The Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost (A)
Union Grove United Methodist Church
Hillsborough, North Carolina
1Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. 2This 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. 3Now 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. 4But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
5Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. 7There 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.” 8His 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.
9He 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.” 10But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?” 11So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.
Genesis 37:1-11 NRSV
Two weeks ago, we talked about Jacob the prophetic wrestler. Jacob was a scam artist his whole life, but then finally began to look to God for guidance, and even to wrestle with God, just as he had wrestled with his brother and father and father-in-law before, to get a blessing. With his hip out of joint, he made his way to the promised land and had twelve kids. Do you feel sorry for the woman who went through twelve pregnancies? Remember it was actually four different wives, so they deserve our sympathy for several other reasons.
In a grand act of poetic justice, with his twelve children Jacob got exactly what he deserved: a bunch of mischievous rebels. First his sons tore apart a whole city full of people who had welcomed them and killed all the males present because the prince was in love with their sister. I’m so glad Heather’s brother likes me. Next, they turned inward, and focused all their mischief on their brother, Joseph.
Joseph turns out to be almost the opposite of his father. Jacob did some things that we knew to be wrong, but it was still clear that he was the hero of the story. Joseph never really does anything terribly wrong, but watching him makes you want to shake your head knowingly: “that boy’s gonna get himself beat up one of these days.” Joseph comes home from helping his brothers in the field one day and tells his father that the others are lazy. Doesn’t he know nothing good ever happens to tattle tales? Not only did his father receive the bad report from Joseph, which wasn’t going to make him the brothers’ favorite person anyway, but Jacob also had a beautiful robe made for Joseph. One has to wonder what Jacob was thinking. As conniving as he had been, he should have known better than to lavish praise on the brown-nosing child; he of all people should understand the power of brothers’ jealousy. Even a mischievous band of brothers like this one might have forgotten about their brother tattling on them, but Joseph was wearing around a visible reminder of their father’s preference for him. He was easy to hate.
Sharing a dream
And he made it even easier, because he tapped the brothers’ worst fears when he shared his crazy dreams. “We were out gathering wheat,” he shares enthusiastically, as if he expects them to be happy for him. “Your bundles gathered around my bundle and bowed down to it.” And the eleven gathered around him stared open-mouthed, like he had just told a terrible joke at comedy hour: “not only does our father think you’re better than us, but you do to!”
But Joseph isn’t done. “Wait, I’ve got another one!” This time the symbolism is even clearer: “I dreamed that the sun, the moon, and eleven stars bowed down to me!” You really can’t blame his brothers for thinking of ways to get rid of him after that.
A few days later, Joseph, who lately has developed a dislike for outdoors work, is twiddling his thumbs at home, and along comes his father. It sounds like a pretty modern conversation from here on. “Your brothers are out in the fields. Why aren’t you with them?” Jacob probably knew full well why Joseph preferred to hang out alone.
“The other kids don’t like me, Dad. They hate me because I’m different.” This doesn’t make much sense to Jacob.
“Well, go on out and at least check on them; then you can come back and tell me how they’re doing.” Joseph had already proven his ability to report on his brothers, after all. He set off to find them, and they saw him in the distance as he approached. “Here comes this dreamer,” they sneered, with “dreamer” rolling off their tongues like it was a four-letter word. “Come now, let’s kill him.”
When Joseph becomes the hunted, he becomes our favorite character in the story; his sins of pride begin to fall away, and we fear, like his oldest brother Reuben, for Joseph’s life. He is not killed of course, but rather sold into slavery, and he ends up in Egypt. It is there that his gift for dreaming serves him best. He is able to interpret the Pharaoh’s dream and help Egypt prepare for the upcoming famine, which will also help him to rescue his own family from hunger to make a nice end to the story. But from where we are now, dreaming looks to be the worst thing Joseph did.
Wrestling with the future
It’s a little dangerous to try to learn from this story. What does it teach, really? Don’t have dreams? Don’t share dreams? Don’t sell your brother into slavery? If you’re thinking about that last one, then one sermon hasn’t got much hope of helping you. The story doesn’t tell us not to dream or even not to share our dreams, but it certainly gives us reason to be wary of the power of dreaming.
In my last sermon, I talked about Jacob wrestling with God and about the calling of our faith to wrestle grace out of even the darkest surroundings. To dream is to wrestle with the future: to let imagination or inspiration or a wonderful mix of both challenge the path that you have always assumed you would take.
