Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Standing Up and Speaking Out

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Genesis 37:1-28:

In the high school I attended, athletics reigned supreme.  To give you a small sample, our football and basketball teams played for the state championship in two of my four years, our soccer and golf teams won the state championship, and our softball team won several, and the level of play was high.  One of the members of our basketball and track team could dunk the basketball after beginning his jump at the top of the key, and he went on to the University of Arizona. The quarterback who graduated the year before I did, went on to become the starting quarterback for Ohio State, and the quarterback who graduated the same year I did went to play for Utah.  Our kicker was all-American, and two people from my graduating class of 336 played in the NFL.  And, as you might guess, when athletics rule supreme, the players who play them also rule supreme.  Jocks were the BMOC’s, the big men on campus, looked up to by many, supported, lauded and favored by much of the administration and some of the teachers.  Allowed to do things and get away with things that other students couldn’t and administrators often turned a blind eye to how some of them treated other students, causing them to be loathed or even hated for the special treatment they received.  I was thinking of that this week as I pondered the beginning of another school year, and as we continually hear stories about bullying and other inappropriate behaviors that take place at school, and as I thought about this story of Joseph that we just heard.

In Numbers we read that the sins of the father will be passed onto the third and fourth generations.  And while we could argue about that, or perhaps argue about what that really means, we do see those sins continuing through the Abrahamic line, into this the third generation from Abraham.  There is a DNA in their behaviors that continues to repeat itself, and so they keep making the same mistakes, although it also allows them to keep doing some things well.  The same thing happens in our families and in other organizations as well.  Churches and other social organizations, like schools, will develop a certain DNA, and if you track through the history of a church you will see the same things happening over and over again.  And those things will continue happening until someone steps up and stops it.  Until someone says enough is enough and begins to move things in a different direction, or at the very least says this is wrong, the same things will repeat themselves over and over again.  And that certainly is happening with Jacob’s family.

Jacob was the favored son of his mother Rebekah, while his father Isaac, favored his older brother Esau.  Plotting together with his mother, Jacob is able to steal both Esau’s birthright and also the blessing due to him as the first born son, causing Esau to hate Jacob and to plot to kill him.  Sounding familiar?  Isaac too was the favored son, at the very least by his mother, who plots to have the older son Ishmael expelled from the household so that only Isaac will inherit from his father, even though he is the second born son.  And while we don’t know anything about what Ishmael things about all of this, we might surmise that he has some hate in him for his brother, and his people the Ishmaelites become contenders with the Israelites and also play a part at the end of this story.

So with all of that in the background we would think that Jacob would learn from the past so that he is not doomed to repeat it, but alas he continues to make the same mistakes, and we are told that he favors his son Joseph over all his other children, and we really want to smack him upside the head.  We are told that Jacob favors Joseph because he is the child of his old age, but it’s really much deeper than that, because if it was only about having children in old age then Benjamin would be the favorite as he is the last born, although Jacob does have a special fondness for Benjamin as well.  Jacob has four wives.  Well really two wives and two slaves who also bear him children.  When people talk about traditional Biblical marriage this is not really what they have in mind.  Jacob’s first wife is Leah, although he was tricked into marrying her, something he’s not really happy about, but Leah gives birth to six sons and one daughter.  His slaves, Zilpah, who is Leah’s servant, and Bilhah, Rachel’s servant, both give birth to two boys.  But Rachel, who is the favored wife, the one whom Jacob has loved since he first laid eyes on, remains barren and so she says to Jacob, “give me children or I shall die,” which is what happens, because she first gives birth to Joseph and then dies while giving birth to Benjamin, Jacob’s 11th and 12th sons respectively.  It is these sons who will give us the 12 tribes of Israel.

But Joseph is favored, and Jacob not only listens to him when Joseph rats on his brothers about whatever it is that they are doing while they are out shepherding, but Joseph also gives him a coat to show his preference and position in the household.  The translation we heard this morning says that it was a long-sleeved coat, and that’s because we are not really sure what the Hebrew actually means.  The translation with which we are more familiar, that of the coat of many colors, which was so amazing it was in Technicolor, comes from the King James translation which didn’t use the Hebrew, because it is unclear, and instead translated from the Greek manuscripts that were available which tried to clear up some Hebrew confusion, and thus was born the famous musical with a Mormon portraying a Jew.  Only in America!  I think we can all imagine Joseph strutting around the house in this coat, showing off to everybody.  Now I’m the youngest of three brothers so I don’t know what it’s like to have resentment to someone younger than you who you think is getting away with things that you would never get away with, and is getting special treatment, but I think that is what Joseph’s brothers are feeling at this moment, and as a result we are told that they hate Joseph

And then to top it all off, Joseph chooses to tell his family about two dreams he had, which seem to imply that the entire family at some time in the future is going to bow down to Joseph.  There are several things striking about this sequence.  The first is that the dreams seem to have passed from Jacob to Joseph, as Jacob had been the dreamer.  The second is that although Joseph will become famous in Egypt for interpreting dreams, here the dreams are not interpreted by Joseph but instead by his brothers.  And finally, even Jacob has had enough of this and he actually rebukes Joseph.  While in the story of Jacob we could say that he was a heel and was living into his name, I think it’s safe to say that in this story Joseph is being a jerk and while I don’t want to blame the victim for what is about to happen, I think we can understand why his brothers don’t like him.  We might be able to blame some of it on the fact that we are told that Joseph is 17 when this takes place, and therefore as know with teenagers there is a certain arrogance and immaturity that goes along with it.  Joseph thinks he knows everything and he’s clearly smarter than everyone else, especially his parents, who literally are in this case old fuddy duddies.

