Third Sunday After Pentecost – June 30, 2019
The story of Joseph begins in the thirty-seventh chapter of the Old Testament book of Genesis. Joseph was the son of Jacob (also known as Israel) and Rachel, and he lived in Canaan with his large family – with his ten half-brothers, six of whom were born to Jacob’s wife Leah, one full brother born to Jacob’s wife Rachel, and at least one half-sister. Jacob’s twelve sons, born to a total of four women, became the progenitors of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
It may have been because he was the firstborn of Rachel, Jacob’s true love, that Joseph was favored by his father Jacob, who provided him (and not any of his brothers) with a long coat of many colors. When Joseph was seventeen years old, he dreamed two dreams that angered his brothers and led to their plotting his demise. First, Joseph dreamed that, along with his brothers, he gathered bundles of grain. However, the brother’s bundles bowed to Joseph’s bundles.
In the second dream, the sun, which represented his father, and the moon, which represented his mother, along with eleven stars representing his brothers, bowed before Joseph. These dreams together served to signify that Joseph was somehow superior to the rest of his family. The coat of many colors was bad enough, but the dreams crossed the line, and Joseph’s brothers sought to do him in, something I will discuss next Sunday.
In today’s reading, we focus upon the “dreamcoat” and these dreams of Joseph’s supremacy, and the jealousy they caused. I have to say that when, months ago, I planned this sermon, it seemed as though it would be rather easy to preach a sermon on the topic of jealousy. However, when I actually sat down on Wednesday to write it, I quickly realized this was going to be a more difficult task than I first anticipated.
This is not a text where the preacher can simply point to paragons of faithful morality in the biblical narrative and proclaim to the congregation to go and do likewise. No one in this text is a paragon of virtue. Jacob does clearly favor one of his sons, and what is worse, he makes this unfortunate fact visible with the gift of the coat of many colors. Furthermore, Joseph is unquestionably (at least in this part of the story) completely full of himself. One would expect that the reaction he received to sharing his first dream of supremacy would have dissuaded him from sharing the second one, but no.
Thus, we cannot look to this text for an easy cure to favoritism, to the sins of pride and jealousy. Yet, I posit this is a good thing, good because easy answers to complex emotional problems always tend to be wrong, and as such, it may be that this text reminds us that the partner sins of pride and jealousy are inevitable, things we all wrestle with, matters as old as the human condition. The author of Ecclesiastes writes of there being “nothing new under the sun,” and this text show that when it comes to the problems of pride and envy, that Ecclesiastes is certainly correct.
Twelve years ago, I was selected to be part of a small group of Virginia Conference clergy to pilot a new program called Calling 21 which would provide internships in our churches to undergraduate students interested in pastoral ministry as a potential vocation. In this capacity, I was blessed to host four such interns, and then for about four more years, I led this program for the Conference.
My first intern was a nineteen-year-old student at James Madison University named Matt, and towards the end of his summer internship, Matt made a point of convincing me that, as a pastor, I had a responsibility to create an account with a relatively new social media service called Facebook. “Facebook is for college students, not people like me,” I protested.
“Facebook is about making connections,” he responded, “How can you as a pastor be against that?”
The first thing I ever saved money to buy was a Kodak camera that used what was called 110 film. The camera cost $15 dollars and each roll of film took about a dozen pictures, which you could not see until they were developed a week later by the photo-mat, which was when I would inevitably learn that in at least one photo, my finger was blocking the lens. One day, I thought it would be funny to take a picture while pointing the camera at my face. My mother saw me doing this and quickly reprimanded me: “Don’t do that, Doug. You are wasting film.”
I only tell you that story so that you know I took a selfie sometime around 1980, well before it was a thing.
So, at my intern’s prompting, I signed up for Facebook, the first in my entire family to do so. Initially, it was fun: I was able to reconnect with former parishioners and keep up with my current church members, celebrating their joys and, in some cases, learning of their pain. However, I have to admit that my main use for Facebook was searching for the names of people with whom I had gone to high school and college, not necessarily to reconnect, but so I could see how much they had aged compared to me.