It’s no surprise that Joseph was so comfortable with dreams—it was in his blood. He was driven by the same energy that caused his father to wrestle, and remember that Jacob had dreams of his own—a dream of a great ladder leading to heaven that marked the rededication of his life to God. If we acknowledge God as the source of dreams and dreaming, then it is a theme that runs throughout the Bible. God constantly challenges the paths that biblical characters assume they would take. Look at Moses, or Noah, or Jonah. And no small part of Jesus’ ministry was convincing us to dream of a new creation in which the kingdom of God would come in open and powerful ways on earth.
Dreaming makes you different
And yet there is a frightening power in dreams to expose us, and so our dreams many times remain closely guarded secrets. Feelings of guilt begin to seep in as we dream, because the forces of the world have taught us to be happy with what we have. Our society, and frequently our church, smiles on people who figure out the path that is ahead and prepare for it carefully. We teach each other to take the right courses in school, keep track of our spending, and save money for college or retirement or grocery shopping at the end of the week. Succeeding in life is all about preparing for the path we are to take in life.
“They hate me because I’m different,” Joseph said to his father in my imagined encounter, and of course he was right, because his brothers were interested only in keeping to their designated lot in life: tending the sheep out in the country. They were disgusted with Joseph the dreamer, who came up with grand ideas and was not content with the way things were. Of course, Joseph got sold into slavery in Egypt, where, if you’ve read ahead you know, he ended up in jail. Dreaming is dangerous. Is there a fine line between dreaming and living recklessly? Sure. But we don’t even approach the line. The Bible doesn’t exactly encourage careful living:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal…
Matthew 6:19 NRSV
I have a vested interest in this subject matter. As I consider my vocation and try to understand my calling, dreaming is the order of the day. Were I not able to see God as the source of my dreams about the future and to see my dreams as one way of understanding God’s calling, I would go insane trying to reconcile what I want with what I think God might want. Thanks to our sinful nature, not all of our dreams are in concert with God’s will by any means, and yet a certain connection exists.
But this is only half of dreaming, and while perhaps the less important half, it is also the less dangerous half.
Dreaming of the Kingdom
The better dreams are the ones that are forged in our hearts and minds for the good of all God’s people. Joseph’s work with the Pharaoh’s dream about the years of plenty and years of famine was more like this, but the best examples come from the preaching of Christ. He taught withdrawal from the path we have assumed our lives would take:
29b“Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, [Jesus said,] 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Mark 10:29-31 NRSV
If the words were not familiar, they would sound just crazy enough to be what we call a dream.
Walking on water
To dream is to wrestle with the future; to imagine a path in life—a world, even—that has been changed from what we might have expected. In Joseph’s dream and the Pharaoh’s, the world was revealed as dramatically different. Joseph was no longer one among twelve, but became the center of attention. What child with eleven siblings wouldn’t like that? And Pharaoh saw a world over which he did not have ultimate control, and began to open himself up to help from others and a tiny little bit of shared power.
I’ll leave it to you to dream of what might be different if we closed our eyes, maybe even went to sleep, and listened real hard to what the inspiration of the Holy Spirit can do as it takes on our version of reality. Not everything you dream will be for God’s purposes, of course, but you’ll know which is which, and if not, you could even be so bold as to share with this community for help in discerning what God might be speaking to and through you.
In my dreams, we could become as bold as Peter, who asked Jesus to call him out onto the water.
29b…Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Matthew 14:29b-30 NRSV
Jesus’ response? Jesus dared Peter to dream that the world really had changed: that walking on the water wasn’t just some parlor trick, but evidence that the coming of Christ had made even the most basic rules of gravity, sin, and death obsolete.
Maybe it was easy for the Israelites to be a dreaming people, because they were all the time wandering home. And dreaming seems a natural reaction for Jesus’ disciples, who were just beginning to understand Christ when he started talking about his death, and who heard his stories about the Kingdom of Heaven all day long. Dreaming is not so easy for us. We are relatively comfortable. We have what we need to get from day to day, we have places to live, and by God’s grace through this church even if nowhere else, we have people who care deeply for us.
Still, we must dream. It is dangerous, it makes us a little different, and it requires deep faith, but we must do it. In fact, we who call ourselves Christian should dream more than any other people, because to shy away from dreaming is to accept the world the way it is, and our Lord has never let us do that.