Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sermon for Sunday, August 13, 2017 Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 “Siblings and Selling Away”

I was an only child. I didn’t understand the tensions between siblings because I had no model for it. It was only when I had a family of my own – 5 kids -  that I saw the continual battle between love and frustration, between giving attention and fostering independence, between not enough time and endless needs, that is sometimes called sibling rivalry.

Because there were five of them, they tended to pair off into battle units. We would call it the pick and poke show. M and B would pick and poke at each other over who would play with the electronic game. C and S would pick and poke at each other over who was the better snowboarder. A would pick and poke at S, and he back, when she wanted him to play with her and he preferred playing with his own friends. They would get attention (negative, but attention is attention) from their father or me in this time-honored way. Sometimes an elder brother would protect or play with his younger sister or brother, but more often it was like “Game of Thrones” with Lite-Brite sneakers on and Nerf weapons instead of capes and armor and war swords.

Sibling rivalry. It’s a bear.

We see sibling rivalry in all its glory in our Old Testament reading today. It’s the story of Joseph, popularized by the musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” a couple of decades ago. In the musical, we see Joseph as the annoying favored brother who seems to get all the goodies from Dad, who interprets dreams in a way that suggests that this is an attention-getting trick, who doesn’t do work, just spouts off all the time. All of this is set to lively pop music, which tends to minimize the harder parts of the text. The brothers’ convenient opportunity to get rid of him by selling him to Midianite traders who took him to Egypt as a slave for example? It’s often played for laughs.

But it wasn’t a laughing matter.

The good news, if there was good news, was that the brothers didn’t kill him. But they sold him away – SOLD HIM – into slavery for 20 silver pieces.
What do we sell, and why?

In Charlottesville yesterday, thousands of people gathered in support of and against the alt-right. Our Bishops were there. Many of our clergy were there, to stand in witness to God’s love.

Those who support a return to white power, to white dominance, to honoring those who fought to keep slaves and who thought those slaves less than human, were there in force. They don’t like people with brown or black skin. They don’t like Jews. They don’t like Muslims. They align with some groups who are arguing for secession of the South –if you don’t believe me, read yesterday’s Times-Dispatch Section A Page 4 – as a whites-only nation. And their beliefs are horrible. We call them neo-Nazis, or worse.

Those who protested against them believe God created us all regardless of color, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or country of origin as God’s beloved children. They believe that our diversity gives us strength. They believe that all should be valued, all should be loved, all should have an equal shot in this nation, and equal protections. This church aligns with this view, rather than that of the white supremacists.

So is there anything wrong with that? We’re preaching the Gospel, right?

Of course we are, but here’s where it gets difficult, friends.

Turn to this story of Joseph.

We know Joseph is a show-off jerk. He gets preferential treatment from his father. He has the privilege of prophetic dreams. He regularly makes his brothers furious, because it is just not fair, and he is probably the most annoying sibling on the planet. They want him to disappear, because his very presence rubs their skin and their psyche raw.

Just like tweets from a certain person do to me.

Just like guys who look strikingly like Adolph Hitler in Charlottesville do to us all. And I’ve got to admit that when I read the article about the South seceding to create an all-white or alt-right nation, I said, “let ‘em do it so we don’t have to put up with this nonsense anymore.” I would have been happy to sell them into a separate place where I didn’t have to deal with them anymore, just to get them out of my face.

But siblings are persistent, even annoying ones. God finds a way to thread them back through our stories, the thistles in the flax.

We know Joseph goes through trials and tribulations in Egypt but eventually becomes a powerful person who brings aid to his family and his people. God works through him in a story that ends up heartwarming in the musical. I doubt it was as uncomplicated in reality, but good does come of it.

So am I saying that we should go all “Kumbaya” and hug our local racist as if the belief in racism is just fine, just an alternate truth?

Am I saying that God will sort it out, so we should keep silent about the evil of white supremacist words and actions, which left three people dead yesterday?

