Rev. Michael Livingston
Sunday, February 20, 2022
Cain and Abel. Death by brother. Jacob and Esau. Inheritance by lies and deceit. The daughters of Lot. Progeny by incest. You know this story? Fleeing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot has taken them to live in a cave. They are afraid of life without bearing children, sons especially, so, one night after the other, they get him drunk and sleep with him—each of them bearing a child by their father. And all of this is in Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew bible. Siblings. Family. In-laws. Rachel and Leah are in a fierce competition to bear sons so they force surrogacy on their maids. Bloodlines by co-opted bodies.
Disowned. Betrayed. Abandoned. Deserted. We’re nearing Lent and Holy Week, Good Friday, so you might be thinking…Jesus and his disciples. Peter, of the three denials. “I’m not one of his boys.” “Looks vaguely familiar, but I don’t know him.” “Who me, you must have me confused with someone else, I didn’t follow him anywhere.” Or Judas, “I’m going to kiss him, that’s how you’ll know. Now pay me. Half now, half later.” Thank God for Mary, and Mary, and Martha. And Salome.
No, not Jesus and his disciples. I mean Joseph and his brothers. Siblings. We’re talking about a supreme betrayal. They throw him in a pit without water. Over a meal they decide that rather than kill him they’ll sell him instead. This is petty familial jealousies grown into life-altering, seismic, geo-political, decade-spanning politics. His sin? Dad liked him best. The coat told the whole story. They had normal sleeveless tunics; he had a fine long-sleeved robe—can’t work the field in that. Small and petty, yes. But these are the faults that grow to divide families, ethnicities, that create races out of the one race to which we all belong. These are faults that grow up to divide nations, upend political systems, inflame ideologies, splinter continents; faults that find us, now, waiting for one nation to attack and conquer another so that we can return to an older form of our broken world.
They see Joseph coming from a distance—that colorful coat gave him away. He’d look good strolling into the locker room for the All-Star game tonight with an outfit to match anything Russell Westbrook or James Harden might wear. Into the pit he goes. And out of it and into slavery goes Joseph beginning a roller coaster ride of rise and fall; from principal to prisoner. From trusted overseer, right hand man, to falsely accused. Two years, at least, in the dungeon. Forgotten, hated, isolated. Because his brothers couldn’t stand the way he stood, the way he looked, the way he was loved—at seventeen.
Thirteen years in exile from father/mother/family—alone in a foreign land. Years of plenty and of want. Feast and famine. All that and still, when it mattered most…he rose for them. He stood up for them. He claimed them as the family they were, among the people God formed of them. It’s like Robert Frost wrote: “Home is the place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” He took them in.
There may be no more deeply intimate moment, no more vulnerable view than when we see Joseph overwhelmed with emotion at the anguish of his brothers and then later when he sees his baby brother Benjamin. Both times he covers his tears, he hides his face, he turns aside, he steps away—to feel what he feels so deeply, to gather himself so that he can go on.
What a story, this brilliant narrative that takes up so much of Genesis, that surveys the story of our humanity in any century, that distills the geo-politics into bits and pieces of everyday life, the ordinary exchanges that take place in all our lives whether in small towns and villages or grand palaces or places of power.
We have choices to make about how we respond to the experiences, the forces that shape our lives, especially those we believe damage our well-being, that cause us harm. We have choices to make about the kind of people we will be in the midst of it all. Well beyond the kind of accountability that is necessary to healthy relationships, families, communities of any size, we can keep score, take names, forget nothing, plot revenge. Or, we can see with God’s eyes, feel with Holy Spirit.
What did Michelle say, “When they go low, we go high.” What does Jesus say in this sermon on the plain that Luke replays: “Love your enemies, do not judge…do not condemn…forgive and you will be forgiven…” and this is generosity, “…give and it will be given to you…for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
Joseph had the power to take revenge on his brothers, his brothers—who would have killed him but sold him into slavery. And it wasn’t about the money, they just wanted him out of their lives. Thirteen long years later, at the moment of truth, when they thought they were to be punished for what they had done but not forgotten; when Joseph ended the charade, here is what he said:” …Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life…it was not you who sent me here, but God.”
“When they go low, we go high.” That’s what Joseph did and more. He embraced them. He cried for the years lost among them. The father and mother left behind. The younger brother he hardly knew. He stood up for them.
Stand, when your enemies surround you. Stand, when all seems lost. Stand, when you think you have no will left to resist, no chance of prevailing, when no options seem viable. Stand, like Moses before Pharoah. “Let my people go!” Stand, like young David before Goliath. Stand, like Nathan before King David, “You are that man!” Stand, like the widow demanding justice from the unjust judge. Stand, like the Syrophoenician woman before Jesus, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Stand like Jesus before a stoning crowd, “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.”
Stand, like Harriet did against the evil institution of slavery, planted on the American plantation, nurtured later in Jim Crow and mass incarceration, voter suppression today. Stand, like Thurgood Marshall, like Ida B Wells, risking her life to say no to the lynching of black people in the late 19th century. Stand, like Rosa Parks when she sat down on that bus. Stand, like John Carlos and Tommie Smith, head bowed, arms raised, fist clenched in 1968 on an Olympic podium. Stand, with the Asian American community when deep seeded Asian-hate wounds or kills again and again and again.
Stand, like, I’ll call her Janet. I’ve got a picture of her from a visit back to Los Angeles last July, it’s the home screen on my iPhone. She is standing and holding the sack she used to pick cotton in Mississippi, a young teenager, barely more than a child. Janet is maybe 5’ tall. The sack is about as long as she is short and wider than her small frame. She had to fill it twice a day. She’s a few years older than I am. Stand, like her husband Tommie, the two of them married now for over 50 years. But before they were married, he had to leave Texas to save his life. While a college student he was employed to attend to the needs of the paraplegic son of a wealthy and influential white family. One night while studying for an exam he was interrupted by the cook and told to turn off the light in his room. Tommie declined. He was not supported by the son he bathed, dressed, and fed. One thing led to another, none of them good and he did what he had to do—hit the road for Los Angeles. Janet joined him and they built a life of abundance for themselves and their children.
“Sown in weakness raised in power, sown physical, raised spiritual”. Sown in the soil of slavery, or misfortune, abuse and injustice; raised in the sunshine of struggle.
Stand, like Marian Wright Edelman, for children made poor by an economic system with an insatiable appetite for profit at any cost. Unregulated. Empowered by policies and practices that drain the integrity and promise of our Declaration of Independence. I was at Haley Farm last week, purchased by the Children’s Defense fund from Alex Haley’s estate after his death. It’s a magical place that stands for children. I don’t know who said it, or quoted it, but during my time there I heard the question “What is injustice?” And the answer, “It’s people giving up.”
Stand for yourself. Stand for your family and friends. Stand for your church, this community of people you didn’t choose, formed by faith, mutual need and desire, call of God. Stand for your people forged by a common history of struggle, resistance, triumph. Stand for all people, created in God’s image all over the world. Stand for the earth, Mars is a rich man’s fantasy. Earth is what we have all been given. Stand. Stand. Stand. Stand Up. Amen.