Monday, September 28, 2020

Love Them With God's Love -- a sermon on Joseph and his brothers

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St John’s / Greenock St Margaret’s

Love Them With God’s Love

Genesis 37.1-8, 17b-36, 5.15-21

27 September 2020, NL3-3, Becoming God’s People 3

Since we heard about God’s promise to Abraham last week, both Hagar and Sarah bore sons to him, and each was promised to become a great nation — Ishmael and Isaac. The story of the Bible continues through the lineage of Isaac, who married Rebekah and became the father of Jacob and Esau. Jacob has been both a trickster and a dreamer all his life. With a pot of soup, he bought his brother’s birthright, and later he tricked their father out of Esau’s blessing. When running away for his life, he dreamt of angels coming and going from earth on a ladder. After marrying both Leah and Rachel, he and Esau eventually reconciled, and Jacob dreamt again, of wrestling with God and coming out the other side with a blessing and a new name: Israel. Jacob had four wives, and twelve sons. The youngest two sons were the only children borne by Rachel, who had always been Jacob’s favourite and truest love. We pick up the story today in Genesis chapter 37, reading verses 1-8 and 17-36, and then skipping to the end of the brothers' story in chapter 50, verses 15-21. I am reading from the New Revised Standard Version.

37 Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. 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. 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. 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.

Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, ‘Listen to this dream that I dreamed. 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.’ 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.

(his brothers were pasturing the flock….)

17b 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 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 there 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.

29 When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes. 30 He returned to his brothers, and said, ‘The boy is gone; and I, where can I turn?’ 31 Then they took Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat, and dipped the robe in the blood. 32 They had the long robe with sleeves taken to their father, and they said, ‘This we have found; see now whether it is your son’s robe or not.’ 33 He recognised it, and said, ‘It is my son’s robe! A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.’ 34 Then Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son for many days. 35 All his sons and all his daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and said, ‘No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.’ Thus his father bewailed him. 36 Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.

5015 Realising 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.

Family relationships can be so complicated, can’t they?

I think it would be something of an understatement to say that Jacob’s large family was a bit on the dysfunctional side. Jacob had first been tricked into marrying Leah when he really wanted to marry Rachel, and then throughout their lives both Leah and Rachel gave their enslaved servants to him as wives too — this, like the other human trafficking in this story, will need to be a sermon for another day. Jacob ended up with four wives and twelve sons, plus at least one daughter, but he really loved one wife and her two children the most, and everyone knew it.

That kind of favouritism was bound to create problems on top of the usual dynamics that come with younger children. As an oldest child myself, I understand the impulse to wish away a younger sibling now and then, but I can’t quite get my mind around the idea of trying to kill him or sell him into slavery — that is a whole other level of sibling rivalry than even our intense teenage fighting was!

Reading this story reminds me of a phrase that my supervising minister used to use, back when I was training for ministry 17 years ago. Whenever something frustrating would happen, she would say: “remember your job is to love them with God’s love.” The idea is that even if I didn’t feel particularly loving toward someone at the moment, or maybe even if I disliked them!, they still deserved and needed to be loved, so I ought to see myself as a conduit of God’s love, even if my own love wasn’t available. That way, I would behave toward them in a loving way, regardless of my own feelings.

This is true for all Christians, not just ministers. Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God and to love our neighbour…which doesn’t mean that we are always going to like people! Love is not so much a feeling as it is an action. To behave with love does not actually require that we emotionally love in the moment, though that may well follow. 

One of the ways that we can act with love, even if we don’t yet feel it, is to practice empathy, by trying to see from the perspective of the other person, or what we sometimes call walking a mile in their shoes. Empathy is something that gets talked about a lot but not practiced much, I think, perhaps because we confuse it with sympathy, perhaps because of a lack of imagination, or perhaps because it is too painful for us to imagine ourselves in a less-privileged position than we enjoy. But let’s imagine what empathy might have looked like in this story.

What if Jacob had been able to see from the perspective of his three not-favourite wives, or his ten not-favourite children? Would he have then been able to feel their grief at not being loved? Their anger at being passed over even though tradition said they should receive more? Their worry about the future? 

What if Joseph had walked a bit in his brothers’ shoes? Would he have seen the sadness that had replaced the playfulness of his childhood? Or how tired they were from keeping the flocks and herds, all while knowing that they may well be displaced out of their inheritance? Would he have seen how they wished for their father’s approval, or for even a day with a long tunic that marked them as being above manual labour?

What if the elder brothers had taken a moment to look through Joseph’s eyes — and seen his frustration at being coddled like a baby even when at 17 he ought to have had a bigger role in the family business? After all, the word that we translate as “long robe with sleeves” or that the musical translates as “coat of many colours” actually literally means “the dress of an unmarried royal princess.” Would the brothers have recognised that Joseph perhaps wanted to outgrow his princess dress, and his dreams reflect his longing to take his place among the family? Would they have sensed if he had discomfort with his father’s favouritism, or maybe his desire to prove himself to them, the big brothers he looked up to, hoping for their approval and to be seen as an equal?

It can be hard to look through someone else’s perspective, to walk a mile in their shoes. But when we do, our behaviour changes. We may still feel angry or sad or disappointed, but we are far more likely to have compassion and to be able to act with love. And when we act with love, we are more likely to grow into feeling it. This is what it means to love with God’s love — to act like the person is deserving of love, because they are.

This is a major part of growing as God’s people: learning to love with God’s love, to behave in loving ways even if we don’t feel it. That choice to act in love may help avoid some of the broken relationships that are so common, and it can even help heal some of the brokenness we live with now, both on a personal level and a societal level. As Cornel West said, “justice is what love looks like in public.” It isn’t a miracle cure, but it is a good start.

At the end of the story, when Joseph was in the position of power he once dreamed about, and their father had died, the brothers were still caught in the old ways. Their fear that Joseph may still be harbouring a grudge led them to yet another act of deceit, on top of all the others. But this time Joseph had learned a few things. He recognised their fear and their sadness, and chose to look past that and show them love anyway. Whether he felt brotherly love for them in the moment or not, he chose to act like it. Joseph took the moment to see from their perspective, and then offered his brothers forgiveness and reassurance and kindness, which is all they had really wanted all these years anyway. 

Interestingly, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that this is the first time in the Bible that forgiveness is ever mentioned. It took the entire book of Genesis for people to learn forgiveness…and after this, it’s something both God and people do. But he writes that humans learning to offer forgiveness to one another is what then brought God’s forgiveness into the story — sort of like how Jesus taught us to pray “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Perhaps it is in learning to love with God’s love that we are most likely to experience love ourselves. I know that it can lead to feeling love for others…but maybe it’s also a conduit toward feeling God’s love for us, too. When we act with love, we become more like the God in whose image we are made — the God who is love. 

May it be so. Amen.

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