August 13, 2017 | Genesis 37: 1-28 | Rev. Nancy Talbot
This summer I’ve been watching the series “13 Reasons Why” on Netflix. It’s a drama about a high school student named Hannah Baker who records a box of cassette tapes detailing the thirteen reasons why she has just committed suicide. Each of the reasons relates to a person in her life who she has asked to listen to the tapes following her death. I’m only a few episodes into the first season but already the tapes talk about how Hannah was let down again and again in her relationships. The first boy she ever kissed distributed a suggestive photo of her on facebook. Her best friend dated a mutual friend behind her back and then blamed her for their breakup. Another so called friend tells a lie about her to protect her own reputation and the only person who actually acts like friend towards her remains silent, fails to defend her, when even more rumours about her start spreading like fire among her classmates.
I chose to watch the series because I heard it’s a fairly accurate portrayal of highschool life these days and as someone who works with teens, I was interested in knowing more. What I’m discovering is the same tragic chain of events that takes place in every generation whenever jealously and hatred, violence and complicity take hold. The settings and some of the details are different but the experience is the same. The chain doesn’t always end in death thank goodness, but along the way, relationships always get damaged, hearts are hardened and souls destroyed.
Like the show “13 Reasons Why” the story of Joseph, his brothers and his father Jacob (who also known as Israel) also portrays a chain of bad behavior and poor choices leading to brokenness and grief. A father favours one child over all his other children and the child flaunts it. His brothers use peer pressure to violently end the threat the younger brother imposes. The eldest brother fails to truly stand up for what he knows is wrong. Strangers see an opportunity and take advantage of it by engaging in human trafficking. Lies are told. A father’s heart is broken. A child’s dreams are lost.
It’s not surprising that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice take this section of the Joseph story and turn it into a comedy in their famous musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. To portray this scene as something that actually happens in real families and real lives might cut to close to the bone.
One of the reasons this story still engages us is we know too well the truth of it. We know what it’s like to feel like our parents favour one child over the other. As parents we might even be guilty as charged. Who among us hasn’t wanted to throw their brother or a sister into a pit or sell them to whoever might be willing to take them? We know or are part of families where one member refuses to speak to another, or where someone is completely estranged, sometimes for years on end. Domestic violence and sexual assault occur at an alarming rate behind closed doors in the privacy of homes where we never suspect them.
We are all too familiar with this story and with the chain of events that get unleashed when jealousy, hatred, violence and complicity take hold in family units.
And if we pull back and look at the way the 12 sons of Israel in this story are meant to reference the 12 tribes of ancient Israel, we are confronted not just with the way this kind of behavior affects families. We are confronted with the way jealously and hatred, violence and complicity affect national and international relationships. How can we read this passage this week and not reflect on the bullying and infantile behavior playing itself out on the world stage between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un. How can we read it and not think of the violence that unfolded on the streets of Charlottesville Virginia this weekend? How can we not think of the present day broken relationship between Israel and Palestine?
So where is God in all this mess? In the story, we might want to say in Reuben the eldest of the brothers who appears to want to spare Joseph’s life. Given that further back in this story Rueben betrayed his father by sleeping with his concubine, it’s a bit hard to consider Reuben as the harbinger of the holy.
In fact, in these 28 verses of scripture, there is no mention of God. In families like 17 year old Hannah’s whose parents have lost their only daughter (as portrayed in the show 13 Reasons Why); in families where hatred and abuse take hold and become systematic; in Palestine and on the streets of Virginia when white supremacists are marching down main street it can be pretty hard to see the presence of the God of Love. Part of the truth of the story of Joseph is that when we act in unloving ways, love is hard to find.
So perhaps the place the Spirit dwells in the face of jealousy, anger, violence and complicity isn’t in the present action, it’s in the bigger picture, the bigger plan, in the free will and choices given to us all, or perhaps it’s in our dreams.
We talk a lot these days about the need for governments, corporations and organizations to have a guiding vision. Sometimes we say that’s what the church needs in order to attract more members. I’ve always felt that we do have a vision. It may not appear in every single verse of scripture, just like it isn’t made manifest in every moment of our lives, but it’s arc can be traced again and again over the narrative of the bible. It’s a vision of love and grace, justice, peace and reconciliation. That’s what we want for our families, that’s what we want for our world.
The problem is that as human beings when we experience something that we perceive as threatening, when we think we are being misunderstood or undervalued or our beliefs are being questioned we can move very quickly to feeling hurt, angry and afraid. When that happens we often end up reacting in ways that set off a whole chain of destructive habits and behaviors.
When I woke up yesterday morning to the news that there had been white supremacists marching through the night in Charlottesville my first reaction was not very loving, nor was my second third or fourth reaction. I still wasn’t very peaceful when I watched the coverage of Trump’s response to the situation. I actually had to stop watching it because I was getting so angry.
This business of walking around in human skin and trying to live out of a vision of love and grace is extremely challenging.
Which is why our spiritual practices are so important, because sometimes its only when we slow things down that we can actually see the bigger picture or simply trust that it is there especially when it seems that it is not. Sometimes it’s only because we have practiced being loved, that we can attempt to love what is hard to love and make a good choice instead of a harmful one.
If it is in Joseph’s dreams that God is to be found in the story we heard this morning, it’s worth noting when it is that those dreams come. Not during the day when Joseph is snitching on his brothers and flaunting his fancy coat. They come at night when Joseph is still and silent, when the action has stopped and there is time and space for the sacred to sneak in.
The more we pay attention to our dreams, the more we listen for God’s still small voice, the more we take time to give thanks and pray for the graces that we need, the more we pause and inquire into our thinking especially when our thoughts are full of judgement, jealousy and hate, the more able we are to break the chain of events that lead to division and destruction and find instead the harmony and peace we are intended for.
And sometimes it’s not until long after we have said our prayers and done our part that we can look back and see where love was hidden in our midst all along.
Late in the day yesterday afternoon, after I had vented my anger about the state of the world and shed a few tears over an argument I’d had with my kids I saw a post on my facebook feed from a colleague in the states. It was a video of a group of clergy, many dressed in preaching robes, walking slowly through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, their arms linked together. They moved in silent protest. Not a word was spoken until they came to a stop in front of the well guarded statue of Robert Lee that has been the catalyst for so much hurt and violence in the streets of Charlottesville this weekend. Then one by one they knelt on the ground and began to sing “This Little Light of Mine.”
The power of their silent witness broke the chain of angry and hateful actions and reactions to the events of the day. It momentarily slowed things down just enough for a glimpse of the bigger picture and the greater vision to emerge.
It is not easy to break a chain of hatred and hurt. Once a chain of violence, misunderstanding and mistakes has begun it can be very hard to stop, but it’s not impossible.
The more we are able to take a step back and consider how we want our story to end and the part we want to play, whether in or outside of our families, at church, at work or on the international stage, the more able we are to catch a glimpse of the hand of the holy, luring us towards love, igniting our dreams with a passion for the possible, holding before us a vision of peace.