Sermon: August 13, 2023 – Genesis 37: 1-28

Today’s sermon begins with a quote: not from a theologian or preacher, but from the Harvard Business Review.  “If you’re a fan of the HBO show Succession” write Josh Baron and Rob Lachenauer,” or if you’re aware of the conflicts playing out among some of the most visible family businesses in the world, you might assume that family businesses are more fragile than other forms of enterprise. Indeed, that’s the conventional wisdom: Many articles or speeches about family businesses today include a reference to the ‘three-generation rule,’ which says that most don’t survive beyond three generations.

“But that perception” they continue, “could not be further from the truth. On average, the data suggest that family businesses last far longer than typical companies do. In fact, today they dominate most lists of the longest-lasting companies in the world, and they’re well-positioned to remain competitive in the 21st century economy.

“Certainly, some families go from rags to riches and back again” they conclude, “but on average, they do not. Those who climb to the top of the wealth ladder tend to stay there for a long time.” When economists from the Bank of Italy [for example] studied tax records in Florence in 1427 and 2011, they found that today’s top earners were ‘already at the top of the socioeconomic ladder six centuries ago.’”

Download PDF of today’s sermon: Sermon_13August2023-v2

Today’s scripture takes us to the third generation of the most important family in our early faith history.  Abraham and Sarah and their child Isaac (and, off to the side, the other seven children fathered by Abraham) were the first generation, Isaac and Rebekah and their sons Jacob and Esau were the second, and Jacob’s progeny, including young Joseph, are the third.  Based on what I thought I knew about the three-generation rule, it seemed logical that about now, in generation three, some cracks may start showing in the Abrahamic family narrative.  But what I found instead, is that large cracks had started long before now.

I always shake my head a little bit when the Bible is portrayed as a sort of handbook for effective family life.  Yes, “honour your parents” is the fifth commandment, so there’s that, but from the beginning of Genesis, the central family is filled with tension.  The story of the first human siblings ends poorly as Cain kills his brother Abel. Both Abraham, with Sarah, and Isaac, with Rebekah, portrayed their wives as their sisters in order to save their own skin, exposing the women to a strong possibility of sexual assault; Jacob (as we’ve heard the past two Sundays) famously swindled the birthright and blessing away from his twin brother Esau; and Jacob’s own uncle, Laban, cornered him into fourteen years of labour to marry the woman he loved.  If this was a model family, I’d hate to see a dysfunctional one.   And yet, as the story goes, this was the family named by God, reaffirmed time and again, the ones to carry the promise of land and descendants, the ones to receive and transmit God’s guidance at Sinai.  Repeatedly, things went badly in this family’s inner workings and repeatedly, God said, “you’re not getting out of it that easily.  I have chosen you and that’s not open to negotiation.” And repeatedly, scripture does not gloss over this: the human frailty of the early heroes is on full display, to the great credit of our sacred text.

So let’s take it as a given that Joseph, great-grandson of Abraham and Sarah, was born into a tumultuous household.  His father, Jacob had twelve children with four moms: Leah had six sons and one daughter, Leah’s handmaid Zilpah had two sons; Leah’s sister Rachel had two sons, and Rachel’s handmaid Bilhah had two sons.  Oh, and Jacob, who had always made it clear that Rachel was his favourite wife, made sure that everyone in the household knew that Rachel’s boy Joseph was his favourite son.  Jacob had been raised as the golden child in his family, his Momma’s favourite – and that’s the mantle that would rest on Joseph.

Doted on from birth, made a clear target by the gift of an ornate coat – either multi-coloured, or with flowing sleeves unlike the simple tunics worn by his brothers – you can hear the fraternal grumbling about Joseph from four thousand years away.  Already hated and resented by his brothers, one night Joseph had a dream (verses 5-11) in which he and his brothers were in the field tying up sheaves of wheat, and all of their sheaves bent down to his.   Joseph, inexplicably shared this dream with his brothers, which is not exactly a chapter in “how to make friends and influence people”, and they hated him even more.

This hatred turned into a scheme, and the only point of debate seemed to be between killing him, abandoning him in the wilds, or selling him into slavery.  At the urging of Reuben, the eldest brother, Joseph lives but is thrown into a dry cistern where travelers might or might not find him alive.  Whether he was then sold into slavery by the brothers or by an intermediary isn’t 100% clear, but it’s a terrible story, even in its best form.  What happened to Joseph was horrible; for it to be at the hands of his own siblings was chilling.

