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You might recognize the name Elizabeth Gilbert as the author of the bestselling novel Eat, Pray, Love.  Along with her fiction writing, Gilbert also writes and speaks about creativity – how it works and how it sometimes doesn’t work.  She tells stories about her own experiences with writer’s block and the fear of failure that can stop creativity dead in its tracks.

The God We Can’t See…and the People We Can

The God We Can’t See…and the People We Can
Genesis 37: 1-29
September 7, 2014
Jennifer Browne

Those of you who attend worship services in the summer know that because the crowd is a little smaller we can be a little more informal and creative.  Even though we are back to our full academic-year size, I’m going to try a mini-version of one of our summer techniques and ask you to find a conversation partner.  The only stipulation is that your conversation partner cannot be a close relative.  So no spouses or life partners, no parents or children, no sisters or brothers.  Find someone sitting nearby who is not a close relative….

1.Take a few moments to describe to each other your families of origin, the family you grew up in.2.Share with your conversation partner your response to this question: are you close to your siblings?3.Now the last question: Did your parents have a favorite?

(Return to seats, if needed.)


This Sunday we begin a four week series of stories from the end of the book of Genesis: what is known in the trade as the “Joseph cycle.”  The verses that we’ll hear are actually just snippets of a long narrative arc that is itself part of an even longer narrative: the complex story of the patriarchs of Israel, and how the people of God came to be enslaved by, and then escape from, their Egyptian captors.  

Joseph, second youngest son of Jacob, was born to Jacob’s beloved and second wife, Rachel. But Rachel has died and Jacob, perhaps compensating for Rachel’s absence, lavishes Joseph with love. Jacob’s overt favoritism is embodied by the extravagant coat he has given young Joseph to wear, literally a coat with “sleeves that touch the ground,” a coat that evokes royalty, a coat that we think of as “technicolor.”

By choosing favorites, Jacob continues a multi-generational, dysfunctional, family tradition.  Jacob himself was the favorite of his mother, Rebekah, while his twin brother Esau, was preferred by their father, Isaac.  You’d think Jacob would know better…but that is not the way families work.  

Joseph wears his privilege – and his coat – too proudly.  Although we didn’t read verses 5 – 11, they explain part of the reason Joseph’s brothers hate him.  It’s not just the coat or even that their father loves Joseph more than the rest.  Joseph has dreams that predict the rest of the family will one day bow down to him.  And he isobnoxiously delighted to relay his dreams to his brothers.  Even Jacob takes Joseph to task for that.

The point of those missing verses is that nobody is innocent in this deeply flawed family; everyone contributes to the inherited problems:

•Jacob doesn’t learn from his own experience,•the brothers allow their jealousy to dictate their actions,•Joseph is full of pride and arrogance.  

Joseph, commanded to go find his brothers at work in the fields, walks into a trap.The first plan is to kill him, but at the last minute the brothers hold back and choose instead to sell him into slavery. They take the coat—the object that represents all that is wrong in their family—they smear blood on it, and return it to Jacob, allowing him to believe that his beloved boy has been eaten alive by animals.

No one I know comes from a perfect family. How many of you heard from your conversation partner that there was some favoritism experienced in their childhood?

Looking at Joseph’s story from the perspective of later life, we can see layers of depth that we might have missed earlier.  We have seen how childhood siblingrivalries age: hardening into chasms of emotional distance; sharpening into bitter arguments over care for aging parents; or sometimes softening with maturity into appreciation for our siblings’ gifts.  

If you are a parent, you might read the Joseph story through Jacob’s eyes and see a parent’s inner turmoil: anxiety about the future of our children; worry about whether we are doing the right thing and making the right decisions; recognition of our own fault lines in their behavior.

No one comes from a perfect family.

No one I know comes from a perfect church, either.

The Church of the Epiphany is located in downtown Washington, D.C.  Like many downtown mainline churches, its heyday was in the 1950s and 60s, when growth and expansion happened quickly and easily.  But by the 1990s being a downtown church was more of a liability than a strength.  Many congregations moved with their parishioners to the suburbs.  The ones that stayed struggled with growing expenses and fewer supporters.  As church members moved farther away it became difficult to keep them connected.  

Members of the Church of the Epiphany who regarded their church as a location to be used for worship and religious education were faced with the troubling fact thattheir understanding of what a church was was becoming increasingly problematic; a definition that might even be impossible to sustain.

