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Spiritual Lessons & Reflection Questions with Moses and the Burning Bush

Moses BurningBushReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Exodus 3:1-15 on August 30, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

There are so many sermons I want to preach on Moses and the burning bush, it is impossible to choose just one. So, fasten your seatbelts, take the guardrails off your heart, and get ready for a highspeed ride down this mountain of revelation and spiritual transformation. There are reflection questions included, when you can ponder as you take take time for a scenic turn out—which I encourage you to do throughout this week.

Spiritual lesson #1: Has it ever crossed your mind that you are too bad, and your past too checkered, and your character too flawed for God to use you for a good purpose? Remember that Moses was a murderer—a murderer! He was raised in Pharaoh’s house in Egypt, but he became so angry at the treatment of his own people as slaves, he killed one of the taskmaster’s and then buried the body to the hide the evidence. When he was going to be found out, he did not stand up and take his punishment—he ran away and avoided the law instead. If God can use Moses, God can use you. Thinking you are beyond God’s reach, God’s forgiveness, God’s embrace, is an inverted form of pride. Let it go. It takes real humility to accept God meeting us as our worst selves.

• Are you ready with Moses to meet God with your worst self?
• What guilt are you hanging on to? What purpose does it serve?
• What identity do you have to release when you let go of this guilt?
• What new person can you become when this guilt is gone?

Spiritual lesson #2: Are you waiting for God to show up when you can go on a retreat, develop a new prayer routine, or climb to a mountaintop? Try looking in your daily life. Moses was doing what he did every single day. He got married, he worked for his father-in-law, and he was out keeping the sheep. It was an ordinary day, like every other ordinary day. Nothing new here. God shows up when we are going about our daily business, doing what we are supposed to do. Moses was living his every day, keeping the sheep, just like the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks in Bethlehem, just like the fishermen, Peter and Andrew on the shore, and the woman drawing water at the well. Jesuit priest Fr. James Martin experienced God calling him while watching PBS television. God is already present in our everyday, so why not be open to the sacred and holy that is right there in front of us? It may not be a supernatural experience like a burning bush, but it may be holy just the same. A sticky kiss from a child, the gift of a homemade meal, an unexpected card or a phone call, a friend who understands, a belly laugh, a hummingbird outside our window. Sometimes our encounter with God may be a big moment of truth that frees us from pretending and allows us to breathe or clarifies our purpose. Moses invites us to be on the lookout for the times and places in our ordinary days where our extraordinary God shows up in “God sightings,” big and small. Remember that every day you live, you are standing on holy ground.

• Is it hard for you to see your daily life as a place of God’s presence and revelation? If so, why?
• Has worshiping at home with videos helped you see your home and daily life as a place where God is present?
• What people in your daily life show you unconditional love, acceptance and forgiveness?
• Where do you see God’s presence in creation?
• Ask God to make himself known to you in your daily work or activities –be specific about those places that feel apart from God (homework? business deals? relationships? monotonous household tasks? dealing with pandemic limitations? cranky people?)

Spiritual lesson #3: Most people I talk with have a level of exhaustion from living in this pandemic they have never experienced before, myself included. Constant adaptation, new decisions to be made, re-inventing how to do everything, creating new habits, all the while grieving what we have lost while being under chronic stress without an end date in site. Did you notice that the bush that Moses saw was blazing, but not consumed by the fire? Fire takes a lot of fuel, a lot of energy to keep it going. If you have ever been charged with keeping a bonfire, a campfire or even your own fireplace burning for any length of time, you know it takes a lot of wood. But the bush is not burned up, because God’s provision is endless. Moses will not have to rely on himself for wisdom, energy or the resources to fulfill his calling to liberate his people from the Egyptians, because God’s energy, provision, and resources are endless. God is the source of all he needs, and God is the source of all the energy and provision we need.

• What does the promise of God’s endless provision mean to you in this time of pandemic?
• How is God the source of all you need now?
• How do you spiritually re-fuel when you are depleted? Are you getting adequate rest or do you overwork because you feel so much depends you? Can you try resting and ask God to fill the gaps?
• Have you asked God for the energy, wisdom and strength that you need for each day, for your work, or to care for your family?

