In our Old Testament reading today, we move from the story of Jacob to the story of his family, a large group of boys.
If you remember the story of Jacob, we recall that his father, Isaac, preferred his elder son Esau, and it was only by trickery that Jacob got his father’s blessing. What ensued was years of pain and anger and fear.
You’d think that Jacob would have learned from his own experience that favoring one child over the others causes problems. But family behavior tends to repeat itself, doesn’t it? And so Jacob loves his youngest child, Joseph, the best.
But Joseph seems like an annoying brat, braying over and over again that he can interpret dreams. And his father seems to ignore the obnoxious behavior, perhaps because he was once equally obnoxious, and even gives him a special coat to wear, an expensive coat, a beautiful coat of a hundred different colors.
And his brothers understandably resent all this. Sibling rivalry, as bad or worse than that between Jacob and his brother Esau.
But, unlike Esau, they act. When his father sends Joseph out to check on his brothers where they are herding sheep, they decide to get rid of him. Not kill him, at least not directly. At first some of them want to kill him, but Reuben says no. He doesn’t want Joseph’s blood on his hands. So he says, “Let’s throw him into that deep pit over there.” Reuben intends to rescue him later, after they’ve put a good scare into him. So they take his coat and toss him into the pit. They smear blood on the coat – they will tell their father that a wild animal got Joseph – and ready themselves to return to Jacob, but then something happens –
A caravan of Ishmaelites appears, passing through, on the way to Egypt. The brothers sell the boy as a slave to them for twenty pieces of silver, thinking it is not good for a brother to kill a brother. Perhaps this generation has learned something from the past. Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, somehow they’ve learned that even in the greatest anger, killing is not a good solution.
We’ll hear more about Joseph in the weeks to come, but at least we hear something that has the possibility of redemption. Killing is forever, but this has the chance for making things right again.
It is not a coincidence that this story of Joseph and his brothers is linked to the story of Jesus walking on troubled waters.
Imagine the scene we hear of in the Gospel: Jesus wants some time alone to pray and to rest, after the feeding of the five thousand. He sends the disciples on ahead of him, in a boat, across the sea.
While they’re out in the boat, in the middle of the sea, a great storm comes up, and it looks like the boat will be swamped and they will drown. To say that they are afraid is an understatement. Jesus sees them, and knows their fear, so he goes to them.
He walks to them, across the water. He doesn’t swim. He walks. On top of the water.
They see him, but in the midst of the spray and the waves and their own seasickness, they don’t recognize him. He calls out to them, but they think their eyes are playing tricks on them. No man walks on water.
Perhaps it is a ghost. Perhaps not.
So Peter calls out, “Lord, if it is you, call me to come to you on the water.” Peter, like many fisherman, cannot swim, so he is asking for a lot. It’s not merely a test of Jesus’ voice, it’s a test of Jesus’ power.
And Jesus calls. And Peter gets out of the boat, and promptly goes under the heaving waves, crying to Jesus to save him. Jesus reaches down, hauls him into the boat and gets into the boat himself, and the storm immediately stops. Jesus chides Peter, saying that his lack of faith was what caused him to sink. All the disciples say “we believe, Lord!”
On the face of it, these stories from the Gospel and the Hebrew Bible don’t have much to do with each other.
But look below the surface, and you’ll note some interesting things.
In both stories, people are far away from home, in a state of disorientation. The brothers of Joseph? Distressed at their father’s favor toward their brother Joseph, away from their father and their home guarding the sheep. The disciples? Exhausted after the feeding of the five thousand, away from their rabbi and dry land and headed for the other side of the sea.
In both stories, emotions run high. Jealousy, fear, anger, doubt.
In both stories, surprising things happen that derail what we thought was the pattern: a caravan of Ishmaelites passing through, a sudden storm, a person walking on top of water.
In both stories, the recognition that what God wants is at variance with what human beings expect to do.
Joseph does not die. His story continues.
The disciples do not drown. Jesus reveals his power in a surprising way to save them. Their story continues.
It’s good to remember these two oddly linked stories when we are in the midst of our own storms, when our emotions overwhelm us, when we are angry, afraid, despairing, jealous.
Our stories continue, because God is a part of them. Our stories continue because God sends some Ishmaelites to interrupt a planned fratricide. Our stories continue because God walks out onto the water, in contravention of all we know about the science of water. Our stories continue because God wants us to continue God’s story. We are the bearers of the word. We carry God’s story forward in how we live our lives.
We walk, as the shepherding brothers of Joseph walked. We walk, as the Ishmaelites walked toward Egypt. We walk, as Jesus walked, to say that it is possible that water can be walked upon, that people who want to kill each other can learn a better way, that a slave in Egypt can become Pharaoh’s right hand man and reconcile with his family.
We walk by faith, because Jesus walked, to be the way, that the world might learn God’s will.
We walk, and we pray that others might walk with us, against the old way and toward the new.