Whenever a minister asks a congregation, “What do you want me to preach about?” one of the most common responses is “forgiveness.” Some people say that the reason for this is that Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness are really difficult. I think of it a little bit differently: Anybody’s teachings on forgiveness are difficult because forgiveness is just difficult.
It’s interesting that forgiveness is difficult and that despite that we still want to hear more about it. Because there are plenty of difficult things that we’d rather not hear anything about at all. But forgiveness is different because deep down inside of us—even though we think that forgiveness is unfair and maybe too hard—deep down inside we know it would be good for us. We long to let go of the hurts that have bound up our thoughts and our lives; we long to be free!
But sort of like moderate exercise three times a week and eating leafy green vegetables, despite the fact that we know it would make us feel better, we find ourselves stuck on the couch of resentment, eating a greasy bag of high-calorie curses and processed grudges. We get overwhelmed and we get stuck in the groove of anger, and bitterness, and hurt—which are the toxins that are best cleaned out by forgiveness.
So, I want to talk really practically this morning about what forgiveness is and isn’t. First, we’ve got to get rid of this idea that forgiveness is exceptional. If you search the news for stories about forgiveness, what you’ll find is these incredible stories of forgiveness and reconciliation. I read a story this week about a man who became a close friend to the man who murdered his brother. He befriended the man who was in prison for murdering his beloved brother. It’s an incredible story. It’s a beautiful story. And it’s an exceptional story. And it is not what forgiveness typically looks like or what it absolutely requires of us. That man is winning gold in the forgiveness Olympics. God bless him. But don’t let him intimidate you. You do not have to be friends with the person who murdered your brother in order to experience the vast majority of the very real, life-changing benefits of forgiveness.
Next, we’ve got to let go of the very unhealthy stereotypes of Christian forgiveness. Offering forgiveness is not ever about being a doormat, staying in an abusive relationship, accepting injustice, being taken advantage of, or putting yourself in any way in any kind of dangerous or potentially harmful situation. I’ll give you a very simple rule about forgiveness: If it’s not to your benefit, it’s probably not forgiveness. If you don’t feel like you can afford it, it’s probably not forgiveness. It’s some distorted version of forgiveness.
Also, forgiveness is not a way of avoiding conflict. We talked about this last Sunday—Jesus has some pretty good, direct advice for us about how to deal with conflict and the possibility of reconciling with someone who has sinned against you. There is a difference between reconciliation and forgiveness. Jesus says forgiveness is always required—and I believe that’s as much for our benefit (and oftentimes more for our benefit) than it is for the benefit of the people who have done us wrong.
But reconciliation is not always required. Jesus says we have to go through the process of conflict resolution together, but whether reconciliation happens of not, it depends on the person who did you harm taking responsibility for what they did. If they can’t do that, Jesus is clear, you should cut them out of your life AND you should forgive them. And even if you do reconcile, reconciliation might just mean peaceful coexistence. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to invite this person over for dinner and become their best friend. Forgiveness is much simpler than all that.
So, forgiveness is always for your benefit. It should always come from a place of power. If it doesn’t feel like it’s to your benefit, it’s probably not forgiveness, it’s some unhealthy, twisted-up version of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the way we clear the toxic mess of hate and anger and obsessive thinking and the desire for revenge out of our lives. So, how do we do that?
When I was at Union Theological Seminary in Morningside Heights, there was this one beautiful, warm early spring day. And that evening I just the bug, I wanted to go jogging, so I went out to Riverside Park and headed north. Lovely evening. Gentle breeze. It was getting dark. The little lamps were coming on in the park. Other people were out enjoying the river. I was just in my own head, not really paying attention.
Suddenly, I realized I wasn’t on the main path anymore, somehow I’d taken a bad turn. I was basically in the woods directly under the George Washington Bridge. It was dark, there were no lights, and I was on like a dirt path to who knows where. And suddenly up over the hill in front of me comes a group of about 15 teenage boys.
And I was a little scared. They just had an energy to them that made me think they were out that night looking for trouble. And I had to figure out what to do. Do I just turn around and run the other way? That seems a bit disrespectful. So, I decided I’m just gonna give them the benefit of the doubt and run past them. And they beat me with a baseball bat.
And I was lucky, because I realized something was going to happen and I checked over my shoulder and saw the first swing coming at me and I managed to take the blow in a way that it didn’t just end me right then and there, and I was warmed up and bigger than them and I managed to outrun them. Nothing was broken, but I was bruised and injured, and I was scared. They wanted to mess me up. I heard later that probably these same kids were assaulting women in the park and they put a Columbia student in the hospital.
So, what is forgiveness here? How do I get started? First and foremost, I remember that I am not better than anybody else. I am not better than anybody else. I am luckier than a lot of people. I am probably luckier than those 15 boys.
When I was in the 6th grade, some big kids jumped me and two of my friends after school and beat us up a little. And so I went home and I got a knife. A knife. It was a utility knife, but it was a knife. And I went back out, I guess to like cut up these kids. I don’t know what I could have possibly been thinking. I was angry. And I got lucky.
Because I caught up with these kids, pulled this one-inch blade of this utility knife out, and I was like, “Let’s go!” And the big kids laughed and one of them whipped out a butterfly knife and he was like (butterfly knife sounds), and it looked like it was about a foot long. And they beat me up again, without stabbing me, and I went home and told my mom. And so of course my parents went over to their parents’ house. And then they came home. And they were like, “Did you pull out a knife?” And I was like, “Oh Yeah.” And they grounded me.
I’m not better than those boys. I know what it’s like to be angry. I bet they were angry. I know what’s it’s like to want to hurt someone. I pulled a knife on someone when I was like 12. I did that. And I’m simply morally lucky that it didn’t go way worse than it did. And I’m morally lucky that I had parents who had the time and capacity to unambiguously and forcefully correct my mistakes. I’m not better than the kids who beat me with a baseball bat, I’m luckier. So much luckier.
Even if the sin against us is far beyond anything we’ve ever done to another person or even anything we think we’d be capable of doing, the path to forgiveness starts with a sort of realistic humility about our own righteousness and perfection. It is very difficult to forgive someone when you feel like they’re less than human or when you think about yourself as somehow better than them. I am not better than anybody else. If I remember this, I’m setting the stage for forgiveness.
The second thing we need to do is to actually forgive. Now, this might not sound too profound, but I really mean it. Forgiveness is an act. It is not a feeling. Many of us feel like we’ll have forgiven someone once our feelings stop being hurt. So, we wait for our feelings to stop hurting. But that’s not the way it works. It’s the exact opposite. Once we forgive, our feelings begin to heal.
The king in Jesus’ story doesn’t just sit there until his feelings stop hurting about losing all that money. Right? We don’t know exactly how the king feels, but we know he makes a decision to forgive the debt—from a place of power and having the capacity to afford the loss. He doesn’t say, “Oh, well, for some fortunate reason I just happened to get over it now, so I guess you’re forgiven.” He acts.
We have to do the same thing. If it’s a small thing, you may only need to say it once. But if it’s a big thing you may need to say it more than once, more than seven times, more than 77 times. We act consciously to affect ourselves unconsciously—to affect the way we feel. We can’t just decide we want to be over something. We don’t work that way. We have to act out our forgiveness, and slowly over time, your heart and your soul catch up with your act. And then you’re free.
It’s the way magic or any kind of inner transformation works—you must find a way to enact the forgiveness. You cancel the debt. You write, “I forgive Bob,” in a journal 50 times every night right before bed. You take one of those pages, you tear it out of the journal, you fold it up, and you stick it inside your Bible or you hide it somewhere here in the sanctuary, put it somewhere on the altar. Your unconscious mind, your soul, remembers that little ritual of forgiveness, it holds onto it, and forgiveness begins to take a hold of you. The transformation of forgiveness begins with you decision to act despite the way you feel in order to transform the way you feel.
Are you willing to say it with me? I forgive! Will you say it with me? I forgive! Say it one more time, this time say, “I forgive you!” Say it to the person who’s got you bound up with hate and anger, “I forgive you!” Say it to them! Say, “I’m no better than anyone else!” And say this one, “I forgive myself!” Say it again! “I forgive myself!” And say this, “Thank God for mercy! Thank God for forgiveness. Thank God I am free!” Amen!
Well, I'm really happy to be back here with you all after two Sundays off. Thank you so much for the break and the opportunity to spend some time with my family on vacation. We went down the shore, as we New Jerseyans say, and we were in Wildwood on the beach. We had a wonderful time together. I never realized exactly how much sand could get caught in the cracks and crevices of a one-year-old after just about five minutes on the beach, but as soon as I accepted the fact that sand and grit was our new reality, everything went just fine.
Bonnie asked me, well, hey, where do you want to go on our vacation? And I said, anywhere where we don't have to fly will be fine with me. I've never loved flying. I don't mind being way up in the air. That's not the problem. I just don't like all of the little procedures that you have to go through to get on the plane and waiting in line constantly and, you know, the near constant snafus of cancellations and delays and the tiny little seats. I never liked any of that. But over the last few years, since the pandemic, really, something has shifted in flying. And now I'd say that the worst part about flying is other people, right? Your social media feed and your news feed, they're probably full of the same kinds of news articles and viral videos that mine are full of—showing lots of people behaving really badly on planes. The old saying goes that misery loves company, but the airlines should maybe rewrite that line: Company is misery.
I was listening to a podcast recently, and this eminent primatologist and evolutionary anthropologist made me think about this a little bit differently. He said that one of the remarkable things about human beings, when you cram a couple hundred strangers into a flying sardine can, one of the amazing things about human beings is that any of us emerges alive at the end of that flight at all. Because if you did something like that with our closest genetic relatives, chimpanzees say, they would just eat each other's faces off. It would be total pandemonium. No one would survive.
