of years ago. We need only look to the events in Charlottesville, Virginia this past weekend for an example of this. An angry mob carried torches and nazi flags and shouted racist words and bore weapons while promoting anger and hatred of the other. They wanted to protest the removal of a statue that symbolized a time and an idea in our country’s history where the ownership of another human being based on their skin color was not only allowed, it was encouraged and there were folks who, no matter what they claimed they were fighting for, wanted the right to own another human being.
I was doing a lot of driving yesterday and put NPR on in the car. During this broadcast they aired testimony of those discussing the confederate statues, the removal of which was the original cause of protest. A woman testified “I drive past this every morning and see it, and it hurts. I drive past every evening and see it, and it hurts.” Our symbols and our language and the way we talk to each other are painful. They bite into our fellow humans, and it rips at them in visibly painful ways. It is also not only one person’s feelings or words. One need only look at the number of suicides that bullying has caused to understand how pain is not just physical but emotional, and it is not just the opinion of a few wild white hooded folks but far reaching. It seeps into more than just a few men but stretches across and into the depths of our lives. These men protesting felt emboldened enough to show their faces this weekend, no need to fear a loss of respect, and seeking admiration. This sin is systemic and deep and entwined in our communities and culture. It is in statues and flags and in the hearts of our government leaders. It is in you and it is in me. This sin, it manifests in ways often deeper than an open bleeding wound.
I tell you about these things not to scare you, or to frustrate you, although these things are scary and frustrating, but to remind you that sin is active and present in this world. Racism, anti-semitism, homophobia…We are not so far removed from the time of Joseph.
I also am here to tell you this. When I was working on this sermon, I tentatively titled it “I am Joseph’s Brother. Because I am. It’s easy to make the excuses and oh boy do I ever. It lets me off the hook of my own participation in this large-scale systemic sin. When we don’t examine our complicity in a culture that allows this to happen we become the brother who stands on the sidelines and lets OUR brother be sold into slavery, and is that really so much better than the one who sells him? I am Joseph’s brother. I let this happen and sometimes it slips from standing on the sidelines to joining in the throng. We are the brothers who tossed him into the pit. We are the brother who stood on the sidelines, who maybe had an inkling that throwing their brother into a pit and selling him into slavery wasn’t right but maybe also thought he deserved it a little bit. After all, Joseph didn’t do his fair share of the work and then went running to daddy and told on us. It feels so easy to sympathize with these men, with their anger and sense of unfairness. We are so familiar with those feelings. When we see someone with something we don’t feel that they deserve. When we peer into the shopping cart of a mother with food stamps, ignore the man begging for change on the corner and grumble “why doesn’t he just get a job”, it’s when we are jealous of someone who gets a better job, a better house… Sometimes these things even feel good to let in, to appropriate another’s experiences or actions, or skin color, or sexual orientation, or refugee status to our own pain. Eventually these things, these feelings, they eat at us, at the core of who we are. And we let them take over for our sense of what is right. Blaming others…letting those easy feelings turn into hate…letting sin in…that part is easy. The sinful things, the racism, the anger, the hatred, that Nazi rhetoric. It starts here, when we let it in. It’s pushing it out and it’s fighting against it that is the hard work we will always have ahead of us.
I watched the footage in Virginia. I made myself watch it exactly because it terrifies me. It terrifies me that folks feel emboldened enough to hold their hate out in the open, to make it known how they feel about black and brown people and about people who look and experience the world differently from them. Every time something like this happens I get scared, I want to curl up and pretend it isn’t out there, that this would never happen in my city, in my backyard. What scares me the most is that these folks, they claim that these are Christian actions, holy actions. This is my religion, your religion and they are acting on behalf of the same Christ you and I are worshipping this morning.
And it would be easy to stake a claim far away from it. It is so seductive to say, “Well, these aren’t Christians like me.” But do you remember those feelings I talked about? Those same ones that sometimes seep in, that feel good? The same kind of feelings that Moses’ brothers, the sons of Jacob, let in? They let them in so fiercely they sold their brother into slavery.
In 1933 a theologian named Karl Barth was the primary author on a piece of work called the Theological Declaration of Barmen. At least a part of it is appropriate to share with you today.
“The Christian Church is the congregation of the brethren in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and Sacrament through the Holy Spirit. As the church of pardoned sinners, it has to testify in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order, that it is solely his property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance.
We reject the false doctrine, as though the church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.”
Barth and his fellow contributors were Christian pastors and scholars living in Nazi controlled Germany, which had taken over the church and named it for the Nazi cause. This was their call-out, their refusal to participate in the injustice they saw, the easiness of slipping from anger and frustration into naming their poor experiences on the backs of others, the Jews that they thought deserved it.
My favorite theologian, ordained presbyterian minister Mr. Rogers, used a phrase that is beginning to border on cliche but is always accurate during troubled times like this. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people helping.” And he was right. Because in times of trouble it is also easy to focus on the negative, to see the world in chaos and be convinced there is no way forward.
In Charlottesville, University of Virginia students stood bravely holding candles in front of those shouting and angry men, many whom were themselves belonging to populations those men would like to have eradicated off the earth. 50 clergy and faith leaders linked arms and made a wall between the men and other protesters trying to counter the hate rhetoric. Prayer services and vigils made up of every kind of person took place across Virginia. When we see these things and wring our hands and ask, “what can we do? How can we stop this?” WE are tasked with being the helpers. We are triaging even though we are broken. And even when we are the brother or sister who stands on the sidelines, or the one selling our brother or sister into slavery, a man died on a cross for us to be called from our own sins of anger and mistrust and fear into the arms of a loving God.
My friends, there is hope in this chaotic world. Fear and hate will not win. It is this promise that we are called to act upon, and to be a part of the work of carrying out.
Thanks be to God.