Spiritual lesson #4: When God spoke to Moses out of the burning bush, he reminded Moses whose God he was: "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." Papyrus was expensive—why did they write it this way—why not save space and say, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob instead of the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob? Because God had an individual and specific relationship with each one of them, and now he was going to find out who the God of Moses was and what kind of relationship theirs would be. It turns out it’s worth spending the extra papyrus so that we know the same is true for us.
We hear this in the faith stories members have shared over the summer—all different experiences of God reflecting an individual relationship with the Creator of the universe. We have heard of the God of Rick, who offers peace and companionship in danger, the God of Frieda, who offers guidance and wisdom in spiritual practices, the God of Rita who answers specific prayers in a conversational relationship, the God of Carol who offers provision, comfort, and angels in grief and hardship. So who is the God of Tom? And the God of Barbara? And the God of Kate? And the God of Brent? God is available for an individual relationship with you that may similar to others, but has it’s own particular characteristics to you.

• What does the promise of God’s endless provision mean to you in this time of pandemic?
• How is God the source of all you need now?
• How do you spiritually re-fuel when you are depleted? Are you getting adequate rest or do you overwork because you feel so much depends you? Can you try resting and ask God to fill the gaps?
• Have you asked God for the energy, wisdom and strength that you need for each day, for your work, or to care for your family?

Spiritual lesson #5: Moses still wants to know the name of the God that is sending him back to Egypt to free the Israelites. In the Jewish tradition, this name is so sacred, they do not speak it in Hebrew. There is not a good or exact translation in English, but I AM WHO I AM or I AM THAT I AM are common translations: God is existence itself—God is our very life and breath—and that apart from God, nothing can exist. God is in all things. Another way to translate this gets us back to the bush that burns but is not consumed: “I AM the one who causes things to pass.” I AM the one who makes things happen. God delivered on his promises and in his relationships with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, and he will make good on his promise to be with Moses in Egypt. This God hears the suffering of his people and responds to their cries because the God of existence suffers with them. The author of creation, the breath of life, and the One who causes things to pass with a provision that never ends, will be with Moses as well. That is who Moses has a relationship with now—the same God who caused all things to pass for his ancestors, will come to pass again. God does not have a name Moses can command, but a relationship Moses must trust will make things happen.

• What does it mean for you that every breath you take is God’s presence? Does this help shape your daily spiritual life? Does it make it easier to take a 5-minute deep breath break during the day to ask for God’s provision, strength and guidance?
• What if you truly believed that all you really needed would come to pass through God’s hand, even through pain?
• Can you ask God for this kind of deep trust that Moses needed to step forward—not the name of a God we can command, but a relationship we can trust to make happen what God has promised?

Spiritual lesson #6: Of course, Moses argues with God because he is inadequately skilled. He has a stutter; he doesn’t speak well, he cannot speak in front of crowds. Someone else is more talented, more faithful, has greater skills, better experience, fewer faults, and on and on. We have all thought it and said it and believed it at one time or another if not right now. The truth is that God does not call the qualified, God qualifies the called. God qualified Moses for the calling he gave him. God calls every one of you, and qualifies your for that calling, regardless of your skills, talents or even training, to fulfill your purpose in God’s plan, however small or large. In fact, serving in our inadequacy is often the best faith-builder because then we know for sure that our success comes from God’s faithfulness.

• Where do you feel inadequate serve God? Pray about this concern and ask God to help you let go of this fear. How is God using you anyway?
• How might you allow yourself to grow with such a ministry or service “experiment” where its “success” depends on reliance on God’s provision?
• Who are spiritual friends or companions you can share spiritual experiments with at home, work or church?
• How has God used you to help others in the past based on your experience (e.g. provision through hardship) rather than your skills?
• What is it that you like doing that brings you great joy? Often our place of service and calling is where our joy meets the world’s need—where do these two things intersect for you?

