Everything Happens For a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved is the title of a book and podcast by Kate Bowler, a young professor at Duke School of Divinity. She wrote it after she was diagnosed at age 35 with stage 4 colon cancer.
Everything happens for a reason. Have you said those words, meaning to comfort someone? Perhaps even yourself? I don’t believe they are true, in fact, I believe that can be damaging. Imagine hearing those words after your young husband inexplicably dies in a Tim Hortons drive through. Imagine hearing those words while living with violence in your home. Imagine hearing those words when receiving food at our food bank? Everything doesn’t happen for a reason!
But! I am convinced that God can take EVERYTHING and redeem it. God doesn’t cause some horrible things to happen just so that we can learn some lesson. But, God takes our pain and our suffering and can use it and us and turn towards healing and wholeness. So that is where I am going to get in the end… God’s continual arc towards redemption… grace… justice.
But I am going to take a path through our biblical text, take a look at family values, tie in Orange Shirt Day, and touch on the ongoing tension over Mi’kmaq fishers attempting to exercise their right to fish.
First, let’s take a look at the biblical story. This week, we jump 20 chapters in the First Testament narrative! Last week we left with Abram’s vision of God taking him outside his tent and telling him that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the night sky. Before we get to this week’s reading, I want to highlight what’s taken place between the two sections:
• Abram has a son Ishmael by his wife’s slave Hagar, Ishmael is considered to be his heir.
• Sarah has Isaac in her old age.
• Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed.
• Lot sleeps with his daughters to continue his lineage.
• While in a foreign land, Abraham passes Sarah off as his sister to the King and gives her to him for a wife in exchange for safety.
• Hagar and Ishmael are sent away; now that there is a son through his marriage to Sarah.
• Abraham is commanded to sacrifice Isaac.
• Sarah dies.
• Isaac and Rebekah are married.
• Abraham remarries – Who knew? And had six more children!
• Esau and Jacob are born to Isaac and Rebekah.
• Jacob is tricked into marrying Leah even though he wants to marry Rachel, but then marries Rachel as well.
• Jacob wrestles with an angel and his name becomes Israel.
How’s that for some family values!
We enter today’s story, in Jacob/Israel’s old age, with sibling rivalry between his sons that goes terribly wrong. Let’s listen to these words, as if hearing them for the first time, as written in selected verses in Chapters 37-50:
37:3 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. 4 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. 5 Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. 7 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.” 8 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.
17b So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. 18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20 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.” 21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22 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. 26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 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. 28 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.
29 When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes. 30 He returned to his brothers, and said, “The boy is gone; and I, where can I turn?”
31 Then they took Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat, and dipped the robe in the blood. 32 They had the long robe with sleeves taken to their father, and they said, “This we have found; see now whether it is your son’s robe or not.”
33 He recognized it, and said, “It is my son’s robe! A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” 34 Then Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days.
First of all, how many of you grew up with Joseph’s coat of many colours? I sure did! In fact, I can hear Dolly Parton singing it now! Apparently there are some translation issues, but regardless of whether it is a coat of many colours or a long sleeved coat, it would have set Joseph apart from physical labour that his brothers had to undertake and they were jealous. They stripped it from him. Joseph’s brothers stripped him of his identity as the favoured son. They sold him into slavery, he gains the King’s favour, loses the King’s favour, gets accuses of sleeping with the king’s wife, gets thrown in jail, interprets dreams for various people, gets out of jail, becomes governor and is in charge of all the food stores. Then his brothers come in supplication for they and all their kin were suffering from a great famine.
50:15 Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?”
16 So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17 “Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.”
Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.”
19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20 Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. 21 So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
And rather than returning violence with violence, Joseph treats them as family, even to say, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. 21 So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.”
Joseph and I disagree there… I would have said something like, “Even though you did harm to me and bad things happened, that is no reason for me to retaliate now. God would not want me to harm you and your children.”
This story has parallels with that of those who were forced into the residential school system. The authorities in one of them stripped Phyliss Jack Westad of her identity as an individual. The story of Orange Shirt Day has some similarities, although in this case, the stripping away was not because the child was favoured.
Why orange? Because of Phyllis Jack Webstad from the St-wet-lem hight-lem Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, who went to St. Joseph Mission Residential School.
On her first day of school, Phyllis wore an orange shirt that her grandmother had given her. It was immediately taken away, and that marked the beginning of Phyllis’s long separation from her family and community, a separation caused by actions of the church and the federal government. https://www.united-church.ca/news/orange-shirt-day-2020
What these two things have in common is power, the abuse of power. Joseph’s brother’s jealousy of his place in his father’s affection drove them to use their physical strength to overpower him and lies to excuse their behaviour. In the Residential Schools, the government and the churches used physical strength, religion and the power of authority to impose a way of life on First Nations people.
I know that some of you are uncomfortable with that statement. Because what we were taught was very different. But we can continue to learn, even when we have to tear down some cherished beliefs. Like the idea that Indigenous people don’t have the right to earn a moderate living from hunting and fishing.
Joseph wound up in a foreign land and prospered. We, at least those of us who are white, our ancestors came as settlers, and prospered. Often thanks to the Indigenous people who inhabited and continue to inhabit the land. Each week, I acknowledge that we live and work and worship on unceded territory, because it is that.
Treaties of Peace and Friendship were made by the Governor of Nova Scotia with Mi’kmaq, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy communities in Nova Scotia. These are the same treaties that were upheld and interpreted by the Supreme Court in the Donald Marshall case. They include the right to harvest fish, wildlife, wild fruit and berries to support a moderate livelihood for the treaty beneficiaries. While the Mi’kmaq promised not to molest the British in their settlements, the Mi’kmaq did not cede or give up their land title and other rights. https://mikmaqrights.com/negotiations/treaties/?fbclid=IwAR06KwQTzM7MItg8WZ6tdwEQaYu6e2Zuu1Ia6XLQnZoXVOHA2qWMA4pNsR0
We are in the midst of new sort of uprising these days. The residential schools aim was to take the Indian out of the Indian and turn them into white people, although with dark skin. First Nations people have become educated, they are professionals, including lawyers, who have studied the Peace and Friendship Treaties and who are challenging us as people of Nova Scotia to uphold them.
Just like the long arc of justice and redemption and grace in Joseph’s story, there is the long arc of justice and redemption and grace in the current story.
All the stories should make you uncomfortable today:
• Joseph’s story
• Phyliss’s story
• And the story of ongoing resistance of the Indigenous right to a moderate livelihood through hunting and fishing.
They are not stories that can be tied up in a nice little bow and we can forget about them. They are stories that can get under our skin if we let them… they are stories of God’s continuing arc towards justice, redemption and grace.
Thanks be to God for these stories, amen.
Genesis 37:3-8, 17b-22, 26-34; 50:15-21
Sept 27, 2020 – SMUC