Talk Ourselves Out of It

August 13, 2017

Series: August 2017

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Genesis 37:12-28
12Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13And 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.” 14So 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, 15and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” 16“I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” 17The 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. 18They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20Come 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.” 21But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22Reuben 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. 23So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; 24and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
25Then 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. 26Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27Come, 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. 28When 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 HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.

Talk Ourselves Out of It
 As summer starts to draw to a close, so too does our road trip with this cast of characters from Genesis.  This is our last Sunday with this story, with which we have been traveling for several weeks now.  We were there as Jacob and Esau wrestled in the womb, Jacob eventually stealing Esau’s birthright.  We saw the tables turned on Jacob as he was tricked into marrying the sister of the woman he desired, leading him to wait 14 years in all for his chosen bride.  We witnessed another wrestling match between Jacob and a heavenly being who leaves a mark on Jacob who is renamed Israel.  We stood as bystanders for a heartwarming reunion and ceasefire between Esau and Jacob.  In these episodes, we have seen a full display of human behavior, from envy and covetousness to favoritism and trickery, from loyalty and passion to forgiveness and reconciliation.
 Today we are on to the next generation, and the picture, in all its messiness, continues to unfold.  This time, it is Israel’s children who take center stage.  Living out of his own childhood experience, which so many of us do, Israel plays favorites, not surprisingly preferring the youngest, Joseph the dreamer, creating spite among his brothers.  As a result, the brothers hatch a plot to kill Joseph and throw him in a pit.  That’s when Rueben, one of the brothers, steps in.  “Let us not take his life,” he says, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” (Gen. 37:21-22).  It is a crafty intervention, making the best, perhaps, of an imperfect situation, a necessary compromise.  Throw him in the pit, abandon him in the wilderness, but don’t actively kill him.  Reuben splices the morality of the situation, allowing the brothers to exact revenge on the resented Joseph, yet sparing his life, or at least giving him a chance to escape death, which Joseph ultimately does.  It’s unsavory, and yet it seems to work. 
How many times do we find ourselves placed in precarious ethical situations in which we are called to make decisions that have consequences for others?  So often, the choices we make do not feel clean.  They are not as we would like in a perfect world.  Our conduct does not live up to how we always thought we would have the courage to act in such circumstances, and yet they are the best we can do.  After all, we have our own livelihood to protect as well.  Allan Boesak, who preaches a powerful sermon on this Genesis passage, calls this the “Reuben option.”  An imperfect response to a difficult situation, but the best that can be reasonable expected of us. 
 You might think that Boesak argues for the Reuben option, but he deems it utter rubbish.  The gospel is not simply about tinkering around the edges of a broken system or construct; it is about living into an entirely new reality.  Boesak, you see, was an anti-apartheid activist, and his own Dutch Reformed Church did plenty to avoid taking up wholesale opposition to the evil of state-sponsored separation, oppression, racism that was apartheid, and evil was precisely what it was.  The same thing happened here when facets of the which church resisted the Civil Rights movement, arguing for slower, incremental change, easy to do when you’re not the one suffering.  This is why Martin Luther King resounded time and again, “Now is the time…Now is the time…Now is the time.”  “The time is always right,” King said, “to do the right thing.” 
 Compromise is an important skill, but this kind of compromise, one that privileges our temporary comfort over the eternal and God-given rights of others, is not compromise, it is theological and spiritual confusion.  It is a rebuke of the Jesus Christ, who never shied from confronting the hypocrisy and evils of his time.  Boesak describes the failure of his beloved church in South Africa in failing to stand up and say, “No” to apartheid on all fronts.  “This, I think, is the agony of the church,” he said, “we know what we should be doing, but we lack the courage to do it.  We feel we ought to do it and we cannot.”  
 Boesak continues, “We are afraid to make choices, so we are constantly on the lookout for compromises.  We are paralyzed by the need to be all things to all people, to be a church where all feel welcome all the time, and so we sacrifice on both altars.  We stand accused by a history of compromises always made for the sake of survival.”   After all, if one sells out the gospel, what is left is not a church, but a social club or a spa, both of which have their place, but neither are to be confused for the body of people devoted to the way of Jesus.  Churches are obsessed with their own self-preservation, yet in the foundations of Presbyterian polity in our constitution, we proclaim that the church is called to live out its mission, “even at the risk of losing its own life.”
