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August 13, 2017
The Reverend George Anastos
Sermon Part I “What We Learn in Childhood . . . ”
By the time the youngest was born the family’s fortunes had turned substantially. No longer were they living paycheck to paycheck as they were when mom and dad first married and the first two children were born. By the birth of the youngest they owned a nice house rather than renting a low-end apartment. By then they could afford new baby clothes and not have to rely on their extended-family hand-me-downs. By then things were very different.
It will likely come as no surprise that the older sibs resented the youngest’s relative abundance. He didn’t have used toys, used clothes, shared bedrooms. The real kicker was the difference in discipline: he didn’t get spanked, he got tut-tutted; as a teenager he didn’t have to be home by 9:00 but by midnight. As mom and dad’s parental experience increased so did their leniency. The youngest got everything. As their parents’ finances and leniency increased, so did the older siblings’ resentment.
The impending crisis happened in the siblings’ early adulthood. The youngest took time off from work to care for his dying mother. After she died he notified them that their mother had told him which family objects were for whom after her death. One item in particular, a generations-old child’s rocking chair was to go to the oldest’s firstborn, as it had for three generations. The youngest said that their mother told him that he could have it. Years of resentments erupted. The chair became the focus for a fracturing of the siblings. It wasn’t pretty.
A rather innocuous beginning to a sermon, if I do say so myself. I wrote it on Monday. Then yesterday afternoon our Teaching Minister texted, “Changing the sermon tomorrow in light of the news?” “Uh oh,” I replied, “What news?” “Charlottesville” was Eric’s answer. Yesterday in Charlottesville, Virginia an object—a statue of Robert E. Lee—was the catalyst for a demonstration by white supremacists, the Ku Klux Clan, neo-Nazis. Yesterday in Charlottesville Americans hated Americans. Americans killed Americans. Our nation’s shameful and sustained history of patent racism boiled over. I watched video footage of a car running down counter-protesters. I listened to interviews with white folks said they resented the insistence on plurality and wanted white America returned to them so they could be Christian. One said he also wanted to kill Jews.
[CHANGE STOLE FROM GREEN TO PURPLE (Contrition)]
Yesterday morning, before I received Eric’s text, I read an article in this month’s issue of Sojourners. It was about a former white supremacist and his de-formative relationship with his family. As with the older siblings in the first story, he harbored some resentments, albeit for different reasons. His father’s physical and emotional absence was so pronounced that he would do anything to get his father’s attention. He found his liberal father had fits if he did something blatantly un-liberal, like hanging up posters of Hitler in his bedroom. “I’d rather have had bad attention from my dad than none at all,” he said. Then he started actually hanging out with neo-Nazis, becoming as violent and angry as they. He finally found the respect and acceptance he wanted from his father.
It seems we bring our family behaviors into the other systems we join.
Scripture Reading Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 Joseph is sold into slavery
Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob.
Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves.But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, ‘Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.’ He answered, ‘Here I am.’ So he said to him, ‘Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.’ So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.
He came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, ‘What are you seeking?’ ‘I am seeking my brothers,’ he said; ‘tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.’ The man said, ‘They have gone away, for I heard them say, “Let us go to Dothan.” ’ So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.’ But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, ‘Let us not take his life.’ Reuben said to them, ‘Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him’—that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, ‘What profit is there if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.’ And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.
Sermon Part II “ . . . We Practice as Adults” The Rev. George Anastos
With today’s lesson we are embarking on the saga of the third of the three patriarchs in Genesis, that of Joseph, youngest son of Jacob. As in the preceding sagas, this one is full of intrigue and guile and betrayal and raw human emotion. These stories are so very human.
In this third saga Joseph is clearly taking after his father Jacob: like his father he is the youngest but he usurps the role and privileges of the oldest. Like his father, he is a classic antihero who lacks strong morality, sensitivity, and courage. Like his father he callously steps outside norms and custom in order to pursue is own self-interests. Right at the beginning of today’s lesson he is a tattletale on his brothers. And his father Jacob exacerbates his brothers’ growing resentments by blatantly loving this youngest more and treating him specially, giving him a beautifully ornamented coat.
Generation to generation: living out the health and un-health of our family systems as we repeat childhood patterns and pass them on to our children. It is bizarre, it is totally bizarre, that this is the family upon which God chose to build the nation Israel in order to heal humanity. For that is what this is all about, everyone. After God had repeatedly failed to heal the world through top-down solutions (the Tower of Babel, the Flood), God shifted approaches and tried a bottom-up solution: begin with one family and spread healing progressively to the entire world. When God called Joseph’s grandparents Sarah and Abraham, God said,
‘Go from your country and your kindred and your parents’ house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing . . . and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Gen. 12:1-3b).
This is important to remember. The reason God called this family was to heal broken humanity, one relationship at a time. In time the nation of Israel was formed, consisting of 12 tribes, each named for one of Jacob’s sons. In time Christianity was born from this and joined in its effort to heal humanity. We are inheritors of this promise, of this effort on God’s part. In us all the families of the earth shall be blessed. In us. We don’t go to church to be good little Christians. We are sent from church to be dedicated, active disciples.
As often happens in families and other communal systems such as churches, and even nations, an object becomes the focus, the symbol of resentment: a great grandfather’s chair, an ornamented coat, a statue of Robert E. Lee. There is often that one thing that comes to represent the family’s anxiety. That one thing serves as a catalyst to set the wrecking ball swinging. In our story today Joseph’s coat is the focus and his brothers react to the injustice perpetrated against them. Yesterday a statue of Robert E. Lee was the focus of protesters. Rage and not reason is driving behavior. Unjust means are engaged to achieve unjust ends.
