"Dreams and more"
A Message By Dr. Bruce Havens
BASED ON THE THEME: "Reading the Bible again, for the FIRST time"
ARLINGTON CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH, U.C.C.
June 30, 2019
“Dreams and More”
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “Reading the Bible Again, for the First Time”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
June 30, 2019
Genesis 50:15-21 (NRSV)
15 Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” 16 So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17 ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20 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. 21 So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
The story of Joseph the Dreamer is a terrific narrative. It is long and involved; a multi-night bedtime story to help a child know his heritage. “We were the ‘sons of Israel,’ favored by YHWH, with a land of our own. Then we faced a famine. We went down into Egypt for food and ended up enslaved. But YHWH was good, and gracious and sent a Prophet from Pharoah’s own court, Moses, adopted son of the King of Egypt, who led us out of slavery and back to the Promised Land.”
Joseph’s story is the backstory to how they came to Egypt in the face of famine. Joseph the Dreamer’s character tells our fictional bedtime listener something about family dynamics, facing setbacks and successes, and the way YHWH works through history to achieve redemption. And it made a great movie featuring everyone’s favorite Mormon, Donny Osmond!
There’s Joseph as a child, the next to youngest son of Jacob – renamed Israel by YHWH his God. The fact that Joseph was the beloved and blessed son of Israel overturns the cultural tradition that says the first son is always the most beloved and blessed - an overturning the Bible specializes in again and again. His dreams at first are an annoyance, a spoiled child’s egoism. But when he announces that his dreams mean he will one day rule over his older brothers they become more than annoying. They become life-threatening, for Joseph at least. His brothers plot to murder him, but that good old god, Profit, spoke more loudly, and instead of killing him, his brothers sold him into slavery to some passing pirates. They told their father he was killed by a wild animal and Jacob was never the same. He grieved the loss the rest of his life - until he found out Joseph wasn’t dead.
But the dreaming and the Dreamer didn’t end with Joseph’s enslavement. In a classic plot-twist Joseph’s ability to dream was matched only by his ability to interpret dreams. His talent lands him a place in the household of a captain of Pharaoh’s royal guard. Plot twist after plot twist in this barn burner, it turns out not only is Joseph talented at dreaming and interpreting dreams he is pretty much a dreamboat himself. At least in the Captain’s wife’s eyes. But Joseph won’t dance to her tune or play her games. So in yet another twist she accuses him of what he won’t do, and he ends up back in prison. End of the dreams? No! Get ready for it: plot twist! The Dreamer interprets more dreams and ends up serving as Pharaoh’s right hand man! Talk about someone who can fall into the septic tank and wind up smelling like roses! And that roller coaster ride to the top of the Egyptian Empire is where we read the conclusion to the story of the Dreamer and his brothers who did everything they could to kill the dreamer and the dream.
So here we are at the portion of the story we read today. The brothers and Joseph the Dreamer have been reunited in some sense. Joseph got to see his father again and his father got to see him before he died. Now Jacob is gone and the brothers still aren’t at ease about their relationship with Joseph. They are concerned with Jacob gone Joseph will seek revenge on them. They again apparently make up a story, this time claiming Jacob had told them to ask Joseph to forgive them. While some would say Joseph’s words completely exonerate the brothers he actually simply says, that’s God’s job not mine. But he does reassure them that he will take care of them and their offspring. And he makes the statement that, though what they did they meant for evil, God meant it for good, for the preservation of the Jewish people facing starvation from the famine.
So beyond being a heckuva story with lots of exciting plot twists, what are we to make of this saga of Joseph the Dreamer. For the Hebrew people it served to explain how they ended up in Egypt and ultimately in slavery. It gave them a history before that reality to hold on to and a hero to admire – a kind of a George Washington, chops down cherry tree but is so honest he confesses to it, Abraham Lincoln the rail splitting Honest Abe kind of national hero. It also, as I said earlier, disputes the “oldest son most loved most blessed” narrative. And it probably serves as a good warning about how complicated family relationships can be, especially step-family relationships when kids from different mothers are favored unequally.
But for us beyond the easy tag line that some things that were meant for evil can turn out good, what is our learning? I think what I want to do is look back at what we are learning about how to listen to and read Scripture, what questions to ask and also what to use as background understandings for not misreading Scripture.
So we looked at the Genesis stories of Creation. The first lesson we must take in reading this is that this is not intended to be a scientific description of the nuclear physics that created the world. Why? Because those concepts were beyond the understanding or worldview of the people of that time. Science itself was not a concept. It was not written to answer the questions of how so much as the question “why,” and the question “who are we?”
At its heart it is telling us that we are connected to a Spirit God, not a nature god or goddess. It is telling an alternative story to other religions whose relationship to multiple gods was one of fear, whereas this God YHWH was a God who blessed creation and called it good and very good. It was a very different narrative than most religions that saw their gods as at best indifferent to humans and at worst, enemies. The story of Creation, really the story of the whole Bible is built on the theological belief that the real God wants a relationship with human beings, wants that relationship to be one of trust and blessing, not fear and manipulation.
This God is a God of abundance, not scarcity. God does not favor those who have more and having more is not a sign that God loves you and not the poor person on the street. God does not favor those who are blessed by human measures of power, riches, property or other such human measures that are too often even today considered signs of God’s blessings and approval. Instead this God narrative teaches that there is enough for everyone to have enough. God does not favor economic theories that mean profit for some and suffering for others. This God proclaims through prophets and apostles a narrative of abundance, there is no need to hoard so some have and some have not. We could sum it up by saying that this God who claims the name YHWH – “I will be who I will be,” or “I am who I am” is constantly challenging the human assumptions about the limits of God’s love.
We looked at the story of Abraham and learned that God is not a god that manipulates people nor can we manipulate this God YHWH by sacrifices. It not only rejects human sacrifice it rejects that God needs any sacrifice from us, as this God will provide – this is not a god satisfied by burnt offerings, slain animals or other human actions except that of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.
We listened to the story of Pentecost in Acts and learned that God’s Spirit brought the people who had witnessed Jesus in life and death together and inspired in them a powerful sense of his risen presence. The story reminded us that when that Spirit is present the words of the prophets come to life. In the story Peter reminds us that the Spirit of God makes all people prophets – the powerless slave, the overlooked women, the immigrant among us – are called to speak God’s truth to the powerful: that God demands all people be treated justly, with compassion and mercy, and with the same love God shows us.
And in hearing our story today we remember that all of Genesis was written after the Exodus, after the band of slaves called “Hebrews” were led out of Egypt by Moses and by YHWH. It is important to remember these are not historical stories – again the way we define history. They weren’t written down by eyewitnesses at the time of the events either. They weren’t “reporting” the way we understand “reporting.” They were stories told for understanding the world, our place in it, our relationship with the real God, the Creator, and also to speak to and often against cultural norms that were accepted without question – like the firstborn should be the only one blessed; like the importance of showing hospitality to strangers and immigrants – what the Bible calls “aliens.” These are stories told to remind the people of Israel that they are to treat the powerless widow, orphan, impoverished, and the stranger with the same value and worth as the rich, the powerful, the privileged – because if you didn’t there would be consequences – painful consequences for treating people unjustly.
What turned out to be good became evil – the people of Israel went down into Egypt to escape famine, but became slaves – but God liberated them and made them into a nation of people with a land and an identity centered on the character and nature of God/YHWH – giver of commandments, maker of covenants, promiser of blessing, redeemer of evil for good. Let us hope this YHWH God is still at work