No. But neither can we sell our brothers, abhorrent as their beliefs are, into isolation. We work and we speak and we name evil for what it is. And starting today, we pray. 

When we pray today, pray not only for those who live the gospel. Pray not only for those who are persecuted, called “nigger, rag-head, wetback, greaser, Jew-boy, faggot, dyke” but also for those who said those names. Pray not only for those who preach the Gospel of peace but also for those who want to foment war against those who are “other.”

Why? Because who needs God to soften their stiff hearts more than the name-callers, the racists, the bigots, the homophobes? And if we simply sell them off into a silo of tainted wheat, we lose the opportunity to work the yeast of God’s love into them for transformation. The moment that we demonize them, we make them “other” too.

We try to love as God loves. It’ a bear.

There’s a famous picture of a teenaged white girl taunting a black girl, Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock 9, who was part of the group trying to integrate Central High School in Little Rock in 1957. The white girl, Hazel Bryan, was caught by the camera spewing an epithet at Elizabeth. Over time, Hazel realized what she had done, and in the early 1960’s she called Elizabeth and apologized. She disaffiliated from the church she belonged to that espoused racism. She read about black history and the civil rights movement. She changed. They became friends. Their picture in which they embraced  was taken by the same photographer that took that original iconic and painful shot. They were on Oprah together.

A beautiful story, right? Well, that isn’t the end of the story. The friendship unraveled. Hazel continued to be shunned and demonized from those in the white community who saw her as a race traitor and from those in the African-American community who were still haunted by the 1957 picture. She was made “other” and no one acknowledged how much it cost her. That racism  cost Elizabeth, there is no doubt, and we all own that, to our shame. That it cost Hazel, not so much.

The “othering” thing, it’s a bear.

The author of a recent book about Elizabeth and Hazel wrote “So the famous photograph of 1957 takes on additional meaning: the continuing chasm between the races and the great difficulty, even among people of good will, to pull off real racial reconciliation. But shuttling back and forth between them, I could see that for all their harsh words—over the past decade, they’ve only dug in their heels—they still missed one another. Each, I noticed, teared up at references to the other. Perhaps, when no one is looking—or taking any pictures—they’ll yet come together again. And if they can, maybe, so too, can we.”

But how can we, if we simply make those who walk the wrong path into monsters? If we simply define them as stupid and wrong rather than children of God whose BELIEFS are wrong? If we refuse to engage in the patient and difficult work of reconciliation, if we simply want the warm and fuzzy clickbait of a television advertisement with multiracial children to con us into believing we are now a postracial society?

Transformation is not easy. It’s a bear.

So back to Joseph.

Sibling rivalry was at play in the story of Joseph. He was sold, and somehow even after that he was redeemed and made an agent of God. So too were those who sold him into slavery. In the musical, it was all about the embrace. But I suspect that family dinners at the Jacob house weren’t exactly easy times.

And yet we can imagine there were dinners. And yet we can imagine there was conversation, as strained as it might have been. If we sell away those with whom we disagree, what do we lose? The chance for conversation. The chance for love to convert even the hardest of hearts. The chance for transformation.

So again I say to you, pray for the ones whose beliefs you find most abhorrent, whether that’s an alt-right person in Charlottesville who drove his car into a crowd of peaceful counterdemonstrators or someone who sends out disturbing tweets that seem to absolve an act of domestic terrorism. Pray for Kim Jong-Un, even if he scares the stuffing out of you. Pray for ISIS fighters, who seem irredeemable. Pray for God to transform them, because it seems only God can.

As we heard a couple of weeks ago, it’s easy to pray for the people we like. Time to pray, and pray hard, for those whom we’d prefer to sell away.

Prayer. Sometimes it’s a bear. But it’s a bear we need to wrestle with. It's a starting point for the work that is ahead of us. Selling away is not the answer.


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