Now of course, you know, we often worry and we grieve about our tendency towards violence as a species. And that's as it should be. No violence is really acceptable or good at any level. But according to this scientist, we're angels compared to our closest animal relatives because part of being human is suppressing a deep-seated instinct for conflict and for violence. And that's fine if you're on a plane. It's good if you're on a plane. It is what allows you to survive that flight and reach your destination alive and then just—walk away. Just walk away. You never have to see those people again. You don't need to be a part of their lives. Just walk away.
But Jesus is very clear with us. And we read it in our scripture reading this morning. That kind of total suppression is a necessary evil in certain situations, but it is not ever a spiritual virtue. And it is not the way, not the way that we should behave in a healthy community. Now what Jesus is telling us this morning and what he tells us throughout the Gospel of Matthew is that when it comes to your spiritual journey, when it comes to being a Christian, you can't go it alone. We need each other. Community, being together, loving and serving one another, working together, showing grace, receiving forgiveness—This is how we Christians transform the world together. Christianity is about serving and loving others. You can't do that alone. It requires others. Christianity is about forgiving and being forgiven. You can't do that alone.
Christianity is like dancing, okay? You can dance by yourself, sure, you can. But there's something just magical about stepping out onto a dance floor with other people. And I'm sure you've felt it, moving with them, responding to them, allowing them to carry you along, to challenge you, to do that move, to bust out that move that you haven't busted out in a long time. It's possible to dance in your room by yourself. But if you're going to dance all night long, if you're going to dance until your feet hurt, if you're going to dance until your cheeks ache because you've been smiling for so long, that is a magic, a grace, a dance that only other people can provide to you. Christianity is like dancing. We need partners. We need a party. And Christianity is like dancing because once you get out there on the dance floor, somebody almost certainly is going to step on your toes. It is inevitable. And what do you do then? Oh boy.
When somebody hurts you in community, (you know, in church, but it could also be at home, in your family, among your friends, in school, at work), you could hurt them right back, right? You stepped on my toe, I stomp on your toe. A toe for a toe, to paraphrase the Bible. Chimp justice. Jesus taught us not to do this. It's not the way. However, for most of us, it's not really a temptation, right? It's not how we do things. We have other ways of handling this kind of thing.
One of those other ways is to pretend like it didn't really happen, pretend like it didn't bother me, and then sometimes without even realizing what we're doing, we seek out revenge. We're not going to stomp on their foot. That would be too obvious. But we start secretly plotting their downfall. How can we get them? How can we expose them as the dirty foot stomper that they are? What is something they want? What's something that they love, that we can oppose or ruin without anyone ever being the wiser that we're actually acting out of malice, acting from this small and wounded place within us, acting out of a conflict that we just haven't dealt with yet?
Now, just below that is another way that we can deal with things. We can complain to everybody else. I'm not going to say anything to the guy who stepped on my toe. That might be awkward. But within an hour, everybody at the dance is going to know that he stepped on my foot and know that I think that he did it on purpose, and he didn't even say that he was sorry. And by the end of the night, he might be the only person left in the room who does not know that he stepped on my toe. How's that for dealing with conflict?
Now just below that is old reliable, the cold shoulder. I'm not going to do anything at all. I'm too mature for that, except I'm never going to dance with you again. I'm never going to dance near you again. But if you really tick me off, maybe I'll just never dance again. That'll show you. Or I'll go find somewhere else to dance all together. I've got options. There are options out there. So why be the bigger person? Why? When you can just walk away, and it's so much cleaner and easier, right?
Now just below that is the level that I think that most of us aspire to, or we think we're supposed to aspire to. And that is, just forgive and forget. It's no big deal. That's life. It was only a small fracture. It was just my pinky toe. The ER bill was mostly covered by my insurance. I only had to wear that boot for like two months. It only hurts a little bit now. Only sometimes. You know, some people don't even have feet at all. If you think about it, I'm very lucky. I should be thankful somebody stepped on my foot. I have no right to complain. I'll just let it go.
And this is actually the caricature of the Christian ethic of forgiveness—that forgiveness is just this weak and wimpy thing, that it's all about rolling over and letting yourself be abused and not seeking any kind of reconciliation or justice whatsoever. And to be very fair about it, this has been the way that forgiveness has actually been preached by some Christians in some places and at some times and still to this day. You know, for example, male clergy advising women in abusive relationships to remain in their marriages. Or state churches preaching to the poor that they must accept their lot in life, their place in the world that God has foreordained for them. Or white clergy preaching tolerance and forgiveness to black people for “historic wrongs,” right? But Jesus tells us unequivocally that this just forgive and forget, let bygones be bygones, get over it, approach to forgiveness is not the Christian way. It is not. Because, and we know this from our own lives, we know this from our own lives, it just doesn't actually work. Instead, Jesus teaches us against every instinct that we have, to directly, personally, and publicly deal with sin and conflict in our community. Now my guess is that most of us have never really done anything like what Jesus is telling us to do here. And even if you have, you probably don't do it often. You certainly don't do it every single time because wow, what Jesus is asking us to do is really hard work.
So just imagine with me for a second. You know, speaking of bad behavior on an airplane. Imagine you're sitting in your pew one Sunday. When out of the corner of your eye, you notice that someone sitting right behind you has taken off their shoes and put their stinky feet up on the back of the pew right next to your head where you're sitting. I think we can all agree, way out of bounds. Don't do it on an airplane, don't do it at church. So step one—let me get this straight—I need to go to Stinky Foot and confront him directly. Now hold on. Stinky Foot should be apologizing to me, shouldn't he? Why do I have to go to him? That's not fair, that's not fair. And you're right, that's not fair. And as much as Jesus cares about fairness, and Jesus does care about fairness, he cares more about community. Fairness is good, fairness is necessary, but fairness will never be a party. It takes community to dance. It takes community to dance. And so what we want is a community where we can dance together, party together, be together. And that sometimes requires a little bit of a sacrifice of a little bit of fairness. And so Jesus does as he often does. He assumes that the aggrieved party is wiser, stronger, and smarter, and he says, you the aggrieved, it is your job to deal with this—personally, one-on-one, you’ve got to deal with them. Before you complain to anybody else, you’ve got to deal with it. Now this is of course, with the caveat that the sin here wasn't a criminal act. This person isn't dangerous to you. It is safe—it's uncomfortable, but it's safe to do. You go and deal with them one-on-one.
And what if they don't listen? After all that, after you put yourself out there like that, what if they don't listen to you? What if they don't give you that reassuring, oh, I'm so sorry, I can't believe I did that, I didn't think of it that way, please forgive me. Well then, can you write them off? No, says Jesus, not even then. No, no, no, no, no, no. You’ve got to go get some friends, and then you’ve got to go and talk. Now can you imagine the Saturday after the Sunday of the foot incident? You're standing on Stinky Foot's front porch and ringing the bell with two or three friends, knocking on the door. Can you imagine the kind of conflict that that could cause? That could embarrass him. He could get really angry. He might stop coming to church. He might stop paying his pledge. I bet he wouldn't answer the door at all, right? But Jesus said it's worth it, because we can't have that kind of behavior at the party, and we've got to deal with it somehow, right? And you know, if church is a dance, and if Christianity is a dance, you know, sometimes you might be a good dancer on your own, you know, but then you start dancing in community, and you realize when you're dancing out on the dance floor with a lot of other people, there's certain things that you can't do that you can do when you're alone, right? And sometimes it might take a couple other people to come over to the house and say, hey, we're going to give you a little dancing lesson. We're going to teach you a few moves. We're going to show you how it goes.
But what if he doesn't open the door? What if he doesn't listen? Well, this is where Jesus's advice just goes way over the top. This has got to be hyperbole. This is just too much. He tells us then, you’ve got to get the whole church involved, right? It seems like that could cause all kinds of conflict, could split the church, people could take sides. It seems like it's just too much, it's too strict, it's too mean, but I don't think that that's the way that Jesus means it to be. Because I think Christianity is like a dance party, and the best way to learn how to dance is for the whole church to turn the music up and just start showing people how to move, and showing people how not to move, and showing how we move around one another, and show one another grace, and showing that when you step on somebody's foot, you turn and you say, oh, I'm so sorry. And the best way you can teach that to somebody is by bringing them back on the dance floor as one big church and trying to show them what to do.
You know, this thing that we do, this thing called church, this community, this dance party, this is how we make Jesus Christ come alive for people. It's how we make Christianity come alive for people, and the only way we can do that is if we are 100% engaged with one another to show one another that kind of grace. You can't do that if you're secretly plotting somebody's demise. You can't do that if you're gossiping about how awful they are. You can't do that if every time they come near, you turn away and you shut your heart down. You cannot do it if you just say, well, my feelings don't matter. Nothing's really important. I'll just let these people walk all over me. Because if they're walking all over you, they're going to walk all over somebody else as well, and the dance party can't survive that. So what it takes is all of us together dancing, and it's a dance when everything is going well and everything is beautiful and everything is fun and fine, and it's a dance when somebody gets their foot stepped on, and then we all show one another how to deal with that, how to dance around it, how to make it work again, how to get back into the rhythm.
Beloved, we need one another. As Christians, as human beings, we need to be in community with one another. It is the most important part of our faith, Jesus tells us, the place where everything comes together. You can be in a relationship with God, but in some significant way, you can't be a Christian unless you're together, working together, loving together, and healing one another. So my prayer for all of us this Celebration Sunday is that we dance with one another, and we dance and we dance and we dance, and we love one another, because when we dance together and when we don't run away from the party when our toes get stepped on, when we don't avoid conflict, when we don't allow people to come into the dance party swinging their elbows around and hitting us in the face, that is the way that we heal the world.