God also gave Moses Aaron as a partner and companion—God does not leave us to build the reign of love and liberation alone. This is part of the joy of experimenting with new forms, methods and ideas for ministry and outreach right now—we do it together, and we can only succeed through the power of God! We learn new ways of being the church through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit and we do it as the body of Christ together! It’s so freeing not to worry about failure, to know that everything is an opportunity for learning, that we are not alone, and success is up to God!

This concludes our ride down Moses’ mountain of spiritual transformation. You can unbuckle your seatbelts and stretch your legs during the hymn, Creed and prayers, but please remain nearby for the celebration of Holy Communion coming up soon! I hope you will re-visit our trip by downloading the reflection questions posted in Description below the YouTube link as you continue your own transformational spiritual journey begun with Moses and the burning bush.

 Image: Moses and the Burning Bush,13th century icon by George  Rossidis

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 5 Brave & Bold Women

5BraveandBoldWomenReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Exodus 1:8-2:10 on August 23, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

The Exodus of the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt begins, not as you might remember from Sunday School, with Moses confronting Pharaoh and threatening him with 10 plagues—that was the dramatic climax of the story. Rather, the Exodus really begins here in this passage. It does not begin with Moses or Aaron—not with large- than-life men, who get whole books of the Bible written about or by them. No. The story of liberation from slavery and oppression begins right here, with 5 brave and bold women—3 of whom are not even named in this passage.

How did the actions of 5 brave women change the fate of a whole nation? First, we have to remember how they got where they are. Joseph’s whole family—his father, Israel, all 11 eleven brothers, their families, flocks and the whole lot of them, came to Egypt to survive the famine at Joseph’s hand. He was the Secretary of Agriculture and life was good. But then life goes on, a generation passes, Joseph dies and a new Pharaoh arises in Egypt who does not remember Joseph nor how he had saved the country from starvation. This new Pharaoh fears the Hebrew people (or the Israelites), who had become a numerous population, just as God had promised. Pharaoh became afraid that they would one day overpower the Egyptians and take over the country. The minority would become the majority.

This cowardly fear to preserve power made Pharaoh cruel—enslaving the Hebrews, ruthlessly oppressing them with forced labor. Yet as a people, they continued to flourish. Then Pharaoh called for killing all of the male babies so they could not grow up and fight in an army against him. There is no indication that the Israelites had any intention of rebellion, or a take-over; yet the Pharaoh’s paranoia is used to justify enslavement, and now even infanticide.

In contrast to Pharaoh’s self-centered, power-hungry fear sits the righteous, life-giving fear that the midwives, Shiprah and Puah, have of God. Pharaoh commands them to kill the baby boys that are born, but rather than obey the Pharaoh, they break the law, disobey the king, and follow the law of God, allowing the boys to live. Such defiance of the king’s orders would summarily lead to death. When they are called to account, they lie about it, saying the Hebrew women are more vigorous than the Egyptians and are giving birth before they even arrive. For them, justice demanded a higher authority, and that is how these women lived their daily life. God blessed and protected them because of it, even though they broke the law of the land. They use the influence they have in the spheres of life where God has placed them.

The same is true for Moses’s mother, sister and the Pharaoh’s daughter. Each one of them defied the law of the land, the rules, and Pharaoh’s fear, and instead, did what was just and right and life-giving. Because a mid-wife protected the life of her son at birth, Moses’s mother, whose name we learn later in Exodus is Jochebed, has a baby boy to protect. She weaves a basket to hide him in the Nile river where he was supposed to be drowned with all the other male babies.

The Hebrew word for “basket” is the same word for “ark” used in the story of the flood, and in this tiny ark, God protected Moses, just as God protected Noah and his family. Moses’s sister Miriam watches at a distance to protect her brother, so when the Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby in the basket among the reeds, she offers to find a nursemaid for her, restoring her brother back to their mother, at least for a time. They both use the influence they have in the sphere of life where God has placed them.

Pharaoh’s daughter, whose name we never learn, is perhaps the most brave of all—adopting this Hebrew male after he is weaned, and raising a boy that was supposed to be killed, right under Pharaoh’s nose in open defiance of her father’s decree. Did she also lie to the Pharaoh or manipulate him in some way to save this one life? We do not know how she does it, but we do know she uses the influence she has in the sphere of life where God has placed her.

