Sunday, March 30, 2014

Children of Israel

Children of Israel
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 30, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Genesis 37: 1-9
 Ephesians 2: 11-22

Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

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. 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.
5 Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. 7 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.” 8 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.
9 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.” [1]

This story is one of those well known ones. . . the favored son, the jealous brothers, selling Joseph into slavery, and all that. It is one of the stories that when I was thinking about preaching through the Old Testament, that was on my radar from the beginning, and that I was excited about getting to study and preach from. And I still am excited about it. I love this story. I love some of the language and imagery of it. I love the coat of many colors, and how it is such a great and strange detail, too strange to be fiction. . . and so inspiring our imaginations about just what this coat was and what it could have looked like. . . not to mention, also inspiring one of the best country songs of all time, Dolly Parton's, Coat of Many Colors, her tear jerker about a poor girl's mom-made coat and how much, though it was rags and others made fun, her mother made it and she understood it's real meaning and value. I also love the line in this story, describing how angry Joseph's brothers are to him that it says that they cannot speak "peace' to him. They can't speak shalom to him. . . another great simple and telling image, showing the real poetry of the Hebrew language. Shalom being peace, a greeting, health, connected to God, and His power, His place, His work, and brothers cannot speak it to each other. . . These are the elements if you would have asked me back last fall as I was planning that I would have spoken about. . . dwelling on the split and how dangerous jealousy and envy are. . . how human they are. . . but how dangerous they are for us, how deadly to our relationships.
But our journey together through Genesis the last few months has deepened my perspective and changed my focus for this morning. I want to talk about what sets this situation apart from the others that we have read, and if I'm going to do that it ain't about brothers and their squabbles because that is the standard, not the exception in Genesis. Each set, Cain and Abel; Shem, Ham, and Japheth; Isaac and Ishmael; Jacob and Esau; and now the sons of Jacob, the children of Israel. . . it would be a much more revolutionary story if these children would get along rather than the expected infighting that we have here. . . and the more I thought about it that is the revolution, that is the amazing thing, not that Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery, but rather that this family becomes the nation of Israel, and not divided like all the previous generations. Because they have even more reason to break apart than the jealousy between brothers and the selling Joseph into slavery. . . if you look at all the previous generations and how they become warring separate nations. . . destined to be future and all time enemies. . . Jacob's children, the children of Israel, they have all of the same things happen to them, and even worse.
Let's see, what can break up a family. . . the issue between Isaac and Ishmael is that Sarah wanted Abraham to take up with Hagar her handmaiden, and she does and then drives a wedge between Ishmael that child, and Isaac her son. . . the rest is a long long history of enmity and strife, some would say lasting until even this day. . . but Jacob's family has the same problem. . . actually times two. Of Jacob's 13 children, 12 boys and one Girl, they are spread between four different mothers. Of course there are the two wives of Jacob, the sisters, Leah and Rachel, whom he labored seven years apiece for. . . but each of those women each have a handmaiden as well. . . Leah's handmaiden is Zilpah, and Rachels handmaiden is Bilhah. . . and yeah, you guessed it, they each are mother to some of the 12. If you are keeping score. Leah is mother to Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and the one daughter Dinah. . . her handmaiden Zilpah is the mother of Gad and Asher. . . Rachel is the mother of Joseph, of course the favorite. . . being the oldest of Jacob's true love, and Benjamin, in whose birth Rachel died. . . and then finally Dan and Naphtali are the sons of Bilhah, Rachel's maid. . . Same old story as Sarah and Hagar, just times two. . . if Ishmael and Isaac's feud is still violently playing out in Middle Eastern politics, why did Israel become a unified nation?
There are also many tragedies that happen to this family that could have broken them up before now too, but one time a gruesome one, may actually show their solidarity as a family, shades of the connections of the future, maybe hard times do bring people together . . So picture this. . . 12 sons, and 1 daughter, well actually there may be others, but Dinah is the only daughter mentioned. . . She is one of Leah's daughters. . . now the family travels around alot. . . mostly because their welcome in different places is not warm because of all of Jacob's antics back when he was living up to that name: the trickster. They didn't want to stay with Laban any longer because he was cheating him, and they were working up the courage to reunite with Esau, and they spent some time in Shechem. While at Shechem, one of the Hivites, the son of the Hamor the ruler, the prince, according to the RSV. . . lay with Dinah by force. . . he rapes her, but he supposedly loves her, and speaks tenderly to her. . . all of this can be found in Genesis 34. . . His soul was drawn to Dinah, it says. . . but when her brothers and her father hear of all this they, as you can imagine, 12 brothers would be protective of their sister, they get their revenge. It's a rough scene, they trick them into getting circumcised, saying that they won't allow Dinah to marry them without going through that sacred ritual. . . while they are healing though, still in pain, the brothers kill them all, and plunder the city. Solidarity, and family pride, maybe, but Jacob, surprizingly, is upset with them, ever the shrewd one, he knows that they will never be forgiven by the Canaanites and the Perizzites, and that they are now in a weakened and precarious position, of having small numbers and few friends. . . . but she of course was their sister?
And then more tragedy, as Rachel when she finally has a son, Joseph, he becomes of course Israel's favorite, but then she has another child, Benjamin. . . son of my right hand, and in child birth she dies. . . and is buried in Bethlehem. . . her tomb is still there. Jacob is distraught for some time, and you can imagine why he would hold on so tightly to Joseph, and then of course Benjamin when Joseph is sold away, seemingly dead.