What has truly been preserved in Reuben’s unholy compromise?  Joseph is still thrown into the pit, where he could very well die.  Yes, Reuben could return to set him free, and that’s all well and good unless you are the one continually told to just hang tight in the pit.  For all Reuben knew at the time, the only thing he was avoiding was his brothers’ guilt, not his brother’s death.  Let us be careful who we applaud.
 “The Reuben option,” describes Boesak, “Take a stand, but always cover yourself.  The problem cannot be ignored, so let us do something about it, but always in such a way that it does not hurt us too much.  Take a stand; use the right words in the resolutions taken by the synod and the general assembly, but also make sure that you build into those resolutions all the necessary safeguards—just in case.  Don’t antagonize people too much, especially those in the church who have money.  Opt for peace, but don’t confuse that with justice.”
 Boesak’s concern is the church, but we can certainly expand the notion to our lives as well.  Can we look at how we may have sacrificed morality or our calling to do as Jesus would have us because of the backlash we would incur?  This is hard stuff.  My experience, however, is that people can handle hard truths when they are spoken clearly and directly, and Boesak makes it clear.  Faithfulness requires Reuben to stand up and say “No,” outright to his brothers.  That moral clarity gives us ground to stand on with one another, and that is the calling, and joy, of a faith community.  As a singular person, I am no emblem of bravery, certainly no hero.  As part of a body of faith, I can be one capable of courageous acts and brave stands.  The same is true for all of us.  I know there are those here whose work puts them in situations in which it is a daily struggle to do the right thing when those around them are not.  Let this church and the gospel it beloves be a reminder they are not alone.  I know some here have to say or do difficult things to or with family.  Let us be their rear guard and new family if it comes to that.  This feels scary, which is why Jesus sent out the disciples, two by two, signifying that we go together, and, just as the animals who left the ark, we are living into a new creation.  The old has been washed away.  Jesus’ way delivers us to dry land, from a destructive way of being to a peaceable kingdom.
 Let the stories of the church give you the courage, or serve as cautionary tales, so are empowered to do what you need to do.  Have I ever told you about Erskine Clarke?  Erskine Clarke, or Dr. Clarke, I should call him, was one the of the church history professors at Columbia seminary near Atlanta where I attended.  Dr. Clarke is a genteel man, a true southern gentleman, who spoke with an eloquence and diction that you could listen to all day, though he never raised his voice or made efforts to be dynamic.  The year I took Presbyterian history and polity, Clarke was right in the midst of a book he was writing called, Dwelling Place:  A Plantation Epic.  That book later went on to win the National Book Award in history, not in church history, in history, a secular award given to the best history book of the year.  Clarke’s book was about Charles Colcock Jones, a 19th century Presbyterian Pastor who came to the South, and even spent some time at Columbia before it moved to Atlanta. 
 As Clarke told us, Jones had come to the South as a missionary to the slaves, and in his time worked diligently to try and improve the conditions of slavery, which some would call a pretty noble cause for his day and age.  I’ll never forget the day Dr. Clarke lectured on Jones’ life and the struggles of his time, and his choices in the midst of an institution, slavery, he knew was wrong.  He looked at us and said that over the years he had seen a lot of students come to Columbia wide-eyed and eager, full of ideals, on fire for the gospel, and ready to confront a world filled with injustice in the name of Jesus Christ.  I thought for sure that the next thing out of his mouth would be something about how life is simply more complicated than that, that the world was more powerful than a little idealism could overcome, and that mature spiritual leaders would need learn that sometimes you have to do the best you can in the midst of an imperfect situation, and you have to work in a way that allows you to survive to fight another day.
 That’s not what Dr. Clarke said.  Rather what he said was more like, “Don’t you ever lose what brought you here, your love of God, your passion for Jesus, and your clarity around the justice that demands for all creation.  Don’t allow the temptation to put the church’s survival ahead of its integrity.”  In other words, “Don’t think you are preserving anything by tossing the values of Jesus Christ into a pit for someone else to pick up later.”  What Erskine Clarke wanted us to know is that at the end of the day, Charles Colcock Jones took the Reuben option, and we are called for something better.
 We can talk ourselves into a lot of things, that compromise of the gospel is okay if it gets us what we want, or if it spares us what we want to avoid.  It still lands a sister or brother into the pit.  Let us, instead, learn the art of talking each other out of it, giving each other the encouragement we need to make a better choice, for in the closing words of Boesak, “the chosen shall be known by their choices.”   Amen.