Slavery: a sermon on Genesis 37

Someone once asked me, about today’s first reading from Genesis, “Where is God in this story?”

And truthfully, on the surface, that question is difficult to answer, because it really doesn’t look like God is present in today’s reading from Genesis.

What seems to be most present in today’s reading is a kind of lurking evil and antipathy…

What on earth, would cause someone to hate their brother so much that they would sell him into slavery?

Today’s reading alludes to the jealousy and resentment of Joseph on the part of his brothers.

After all, today’s reading says that Jacob loved Joseph more than any other of his children.

Such that Jacob gives his son Joseph a special robe with long sleeves.

Can resentment and dysfunctional family dynamics really lead someone to literally or metaphorically enslave their own brother? Yes, it seems it can.

And yet we know that the kinds of attitudes that can lead to this level of hatred are often more systemic than individual families.

We live with the legacy of slavery in this country, where our brothers and sisters were indeed enslaved.

And this image of brother and sisterhood isn’t just a metaphor of our shared humanity.

Sometimes literal flesh and blood relatives owned one another.

Thomas Jefferson’s wife Martha owned her half sister Sally Hemings as a slave.

That’s just one example of brothers and sisters enslaving one another.

The painful and complicated history and legacy of slavery is an evil that we still live with today.

We know know something of the evil that makes it possible to sell one’s brother into slavery because we have actually done it, in our history as a nation.

And it still happens, even today.

And struggles around issues of race and power aren’t the only things that can lead someone to enslave a brother.

Peterson Toscano, a biblical scholar and performer, has noted an interesting textual layer to today’s reading from Genesis.

In Hebrew, the word used to describe the special robe with long sleeves that Jacob gives to Joseph is Ketonet Passim.

The only other place where this word is used in Scripture is in 2 Samuel, where a Ketonet Passim is a special robe worn by virgin daughters of the King.

Now, it may just be a textual reference to the fact that this is a very special, honorific robe that Joseph wears.

Or it may be something more literal, an actual “princess dress.”

It could be possible that Joseph wears a feminine garment.

And we all know that gender non-conforming people, in our own culture today, and especially in 1st century Palestine, are almost always more vulnerable to acts of hatred.

What would cause someone to sell their brother into slavery?

Any number of reasons, it seems.

Who knows the full story; today’s text doesn’t say for sure.

But the deeper we go into the story, the more difficult it can become to see how God can be present in the midst of such human hatred for one another.

Where is God in this story?

God is not in the hatred and human suffering.

God is in the dreams.

There are some verses missing from today’s reading from Genesis.

These missing verses are the part of the story where Joseph shares his dreams—and his ability to accurately interpret those dreams—with his brothers.

That’s why in today’s reading, Joseph’s brothers say, when they see Joseph coming, “Here comes this dreamer.”

Now, if you know the full story, Joseph’s dreams, just like his ability to interpret those dreams, are given to him by God.

And Joseph’s dreams aren’t great news for his brothers.

Because, in Joseph’s dreams, the broken power dynamics of the family relationship are turned upside down.

Ironically, not only do Joseph’s dreams come from God, but they are also the mechanism by which God…

…rescues and blesses Joseph, and, by the end of the story, Joseph’s brothers.

So even though Joseph’s dreams don’t initially sound like great news to his brothers…

and even though Joseph’s dreams contribute, in part, to his brother’s hatred of him…

It is Joseph’s dreams of God’s blessedness, and his ability to interpret them, that restore everyone, Joseph and his brothers alike, to blessedness.

Put another way, God is present in the dreams of blessing given to God’s people.

Dreams that our broken world can be made whole.

And it’s not surprising that the people who dream these dreams of God, like Joseph and others…

…are often the targets of other people’s anger and hatred.

Because change can be frightening, even when change brings blessing.

And no one likes to hear that the world they live in, especially if it is a world where they themselves hold power and influence—

is broken, even when that brokenness is real and palpable in human pain and suffering.

What’s wonderful about the dreams of God’s blessing is that they give us hope for our future.

But, more than that, even when the dreams of God’s blessing for all God’s people are not yet a reality in this broken world…

God is also present in people’s ability to interpret and to live out those dreams of God’s blessing, to help make them a reality in this world.

At the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, there is a memorial plaque.

Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed dreams in the same way Joseph does, and the memorial in Memphis quotes today’s reading from Genesis.

The plaque says, “Here comes this dreamer. Let us kill him and we will see what will become of his dreams.”

And dreams of Martin Luther King Jr live on today, even as we continue to work to make his dreams a reality.

The memorial in Memphis acknowledges something important about God and the dreams of God’s blessing that God gives to God’s people.

The dreams of God’s blessing for God’s people can never be taken away, they can never be killed…

Especially when those dreams are shared by many.

One of the ways in which Joseph is restored to safety and fullness of life is by sharing the dreams that he has…

Dreams it seems, become blessings even more fully when they are shared with others.

And God’s dreams of blessing are indeed shared by many.

They are shared by all of us in this room, shared by people of faith around the world, people who strive to live lives of love, compassion, and reconciliation.

We, with God’s help, dream of a world where all people know the love of God and share that love with one another.

And we, through our actions, through our personal witness, continue to share this dream of God’s blessing with others.

As today’s second reading from Romans says, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

We are all of us, as people of faith, dreamers of God’s dreams and messengers of God’s blessing.

God’s dreams of blessing cannot die, they live in us and through us, leading us all to a brighter future.

Where dreams of God’s blessings for God’s people become reality, and all people live in God’s love.