Last week we heard the story of the inciting incident of Joseph’s life: Joseph, a young, favored dreamer, is resented by his older brothers, who attack him and sell him into slavery in Egypt. This week, obviously, the lectionary has skipped ahead to the final resolution of that day. Here we are, years later, and Joseph is Pharoah’s governor, one of the most powerful men in the world. Using his dream powers, he’s saved Egypt from a great famine. His family is also suffering this famine in Canaan, and they run out of food. So, Joseph’s father sends the same ten older brothers who attacked Joseph to Egypt to seek aid for their family.
Our scripture reading this morning is “the big reveal.” Joseph has decided to reveal himself to his brothers and to offer them forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s a beautiful scene. And, of course, the lectionary has a limited number of Sundays to tell the story, and the editors wanted to “get to the good part.” And what’s the good part for a good, obedient Christian? Well, it’s the part where forgiveness is practiced, right?
But I think the lectionary actually skips over the really good part. The lectionary assumes, from a Christian perspective, that forgiveness is the most important part of the story, and its natural conclusion. As if someone had commanded Joseph—or even advised him—to forgive his brothers, as Jesus has commanded us to forgive. But no one ever did that for Joseph. In fact, read the entire book of Genesis. There is not one single word in there about anyone forgiving anyone else under any circumstances. There’s one story about God considering forgiving some people, but then he destroys their city anyway. Forgiveness is not a virtue—it’s barely a concept—in the book of Genesis. Joseph has never heard the sermon on the Sermon on the Mount. Joseph has never read the Bible. He’s never even been to synagogue. None of that exists yet. And so how does Joseph come to this moment of forgiveness?
The real story here is what comes in the chapters between the arrival of Joseph’s brothers in Egypt and this moment when Joseph finally reveals himself. The time between the brothers’ arrival in Egypt and our reading this morning could have been up to two years long. It was at least many months long. And Joseph goes kind of crazy.
When his brothers first show up in Egypt, Joseph recognizes them, he knows exactly who they are. But he accuses them of being spies. He knows they’re not. But he’s in a sort of shock. He doesn’t know what to do. He throws them into prison. Then he decides to release them back home with food, but he’ll keep one of them hostage. And he’ll only release the hostage brother if the other brothers return with his little brother, Benjamin. But how does he even tell them he wants Benjamin without revealing himself? It’s a convoluted mess! How is this going to work? What’s he up to exactly? Is this revenge? Is this reconciliation? All that’s clear is that Joseph is in crisis.
Now, not knowing that Joseph can understand them (he’s been using an interpreter to speak to them), the brothers speak right in front of Joseph about how all this is happening to them because of what they did to Joseph, and he has to leave the room to weep. A wonderful image, captured on the bulletin cover this morning, of Joseph in the heart of great personal struggle.
So, after they pay for their grain, Joseph sneaks the money back into his brothers’ grain sacks, which seems like a kindness, but is actually a curse because now his brothers fear the Egyptians are going to think they’re thieves. His brothers return some months later after much conflict at home, with Benjamin, and there’s a whole another round of tricks. The brothers think they’ll be in trouble for the money, instead they’re given a feast by Joseph. All this time still not knowing it’s him. And Joseph again has to get up from the table to leave and weep.
Now another trick: This time, Joseph puts his silver chalice in Benjamin’s sack and sends his guards after the brothers who drag the brothers back to Joseph as thieves trembling and afraid. Joseph tells them he’s going to have to keep Benjamin with him as a prisoner. But one of his brothers begs he be taken instead for the sake of their father who loves Benjamin most of all. And it is only at this point that Joseph can’t take it any longer and he reveals himself to his brothers.
It’s becoming clearer now what’s been going on here. His brothers’ arrival has put Joseph into a moral crisis. What’s he supposed to do? He could kill them all and nobody would bat an eye. You know, revenge. Or better yet—justice! Why not? Joseph wouldn’t be murdering them, he’d be executing them, as is his right as governor. Or an eye for eye—just make them all his slaves. But how would that affect his father; how would it affect his younger brother?
Joseph is a dreamer and surely his father told him about his own dream when God came to him and made him a promise about his family becoming a great nation. And what about Joseph’s own dreams? He dreamed twice of his family bowing down before him. Those two dreams affected him so much, he told them to his family, searching for an answer to them. They touched something deep inside of him. Those dreams were maligned and misinterpreted by his brothers as being nothing more than a desire for power and domination over them. But Joseph never felt that way—the dreams touched something deep within him—a desire to be more than he could even understand at that time.
Do you see that this is the real story? This is Joseph’s great moral struggle. Not to forgive or punish. Not justice or reconciliation. That’s all there, but that’s not the heart of the matter. Joseph is asking himself over the course of these months of crisis: Will I stick to the call of my dreams to allow my life to be bigger than me—bigger than I have ever yet imagined it to be? Or will I succumb to the petty cruelty of my brothers’ way of seeing the world? Will I exact my revenge and thereby fulfill their interpretation of my dreams, and doom myself to being nothing more than a rich and powerful man?
As Christians, we’ve been taught that we’re supposed to forgive. We don’t think it’s easy. We know it’s hard. But we think that it’s supposed to be easy. Like what we should all be striving for is to be such a saintly person that forgiveness is just no problem anymore. You just do it because it’s required. And so knowing that we’re not saints, we think that forgiveness and other great spiritual works are beyond us and we don’t try or we go through the motions, but we don’t really get all the way there.
But when we think like this and act like this, we miss the whole point. The whole point is that forgiveness is hard. Forgiveness is so hard that to even contemplate it puts us—just like Joseph—into moral crisis. To get out of the moral crisis we have two choices: Give up or struggle forward. When we choose to struggle, to suffer this great moral crisis and not to run away, that is where the magic happens—that is where we discover that our lives can be bigger than us, bigger than we ever imagined. That is where God’s dreams for us can come true.
In the struggle about what to do about his brothers, as Joseph kind of goes crazy and is doing all these weird and contradictory things, Joseph’s life is lifted up. Do you see that? The struggle is so hard that Joseph begins to realize that the meaning and purpose of his life is bigger than him, bigger than his goals, his desires, his justice. It is dreams which must define him—dreams which have always belonged to God.
When Joseph realizes his best possible life is bigger than him, that’s when he can forgive. But he can only realize that inside of a great moral crisis and by struggling through it to discover a resolution which is beyond him. Joseph puts it into words like this, “It was not you who sent me here but God.” One of the most powerful lines in the Bible if—IF—you understand the struggle that got him there. If you think, “That’s just what we’re required to say—that everything is a part of God’s plan,” it falls terribly flat. You get mad at God for that. You did this to me? You start thinking what kind of a rotten God does something like that to a person? Because you’re not experiencing what Joseph is experiencing. In that moment, Joseph has stepped beyond himself and his own life. He is bigger now than he ever thought possible. This is not passive obedience to some difficult or distasteful article of faith. This is struggling with everything you have to resolve an impossible crisis and to discover in that great work that God has provided us with the dream and that grace to succeed in ways that will change everything.
Beloved, Joseph's story shows us that the path of forgiveness and reconciliation is not easy or straightforward. Don’t forgive simply to follow some rule. In fact, when you encounter any great difficulty in life or in faith, don’t seek the easy way out. Take the winding road filled with moral struggle and crisis. When we open our hearts to God's great purpose in our lives, we will find the strength to travel that road. We are bigger than our wounds. Our lives are part of a greater story.
May we have the courage of Joseph to step into the struggle. May we have the strength to stick with this agonizing inner work. May we have the faith to see that our lives are more than we imagine. God has a dream for us.
Joseph is young. Joseph is favored by his father (Jacob now also known as Israel). He wears outlandish clothes for a shepherd. But worst of all, Joseph is a dreamer. And this is the crime that his brothers can’t forgive him for. And so they decide together to squash the dreamer.
Why? Why’d they do it? Now, the story seems to offer us a lot of little reasons, right? Joseph is different, he’s daddy’s favorite, our mom didn’t like his mom, he’s a tattletale… but ultimately it all comes down to his dreams. “Here comes this dreamer,” they say to one another. “Come now, let us kill him…and we shall see what becomes of his dreams.” It’s the dream, as much as the dreamer that threatens them. Squash the dreamer, they think, and you can squash the dream.
In our world today, we might say, “It was just a dream,” right? A dream is just the accidental experience of your brain processing the previous day’s data, we might say. That’s one really good way to squash the dream, typically modern—basically, dreams don’t even exist, stupid.
But that option isn’t available to Joseph’s brothers. They know the power of dreams, but they don’t trust that power. Because they can’t control it, they don’t have it, and they fear the power of the person who does. Our translation this morning reads, “Here comes this dreamer…” but another way to translate it is, “Here comes the master of dreams.” Squash the dreamer, and maybe you can squash the very power of dreams. And once you’ve exiled that visionary, forward-looking power out of your life, then (hopefully) you’re back in control of things. But Joseph’s story tells us that the exact opposite is true.
To the brothers, it seems like Joseph thinks he special, and he’s dreaming of his own greatness, at their expense. They think that Joseph wants to dominate them. In fact, (because most of us know the story of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat) we know that Joseph’s dream is actually calling him to spare his brothers, to forgive and serve them, and to save his family after he becomes Pharoah’s highest-ranking commander and his brothers come to Egypt in search of food during a devastating famine.
But none of them, not even Joseph, understand the dream yet. They’ve got a vision, but they don’t have the message yet. So often, we want the message first. We want the business plan, first. And then from that sober message, we can draw out a vision, a dream, to add a little pop to our presentation. But that’s not how it works. The dream comes to us from we don’t know where. We’re not in control of it. It’s bigger than us. It comes from God. Maybe we hear the dream from that weird guy in the weird robe who doesn’t act like everybody else. And so his brothers conspire to squash the dreamer.
