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Sunday, August 7, 2011

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.

People do things in church that have nothing to do with worshiping God. Have you ever noticed that? Crossword puzzles, knitting, passing notes, texting, surfing the internet on their mobile phone, making to-do lists, sharing photos, timing the sermon, even sleeping. The next time the person next to you falls asleep in church, you’ll be tempted to wake them up, but think twice before you do. People believed God spoke through dreams, so they would go to the temple and intentionally fall asleep. So, when I look around and see people nodding off, I simply assume they are participating in a great Biblical tradition.

I remember a recurring dream I had in the months before my graduation from Duke. The dream was, more or less, the same. We would be lined up from the divinity school across the quad and into Duke Chapel. 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. There had been an oversight when they reviewed my academic file, and I had failed to register for one required class, but that 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, the dean was going to jump out from behind a bush and give me the horrible news that I was not graduating that night.

Speaking of dreams, today’s text introduces us to Joseph, who was no stranger to dreams. Joseph comes from a long line of dreamers; let’s refresh ourselves on this family for just a second.

The most prominent member of the family was Abraham, Joseph’s great-grandfather. The thing to remember about Abraham is that he is the one with whom God made the covenant; the crux of the covenant is that God promised to bless him and his descendants, in order that through them, the whole world would be blessed. Since the beginning, God has always been concerned with the whole world.

Abraham’s son was Isaac; and Isaac’s son was Jacob, Joseph’s father, and we’ve really spent some time with Jacob over the last few weeks. Jacob, now Israel, has a total of four wives – sisters Leah and Rachel, and their maids, Bilhah and Zilpah. These wives give a total of 12 sons for Jacob. Rachel, the wife whom Jacob loved the most, had 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 today’s text, he is seventeen years old. Whatever else you know about Joseph, remember this: he was an obnoxious, spoiled, brat, and I can’t blame the other brothers for their feelings toward him. They were always out working in the fields and tending after the flocks, while Joseph was sleeping in ‘til noon and playing X-Box 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, most notably, his Technicolor Dreamcoat. In a world of browns and grays, this wonderful coat was as conspicuous as their father’s preferential love. With that coat on, the other sons could not look at Joseph without being constantly reminded that he was the favored one. “Dad always liked you best.”

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.” Whatever Joseph expected, 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, who was no stranger to dreams, rebukes him. “Son, nobody likes a braggart. Just because you think it, you don’t need to say it.”

God had been speaking to Joseph through his dreams, but because he was spiritually immature, Joseph misinterpreted what God was trying to tell him. You may say, “Of course he was – after all, he was only 17!” Yet, we cannot tie spiritual maturity to a specific age; we all know that some 17-year-olds are more mature and spiritually alive than some 60-year-olds.

Immaturity – not in years, but in spirit – causes Joseph to misinterpret his dreams. Initially, he interprets his dreams as promising power, prestige, and privilege for himself. Later, as he matures, he realizes that the dreams actually speak to how God will use him to save others, including his brothers. In this process of maturing, Joseph’s dreams come more in line with God’s dream of salvation for all. Keep reading a few chapters beyond today’s reading to get the rest of the story.

God’s dream is not one of power, prestige, and privilege for one person or a particular group of people. Rather, God’s dream is for the reconciliation and salvation of all the world, and when God grants us any sort of power, it is to be used responsibly in accordance with God’s dream. When we are blessed by God, it is so that we will use what God has given us to bless others.

This week, read the rest of the Joseph story in the successive chapters of Genesis, and you’ll see that’s exactly what happened to Joseph. The dreams we have can be little markers along the road to clue us into what God dreams – and what God hopes to do in us and through us.

Do you know one of the places God gives us a glimpse of God’s dream? In the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. These sacraments – these pledges, these mysteries, these promises – are a means of grace. Here, Christ has explicitly promised to meet us, to commune with us, to draw us closer to him and to one another, to lavish upon us his gift of grace. It is the grace that reaches toward us before we reach toward Christ, the grace that covers our sin and starts us on the path of following Jesus, and the grace that strengthens us in our growth to become increasingly Christlike people.

