Dreams of Our Youth, Calling of Our Community
Text: Genesis 37:1-28
Speaker: Joel Miller
Let’s talk about dreams. Dreams, let’s face it, can be pretty weird. They’re usually this bizarre collection of people and places. If we remember them at all, it’s often for how strange they are.
Sometimes dreams can be vivid. Maybe one scene in particular, or even just one thing someone says or does in a dream can stick with us for days or even years.
People have been dreaming for a very, very long time. And for just as long, we’ve wondered what these dreams of ours can mean, if anything. In the ancient world, dreams were often seen as a way of receiving messages from the gods.
Closer to our time, there was a psychologist by the name of Carl Jung who understood dreams as a window into the unconscious. That’s the part of reality we’re not aware of, but which wants to be known. Carl Jung used the analogy of a ship on a great sea. The ship is our consciousness – our awareness of things within us and around us. And the great sea is the unconscious – all those things within us and around us we’re not aware of. We may think we’re in control of this ship, but that sea has a pretty big influence on how the journey goes, and whether we get where we think we want to go. And, even though we can’t see very far below the surface, there can be a lot of treasurers down there, and maybe a few monsters, IF we’re willing to take the dive. Paying attention to our dreams, Carl Jung wholeheartedly believed, is like paying attention to that vast sea.
I confess I’ve started more than one dream journal with the goal of recording every dream I can remember, searching for insight into that ocean, but am yet to find a consistent way to fit it into my morning routine.
Dreams can also happen during the day. Another way we dream is in that hoped for future for ourselves or our community. Most famously in the United States, Martin Luther King Jr. declared his dream of racial justice. That dream hasn’t been fully realized, but it’s such a powerful idea we still talk about it. When Ila and I were in Washington, DC three weeks ago, on MLK Day, we made sure to walk up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and stand where Dr. King gave that speech. The Lincoln Memorial itself is a tribute to the dream of that President during our country’s Civil War. Abraham Lincoln’s dream, in his own words, was that “a government of the people, by the people, for the people (would) not perish from the earth.”
Sometimes dreams are bizarre. Sometimes they can show us something we hadn’t been aware of before. And sometimes they’re so important we etch them in stone in a memorial. We make special days of the year to remind ourselves and our children about the dream. Sometimes one person’s dream is important for everyone.
In today’s scripture reading, dreams play a big role. Also, this is one of the few stories in the Bible that features a non-adult. Joseph is 17 years old, but he could just as easily be 12.
Joseph has a lot of older brothers – 10 - and 1 older sister we know about, Dinah, who doesn’t show up in this story. Lucky for Joseph – maybe – he’s the favorite of their father Jacob. That’s what Genesis says: “Now Jacob loved Joseph more than any other of his children.” Just in case there was any doubt, Jacob gives Joseph, and only Joseph, a long colorful sleeved robe. It’s kind of like giving him a t-shirt that says “I’m dad’s favorite.” And of course he wears it every day.
Here’s where the dreams come in. Joseph has two dreams, both with vivid imagery from the everyday world of their sheep herding family. In the first, Joseph and his brothers are out in the field, binding together sheaves of grain. Suddenly, Joseph’s sheaf stands up tall, and the brothers sheaves circle ‘round, and bow down to Joseph. The second dream is similar, except it includes symbols for his father and mother, the sun and moon, along with the stars, bowing down to Joseph’s star.
Before we make Joseph our least-favorite brother, or write him off as completely arrogant and self-centered, let’s dive beneath the surface a bit and see what might be going on in these murky waters.
When you’re young, and even when you’re old, but especially when you’re young, the world is a big place. The world is unfathomably big, and we are small. This is a cold hard fact of existence. And when we learn it, it can be overwhelming.
But we have this amazing thing we’re able to do. We’re able to dream.
When I was your age, I was a big fan of the Cincinnati Reds baseball team. And I played baseball. So of course, I would imagine myself sometimes as my favorite Reds players. Like Eric Davis – homerun hitter, base stealer, and Barry Larkin – can’t get a ball by him at shortstop. They were big. When they did their thing, thousands and thousands of people would cheer them on. I guess there’s a reason we call them stars. The sun and the moon bow down.
1990, when I was 12 years old, was a great year to be a Reds fan. They went to the World Series to see who was the best of the best, and they won. And not only did the Reds win, but I won with them. I watched those VHS tape highlights so many times, I probably wore out the tape - and you probably have no idea what I’m talking about. I felt big every time.