Their new pastor, Randolph Charles, saw the problem as an opportunity.  “God was calling us to have a ministry with downtown poor, with downtown workers, andwith parishioners,” he said.  

His idea was not universally well received.  Some people thought church was only for parishioners.  They resisted the idea of opening the congregation to a wider ministry in the city.  They were not interested in changing their understanding of what church was.  A group formed to have the new pastor fired.

It was not a perfect church and its cracks were beginning to show.

But the majority of the congregation sensed that God wanted the church to move in new directions.  Randolph Charles wasn’t fired, and the congregation began a long, sometimes hard, process of change.  

Now there are weekday services at lunchtime, a concert series, labyrinth walks, book groups, and prayer groups. People who work in offices around the church come in for spiritual refreshment or to eat lunch in the small garden next to the building.  The office of Street Sense, a newspaper produced by the homeless community, is upstairs at the church.  Public school children from across thedistrict come to the church to participate in an arts program.  The church is on the Civil War tour of Washington, D.C., and tourists often come through.  

Church of the Epiphany has become a busy public space where all manner of humanity does its business; it has found renewed life by opening its doors and serving whoever wanders by.  Increasingly, the church sees itself less as a parish church and more as a lively, sacred, public space.

It is still not perfect.  But as a group, the people of the congregation have learned how to recognize their imperfections and address them.

One of the new ministries at Epiphany is an 8:00 AM worship service, breakfast and Bible study, serving about 200 homeless people every Sunday. At first, those who attended the 11:00 service referred to the 8:00 people as “the homeless.”  Gradually, “the homeless” have become “guests.”  Now in many cases they are “homeless members” or “members who live on the streets” or simply Joe, Wanda or Ted.

When the 8:00 service was started, it included no offering collection because the church members thought it inappropriate to ask guests to contribute.  The 8:00 attendees insisted that their service should include a traditional offering.  They wanted to give back to the church.

A member of the traditional congregation, recalled how moved he was the first time he acted as an usher at the 8:00 service.  “As the plate passed down the rows, I watched people turn their pockets inside out and throw loose change and crumpled dollars in the offering plate.  I almost cried.  I learned more about giving that morning than in a thousand sermons.”

It’s not a perfect church.  The people we see in it have many flaws and failings.  But God, whom we cannot see, has found a way to work through them.  

The family of Jacob and Joseph wasn’t perfect.  They were full of flaws and failings.  But God, who cannot be seen, worked through them, too.  The long narrative arc that we have begun to read is a long story of God’s spirit, working through the family to move them from jealousy and animosity to forgiveness and reconciliation.  

At the end of this morning’s scripture, Joseph and his dreams are over in the minds of his brothers and father.  The arrogant dreamer is dead, at least as far as they know. They think they will never see him anymore.  But God, who cannot be seen – and who is not, in this part of the Bible, even mentioned very much at all – is not dead or done.  God’s work is only just beginning.  And the irony of the story is that the brother’s choice to sell Joseph into slavery is the very thing that leads to the fulfillment of Joseph’s dreams.  He will become a powerful part of the Egyptianruling class and will save the lives of his father and brothers, who will bow down to him.  

God – who cannot be seen – works through incomplete, inadequate, incompetent people to accomplish God’s purposes.  

No one I know comes from a perfect family.  No one I know is part of a perfect church.  Every family, and every church family, is weakened by the things that weakened Joseph’s: love unevenly felt and unfairly apportioned.  In the midst of our struggles, it can be hard to see God at work.

As you consider the family you described at the beginning of this service…

Or the family you are part of now…

Or the church you are part of now, or are considering becoming part of….

Whether you are Joseph in the pit, or a brother standing on the edge of the pit looking down, or Jacob receiving the owner-less coat…this story asks you to trust – even if you do not perceive how it might be possible – that God is working in you and in your family and in your church to change and transform the world.  The God you cannot see is moving through the people you can see to bless the world God loves.


David Lose. Pentecost 14 A: The Essential Ingredient. Posted Sep 1, 2014 in Dear Partner.

Geoff McElroy. August 10, 2008 - Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost. PostedAugust 07, 2008 on Desert Scribbings.

David Lewicki. Our Dysfunctional Families (Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28). Odyssey Networks. August 04, 2014. ON Scripture - The Bible

Cameron B.R. Howard.  Commentary on Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28. August 10, 2014.