The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14, 10 August 2014
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b
I Kings 19:9-18
St. Matthew 14:22-33
Background: Dreams in Biblical Literature
Most of the dreams we read about in the Bible are limited to the book of Genesis, and in the Track 1 reading for this Sunday we meet Joseph, the son of Jacob and Rachel, whom his brothers call ba’al haalomot (lord of dreams, or “dream master”). Used in the context of that reading it is delivered with no small amount of sarcasm. Just what was the status of dream and dream interpretation in the ancient world? The Sumerians are known to have made records of dreams as far back as 3100 BCE. Mesopotamians had it that in dreaming, the soul left the body and wandered about to the places and events of the dream. The dreams were categorized as either “good” or “bad”, with “good” dreams coming from the gods, and “bad” dreams from evil spirits. Dreaming was also considered a special gift and ability in Egypt as well. They, as well as the Mesopotamians, saw dreaming as an opportunity for understand the desire of the gods or the intent of the times, seeing dreams as either omens or messages from another realm of reality. In the book of Samuel we learn about the prophet’s habit of sleeping in the sanctuary before the Ark of the Covenant there hoping to receive the Word of the Lord. Egyptians did this as well, having sanctuaries where one could sleep and dream, receiving messages from the gods. There is a long line of dreamers in Hebrew/Christian culture: Joseph in Egypt, Daniel, Abimilech, Abraham, Jacob, and Solomon among others. In the Christian Scriptures, Matthew models Joseph after his forbearer as he experiences the dreams about Jesus, and the dangers of Herod. Peter, Paul and John also have dream experiences.
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
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.
Now his brothers went to pasture their father's flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, "Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them." He answered, "Here I am." So he said to him, "Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me." So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.
He came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, "What are you seeking?" "I am seeking my brothers," he said; "tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock." The man said, "They have gone away, for I heard them say, `Let us go to Dothan.'" So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, "Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams." But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, "Let us not take his life." Reuben said to them, "Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him" -- that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, "What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh." And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.
This is the first chapter in what will become and epic, a detective story, and a human-interest story. In this reading we are introduced to the main characters, although some will be added in the coming weeks. Preeminent is Joseph, a rather precocious and arrogant teen-ager. We are also introduced to his brothers, sons of Israel by several wives and concubines. There are traders, Ishmaelites or Midianites (the text seems to be a weaving of two different traditions). That weaving is also evident in the roles played by the brothers Ruben and Judah, each moderating the vicious stance of the other brothers. The story is a set piece to get Joseph into Egypt where he will be the consummate dreamer, politician, and healer of the breach in the family. More will be revealed in next week’s first reading.
Breaking open Genesis:
- How does Joseph strike you in this text?
- Are the brothers justified in their action?
- Are Judah and Ruben righteous in their response?
Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45b Confitemini Domino
Give thanks to the LORD and call upon his Name; *
make known his deeds among the peoples.
Sing to him, sing praises to him, *
and speak of all his marvelous works.
Glory in his holy Name; *
let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice.
Search for the LORD and his strength; *
continually seek his face.
Remember the marvels he has done, *
his wonders and the judgments of his mouth,
O offspring of Abraham his servant, *
O children of Jacob his chosen.
Then he called for a famine in the land *
and destroyed the supply of bread.
He sent a man before them, *
Joseph, who was sold as a slave.
They bruised his feet in fetters; *
his neck they put in an iron collar.
Until his prediction came to pass, *
the word of the LORD tested him.
The king sent and released him; *
the ruler of the peoples set him free.
He set him as a master over his household,*
as a ruler over all his possessions,
To instruct his princes according to his will*
and to teach his elders wisdom.
Breaking open Psalm 105:
- How is God made known to us by previous generations?
- How did you learn faith from your parents?
- How are you teaching the faith?
1 Kings 19:9-18
At Horeb, the mount of God, Elijah came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" He answered, "I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away."
He said, "Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by." Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" He answered, "I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away." Then the LORD said to him, "Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him."
What immediately precedes this story is the account of the “contest” with the priests of the Ba’al. Elijah defeats them as they entreat their god to receive the sacrifice they wish to offer – all to no avail. Elijah punctuates the power of YHWH by dowsing his sacrifice, wood, and altar with water, and yet the sacrifice is burned. What follows is Jezebel’s anger at the murder of all her priests, and she threatens the life of Elijah, who retreats to Beersheba. There he encounters the Angel of the Lord, who asks of him his purpose in being there. It might be a case of abandonment, for Elijah comments on how he only is faithful. God then has every right to ask, “What are you doing here?” The subsequent command is to go and stand before the mountain of the Lord. Moses has stood in this same place before, and even then Moses is shielded from the glory of YHWH by the hand of God. Elijah is to have a different experience. It is not in earthquakes, fires, or other grand events that Elijah is aware of God’s presence but rather in “a sound of sheer silence”. The scene which Elijah flees from: a King of Israel who does not follow God’s ways, and a people and indeed prophets who seem not to care, this scene is redeemed by what God asks Elijah to do. A series of anointings are commanded – for God is still in charge of the nations. The scene will change for Elijah as well, as God implies the end of his own days, for his is to “anoint a prophet in your stead.” The language here is language of royal succession. What follows next is the ancient prophetic pattern of indication of unfaithfulness followed by punishment at the hand of foreign powers, “who escapes the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall put to death, etc.” This is the real contest seen not in liturgical acts, which were unconvincing, but rather in the realpolitik of the ninth century BCE. There is a subtlety of the “small, quiet voice” that has suasion here.