Shiprah, Puah, Moses’s mother, Jochebed, his sister, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter all took brave and bold action in their daily life, in the area where they had impact. They each made a conscious decision to disobey the Pharaoh and defy the rule of law because it conflicted with the law of God and their understanding of what was right and just. This idea can be uncomfortable because of course, laws, and obedience to them are important values we share. Breaking the law is a big deal.

And yet, think of the times in our nation’s history when people like these 5 brave and bold women consciously broke the law, and as a result, justice prevailed. The Boston Tea Party and the insurrection of the American colonists were illegal actions. To be a runaway slave to gain your freedom, was an illegal act. Just this week President Trump officially pardoned Susan B. Anthony who illegally voted in 1872. When she sat in the front of a Montgomery bus, Rosa Parks broke the law. We now look at those events and many more like them and rejoice that these people chose to answer to a higher, more righteous, live-giving law. What laws are people breaking today, that sometime in the future, others might celebrate as a breakthrough for justice?

We may not consider Shiprah and Puah, Jochebed and Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter the big heroes of the Bible like Moses, but there would be no Moses, there would be no Exodus out of Egypt, there would be no liberation from oppression without the brave and bold actions of these everyday “sheroes.” They remind us that the cause of justice not only advances on the shoulders of public heroes like Moses, Elijah, Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, or Martin Luther King, Jr., but justice rolls down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream when everyday heroes and sheroes, like these 5 brave and bold women, use the influence they have in the sphere where God has placed them. We are not to wait for a big hero to make life better, we are the everyday heroes and sheroes that God has appointed to build God’s kingdom on earth.

Each of us has a sphere of influence where God calls us to live with right action and just living. It may not be in the halls of power, or in legislative bodies or corporate board rooms, but we all have influence in our families, our communities, and our circle of friends.

• If you are teacher, you have influence with your students, their families, and your colleagues.
• If you work in retail, you have influence with your customers and your co-workers.
• If you work in business, you have influence in how fairly deals are made or how resources are invested.
• If you work in healthcare, you have influence with your patients, co-workers and how care is managed.

The list goes on. You may not feel that your spheres of influence is the place where great change is going to take place, but remember these 5 brave and bold women working in a patriarchal world doing women’s work where they had no “apparent” power at all. Yet, they had great influence, and by taking just action in what appeared to be small ways, they changed the fate of their whole nation.

Where has God placed you so that you can use your gifts to express compassion and give birth to justice and liberation for even one person? Shiprah and Puah, Jochebed, Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter show us that the kingdom of God is not waiting for outsized heroes to appear, it is ushered in by midwives, protective mothers, sisters, and daughters, by shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night, by fishermen, prodigal sons, forgiving fathers, and by people like you and me.

• That is why I consider our Council, who spends 30 minutes in Scripture and prayer before thoughtfully considering the difficult issues of safety and worship: heroes.
• That is why I consider Dale and Hank, the choral scholars and everyone who records every week to make music to lift our spirits: heroes.
• That is why I consider everyone helping with our worship recordings, taking pictures, video engineering and social media posting: heroes.
• That is why I consider everyone keeping the church going—paying bills, signing checks, counting money, the yardbirds and those working in the Preschool: heroes.
• That is why I consider those starting a community breakfast and planning new events like Cinco de Mayo and Ice Cream Socials: heroes.

You have accepted that God has given you influence in this time and place, and because of that, the kingdom of God is being built here and now. There is no Exodus, no Moses and no liberation from oppression without 5 brave and bold women, without everyday heroes doing the work that God has appointed in their daily life, using the influence they have. That is how God’s kingdom is built today—with everyday heroes and sheroes, like you!

Image: Shiphrah, Puah, Jocheved, Miriam, Pharoah's Daughter, and the infant Moses, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

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Let Go and Let God

JosephweepswithBrothersReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Genesis 45:1-15 on August 16, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

(I apologize this may be the second time you receive this due to a posting/computer error).

