Opening reading From ‘The People, Yes’ by Carl Sandburg
A father sees a son nearing manhood.
What shall he tell that son?
‘Life is hard; be steel; be a rock.’
And this might stand him for the storms
and serve him for humdrum and monotony
and guide him amid sudden betrayals
and tighten him for slack moments.
‘Life is a soft loam; be gentle; go easy.’
And this too might serve him.
Brutes have been gentled where lashes failed.
The growth of a frail flower in a path up
has sometimes shattered and split a rock.
A tough will counts. So does desire.
So does a rich soft wanting.
Without rich wanting nothing arrives.
Tell him too much money has killed men
And left them dead years before burial:
The quest of lucre beyond a few easy needs
Has twisted good enough men
Sometimes into dry thwarted worms.
Tell him time as a stuff can be wasted.
Tell him to be a fool every so often
and to have no shame over having been a fool
yet learning something out of every folly
hoping to repeat none of the cheap follies
thus arriving at intimate understanding
of a world numbering many fools.
Tell him to be alone often and get at himself
and above all tell himself no lies about himself
whatever the white lies and protective fronts
he may use amongst other people.
Tell him solitude is creative if he is strong
and the final decisions are made in silent rooms.
Tell him to be different from other people
if it comes natural and easy being different.
Let him have lazy days seeking his deeper motives.
Let him seek deep for where he is a born natural.
Then he may understand Shakespeare
and the Wright brothers, Pasteur, Pavlov,
Michael Faraday and free imaginations
Bringing changes into a world resenting change.
He will be lonely enough
to have time for the work
he knows as his own.
—From ‘The People, Yes’ Carl Sandburg
“Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving. Why does anybody tell a story? It does indeed have something to do with faith, faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically.” Madelein L’Engle
You remember the story of Joseph who owned the most famous coat in all Biblical mythology. It was a colorful story, meant to remind you and me of our multi-colored, multi-layered, multi-dimensional lives. That’s what good mythology does—it allows us to take another look at ourselves.
Joseph was a dreamer and his coat of many colors was a blessing and a burden, like life itself.
Having read the recent book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t, I’m not going to assume you know the details of the story, so I’ll run through it. Maybe you’ll see some things in it that you haven’t noticed before – you might even see yourself in it, touching the deeper truth of what it means to be human.
So here’s the story behind the coat of many colors:
In the beginning God created the world, then God created humans to inhabit it and take care of it. Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, so they were evicted from Paradise and punished by bearing children and having to go to work for a living – innocence lost, conscience gained.
Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel; both brought the gifts of their labor to the altar. God liked Abel’s gift of meat, but for Cain’s vegetables he ‘had no regard.’ God didn’t like broccoli or spinach! (The people who wrote the story were herdsmen who had to compete with the farmers for land use.)
Farmer Cain went into a rage of jealousy and killed his brother Abel. God asked Cain, “Where’s you brother Abel?” He said, “How should I know, am I my brother’s keeper?” God said ‘you’re out of here!’ He was banished with a mark (curse) put on him to remind the world what happens to you when you kill someone.
Adam and Eve went back to the drawing board, or the bedroom, as it were, and had another son, Seth, whose lineage can be traced all the way to Jesus: but first it passed through Noah and his three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth.
You remember the flood. When the water receded Noah got fall-down drunk and was lying naked. His son Ham looked at him and told his brothers, but Shem and Japheth had the good sense not to look on their father’s nakedness – they walked backward and put a blanket on their father’s shame. When he woke up Noah put a curse on Ham and his descendants saying that they would be slaves, serving their brothers and their descendants—thus the Biblical justification for slavery.
Thus the early seeds are sown, out of which grows Judaism, from which Christianity emerges and, later, Islam. It all begins with the arrival of Abraham, the patriarch of all three so-called Western religions, now referred to as the Abrahamic faiths.
God chose Abraham, the first Jew, to be ‘the father of a great nation,’ the chosen, and he made a covenant with him, promising him land and prosperity. (It’s sad that the seeds of the violence in the Mid-east were sown in mythology.)
