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East of Eden by Warner Bros. 1955 starring James Dean

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

August 10, 2014

Year A

Genesis 37 differs greatly from the rest of the book of Genesis.

Up until now, the story has focused on the patriarchal ancestral heroes of Israel: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. The context of this story has been family, flocks and how family sticks together to make sure everyone is cared for. It has been a pastoral scene.

In the midst of that though there has been chaos and conflict.

Now Joseph is sold into slavery by his jealous, scheming brothers. Joseph leaves the pastoral world he knows and eventually becomes a leading bureaucrat of Egypt, a member of the establishment itself.

The question we ask then, is why is this story placed here? Why now?

There is a middle piece to this passage that is left out of the lectionary and that is the dream piece. In this dream, Joseph learned that he was to be the leader of his people. To use the language of the Bible, he was to have dominion over them. He shared the dream with his brothers and with his father. His brothers reacted badly and when the opportunity presented itself, they sold him into slavery.

I suppose anger and fear is what prompted the brothers to do what they did. The passage tells us they were very angry and so out of that anger grew the fear that motivated their behaviour. Out of fear we often make bad decisions.

Hebrew scripture is about the life of the people. Another word for Hebrew scripture is
Midrash. Midrash is the retelling of the story so that it makes sense for the time. When this story was told it was told so the people could understand what was happening in their world.

What can we learn from this story this morning?

It is a story about human behaviour, a story that gives us an opportunity to talk about how decisions are made.

Joseph was only seventeen years old and so a dream that foretells his future as a powerful figure in his community was likely quite overwhelming and had he been older and a bit wiser, he would have kept it to himself, or perhaps shared it with only his parents.

His brothers, of course, could have thought things through a little more clearly and rather than letting their fear take over, they could have thought reasonably about the future and their role in it, even if their brother, Joseph did have power. In the dream section of this passage, we learn that Joseph had a conversation with his father and his father rebuked him saying, “What is this, you think I am going to bow down to you,” but the passage continues, and the father says to himself, “I will keep this conversation in mind.” The power of dreams was significant in those days.

We have heard the story surrounding a family and for most of us at one time or another, we have experienced those same feelings, or emotions. The story names hate, anger, love, fear and jealousy. It’s not easy to make good decisions when we are surrounded by those emotions. But all the time, we are asked to live through these feelings and to make good sound decisions in the midst of it all.

It is difficult to hear this particular story without thinking of the conflict raging in the Middle East today, the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians which involves all of these emotions of hate, anger, love, fear and jealousy. For weeks we have been trying to understand the causes of this conflict and we have been praying that the negative emotions can change to ones that result, in peace and mutual respect.

The church, as well, lives in the midst of these feelings and emotions, though not with the intensity of the life and death situation I have just described.

The church is living out a post-Christian period in its 2000 year history. We have known some very good times. At the end of the Second World War we experienced a surge in church attendance and this continued until the 60s. Since the mid-sixties, most mainline churches have experienced a decline in both membership and attendance. For some people, this decline causes anger and fear. Perhaps like Joseph’s brothers, we feel jealous because we don’t look as successful as our evangelical neighbours.

The other emotion, that comes into play in the church is the desire to blame and it is closely related to all of the other feelings that I have named. There is nothing easier to do than to blame others for the church’s decline. I hear things like, if we only had Rev. so and so back, or if we could just find a good preacher and preferably a man, if only we had more children, if only….

The list of blame is often long and if that is what we do, then we block the process, or the possibilities that exist for us as the church.

The good old days as we know them, for the most part, are over. We likely won’t experience the church of the 50s or 60s again. In a recent issue of the Observer (June), we are told that whereas the United Church was opening one new church or hall per week in the early 60s, it is now closing one church per week.

But we can still be the church. The really difficult part of being the church of the future is that we are not very sure what it will look like. I agree that not knowing is extremely difficult for most of us. In your wildest dreams, what would the church of the future be like? What is it that you really want the church to be?

Remember, you can’t blame and you can’t say, if only we had more children, because it is unfair to blame our situation on the children. We can be the church with what we have. What kind of church is the question? So, again if you were dreaming, what is your dream?

When I arrived on
Haida Gwaii in 2000, there were two United Church congregations, one in Queen Charlotte Village where the “white folk” worshipped, and one in Skidegate where the First Nations folk worshipped. Each church had about 10 people at worship on Sunday morning. It took us a couple of years to make our decision by consensus, but we decided together, that we would close the Queen Charlotte church and move to full-time worship in Skidegate. Both churches were owned by General Council and they were both funded in part by the Mission & Service Fund.

So, no money from the sale of the Queen Charlotte church would come directly to the local church; but it would go back to the national church. The closure of one church and the move to Skidegate surpassed our wildest expectations. In no time, we had 60 people at worship on Sunday morning, that did drop to between 30-50 people on Sundays. Why were we successful?

I think because they were willing to risk, they were willing to explore what it meant to be cross-cultural and they were always willing to collaborate.

So, three things: risk, collaboration, cross cultural worship and maybe one more: they were willing to face their differences head on and voice how they felt. I suppose they did that through consensus building. We were the only United Church in Canada to close the church in the white community and move to the First Nations Reserve. As a church community, we focused mostly on adult education, spirituality, worship, and outreach. We had a very small Sunday School, maybe six children on a good day.

But, if we are to be church now, we can’t live in the past, we must collaborate and decide who we want to be and then take the risk it requires. Or, we can continue with the familiar – we can be who we have always been – we can continue on with what we know. Either way, there are no sure answers, but during this Interim in the next two years, we can explore the possibilities and talk about options. We can explore how you feel and what you believe is true for your church. Have you thought much about what you want?

Whenever I move, I try to read a significant piece of literature and this time I have read
“East of Eden” by John Steinbeck. In this epic novel, set in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Steinbeck tells the story of the Trask family and it has many of the same dynamics as the Old Testament story we heard today. Steinback was born in 1902 and “East of Eden was published in 1952. He wrote this book to make sense of the times and I think to make sense of his own life.

The story takes place in California where he lived most of his life and where his best fiction is set. Throughout the book the Hebrew word
timshel is explored and the protagonists in the story discover that it means “thou mayest.” Rather than thou shalt, or shalt not, or thou shalt ask, or thou shalt demand – the word means instead “thou mayest.” They discover that it might be the most important word in the world, because it means the way is open and it throws everything back on you, the people. Thou mayest and also thou mayest not.

It’s about having the freedom to make whatever decision you want to make. They were exploring the word
timshel because, Lee the Chinese manservant had discovered it in his reading of the Bible. They had the Bible out because they were trying to name the twins. They desperately needed to be named, time was slipping by. I won’t say anymore about “East of Eden” in case you want to read it. But I think it is important to realise that the Old Testament story and “East of Eden” are told for the same reason, so that we understand where we have come from and we can decide who we want to be.

Back to the question at the beginning: Why is this story of Joseph and his brothers placed here in the Hebrew Bible? I am not always sure why the Bible came together the way it did. We have to remember that everything in Genesis pre-dates the time of Moses and the Greek translation happened about 150 B.C. The better question is, what do we do with this story now? What does this story about Joseph and his family mean to us now? From my perspective, I have attempted to unpack that for you this morning.

In closing you might want to think about where you belong in the story. What story would you tell so that your family would have a clearer understanding of who you are and why?

In the next two years we will take plenty of opportunity for you to tell your church stories so that you can make sense of the past and find direction for the future.

Sharon Ferguson-Hood