At first, they want to kill Joseph. But they can’t quite do it. That’s a truth about dreams. You can kill a dreamer, but you can’t kill the dream. The dream is way bigger than the dreamer. So, they imprison him and then they exile Joseph into slavery to Egypt. But again, we know it doesn’t work. And that’s another truth about dreams. A dream can’t be “cast out.” A dream can only be “brought forth.” Jesus, in the Gospel of Thomas, famously says, “If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you don’t bring forth what is in you, it will destroy you.”
Joseph is his family’s vision. He is the visionary of the Israelites. In fact, in the Quran, when Joseph’s brothers tell their father that Joseph is dead, he weeps so hard that he goes blind. And I think we could also think of Joseph as a symbol of the vision of the Church.
Do we have a dream? Do we have a vision of the future that we’re bringing forth? If the answer is maybe, kind of, not really, not sure, or if the answer is a backwards looking answer, rather a forward-looking answer—a vision for the future, then the story of Joseph and his brothers has some strong warnings for us.
The Israelites’ dreamer—their visionary, their artist, their imaginal connection to God’s plan, Joseph—becomes the enslaved dream interpreter of a foreign power. Joseph doesn’t dream in Egypt, he interprets the dreams of Pharoah. And rather than being the visionary leader of his family, Joseph becomes an administrator for the vision of Egypt. The power of the dream is always going to land somewhere. The Church can lead with vision, or all the other great powers of the world will pick off our young visionaries and make them administrators of their dreams.
This also happens to us as individuals. You can follow your dreams, or you can work for the dreams of others. For most of us this is a compromise in life, but no matter what we do to pay the bills, we should hold on to our own vision for ourselves.
So my question for you this morning, beloved, is, Do you have a dream? Is our church a landing place for God’s vision for the future? Or are we a place that squashers the dreamers?
I think we have a dream here. And we’re in the beginning phases of articulating it. And we’re maybe a little shy, we’re a little worried about rocking the boat too much, sticking our necks out too far. And we worry about wrapping everything up with a pretty bow, we worry about making a case that’s unsinkable. And that’s wise, of course. But it’s also wise to remember that before the interpretation comes the dream. All of us need to make space within ourselves and space for others to have an imperfect, not yet fully understood, kinda weird dream. That’s the way forward, I think. Start with a dream and don’t rush to a perfect plan. Follow the dream. It is bigger than you. It is bigger than our plans.
Speaking of supporting the young dreamers of the church. I’m really happy that later this afternoon, we’re holding a final interview for the position of Youth Ministry Coordinator. The YMC will be coordinating jr. high and sr. high youth group activities for five local churches. How’s that going to work? I honestly don’t know all the details. But we’ve got five churches and a wonderful candidate for the job who are simply willing to follow the dream of having programming for our young people. I have no idea what we’ll have a year from now. But we and four other churches are going to follow the dream into the future. Of course, we’ll all fondly remember the youth groups of the past. And I’m sure many of you have all kinds of stories and advice to share. And we need that as we follow this dream to wherever it leads, and as we do everything we can to support the dreams and the faith formation of our young people.
Why couldn’t Joseph’s brothers support his dream, follow it to whatever conclusion it was going to come to naturally without trying to kill it? Ultimately, they fell into a trap that we often fall into too, which is to believe that the dream serves the dreamer. It’s so strange that we think that because dreams are often a real pain for the dreamer. They were for Joseph. They were for MLK. They were for Gandhi. They were for Philip K. Dick, and for Jesus, and for so many other dreamers and visionaries, who suffer greatly for having and sharing dreams. In fact, the true dream rarely serves the dreamer. Instead, it serves the community. It’s a calling—a calling not just to the future but to the service of others in that future.
So may we be a community that makes space for dreams. May we be willing to follow dreams even when we don't fully understand where they’ll lead us. May we nurture the young dreamers among us, knowing that their visions are gifts for all of us. The future belongs to the dreamers. Our job is to listen, to make room, and to walk faithfully with them. The dreamers show us the way forward. They connect us to God's vision. Beloved, don’t let anyone take that away from you—from us. The dream is so much bigger than we can see.
The story of Jacob wrestling with someone—we’ll talk more about who he’s wrestling with in a bit—it’s one of the most iconic stories in all of scripture. There are lots of strange things that go on in the Bible. Sometimes we find ourselves scratching our heads, other times we just shrug our shoulders and move on, but every once in a while you get a story like this—a story where even if it were the only story in the whole Bible that had survived to this day, it would be every bit as mysterious and powerful. It would still captivate our imaginations. This morning I’ll talk a little bit about why this story works on us the way it does.
It all starts with this incongruous line: “Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” If we were in grammar school and we turned in a sentence like that, our teacher would send it back to us probably with a big red circled question mark on it. And yet, even though we know that there’s something wrong with the sentence, there is another part of us—a quieter part, a feeling part—that tells us that this apparently bad sentence is really a doorway into a sacred encounter. If you can accept this sentence, you will see something holy. If you can’t accept this sentence, then maybe this passage is closed to you.
At least for now. Because, of course, you can’t both be alone and be wrestling with someone all night long. You can’t. You can’t, that is, until it happens to you. And once it happens to you—once you’ve passed through the long, dark night of your soul—you’ll never forget it, and this passage will come alive. But it requires three things. First, and quite easy to come by, it requires turmoil. Second, and more difficult, it requires solitude. And third, and this one is the toughest of all, it requires a willingness to allow the loving Father God we worship and adore to be more than just light and love—to be a God whose blessing can come running out of the dark night and tackle you to the ground.
Let’s start with turmoil. Jesus taught us that “the first will be last, and the last will be first.” Jesus asks us to reject the worldly desire to always be the best and have the most. Instead, Jesus asks us to follow the more meaningful way of the Kingdom of Heaven in which values look very different and the order of the world is turned on its head. But Jacob didn’t know Jesus.
Jacob lived in a world not so different from the world we live in, where the people on the bottom of the pile had to fight their way to the top by any means necessary. So, as a second son, Jacob had to become a calculating opportunist and a devious liar to steal his older brother Esau’s birthright and to steal his father’s final blessing away from his brother. He believes that he’s willing and able to handle the consequences of his choices. No problem, he says, I’ll just get out of town. So, Jacob runs away from his mess for a long time.
Now he’s headed back home with all the riches and the spoils of the driven, self-made, dominating man he’s worked so hard to become—gold, livestock, slaves, wives, concubines, and children. But the only way to get back home is to first pass through Esau’s lands. Now, this isn’t just a geographic issue, it’s a spiritual and psychological one. Once you’ve conquered the world, and you weary of all your exploits, and you want to go home to actually enjoy your life, you’ve got turn around and walk back the path you forged. If it’s a path of peace, you’ll have an easier journey. If it’s a war path you left behind you, you might not be able to overcome your own past. It’s like karma. Whatever you have to face, you have to face it. There’s no other way home.
Jacob uses all the tools at his disposal to try to avoid this conflict with Esau—money and charm. He sends all sorts of gifts ahead of him to try to placate his brother. But he feels deep within himself that something is wrong. He fears for his life, he fears for the lives of his family. All these years, to get ahead, he’s relied on deception and distance and hard work. But he’s coming to a reckoning that he can’t smooth talk his way out of, a conflict he can’t sidestep. This moment is going to happen. It was always going to happen. And Jacob begins to realize that it’s not just Esau that he needs to reconcile with—it’s himself. The 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous recognize this reality. According to the steps, we must first make a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves” (step 4) before we can make amends to the people we have harmed (step 8). Jacob was hoping to skip a step, but he’s realizing that’s impossible.
And so Jacob sends everyone on ahead of him, so that he’s alone. There are some people who really don’t like to be alone. Jacob has two wives, two concubines, 11 children, and lots of slaves. Maybe he didn’t like to be alone. Many people who don’t want to be alone are afraid (at least subconsciously) of this very scenario—that once they are alone, they’ll realize that they’re not really alone at all. And the one who confronts them may be angry at having been ignored for so long.
A good trickster can deceive the people around him. And while he’s fooling others, he can even outwardly fool himself. But in true solitude, you can’t fool yourself, you can’t deceive yourself. You see yourself as you are, and you have to deal with yourself. This is why solitude can feel so intimidating. It’s also why it should be a regular part of everyone’s spiritual life. Ideally, you spend a little bit of time with yourself every day. Sitting on the train listening to a podcast doesn’t really count. You really nee to be alone and undistracted. Formulaic prayer or silent meditation are a great way to start.
Now that we’re alone, the real mystery can begin: “Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” Who is this man? Jacob asks for his name, but doesn’t get an answer. You’ve already heard in everything that I’ve said so far a very modern, “psychologized” take on this story—Jacob is wrestling with himself. That answers the riddle of how he can be alone and wrestling with someone at the same time. You probably didn’t need me to even spell that out for you. This is just the way we think now as moderns. Now, that’s always been a dimension of the story. But to everyone who came before us, that dimension was best understood by saying that Jacob was wrestling with something GREATER than himself—an angel according to most Jewish interpretation, God according to most Christian interpretation. And this is, in fact, one of the reasons that the story so powerfully captures our modern imaginations—because it confronts us with this lost truth—that when you struggle with yourself, you are actually struggling with God. Or at the very least, who you are becoming in your life is greater than the sum total of who you are now, and can only be accomplished by some form of grace or blessing which is beyond you. You can wrestle with yourself. But in the end, if you prevail, if you are blessed and renamed and transformed into something more, that is not something you won for yourself, that is not something that you did, that is utterly beyond you—that was some greater power than you. That was God.
In the end, Jacob's wrestling match illustrates our own struggles to reconcile with ourselves and with God. Though we may try to avoid it, there comes a point in life where we must face the turmoil we have made. In solitude, we’re confronted with the truth of who we are, imperfections and all. And if we persist through that long night, we will find ourselves blessed and transformed by an encounter with the holy which is within us, but which is greater than us. Like Jacob, though we wrestle with ourselves, we do not wrestle alone. The Divine presence that dwells within us and redeems us, is the true source of our struggle and our victory. May we always have the courage to face the truth of our turmoil, to let God tackle us, and to emerge transformed.
