The Rev. Dianne O’Connell
Church of the Covenant
August 10, 2008
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Climbing Out of the Pits
Good morning. I am a great surfer of the Internet and am a strong believer in stealing good material wherever you can find it. But I also feel compelled to give credit where credit is due. Therefore, I want to right up front tell you that some of the stories and thoughts in this morning’s sermon come from two of my favorite websites:
Rev. Hunt’s website is neat because he
considers himself a progressive/post liberal theologian and he pastors the
Quinn tells about a farmer who has an old donkey. The donkey has apparently outlived his usefulness, but it was too expensive to have him put down. So the farmer digs a big hole in the ground, throws the donkey in and proceeds to bury it alive.
Don’t panic: from the donkey’s perspective the story changes. The way the donkey sees it, is that his master digs a big hole and throws him in. He isn’t sure why, but there is no way out of this pit he’s in. Then some dirt falls on him. He shakes off the dirt and steps on it.
More dirt comes down. He shakes it off and steps up. More dirt. More shaking. More stepping. After enough dirt has been thrown into the pit to bury the donkey, the donkey is close enough to the top of the hole to step right on out of the pit.
Rev. Quinn doesn’t offer a moral to this story. He just lets it stand there by the side of the pit. Irritated, I thought about the donkey and thought about the donkey, and I thought about some problems I've having. Finally I wanted to scream: “Even a dumb donkey can get out of this mess; why can’t I?” So I tried to think about it from the donkey’s point of view. What I came up with was that the beast didn’t panic, he just went along being the best beast he knew how to be – shaking off the insults, movin’ on up and steppin’ on out. That just might be enough, I decided.
Which sort of brings us back to Joseph of this morning’s Old Testament reading.
Unlike the donkey, young Joseph may very well have realized why his brothers pitched him into the well or cistern. Frightened as he must have been, he might still have taken a moment to reflect, “Oh my, I have been a bit arrogant about being Dad’s favorite son, haven’t I? These guys are either going to kill me – or – oh, no, they are selling me into slavery! It is too late to make amends. My brothers have truly had it with me." So it is out of one pit and into another for Joseph.
Now, most sermons I’ve heard on the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors seem to portray the young boy as an innocent victim of his jealous brothers. I’m not so sure we ought to just accept that interpretation without giving it some thought. If we are going to make any progress toward getting out of our own pits in life, we have to take a look at what we might or might not have done to get ourselves there in the first place. We may not be all that innocent and maybe Joseph wasn’t either.
I’m reminded of another story: this one about a woman who walks down the street and stumbles into a manhole. The next day, she does the same thing. Day after day, she takes her walk, trips over the manhole cover, and blames somebody else for her own unfortunate injuries. Finally, one day she walks down another street.
I have to admit though, that it’s hard to read the Genesis story without identifying with Joseph. We’ve all been mistreated at some point in time. We’ve all found ourselves caught in tight places with no obvious means of escape. And it hasn’t always been our fault.
A few years ago, we were all focused on the
rescue of nine coal miners in
We want to rush to their rescue. But in so doing, we may be missing something.
Rev. Quinn offers another popular internet
story: a story of a small town on the banks of a river – we’ll say it is the
For two entire days the scenario continued to repeat itself. Some people wanted to build a rescue station. Some wanted to train special swimmers to stand guard in the water waiting for the next victim. Some wanted to build shelters where the rescued swimmers could recuperate. A whole industry was about to develop around the rescue operations.
They were focusing on the victims, just like we focus on Joseph or the miners.
One wise member of the community, however, insisted that the better means of treating the problem was to send a team upstream to find out what was causing so many people to fall into the river in the first place.
We want to rescue Joseph from the pit – but maybe we should spend a few more minutes trying to figure out why he was there in the first place.
One way of unpacking a story is to look at the situation from each character's point of view.
Let’s look at the bereaved father, Jacob. He has lost a beloved son, or at least thinks he has. What part did he inadvertently play in this drama. Joseph, the child of his old age, was his favorite. Okay. But did he have to make it so abundantly clear to his other sons that they mattered little to him compared to sweet little Joseph? Could he have been a little more reassuring to them? And did Jacob’s love for Joseph somehow turn little Joseph into a spoiled brat, aggravating his older brothers at every turn? I suppose as parents, we inevitably review our parenting skills and wonder if we could have done an even better job than we did, if we’d just been a bit wiser at times.
Let’s also take a look at those older brothers. Why were they so jealous? They probably wouldn’t have been caught dead in a multi-colored tunic out in the desert? They didn’t want to be treated like the child Joseph, but they wanted was to be treated fairly. What was their real want, their real fear?
Reuben was the oldest son. By tradition and by custom, he should inherit the mantle of authority from his father. But he thinks he knows the truth – his father was not the oldest, Uncle Esau was. But the younger son, through trickery, received the blessing reserved for the eldest. Reuben believes that in his family, at least, the oldest will not receive his rightful inheritance.
The truth is he WILL receive the blessing.
God made a promise to Abraham. And in faith, Abraham accepted and believed the promise to be true. It was a promise that was to last throughout time. But with each generation, there was a crisis when it came time to pass the promise on. Abraham had a hard time passing it on to Isaac. Isaac had a hard time passing it on to Jacob. Now Jacob is having difficulty passing on his faith in God’s promise to his children.
The same crisis of passing on the faith from one generation to another is a crisis that continues to be true in the church today, as well as in our families. We have tried ways to address the crisis in the past – through Sunday School and Youth Groups and college ministries – but the crisis is an age-old crisis that must be faced by and dealt with in every generation.
In the case of Joseph and his brothers, the crisis seems to have come in the form of jealousy over who will inherit the promise. Metaphorically Joseph’s brothers were the ones in the pit. They thought there was no way out of their predicament. They saw Joseph as the favored son. They figured there would be nothing left for them. The only way to be included in the promise was to arrange to exclude Joseph. But they overlooked the possibility that the inheritance was for everybody.. What Jacob failed to teach his sons was that God’s promises are not limited. There would be enough for all. But trusting in God is not always easy.
The miners in
The new drilling operation allowed more time for the water to be pumped out. And in the end, the longer wait was the safer route. God was at work, whether we realize it or not. Jacob had to have faith -- even as he was sold into slavery -- that God would continue to be with him, even though it really looked pretty bad. We have to somehow maintain that same kind of faith.
And that is the message from the Gospel reading this morning from Matthew…the story of Peter’s attempt to walk on the water to follow Jesus, Peter's fear, his sinking, and eventual recovery through faith. What part does our faith play when we feel ourselves sinking – either into a pit, or into the drink, like Peter?
Matthew’s Jesus seems to respond to Peter’s fear and crisis of faith by
Confront your fears.
Forget your dependency.
You have the resources.
Don’t be terrified of life.
Exercise your own faith!
We’ll get you out of this pit – and/or across this lake – just hang on. Shake off the dirt; shake off the water. Keep on movin’ up and steppin’ out. We’ll do this together.
Thank you, Lord. Amen.