Revised Common Lectionary Readings: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 AND Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b, I Kings 19:9-18 AND Psalm 85:8-13, Romans 10:5-15, Matthew 14:22-33

In 1959, The Coasters sang a song titled “Charlie Brown,” built around stories about the cartoon character of the same name. Charlie, of course, is often thought of as sort of a loser. Very little seems to go his way. The punch line of the song is sung in a deep voice, supposedly Charlie Brown: "Why's everybody always pickin' on me?”

That line could well have been the title for this blog entry. The sentiment probably fits the Elijah story best. Elijah has been doing battle with King Ahab, who calls Elijah a “troubler of Israel.” (I Kings 18:17) Elijah does, in fact, cause a lot of trouble, winning a contest with the Ahab’s religious leaders, the priests of Baal, thus angering the queen, Jezebel. (vss. 18-28 and I Kings 19:1-2) Now Elijah is on the run for his life, and feeling mighty sorry for himself, feeling that everybody is picking on him. He’s alone in a cave when God asks what he’s doing there. Elijah’s whiny answer? “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” (vss. 9-10. The question and answer are repeated in vss. 13-14)

Have we ever felt alone and picked on? Although I wasn’t quite the Charlie Brown “loser,” I experienced a bit of taunting and bullying in my younger years. What keeps us going in such times? Several of this week’s readings suggest some answers.

In the case of Elijah, God points out that not everyone has abandoned the faith. There are still 7000, “all the knees that have not bowed to Baal.” (vs. 18) There’s violence in the story that grates against the sensibilities of “progressive” Christians. (See vs. 17) Some might wish to spend more time considering the nature of the religious (and political?) battle going on here---between the followers of Baal and the prophets of Israel. My focus, in talking about what keeps us going, is upon noticing that there are others working in the same cause with us. As isolated as we may feel at times, we are not alone. In the words of another song, “We get by with a little help from our friends.”

Joseph could well have also cried out, “Why’s everybody always pickin’ on me?” Why he didn’t is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps it was because he was a dreamer. (Genesis 37:19) This story is, among other things, a story of sibling rivalry. Joseph is not only a dreamer, one whose father made him “a long robe with sleeves” (called a coat of many colors in some translations); we are told that “their father loved him more than all his brothers.” (vss. 3-4) No wonder “they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.” (vs. 4)

It’s a passage full of potential if we want to discuss family dynamics. In the portion of the story we have this week, the brothers plot to kill Joseph. In fairness, we should note that two brothers (Reuben and Judah) opposed killing Joseph. (vss. 21-22 & 26) Still, he is not treated gently. He’s thrown into a pit and sold to Midianite traders who carry him off to Egypt. (vss. 24 & 28)

The story goes on to the end of Genesis, partly summarized in this week’s reading from Psalm 105. In Egypt, Joseph, while technically a slave, becomes the household manager for Potiphar, captain of the Egyptian guard. (Genesis 39:1-6) His good fortune quickly turns when he is thrown into prison, suspected of trying to force himself upon Potiphar’s wife. (vss. 7-20) The Psalm says of Joseph, “who was sold as a slave,” “His feet were hurt with fetters, his neck was put in a collar of iron.” (Psalm 105:17-18) We are not told, in the Psalm, about Joseph’s dreams while in prison, dreams which came to the attention of the king. It does tell us that “the king sent and released him; the ruler of the peoples set him free. He made him lord of his house, and ruler of all his possessions, to instruct his officials at his pleasure, and to teach his elders wisdom.” (vss. 20-22)

What a story! From slave to a position of high authority and power. In fact, Joseph’s policies, at least in the biblical story, successfully carried Egypt through a period of famine, so that people from many nations came to partake of their surplus. (See Genesis, chapter 41)

So what kept Joseph going? Perhaps it was, indeed, the fact that he was a dreamer. He had a sense that his purpose in life was tied to something bigger, something great. He not only dreamed and interpreted dreams. He had dreams for himself. Such a sense of purpose can keep us going when it seems like people are out to get us.

Finally, just a few verses from the end of the book of Genesis, near the end of Joseph’s life, there is a powerful moment of forgiveness, in which Joseph says to his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” (Genesis 50:20) They are words that can easily be misused to say, in effect, “Don’t worry! Everything will work out in the end.” Despite the danger of that misuse, the words clearly show that a piece of what kept Joseph going was his sense of being part of something larger, of having a place and purpose in history. May such assurance come to each of us, in at least small measure---and perhaps we can dream about larger measures.

Then there’s the story of Jesus walking on the water. It’s not a story of bullying or of feeling picked on. It is a story of someone attempting something difficult, almost impossible, and, at first, failing. Peter, often leaping before he looked, figures Jesus can help him walk on water too. (vs. 28) All goes well until he looks around and notices that he is in a precarious and dangerous place. Fear strikes and he begins to sink. (vss. 29-30)

What is it that keeps us going? Sometimes it is confidence and faith. If we are feeling put upon and we become fearful, we may well sink.

Psalm 85 begins with a God who “will speak peace to his people,” declaring that “righteousness and peace will kiss each other” and that “righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.” (Psalm 85:8, 10, & 13) Overall, I take the Psalm as a declaration of that confidence and faith that can keep us going. “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet . . . Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.” (vss. 10-11)

That leaves the reading from Romans. I don’t want to get much into its context where Paul is struggling with the place of Israel in God’s scheme of things, as a result of their unfaithfulness. The part I can relate to today is the emphasis upon people who continue to tell the story so that people can know this God who is as close as one’s lips and heart. (See Romans 10:8-13) Those who proclaim this message are described as having beautiful feet---“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (vs. 15) It reminds me of that great cloud of witnesses that surround me, that have helped and encouraged me along the way. They are among those that keep me going, a part of those who are in my mind when I speak of “a little help from my friends.”

So---let’s dream on, together!

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