When was the last time you had a big, ugly cry? A messy, wailing, embarrassing cry? I know every guy is squirming in his seat as I say this, since crying is considered an “unmanly” thing to do in our culture. But maybe you can be encouraged by Joseph today. If you have not had a big ugly cry in the last five months since the pandemic started, I would say, you are due.

Maybe like Joseph, you need to hold on until you are alone before you can let it out. Maybe, you need to wait until you get in the shower so the water and the fan can muffle the sound. That is okay. Use Joseph as a model and stop trying to hold it in, maintain control and instead, just let it out. What is the worst that can happen? Trust me, no one finds having a stroke, a heart attack, an addiction problem, or any other stress-related disease more attractive than the occasional ugly cry.

Even though he sent people away, when Joseph cried, he wept so loudly the whole household heard it. But it was his moment of transformation.

What led Joseph up to that moment? What happened that he could no longer hold it in, no longer fight for control, no longer hang on to anger and resentment toward his brothers? He had been through so much! Let’s do a quick review.

After his brother’s sold him into slavery with traders heading to Egypt, Joseph was sold Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. He prospered there, running the entire household. That is, until Potiphar’s wife propositioned him, and even though he refused, she falsely accused him, and he was thrown into prison.

While in prison, Joseph befriended two royal officials who had strange dreams that mystified them. Joseph, who knew a thing or two about dreams since he had them himself, interpreted their dreams correctly. He asked one of the officials to remember him when he was released and put in a good word with the Pharaoh, but he forgot. Joseph was in prison for two more years.

Then Pharaoh had unsettling dreams: the first dream involved seven sleek and fat cows being eaten by seven ugly and thin cows. Pharaoh’s second dream was similar: seven plump and good ears of grain were swallowed up by seven thin and blighted ears of grain. No one could explain these dreams to him. The royal official who met Joseph in prison finally remembered him, so Pharaoh called for Joseph to tell him what his dreams could possibly mean.

Joseph told him there would be seven years of a plenteous harvest followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh was so impressed with Joseph that he made him the Secretary of Agriculture, overseeing the storage of surplus grain during the 7 years of plenty, so they could survive the 7 years of famine.

Meanwhile, Joseph’s family back in Canaan had run out of food during the famine, and they heard there was grain in Egypt. Jacob, now called Israel, sent his 10 sons there to get food, keeping back his youngest and new favorite, Benjamin, the second son of his beloved Rachel. When the brothers arrived in Egypt, Joseph recognized them, but they did not know Joseph—how could they? It was inconceivable that the brother they sold into slavery long ago would be the second in command in Egypt. Joseph’s dream of years past came true, as his brothers bowed down before him, asking for grain.

But Joseph did not reveal himself right away to his brothers—he toyed with them and tormented them for a good long time—months or even years. Joseph accused them of being spies. Convincing them of his gift of divination he kept Simeon as a hostage until they came back with their youngest brother, Benjamin. When he sent them back to Canaan, he hid money in their grain sacks—not to help them, but to make them worry about being accused of theivery.

Israel could not bear to part with Benjamin, so months go by. But they ran out of food again, so the brothers returned to Egypt; this time bringing Benjamin, and returning the money Joseph added to their sacks.
Joseph released Simeon and sent them away with grain again, but this time, he hid a silver cup in Benjamin’s grain sack and then sent his police force after them. Joseph threatened to keep Benjamin as his slave to atone for his supposed crime of stealing. The brothers knew this would break their father’s heart, so Judah offered to take Benjamin’s place, telling Joseph that it would kill their father to lose the youngest son after he already lost his brother—that is, Joseph—years ago.

That is the moment when Joseph breaks open to transformation. He kept control of his emotions and the situation, working his anger, resentment, and revenge into all these schemes for so long—and then he just cannot do it anymore. Joseph hears how much his father misses him and loved him. Joseph hears how his brothers have changed—how much they want to take care of their father and protect Benjamin in a way they could not for Joseph years earlier. So comes the moment of truth: are his resentful, controlling schemes really working for him? No. Not now, not ever, really. His need to exact revenge melts as Joseph finally sees that God’s power has been present the whole time and God always had an alternative plan. Joseph lets go of his need to control and surrenders to God’s control.

