Dangerous dreamers

August 5th, 2020

Genesis 37:1-28

The story of Jacob’s family would make a wonderful television miniseries. As we read the tale of the twelve sons of Jacob, we can see so many elements of the story that ring true to not only ancient times but our modern times as well. At the beginning of Genesis 37, we see clear signs of sibling rivalry and family dysfunction. We are told outright that Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son. Jacob “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” (Genesis 37:3). Jacob demonstrates his favoritism, and it causes resentment among the brothers. Then, to make matters worse, Joseph is a tattletale. We are told that he was a helper to his brothers in their work and that he “brought a bad report of them to their father” (v. 2). All of these factors create animosity between the brothers, and “they hated [Joseph], and could not speak peaceably to him” (v. 4).

Yet I think the straw that broke the camel’s back and caused true division among the brothers was not simply the favoritism or the tattling, but Joseph’s dreams. Joseph dreams of sheaves bowing down to his sheaf, and the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to him. It is in the sharing of these dreams that “they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words” (37:8). Joseph’s dreams place him in a position of honor and authority, and neither his brothers nor his father respond well to this vision of the future. Yet, we know that these dreams are from God, and speak to the future of not only Joseph but also his family for generations to come.

My reflections on this passage have caused me to wonder about the hatred that Joseph’s brothers felt for him. Things come to a head rather quickly in the story after Joseph goes to find his brothers as they shepherd the flocks. “They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him’ ” (37:18-20). The dreams that Joseph articulates most threaten the brothers. When they hear Joseph share the vision of the future that God has given to him, they respond in violence and hatred. History proves that it is sometimes the dreamers in our world that we find most threatening.

I think about Martin Luther King Jr., articulating a dream of unity. We remember his sermon on the Washington Mall, where he spoke of a day when people would be judged by their character and not the color of their skin. This was a dream from God about a future of hope and inclusiveness. The dreamer was a threat to the status quo, and, ultimately, those who resisted his words and his dream silenced him.

I think of Archbishop Oscar Romero, archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church in San Salvador. Archbishop Romero was a pioneer in liberation theology, and he worked with the poor and oppressed. He spoke with a strong, clear voice about the need for basic human rights to be observed. He lived his life among those who had the least in terms of material possessions. Romero was a dreamer, and he was assassinated as he presided over worship.

I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor who fought against Nazism in World War II. He was a leader in the Confessing Church and became involved in the anti-Hitler resistance movement. He was arrested, charged, and found guilty of sedition in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He was hanged for his resistance to Nazism, but he continues to speak to us through his writings, as he encourages the church to live out its prophetic calling within community. Bonhoeffer was a dreamer who bravely lived out what his conscience dictated, even when it meant going against the powerful structure of Nazism and public sentiment.

These three individuals are just a few examples of those who have been spoken to by God, and who showed great courage in living out their convictions. They had a dream of what a just world would look like, and they spoke the truth of God to all who would listen. They were not embraced, however, and each paid the price with his life. Dreamers like Joseph sometimes end up in the bottom of a dark, deep pit.

The church today continues to need those who are open to the movement of God in their lives, and who will dream divine dreams of what the world might become through the power and grace of God. Yet we must realize that to be a dreamer can often be dangerous. Those around us are not always willing to hear words of challenge or confrontation. The community of faith is sometimes resistant to the very changes that are most needed. The world will not understand the way of Jesus Christ. Those around us may not embrace the ways of God.

Dreamers sound naive at best and crazy at worst. Dreamers proclaim that the meek are blessed. Dreamers demand that the outcasts be welcomed. Dreamers beat plowshares into pruning hooks. The world is in need of dreamers. Are we willing to risk our lives in proclaiming the truth? Are we willing to risk our lives to embrace the dreams of God?

This article was previously published in The Abingdon Preaching Annual and at Ministry Matters.

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