Reflections

Reflection - August 14, 2017

By Darren McClellan

published 8/14/2017
Dear Friends,
 
In lieu of a regular reflection today, I submit to you yesterday’s sermon that was preached at the Homecoming Service at Bermuda UMC.  I know many of our pastors and churches are compelled to bear faithful witness to the love of God in the midst of the atrocities that took place in Charlottesville, Va this past weekend.  I offer this message, which I wrote Saturday evening, as one of many voices seeking to understand the roots of hatred, while at the same time upholding the Christian ethic of loving one’s neighbor as oneself.  Your feedback and critique is welcome, as I believe this is a conversation worth sustaining.
 
Grace to you,
 
Darren
 
 
 
“This is the Story (Where Was Reuben?)”
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
August 13, 2017
 
 
Every time I read the stories about the characters in Genesis, I want to talk to these people.
 
Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien. 
 
How did that happen?  Did he earn this land himself?  What makes him so special?  Was he that much better than his father, Isaac?  How does Jacob go from being no people to a people worthy of the Promised Land?  Did he earn these rights, or just purchase them, and if so, how?  Or could it be… (nah)?  Is he really God’s favorite?   
 
Jacob was well established in the land of Canaan.  How did he pull that off?  Wouldn’t you like to know?  I would!  Even if this story is just about Jacob and his favored children, we are prone to pay attention.  And if this story is going to give us the secret on how we can make the nation of Israel great again, then heaven knows we’re all ears.
 
The problem, however, is that I don’t believe that this is that kind of story.  If we read the Bible and let it have its way with us, rather than using it to have our way with others, then we remember that Jacob and the rest of his kinfolk don’t score too high on the righteousness scale, apart from what is given to them by the grace of God.
 
Take this, for example:
 
Now Israel (Jacob) loved (his son) Joseph more than any other of his children…
 
What kind of a father does that?  What kind of a man lets it be known that THIS boy, MY boy is better than all the rest (not to mention any of his girls!)?  And what do you suppose is the effect of that kind of parental prejudice year after year, generation after generation?  What will that do to Joseph’s character?  Does he really think he’s doing his child any favors, or is this simply about the arrogance of the father?  The story says that he gave Joseph this big robe to parade around in, which became this sign of his own supremacy.  Can’t you just see it?  I’ll bet it came with a hood.
 
And wouldn’t you know it?  The Bible says that when his brothers saw that their father loved him more…they hated him…and could not speak peaceably to him. 
 
They hated him.  Well of course they did!  Their whole lives they’ve been working in the fields, trying to earn their daddy’s love, and every day they’re reminded by Joseph’s very existence that they’re just not good enough.  And even though they’re older, even though they were their first, even though their history and culture says that the power and the privilege are supposed to be on their side, here comes young Joseph, this uppity dreamer, whose crazy talk threatens to rewrite their version of the story altogether. It’s enough to raise the hair on the back of their neck and enough to get them organized.  Quite naturally, one uprising leads to another and yet, for some reason, this part of the story does not seem to surprise or unsettle us.  We’re sympathetic, really.   Some of us (most?) say, ‘hey, no matter how hard and broken down life can be, I’m still ready to die to protect my way of life.  I get that.  To most of the world, it sounds rather all-American; and that’s fine for some, but the difference here is that these boys—the rest of Jacob’s clan—would rather just kill for it.
 
Joseph is guilty, after all.  Guilty of being loved…guilty of reporting on his brothers…guilty of dreaming about a new day for himself and his family…guilty of being God’s instrument who would turn the powers that be upside down.  So what do the brothers do?  The same thing the brothers have always sought to do.  Whatever it takes to stop him; to put him in his place, to raise high the wicked lie, to maintain the vicious myth, to uphold the salacious system of their own supremacy.  This is sin.
 
Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him, we are told, because of the crippling fear that there just wasn’t enough love to go around in that family system.  And if there’s not enough love, then the only thing left to grasp is power…the power of the brotherhood…even when the only thing that holds it together is hatred.
 
Then, for one fleeting moment in the story a light breaks through when the oldest brother, Reuben, says “let us not take his life.”  This is surprising, since this oldest brother has the most to gain by keeping the status quo. This flicker of humanity is quickly extinguished, however, as the group sentiment transitions to well, he is our own flesh, so let’s see how far we can go without actually taking his life.  We can strip him of his clothes and of his dignity and beat him and leave him in a pit.  Nothing wrong with that, apparently.  Better yet, says brother Judah, we might as well get something for ourselves while we’re at it.  Since he’s no longer a person, it only makes sense to see him as a slave.  So they pulled him up out of the pit for the moment, which surely made them feel good about themselves, and then turned around and sold him to the Ishmaelites for 20 pieces of silver (37:28)It was neither the first or last time that slavery would be deemed acceptable or that the fight for supremacy would be pursued with such violent force.
 
It’s incredible what one can believe, say, and do to his or her brother or sister once the seeds of hate are sown.  This is the story.
 
Friends, with respect to this brief passage from the larger narrative of Joseph in the Old Testament, I want to leave you this morning with one prevailing thought:  that is, at the level of basic humanity, what happened to Joseph was wrong…and Reuben did not do enough to stop it.
 
At the very least, Reuben did not say enough.  Again, maybe he felt he had too much to lose, but if the presumed supremacy of his brotherhood was to be dismantled, it would have to be defiantly condemned from within.  We have no evidence of any protest from Joseph in the book of Genesis.  As readers, we ask, O brother, where art thou?  But as far as we know, “he never said a’ mumblin’ word.”  What we do know is that the one who had the power did not use it for the good, and to his eventual shame (Gen. 45:3).
 
