Sermon begins about 26 minutes in.
In the summer of 1968, scant months after the murder and martyrdom of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., these words from the King James translation of the Bible appeared on a tent in the Poor People’s Campaign’s Resurrection City, occupying the Mall in Washington DC: Behold, this dreamer cometh. Come now therefore, and let us slay him…and we shall see what will become of his dreams.
Let us pray: God of dreamers and prophets, unveil our eyes to show us the world as it is and, unveil our hearts to show us the world as it may be. Amen.
Once upon a time two sisters were tricked by their father into marrying the same man. One sister loved the man deeply and found her love returned. The other sister was trapped in a loveless marriage. But the unloved sister was fertile. That mattered in their world and it still matters today in different ways. The beloved sister was infertile until the birth of a particularly beloved boy and ultimately, died birthing her second son. But in the interval between those births, her firstborn son was the apple of his father’s eyes and the pride of his life and loins given his great age.
The text tells us that Israel, formerly Jacob, loved Joseph more than any of his other children because he was the child of his old age. Perhaps he also held him so dearly because he was at long last the child of his beloved Rachel for whom he stayed for the promise of marrying. He loved her so much that he worked 7 ½ years of manual labor and found that they passed overnight because of his love and longing. Yet, between the desperate fertility of his first wife Leah and the enslaved women she and her sister Rachel gave him to impregnate and, finally Rachel herself, Israel had eleven sons and some unknown number of daughters with the birth of Joseph. All of them knowing their father loved little Joseph more than he would ever love any of them. It seems Israel, Jacob learned nothing from having his love manipulated by his father-in-law. Or, perhaps he learned from him all the wrong lessons. His children’s hunger for their father’s love was a hunger that could never be satisfied. The brothers turned mean and bitter and dangerous. The sisters were ignored by a narrative tradition that often but not always expects them to remain on the margins unless essential to the story and never once speaks of a father’s love for a daughter.
Thus, that one boy was a treasure and treated as one, alone. He was dressed so elaborately that his richly embroidered tunic with lavish sleeves would come to be known as the garments worn by the daughters of kings. Four hundred years later as the story goes, David’s daughters wore them as well. Yes, Joseph wore a princess dress. And like many who stand out in some visible way, Joseph was the victim of bullying. And, he was also a little snot. Joseph was no prince no matter the outcome of his life. However, a person does not have to be a prince or a perfect son for their life to matter. They can have bad habits and a bad attitude and still be worthy of the life God gave them. And no one has the right to take that life away no matter how hurt, no matter how angry, no matter how betrayed.
Joseph was the baby. He was his father’s pet and that did not sit well with older his brothers. He was also an annoying little brother following them around and that didn’t sit well with them either. He was where they did not want him to be, where they did not think he belonged. Some folks still think that is justification for killing a person, hounding and hunting them down. And, Joseph was a tattletale, running home to tell on his brothers and get them in trouble. All of this may sound like the sibling rivalry with which any of us could have grown up and, perhaps did. But there was something uglier in this family. These hurts ran and deep and long.
When we arrive at the episode including the tattle-telling, Joseph is 17 years old, fully a man in his culture and his ten brothers are older than he. These are men, not boys. But they carry the unhealed hurts of childhood into their adulthood. And the hurt, harm and havoc they will wreak will bear the strength and consequence of their adult responsibilities to manage their own pain without making it someone else’s. Their acts will not be childish pranks; they will be crimes: assault, kidnapping, trafficking, conspiracy to commit murder. This is not a children’s Bible story.
Then, as if Joseph’s favorite status and clothing allowance were not enough, he also seemed to be God’s favorite among them, gifted with the power of dreams, of receiving portentous dreams and, interpreting his dreams and the dreams of others. And his dreams were grand. They were grand because he was not simply a dreamer or dream interpreter, but the “master of dreams.” His dreams signified that his status and story would be even greater. Greater than those of his brothers and even greater than those of his parents including his father who dared to wrestle with God. His brothers decided there and then that there was no room in the world for Joseph and his dreams. They decided that they had the right to kill and enslave anyone who had a different dream than theirs. Their descendants are still dreaming up nightmares for those who dream of a different world. In order for their dreams to come to pass, Joseph had to die and hopefully take his dreams with him.
Genesis 37:19 They said to one another, “Look! Here comes this dreamer – this master of dreams. 20 Come on, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits and then we will say that a wild animal has devoured him and, we shall see what will become of his dreams.”
Joseph’s dreams upset the social order. The world they knew and the world they wanted. The world in which they knew their place, his place and everyone else’s place. Joseph and his dreams were dangerous. Now in the world of the text, Joseph’s dream was not seen as collaboration with an imperializing power upholding the hierarchy of scarcity and enabling and perpetuating slavery. It was seen as a come up. He was raised up so that he might raise his people up but of course that story ends with their enslavement by the very same mechanisms he set up to enslave the Egyptians. No, I’m not here to defend Joseph’s dream. Just his right to have it and go on living with it.
