The New Economy Of Grace

Genesis 37.1-8

Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him. Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dream. There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.

It is a strange thing to share the dreams we dream with others. To us, they feel so very real even though, as soon as we wake, we know they aren’t. And yet, more often than not, moved by a particularly imaginative vision, we will tell others of what we have seen and experienced knowing full and well that, most of the time, it means absolutely nothing to the people we tell.

There’s a better than good chance that each of us here have had at least one dream that left us mad at someone because of what they did in our minds even though they did nothing in reality.

How odd.

And yet, how true to our human nature!

Listen – Jacob, Israel, settled in the land of his father, Isaac. Contrary to the controversial beginnings of his life, he eventually grew to have a large and prosperous family. Among his many children, Joseph was his very favorite, and Jospeh was a dreamer.

The parallels in scripture are often quite staggering. 

Jacob has a vision of a ladder stretching into the heavens, a ladder upon which angels ascend and descend. 

Joseph has a vision of his brothers bowing to him.

Jacob’s story culminates in his reconciliation with his brother Esau.

Joseph’s tale concludes with his brothers as well.

And yet these two biblical figures could not be more different. Jacob is selfish, Joseph is kind. Jacob runs away from his problems, Joseph walks straight into them. Jacob throws his life away, and Joseph, himself, is the one thrown away.

Joseph, baby of the family, dreams of sheaves in a field bowing to him, he has visions of his family relying on him for their deliverance. And it would be enough just to have these dreams, but Joseph has the bright idea to share his dreams with his brothers. His brothers already despise him because their father loves him most of all and even gives him the gift of a coat with long sleeves.

Why?

Scripture says that Joseph is the son of Jacob’s old age, but we also know that Joseph is one of the only two children from Rachel, Jacob’s first love and second wife.

Notably, Jacob is one who has experienced the divine inversion that runs rampant in scripture as he was elevated over his brother Esau (by his own heel-grabbing tendencies). Jacob’s preference for Joseph runs against all propriety at the time, and against the established norms. His love upends everything the family thinks they know about how things are supposed to work, which is something God seems to do all the time.

This tale is a foretaste of how, throughout the rest of this strange book, God will often choose the youngest and weakest for honor and leadership. It is a strange and new economy of grace.

The brothers hear out their baby bro’s vision and they decide, with a solid eleven voting members, that they can no longer live with the dreamer. Ten of them want him dead, but the eldest, Reuben, convinces the others to merely throw him in a pit instead.

Reuben, inexplicably, leaves the scene and the remaining brothers spy an approaching caravan and the decide to sell Joseph into slavery. 

*Netflix*

This is a strange and bewildering tale, even among the wild new world of the Bible. The final quarter of Genesis is devoted to this one person and his tale. The themes that follow have been made manifest of countless other stories: exile, hiddenness, the hero’s journey, riches to rags and rags to riches, drama, mystery, and hope. 

As Joseph disappears into the horizon, his brothers take his aforementioned not actually technicolor dream coat, and they dip it in fresh blood to convince the rest of their family, and their father in particular, that Joseph is dead. 

And, to be frank, he might as well be dead. He is completely cut off from his family, from the land of his birth, and from the story of God’s people. He travels as a slave to be a stranger in a strange land without any hope in the world, without his father’s love, and without his special jacket.

Jacob responds to the news of his favorite son’s death by ripping his own coat and vows to live a life of mourning until the day that he, himself, dies.

So, why is it that Joseph’s brothers throw him into the pit of enslavement? 

Those of us with brothers and sisters know, first hand, the strangeness of siblings. We know of the tensions and the pains and the jealously that can be all too present within a family. But, the kind of domestic squabbles we might be familiar with are a far cry from what happens here in Genesis.

Why is it that when God comes to dwell among us, we nail God to the cross?

Why is it that, when they hear of their brother’s dream, the sons of Jacob sell Joseph into slavery?

Joseph, now a slave, is sold to to the captain of Pharaoh’s guard in Egypt, a man named Potiphar. A truly wild narrative ensues that is worth its own sermon series, but for the sake of today it is enough to know that his time there ends with his arrest.

And, it comes to pass that while he is in prison, Pharaoh has a set of experiences that require someone who can interpret dreams. The dreamer from the shackles of slavery and imprisonment has earned a reputation for interpretation, and is called before the throne. Pharaoh shares his dreams of seven skinny cows eating seven fat cows but don’t grow in size, seven good ears of corn are consumed by seven withered ones. 

What does it mean Joseph?

The dreamer tells Pharaoh that Egypt will have seven good years of harvest and seven years of famine, therefore someone is needed who can store up a surplus during the good years and distribute it during the years of scarcity.

And who does Pharaoh call upon for this task?

Joseph.

The dreamer is freed from slavery, given a wife, and the total authority in Egypt. And, when the times comes, his interpretation is proven correct and he saves the nation into which he was sold as a slave.

There’s a version of this story that ends right here. From riches to rags and back again. This would be a good place for the credits to start to roll. But God has another ending in store.

The famine that strikes Egypt is so bad that even the surrounding areas are suffering. So much so that Joseph’s family is stuck in destitution and are in need of deliverance. The brothers are commanded by their father to seek out help in the foreign land and when they travel to Egypt they beg for food from their brother though they do not recognize him. 

Not only do they beg for compassion, they literally bow down to him, bringing his earlier dream to fruition. 

There is great tension in the ensuing narrative with Joseph going back and forth with requests and demands from his brothers who still do not know his true identity, and it all culminates during in a moment in which, scripture says, Joseph could no longer control himself, and he reveals the truth.

He weeps so loudly in the moment that everyone in the entire palace hear his cries. And his brothers are terrified. Rightly so.

They deserve judgment and they are about to get it. 

But instead of rejecting his brothers just as they rejected him, Joseph embraces them, he literally falls upon them and he covers them with tears and kisses. The scene is staggering. They offer to become his slaves for what they had done, but instead Joseph forgives his brothers, he loves them, and he urges them not to be angry with themselves. 

They are invited to live in Egypt and even Jacob travels to the strange land where the entire family is reunited and reconciled. 

Joseph does for his brothers what they don’t deserve at all. They come to Egypt with no hope in the world, and the only one who can do anything for them is the one they did everything to. They offer to becomes slaves to the one enslaved and he, instead, offers them a freedom they never could have imagined. Not only are they free to thrive and eat and live, they are freed from the shame and guilt of what they had done.

In short, they are given grace.

I arrived at Alta Mons this week tasked with being the chaplain for all of the campers and all of the counselors. After breakfast we would gather for morning watch during which we would sing songs together and talk about how to keep an eye out for what God might be up to during the day and after dinner we would gather around a campfire for worship during which we would talk about how we had experienced God during the day.

Throughout the week we covered themes like the body of Christ and how each of us are a part of it, the new beloved community, and grace. Asking the kids to define grace was delightful. One of them told me, “grace is what you do before you’re allowed to eat,” and another said, “I don’t know what it is but I do know that it’s amazing,” and still yet another said, “grace is loving someone even if they don’t deserve it.”

And when I asked why God offers us grace, the young theologian Caleb Anderson replied, “God’s built different, that’s straight facts.” 

The first night of camp, the kids all sat and stood awkwardly around one another as they navigated the strangeness of being forced to hang out with a bunch of relative strangers in the woods for a week. And over the following days I witnessed joy and laughter and the bonds of new friendship but I also saw disagreements, and frustrations, and deep sighs and hair flips. 

But on our final night, as we sat around the campfire and I told them about Jesus’s final night, as I prayed over the bread and the cup and we all shared communion with one another, I saw tears and hugs. I watched and listened to kids sing songs about Jesus, a few of whom who have never darkened the doors of a church. I experienced campers giving love and receiving love without expectation of reciprocation.

In short, I saw grace.

On the day of Easter, resurrected from the grave, still bearing the marks of the cross, Jesus returns not to the best and the brightest and the most faithful. Instead, he returns to those who abandoned him. He loves them, even to the end. 

In the kingdom of God the new economy of grace is weird. It is everything for nothing. It is forgiveness, and mercy, and love. It is Good News for people drowning in bad news.

If Joseph was willing to forgive his brothers after all they had done, if Jesus was willing to return to his disciples who abandoned him and denied him, just imagine what we can do with the new economy of grace. 

It could be amazing. Amen.

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