Joseph’s family, like America, is exhibiting all the classic characteristics of an anxious family system. First, there is high reactivity: the moment the brothers see Joseph coming ire is stoked and murder comes into their hearts. The moment counter-protesters are seen coming ire is stoked and murder came into at least one heart. Second, anxious people herd together, only listening to people who agree with them, as with Joseph’s brothers, as with white supremacists. Third, they externalize responsibility, which is a high-falutin’ way of saying ‘blaming.” When people engage in blaming you hear lots of ‘you’ language, and ‘them’ language, very little ‘I’ language. It’s Joseph’s fault that their father does not love them more. It’s Blacks’ and Jews’ and Muslims’ fault that their nation does not look white. The final characteristic of an anxious system is a quick fix mentality: let’s kill Jacob and be rid this royal pain in the elbow. Let’s return to being what we fantasize were: a ‘white’ nation; regression through aggression.
Today’s lesson (if we can be so bold as to call it that) does not offer us the guidance of another solution. Today’s lesson is painful and messy and destructive. Today’s lesson shows a family at its worst—at its least mature and most anxious. Today’s lesson, ending where it does, is profoundly unsettling. A bit like our own lives sometimes. A bit like today’s news.
Today’s lesson is, nonetheless, a lot like our lives: the middle of a story. Today’s lesson exists in between—in between the hurt and hoped for healing, in between God’s call of one family and the redemption of all humanity. We’re human. We live in between, in the middle of the story.
I remind us, however, that the middle of a story is not, by definition, the end of a story, not for an individual and not for a nation, not even for God. The biblical writers did not redact this story to make it all squeaky clean, just as we cannot redact our lives’ stories and create a fiction of our realities, just as we cannot redact our nation’s racism to be anything other than it is. In all its horror and brokenness and sinfulness, however, today’s lesson serves as a reminder of the importance of finishing our unfinished stories.
So this sermon, like our lives, like our nation, will exist in the in between, and not offer a resolution when the lesson, and our nation’s history of racism, do not warrant one. Instead it asks you to ponder an easily missed part of the lesson and how that might impact not only the outcome of the saga itself, not only the outcome that God intends for your life, not only the outcome of our nation, but the outcome that God intends for the world when promising that all the families of the earth, no matter what their color, shall be blessed.
[CHANGE STOLE FROM PURPLE TO RAINBOW]
You may have noticed two curious uses of the word ‘peace’ in today’s lesson. Early in the lesson we learn that Joseph’s brothers’ antipathy becomes so intense that, ‘they hated him, and could not speak in peace to him’ (37:4b). We watched this same dynamic play out yesterday in Charlottesville. The second occurrence is when Jacob sends Joseph to seek his brothers, saying, ‘Come, pray, look into the peace of your bothers . . . ’ (37:14). In both cases the Hebrew word used is shalom. Shalom is a Hebrew word meaning peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare, and tranquility. His brothers could not speak to him with peace, harmony, wholeness. Their father sends him to ask after their peace, harmony, wholeness. But seeing him incites such hatred and disharmony and resentment that they plot to kill him. There is no shalom. Jacob sending Joseph to inquire after his brothers, politicians asking for peaceful demonstrations—both remind us of the prophet Jeremiah’s words, “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, Peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14).
I think it worth our pondering, therefore, the possibility that the biblical writers were trying to introduce a different object, a different focus into the equation, into every equation. Not an ornamented coat, but a wish for peace among brothers. Not a statue but a reaching toward a peace that this world can neither give nor take away. Not a racism that excludes but a peace that passes all understanding. Shalom: peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility. Today’s lesson holds for us a hint of why that horribly broken family was called by God to begin a bottom up healing in the world. If we don’t begin with our families, we don’t have a hope in hell of healing our nation. As disciples we all need to lead here. Remember two key things: no family, no organization, no nation can be more mature than its leader. And second, when we as leaders try to placate the most anxious in the system, we guarantee that the system as a whole can be no more mature than the least mature among us. God chose a broken family system as a place to start healing the world. God realized there is no other place to begin. Shalom may not be ours yet, but it is clearly both the journey and the destination. The middle of our story may not contain it yet, but does hold a vision of it. That is what we work and walk toward.
So, my fellow pilgrims, I will pray for the middle of your journeys, as I hope you will pray for the middle of mine. I will pray for our nation and join you as we work together as faithful disciples to cleanse our nation and world of the pernicious sin of racism. I will pray that we can all see our lives, not with eyes clouded by hurt but by vision clarified in peace. I will pray that the Peace of God—that Peace which passes all understanding, that Peace which this world can neither give nor take away, be our object— our Companion, our Guide upon the way, our bright morning star. Amen.
August 13, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – What We Learn In Childhood / We Practice as Adults
July 2, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – When Hope Despairs / When Despair Hopes
June 18, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – Who We Want to Be / Who We Are
June 11, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – Farewell
June 4, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – Rebirth (Pentecost Sunday)
May 14, 2017 – Rev. Dr. Eric C. Smith – Ways and Dwellings
April 16, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – Burying Jesus / Resurrecting the Church
April 2, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – The Lazarus Church
March 26, 2017 – Rev. Dr. Eric C. Smith – Who Sinned?
March 5, 2017 – Rev. Dr. Eric C. Smith – Sermon
February 26, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – Making Our Way Down the Mountain
January 29, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – Meeting Head On / It Starts With Us / Seeing With New Eyes
January 8, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – O Rest Beside the Weary Road
December 24, 2016 – Rev. George Anastos – The Giver, the Gift, and the Gifted