The story says that Abraham’s wife, Sarai (whose name was later changed to Sarah) failed to conceive, so Abraham had a son with Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant, and his name was Ishmael — claimed by Muslims as ‘the first Muslim,’ to whom the Land of Canaan was promised – thus the ongoing bloody battle over that ‘promised land.’
When Sarah was 90 years old and Abraham was 100 God told Abraham that Sarah was pregnant and, like any 100 year old man with a 90 year old wife would do, he laughed and said, “You’ve got to be kidding!”
So they named their son Isaac, which means ‘laughter, or joke.’ Isaac is father of Jacob, whose name is eventually changed to Israel. So we have the three patriarchs of Judaism: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Jacob has twelve sons with four women, two of whom he’s married to and the other women are his wives’ maidservants: he loves one of those women, Rachel, who is barren until God intervenes and she delivers Joseph, the love child, which is why Joseph is Jacob’s favorite, which brings us to the reason why Jacob gives Joseph the coat of many colors, which proves to be a blessing and a curse.
Joseph’s brothers felt the same way about Joseph as Cain felt about his brother Abel, saying, in effect, ‘it isn’t fair!’ God, the heavenly father, is replaced by an earthly father, Jacob, who, like his divine model, plays favorites.
Fathers pay attention: don’t play favorites!
To make matters worse, Joseph has dreams in which his brothers and father bow down to him, and he has the audacity to tell his brothers about those dreams, which didn’t endear him to his brothers – they hated him all the more.
The story says that one day, while his brothers were tending the flocks far from home, they saw 17-year old Joseph approaching and one said, ‘Here comes the dreamer, let’s kill him.’ One of them, Reuben, dissuaded them from their murderous plot, fearing a curse would be upon them.
So they stripped Joseph of his colorful coat, threw him in a deep pit, and they sat down to eat, whereupon some travelers approached and Joseph’s brother Judah suggested they sell Joseph to the travelers and they got 20 pieces of silver – like the 30 pieces of silver the other Judas got for betraying Jesus in a variation on the same theme.
The brothers took the colorful coat, tore it and put animal blood on it. They told their father that Joseph must have been devoured by a wild beast. Jacob goes into mourning.
Joseph was sold to Potiphar, the Egyptian Pharaoh’s captain of the guards, which is how the Hebrew people entered Egypt in the first place. With God’s help, Joseph became very successful, finding favor in Potiphar’s household.
Joseph was a handsome man – Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him and when he resisted, rejecting her advances, she was humiliated and angry, so she told her husband that Joseph had approached her. Potiphar put Joseph in prison, where, of course, being the chosen one, he prospered by accurately interpreting dreams, prefiguring Freud and Jung. His fame spread throughout Egypt.
When the Pharaoh had a disturbing recurring dream he heard about Joseph’s ability, so he sent for Joseph who understood Pharaoh’s dream as a warning about an approaching famine in the land: seven years of plenty will be followed by five years of drought.
Pharaoh appointed Joseph to rule over the grain harvest, saving one-fifth of the harvest each year for seven plenteous years, thus having food for the years of famine.
That’s when Joseph’s brothers came to him and ‘bowed down.’ He did not reject them, and it came to pass that unlike his ancestor, Cain, he became his brothers’ keeper.
Joseph was a dreamer—he looked into the future. He was fiscally conservative, so there was food during the time of famine.
The coat of many colors is symbolic of the mixed blessing of being chosen and of having authority, or power. The coat became a burden. The story is rich in symbolism, suggesting that we need a vision that allows us to plan for the future.
Our nation has become a kind of Joseph, with a coat of many colors, wrapped in the ‘red, white and blue,’ claiming that God is on our side: in God we trust; one nation under God, etc. We’ve been blessed, but we’ve also been cursed. We are hated by some of the descendents of Ishmael, the radical, fundamentalist Muslims.
We have been cursed with leaders who have misused the power of this nation; they lack the necessary wisdom to lead.
