Saturday, August 06, 2011

Family Problems

A sermon on Genesis 37.

The big family fight continues. You would think that Jacob’s descendants might have learned from the experiences of their father and their uncle Esau. There was an awful lot going on for the family of Isaac and Rebekah. The trauma of infertility, sibling rivalry, stolen birthright, homicidal threats, wage theft in the family business, and stolen family heirlooms would be plenty of excitement for several generations. It would be nice if Jacob’s transformation at the riverside actually translated into a peaceful future for his wives and his children and his children’s children.

Not so much. Family problems seem to show up, generation after generation. There is no peace between Joseph and his brothers. Daddy’s playing favorites just like his parents did. Joseph’s got some ego issues; he knows how to play his spot as favored son. And his brothers…well, let’s just say the homicidal thoughts didn’t end with Uncle Esau. A wise woman once said that right relationship – peace, and wholeness – exists when we balance self respect with regard for others. There is no peace in this family. Joseph thinks a little bit too much of himself; his brothers think too little of him. Jacob sends Joseph off to make peace, shalom, with his brothers. And despite all of Jacob’s urgings, things don’t improve. They get worse.

We know this story. It shows up over and over again in the Bible, over and over again in the news. To paraphrase the prophet Jeremiah, we cry, “peace, peace,” but there is no peace. We say we want wholeness, right relationships – and yet we continue behaving just like the sons of Jacob. We squabble, and resent one another, and try to tear one another down.

The story of Joseph and his brothers is our story.

Like Joseph, we use our individual power to oppress one another – using favored position or inside knowledge to get a leg up in the world, often at someone else’s expense. Like the other brothers, we use the power of the group to exile perspectives we’d rather not consider. We consign our siblings to the pit; we sell them into slavery; we silence them because we’d rather not hear what they have to say.

This is the human story, our broken relationships with one another, and with God. The story of Joseph’s generation is not merely a campfire story; a just a cute story to tell the kids, or to turn into a light-hearted musical that has us humming as we leave the theatre. This is a story that is being lived out in our time. On a daily basis, in our homes and workplaces, in towns and cities, and even in our governments, we bring this family story back to life once again:

Bragging, swaggering Joseph…when one political party says, “elections have consequences,” and uses the power and privilege of their position to disenfranchise their sisters and brothers…

Siblings blinded by jealousy…when in our public life, we hear, “it’s not fair that those other workers get a higher wage than I do, better benefits and more secure employment… we need to do something about that!” The something, of course, involves a taking away. And in a frenzy, we strip off Joseph’s coat, leaving it in tatters, and throw him down a deep hole.

Or, when our official recordkeepers, government statisticians, find ways to stop counting the long-term unemployed, as if they no longer existed…each one of them a Joseph, who has been stripped of his or her dignity, thrown into a pit from which there seems to be no escape.

The oldest brother, Reuben, who takes a few steps to preserve Joseph’s life, suggesting that we throw him into a pit, rather than kill him – prolonging the agony with a slow death.…when we choose not to see the exhaustion of those who work two or three low-wage, part-time jobs and get little sleep and even less respect. When we rationalize, “at least they have a job,” as if there were any wholeness, any shalom, to the way they must spend their days and their nights.

When siblings take up arms against siblings, as in Norway, as in Tucson earlier this year, as in the interminable wars we wage around the globe, we are reliving the tragic moment when a great rift opened up between Jacob’s sons. When we choose to make the opposing party seem less than human, so we can do what we will to them, without moral consequence - whether the weapons are bombs, or guns, or knives, or words, they are equally sharp, equally destructive, equally opposed to God’s hopes for God’s children.

My friends, we are part of a family in which there is no shalom, no wholeness.

When the rich are rich enough to buy the news they want, the candidates they want, and buy government policies that are favorable to them….and our judicial systems roll over to their whim. When siblings lie and cheat one another, take up arms, sell one another into slavery on a daily basis – literally, as well as metaphorically…

There is no peace.

We cannot fix this ourselves. We have made the breach too big to repair simply with our own efforts. So we can spend our time pointing at Joseph and saying, “see, he was a tattletale, a braggart, a show-off” – his fault. Or at the brothers and say “how abusive, how ugly, how immoral what they did.” But in the end, it’s a waste of time. There is still the pit; still the breach of relationship; still the horror of a lost child and a lost brother. The blame game is simply another way of living out our brokenness.

But there is one, whom we worship, who is the repairer of breaches. The reconciler. The healer. The Great Creator of all good things, who has the capacity to make all things new. There is a Holy Spirit at work, always. She breathes in our ear, “Peace”…and it is not a false or a shallow peace, but an invitation to turn back from the edge. It is not an easy peace she promises, but, oh, is it worth it.

Open your heart, this day, to the One who speaks peace, deep peace, into our broken spirits and broken relationships. Whatever is broken, however deep the pit, however great the distance, it is not too much for God to overcome. This is not the end of the story, it is only the beginning. The Good News will make itself known in every place, and every time. God is at work, even here.


Thursday, August 04, 2011

Blessing Things

We've been doing a lot of blessing lately at our church.

We bless bread and grape juice every communion Sunday. We blessed a baby earlier this spring. During children's time on a recent Sunday, we learned to pray St. Patrick's Breastplate (with hand motions!). This is an ancient prayer, and we prayed it to remember that God is all around us, and blesses us wherever we are, whatever we are doing. We blessed bicycles and riders and volunteers in worship in late July, as we sent a team of dedicated folks off to ACT9, Wisconsin's AIDS Ride. At the end of August, we're blessing backpacks and school supplies, students and teachers. At the beginning of October, close to the Feast Day of St. Francis, we'll be blessing animals.

Blessing something invokes our sense of God's presence in that place, and offers reassurance to the one prayed for that God is there. It's a reminder that holiness erupts, even into the brokenness that is all around us. Rachel Naomi Remen writes, "When we bless others, we offer them refuge from an indifferent world." Blessing is doing the work of Christ, making God's presence real for one another, and declaring to our neighbor that they are loved.

We seek blessings because of the relationship between us, because we have care and compassion for one another. We don't have to have any special qualifications to bless one another. Our Reformation forebears reminded us that we are all priests; we are all holy; we are not only empowered to be in direct relationship with the Holy, but also have the privilege and responsibility of doing so. Take a minute today to bless those around you. People, animals, things... As Barbara Brown Taylor tells us in An Altar in the World, "Celebrate your own priesthood"!

A Prayer for the Riders, offered in worship at McFarland UCC in July 2011:

God preserve you from all trouble; God to keep you safe.
God to watch over your going out and your coming in,
From the first moment of the first day,
Until you join the joyful throng at the end of your journey.

O God, we find your presence wherever we go.

We ask your blessing upon these bicycles,
For those who travel upon them,
For those who minister alongside them.
For those who feed the riders,
And for those who offer a drink of cool water
no less refreshing than water dipped from a well in the desert.
For those who heal, for those who encourage,
For those whose spirits join the ride, even when their bodies cannot,
We seek a blessing.

Surround them with your loving care;
Protect them from every danger,
Wrap them in the arms of a supportive community
committed to creating goodness upon the earth,
and bring them in safety to all their journeys’ end.

And let the people of God say, Amen.

Adapted from the Pastor's Blog at