A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on August 7, 2011.
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
The Eighth Sunday After Pentecost
If the stories of the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs (that is, the mothers and fathers of Jewish faith) were turned into a reality series, today would mark the beginning of the fourth season. And what would make these stories so good as a series? They tell an epic saga so real, so complete, it’s startling! Seemingly nothing is concealed or protected from our eyes. Every human passion is told here: love, hate, ambition, jealousy, and the empty pain of infertility, favored children, glory, revenge and spite.
What makes these stories so fascinating is the fact that they’re family stories. The Genesis stories are true to life family stories rich in the secrets families share that are both awful and altogether familiar. They’re awful because they tell it like it is. The biblical writer does not spin the stories to make them better than they are, but is willing to tell them straight. We the readers are left to make our own judgment about what to think about them. They’re familiar because even though the stories are blunt and raw, they have the ring of truth about them. They read as if these stories could be our stories, and in many cases they are. The stories speak of the family tensions that exist in all families: The preference of one sibling over the others, the predictable sibling jealousy that leads to betrayal and family violence, and the resulting retaliation that causes untold suffering in the silence of the family. Many families have stories like these. A great number of families live with them as secrets out of a deep sense of silent shame.
Today we meet Joseph, a young man with a dream. But before his dreams could come true, Joseph took a journey to the wilderness. His life narrative changed from being the favored son of his father to that of a prisoner sold to slave traders who transported him to the slave market in Egypt far from home.
The brothers hadn’t planned this thing out in a premeditated way. They acted in anger toward this youngest brother they despised and it appears the events unfolded as they were done. Their original impulse was simply to kill him and apparently they didn’t quite know what to do next. They had no plan and no one stepped forward to dictate to the others what they should do. With no one to lead them, they deferred to leaving him in the well as a form of “passive murder.”
Ever found yourself carried on the capricious winds of circumstance? Ever feel as though you are that whimsical feather blowing in the warm wind on Forrest Gump and carried aloft above the treetops where you might land in the most unpredictable places? Maybe it’s as simple as being in the right (or wrong) place at the right time, or meeting someone who steers you in an unpredictable direction. It could be as simple as an unexpected good fortune or unfortunate accident or tragedy. We might be tempted in those moments of redirection to think little about them or to reflect as to how things were changed by them.
Jungian therapist Robert Johnson calls those life-altering moments “slender threads” and by them life is carried along. The slender threads can be any unplanned gift or curse of circumstance. They are the counter-melody to your wish to intentionally direct your path through decisions you make, or the steps you take intentionally that you hope will create your future. The slender threads are those happenstances you don’t control but that control you.
Even though we think it’s our willful determination that guides our lives, life has another wisdom afoot and we are somehow inspired, guided or even managed by unseen forces outside our control. Even though we exert our free will and make plans and set goals and proceed with full confidence as though we are in control, it also seems true that there is a larger hand at work in directing us through life.
Call it fate or blind luck, call it destiny, or call it the hand of God. Call it what you will, but know, “slender threads are at work bringing coherence and continuity to our lives (and) over time they weave a remarkable tapestry.”
As the slender threads would have it, the brothers spotted a group of wandering traders headed south towards Egypt. They flagged the caravan down and the brothers cut a deal for twenty pieces of silver selling Joseph off for the slave markets in Egypt. It wasn’t the death penalty but it was still a sort of vigilante justice for all the little acts of favoritism they resented ever since Rachel had birthed this little late-life favorite.
When Joseph was hauled out of the pit, his life was spared. And in that slight turn of the story, everything changed. All of us are brought into the story knowing a delicious irony that the lives of Jacob and the eleven brothers had been spared as well. I’ve already used the phrase, “as fate would have it,” as a robust way of observing that sometimes we twist and turn on the events that occur in our lives recognizing that sometimes they are good events and sometimes they’re tragic. But on occasion, more often than we can know, even the tragic events have a tendency to act positively in our regard.
Isn’t that how life turns for us as well? Sometimes we make the smallest imperceptible turn and our lives are spared. Sometimes our lives are put in the deepest of despair. A job is offered or a job is taken away. We get a phone call and with it our lives are changed. Inexplicably our lives take a turn here, or a twist there, and the arc of our lives unpredictably shift and twist in a new direction.
Joseph was as far from his dream as a young man can get. Perhaps the sermon from this passage comes from this point. Our lives on the surface may appear to be more a strange combination of happenstances that appear to be more whim than Divine plan. When those times of uncertainty come, we are left with a truly religious opportunity. It’s our task in life to make meaning out of the confusion by reflecting: Where is God in the middle of these events that we have no control over? Where is God in the strange turn of events that may on one hand bless us, and on the other curse us?
Maybe that’s the definition of faith. When we attempt to make meaning of the events of our lives, we are called upon to be people of faith. When the writer of Hebrews calls out the list of Old Testament heroes of faith, he begins with this family heritage and there we find that these ancient believers were women and men of faith because in the events of their lives, they tried to discover where God was. Those are really faith questions all of us must answer.
Like Joseph, we have dreams. And like Joseph, we must deal with the reality that follows. It’s the challenge of faith to move past conflicting dreams and realities and to dig deeper to the issues of faith. Where in the world is God when everything around you looks like the land of unfaith?
St. Hilary, one of the early Christian leaders of the fourth century, observed, “everything that seems empty is full of the angels of God.” There’s a profound realization that when we are immersed in the emptiness of some loss, we discover we are not alone. There, in the emptiness of that desert experience, we discover we are embraced and greeted by the God of emptiness. We discover that God has been waiting for us to arrive and there are lessons to be learned there.
This story helps us understand that God was there all along as the silent partner in Joseph’s life. He had to confront the reality of the circumstances that had fallen his way and to determine that he was still in the hands of a God who controlled the larger stage on which his life was being lived out. God may not have been micromanaging the story, but he was in the wings setting the stage for future events.
On the night that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Robert Kennedy was campaigning in Indianapolis. The news of King’s murder had not been widely announced and the question came up among the group of political consultants whether Kennedy should risk speaking in public. The streets were already filling with African-American gathered to hear him speak. Finally, Kennedy said no matter what they thought, he should go out to speak. So standing in the back of a pickup, Kennedy announced to the crowd that King had just been shot to death on the balcony of his motel. The crowd was stunned and shaken. But Kennedy kept speaking imploring the crowd to refuse to act in retaliation to what had happened. Kennedy reminded them that he knew what it was like to hear this news for his brother had been shot too.
Then he quoted a line from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon: “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our despair against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”
Where was God in all the turns of Joseph’s life? Right alongside him, listening to his cries in the night, and encouraging him not to give up. God was there all along whispering to him (and to us all): “People of faith, don’t give up! I will take the broken pieces and will use them in your life.”
 Elie Wiesel, Messengers of God, Biblical Portraits and Legends, NY: Touchstone, 1976, 139
 Robert Johnson with Jerry M. Ruhl, Balancing Heaven and Earth, A Memoir of Visions, Dreams, and Realizations, New York: HarperCollins, 1998, xi-xii
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).