To dream and to walk on water
In comic books, the character Superman is depicted as being the most powerful being on this planet, having arrived from somewhere beyond our universe and then raised in small town America. He uses incredible superpowers to challenge the forces of evil and to protect the innocent. Although some know him as the mild-mannered journalist Clark Kent, his other identity is as Superman, the founding member of the Justice League of America and a charter member of the Legion of Heroes in the world to come.
All of this is strikingly parallel to the way many think of Jesus. After all, in the gospel we just heard, “early in the morning Jesus came walking toward them on the sea.” But, let’s cut to the chase, this is not describing a literal event. The gospels are not asking us to think of Jesus as a super-hero. They, and Matthew’s gospel in particular, strive to show how expectations of the writings attributed to Moses and the prophets were fulfilled within the life and teachings of the rabbi Jesus. Theirs are not necessarily literal historical accounts. They are stories told to amplify the significance and power of Jesus.
Just as Moses had instituted the Passover meal to recall times of deliverance for the ancient Hebrews, Jesus shared this same meal to recall how he offered deliverance. Moses had commanded the crowd to be seated and he organized his assistants to distribute quail and manna so that all were fed and satisfied. Just as Moses was credited with the feeding of the multitude in the wilderness, so also was Jesus. Moses had delivered the commandments from the mountain, so also Jesus delivered the Beatitudes with his sermon on the mount. Just as Moses had delivered his people by splitting the waters apart and closing through the sea, Jesus delivered his disciples from peril on the Sea of Galilee by walking through the waters and not sinking.
Jesus taught in parables and, just as we care to avoid a strictly literal rendering of the gospel stories, we also need to scratch below the surface when reading the books of Moses and in particular the Book of Genesis. The apostle Paul wrote, “When I was a child I spoke as a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned as a child. When I grew up I did away with childish things.” As adults, we should be finding these biblical stories far more radical, outrageous, and surprising, than when we may have first received them as children. They were written for adults.
Take, for instance, the story we heard this morning about Joseph and his coat of many colours. It’s a story of brothers willing to murder their brother Joseph and to sell him into slavery. To make this appropriate for children, we retell it as the amazing story of Joseph and his technicolour coat. That makes for a great children’s story but if, as adults, we retain that interpretation, we may be missing out on a more radical, outrageous, and surprising truth about that coat.
So, what about that coat? The original Hebrew describes it as ‘kethoneth passim’. Our English versions translate this as being a long robe with sleeves or as an elaborated embroidered coat. This rarely used phrase, ’kethoneth passim’, describes the garments worn by the king’s unmarried daughters as well as the robes worn by the high priests. So, no matter what you call the garment – coat, robe, or whatever – ‘kethoneth passim’ was a sign of special privilege and distinction.
What was it that caused Jacob to offer this robe to Joseph and to favour his younger child over and above his other sons? Social expectations were such that it would be expected that the eldest son, Reuben, would have re-eminence. but Reuben was at the centre of a family scandal that would have far reaching consequences. In the Second book of Chronicles we read, “ . . . Reuben was the firstborn; but for as much as he had defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given unto the sons of Joseph the son of Israel: so that Reuben is not enrolled in the genealogy according to the birthright.” (1 Chr. 5.1) The Old Testament stories do not shy away from sex, lies, and violence, but recognize these as being very much part of our human condition.
Reuben had been discovered in bed with his father’s concubine. Jacob never recovered from the extreme humiliation and embarrassment caused by this incestuous scandal. His anger, hurt, and rejection of Reuben continued through to his dying days. It was enough for Jacob to deny Reuben his birthright as the eldest son and, to add insult to injury, Jacob further dishonoured Reuben by giving the birthright not to the next in line but to the very youngest of his twelve sons. Jacob took away the robe of pre-eminence and distinction that would have been Reuben’s and he placed it on the least of his children, Joseph. Again, on his death bed, Jacob completely reverses the sequence of handing his blessings to his children later identified as the twelve tribes of Israel.
Jacob’s other name is Israel and, on yet another level, his family story foretells the larger story of the nation Israel. The tribe of Reuben would ultimately be destroyed by its enemies, while the tribes of Judah and the descendants of Joseph would predominate. This is a dysfunctional family. Jacob had numerous concubines and four wives. Joseph had eleven half-brothers, a half-sister and a younger full-brother. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this is a disaster waiting to happen. Trouble is brewing right under the surface of Israel’s complicated family. Out of it will come Joseph who, many years down the road will rescue the brothers who betrayed him.
The story of Joseph speaks the truth about the human condition. He was born into a family where jealousy, comparison, and distrust were the rules of the game. His world, like yours and mine, can appear to be a messed up place, and the most messed up part of this world lies within our human selves.
But there is far more to this story than what we have reflected upon this morning. Elsewhere, Joseph is remembered as the dreamer, one who dreamed dreams and who interpreted the dreams of others. These stories of Joseph within the Book of Genesis were first shared among the remnants of the twelve tribes of Israel as they returned to the land of their forefathers after years of exile in Babylon. They brought with them the dreams of Joseph. They dreamed of a time when they would dwell in security and peace; when it would be apparent that they truly loved God with all their heart, with all their soul, with all their mid, and with all their strength, and that they loved their neighbour as they themselves understood themselves as loved by God. Like Joseph, they were dreamers. Martin Luther King had a dream. Nelson Mandela had a dream. David Suzuki has a dream. Jesus of Nazareth had a dream, he called it the kingdom of heaven.
We need dreamers. You don’t have to be a public personality to be a dreamer. When you see the world through the eyes of a child, you don’t see limitations, you see possibilities. This past Monday evening, my bridge partner shared how a little boy had passed along to him a dream. Ed’s wife has been in hospital these past three weeks recovering from a life-threatening infection. Consequently, he decided to head over to the nearby Swiss Chalet for his evening meal. It would have been a struggle as Ed had to carry his oxygen tank and other paraphernalia necessary for his extreme emphysema. He likely appeared sad and anxious as he sat alone eating his quarter chicken dinner. At least that’s the impression he gave a youngster sitting with a family of four at a nearby table. As that family left, the little boy strayed behind his parents and sidled over to Ed’s table. Without uttering a word, he deposited his kid’s Toblerone chocolate bar and followed his parents into the parking lot.
That little boy held onto a dream and, as far as I can tell, Ed finished his meal and left the Swiss Chalet walking on water!
The Church of the Holy Saviour, Waterloo