If you are thinking to yourself, “Well, I certainly never did this,” I will remind you that you are in church and God can read your mind.
The next to join was my brother and years later my mother, who does not trust Facebook but who did not want to miss out either and who created an account in my father’s name for her to use, you know, just in case.
Aside from some of the obvious problems with the platform, hiding or “defriending” people with viewpoints found distasteful, the echo chamber nature of it, the way it enables you to be with people other than the people you are actually physically present with, over the years I began to have an uneasy relationship with all social medial and especially Facebook. Before I realized it, I was making a habit of comparing my everyday life with everyone else’s greatest hits album, which is what everyone posts. It began to seem like Facebook was all about oneupsmanship where everyone had to be more successful, happier, and having more fun than everyone else. It was as if everyone I knew was trying to share their dreams of everyone else’s bundles of grain, everyone else’s sun, moon, and stars bowing before their own.
Before I realized it, this was starting to affect me. I began to engage in the practice that I do not believe has ever ended well for anyone: comparing the struggles, the seeming banality of my life with the high-water marks of everyone else’s, and it made me question things. Why did my family go Sunset Beach instead of the Caribbean? Why didn’t I have such a wonderful weekend? Why didn’t one of my children win an award? Why did my colleague’s church have a larger Vacation Bible School than mine? Why don’t I look like that in a swimsuit? Look at all those pictures! And so on. For United Methodist clergy, this used to all happen on one day each year, the last day of Annual Conference when all of the pastoral appointments were released. Now it was happening throughout the day.
And all of the humblebragging: you can get away with sharing your wheat/sun/moon/stars/bowing-down dreams with the world, just as long as you preface it with the phrase “I am just so honored to…”
One Thanksgiving night, I was gathered with Tracy’s family when I pulled out my phone to do the one thing Facebook allows you to do, which is to see what everyone else is doing, when I saw a post by a colleague who shared how honored he was to be celebrating Thanksgiving at the Bishop’s house.
This really surprised me. I don’t even know where the bishop’s parsonage is, and I found it strange that, of all the clergy in the Virginia Conference, Bishop Cho was inviting people over for Thanksgiving. Well la-de-da, I thought, before wondering if anyone else was invited over to the bishop’s house for dinner, and how one managed to be included on such an exclusive guest list.
It was then that I remembered that my colleague’s wife’s maiden name is Bishop, and that his family was with her family, and it was then that I remembered that he pulls this gag on Facebook every year.
It is a more serious issue than I am making it sound, especially for our young people. Studies are being published linking social media to mental health issues, like a blasting cap set to detonate a mid-life crisis regardless of how old you actually are. According to the American Psychological Association, research is showing sharp spikes in the number of young adults and adolescents reporting negative psychological symptoms, especially for those born in 1995 or later. Perhaps coincidentally or not, the greatest spike in symptoms occurred in 2011, which coincides with the time when social media exploded on the scene.[i]
“’We found a substantial increase in major depression or suicidal thoughts, psychological distress, and more attempted suicides after 2010, versus the mid-2000s, and that increase was by far the largest in adolescents and young adults,’” said Jean Twenge, lead author of the book iGen and professor of psychology at San Diego State University”…[Furthermore] the rate of young adults with suicidal thoughts or other suicide-related outcomes increased a staggering 47 percent from 2008 to 2017.” There are also correlations between the rise of social media and the amount of sleep young people are getting, and there are proven relationships between sleep and mental health. [ii]
Granted, correlation is not causation. It may be that young people who have symptoms of anxiety or depression simply spend more time on social media. However, the bottom line is that studying how this constant comparing of ourselves to others, this ability to quickly quantify our worth by the endorphin rush of favorites and “likes” is an emerging field, one we ignore at our peril.
