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Sunday, July 6, 2008

Living the Dream - Genesis 37:1-28

Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This 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 about them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a long robe of many colors. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I dreamed. There 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.” His 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.
He 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.” But 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?” So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.
Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.” So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.
He came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” “I am seeking my brothers, he said; tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to hill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what has become of his dreams.” But when Rueben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” Rueben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” – that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to their father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with many colors that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
Then they sat down to eat, and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.


When I am up here in front of the congregation, there is a little mental game I like to play sometimes. I like to look across the congregation at heads bowed, and ask myself, “Who’s Praying, Who’s Sleeping?”

The next time the person next to you falls asleep in church, you’ll be tempted to wake them up. Before you do, you may want to think twice. As it turns out, people used to go to the temple and intentionally fall asleep, hoping that God would speak to them through dreams. So, when I look around the congregation and see people starting to nod off, I don’t take offense; I simply assume they are participating in a great Biblical tradition.
Today is the second of three sermons you selected for me to preach. You will recall that several weeks ago I gave the congregation the opportunity to vote on their favorite Bible stories, and agreed that I would preach the three most popular choices. Last week was Noah’s Ark, July 20th will be Jonah and the great fish, and this morning, we’re looking together at Joseph’s dreams. May we pray.

I remember a recurring dream I had in the months before my graduation from Duke. The dream was always, more or less, the same. The divinity school holds its ceremony in Duke Chapel. We would be lined up in alphabetical order, marching from the hallowed halls of the divinity school across the quad and into the chapel. Of course, my parents and grandparents were inside somewhere, ready to watch me receive my degree. Just before I passed through those great oak doors into the Chapel, a member of the administration – sometimes the registrar, sometimes the dean, once the president of the university – would pull me out of line. It seemed there had been an oversight when they reviewed my academic file, and I had failed to register for one required class, but that oversight would keep me from receiving my degree that night.

When the actual night of graduation finally rolled around, I can’t tell you how nervous I was. I frantically walked across the quad, my eyes darting left and right, certain that, at any moment, Dean Jones was going to jump out from behind a bush and give me the horrible news that I was not graduating that night.

This morning, our Biblical text introduces us to Joseph, a person who was no stranger to dreams. You probably know him as the star of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit Broadway musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I’d like us to take a look at Joseph, his family, and his dreams.

Joseph comes from a long line of dreamers. He is the great-grandson of Abraham, the father of many nations. God made a covenant with Abraham. “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” This covenant will mark the people of God, and God’s people for all subsequent generations, including ours, are blessed in order to be a blessing to others.

Abraham’s son was Isaac, Joseph’s grandfather. Isaac is the son promised to Abraham and Sarah in their old age, and he is often remembered as the child who was almost sacrificed by his father.

Isaac’s son was Jacob, Joseph’s father. Jacob is a pretty crafty member of the family – he tricks his elderly father into giving him the blessing intended for his older brother. Jacob dreams of a ladder stretching into heaven, with angels descending and ascending on it, and God is revealed to Jacob through this dream. God brings Jacob into the covenant he established with his grandfather Abraham, and it is clear that the two intend to walk together, or in the concept I shared in last week’s sermon, that the two intend to dance together.

Now, Jacob the trickster gets one-upped himself when it comes to marriage. He has his eyes set on Rachel, the younger of the daughters of a guy named Laban. Laban agrees to let Jacob marry Rachel after 7 years of work. However, Laban tricks Jacob into marrying his older, less attractive daughter, Leah. So, Jacob works another 7 years in order to get Rachel, which I’m sure set up healthy family dynamics between the two sisters. Jacob ends up with a total of four wives – Leah, Rachel, and their maids – Bilhah and Zilpah.

Rachel was the favored wife; after all, she’s the only one he wanted in the first place. These wives would produce a total of 12 sons for Jacob. Rachel only had two sons, Joseph, the star of today’s story, and Benjamin, during whose birth Rachel died. Though Benjamin was the youngest, his father always associated his birth with Rachel’s death. And so, Jacob played favorites toward Joseph.

By the time we meet up with Joseph in this morning’s text, he is seventeen years old. Whatever else you know about Joseph, I want you to remember this: Joseph was an obnoxious, spoiled, egotistical brat. Only two verses into this morning’s reading, he is giving a bad report to his father about his two wives. In other words, Joseph was a tattletale.

The relationship among Joseph and his brothers was no ordinary sibling rivalry. It was outright hatred, such to the point that they never even greet him with a daily “Shalom.” They wouldn’t even give him the time of day.

And can you blame them? They were always out working in the fields and tending after the flocks, while Joseph was sleeping in ‘til noon and playing Guitar Hero all day. Joseph always got the last piece of pizza, or an extra baked potato, or a second bowl of ice cream. The other eleven brothers had to share a room, but Joseph had a room entirely to himself with its own private bathroom. And Joseph always got the fanciest designer clothes his father could get his hands on, while his brothers were left to fend for themselves.

This family seems to have taken the fun right out of dysfunctional. There is plenty of blame to go around. Jacobs favors one son over the others. Joseph is an unwise tattletale and braggart. His brothers are full of hate toward him, and even quarrel among themselves as to how they should treat him.

