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13th August 2017 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
11 August 2017

Readings

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 

We now move to the next generation and begin the Joseph story.  We need to remember that Jacob had been renamed Israel at the wrestling incident because both names are used in this reading that begins in the household enterprise of ‘Jacob and Sons.’[1]

The family dysfunction that is being passed on from generation to generation now takes a deadly turn with the suggestion to kill Joseph.  This is mediated by one of the brothers and when the chance to profit by Joseph’s demise presents itself and his life is saved by selling him into slavery.  Of interest is that it is the descendants of the other branch of Abraham’s family, the Ishmaelites that save Joseph and save the divine promise.    Maurice Andrew notes that the promise is put in danger by family conflict but Joseph has the ability to channel the conflict into survival for them all because he understands God acting through the events.[2]

Matthew 14:22-33

We now close this chapter of teaching through parables and the feeding episode with a crossing episode which is a feature carried across from Mark’s Gospel where one section is joined to another by a crossing episode.  Jesus is shown to have control of the sea and the storm which is a divine creative action.  In Canaanite mythology God creates the world by pushing back the waters of chaos and there are hints of this in the Genesis creation accounts as well as Proverbs.

We should also remember that God saved the people by pushing back the waters of the sea when they were escaping from Egypt, a new creation of a new people, and this chapter of Matthew contained the wilderness feeding so Matthew is continuing the new people of God through a new Moses theme. 

Warren Carter points out that there is an instruction here to rely on Jesus in tough times and the rough sea symbolises the power of evil and chaos that rebel against God. [3]  This is an episode in which Jesus does God acts in front of the disciples and they affirm his divinity.

Sermon

I have never imagined myself ‘walking on water’ but there have certainly been times when I felt that I was ‘skating on thin ice.’  That is odd really because my only experience with skating was a second-hand pair of roller skates I once got for Christmas and never managed to master.

Joseph certainly thought he ‘walked on water’ but by sharing such thoughts with his brothers he was definitely ‘skating on thin ice.’  When he is separated from parental protection the brothers take action to rid themselves of his taunting presence, and what they would see as a threat to their inheritance.

Like so much of family dysfunction today the problem of Joseph and his brothers began in previous generations. 

We have recently followed his father’s birth as a twin who deceives his brother and is then deceived by his uncle who tricks him into marrying both Leah and Rachel.  Jacob is so successful in his uncle’s household that his brothers in law fear a takeover bid. So Jacob flees from his father in law’s household. 

The other pertinent point is that. right from the time of Abraham, the mothers of this extended family seem to have children late in life and this is true of Joseph’s mother Rachel.  As the favourite wife Rachel at last has a son Joseph, who, surprise, surprise becomes the favourite son.

The Bible tells of Joseph taunting his older brothers by describing his dreams, but our own experience of family life would suggest that the adult brothers probably gave Joseph a hard time too.  In fact the dream about his brother’s sheaves bowering down to his sheaf could well have been a subconscious reaction to his brothers bullying.  I got bullied at primary school and had dreams where I sorted the bullies out.  However the reality was always a lot more bruising

What we learn from today’s reading is that Joseph’s brothers were somewhat independent spreading across the countryside looking for grazing for their animals while Joseph was the dreamer who hung around home base being doted on by their father.

His father may well have sent him to report on his brothers to get him involved in the challenging life that they lead.  However when his brothers spotted Joseph coming, their first thought was to get rid of this time wasting dreamer. 

I am reminded of my grandfather’s story of his first job at the age of 16.  He had left home in England and got a job in a workshop of the Canadian Pacific Railway.  I have no doubt that his head was full of grand dreams for his future.  Full of confidence he tried to start a conversation with the man on the lathe next to him but the only response he got was ‘shut up and cut washers’.  That was Grandpas early lesson in the reality that working people do not always appreciate young dreamers. 

Joseph’s brothers’ response was much more direct and the first suggestion was to get rid of him for good.  But finally they decided on a programme of asset sales to boost their own economic well being. 

This is where the irony of the story teller becomes almost magical as we are reminded that family dysfunction and jealousy went right back to Abraham’s family. 

Abraham’s wife Sarah demanded that Hagar and Abraham’ son by her, Ismail, be discarded in the wilderness to insure the inheritance for her son Isaac who became the father of Jacob.  So when Joseph is sold off to a group of wandering Ishmaelites the whole saga of dysfunction is kept in the family. 

The brother’s probably felt that with Joseph gone their father would see the value in the hard work they contributed to the family’s well being.  But their father was filed with grief and they would transfer that grief into their own guilt.  Therefore the whole household would be skating on thin ice in their relationships with each other. 

