Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sermon; Proper 14A; Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

August of 1964 was a very eventful month.  Besides the fact that that's when I was born, there were a variety of other significant events that impacted the world and life in the United States.  In no particular order they include:  the Gulf of Tonkin incident and our retaliation; President Johnson began the escalation of the Vietnam conflict; the U.K. implemented capital punishment for the last time; South Africa was banned from the Olympics for their system of apartheid; there were race riots in Philadelphia; Roy Orbison released “Pretty Woman;” and Mary Poppins had its world premier.

And 50 years ago last Monday, August 4, the bodies of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were found buried near Philadelphia, MS.  They had been in the state as part of the Freedom Summer and were working to register black voters.  The Freedom Summer movement was designed to bring integration into Mississippi, what has been called the most violently racist state in the Union.  The people associated with the movement were met with hatred, stonewalling and murder.

As the story goes, Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney were arrested and detained by local police long enough to organize members of the KKK.  They were eventually released and, as they drove to get out of town, were pursued and overtaken by those same police and several KKK members.  They were pulled out of their car, driven down an unmarked dirt road, shot dead and buried not far from Mount Zion Church, which had been burned down earlier.  This story became the basis of the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning.

One year earlier, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous, “I have a dream,” speech.  In that speech he pointed out that the Declaration of Independence was, in effect, a promissory note that stipulated “all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Martin Luther King saw the urgency of the moment in 1963.  He saw that now was the time to press for full racial equality.  He saw this time as the beginning of the end of segregation.  And he dreamed.  He dreamed that all men are created equal.  He dreamed that former enemies would become brothers.  He dreamed that his children would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.  He would be assassinated roughly five years later in Memphis, TN.

Schwerner, Goodman, Chaney, King, and many others, were killed because the white majority could not abide the thought of treating Those People equally.  They were killed because they were a threat to the status quo and the power structure of the day.  They were killed because it was thought that equality for Them meant inequality for Us.  They were killed because they had a dream that both offered hope for the powerless and anticipated the end of how things were.

Joseph, by all accounts, was a spoiled brat.  Jacob loved him more than any of his other children because, for a time, he was the only child of the woman he truly loved; and later because he was the firstborn of Rachel.  Jacob also doted on him, showering him with gifts; in particular, one very special coat of many colors.

Kids know when their parents treat them unequally, even if the parents don't recognize it.  I think the kids understand this and accept it, even if they don't like it.  But if that unequal treatment is severely out of balance, the kids can become jealous and just might take matters into their own hands.  And this is exactly what the sons of Jacob did.

Not only did they hate Joseph because he was Jacob's “golden child,” but they hated him because he was a pretentious little squirt who tattled on them and had these dreams of people and family bowing down to his royal self.  Those dreams, you may have noticed, were not part of the reading today.  But in one dream he dreamed that he and his brothers were gathering wheat when, suddenly, the brothers' wheat bowed down before Joseph's.  And in another dream, he dreamed that the sun, moon and eleven stars bowed down to him.

Joseph's pompous dreams were too much for the brothers to handle.  When they saw him wandering toward them alone, the brothers conspired to kill him.  Reuben halfheartedly worked to save him; so instead of killing him outright, they pitched him into a dry well.  With no thought of his welfare, the brothers all sat down to enjoy lunch.

As they ate and reveled in how they had finally shut their little brother up, they wondered what they were going to do next.  Judah saw a caravan off in the distance and had the bright idea to sell the kid to the next one that passed by.  This met with approval.  So when a group of Midianites came by, the brothers drug Joseph out of the well and sold him for twenty pieces of silver.

We know the rest of the story.  We know that Joseph will eventually become second in power over all of Egypt.  We know his brothers arrive and do, in fact, bow down to him.  We know that Joseph's dreams come true.

What we need to remember is that Joseph was the youngest of these brothers.  He was the “least of these.”  He was powerless.  His only recourse was to dream.  So he dreams of having power.  He dreams of role reversals.  He dreams of a time far removed from the present and of a time when he will be treated with respect.

To his brothers, those dreams are a threat.  To his brothers, those dreams foreshadow the end of their power, their control, their privilege.  Joseph threatens the status quo.  And it is precisely because the lowly and powerless man dreams a dream that threatens and terrifies the lofty and powerful that the decision to kill him is made.  If they kill the dreamer, they will kill the dream.

With nobody to witness their actions, a group of powerful men ganged up on the powerless dreamer to kill him and his silly dreams.

With nobody to witness their actions, a group of powerful men ganged up on three powerless dreamers to kill them and their silly dreams.

We do not live in the land of Canaan.  We do not live in 1964 Mississippi.  But we do live in a world where the powerful still work to limit the powerless.  And we do live in a world where the powerful still work to kill the dreams of the powerless.

The question we need to ask ourselves is this: are we the ones who work to kill dreams, or are we the ones who work to fulfill dreams?



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