We have been blessed by material abundance, symbolized by that coat of many colors, and we’ve been cast into a pit in Iraq, the coat torn and bloodied. The ancient mythology is being played out in the nightmare we’re living in Iraq.
Joseph’s experience in the pit, and in the prison, provided him with a key ingredient – humility. Humility brings wisdom to the table and it’s a sign of strength, not weakness, as too many of our current bullying leaders seem to believe.
I believe that, like Joseph, we will emerge from this pit a different nation, a nation transformed, better able to participate as partners in a global economy, assuming our share of responsibility to work with others to preserve our endangered environment – to be responsible caretakers of the earth – of God’s creation, if you will.
As a nation, we need a renewed vision, informed by a sober sense of the past. We need an immigration policy that is not punitive, but consistent with the greatness of this nation. We need to improve opportunities for education that move beyond elitism. We need a health care system that leaves no one out. We need a sane gun-control policy, not one that fits the Wild West. We need to take a sober look at the growing economic disparity and injustice. We need a renewed vision.
As a congregation we need a built-in process of renewing our vision of what we are and why we’re here. We need to promote spiritual growth, free from narrow prejudice. We need to be welcoming to those who are wondering in the spiritual desert, and we need to find more and better ways of reaching inward, as well as reaching out. We need to reach in to long-time members in need, the way the Shawl Ministry group has been doing. We need to find ways to support one another from cradle to crematory.
Our Associate Minister, Margie, has been working with some folks to engage you and me in a ‘mission/vision’ process. I’ve asked her to tell us about that important project.
Margie says: “Each of you has come here for a reason. You need something you get here to help you order and make meaning of your life, to comfort and inspire you, to develop your responsiveness to the beauty and hurt of life. Most of you could articulate your personal reason for being here, today and last Sunday, for years of Sundays, maybe, some of you coming in regularly during the week to sing to play the bells, to share your ideas on a task force, to contribute as a trustee, to take a class. You have an idea of how you want you future self to look and act. You have a vision for yourself, maybe for your family that you intend to live into more and more faithfully. The reason you might give for attending this church is an articulation of your mission , the commitments and actions that you believe are going to get you to the future you envision.
“This congregation, all of us who interact with this community in any way, we are also on a journey, on a path toward a vision of what we want to be in the world, how we want to contribute to the making of a more peaceful, just and whole humanity. The actions and commitments that get us there is the mission of this congregation, the mission of the collective we are.
“Our own individual journeywork dovetails with the journeywork of the congregation as a whole when we ‘join’ this church. When the individual’s vision and mission are clear and when the congregation’s vision and mission are clear, we, as a congregation, are at our most powerful. At that level of clarity and integrity and energy, we become able, both individually and collectively, to exert a significant influence on the world around us. Clarity, commitment and action is what mission-vision covenanting is all about.
“And my early ministry with you is all about lining us up to be that clear, that committed and that inspired to act. The Mission-Vision Covenanting Planning Team will be serving us for the next two years preparing us for and then assisting us through the process of articulating a congregational vision and mission. They assembled this spring to do some reading and planning together, an eclectic and electric group of people. I know you will enjoy their leadership over the next 18 months:Teresa Peck-McGovern, Rich Fierberg, Linda Hudson, John Hoooper, Carrie Wittenstein, Neil Coleman, Mary Money, Marianne Barber and Denny Davidoff. Thank you to all.”
Joseph was a dreamer, which is to say, the story of Joseph is our story, the red, white and blue mantle we wear; the responsibility we’ve been given in this war-torn world; the need to partner with other nations, our brothers, to use the mythological language of Joseph.
We have work to do as a nation, as a congregation and we each have our work, individually, no matter what else is happening in the world, to live a life of integrity, to pay attention to our dreams, as it were – to be thankful…to listen to the messengers who inspire and encourage us along the way, articulated so beautifully in Mary Oliver’s poem by that title, Messenger. (Notice the reference to the ‘torn coat.’)
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.