There are all kinds of different families, but one thing most families have in common is that they are a place of promise. For many of us family is all about relationships. It’s about love. It’s holidays and special events together. It’s friendship, support, stability: the people you can count on. It’s the next generation—kids. It’s also grandparents, and great-grandparents, patriarchs and matriarchs—heritage. These are the aspirations, the promise of family, and we do our best to invest in this promise and we trust that we can rely on this promise in our time of need.
Jacob has a great aspiration for his family. As we heard last week, God visited Jacob in a dream and told him that his offspring would become as numerous as the dust of the earth and they would inherit a promised land. Jacob had been chosen—his family had been chosen—for a great promise. But, boy, what an inauspicious and traumatic way for that promised family to begin.
On the day that should have been a milestone in the keeping of that promise, on a day that should have been a day of celebration after years of hard work and devotion—Jacob and Rachel’s wedding day—there is a trick (the old switcheroo) which is really more than a trick, isn’t it? It’s an betrayal, an assault, a heartbreaking trauma. I mean really—put yourself in Jacob’s shoes, into Rachel’s, into Leah’s. A day of love and promise is transformed through alcohol and sex and deceit into a day of lasting trauma for this budding young family.
And that’s the dark side of the promise, the dark side of family. I’m not being overdramatic. Almost every family—yours and mine—has its secrets, its betrayals, its lies, its conflicts, estrangements, abuse, addictions—broken promises—trauma. This story this morning is a particularly salacious example, but even boring families while they are working to pass on the promise to the next generation, somehow also manage to pass on the trauma.
I spent Friday and Saturday with my extended family up in Rhode Island. It was a family reunion of sorts. We were in from Mexico, California, New York, and New Jersey. The event that brought us all together this weekend is that tomorrow morning my aunt and uncle’s house—their home of more than four decades, the childhood home of my two cousins—is going on the market. My aunt and uncle both recently died within a year of one another, which came as a shock to us all. And so it’s time to clean out the house and say goodbye and spend some time together as a family.
The clean-out resulted in the kitchen table of my dad’s house being covered in old photos and memorabilia. And to sort through it all we needed to pull out all of the photos and memorabilia from my mom’s side of the family which we organized after she died. So, there are photos and documents and letters and childhood drawings and baby shoes in piles on the table going back for more than a century. And Romey and Felix (my two boys) are running around the table trying to grab things off it with their grubby little hands because they know that there’s a treasure up there that they can’t quite understand yet—a record of their family: a triumph of promise.
A few highlights:
A newspaper article from a Boston paper titled “Wedded on Shipboard after 3,000-Mile Trip” telling the story of my great-grandparents’ immigration and wedding.
A love letter from my grandfather to my grandmother that he wrote to her from the Pacific on a Thanksgiving Day near the end of WWII. His perfect penmanship on unlined paper that doesn’t give out for the entire six pages. He tells her he didn’t get any turkey in the mess that day, but then he goes into a story about spending the day on the beach. He’d never seen bigger waves than on that day. And he describes with the eye and the pen of a poet the beauty of the water, of the coral, of the warships sailing past, of watching his friends get pounded by the surf while he sits on the rocks wearing all their wristwatches. He tells her he has so much to be thankful for. He’s thankful the war is over, and he’ll be coming home soon. He’s thankful he survived it. And his brother survived it. He’s thankful that a girl like her loves him, and he’s thankful for the baby she’s carrying after his visit home on leave, and he’s thankful for the family they’ll be once he’s back home with her.
And, of course, all the baby pictures. We have baby pictures going back four generations. And it’s wild to look at a baby picture more than a century old and to see a resemblance to the baby sitting on your lap trying to put that priceless old photo in his mouth.
But these triumphs of our family aren’t the whole story, are they? No, of course not. I have the best family. The best family! I really do. I’m very lucky. But even my blessed and healthy family has its trauma. And that story is laid out on the table as well.
My great grandparents who got married onboard that ship? Well, there are stories and pictures of my great-grandmother all over the table but about the only one of my great grandfather is that photo from the Boston paper. We think he was bipolar. And in the days before any kind of medicine was available, he was locked away in an institution where he died. And the shame and the poverty and the loneliness and pain my grandmother and her brothers and sisters experienced were a trauma that continues to influence our family in subtle ways.
And that love letter from my poetic grandfather to my grandmother? In photos of him as a young family man, he always looks like the king of the world. He wears his hat rakishly, he cocks his head, he loves his pipe. But in the pictures of my grandfather in my childhood (as I knew him) there is a vacant look in his eye. He died very young from Alzheimer’s—a trauma which has literally been passed down through generations in my family. We lost my aunt exactly the same way we lost her father. We see it in great uncles and aunts, and in cousins and second cousins too. And as we sit around the table, we know it will probably go that way for some of us. It may go that way for our kids. It may go that way for theirs. A genetic trauma, literally passed down from generation to generation.
And those baby pictures? My cousin Mike has hundreds of pictures in the pile. So does my cousin Pam. So do I. So does my sister, Christina. But there’s not one baby picture of my older brother Josh in this vast pile. Not one. Because my mother got pregnant out of wedlock. The father of her child was black and so her son would be black. She was sent away to a Catholic home for embarrassed young women who were hidden away until they gave birth, and then their children were taken away from them and put into foster homes and Catholic orphanages and hopefully adopted. It was a lifechanging, even life-defining pain and trauma for my mom and for my brother. And it was a secret so big that it leaked toxically into my relationship and my sister’s relationship with my mom before we ever even knew about Josh.
And, of course, there’s more in that pile of memories than this. More triumph. And more trauma. And that, I think, is every family. Even God’s chosen family experiences trauma and brokenness. Jacob tricks his older brother out of his birthright and his blessing. Then Jacob gets tricked by getting an older sister when he thought he was getting the younger sister. This creates not just a love triangle, but the dreaded love pentagon because there are also two handmaid slaves who Jacob is sleeping with and having children with. Unsurprisingly, the 12 sons from this pentagonal family will not all get along. And the older brothers will plot to kill one of the youngest brothers. They don’t kill him, but they do sell him into slavery in Egypt. And this act leads the descendants of all 12 brothers to be enslaved in Egypt. You see? Trauma really is generational. It gets passed on. We often think, “I’ll never be like my mom or dad,” and then we realize that we have unintentionally recreated in our lives so many of the traumatic patterns and decisions that we were trying to escape from!
Yet God uses our families, with all their imperfections, to fulfill promises. God can help us redeem our stories of trauma into testimonies of hope. Yes, my great-grandfather died in an asylum. And my sister cofounded an organization that fights against inhumane immigration detention policies, and fights for immigrants who die in detention. My grandfather and many others in my family have been lost way too young to the terrible disease of Alzheimer’s. And one of my cousins studied neurobiology in order to understand and to help treat the disease. And there is not one baby picture of my brother Josh, but there are hundreds of baby pictures of his daughter, Frana, because he and Mom found one another and reunited despite the obstacles.
We can’t erase the pain of past generations, but we can choose to break destructive cycles in our families. Part of the promise of a family is the call to heal one another. May we have faith to embrace the complicated and sometimes deeply traumatic stories of our families. May we have faith to heal and to be healed. If we can do that, then the promise of our families can always be victorious over the trauma of our families. Trauma leaves its mark on every family; God's grace rewrites the story into one of hope and promise.
While Rebekah is pregnant the two babies in her womb are so active, it feels like they’re fighting in there—wrestling, struggling with one another. It’s so bad, she loses hope and she wonders if she can keep going. She prays to God about it, and God has very little comfort for her: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other: the elder shall serve the younger.”
When Rebekah gives birth, it is indeed twins—two sons. The first son emerges all red and hairy, which is certainly unusual. He’s named Esau. The second son is born just after Esau and holding onto his older brother’s heel. This son is named Jacob, which comes from a verb meaning, “to follow at someone’s heel,” but it can also mean “to usurp”: to seize something that isn’t yours, to take over something that doesn’t belong to you. So, right from the very start, we know that these two brothers are fated for an epic, maybe even mythic conflict.
As we read on, Esau seems a bit simple minded while Jacob reminds me of Alexander Hamilton: “I am not throwin’ away my shot!” Esau sells his birthright to his brother for a bowl of lentil stew. Jacob is only too happy to oblige him. Later on, Jacob and Rebekah will trick Isaac into giving his final blessing (intended for Esau) to Jacob instead by covering Jacob in goat skins so that when the blind old Isaac laid his hands on Jacob he would think it was actually his hairy older brother. What’s going on here?
Rabbis and preachers and theologians have been fascinated by Jacob and Esau for thousands of years now. To give you one famous example, Saint Augustine believed that Jacob represented the saved and that Esau represented the damned. Well, from here in July 2023, when last month was the hottest June ever recorded in human history, and when last week was the hottest week ever recorded in human history, and here in the year when the hot topic on everybody’s mind is artificial intelligence and the effects it’s going to have on our future, I’d like to add my own interpretation to the story of Jacob and Esau.
Remember that Genesis is a book of origin mythologies. There’s the creation story from Genesis 1, there’s the creation story of Genesis 2, and then there’s the recreation story of Noah’s Ark. And then there’s the stories of all these original great ancestors: like Abraham and Sarah, like Isaac and Rebekah and Jacob and Esau. These stories of origin told the ancient Israelites (and tell us) where we come from, why things are the way they are, and (potentially) where we’re headed.
I think the story of the conflict between Jacob and Esau is the ancient story of the conflict between humanity and nature, between civilization and wilderness. Esau is born hairy, like a caveman, like an animal. He’s also red. Now, we think of the color of the Earth as being dirt brown, but to the ancient Mesopotamians the color of the Earth was clay red. One of Esau’s other traditional names is Edom, which is basically just a variation of the name Adam, the original human.