Dreams and their dreamers can be dangerous. Especially to entrenched realities. Everyone knows that the older brother is the most important. Everyone knows that the younger brother is least significant. Everyone knows that the sisters and daughters don’t matter enough to have their names mentioned unless there is a sexual element to the story. Everyone knows that women are there to give birth and to introduce men who matter and move the story along. These are some of the entrenched realities of the world of the scriptures. Except for those dreamers and their dreams who saw a new way of being in the world: Women who did not know their place or knew it and told you what you could do with it, younger siblings who turned the table on older siblings, enslaved people who knew that freedom was their right, uppity shepherd boys facing down an army in which every soldier might as well have been a giant, wild eyed desert wanderers, pregnant virgins, rabbis on the get down with sex workers and financial frauds. Some were called seers, some were called visionaries, some were called prophets, some were called psalmists, some were called wise women, some were called whores, some were called disciples, some were called bandits and revolutionaries. One was called teacher, healer, Mary’s baby, in the words of the Emmaus road travelers, “Jesus the Nazarene…a prophet mighty in deed and word before God.” All were dreamers of one sort or another.
But the greatest dreamer of them all was God who wove her dreams into reality using the flesh and blood of a virgin’s womb. Jesus is the dream of God and like Joseph’s dream he presented a danger to the entrenched realities of his world. Unlike Joseph, Jesus came to overthrow empires and their emperors and usher in a sovereign majesty that could never be fully contained in a theologically impoverished word like kingdom. And with God, through God and, as God, Jesus dreamed of a world free from sin, fear and, death. And just when his community of dreamers was catching fire with the spirit of the dream, the destroyers of dreams said, “Look! Here comes this dreamer – this master of dreams. Come, let us kill him… and then…we shall see what will become of his dreams.”
It is to this broken hearted community of dreamers that Jesus appears on the Emmaus road. Their dream has become a nightmare. They saw their dreamer martyred and murdered before their very eyes. They could still hear the echo of the hammer against the nails and the mocking cries, “Where is his dream now? Will it come down from heaven to save him?” They could still taste and smell the scent of blood on the air. They could still see the moment when that tortured twisted body breathed its last and the dream died before their very eyes. Their dreamer and his dream died on the deadwood of a dead tree. As they walked along in the company of a seemingly clueless stranger, they were are reliving the death of that dream.
Now, as on Good Friday, before we move to the resurrection of the dream, we need to sit in the dust and ashes of grief with our clothing and hair torn and in disarray like our shredded hopes and broken hearts. Jesus’ death offers hard lessons for today’s dreamers. The innocent do suffer. The wheels of “justice” in this world grind the innocent and the guilty into the ground without distinction. The whims of an evil empire are borne on the broken bodies of its subjects whose race, ethnicity, and embodiment differ from their own. Broken-hearted mothers are faced with the burial of their mutilated and bullet ridden children. The ones you thought were there to serve and protect you all too often serve and protect a dream that does not include you or your life’s breath. The people in the place of prayer will turn on you as soon as you preach a gospel that is not their gospel. Friends you have known for years will leave you to die in your own spittle. But your girls will stand with you to the end.
For all that Jesus was and is God’s incarnate dream, the world still needs dreamers. God calls us to dream with her. To make her dreams for the world present in our reality. Her dream of a beloved community where the only law is love. And that is a dangerous dream. Its dreamers have been hounded and hunted in every time and every place. More than a few have died a martyr’s death.
Here in these dis-United States where there is justice for none while there is only liberty for some (no matter two or three righteous convictions), the dreamers have been indigenous peoples praying to and naming God in their own ways, the trafficked survivors of slavers deposited in a strange land to be bought and sold and worked like cattle though lusted after and violated. The dreamers are those ground down by structural economic, social and racial injustice. The dreamers are those whose bodies are not recognized as the very image of God because the language of their dreams transcends the binary grammatical languages of ancient dreamers. The dreamers are those whose love and families are disdained because their dream of love expands the categories of love and marriage and family. Some of those dreamers are Jews who seek to live and worship in peace but are increasingly subject to antisemitism including from Christians and the worst of our theology. The dreamers are those who believe housing and healthcare ought not be dreams. The dreamers are immigrants at man-made, yes man-made and not even human made, man-made borders all around this good but troubled land. And, yet we still dream.
And every now and then, one dreamer’s voice issues a clarion call ingathering all of the other dreamers for this mighty work of God. Dreamers like Miriam and Martin, Deborah and Desmond, Pauli and Paul, Cesar Chavez and the Shunamite widow, Harvey Milk and Hoglah, Milcah and their sisters. God still sends prophets and dreamers, just sometimes, the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls. They are found in rap lyrics embroidered with profanity. And, they come from the mouth of babes. And God still calls, “Dream a little dream with me.” Amen.