(A sermon based on Genesis 37.1-4, 12-28 and Matthew 14.22-33)
It’s a story fit for the movies, and of course, popular movies have been made about Joseph. The play, and later movie, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is one.
In the story of Joseph we hear about divine blessing, the blessings of the land, how wise leadership and skillful governance can save people. There’s family growth and tremendous conflict and sibling rivalry, hatred, ill-will and grievous bad acts in selling Joseph off as a slave.
Joseph is a dreamer. Joseph tells his family about two of his dreams, in the barest of details. He does not embellish the stories, or try to interpret them for his family. But his family does the interpreting. The first dream has sheaves of wheat at the harvest. All of the brothers’ sheaves are bowing down to Joseph’s sheave. Joseph says nothing about it, but the brothers say, “Oh, right, and we’re supposed to bow down to you?! I don’t think so!!”
When Joseph goes to check on his brothers working at Shechem, we can see that they are troubled by the dream that they heard from Joseph’s own mouth, and they want to make sure it doesn’t come true. There’s no way they are going to bow down to him, they think. (And those of us who’ve read ahead or remember the story, know that Joseph will save their lives.) But right now they want Joseph out of the picture, and the best way to do that, they figure, is to kill him.
But then they decide that’s too much, so they’ll instead drop him into a pit and then sell him and make some money in the bargain. They strip Joseph of his beautiful coat, a symbol to them of their father’s favoritism.
Dreams were often considered to come from God, and indeed the story of Joseph shows the divine presence with Joseph throughout his life. And the story’s author impresses on us that Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams likewise is given by God. (Gen 41.38).
Dreams are unintentional. We can’t force them or create them. They just happen. And we can’t control them. Have you ever woken up in the middle of a dream and tried to go back to sleep to see how it turned out? But we can never make it turn out a certain way. Dreams just happen.
Not only was Joseph a dreamer, but he also had the gift of interpretation of dreams. For those who know the story, Joseph keeps dreaming and interpreting, and he interprets Pharoah’s dream about the famine, so that they plan ahead and food is stored (under Joseph’s direction) so that when the famine arrives, the people of Egypt are prepared.
Imagination, on the other hand, is not unintentional; it is a conscious act. Imagination allows us to make a story out of some bits and pieces of images or representations. Imagination is a way for us to try to make sense of things that don’t make sense to us. Or perhaps to allow ourselves to wonder how certain things are related through time.
I think it was imagination at work in Joseph that allowed him to continue to see some family connection with his brothers even after they’d sold him into slavery and they were suffering from the famine. But that’s a story for another day. Imagination is used in interpreting dreams and in dreaming new things. Joseph was a dreamer by night and I believe he used his imagination by day.
How do we treat the dreamers and imaginers among us?
Do we think they’ve got their heads in the clouds and we’re the ones who are going to save the day, those of us with our feet planted firmly in “the way we’ve always done it?” Or have we had the experience of thinking that something was just illusion, just a “ghost” but it turned out to be the inspiration of the divine with us? Are we willing to try things out that others have imagined?
Or do we think we already know what works best?
You know, churches are famous for this. Do what needs to be done, the vestry tells the pastor, but don’t change anything!! We need to have more people attend Sunday worship, the deacons say, but don’t change anything!! Here at this church there has been dwindling attendance for many years and through many pastors. What do you believe God’s will is for this church, this body of Christ?
Are you willing to ask what God’s will is, to imagine what God has in store for this congregation, and then to work together to do it? To set aside your own personal desires? Does it always have to look just like this? Because if it always has to look just like this, I’m not sure we’re really using our God-given imaginations. And if it always has to look just like this, we might not recognize Jesus when he shows up looking like someone we’re not expecting. We might just think it’s a ghost.
And remember, in the story in Matthew’s gospel this morning it was not the storm that terrified the disciples. They were experienced sailors and fishermen. They were terrified when they saw someone walking toward them on the water. It looked like Jesus. But what was going on? Walking on the storm-tossed waves? They cried out in fear until he told them, “It is I, do not be afraid.”
Fear is the theme of this story. But together – in the boat – all together they knew who it was. Together they worshipped Jesus. They recognized him when they were together. This was the same person who’d just heard about the death of John the Baptist and tried to get away to clear his head and calm his heart and pray. Their same Jesus who had just told them, “you give them something to eat,” and with their five loaves and two fish he made enough, enough for five thousand people. The same Jesus whom they loved so, and who was rejected by his hometown.