Now, Joseph should have known that his brothers hated him. You would think that he would have been a little more cautious about how he acted around them, but not our Joseph. He’s either foolish or brash, or perhaps a little bit of both. “Hey guys,” he says. “Let me tell you about this dream I had.” We were all out binding sheaves of corn in the field. Suddenly, all on its own, mine stood straight up, and all of yours gathered around it and bowed down before it. Isn’t that a cool dream?”

I don’t know what response Joseph expected to get from his brothers. Did he think this dream was going to impress them? Were they going to be awestruck? Dismiss it some indigestion from whatever bedtime snack he had the night before? Whatever Joseph expected, the text tells us that Joseph’s brothers hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.

Not learning his lesson the first time, Joseph shares another dream with his brothers. “The sun, moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” At this, even his doting father rebukes him. Remember, his father was no stranger to dreams. “Son, you’ve got to be careful running around talking like this. Even if you’re having these dreams and think they mean something, maybe you should just keep some things to yourself.”

The story goes on as Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery and he is taken to Egypt, where, interestingly enough, he is still dreaming. Only now, he is interpreting other people’s dreams. He meets two servants of the pharaoh in prison, and they tell him about dreams they’ve had, and he interprets their meanings. He then interprets some dreams of the pharaoh himself that predict seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Joseph is put in charge of the affairs of the country because of this, and in an ironic twist, meets his brothers when they come to Egypt to purchase some of the excess grain that was prudently stored during the years of plenty. His brothers bow before him in humility, fulfilling what was prefigured in Joseph’s dream in today’s text, the dream for which his brothers hated him even more.

We see clearly that Joseph’s dreams meant something. The dreams of those he encountered meant something. Indeed, throughout the great Biblical tradition, dreams mean something.

My grandfather used to tell us about a recurring dream he had. He would be walking around in a strange town, utterly lost. He realized at some point that he wasn’t wearing any clothes. In conversation with other members of the family, he discovered that his brother-in-law was having a similar recurring dream. They agreed that the next time either one had the dream, they’d look for each other instead of wandering around the town by themselves.

Many of you have participated in an on-going conversation with me throughout the week on the significance of dreams. I sent out a mass email to hundreds of you and asked you to respond to two questions. 1. What recurring dreams are you having lately? and 2. Do you think dreams actually mean anything or not?

It will not surprise you to learn that the responses to these questions were as varied as each of us. However, a couple things did surprise me in your responses. One, I was surprised at the sheer number of responses. I opened my email the morning after I asked for your responses, only to find that you had literally flooded my Inbox. Two, I was surprised at the deeply personal nature of much of what you shared.

Some of you shared dreams with very little commentary as to their meaning. Others offered half-hearted guesses at what these dreams might have meant. Still others went into great detail about what some of these dreams did mean, and the profound connections these dreams made into your lives.

Here are some of the things you’re dreaming about. Moving. Making a hole-in-one. Conversations with friends and loved ones who have passed into the next life. Moments of awful pain and suffering. Trying to get the attention of someone who had died. Snakes. Brake failure. Missing or forgetting class, appointments, meetings and a whole host of other things. Visions of children and grandchildren being born. Things from our childhood that needed to be resolved. Being trapped – under water, in elevators, in long hallways without doors and windows. Appalachian football. Getting lost in hotels, churches, schools, businesses, homes, or on remote roads. A few of you even said you’d had dreams about me, but, that’s all I have to say about that.

But, what does all this mean? Are our dreams messages? And if they are, who is sending the message?

Dreams can be one of the many ways that God speaks to us. If you want to explore this subject in greater depth, Bobby Sharp recommended a book to me. It’s Dreams: God’s Forgotten Language by John Sanders. He develops the idea that rationalistic, enlightened people like ourselves have cut ourselves off from communicating with God through dreams and have chosen to ignore the spiritual and psychological elements of many of our dreams.

But it’s not just dreams through which God speaks. That’s only one channel. God speaks through worship. God speaks through music. God speaks through the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion. God speaks through studying the Scriptures. God speaks through prayer. God speaks through our generosity of our time and resources. God speaks through our life experiences. God speaks through conversation with our friends and family. The more channels of divine communication we tune into, the more likely we are to catch the message. If we will simply pay attention to some of these things, I think we’ll find God speaking all the time.

Sometimes, a dream is just a dream. It might be just some random information that found itself together while you slept. It could be anxiety working itself out. It could be a pastrami sandwich you had right before bed.

But sometimes, a dream is a little message. We find that, in our waking and in our sleeping, God continues to work. God has placed a bit of himself within each of us – a dream of what we can become as individuals, but also a dream of what we can become as a community of faith. Identify that dream, figure out what it is, and never let it go. This morning, it is easy enough for me to say, “Never lose sight of your dream,” but I want to go one better. Whatever your dream is, whatever it is that God has placed inside of you to do, or to be, or to become, may it happen in accordance with the will of God. The Lord was with Joseph, may He be with you as well.

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