So what does one do with this?  For me, the key is to not soft sell what’s going on here.  Keep it real, stay with the difficulty, admit that this was a strange family to be chosen to carry God’s sacred promise, and approach Joseph as the inheritor of both promise and problem.

Imagine with me, the position Joseph was in.  Physically, thrown down a well, it would have been terrifying, but beyond that, could he possibly have felt more alone in this world?  His own family, those who should automatically love and protect him, hated him and wanted him dead.  In such isolation and desolation, the presence of God – a loving, faithful, enduring, sturdy God – is pretty much all you’ve got to hold on to.

As I think of Joseph in these ways, and let my mind do some creative wandering, I mentally re-establish contact with people who have been part of my life’s journey… and groups of people often on my mind… and I encourage you to do likewise if that is a safe place for you to be.  If some of this cuts a bit too close, please know that it’s quite OK to disengage, and not revisit hard things in this public setting.

I think of kids I grew up with who were very adept at making themselves invisible, and in hindsight I wonder where that came from… and what became of them.  Had they grown up around addiction, following family rules so common to that setting, described by AA as “don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel?”  Had they grown up around violence, and found the best way to stay safe was to basically get lost in plain sight?  Where did they turn for comfort and hope?

I bring to mind the refugees in the world.  The UNHCR estimates that there are 108 million forcibly displaced people in the world right now. That’s nearly triple the population of Canada.  How many of them, especially as the years drag on, must feel like Joseph, far from home, in a desolate place where nobody sees you and nobody cares?  We have a family of four in Nepal, and a young man in Malaysia, who are relying on us to get them away from those places.  We continue to leave no stone unturned in bringing these people, now part of our extended family, to safety here in Canada… and our hearts are made heavy by their challenging circumstances.

I think of gay and trans people in too many nations and localities where their very being is offensive to the law, and their persecution recommended.  With a “hurt me” sign attached to them, as obvious as Joseph’s flowing robe of many colours, safety and support are hard to find.  How heartbreaking and frightening to see how these modes of thought are getting increased toeholds in much of the world.   As an Affirming community of faith, it is so important for us to connect with the global voices pushing for safety for people of all gender identities.  I’ve posted a couple of links in the Affirming part of our Church website and will have more information as we move into Pride season here in the valley.

And, as Joseph’s story pushes me to think of unpleasant family legacies, I think of the mess that successive generations have made of this extraordinary place of intricacy and majesty know as planet earth.   In these summer Sundays, as we consider the “origin stories” of our faith family, the promise of land is central to the narrative and sound stewardship was simply assumed.  I mean, who would poison their own land, water or air?  And yet, in the pursuit of progress and wealth, in the early 21st century we are very much a generation like the one Joseph was born into, a generation that needs to put more attention on its Legacy.  The environmental legacy we’re leaving our children must be treated with the greatest urgency…  and I seek wisdom from scientists and activists and Almighty God in finding new, truly sustainable ways of living on this planet.

In those “Joseph” spaces – places of isolation and despair, where is God?  Well, some of those things I have tried to include along the way, but there is more. In the gospels, Jesus names “the least of these, his brothers and sisters” as those who are particularly beloved in God’s eyes, the ones he wants to liberate. My fervent prayer is that this holy urge is known by those most wounded by life. And as disciples of Jesus, the Church as a whole and Christians one by one are charged with making sure that the hungry are fed, that the homeless find safe shelter and a sense of belonging, that those kept away from the opportunities and advantages held by others are provided equal or even preferential footing, and that unjust systems that keep the rich rich and the poor poor are challenged.

I realize that today’s sermon does not exactly fit into the “feel good” category.  That, to a degree is by design, for this first part of Joseph’s story is hard, and feeling an empathetic pull into his despair can be a good thing for us to experience.  Engaging the hard realities of life on this planet reminds us that even when those things we think we can count on fail us – including times that we fail ourselves – there is still God.  There is God, and there is love, there is the resilience that God built into wounded lands and wounded hearts, and there is the hope that God’s great gifts of creativity and compassion will find a home in our hearts and in this world. When we keep it real, we give God extra space to work – with us and in us and beyond us.

And so we sit with this… and with the gracious urgings of our steadfast God, may we seek new paths that truly bring life. Amen.

References cited:

Alcoholics Anonymous.

Baron, Josh and Lachenauer, Rob. “Do Most Family Businesses Really Fail by the Third Generation?” Harvard Business Review, July 19, 2021.

See also: Clayton, Robert.

Judson, Rabbi Dan.

The DNA Tests : Jacob.

© 2023 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.  Preached in Canmore.