Isn’t it interesting how when the world is big, and we’re small, we find ways to expand. We can even think, the world is big, and so am I. We can attach ourselves to big things.
These memories help me understand a little bit about the Taylor Swift craze, or whatever it is you get really excited about – maybe sports players, maybe certain characters in a book or movie or fantasy game, or whatever it may be. Identifying with someone or something bigs fills us with a sense of bigness, and importance, and specialness, and there’s an aspect of this that’s good and healthy, especially in adolescence. A culture stuck in adolescence is something we can talk about another time. We are small, but dreams connect us to the big. They expand our experience of selfhood in the world.
But it’s a pretty fine line between feeling like we’re part of something bigger than our small self, and feeling like we’re somehow bigger - and better - than others.
This is where Joseph is struggling. He’s the younger brother in a world that values the oldest. Not only does he dream about the sheaves and the stars (his family) bowing down to him, but he tells his brothers and parents about it, probably while wearing his “I’m dad’s favorite” robe. It’s kind of like going to school and telling your friends you had a dream you’re better than them. Good luck keeping those friends.
And good luck to Joseph. When his father sends him out to check on his brothers in the field, they see him approaching and say “Here comes this dreamer.” They take his robe and throw him in a pit, which was a compromise from wanting to kill him. When a caravan of traders comes by, they sell Joseph off into slavery. They tear his robe and put goat blood on it and convince their father that Joseph has been attacked and killed by a wild animal. Jacob mourns the death of his son, and Joseph is led away to Egypt where he’ll be sold to the highest bidder, likely feeling very, very small. This was not part of the dream.
That’s the end of what you presented to us, but it’s not the end of the story.
But an interesting thing happens to Joseph while he’s in Egypt. Rather than having dreams and telling other people about them, other people start telling Joseph their dreams. Joseph the dreamer becomes Joseph the listener, the interpreter, of other people’s dreams. He dives down below the waters alongside others, and helps them find what they need.
At one point Joseph is put in prison. Two of his fellow prisoners tell him their dreams and Joseph helps them understand them. One of those prisoners is let out and works alongside Pharaoh. When Pharaoh has mysterious dreams, this person remembers that there was this young Hebrew in prison who knows something about dreams. So they bring Joseph to Pharaoh.
Pharaoh had two very similar dreams. There were seven healthy cows and seven healthy ears of corn that were swallowed up by seven scrawny cows and seven thin ears of corn. Joseph takes a deep plunge and realizes Pharaoh’s dream is the kind that has to do with the whole nation, kind of like Abraham Lincoln’s dreams and nightmares many centuries later. Pharaoh, Joseph determined, was dreaming about his people having plenty of food for seven years, and then facing a seven-year famine.
Joseph has done some growing up since his early dreaming days. He knows what must be done. The whole nation of Egypt must use those seven years of plenty to save up grain, so they have something to eat during the seven years of famine. Pharaoh is so impressed with Joseph’s proposal that he puts Joseph in charge of the whole project, second in command alongside Pharaoh himself.
In some ways, this is a fulfillment of Joseph’s first dreams. He has risen to the top. Others will bow down before him, including his brothers all those years later, who come to Egypt looking for grain during the famine and don’t recognize him.
In other ways, this is completely different than what the young Joseph had wished for. Joseph had that switch that every mature human being makes some time in their life. He was using his skills and his power, not to make himself great, but to serve his community, to serve all of Egypt and the surrounding areas. It was much less about him, and more about the work he knew he had to do. It was about the gift he had to give, as he served others, and, quite literally, kept the nation alive.
Joseph is a complicated character and I’m only telling parts of the story. But here’s what I’d like you to think about today and maybe over these years as you keep becoming who you’re going to be in this world.
It’s possible to be both small and big at the same. We can be big in a way that connects us to God and the very very big and beautiful world God has created. We can be small in a way that leads to humility. Big in a way that connects us to the deep waters that keep us afloat. Small in knowing we’re not the center of the universe, and we’re actually kind of relieved that we don’t have to be. Big by using whatever power we have for the good of our community, our city, our nation and world.
And that’s our dream for you as you come of age. We pray that you can know deep down that you are loved by God and us, part of this immense, miraculous web of life that includes the stars and the sheaves and the cows and the corn. And to know that you are just one small part, and that’s perfectly enough.