Esau is a hunter, a man who lives in the fields, just like all of our ancestors did before the beginning of agriculture. Jacob lives in tents like a civilized person. And he’s described in this translation as “quiet,” which is an interesting choice. It’s more commonly translated “perfect” or “upright.” Today we might describe a person as “polite,” or “civil,” or “well-mannered.” Jacob has evolved into the world of morality and appearances. He knows how to think, he knows how to present himself, his mama raised him right. He is civilized.
Esau lives and dies by what he can hunt. If the game disappears, he doesn’t eat. He comes into Jacob’s tent famished, and Jacob has bread and lentil stew—food that requires a civilization to plant, to grow, to harvest, to grind, to dry, to bake and to cook.
Esau was born first. Hunters and gathers come before farmers and herders and cities. But Jacob is surpassing his older brother. And he’s determined to take his brother’s birthright. He’s determined that human civilization will inherit the Earth and its resources from the natural world. And it’s easy to take that birthright away. Because of course the patriarchal system of primogeniture—where the firstborn son inherits everything—is itself an invention of civilization, and Esau can’t possibly understand its implications.
Famously or infamously, Native Americans sold Manhattan to the Dutch for $24 worth of civilized junk that the Dutch traders didn’t really want anyway—beads and trinkets, as the story goes. This story may be just as mythological as Jacob and Esau’s. And it’s similar in another way as well. It’s the story of “civilized” people trying to blame indigenous or prehistoric people for their own demise due to their inability to value what they have through a “civilized” understanding of things.
For thousands of years now civilization has been at war with the natural world. It’s not hard to understand the animosity civilization felt for the natural world in the beginning. The natural world was harsh and unforgiving. Yes, it provides everything we need to survive, but it can also kill you without any warning. You are not in control of nature. Nature is in control of you. Farming, herding, cities, culture, technology—all of these developments of civilization are an attempt to take over the natural world, to control it, to subdue it and have dominion over it, as Genesis 1 famously puts it.
Before civilization, nature could have destroyed humanity. One scientific study suggests that 70,000 years ago volcanic activity led to a change in climate that reduced the human population to about 40 breeding pairs—an endangered species. But here in 2023, we are now well past—centuries past—the tipping point where nature threatens to destroy us. Instead, it is we who threaten to destroy nature, and if we do, we’re likely to destroy ourselves as well. Climate change is a big one, of course, but it’s not just climate change. It’s over population, wilderness and habitat loss, overfishing, overhunting, overfarming, pollution, forever chemicals and plastics in the water, in the soil, in the air, in our bodies, and yes, still nuclear war.
So, perhaps for the sake of nature, which has been more than subdued by us and has become threatened by us, and for the sake of ourselves, it’s time for us to go back to the story of Jacob and Esau and question the circumstances by which we have stolen the natural world’s birthright. A few thousand years ago this story must have seemed like a scrappy and civilized thing to do. It may have been funny to laugh at dumb ol’ Esau for not having the wits to bake himself a loaf of bread. But from the perspective of 2023, it seems like just another example of human hubris—excessive pride and overconfidence combined with shortsightedness that ultimately leads to a predictable downfall.
As Christians, isn’t stewardship of the earth one of our core values? Isn’t the natural world and even the wilderness one of the places where we can most intimately connect to God and hear God speaking? And isn’t excessive, short-sighted pride that harms ourselves and our neighbors precisely the kind of sin we want most to examine, confess, and cut out of our lives? Isn’t it possible that we would just all be happier and less anxious, if we lived in a civilization that was not at war with nature? Isn’t it possible that we’d all be happier and less anxious, if we lived closer to nature and further from the somewhat bizarre goals of modern civilization—money, and stuff, and constant progress?
And I’ll go one step further. We stole the birthright from the natural world. And for thousands of years, the second son of civilization, had a new and empowering vision of a human future—a human future. We didn’t always know exactly where we were going. We weren’t always progressing by leaps and bounds. But we believed in civilization as the future of humanity. As recently as the mid-twentieth century that vision for humanity’s future was bold, hopeful, and (although always involving change), it was human—not alien to us, not artificial, not empty to us.
But I have a sense that in our culture today we no longer have any real human vision of our own human future. What will it be like to be human 100 years from now? Most of us today really have no idea, no vision of it, no hope for it, no sense that it will even happen at all, or even any sense that we have any control whatsoever over what the world will be like in a century. Right? That’s something relatively new for our civilization. Without a vision for a human future, we have lost the birthright we stole from nature. We stole the birthright in order to ensure a human future. But now we don’t know what a human future even looks like. We don’t know if there even is a human future.
And now with the advent of AI, there’s this new threat to human civilization, again of our own making. At the end of May, a group of industry leaders from OpenAI, Google, Anthropic (all the people making AI) that AI poses a risk of extinction to humanity on the order of pandemics and nuclear weapons. There’s a sense with AI, sort of like the creation of the atom bomb, that civilization itself, apart from humanity, is making its own progress. We’re not in control of it. There’s a sense from those in both projects that if we didn’t do it, someone else would have. It’s like we see the invention of these new technologies as inevitable, as if humans can’t control them. We don’t think we have control over our own futures. And it’s literally coming true. Soon our technologies may actually be making decisions for us and about us that we’re no longer capable of making for ourselves.
It's not Esau who despised the birthright we stole from the natural world. It is we who despise the birthright we invented for ourselves—that we would create a civilization that would ensure a human future. We’ve lost it.
So, maybe it’s time for us to give it back—back to the Earth. If we don’t know where our civilization is leading us, let’s stop following it. And let’s reimagine a human future, not where we turn into a bunch of luddites and go back to hunting and gathering—that’s impossible, but in which we dedicate ourselves to bringing our civilization within the boundaries of the natural world, in which we imagine a future for humanity that is more in touch with the environment than it is with markets and commodities and technologies, in which we’re more connected to nature than we are to the internet or to social media, where we’re more interested in the profound intelligence of the Earth and its ecosystems than we are in the intelligence of our machines. That is a vision of a human future. And we know we need it. And we know where we need to start. But the question is, will we do it? Will you do it?
Will you take up the great work of building an ecological civilization that draws us back to nature, back to ourselves, back to God’s creation, and back to a vision of a human future?
The 24th chapter of Genesis, which we just read selections from, is often referred to as “The Marriage of Isaac and Rebekah.” This chapter is 67 verses long and the actual “marriage” only happens at the very end, in the 67th verse. The other 66 verses tell the story of everything that had to happen before the marriage—before Isaac and Rebekah went into the tent together, joined with one another, loved and comforted one another.
And what has to happen before a one-verse union? 66 verses of hoping, longing, searching, negotiating, consenting, and journeying—always journeying into the unknown. First Abraham had to desire to find a wife for his son, Isaac, from back in the land of his birth. It would have been much easier to simply find a wife for Isaac in the place where they were living. But Abraham longed for something more.
He made his servant swear to him to accomplish his dream. And Abraham’s servant had to make a long and difficult journey with a nearly impossible task—to convince the family of some young woman that they should send her far away to the home of a man who left long ago to marry (sight unseen) this man’s son. It would have perhaps been easier to at least bring Isaac along for the trip to court the young lady, but the servant leaves him at home and instead brings gifts, and his words, and his unwavering loyalty—everything he has—and asks this family to use their imaginations and to take a flying leap of faith—into the unknown.
And, finally, Rebekah herself then had to consent to the journey—but it was much more than that, of course. This incredible journey required more than a simple nod of the head; it required a person who could say YES to the unknown with every fiber of her being without even a delay of a single day, without even a single hour to consider it. She had to already be prepared, to already be filled with hope and faith, with confidence, and with a desire to become more, in order to be ready to answer such a call. Her heart was filled with a longing for love and a trust in God that allowed her to say yes to this journey before she was even asked.
All of this preparation had to happen in the 66 verses before Isaac and Rebekah could finally enjoy one another’s company, before they could join with one another in physical and spiritual union, in marriage, in the tent. Now, perhaps, after all this buildup, perhaps, you found that when we finally get to the actual “marriage” it’s a little anticlimactic. One verse in the tent? That’s all we get? I get it, But, come on, let’s give these kids a little privacy, OK? This isn’t a romance novel. It’s not 50 Shades of Gray, for goodness sakes. It’s the Holy Bible. All kidding aside, it is interesting that after 66 long verses full of the desire and the willingness to embrace the unknown, that when the marriage actually happens, it happens in a tent with the flaps closed and we are the ones who are now asked to use our imaginations, we are the ones left to imagine a beautiful, powerful unknown—a Mystery.
Now I don’t know if the story of the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah is pure history, or pure myth, or a little bit of both, but what I am certain of is that it is written in a way that is meant to spiritually inspire and instruct us. This story leaves us a little unsatisfied. It leaves us wanting to peek inside the tent, to see what’s going on in there that was worth all that trouble.
Because the story is given to us in a way that it is about more than Isaac and Rebekah, it’s about our spiritual longing, our desire to seek God in the unknown, journeying far and wide, preparing ourselves, and saying YES to our lives and our callings with every fiber of our beings, all leading us to a tent of our own—a place or a moment where we connect intimately and soulfully with God, a moment perhaps in which we realize that God is in us and we are in God—the great paradox of human being: that we are majestic, miraculous individuals who can only become complete when we join with the infinity of God; that we are all the universal Breath who can only become fully realized when we know ourselves through the One who breathes each breath.
The irony in all this is that we are a people who understand and live out the first 66 verses, but we do not often allow ourselves the joy of the 67th verse. We do allow ourselves the experience of that union, that holy presence of God.