They would have been on a family relationship journey gripped by suspicion, secrets and lies like a boat in a stormy sea.

Was that how it was for the disciple’s boat trip across the lake?  They had certainly been busy feeding the five thousand and Jesus sent them home while he tidied up.  That involved dismissing the crowd and going up the mountain to pray.  I can imagine Jesus’ prayer as a reflection on all that has happened and, like Jacob, that could well be described as wrestling with God. 

Jacob is described as wrestling with God on a sleepless night of apprehension about meeting Esau.  We can imagine Jesus’ prayers as a wrestling with God as he tries to make sense of the day filled with people and miraculous events. 

He had tried to get away from the crowds but they followed him and in sharing the disciples’ food everyone was fed.  Was it just that their example of sharing inspired others to share?  Did that make it a miracle and where was God in the events of the day?  What did it all mean in terms of the mission he felt God was calling him to? 

Those are questions we ask when reading the accounts of the feeding miracles and we can certainly imagine Jesus asking them.  The disciples would have similar questions and their anxiety is portrayed as a journey against the wind across a stormy sea.

However, as the introduction points out, water and sea have a mythological connection with the power of evil and chaos rebelling against God.  Furthermore in a number of creation myths God pushes the waters of chaos back to create dry land.  So we can imagine the stormy sea as a metaphoric wrestling between good and evil.  The place of this wrestling is the disciples’ crossing over from the turmoil of feeding of the five thousand to the disciples proclaiming to Jesus ‘truly you are the son of God.’ (Matthew 14:31)

Jacob’s wrestling with God took place before he crossed a river boundary into Esau’s territory.

Following the execution of John the Baptist Jesus and the disciples had travelled by boat to a deserted place.  They had an association with John the Baptist and it seemed prudent to get away from the authorities for a while.  But they were followed by crowds of people and Jesus had compassion for them and ministered to them. 

The disciples must have been frustrated.  They had come to escape possible arrest and now they were at the centre of a large gathering, just the thing to attract the attention of the authorities.  A large gathering in a secluded place always looks like the beginning of a revolutionary movement. 

They suggested Jesus should send the people away to buy food but he said they should share what they had and in no time people where proclaiming a miracle. 

The tide of events just seemed to be against them and Jesus decided he needed to be alone.  So he sent them back across the lake into a raging storm with the wind against them.

In their part of the world they wouldn’t know much about ice and certainly would not have experienced skating.  If they had they would be thinking that following the execution of John the Baptist, the extraordinary events of the day and now the predicament they found themselves in suggested their whole enterprise was skating on thin ice.    

Jesus was always talking about ‘the kingdom of God’ or the ‘kingdom of heaven’. What did that mean and did it matter if they all drowned.  Who was this Jesus anyway? 

Was this a wrestling with God like Jacob had wrestled, it certainly was a crossing and Jacob had wrestled at his point of crossing.

With Jesus and the people gone where they now in a pit like Joseph who had been abandoned by his brothers.  Would their dreams of freedom in Jesus’ kingdom of heaven just be slavery at the hands of a bunch of hairy Ishmaelites? 

Terror and amazement is always a great point to change direction in a narrative and Jesus comes walking towards them across the water. 

How Jesus walked on the water is an obvious question for people in our logical scientific age but it is not the right question to ask of this narrative. 

Through his narrative grounded firmly in the tradition of Hebrew Scripture Matthew invites us into the boat with Jesus’ disciples. 

The story recognises our tentative questions about the person of Jesus and our uncertain steps across the turbulent waters of our own time.  We take tentative steps that so easily seem like skating on thin ice rather than walking on water. 

The wind of our contemporary world blowing against us easily frightens us and we sink below the waves of fear and doubt.  After all what has Jesus got to offer in a world of a market driven economy, housing shortages, family dysfunction, domestic violence and the resurgent presence of the nuclear umbrella. 

Surely our only response can be ‘Lord save me’ (Matthew 14: 30).  At that point the risen Christ lifts us into the boat and the wind stops. 

In Matthew’s metaphors the boat is the discipleship journey, began so many centuries ago and the tumultuous storms of our world have never ceased.   Being in the discipleship boat those who follow Jesus only notice his presence and the transforming effect the journey has on our world. 

It is from within our discipleship journey that we understand the chaotic sea of our time is much smoother with Christ in the boat with us. 



[1] Tim Rice & Andrew Lloyd Webber Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

[2] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand  (Wellington: DEFT 1999) p,76.

[3]Warren Carter Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading, (London/New York: T&T Clark International 2004) p.305. 

 

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