The brothers then all go off to tend the flocks, while Jacob and his coat, stay behind prancing around the yard, keeping his father company, and this again should remind us of Jacob’s story where he stays at the house while his brother Esau is out working.  And then for some reason Jacob sends Joseph off to find his brothers and bring back word of how things were going.  Perhaps the same thing he had been doing at the beginning of this passage, and so Joseph, and the coat, which clearly he could not leave behind, go off to find his brothers, and as the brothers seem him approaching they begin to plot to kill him, and one of the reasons is to end his dreams.  But Reuben, who is the first born of all the sons, stands up and says not to kill him but to throw him in a pit, and we are told that Reuben plans to rescue him later, and then apparently Reuben goes away.  So the brother’s strip Joseph of his hated coat and throw him and in a pit, and then they nonchalantly sit down to eat lunch, while Joseph has some time to think about what he has done.  But then Judah proposes that they sell Joseph to some traders they see coming, although it’s not clear what actually happens at the end, but Joseph ends up going as a slave into Egypt which sets up the rest of the story of the Israelites.

Researchers have done a lot of study into group think and how it works and how to break it.  One of the studies done, put a volunteer into a room with a group of other people and their goal was to solve math problems.  They would be shown a math problem, and these weren’t hard problems, along with 4 possible answers, and then as a group they had to decide on an answer.  What the volunteer didn’t know was that everyone else in the group were part of the research team, and they had plotted to give the wrong answer to see what would happen.  In the vast majority of the cases the volunteer went along with the group even though they knew the answer was wrong.  Why?  Because they didn’t want to go against what the group was saying.  That is that group think caused most volunteers to give the wrong answer, that they didn’t want to be the one to speak up and say something was wrong.  But, in a follow-up experiment, they found that if one of the other people in the room, who were part of the research team, were to speak up first that it give permission to the volunteer to also speak up.  This was true even if the second answer given was also wrong.  Once the group think had been broken by one other person giving a difference answer, then the volunteers did not go along with the group, instead they gave their own answers which differed from the group.  All it took to stop for the wrong answer being given, all it took for something different to be done, was one person standing up to say stop.  And we know this is true because we see it all the time.  We’ve all been in groups where a question is asked, or people are asked to speak, and getting that first person to speak is always the hardest part.  There’s always that long acquired silence, until finally someone breaks the ice, and then once that happens other people speak up willingly.  That first person who is willing to speak up is the one who makes all the difference.

In 2003, the country of Liberia had been involved in its second civil war for ten years.  Both sides of the struggle used child soldiers and the war was not really fought against the rival factions, but instead the civilian populations who were subject to violence, torture and worse.  Leymah Gbowee, a native of Liberia, was serving as a counselor in the war-torn country working primarily with boys who had been soldiers and victims in dealing with the trauma of war.  One night Gbowee had a dream in which she was told, “Gather the women and pray for peace!”  She initially thought that this was supposed to be done by someone else, but then came to understand that it wasn’t up to someone else to do this, it wasn’t up to someone else to pray for peace, it wasn’t up to someone else to end the war, it was up to her.  And so she did.  She gathered together a group of 200 women, both Christians and Muslim women, and wearing white shirts and white headscarves, they would go to Mosques on Fridays to pray, to the markets on Saturday to pray, and to the churches on Sunday to pray, with the simple message that they had had enough.  That they were tired of their children being killed.  They were tired of being the victims of violence.  They wanted peace and that they had a voice.

Within 3 months of their first prayer group, they had 10,000 women gathering and praying for peace in 15 locations.  They began gathering daily on a soccer field that Charles Taylor, who started the war, passed by twice a day, in order to pray.  A year later they were finally granted an audience with Taylor, and 2,000 women gathered outside his home while Gbowee made a petition on their behalf saying, “We are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for wheat. We are tired of our children being [the victims of violence]. We are now taking this stand, to secure the future of our children. Because we believe, as custodians of society, tomorrow our children will ask us, "Mama, what was your role during the crisis?”  After a little more persuading, gently of course, by the women, the war in Liberia ended in 2003, and in 2011, Gbowee along with two of her colleagues including Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who became the next president of Liberia, and the first woman president of an African nation, were all awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  Not as good as winning the Nobel Prize in economics, which if you do a google search for my name you will find I have won, but it’s an honor anyways.

We don’t know what would have happened had Reuben not stepped up and said no to his brothers and stopped the plan to kill him, but Reuben did step up and the plans were changed.  Sometimes we are afraid to say anything, we want to go along with crowd, we don’t want to be the one to speak up, we are afraid, and sometimes that fear is justified.  At the memorial service for Martin Luther King, Jr. at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the opening sentences are from today’s passage.  “Here comes this dreamer.  Come now, let us kill him… and we shall see what shall become of his dreams.”  Sometimes, often times, speaking up comes with a cost, but we also have to ask ourselves what will happen if we don’t speak up?  How would we answer that question of what role we played in those events?  The simple fact is Reuben changed the story because he was willing to say no, to say stop, even though he was a victim of Joseph’s arrogance and immaturity just as much as his brothers, but he spoke up and he changed things, just like Leymah Gbowee who simply took the radical stance to say “let’s pray for peace.”  As we hear stories in the news of the atrocities that are going on in the bigger picture, or we simply see one person being treated cruelly and unkindly, the answer to solving that problem, of stopping things from continuing, of ending the cycle, might be as simple as us stepping up and saying, “stop.”  I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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