We’re the kind of church that attracts seekers, right? Now there’s nothing wrong with being a seeker. In fact, our scripture reading this morning makes it very clear—whatever else you are, you must be a seeker, a longer, a journeyer. Many of us are seekers (certainly this is a part of my story) because we have come to feel dissatisfied by the absolute certainty of the dogmas of the faith.
There’s no absolute certainty in our scripture reading this morning. No one breaks out a scroll and says, “Look, it’s written right here, you must go. So, go. It’s a no-brainer.” There’s faith. There’s hope. There’s longing. But no absolute certainty of the nitty-gritty details of how or even if everything is going to work out. In fact, let’s face it, if everyone in this story were absolutely certain, rather than making these big romantic gestures, and taking these enormous risks, it would be a boring story. Because stories of people who are absolutely certain are only edifying to people who are absolutely certain, but people who are absolutely certain don’t need edifying stories, because they’re already absolutely certain. In our realization that there is no absolute certainty to faith we become (like Abraham, like his servant, like Rebekah) seekers.
So, we realize that certainty is less spiritually mature than hope, than longing, than seeking. That’s good. We’re on the right path. But the mistake we often make nowadays is to come to believe that uncertainty is somehow the goal. So, we seek and seek and seek, for 66 verses, and for 66 verses more. We journey and we journey and we journey, and we don’t remember that the goal is the marriage—the tent. Imagine if after all that, after Rebekah finally put on the veil and went out to Isaac that Isaac didn’t take her into the tent and take off the veil. Imagine if they just all got back on their camels and started seeking all over again. Oftentimes that’s us. We miss the 67th verse.
The goal of all our seeking is something REAL. Uncertainty is the path, not the goal. Maybe we never learned of the promise of the Mystery in that tent. Maybe we haven’t realized and understood this paradox: that the capital-M Mystery which must always remain Unknown to the parts of us that desire certainty, can be known through an experience that cannot be explained. It can only be experienced in the tent; it cannot ultimately be seen from the outside. Your journey is a journey to the tent. You must enter it yourself. You must experience it yourself.
This realization—that our escape from certainty is meant to eventually lead us to an experience of the Mystery of God—is a big one. It’s a shift of spiritual consciousness. And for those of us who have spent time (maybe years, maybe decades) uncertain about God, it makes God real again. And one of the most basic Sunday school lessons a child can receive prepares us for the growth: that it is not just we who long for God, it is God, fist and foremost who longs for us. It is not just our longing for God that gets us to the tent. It is the fact that God has prepared that tent for us, and God has sent the servant out on the journey for us because God longs for us first.
So beloved, where do you meet God? Where is your tent? Is it prayer? Is it meditation? Is it worship? Is it down at the beach? Is it in service to others? Is it in studying, reading, exercising, yoga, gardening? Beloved, it could be anywhere, but it's got to be somewhere. You’ve got to be headed somewhere. Maybe you don't know exactly how you're going to get there, but the tent is real because God is real. Yeah. We long to be something more and God longs to be that something more for us. And as we navigate the 66 verses of our lives filled with hope and faith and seeking, let us remember that the ultimate goal is not perpetual uncertainty, but a profound union, a profound experience of the presence of God.
We long to be something more. And God longs to be that for us. As we navigate the 66 verses of our lives, filled with hope, faith, and seeking, let us remember that the ultimate goal is not perpetual uncertainty but a profound union, a profound experience of the presence of God. Let us enter the tent of our own spiritual encounters, where the Mystery unfolds, and where we discover our truest nature, meaning, and purpose.
Abraham is a fascinating figure. He’s portrayed in Genesis as a righteous and faithful man totally committed to his relationship with God. He’s brave and decisive when it comes to battle, but he’s also a compassionate peacemaker who prefers compromise to conflict. He admirably shows compassion to strangers through the hospitality of his table—he is willing to run out of his tent in the heat of the day to welcome in dusty travelers, wash their feet, and feed them. He’s so compassionate he’s willing, in one story, to argue with God to spare the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities God has decided to destroy. And he’s so skilled in his argument that he cools God’s anger and apparently changes God’s mind. He’s a sly trickster, capable of persuading and manipulating great powers through clever reasoning or even by bold and audacious deceptions. There are many ways to admire Abraham, but let’s face it nobody’s nominating this guy for Father of the Year.
And maybe we just want to leave it at that. We don’t want to associate with anyone who would even consider participating in human sacrifice, let alone child sacrifice, let alone the sacrifice of his own child! Fair enough. We also don’t want to associate with a God who would encourage child sacrifice, even as a joke or a trick or a test. “Just kidding, Abraham! You passed the test! You can put the knife down now. Man, you should see your face!” Whaaat?
It’s strange to think that God might prefer an obedient child murderer to a headstrong almost-anything-else. If I was in Abraham’s position, that realization alone would be enough to drive me mad—that the God of love and justice and morality, the God of care and compassion for the least of these, was actually a God so transcendent, so absolutely other, so powerful and so alien to us, that even the most obvious moral truths (like don’t kill your kids) could not be relied upon to satisfy Him. He could ask anything (ANYTHING) of you at any time and you would have to comply. That’s scary. That’s a horror story.
We’ve been taught in the Christian tradition—taught through Jesus really—that God is a loving Father, who can be relied upon to care for us, to give us good things, and to (more or less) make sense. You don’t always get what you ask for, but whatever you do get is going to fall within a range of predictability. So, when we hear someone say, “God told me to kill my family,” we are certain, absolutely certain, that that person is just crazy. We don’t believe it at all. I don’t believe it at all, and neither should you. God wouldn’t ask that of anyone for any reason. But God asked it of Abraham. What?
The easy thing here for us would be to dismiss it. Let’s just skip that part. Bunch of ancient superstition. Another way Christians deal with this is through the sanitizing power of orthodoxy. If I were preaching that sermon to you right now, I would simply tell you that Abraham was the pinnacle of faithfulness, willing to give everything to God, and we should emulate that; and that God was good and merciful by not ultimately requiring Isaac’s sacrifice; and we wouldn’t talk about all the disturbing and weird stuff that we would all feel underneath the surface. We would label all that stuff “doubt” and, again, we would just skip that part.
Because we want to be in control. I believe that when you encounter something holy, like Holy Scripture, you are by definition not in control. God’s in control of Holy. Not me, not you. And when we enter into the Holy space of scripture or anything else God can do whatever God likes—we don’t know what’s going to happen. What don’t know what the message will be. An exclusively “literal” reading of scripture and orthodox interpretations of scripture that hog up all the space within a reading, are ultimately human attempts at controlling the Holy, at controlling God, of setting boundaries beyond which we are refusing to let God go. There are rules here, we say. And they’re our rules. And we expect God to follow them.
But that’s not the way that Abraham sees things. Even though he’s a legendary trickster who has succeeded in arguing with God in the past, ultimately Abraham knows that he is not in control. And Abraham knows that there will arrive moments in every life where nothing is fair, where nothing makes sense, where everything we thought we could rely upon is yanked out from underneath us. There comes a time in every life where we will be called to sacrifice something we do not want to sacrifice. There will come a time in every life where there will be a loss so great that nothing can make sense of it. And when that moment comes, what will do? Whose example will you follow?
This week, Ralph Yarl, the 17-year-old child who, back in April, was shot twice (once in the head) for ringing the doorbell at the wrong home while he was trying to pick up his younger siblings, he made his first public appearance since the shooting on Good Morning America. Watching the interview, I was struck by how much has been taken from young, beautiful, good Ralph Yarl and how none of it, none of it, makes any sense.
Yarl describes the moment his attacker opened the front door to the house and thinking, “This must be the family’s grandpa.” And then he saw the gun and he froze in fear. And he thought, “He’s not going to shoot me. He’d have to shoot through the glass door.” He’s not going to shoot me. It wouldn’t make any sense. And then he shot him. Twice. Once in the arm and once in the head. And it changed Ralph Yarl’s life forever.
His mother said that her son took the SAT in the 8th grade, but now his brain has slowed down. “A lot has been taken from him,” she said. But Ralph Yarl had no harsh words for his attacker. He wants justice, but he says he doesn’t hate him anymore. He says that he’s just a kid. He’s going to go on with his life doing the best he can and doing the things he enjoys.
I worry for Ralph Yarl. I worry for the headaches he’s suffering from. I worry about the horrible emotional trauma he’s suffered. I worry about his brain injury and everything that’s been taken from him. But I don’t worry about Ralph Yarl’s soul. Because Ralph Yarl has faced that terrible altar of irrationality, that altar where nothing makes sense, where no amount of arguing or reasoning or resistance can save you, where something vitally important to you is taken away. Ralph Yarl has faced that altar and “given it up to God.”
I don’t think our scripture reading this morning is about needing to be willing to become child sacrificers for God, if that’s what God requires of us. We don’t believe that God requires that. Because there is no reason for it and there is no excuse for it. But Ralph Yarl is a child who was shot in the head. And there was no good reason. And there is no excuse. And it doesn’t make any sense. And though he survives, a lot was taken away from him. It happened. And for Yarl to heal and move on with his life, he can’t get stuck in regret and bitterness. And so he has walked up to the altar that can’t be negotiated with, holding something precious, something no one, not even God had a reason or a right to ask for, and he has had to leave it there, to let it go, to give it away.
There come times in our lives where we are asked to participate in our own loss, to participate in a loss that isn’t right, that isn’t fair, that isn’t moral, that we want no part of. In my own life, when my mother was diagnosed with cancer, I scribbled down as much information as I could—Stage IV Rhabdomysarcoma or RMS. When I was alone, I typed it into Google and started searching for mortality rates. The statistics for Stage I RMS stopped me cold. The statistics for Stage IV were unambiguously devastating.