If that were not enough, while they were at Bethel, there also was an issue with Reuben, the oldest boy. . . he was Leah's son, but he fathered a child with the handmaiden, Bilhah that was mother to two of his brother's Dan and Naphtali. . .
So with all of these family issues going on, the scene of today's lesson is hardly a shock. 12 boys with four different mothers, the politics of who is a child of a wife and who is a child of a handmaiden, the politics of which are the children of the favorite wife, rather than the first wife, that Jacob was tricked into marrying. Jealousy over not being sure which way the inheritance and blessing will flow, due to all of these politics, and the family history on the subject is also doubtful at best. All of this is going on and the coat of many colors  becomes lost in the shuffle of all the other strife. . . the brothers do as brothers seem to do in the Biblical stories, they remove the problem. . . they sell their brother into slavery in Egypt. And again I say that is not the surprise of the story. The surprise is that Israel, the nation of Israel, the descendants of these boys, have a united history at all, some how.  
Every other time there is a family squabble before this the families separate. . . the tribes become as I said before rival nations. It happens every single time, and all of the genealogies found in Genesis, are a testament to it. It says again and again. . . and these were the children of Esau, forever to be known as the Edomites, and these are the children of Ishmael, and these the descendents of Ham, or Japhet, or Shem. . . they are always breaking apart and forming new nations, but for some reason despite all the drama, all the turmoil, all the repetition of the same history that has split peoples up before. . . Israel, these twelve tribes will remain united together. It isn't an easy history. . . it includes some infighting and disagreement. It involves slavery in Egypt, wandering in the desert, struggling for land, uniting around a King, and then a rival King, a succession of bad kings, consistently growing worse, into exile, into diaspora, persecution by empire after empire from Persia, to Greece, to Rome, to Nazi Germany. . .and somehow is still a nation, not just a state, but a recognizable people as well, today, still beating the odds.
What is it that keeps this family together? What is it? The answer may be a clue to the rest of the story, and what keeps people together still. The easy answer is that they are chosen by God to be a nation, that the promise was made, the covenant is solid, that the line from Abraham straight through is there. And I think that is the case for sure. . . but such was the case for Isaac's and Jacob's generation, too. The promise could have just been passed to one of the 12 sons, as it had in previous times. That Rachel's sons were the favored ones, that Joseph or Benjamin could have become the lone child of promise, or the first born Reuben, as tradition should have it. . . could you imagine Moses praying to the God of Abraham, and Isaac, of Jaccob, and of Reuben. . . but it wouldn't be Moses would it, since he was a Levite. . . No it doesn't happen that way. All of them take their place. . . God chooses them all. God does it but Joseph becomes the vehicle, and the lesson of it all is important for any group of people. . . because often groups are put to the test and often fragment throughout history, and will continue to do so in the future, because the medicine is not easy. Joseph is a remarkable man of God.
Quite simply put, Joseph forgives his brothers: all of them. The roles become reversed, the weak has become strong, the victim has the lives of his assailants in his hands, and he does not hold the grudge. The present and the future become more important than the past. . .and the group survives. It really becomes as simple as that. . .forgiveness, and forgiveness is hard. . . it is of God. I think there is no greater proof in the role of God in this story than the fact that Joseph can forgive his brothers. That kind of perspective, that kind of love only comes from God. . .and we can pray that we are given such grace in our own lives and relationships. . . it is the kind of grace that shouts from the torture, from the chastising, from the cross, "Father, forgive them they know not what they do."
The trend of human life is to break apart, whether it is the fragmenting of the church throughout the last 2000 years, the disintegration of Empire after Empire, the political struggles and fragmentation we face as a culture and a country today, polarized politically, divided ideologically, fractured into groups, identities, interests. . . or on a smaller level. . . friendships, marriages, families, churches, cliques, factions. . . It is likely and normal for all of these things to happen, it is in our nature, to divide, hold grudges, and break apart. . . but the other does happen, and when it does God is there, and when God is there, miracles happen. . . even and most importantly the so simple miracle of forgiveness. . . so simple, yet so powerful, so simple, yet so difficult, so simple, yet our only hope in a world fallen into brokenness. . . such is a world of grace. It breaks the cycle of escalation and separation. . . it allows for God's work to be done, to happen. . . rather than ours of revenge and the justice of limited perspective. I pray it at home  here when the winds of politics shift again, as they always do, I pray it in a Russia holding on to a past gone, but not forgotten, fearing decline on one side, and fearing the iron grip of a curtain pulled tight again, I pray it in relationships at every level, and I pray that somehow in the Middle East, forgiveness could reign, where it hasn't for so long.
I wrote a poem once, looking at this world as an optimist would, I read it a few weeks ago, "Where I would Like to Live." It was the one with the line about "chocolate and peanut butter finding a taste for eachother". . . it also contained the line, "where history is forgiven, if not forgotten". . . so simple yet so difficult, as the pendulum of power swings back and forth wielding the guillotine's blade again and again. . . instead of the song of revenge, we must cry. "Forgive us our debts", and let us somehow forgive our debtors, we know not what we do any more than they do, but instead let us forgive, for such is the way of thy kingdom, and the way of the Kingdom when it comes to be on Earth as it is in heaven, and it remains the only answer now, next time, and the next time the tables are turned, when the last are first again and the first are last one more time, when the meek inherit the Earth, can they forgive the mighty, can that lion and lamb really lie down together, all the nations and peoples of the earth have been on both sides of oppression, and the cycle will continue, until we all can forgive. . . hopefully we can, and end the cycle forever, forever, and ever, may God's perfect will be done. . . Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ge 37:1-9). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.