Old Testament: Genesis (37:1-4, 12-28)
Jacob settled in the land where his father haof 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 it 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.
The Response: Psalm (105:1-6, 16-22, 45b)
1 Give thanks to the Lord and
call upon his Name; *
make known his deeds among the peoples.
2 Sing to him, sing praises to him, *
and speak of all his marvelous works.
3 Glory in his holy Name; *
let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
4 Search for the Lord and his strength; *
continually seek his face.
5 Remember the marvels he has done, *
his wonders and the judgments of his mouth,
6 O offspring of Abraham his servant, *
O children of Jacob his chosen.
16 Then he called for a famine in the land *
and destroyed the supply of bread.
17 He sent a man before them, *
Joseph, who was sold as a slave.
18 They bruised his feet in fetters; *
his neck they put in an iron collar.
19 Until his prediction came to pass, *
the word of the Lord tested him.
20 The king sent and released him; *
the ruler of the peoples set him free.
21 He set him as a master over his household,*
as a ruler over all his possessions,
22 To instruct his princes according to his will*
and to teach his elders wisdom.
45 That they might keep his statutes *
and observe his laws. Hallelujah!
The Epistle: Romans (10:5-15)
Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 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.” But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
The Gospel: Matthew (14:22-33)
Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
Over the past two months, our first readings on Sundays have consisted of some of the timeless stories from the book of Genesis. There we have encountered a stellar cast of characters: Abraham and Sarah, along with three mysterious strangers who turn out to be God; Hagar and Ishmael; Isaac and Rebecca; Jacob and Esau; and Laban and Leah and Rachel.
This Sunday and next, we hear the beginning and then the ending of the final story told in Genesis: the Joseph story. It, too, has a wonderful cast of characters, and it is a large troupe. We have Jacob again; Joseph, Reuben, and Judah; Potiphar and his wife; Pharaoh along with his chief baker and his chief cup-bearer; Joseph’s full brother, the youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons, Benjamin; and a whole company of supporting actors and walk-ons. It seems like everybody appears on stage at one time or another – everybody except God. God seems to be strangely absent.
In the great sagas of Abraham and Jacob, God plays an obvious and prominent role: physically appearing at times to both of the protagonists, talking with them and instructing them on what to do, clearly directing everything that happens. But that is not at all the case with the Joseph story. In this narrative, the movement of people and events are driven, not by direct divine intervention, but by human emotions, such as love and jealousy and hatred and revenge, and by the natural phenomena of plenty and of famine. It is the blatant favoritism of Jacob and the resulting resentment of Joseph’s brothers that send him into slavery. It is the wrath of a woman scorned that condemns him to years in prison. It is his use of his unique set of skills that brings him into prominence. And it is the coming of famine to the land of Canaan that impels his brothers to travel to Egypt for their fateful reunion with him.
In the first 36 chapters of Genesis, God stood center-stage, from the very beginning of creation through the dramatic homecoming of Jacob, also known as Israel. Now inexplicably, God not only seems to have left the stage; God seems to have walked out of the theater completely, leaving the remainder of the cast to script the final act by themselves. But, as we all know, looks can be deceiving.
Whoever authored this marvelous short story and appended it to ancient collection of myths and legends that precede it appears to have lived in a very different world from that of his or her ancestors. As Walter Brueggemann summarizes it (Genesis, page 288), “This narrative appears to belong to a generation of believers in a cultural climate where old modes of faith were embarrassing. The old idiom of faith had become unconvincing. Thus, the narrative should be understood as a sophisticated literary response to a cultural, theological crisis. How does one speak of faith in a context where the older ways are found wanting? That is the issue in the Joseph narrative.”
Does that description of the author’s situation and of the pressing question that he or she faced sound familiar: a culture in which the old ways of faith are no longer convincing and old assumptions need to be put aside? Doesn’t that context and quandary express well the time in which we live? Isn’t that where we find ourselves today as well? Maybe the Joseph story is more contemporary than it first appears to be.
So, where is God in the Joseph story? We don’t find out until the very end of the drama. But then, neither do the characters in the story, including Joseph himself. It is only after Joseph has caused deep resentment in his family, after his brothers have sold him into slavery, after he has languished in prison, after he has obtained his freedom and then risen to a high position in Egypt – it is only then that he realizes and is able to reassure his brothers (Gen. 45:7-8): “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.”
Joseph realizes that God has been at work, not in some blunt, direct way, but working through the actions, the deeds, and even misdeeds of ordinary human beings, moving events in a particular direction for a particular purpose: one that neither he nor anyone else seems to have perceived at the time. It is only in retrospect that Joseph comes to recognize the mysterious ways of God, guiding people and events in order to save life.
That last point, the “in order to save life,” is a critical element for understanding the Joseph story as well. Joseph could have interpreted God’s work as being all about him: about God working to bring him up out of prison to become Pharaoh’s right-hand man and ruler over all Egypt; that did happen, but there was more. He could also have interpreted God’s work as being about him and his family: about God working in order to preserve Jacob’s entire family; that did happen, but there was still more. God’s attention and intention included far more than just Joseph and those closest to him. The events as they transpired positioned Joseph in such a way that his leadership, during a time of plenty and during a time of famine, saved the lives of countless thousands of Egyptians as well. God’s care, God’s providence, was not concerned only with the chosen family of Jacob, but with a far wider part of humanity, the vast majority of whom had never even heard of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
A God, an all-encompassing Presence, who is always at work behind the scenes and in silence, one whose passionate concern is for all people, is the one presented to us by the Joseph story. Maybe that is also the God for our times.
American writer John Updike once reflected on such a God. He observed of that silent God (Self-Consciousness: Memoirs, page 229): “The sensation of silence cannot be helped: A loud and evident God would be a bully, an insecure tyrant, an all-crushing datum instead of, as he is, a bottomless encouragement to our faltering and frightened being. His answers come in the long run, as the large facts of our lives, strung on that thread running through all things.”
In our age, as in the age from which the Joseph story emerged, the “old idiom of faith,” and the old images of God, have become unconvincing. Might not a deeper sense of the God who works in much more subtle ways, through the deeds and misdeeds of human beings, and whose concern is not just for “us” and for other so-called “religious people” but for all people – might not that sense open us up more fully to the wonder of God’s creation and to the even greater wonder of creation’s God?