Friends, if the evil associated with the notion of white supremacy…and the kind of horrific display we have seen in Charlottesville, VA this weekend…is going to come to end…then the biblical story suggests that white Americans, by the power of the Holy Spirit, are going to need to own up and speak up to the injustices that are among us. 
 
A closer walk with Jesus will also help, as will a faithful reading of the scriptures:
 
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son…  (Jn 3:16).
 
In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh… (Acts 2:17).
 
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28).
 
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you who that was in Christ Jesus, who… (though he was pretty special in his own right) emptied himself… (Phil. 2:3-7).
 
Brothers and Sisters, I must confess to you that I am a 40 year old, well-educated, extremely privileged white male living in South Alabama.  I have lived in the South all of my life, and confess that not once have I or anyone in my family tree ever been denied a meal in a restaurant or made to use the bathroom out back.  I have never struggled to get a voter registration card.  Come to think of it, I’ve never been denied on an application for anything.  Not for a job, not for a loan, not for a school, not for a club, and not for a place to live.  That sounds ridiculous to some of you.  It sounds ridiculous to me!  Nor have I felt the need to coach my three sons on how to speak or respond to a police officer.  I personally do not have such fears.
 
This is my story. I am allowed to settle in this land freely and without obstacle.    However, I also do not believe for one second that everyone across this great country of ours (and especially my neighbors in Alabama) can say the same is true for their story (and for all sorts of different reasons).
 
This observation leads me to one of two conclusions: either I really am God’s favorite…or something else in the political order is out of line.
 
Yes, God is good to me, but what I have also come to understand over time is that I live in a social, economic, and political system that declares me and my kind to be supreme.  And yet, in truth, the cross of Jesus Christ declares that I am anything but. And you know what?  I think the cross of Jesus Christ is right.
 
The cross declares that God is our only judge, and reminds us that God has exalted Christ and given him the name that is above every name.  So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend--both Joseph and his brothers alike—in heaven and on earth.
 
And because I believe this to be true—that is, because I believe in the supremacy of Christ alone (Col. 1:15-17)—then whenever someone says that they are suppressed in some way by my story, or especially by the idols of my supposed ancestry…whether it is a flag, or a statue, or even a particular view of history…then I intend to listen.  Or when a brother or sister tells me that one person’s experience of hatred is somehow less important than the preservation of another’s view of personal heritage, then yes, I intend to listen…and respond.  I hope to God that you and I would find the courage to speak with wisdom on such things—full of grace and truth—in the interest of reconciliation. 
 
After all, it’s not enough to be another Reuben.  What we need is to get real.
 
In Genesis 37:19, a group of brothers grew angry over the threat to their supremacy.  Then they looked across the field and said to one another, here comes that dreamer.  Come now, let us kill him and throw his body in a pit.  We’ll see then what comes of his dreams.
 
Years later, on a hot August day in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of 300,000 and declared “I HAVE A DREAM.”  He won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his leadership in a nonviolent movement toward basic civil rights for all.  He was largely criticized by the political establishment for disrupting the powers that be.  Then in 1968, a southern white man by the name of James Earl Ray put a bullet through his chest in Memphis, TN.
 
Since the dawn of creation, human beings have not always been kind to such dreamers.  Yesterday in Charlottesville, VA, a 20 year old white supremacist named James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car through a crowd of peaceful counter-protestors who were opposing a “Unite the Right” rally to preserve a downtown statue of Robert E. Lee.  Mr. Fields is charged with second-degree murder, killing one and wounding at least 19.
 
I wonder where a man that young has enough time to acquire that kind of hate.  Surely he must have learned it, but who could have taught him such a thing?  His father died before he was born.  Who filled in the gap?  What kind of community—political, economic, social or otherwise—led him to believe that was a righteous thing to do?  James Alex Fields Jr. did not learn this in North Korea or Iran.  He learned this in the United States of America.  This was an act of domestic terrorism.  His was a home-grown hate, meaning each of us bears responsibility for our community and our witness.
 
My heart grieves for the violence and victims in Charlottesville, including Mr. Fields.  Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas was quoted yesterday as saying, “what the world saw today is not the place Charlottesville is….we love our city.  Let us heal.  This is not our story.  Outsiders do not tell our story. We will tell our own story” (CNN.com).  I hope he is right.  I wish it were so for all of us.  We all want a better story than the one we are in, and yet we cannot deny the evil that has transpired. 
 
We can, however, proclaim the good news of the gospel in the face of death.  The story as it is now is not as it will be, for there is a God who is working even now for the restoration of all things.  In spite (and light) of his most difficult chapter, Joseph was one day able to look his brothers in face and say I forgive you.  Even though you intended to do me harm, God intended it for good in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.  So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones (Gen. 50:20-21). 
 
Whatever love these brothers missed out on as younger men, they eventually found it in the one they once hated and wanted dead.  Can you imagine?  I can!  This is a God who does not play favorites, after all.
 
One way or another, the next chapter of America’s drama will be written and you and I will have a role to play.  So may God give us the honesty, the integrity, and the humility to own our story…and may we prepare now with heart and voice for the day when he who began a good work in each of us will one day bring it to completion.
 
In Genesis 37: 15, this mysterious “man” found Joseph wandering in the fields and asked him,
 
What are you seeking?
 
I am seeking my brothers, he said; tell me please where they are…
 
May it be so with us; that we would seek again to find our brothers and sisters no matter who they are, what they’ve done, or where they’re coming from. 
 
Lord, give us direction, for still we wander…in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  AMEN.