John Wesley encouraged the early Methodists to celebrate constant communion, meaning they should take advantage of the opportunity to receive Communion as often as it was available, precisely because it is a means of grace. It is a tiny taste of the fullness of God’s kingdom.

Communion is a place where we act out God’s dream; it’s a place where we practice for life in God’s kingdom. They say that practice makes perfect, and as we practice life in the kingdom of God, we make God’s dream a reality – Communion is a foretaste of the kingdom of God in which all come, where we are united as one great family of faith and feast together on grace. When it comes to God’s grace, all are welcome and there is an abundance to go around, and when our lives and practices reflect this reality, the kingdom of God comes upon the earth as it is in heaven. What a marvelous dream God has!

Wesley called Communion a converting ordinance, meaning that the meal itself was sometimes the very channel God used to bring people to faith, to increase their faith, to deepen their faith. You never know –Holy Communion may be the very place someone encounters God’s dream. For this reason, the Lord’s table is open to all, without stipulation, without reservation, without qualification. We place no barriers between those who need God’s grace and the very place where God has promised to give it away.

Communion gives us a glimpse of God’s dream. But what about our dreams – do they line up with God’s dream?

Right now Ashley and I are both having dreams about the wedding. She is having more of them, probably because she is more involved in more of the nitty-gritty details than I am. You know how sometimes the details of the dream don’t make sense – the wedding is in the wrong church, the wedding party is different, the minister is different – but somehow, you still know it’s your wedding, even though it bears little resemblance to the one you’re planning. But I just have to wonder – what do our dreams mean?

On facebook this week, I asked, 1. What recurring dreams are you having lately? and 2. What do you think dreams mean? One friend reminded me of the man who hoped his doctor could interpret his recurring dreams. He said, “One night I dream I’m a teepee, the next night a wigwam. Teepee, wigwam, teepee, wigwam, on and on it goes!” The doctor said, “Relax, you’re two tents.”

Tension and anxiety seem to be the themes that dominate a lot of our dreaming. Just listen to some of the things people told me they’re dreaming about: Babysitting. Teaching. Softball. Proving yourself. Making the perfect hit on Joe Namath. Fishing. Playing golf. Running through a strange town naked. Food. Getting lost or separated from someone in a crowd. Getting bit by an animal. A few people even said they’d had dreams about me, but, that’s all I have to say about that.

Do you sense how many of these dreams are about fear and anxiety? One theory of dream interpretation is that whatever emotion dominates our subconscious thoughts will also dominate our dreams. So, if the dreams you’re having are based in fear or anxiety, then those are the emotions running your life.

But friends, fear and anxiety are not part of God’s dream for us. God constantly invites us to lay our fears and anxieties down, to stop letting fear and anxiety rule our lives, and offers us a more excellent way – one in which God reigns in our lives, and shapes our dreams to look like God’s dream. And here, at the Communion table, we practice life in God’s kingdom, practice makes perfect, we humbly admit that we cannot live according to just our own ability, and so we come to feast upon grace – the freely-given gift of God’s love. God’s dream becomes our dream, and dreams become reality.

When Joseph had his dreams, what I love about the story is that the nature of the God-given dreams didn’t really change throughout his life. God’s dream is always the same. The thing that changed in how those dreams were interpreted was Joseph. When he was spiritually immature, he thought the dreams were about his own power, prestige, and preference. As he matured, he realized he was being called to participate in God’s dream of saving others.

In the end, a dream that serves only to increase or secure our own power, prestige, or preference is no dream from God. But a dream that calls us to saving and serving others – well, that’s the real deal.

God, we thank for you the dreams that you have placed within us. Sometimes we are blind, or stubborn, or hard-hearted, and it’s not easy to get our attention. So, we thank you for using so many ways to get your message to us. Rekindle within each of us something of yourself, your desire, your dream. Make your dream our dream. Whatever you have placed within us to do, or to be, or to become, make it happen. Give us the freedom to dream, and the courage to follow. Amen.

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