Crows Nest Uniting Church
Sunday 19 • 10 Aug 2014


Genesis 37:1-4,12-28
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33


Rev. Chris Udy


There’s a tragic thread

that’s woven through
the family stories of the Old Testament.
It’s there from the very beginning,
in conflict between Abel and Cain,
the first two children born to Adam and Eve.
Genesis says that Yahweh - God - preferred
the offerings Abel brought him,
but that Cain’s attempts to win Yahweh’s approval
weren’t well regarded.
Cain was jealous and angry,
so he lashed out and killed his brother,
and that tragic thread of favourites and jealousies
was knotted into the fabric of God’s people.
From that start
it emerges again and again,
and every time it appears
it brings damage and distress
that continues over many generations.
Sarah, Abraham’s wife,
was jealous of her servant Hagar
and had Hagar and Ishmael, Hagar’s son,
driven into the desert,
establishing an enmity
that has echoed through history,
all because Sarah wanted her son, Isaac,
to inherit his father’s blessing.
 
Isaac also had a favourite.
He preferred Esau, who was a hunter,
over Jacob, who was his mother’s delight.
Jacob, whose name God later changed to Israel -
conspired with his mother Rebekah
to steal his brother’s birthright and his blessing,
but when Esau discovered that he had been cheated
Jacob had to flee to save his life,
and the brothers were estranged for many years.
 
So Jacob - Israel - should have known much better
than to have had favourites among his children.
He should have known that preferring one
would lead to heartbreak and damage -
but as he grew older, the story goes,
he came to love Joseph more than his other sons.
Joseph was Rachel’s son,
and Rachel was Israel’s favourite wife -
the woman Israel loved so much
that he’d worked for her father, Laban,
for seven years -
only to have Laban substitute her sister Leah,
hidden behind a veil,
on what should have been his wedding day to Rachel.
(I’m always amazed when people like Eric Abetz
talk about upholding traditional family values.
It seems to me that the values
of some families in our tradition
really aren’t what we would want
to inflict on our children!)
 
Anyway - Joseph was Israel’s favourite,
and Israel gave Joseph a long robe -
a robe with sleeves.
In the King James version of the Bible
one of many mis-translations,
turned the robe into a ‘coat of many colours’ -
and as romantic and attractive as that sounds,
it obscures the reason why that robe
led to Joseph’s distance from his brothers.
The robe was a symbol of his father’s favour.
It was meant to cover and shelter him
just as his father’s love
was meant to give him protection -
and the fact that it had long sleeves,
which made it both expensive and impractical,
made that coat a focus
for the jealousy and hatred of his brothers.
 
It didn’t help that Joseph
was not only his father’s pet,
but he also seems to have been a bit of a pain.
The passage we read this morning leaves it out,
but Joseph kept having dreams,
and in those dreams -
which he delighted in telling
his parents and his brothers -
he was always much more powerful
and important than any of them -
something that even his doting father
seems to have found offensive.
Joseph was also dobber and a snitch.
When he was 17,
and working, for a change,
with two of his brothers watching sheep,
he “brought a bad report of them to their father” -
so when, some time later,
his father later sent him out
to find where his brothers were
and to bring word back
about how they and the flock were going  -
effectively to spy on them -
it isn’t a surprise
that he found them less than happy.
 
When he appeared in the distance,
preening and over-confident
in his father’s preference and favour,
his brothers decided to strip him of his protection
and rid themselves of this rival
for their father’s love.
 
And so, again as the story goes,
they took away his robe,
also intending to take away his life,
but the eldest brother, Reuben,
persuaded them not to kill him,
and Judah, another brother
convinced them to sell him as a slave
to some Ishmaelite traders -
descendants of Hagar’s child -
who took him with them
through the desert to Egypt.
 
So Israel’s favourite son is taken from him;
the robe that was the symbol
of his preference and protection
is dipped in blood and presented as proof of death;
the family is shattered
by lies and secrets and jealousy;
and as their lives descend into grief
and Joseph is sold into slavery
even the land seems to mourn
as it sinks into famine.
 