Breaking open the I Kings:
- How do you experience God?
- What do you do in God’s silence?
- How do you share that silence with others?
Psalm 85:8-13 Benedixisti, Domine
I will listen to what the LORD God is saying, *
for he is speaking peace to his faithful people
and to those who turn their hearts to him.
Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, *
that his glory may dwell in our land.
Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Truth shall spring up from the earth, *
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
The LORD will indeed grant prosperity, *
and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness shall go before him, *
and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.
As I often do, I recommend that you read the whole psalm. The initial verses give flavor and context to the verses selected for this morning. Of special notice, when linking this to the First Reading concerning Elijah, is the verse, “you forgave your people’s crime, you covered all their offense.” This provides a sense of completion to Elijah’s mission that reconciles the people with the God whom they have forgotten. The selection also speaks to the “small quiet voice” as well, “let me hear what YHWH God would speak.” What is spoken to the people, God’s faithful people? It is the word of peace, and a hope that they will not turn to old patterns. A new reality (perhaps one written in the context of returning from exile) ensues, “that his glory may dwell in our land.” What is pictured in the closing verses is the juxtaposition of virtues: mercy and truth, righteousness and peace. This is the new land in which Israel ought to dwell.
Breaking open the Psalm 85:
- What patterns of human behavior does the psalm expose?
- What is God’s reaction?
- What is your response?
Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law that "the person who does these things will live by them." But the righteousness that comes from faith says, "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?'" (That is, to bring Christ down) "or 'Who will descend into the abyss?'" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say?
"The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart"
(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, "No one who believes in him will be put to shame." For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"
In this continuing reading from Romans, like Paul, we wrestle with the Law and what it must mean for us who are in the Body of Christ. In the verse immediately preceding this reading Paul attempts to answer, “For Christ is the end* of the law for the justification of everyone who has faith.” Other commentators suggest other translations for the Greek word, telos (end) by suggesting the words “goal” or “purpose.” Paul assumes a holiness, goodness, and righteousness to the Law, but only in that it is completed in the acts of Jesus, the Christ. The discourse of this reading revolves around the desired confession that “Jesus is Lord”. Jesus is seen as Lord of both Jew and Gentile, “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek.” In verse 13, Paul encourages to “call on the name of the Lord.” What follows are a series of questions that wonder how this is to happen (preaching, and mission). This reading poses serious questions for the Christian congregation that is satisfied merely with numbers and not with message or proclamation. How beautiful are our feet?
Breaking open Romans:
- Why is there no difference between Jew and Gentile?
- In what ways are you a preacher?
- What is your parish’s true mission?
St. Matthew 14:22-33
Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."
Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."
There is a word for this kind of thing, and that word is theophany – a glimpse of the divine, akin to what Elijah experienced at Horeb. What does the Matthew tradition want us to take from this? Is it only that Jesus could walk on water, or is there infinitely more? Let’s look at the elements. The ship is crowded with those whom Jesus will send out in mission. It is at the mercy of the elements, sea and wind. It is the church that exists at the time the Matthew tradition is being put together, a community buffeted by culture, family, and world politics. So it is that the disciples, those who are to share the word, do so in a difficult setting. The readers of Matthew would have understood this.
Jesus approaches them from another reality – that silence and spirit-filled atmosphere that he constantly sought in the wilderness. In the midst of their difficulties they recognized the Christ coming to be with them. Is this a miss-placed Easter experience? Peter is recognized as primary, but even he is not up to the task – he sinks and calls for help. It is the divine Jesus who must reach out and save. In a way this confession by Peter follows others that he will make in his lifetime, “Lord, save me,” and later, “Truly you are the son of God,” a confession shared by all of them. In Matthew 16, Peter will be tested further and will make confession once again. So what are we to learn from this episode, a Christ who makes us wonder at physical abilities, or a Christ who reaches out to save and to guide our mission?
Breaking open the Gospel:
- How is Jesus Lord in your life?
- How do you know this?
- What kind of confession can you make about Jesus?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller