September 22, 2019
Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley
The first account of a murder in the world is the story of Cain killing his brother Abel. Afterwards, when God asked Cain where Abel was, Cain said, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” That question, about how much responsibility we bear or should bear for our brothers and sisters, endures throughout the Bible and continues to be one we ask ourselves.
Before soap operas were invented, before moves or TV, before plays were ever written or performed on stage, there were stories. Some of the world’s most ancient stories are found in Genesis, and let me tell you, soap operas and stage dramas have nothing on Genesis. Today we come to Joseph, the great-grandson of Abraham. Joseph’s story includes betrayal, sex, political intrigue, dysfunctional family dynamics, famine, imprisonment, revenge and forgiveness.
Joseph’s brothers did not kill him, but they don’t win any prizes for their treatment of him either. Joseph is the bratty younger brother. He is a tattle-tale and a braggart and the older brothers cannot put him in his place because he is their father Jacob’s favorite. Quite simply, they cannot stand him.
Then comes the day when they are all far from home, tending the sheep. Without Jacob around, Joseph is at his brothers’ mercy. They see him coming from a distance and they plan to kill him. Rueben, the oldest, persuades them not to kill him with their own hands. He convinces them to put him in a pit and leave him there to die, but Reuben has secret plans to deliver him later.
The pit is a cistern, a deep hole dug into the ground to catch and store rainwater. It is dry when Joseph is thrown into it. The word translated as pit or cistern also means prison. We might remember that after Joseph gets out of this pit, he will be imprisoned by Potiphar in the land of Egypt. In the Psalms, the pit is a place of utter desolation. Psalm 69 says “Do not let the flood sweep over me or the deep swallow me up, or the Pit close its mouth over me.” And from Psalm 88, “For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help,”
The pit is the Biblical term for a place of despair. It may be the place we find ourselves when we are exhausted from trying to do the right thing but never succeeding, or the place where our own dysfunctional family dynamics catch up with us. The pit of poverty or addiction or grief may threaten to swallow us on a regular basis. It may be the place we reach after unending bad news about hurricanes and floods and our governments’ refusal to grant protection to those fleeing them. The pit is a place where escape seems impossible and death is surely imminent.
Joseph’s brothers throw him into the pit. Generations later, the prophet Jeremiah was also imprisoned in a cistern pit. That was at the time of the exile to Babylon, the years during which these stories took their final form. So, the cistern, the pit, the place of desolation, becomes a link between the suffering of the present and the suffering of the ancestors. The people in exile remember that Joseph suffered great injustice and torment, but that God ultimately delivered him and used him for the deliverance of more of God’s people. That link between their time and their ancestor provides hope for their own survival and deliverance.
Joseph’s brothers throw him into the pit. Except for Rueben, they all want him to die, in what will surely be a slow and terrifying process. Rueben secretly plans to come back and rescue him. Rueben has the instinct to be Joseph’s keeper, but he lacks the courage to stand up to his brothers. The others seem to feel no shame about what they’re doing. They calmly kill a goat and use its blood on Joseph’s special coat to support the lie they tell their father.
There are already layers to their cruelty, but then Judah takes it to another level. He is the one who suggests that there is no profit in murder. Why kill Joseph when they can sell him? So, Joseph is hauled up, money changes hands, Joseph is carted off to Egypt as a slave and the brothers carry home to Jacob a grief he will bear for the next 22 years.
I am reading these stories through the lens of migration. Joseph’s parents and grandparents and great-grandparents had all been wanderers at various times in their lives, but in Joseph’s story, there are so many elements common to future human migration patterns. One that jumps out right here is the idea that being cruel is not enough, evil also makes a profit. This echoes for me in the humanitarian crisis that is our immigration system. Our system currently criminalizes asylum seekers who cross the border. Desperate people fleeing violence, persecution and poverty are being detained by the thousands in private for-profit prisons. When I went to the child prison in Homestead, Florida, I learned that it is paid $775 per child per day. There were about 2700 teens detained there in June, which rounds up to about $2 million tax dollars flowing into the coffers of the private prison owners every day. That’s just for one facility. It is not enough to separate families and terrorize desperate people, some people have figured out how to turn that cruelty into a profit.
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” whined Cain. The question continues to reverberate through time. None of us here would throw our brother or sister in the pit. None of us would seek a profit from the suffering of others. But some of us feel like we’re in the pit ourselves and how much responsibility can we be expected to bear for our fellow human beings?
When the Hebrew people were in exile, and they asked similar questions, they found some encouragement in the model of current prophets like Jeremiah and some hope in the old stories like this one.
I wonder if we might find similar hope and encouragement. We don’t have to look too hard to find contemporary prophets. Two days ago, thousands of young people all over the world took to the streets to demand that we all step up and take seriously our responsibility for the well-being of the planet which is one of the most fundamental ways we can care for each other.
Last Sunday, several of us delved into the story of Pia Klemp. She is a 36-year-old ship captain who spent months on two ships in the Mediterranean Sea. She and her crew have saved the lives of several thousand migrants, literally pulling them from the water off the coast of Libya. She and 10 others are now facing trial in Italy. Charged with aiding in illegal immigration, they could serve 20 years in prison if convicted. Pia feels that far more important than what they’re being subjected to is the fate of those who are completely deprived of their rights, those who continue to die every day as they’re trying to reach safety.
Born in Germany, she says, “I'm part of a generation that grew up asking their grandparents, 'What did you do against it?’ And I've come to realize that I'm part of a generation that will have to answer the very same question to their grandchildren."
When we were in Copenhagen this summer, our tour guide told us a bit about Denmark during World War II. He said that when the Nazis first occupied Denmark, at first, they were not as harsh as in some places and Jewish people were left alone. But by 1943, the Nazis dissolved the Danish government and established martial law. And then the Jewish population was in danger. A German official leaked the news that the Gestapo was coming to arrest and deport all Danish Jews within the next 1 or 2 days. The chief rabbi was alerted and he interrupted Shabbat services to warn people to flee or hide.
Hundreds of Danish Gentiles helped them. Mendel Katley was a 36-year-old factory worker with a wife and two children. When he heard the news, he rushed home to get his family. Taking the tram home, he saw the same conductor who had been punching his ticket every day for years. The conductor asked why he was going home early. Mendel told him that of the Germans’ plan. “That’s awful,” the conductor said, “What are you going to do?”
Mendel said he didn’t know, that they needed to find a place to hide. “Come to my house,” the conductor insisted. Get your family and bring them all to my house.”
Mendel was stunned, “But you don’t know me. You don’t even know my name and I don’t know yours.” The conductor held out his hand and introduced himself. Mendel was no longer alone.
Similar acts happened across Denmark. One well-known physician remembered that a woman he had never met approached him, introduced herself, and said, “This is my address and here is the key to my house if you should ever need it.” After the war, another woman heard that story and said the same thing happened to her. At one point, she had keys for 4 different people’s homes.
Ordinary citizens hid Jewish people until they could get them onto boats and smuggle them by sea to Sweden, which was willing to grant asylum. Over 7200 people were smuggled out of Denmark in a short period of time. Ninety-nine percent of Danish Jews survived the Holocaust.
Our tour guide said that some years ago, he saw an interview with a woman who was a young girl in 1943. She said that at the time, she had recently been given a doll. It was new and precious to her, but when her family fled, she had to leave her doll behind. In this interview, she said that they went to Sweden and stayed there for some years, returning to Denmark only after the war had ended. When they came back to their home in Denmark, they found that a neighbor had taken care of their home for them. As a child, she came back to her home and walked into her bedroom and found her doll on her bed, just as she had left it.
Twenty years after the war, a Copenhagen housewife said, “We helped the Jews because they needed us. How could anybody turn their backs and not do everything possible to prevent the slaughter of innocent people? . . . By saving Jews, we saved ourselves. We kept our integrity and honor. We struck a blow for human dignity at a time when it was sorely lacking in the world.”
Joseph’s story is long and we didn’t get to hear all of it today. Some of you will remember that in Egypt, he is imprisoned after false accusations but later he is helpful to Pharaoh. So helpful that he becomes something like Pharaoh’s Secretary of Agriculture. When famine strikes the region twenty-two years later, his brothers come to Egypt to buy food. They don’t know who he is, but he recognizes them. He has the opportunity to take revenge, which he does, in some petty ways. But when it really matters, he provides abundantly for all of them and forgives them and is reunited with his father in the final years of his life.
Ultimately, Joseph chooses to be his brothers’ keeper. He says, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.”
Sisters and brothers, I offer these accounts of contemporary prophets and stories from recent history not to be discouraging, not to suggest that we should be doing something more or different, but to encourage us all in what feels like a long hard time. Like the exiles in Babylon, may we remember those who have acted courageously and faithfully before us and may we also trust that within us and around us, in ways we may not yet see, God is at work for our deliverance. Thanks be to God.
 Kathleen O’Connor, Jeremiah: Pain and Promise, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011) p. 154