This is just the beginning of Joseph’s story,
and next week’s reading goes on to describe
Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers,
but, sadly, that theme
of choosing favourites
and provoking jealousies
continues through Israel’s family history.
It winds through Exodus
and the family’s escape from Egypt,
into the establishment of the kingdom under David,
then it constantly re-appears
through years of turmoil and division,
and exile and return,
when Israel, now as a nation,
continued to define
and understand and promote itself -
despite what should have been
strong contradictory evidence -
as God’s favourite children,
God’s preferred people,
God’s chosen.
 
The result really was a tragedy.
The idea that God preferred one child among many,
and one branch of his family
over against and above the rest of his children
cascades into sadness
and frustration at every level.
It ends up with castes and classes
and the prejudice and bigotry
that maintains one group of people in privilege
while others are excluded and devalued
and dehumanised.
One of the powerful ironies
in the story of Joseph
is that the favourite son -
the one who was blessed,
not by who he was or what he could do,
but by the way he was born -
the favourite son
was stripped of his preferment
and came to understand what life is like
for those who have no choice
but to live as slaves.
 
Choosing to prefer one child
over sisters and brothers
opens a family to conflict and stress and division;
choosing to privilege one family
over all its neighbours
sets the scene for injustice and oppression;
choosing one race, or one gender,
or one religion over another
draws up lines for warfare and genocide
and the hatred and division
that continues for generations
and can only end in blood and death and mayhem.
 
Sadly, that idea -
the idea that God had chosen
one child, one family, one race for salvation
didn’t only appear in our tradition.
Apparently most children feel
that they’re a little bit special;
most families think they’re closer and warmer
than most of their neighbours;
most races like the look
of people who look like them;
and people of one gender seem to suspect
that the way they work and think -
and drive a car -
is better than the other.
But if we’ve learned nothing else
from a couple of hundred years
of research into the things that make us different,
one thing is absolutely clear,
proven beyond a doubt,
that the characteristics and attributes
and skills and gifts and strengths
that appear to divide us
are utterly miniscule
against the avalanche and cavalcade
of hopes and dreams
and feelings and emotions
and DNA and genes and drives and hungers
that unite us.
We are much, much, much more alike
than we are different,
and almost everything
that makes us who we really are
we, all of us, share
with everybody else.
It is immensely sad
that generations of prejudice and division
have left us thinking
that this is the way the world has to be -
and it’s almost criminally foolish
that we allow our fears and concerns
to be manipulated
by media and politics
that play on our self-interest and jealousy -
but thankfully, there really is a better way.
 
Over the last few weeks
we’ve been reading from Paul’s letter
to the Christian community in Rome.
It’s a profoundly important letter;
one that pulls together all the wisdom of Paul’s life -
the end result of 30 years
of thinking and teaching and travel.
Paul’s a bit like Joseph -
in that he began his life
by being born into
a position of privilege and power and preferment.
He was highly educated,
given authority and power while very young,
and it looked like he was set
to inherit all the good things
of his family and culture and religion.
But when he was still young
almost everything he had
was stripped away in his moment of conversion:
position, connections,
even his vision was taken from him -
and he experienced what life is like
for those who are excluded and rejected.
So he began to speak, and write,
and be an advocate
for others who’d been devalued and excluded,
fighting for a place at the table
and in the Christian movement
for those who were not Jewish -
not part of the chosen people.
So near the end of his life,
in his letter to the Romans,
as we read today, he would write:
“The scripture says,
"No one who believes in him will be put to shame."
For there is no distinction
between Jew and Greek;
the same Lord is Lord of all
and is generous to all
who call on him.
For, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord
shall be saved."”
 
Our understanding of God has profoundly changed.
Yahweh is no longer a family god
whose only concern is for those who know his name.
We now trust in the God whose love and grace
is woven through the fabric of the universe
and whose desire for healing and for peace
took him to a cross.
If God has favourites,
then they’re like those
of the mother of eight -
some versions say Susannah Wesley -
of the mother of eight
who once was asked if she had any favourites.
"Favourites?" she replied.
"Yes, I have favourites.
I love the one who is sick until he is well again.
I love the one who’s in trouble until she is safe again.
And I love the one who is farthest away
until he comes back home."