We took my mom to Dana Farber Cancer institute in Boston, about an hour’s drive from my parents’ home in Rhode Island. And the doctors looked everything over and one of them said to me very gently, very tactfully, “There are wonderful cancer doctors in Rhode Island, who I trust completely. I think your mom will be more comfortable closer to home.” I knew what she was really telling me: “There’s nothing I can do for your mom here that anyone else can’t do for her. It’s just a matter of time. And very soon the drive you just took up here is going to be impossible for your mom.” And I realized that even as I was doing everything I could do to save my mom, I also needed to do everything I could do to prepare for her pain, her suffering, and her death. I was being called on to participate in my mom’s death. You have no right, God, to ask me for that. No right! And yet, it’s a nearly universal human experience.
About a year later, my mom was hospitalized and in terrible shape. The doctors had had to take yet more heroic measures to save her life—she had nearly died. And this was after radiation, chemo, major surgery, and multiple procedures. She was suffering and nothing was getting better, and she didn’t want to be stuck in the hospital. And when I visited her, she told me, “I think I’d be better off dead.” And she didn’t say it with any depression. She was standing at the altar of irrationality, where she was forced to confront a terrible reality that could not be fixed. And she was asking me to stand there with her. And I said, “Mom, when you see your doctors next you can tell them that you’re feeling like the time has come to go to hospice, and you can ask them if they agree that the time has come.” And she felt better. And that’s what she did. And the doctors agreed. And she went home to die. She was able to lay her life on the altar. And I had to do it too. And everyone who loved her had to do it or is still struggling to do it.
That’s what I think Abraham’s story is telling us: that you have to be willing to part with the things you love most, the things it is most unfair to ask of you. Not just to part with them, but to participate in the reality that is taking them from you. And in the midst of that terrible journey to the altar of irrationality where no human effort can save you, you need to remain faithful and not lose hope in God. That’s what Abraham achieves. And it’s far easier to simply say, “We don’t believe in child sacrifice. God would never do such a thing,” but the deeper truth lies in the willingness to face the incomprehensible and the inexplicable and the unacceptable. It’s in those moments when our faith is tested, and the world seems to crumble around us, that we are called to trust in the God’s ultimate goodness, even when we cannot understand God’s strange ways.
Faith is not always neat and tidy. It is a messy, uncomfortable, and often bewildering path. And you don’t know what is going to be asked of you. But you can be certain that it’s not all going to be nice or fair or easy. But it is also a journey of hope, of redemption, and the unshakeable belief that God is with us, even in the darkest of times, in the most difficult of losses. May we find the courage to face the altars of irrationality in our own lives, knowing that God who walks beside us, offering strength and grace, contains and cares for everything that is lost. And may we, like Abraham, trust in the goodness of God, even when God’s ways test our faith.
Well, we’ve got a real soap opera on our hands this morning, don’t we? You might not think that Holy Scripture should be this trashy, but here it is: Two women share the bed of the same man. Sarah is Abraham’s wife. Hagar is Sarah’s slave who Sarah gave to Abraham as a surrogate to bear children for Sarah because she thinks she’s too old to conceive a child herself. When Hagar gives birth, the children will belong to Sarah and Abraham, not to Hagar.
When Hagar conceives a child, Sarah begins to feel like Hagar is looking down on her. Maybe this was true or maybe it was just Sarah’s jealousy. We don’t know exactly what Sarah does in retaliation, but it’s bad enough that Hagar runs away into the wilderness before eventually returning to Sarah. (This basically becomes the plot of the dystopian novels and TV show, The Handmaid’s Tale.)
In time, Sarah does conceive and give birth to a child (Isaac), and it doesn’t diffuse the tension in the household at all. Now that Sarah doesn’t need Hagar and her son, Ishmael, anymore, she wants them out: Abraham, abandon that woman and that boy in the wilderness (where they’ll likely die of dehydration and exposure) and let’s be done with them.
This is hardly an edifying story, right? Sarah and Abraham don’t look too good here. They own a slave, she’s ordered into Abraham’s bed without even the possibility of her consent, she’s treated harshly and made miserable, and in the end she and her child are abandoned in the wilderness, thrown out, thrown away. One skin of water and a little bit of bread—Abraham was not poor, he could have given her more, but what he gave her was just enough to assuage his own guilt, right? It was not actually intended to make a big difference to Hagar and Ismael’s suffering or their ultimate fate.
Now God enters into this mess in two places. And that’s what I’ve been trying to make sense of this past week. First, Abraham at least has the decency to feel guilty about abandoning the mother of his child and his son to the elements where they will likely die an awful death. So, he prays about it. And God, who had previously told Hagar (when she ran away to the wilderness) to go home again, this time approves of the plan. And God says, don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of them.
You would hope that if one of us conceived a totally immoral plan to benefit ourselves at the expense of someone else and her child, and that if we prayed to God to ask whether we should go forward with this evil scheme, that God would say, No, of course you can’t do that and you ought to know better. Nobody’s gonna let you get away with treating people like that—least of all me. I don’t approve!
And if your neighbor told you that they had conceived some sort of wicked ends, but that it was OK because they’d prayed about it and God said, “Yeah, sure, go for it,” you wouldn’t believe them a bit, would you? God would never approve a plan like that! But here we are. Instead of sitting in detached judgment over this soap opera as the ultimate moral authority, God has gotten Godself tangled up right in the middle of all this human drama. That’s troubling, but fascinating to me.
Then God gets involved again as promised. Now, it’s strange because there’s nothing in this story that would have prevented God from acting like Hagar and Ismael’s fairy godmother, right? God could have turned the stones to bread, God could have made water spring up every few feet, God could sent angels to shade their heads, God could have turned a lizard into a camel and let them ride through the wilderness in style, but God doesn’t do any of that. God waits. God waits until the water and the bread are gone. God waits until their strength is sapped by the sun. God waits until Hagar has lost all hope, until she has dropped the young Ismael under a bush and walked as far away as a bow shot—close enough that she can still see him there, but far enough that doesn’t have to see him suffer and die. And in this final moment of suffering and despair, God finally acts. God sends Hagar back across the distance to Ishmael and there her eyes are opened, and she sees the well of life-saving water there where she had not noticed it before. What does it all mean?
When I was growing up in Warwick, RI, I used to take the train up into Boston some weekends and hang out with my summer camp girlfriend up in the city. And the coolest place to hang out in Boston in the early and mid-90s was Cambridge Square. It wasn’t too gentrified. It was still pretty grungy, eclectic, weird. It hadn’t been taken over by all the chains and corporate brands yet. And right in the heart of Cambridge Square, right behind the entrance to the T was this small, brick, almost like an amphitheater. It was like a round little public space where you could just hang out. And back then it was the place where all the grungy teens hung out. Nobody else went in there except for the kids with the ripped clothes and the tongue rings. So, of course, I wanted to hang out there with them. But I didn’t quite fit in.
They were a rowdy bunch. They were intense, certainly. And they had a bad reputation. The conception of them was that they were a bunch of drug-addicted, juvenile delinquent runaways and that they were nothing but trouble. But even though I was just hanging out at the absolute margins of that scene, that didn’t seem to be the whole story to me.
I started at Boston University in 96 and at that point I felt confident enough to talk to some of these kids. And I discovered that “runaway” was not really an accurate term. A lot of these kids were abandoned, kicked out of the house, or on the run from serious abuse and neglect. A lot of them were LGBTQ teens who had been kicked out of the house or who had been subjected to such abuse that they had to run. Coming from a really healthy and supportive home this was really astonishing to me. I talked to one girl who told me that her mom had told her that she had prayed about it and that God had told her to throw her daughter out of the house as a punishment for her lesbian lifestyle. And I was like, This is awful, someone should make your mom live up to her obligation to you, someone should make her do the right thing! And this girl looked at me like I was crazy and just said, “Well, it’s better for me out here than it ever was for me in there. And it sucks. This is hard. But it’s worth it.” Meeting this girl really shook me spiritually. I prayed to God about it because I was angry with God and eventually slowly I got a surprising answer from God. God said, “No one can make her mother do the right thing. Not even me. And I had to get her out of that house somehow.”
I left Boston was I graduated in 2000 and I didn’t come back until a decade late when I was working as a minister at a church two subway stops away from Cambridge Square. So, I went back to check on that scene, to see if those kids were still there. There little park was still there but now it was full of strolling tourists, and Harvard students studying, and business people eating lunch in the sun. Where had all the kids gone?
I mentioned it to someone in my church and she told me that those kids were all living in a special shelter in a church a few blocks from the square for LGBTQ kids who had been kicked out of their homes. While the rest of the world had kept those kids at an arm’s length, trying not to see their suffering, God had been working quietly behind the scenes, providing a refuge for them.
Just like Hagar, these young people had experienced abandonment, rejection, and suffering. They were cast out into a wilderness of uncertainty and despair, left to fend for themselves. But just as God saw Hagar in her distress, God saw these young souls in their pain and had been working to provide them with a place of shelter and support.
God's response to Hagar's cry in the wilderness was not immediate. God's timing may not always align with our own. We may question why God allows suffering to persist, why God doesn't step in sooner to alleviate our pain. But the story of Hagar reminds us that even in the depths of our despair, God is present and working, preparing to bring forth blessings and transformation.
God's involvement in the messiness of human drama is not a sign of divine approval for the wrongdoing or the mistreatment of others. Instead, it reveals a God who enters into our brokenness, who meets us in our suffering, and who ultimately seeks to bring about healing and restoration. The story of Hagar and Ishmael also challenges us to examine our own actions and attitudes towards those who have been cast aside by society. It prompts us to question whether we are truly living out the love and compassion of Christ, especially towards those who are marginalized and rejected.
The story of Hagar and Ishmael reminds us that God's love and care extend to all, especially those who have been abandoned and marginalized. God sees our suffering, even in the midst of the messiness of life, and works quietly to bring about transformation and redemption. Let us strive to emulate God's love and compassion in our interactions with others, seeking to create a world where no one is left in the wilderness of despair but is instead embraced and uplifted by the grace of God.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations