Whom do we recognize?
“Here comes that dreamer”
Gen 45:1-15 and Matt. 15:21-18
Proper 15 – 8/17/14
All Saints Sharon Chapel, Alexandria
In a few short weeks – well, more like 10 days for the teachers among us, but let’s not rush things – many of us will be back in school. Even if your students days, and your children’s school days are long gone, there’s something exciting about this time of year. Mind you, as a teacher, I LOVE summer, but right about this time of year, I start itching to see my 400 students again. Twenty-one times a week, kindergarten through 4th graders come to my Godly Play room at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes to hear the stories of God and God’s people – much as they do at your Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atrium. Now, as I prepare for the year ahead, I start seeing their faces in my memory, or imagining how this boy or that girl will respond to the lessons I’m planning.
Even more than I like remembering and visualizing their faces, though, I love bumping into my young friends in person, outside of school, at the grocery story or the pool or the ball game. Always, there is that moment when we start to walk past one another, and then the double take – the flash of recognition – when everything changes. Amid the sea of strangers, we are drawn together by shared history and ongoing relationship. We are united by recognition.
Today’s readings are all about recognition. In Genesis, Joseph, who has recognized the family from Canaan all along, reveals himself so that they recognize him as their own brother. In the gospel Jesus, about to bypass a noisy stranger, is moved to recognize her as his own sister. Paul reminds us that God recognizes all people as his children, to whom he will show MERCY.
And amid the sorrow, violence and anguish of this week’s news, today’s readings challenge us: Whom will WE recognize as our own relations?
In today’s passage from Genesis, Joseph is a royal official of the household of Pharaoh, not recognizable as the boy betrayed by his brothers. We heard that story last week, but it bears repeating, for it is one of the most dramatic and poignant in all of scripture. Joseph, Jacob’s 11th son but firstborn of his favorite wife Rachel, has been sent to check up on his brothers as they tend the flocks – the favorite son with the long-sleeved coat, dressed not for labor but for management. When his laboring brothers see him coming, remember?, they said to one another, “Here comes that dreamer.” The dreamer who had, perhaps foolishly, revealed visions in which his brothers’ sheaves of wheat bowed down to HIS sheaf, in which the sun and moon and 11 stars bowed down to HIM. “Here comes that dreamer” became an incitement to murder — “come, let us kill him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” Instead, as you recall, Joseph is stripped of his amazing Technicolor dreamcoat and tossed into a pit, later to be sold to merchants who, in turn, sell him as a slave. The brothers return to their father Jacob bearing a torn and bloodstained coat and the news that a wild beast had slain “your son.” And that was the end of that, except for the guilt of the brothers and the grief of the father . . . and the amazing rise of Joseph in the pharaoh’s household thanks to his interpretation of – you remember – dreams.
Meeting Joseph is the last thing these brothers expect when famine drives them to Egypt and forces them to bow down before the governor, the man in charge of distributing food to all the starving lands surrounding the empire – a man they do not recognize, clothed as he is in Egyptian regalia far grander than his once-fine and favored coat. But Joseph recognizes them, and here’s the MERCY in this story. He does not send them away. He recognizes them not as his would-be killers, not as the traitors who traded his life for 20 pieces of silver. He recognizes them as his brothers.
In today’s passage, as he reveals himself to the dismayed troop of beggars, Joseph also reveals God’s purpose in all this sorry tale. “Do not be angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me [here] before you to preserve life.” We could argue theologically about whether and why God would design such a deed. I have my doubts. But there is no doubt that God has the power to bring good out of the most disastrous situations. So Joseph reinterprets his brothers’ betrayal and violence in light of God’s mercy. And true recognition comes, not in bowing down or being bowed down to, but in weeping on each other’s necks. Through the mercy of God, their brotherhood is restored.
* * *
The mercy of God is revealed, too, in Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman. Today’s gospel sees him leaving yet another contentious conversation with religious authorities who might well have muttered to one another, “Here comes that dreamer.” Jesus enters the Gentile territories of Tyre and Sidon because maybe he just needs a break from constant controversy, or maybe he suffers from what we would call compassion fatigue. After all, just as Jesus is completely divine, he is also completely human, and wearies, as we do, of the endless worries of the world. So when this gentile woman starts calling after him, and the disciples urge him to “send her away,” he is quite open to the suggestion. He is willing to ignore her and “not answer her at all” except to say something like, “Not my problem.” “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” he tells the desperate mother, but she refuses to give up on her daughter. Recognizing him by the title LORD, she bows down and begs, “Help me.” Even then, he is unwilling and makes that statement so hard for us to reconcile with our notions of gentle Jesus: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she reinterprets his refusal, reminding him that “even dogs eat the crumbs from the table.” And in that moment, something clicks. Something of the dream of God, the mercy of God pours into and through Jesus. His purpose — to save the lost sheep of Israel — expands, and he recognizes her not as a gentile, not as a stranger, but as a sister in need.
* * *
And whom do we recognize, my sisters and brothers, as OUR sisters and brothers? It is so easy these days to send them away. We can turn the channel, flip the page, click the mouse, and turn away from thirsty throngs on a mountain in Iraq; refugee children pressing at our borders; suffering innocents on both sides of the age-old conflict in the land we call holy. We can turn away from a terrible illness ravaging African nations. We can turn away from a community grieving and outraged over another lost son, from the realities of racism, from embattled police officers trying to keep the peace. We can turn away from those we know and love — in our own families and as far away as Hollywood — who suffer in silence the unbearable burden of depression, until they can bear it no more.
It is certainly safer, and easier, to turn away, because what can I as an individual, what can you as a congregation, what can we as heirs of Joseph and followers of Jesus do with all this tragedy and turmoil? I don’t know all the answers, but I do know this: Doing something about these things is our purpose.
These sorrows, and those we have not yet imagined, are not part of God’s plan, any more than it was God’s plan that Joseph be sold into slavery, that the Canaanite woman’s daughter be enslaved to illness. God has the power to bring goodness out of any evil, but evil is not part of God’s plan. In fact, God does not have a plan, if by that we mean a script that we unwittingly follow. God does not have a plan, GOD HAS A PURPOSE.
And God’s purpose is MERCY. God’s purpose is that we recognize all people as God’s beloved children, that we work with God to bring goodness out of evil, that we let God’s MERCY flow into and through us, to a suffering world, That is God’s purpose; that is God’s dream. In whatever ways, small and large, we can live that dream, let God use us for his purpose. And let the world say of us, when they see our works of mercy, “There go those dreamers.”