Then, the big ugly cry begins—I am not sure there is a neat way to realize your own foolishness and really let God in (that’s why I always wear waterproof mascara). Yes, Joseph endured hardship, but God was there the whole time—

• making sure he survived,
• getting him to Potiphar’s house,
• giving him the gift of dream interpretation,
• connecting him to royal staff,
• getting him in front of the Pharaoh,
• making him the Secretary of Agriculture,
• and now, reuniting him with his own family,
• bringing his boyhood dreams to fruition and
• saving all of their lives. It has all been God’s doing.

Tears of relief, sadness, joy, overwhelm, release, confession and grace all mix together in a wail that cannot be quieted, as Joseph allows himself to be truly held by God and transparently seen by his family.

That is the gift of the messy, wailing cry—to be truly ourselves—nothing more, nothing less. To be who we really are, and be held by God, whom we let be truly God. To be seen and known in our human finitude, accepting our limitations and what we cannot control.

We cannot know and do and control everything—

• we do not have all the answers,
• we cannot make others do what we think is right,
• we cannot control a virus,
• the political environment,
• who wears a mask and who does not,
• what the school policies will be,
• and if people who are sick will distance properly.

We can make ourselves sick with anger and resentment and everyone around us miserable. Or we can turn what we cannot control over to God and from a surrendered heart manage what God has given us to manage—which is only ourselves—with faithfulness and peace. Practicing this kind of spiritual surrender is, I believe, an essential life-skill in this time, or we will come out of this pandemic with even more severe stress-related illnesses.

So, if you have not had a big ugly cry in a while, take a shower, talk to your spouse or best friend, or call me--my last big ugly cry was in July. Your body will unclench. Your family will relax. Your spirit will be able to breathe again. Your mind will stop trying to control the uncontrollable. It is okay to be a limited human being, held by God who is in control, even when we do not yet see how. That’s why we call it, “faith.”

Take a page from Joseph’s story—he endured tremendous hardship, but God was working God’s goodness and plan through his story the whole time! Joseph finally and fully participated in God’s dream for him when he let go, and let God have control. As the old song says, “Go ahead and cry.”
Image: Joseph Reunited with His Family. freebibleimages.org.

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A Sordid Tale of Sin

JosephsoldbybrothersReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 on August 9, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

You would think that after surviving an all-night wrestling match and receiving a new name, “Israel,” and then being forgiven by Esau for stealing his blessing and birthright, that Jacob would have wised up. But, I have yet to see the sun set on a day free of my own sin, so I am not sure why I expect this of Israel. He is a lousy dad. Joseph is son #11, but he is the oldest of Israel’s beloved wife, Rachel, making him the obvious favorite. Once again, the younger is preferred over the oldest who is supposed to be the recipient of the father’s favor. Lest we forget God is always working through us flawed and limited human beings, family drama ensues.

Israel gives Joseph a fancy coat that no one else gets. Joseph seems to enjoy flaunting his favoritism—he wears his fancy coat when he goes out to check on his brothers, whom he snitches on, to boot. We can understand why the older brothers are fed up with this kid-brother Joseph; he is more than just annoying. If Joseph continues to give bad reports about them to their father, it could upend the inheritance which rightfully belongs to the oldest, Reuben. The other brothers depend on Reuben’s goodwill to share in their father’s wealth. Joseph could mess up the future for all of them—they want what is rightfully theirs.

To make matters worse, Joseph has been sharing elaborate dreams about all of them. The first involved sheaves of wheat: Joseph’s sheaf rose up, and the brothers’ sheaves bowed down to Joseph’s. Exactly what the brothers feared. Joseph would get the goods, and they would be left beggars. The second dream was even worse. Eleven stars, symbolizing the brothers, and the sun and the moon, representing his father and mother, were all bowing down to Joseph. The brothers are incensed—they will not be bowing down to anyone, least of all this high-falutin, dreamin’ nark of a baby brother.

