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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.

They're Good Kids, But ...

Genesis 37.15-36
Rev. William Bills

When something upsets us our first reaction is rarely the best. Our first reaction happens with little regard for consequences. Our first reaction may bring short-term gratification. It may also bring unpleasant long term consequences. It never hurts to take a deep breath, step back, think and pray. Impulsive reactions are often the least Christian.

Last week I talked about Joseph the dreamer. He told his family about two dreams he had. In one, sheaves of wheat in a field bowed down to him as his sheaf grew tall. In the other, eleven stars, and the sun and the moon bowed down to him. Joseph didn’t offer any interpretation for these dreams. His family took them to mean that Joseph planned to rise over his family and that they would bow down and serve him. These dreams came from God, not from Joseph.

Joseph, the youngest son and favorite of his father, was sent to check on his brothers as they pastured the family’s livestock. Wearing his coat of many colors with long sleeves he is going to check up on them. He isn’t going to help with the work.

As Joseph approaches, his older brothers impulsively decide to kill the dreamer. They don’t seem to give it much thought. He is a problem. His fine coat and his grand dreams just rub them the wrong way. If they kill the dreamer the dreams should die too. But the dreams come from God. If a dream is from God killing the dreamer won’t kill the dream.

Joseph stands between his father’s love and his brothers’ hatred. The long sleeved, colorful coat represents Jacob’s love for Joseph. To his brothers it is a reason for hatred. It’s a constant reminder that he is daddy’s favorite. Angered by Jacob’s favoritism and Joseph’s dreams, they quickly decide to kill their baby brother. The coat suddenly changes from an object of love to a symbol of deceit and violence.

But cooler heads prevail. Sort of. Rueben is the oldest brother. He knows what dad will do to him if something happens to Joseph. So Reuben convinces his brothers not to kill Joseph. He tells them to throw Joseph into an empty cistern, planning to rescue him later. So the brothers do that instead. Then they see some traders coming along. Judah, probably the smartest brother, comes up with a better idea: “There is really no profit in killing our brother. Let’s sell him to slave traders instead!”

The brothers throw Joseph into the cistern and sit down for supper.  While they are eating, the traders find Joseph. They take him out of the pit and into their custody. Maybe Judah wasn’t so smart. While they were eating they lost the chance to sell Joseph into slavery. Now Rueben can’t rescue Joseph. He will have to face his father.

But the brothers come up with a better plan. They lie. They take Joseph’s coat and smear animal blood on it. The gift of love now bears the lie. They take it to their father. They know full well this is Joseph’s coat. When they give it to Jacob they cannot bear to say, “Here is our brother’s coat, the one you gave him.” Instead they say, “Is this your son’s coat?” They can no longer call the dreamer their brother.

Reuben hoped to rescue his little brother. He probably felt responsible for his little brother. Maybe he felt responsible for all his brothers and what they were doing. The narrator uses the words “brothers”, “us”,and “we”. All the brothers were in agreement. Joseph had to be dealt with.

Reuben is really a coward. He doesn’t do the right thing. After Joseph had been taken by the slave traders, Rueben tore is clothing and cried. He knew he was in big trouble with dad. He allowed his father to believe Joseph has been eaten by wild animals. The narrator tells us that all of Jacob’s sons and daughters tried to comfort him. But we know the brothers are all lying.

Why didn’t Reuben tell the truth? He had hoped to rescue Joseph. He was going to come back later and rescue Joseph from the cistern. He knew this was wrong but he didn’t tell the truth. The brothers are all lying to their father. All of Jacob’s sons collude in this outrageous deception. How many commandments have they broken? They are lying. They are not honoring their parents. They were ready to commit murder. None of them tell the truth. The deception goes on for years.

But God’s dreams don’t die easily.

Some folks just rub us the wrong way. Maybe they see things in a way that we just can’t see. And when they tell us what they see our first impulse is rejection. So it was with Joseph and his brothers. That first reaction isn’t usually the best. Their first reaction to the God’s dreamer only made things worse. What if they had just taken a step back, thought things over, talked to someone, or prayed about it?

Sometimes people rub me the wrong way. I try not to be too quick to react. Sometimes my emotions kick in and my mouth starts going before my brain. Sometimes I say or do the wrong thing. Sometimes it even happens at church. Over the years I have learned to be more patient. Not to react right away. My first response to something that upsets me is rarely helpful. So I try to create a little space before I react. That cuts down on the grief for myself and others.

Genesis 37 opens with, “This is the story of Jacob’s family…” Last week I said that this story mirrors the disagreements and problems experienced in the family of God throughout the ages. The Biblical narrative is about people dealing with the things we deal with all the time. The Bible reminds us that when we don’t like someone or something, our first response to that might cause problems for the whole family of God.

When something happens that causes us to be anxious or angry or afraid, we want to fix it fast. We might have a clear idea about exactly how things should be. What we think is the perfect solution might work in our head, but not in real life. Every single day, until years later when they met Joseph again in Egypt, these brothers had to live with their lie. That had to be tough. And all because they let their emotions run away from them. Did throwing their brother into that pit help the family?

This story runs for thirteen chapters. It makes one wonder how or why God allows this to go on. The brothers put all of God’s people in jeopardy because they overreacted to something they didn’t like. There will be some tough lessons to be learned.  Dreams that come from God can’t be killed. What they intended for bad, God turned to good.

Sometimes we are quick to react. Especially when something rubs us the wrong way. In our haste to make things right we might make a mistake. Those mistakes can be whoppers, too! But none of us would ever throw a brother or sister into pit, would we? If we do, God is ever present. God is always working among us. Even if we don’t see it. God can turn our mistakes toward a greater good. God does that so that none of us accidentally kills one of God’s dreams.

This is the story of Jacob’s family. At Genesis 50.24 Joseph, just before he dies of old age, Joseph says that this is the story of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is the story of the covenant that God made with them. So it is the story of the covenant God made with us, too. It is the story about how when God’s people make mistakes God keeps the dream for us alive.

In the end, Joseph will be holding all the cards. In the end, Joseph will have the power of life and death over his brothers. In the end, Joseph will have his chance to get even.

Joseph won’t get even, though. Joseph will be thoughtful, graceful. He will take a step back. He will point out how God has been at work the whole time, taking the brothers’ mistakes, and using them for good. Joseph won’t harm his brothers. They caused Joseph and his parents a lot of suffering. Joseph will keep the dream alive and the family together. 

Jacob made some mistakes with his sons. He played favorites with his youngest. Joseph made mistakes, too. He was brash, arrogant, a "tattle tale". His older brothers all acted badly, too. There was plenty of blame to be shared all across this family. Their bad choices affected the entire family. God took all those mistakes and turned them toward good. We have benefited from that grace even though we, too, are far from perfect ourselves.

Some of the most important lessons we learn are learned in our family. Some of the most important lessons we learn are learned courtesy of our church family. And for some crazy reason, it seems like the most important lessons are the lessons we learn the hard way. Maybe God sets it up like that so we don’t forget.

According to the Bible, it is normal for people to overreact. But while it’s Biblical to overreact, it isn’t helpful to overreact.  Sometimes we have to make judgements. Sometimes we have to make hard choices. But that first unthinking, impulsive reaction is rarely helpful.

When we do have to make tough decisions, let’s try to be thoughtful. Let’s not be too hasty. Our first reaction is rarely the most helpful one.

God has dreams for all of us. We are people of God after all. Nobody can kill God’s dreams. Even if we try we can’t kill them. And if we do make a mistake, God will find a way to turn that mistake around for the good of us all.