Here was Jesus, in the boat with them – here in the nave with us – and they recognized him now. They recognized him when they were together.
This story differs from other accounts in other Gospels, because in the Matthew story, Peter demands proof. “If it is really you tell me to come to you across the water” he says. And so Jesus tells him to come. Peter starts walking and then he becomes afraid. Not afraid because the water may not support him. The text says he becomes afraid because of a strong wind.
If the wind had blown the disciples’ boat away from land, then as Jesus approached the boat from the land, Jesus would have been walking with the wind. And Peter, attempting to walk toward Jesus, would have been walking against the wind. The wind would have been blowing Peter away from Jesus and back toward the boat. But the boat would have been further away from Peter still, as the wind continued to drive the boat further from land. Peter was afraid as he stepped away from the boat and wasn’t making much progress toward Jesus against the strong wind. And the boat drifts further away behind him. So he calls out to Jesus, who saves him. Sometimes it’s better to stay in the boat, eh? Sometimes it’s better to stay with the group.
Racing sailboats requires teamwork. Whether it’s a boat that is raced with 2 people or 12 people. Working together in the boat, each with their own job, but focused on the group goal. I’ll never forget one race. I had one crew with me. The spinnaker sheets – those are lines you use to control the spinnaker – had to be re-sent through a whole series of leads under the deck. I had to do that, and so I gave the tiller to my crew, and I said, “keep heading for that buoy.”
Under the deck I went, feeding the lines along through holes and fairleads and blocks. Maybe three minutes elapsed, and up I came. I looked around. The boat that we had been just ahead of when I went belowdecks was way ahead of us and rounding the next mark. We were way out in the middle of the bay, far from any competitors. Far from the rest of the fleet. We had been in first place and now we were in last place, and in last place by a long distance. “Why aren’t we still headed for the buoy I pointed out?,” I asked. My crew said, “well, I discovered that we went so much faster at this angle to the wind, so I just went with it.”
This was not a good thing, you see, because we were racing. Racing with a group. Trying not just to go fast, but to go faster than anyone else in a certain direction, around a certain course. The only way the race worked is if you raced with other boats. It didn’t matter how fast we were going if we were just off on our own. We couldn’t compare our speed with anyone else’s while we were out there by our onesies.
The whole idea of the club is to do things together. Primarily, for this club, to race together. To learn together new and faster ways of sailing. To study together. To share meals together. To put boats in the water together at the beginning of the season and to wistfully take them out of the water at the end of the season. It is not the same experience when you do it all by yourself. You never can learn as much. You miss the community of being together. We learn more when we study together, and pose questions and try new ideas – together.
That holds true for the Body of Christ, too! You see, when we act like Lone Rangers, we’re apt to make mistakes. We miss things. Our individual perspective can be too limited. My crew liked going fast! But he forgot that we were racing together with other boats. He forgot our purpose. Going fast all by ourselves was illusion. Sure, the breeze felt like it was rushing past our faces and it seemed good. But we weren’t in the race. We’d left the fleet.
You see where we all are now, in this part of the church where the congregation sits, where the pews are? I’m sure you’ve heard it called the NAVE. Did you know that the word NAVE is derived from the medieval Latin word NAVIS, which means BOAT! So, there is an image to hold up to remind us that we are not sailing alone. We are like the disciples gathered together in the boat. Looking for Jesus. Listening for Jesus. Imagining Jesus in our stories. Hearing him speak to us. Knowing he holds us close.
But not just us, you see, because he came that all may have life and have it in abundance. Imagine that?!
We have imaginations planted within us by the divine, just like Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams, an act of the imagination. Within us, there’s the capacity to make story from our lives, even the most hum-drum aspects of our day-to-day goings on.
Our ability to imagine, to day-dream, is powerful stuff! This is where our new ideas can bubble up! Here is where we can set aside our limits, often self-imposed, and step into new freedoms. And when we share these ideas, we can sift them through together and see the divine working among us, within us. Alone, well, we might end up like my sailboat in that awful race. Going off all by ourselves. Leaving the fleet. Headed out to sea alone when the party is back on the shore.
But together, we try out our imaginings, and see where they lead! Together, we listen for Jesus. We see him and we reach out for him together. We ask him to stay with us, to sail with us together in the world. Together, with all our dreams and imaginings. God bless you!