Pastor Rick Danielson
On one of my work days last week, I took a mid-day break to go to the gym and take a dip in the pool. I settled back in the lounge chair, admired the view of the mountains, then closed my eyes to daydream a bit, probably about our upcoming wedding and all the work that still has to be done. Suddenly my dreams were interrupted by a powerful stinging sensation on my small right toe. I opened my eyes to see a honey bee perched at the end of my foot. I thought maybe it was a sign that I should get back to work! In a moment of panic, I flung the bee onto the concrete and watched as it slowly dragged its depleted body away from the site of the crime. Knowing that its hours were numbered, I actually started to feel a little sorry for it, despite the throbbing pain in my little toe.
The Hebrew scripture reading today is about someone who really got stung. His dreams of great things were interrupted when eleven brothers set up a sting and sold him into slavery. The brothers are the ones who paid the price, though. As the rest of the story unfolds across eleven entire chapters of Genesis, it’s not hard to feel sorry for them as they beg Joseph for mercy.
Have you ever been stung? Perhaps even by a member of your own family? If so, you can probably relate a bit to Joseph.
This is the kind of Bible story that causes people to ask, “Is this really a true story?” I always answer, “Yes! It is absolutely a true story.” I’m not at all sure it is factual story, but… boy is it ever true! This is what family life can be like, and this is a great example of how we wrestle with God’s place in our own story.
Much of what appears in the Book of Genesis fits a pattern of Hebrew storytelling organized around questions of meaning. How did life begin? Where did people come from? Why are there so many different languages? The story of Joseph answers questions about the origin of the Hebrew people and the twelve tribes of Israel.
Stories were passed along from family to family and from generation to generation. The crafting and the act of memorizing and retelling the stories were art forms and were essential in the development of the Hebrew people. I think it’s most often appropriate for preaching to reflect the form of biblical literature that is being discussed, so today I will also share some stories as a way of responding to this text.
The eleven chapter-long story of Joseph is a central narrative in scripture that not only made for countless high school musical productions, as well as a great Broadway show staring Donny Osmond, but the story gave listeners an explanation and reminder of who they were and where they fit into God’s plan.
Although this is a story about family relationships, Jacob and his sons are next exactly presented as a model. It is an amazing and only slightly exaggerated picture of the favoritism of one child leading to jealousy, leading to division, leading to betrayal. Real family life can be like that: sometimes chaotic, often messy, and occasionally tragic.
As a pastor, I learn a lot about families. I hear many stories. And I’ve already begun hearing about your own families, and I’m reminded that family can be the source of our greatest joy as well as our deepest heartache.
We’re just getting to know each other. As a way of helping that along, I want to share a bit about my own story and my own family today, and I hope you will do the same with me as time goes on.
I was the last of the five children born to my parents, and like Joseph, I was often accused of being spoiled by my older siblings. I had an interesting vantage point to watch the others as they grew toward adulthood. My oldest brother was a brilliant student in high school and was accepted at Brown and Princeton before suffering a mental breakdown and beginning a life of treatment for schizophrenia. He lives in a group home today and his life seems to revolve around the number of cigarettes and cups of Pepsi he is allowed to have each day. The middle boy in the family, ten years older than me, was a star athlete with Olympic aspirations and began college with a pre-med major. Drug and alcohol abuse ended his education, and he committed suicide a few weeks after his girlfriend gave birth to their son. The older of my two sisters, who won a Betty Crocker Home-Maker of the Year Award in high school headed off to college and embraced a liberal and feminist perspective. The other sister, who I was closest to, went off to college and committed herself to Christian fundamentalism. A few years ago, pancreatic cancer struck my older sister and took her from us very quickly.
Decades earlier, my Dad left his engineering career and became a pastor after surviving an airline disaster when his plane crashed into a swamp in Mexico. Both of my parents were theologically conservative until I came out as a gay man twelve years ago. If anyone had been given the multi-colored coat in my family, it was me. It shook their world and they started a new journey. They became outspoken LGBT allies within their denomination. My mother died of cancer ten years ago at age 80. My father is now 91 and is with his companion of three years in Philadelphia. My family has grown to include my young adult children Erik and Olivia as well as my partner and soon-to-be husband Leroy. I feel blessed by all of the experiences of life and how I have been shaped through my family as a son, brother, father, and partner.
In my family, we love each other, we don’t always communicate well, we sometimes talk about each other in ways we shouldn’t, we make assumptions that aren’t always helpful, and we always seem to come through and support each other when needed, or at least most of the time.
The story of Joseph is not always the most virtuous tale. He’s called the dreamer, but his dreams were often overshadowed by the stuff of nightmares. As the story unfolds in Genesis, the dark moments ultimately reveal the blinding light of grace, and the fulfillment of long-held hopes. Joseph is a hero, but not without his own very human failings. In that sense, he is probably not unlike any of us.
What do we do when we come face to face with our limitations and our inability to love perfectly?
Many years ago, my children and I were living in Kentucky while I worked on a degree. While we were there, my youngest sister and her family travelled to Tennessee on vacation. Normally we lived at least seven states apart, so we decided to try to get our families together. The map showed that Mammoth Cave National Park was at the mid-point, so we decided to rendezvous there at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning. My sister and her family tend to be more relaxed about clocks and schedules than I am, so I made a point of letting her know how very important it was to arrive on time. I knew I’d be hustling my own family through the mountains, so I certainty hoped they would not be late. I could almost hear my sister roll her eyes over the phone at my obsessive-compulsive clock-watching as she assured me that yes, they would be there on time. What I discovered the next day while driving to Mammoth Cave, is that two inches of hilly back roads on the map of Western Kentucky is like 4 inches on the map of a flat state like, say, Indiana. About an hour into the trip, I started to get nervous when I realized we were already behind schedule. I replayed my words to my sister in my head and was sorry I had been so emphatic about their prompt arrival. As I accelerated the car on the winding roads through hills and hollers and dips and curves, my daughter became car sick and we had to stop, and clean everything up, which put us even further behind schedule. Cell phones did not work in the mountains, so calling my sister was not a possibility. I started to get very nervous and to feel terribly embarrassed as I realized we would likely be one full hour late. But then it something amazing happened. We came around a curve, and there was a miracle. A rectangular green sign announced: “Entering Central Standard Time.” Suddenly it was an hour earlier. I never saw that coming. A few minutes later, we arrived right on time, entering Mammoth Cave Park right behind my sister’s mini-van.
In our worst moments, there is grace. When we’re sure that we have committed the unpardonable sin for showing off our multi-colored coat too many times or for selling out a brother or sister that we really do love, we’re reminded that the story isn’t over until the last words have been written. We can still learn and we can still take actions to love more fully.
After centuries of being related over and over again, the story of Joseph was finally put into writing. It probably happened during the years of exile when the Hebrew people wondered if they would ever return home and when they needed to be reminded of God’s faithfulness in forming them as a people. Stories have that kind of power.
I believe that at our best and at our worst, God affirms the goodness of the enduring image of the Divine within us. No matter how many times we’ve been stung or how many times we have stung others, there is always more to the story.
May God continue to write the amazing tale of your life, and may the dreams stirring within you come to reality! Amen!