We can understand, even identify with their anger, frustration and feeling that their livelihood and well-being are threatened. But the bonds of family and brotherhood are also strong. In this ancient, agrarian kinship society, family bonds are everything. Their lives are woven together from birth to death, and they owe complete fidelity to their father’s desires. They have reached a conflict point—where culture, morality, and loyalty clash with pain, jealousy and fear, providing an opportunity for brokenness and sin to take hold.
The brothers “conspire” to kill him. The Hebrew word for “conspire” uses a rare verb form that is both reflexive and causative at the same time. A better translation would be, “they caused deceit to themselves to kill him.” Is that not the very pernicious nature of human brokenness and sin? We deceive ourselves about what is right and moral, we justify and make excuses for actions based on our pain, the injustice we have suffered, or the fear we must avoid at all costs. And the unthinkable becomes thinkable—even necessary, even justifiable, even right. The brothers deceive themselves that it is better to betray loyalty to their family, harm their brother, lie to their father, and bring guilt into their own hearts, rather than deal constructively with their feelings of fear, anger, and jealousy. They do not just make a plan to get rid of Joseph—they have to lie to themselves and each other, in order to choose fear over loyalty, jealousy over morality, and pain over family.

This understanding of sin is reiterated in 1 John, chapter 1 which we often use an introduction to our confession: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." We may feel a little better that Reuben and Judah come up with less drastic measures of shame and deprivation by stripping him of his robe and dropping him in a well, and then profiteering by selling him to Ishmaelites on their way to Egypt. The brothers may have opted for an extended death sentence rather than an immediate one, but no brother is exempt from committing evil in this text. They violated a core value of ancient family life and covenant law, valuing profit over kinship. They sacrificed another human life to preserve their own privilege, status and assets.

So what might God want us to take away from this sordid tale of bad parenting, flaunting and snitching, near-fratricide and the self-deception of human sin?
1. Broaden your circle of conversation and get new perspectives. The brothers only spoke to each other which reinforced their negative emotions, strengthened their sense of injustice, and increased the likelihood of deceiving themselves that sinful action was justified. When we live in fear and we do not engage in conversation that gets us outside our own version of the story, we sacrifice others to meet our own needs. Ask any person of color you know to tell you their stories of being someone else’s sacrificial lamb to maintain privilege. How are we engaging in patterns of self-deception that maintain privilege and resources at the expense of others? Broaden your conversation partners and find out, asking God to open your mind and transform your heart.

2. Do the work to heal your emotional wounds. Hurting people hurt people. Instead of resolving their emotional pain, the brothers compounded fear and jealousy with guilt. What would have happened if the brothers would have spoken honestly to Joseph and to their father first? Or included their mothers in a family conversation that aired out anger, jealousy, and curbed Joseph’s flagrant behavior? Feelings unexpressed come out some other way—often painfully for us or others. Whether or not personal conversations are possible, we can participate with God in healing our emotional wounds through counseling, prayer, and spiritual direction. I am here to you assist you with this healing or recommend someone who can. I regularly see a counselor and a spiritual director, so I do not, as much as possible, hurt you or my family with my own unresolved issues.

3. God always has a bigger dream at work. Joseph’s dreams of him ruling over his family were not the fantasies of egotist, but they were messages from God that would ultimately save Joseph’s life, and that of his entire family later in Egypt. I am sure life did not feel that way to Joseph on the caravan to Egypt. Despite the appearance of present circumstances, this story calls us to trust that God’s divine purpose will somehow be fulfilled. The dreams and plans of God cannot be thwarted by human machinations nor undone by human sin. God has a dream for you and your life that is being fulfilled right now. God has a dream for St. Luke’s and for our mission, which is actually growing right now—as more people have access to worship on-line and as we start a Community Breakfast! Our first one last Saturday served 63 burritos! Trust that God’s dream is at work despite any appearance to the contrary.

Israel’s gift to us is not that his family learns to live without sin, but that we learn from their mistakes and deepen our trust that God’s dream is at work, even in the midst of our present circumstances.

Image: Ferenczy, Károly, 1862-1917. Joseph Sold into Slavery by his Brothers, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55913.


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Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.