I have attempted to delete my Facebook account, but always came back because I missed hearing from people. I tried to at least delete it from my phone, only to reinstall it in a few days for the same reason. I even once installed a web browser extension that blocked everyone’s posts but mine so I could post sermons online without getting drawn into everyone else’s story but immediately uninstalled it because in principle, it seemed to only bring out the worst in me.
The story of Joseph and his brothers is one of the longest and truly best stories of the Bible, as we will see in the weeks to come. It is tremendous storytelling, even for those who do not believe in God. In it, we encounter the foibles of human nature, betrayal, grief, struggle, redemption, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Today’s text, where no one is or seems to be capable of being the hero, begins a story that can only be redeemed by God’s grace, and it is redeemed in a most beautiful way, as we will see as this sermon series unfolds, as well as when our youth perform Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat next month.
I believe that this story has endured for so long both because it holds a mirror before us and forces us to see ourselves as we are while also giving us hope for all we can be with God’s help and grace. Yes, in today’s text we find in Joseph an obnoxious seventeen-year-old braggart and yes, next Sunday, his brothers seriously overreact to Joseph being so full of himself, and yes, Jacob is by no means a model parent.
And yet, that may be the true essence of the beauty of this story. Joseph’s family is just as messed up as families can be, including yours and mine. Still, they work it out because in the end, they do love each other, and love carries the day because in the end, God really is with us, working in and through us and all of our imperfect situations, including all of the stuff we would never post, like, subscribe, or favorite.
In recent weeks, I have tried to change how I relate to social media. Instead of calculating my self-worth by regularly regarding how I stack up to everyone else, I have tried to turn the tools of social media which, used properly can do so much good, into tools of encouragement. I began this experiment at Annual Conference. When my colleague preached a fantastic sermon at the memorial service for the lay and clergy members who have died in the last year, I used Twitter to praise him for it. When my colleague did a magnificent job maintaining the strictures of the Rules Committee, I made sure to thank him by name. When another colleague presided over what was, by far, the smoothest delegate voting I have ever witnessed, I made sure to tell her. When Bishop Weaver came out of retirement to preside in Virginia for six months while Bishop Lewis is on medical leave and did a truly wonderful, pastoral, loving job, I posted that, too. When I got home, I was able to post thanks and congratulations to the team who planned our beautiful Conference worship.
As I did this, something amazing happened inside of me. Instead of wondering why I was not on the stage, I praised the work of those who were. Instead of wondering why I was not one of the preachers, I celebrated those who were. Instead of comparing myself and my thoughts to those who spoke, I listened carefully and responded with kindness to those who did.
The more I did this, the more I built others up and the less time I spent questioning the motives and positions of others, the less I found myself questioning, doubting even, my own. I even found myself celebrating what others were celebrating and trying to find ways to bless those who shared stories of struggle. I have begun to try to be truly mindful in my use of social media, to make it less about how I feel and more about how I can make others feel. I have tried making Facebook less about my face and more about what I can see, both the joy and the pain, in the faces of others.
And it has made all the difference.
There is a saying that I love that I have said from this pulpit before, that “you should only look into your neighbor’s bowl to make sure she has enough.” I am not perfect, and I have a long, long way left to go, but I have found that if I remind myself that people I love are on the other side of those pixels, it makes me think and act differently towards them, and by learning to be a blessing, I have learned what it means to be blessed.
So then, perhaps the way to address envy is to prevent it from gaining a toehold to begin with, as I see myself in the story of Joseph and all of those brothers. Perhaps Joseph may want to consider logging in and deleting a few posts, or at least those posts about the wheat, and the sun, moon, and the stars. And perhaps the hope for all of us comes from the fact that each of us, as well as the people we love, are more than the sum of our experiences, both the good and the bad. Each of us is a beloved child of God, each of us “fearfully and wonderfully made,” each of us, bearing the image and the mark of the divine. The challenge, therefore, is to seek that divine image in others, always and everywhere, waiting for us, if only we are willing to look.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.