Outside of Room 306 at what used to be the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, there is a plaque that quotes a line from Genesis. Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel is where Martin Luther King, Jr. spent the night of April 3, 1968, his last night on this earth. So, you might expect the plaque to have an excerpt from his “I have a dream” speech. You might expect to find the words that are on his tombstone, “Free at last.” Instead, what is written there on that marker is a verse from today’s story of Joseph in Genesis, the taunt of his brothers who say, “Behold, here cometh the Dreamer. Let us slay him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”
The question of what would become of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream has hung over our nation like an unresolved chord ever since the words of his speech were first uttered. The question of what would become of Martin Luther King Jr’s dream presses down upon us, filling our hearts and our minds today as we turn our eyes to the streets of Charlottesville, where white supremacists marched this weekend holding torches and chanting the Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil” – Charlottesville, where now the blood of a thirty-two year-old woman, murdered by a man who decided to use a car as a weapon, cries out from the soil – as Abel’s blood cried out from the soil to God almighty when his own brother slew him.
Behold, here cometh the Dreamer. Let us slay him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.
The story of Joseph is yet another story of the failure of kinship and brotherhood in the family of Abraham. You’ll remember that Ishmael was sent into the wilderness to what would have been an early end, if not for the mercy of God and a loving mother, in order to protect Isaac’s fatherly favor and inheritance. Isaac’s son, Jacob, tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright, and now we come to the next generation, and Jacob’s sons fight for their Father’s favor and inheritance. So, when Jacob sends his favorite son Joseph out into the fields to check upon the well-being of his brothers, the Hebrew says here – to check up on the shalom, the peace of his brothers – a brotherly squabble, a brotherly rivalry over favor and inheritance turns to talk of murder.
Brothers fighting over favor and birthright.
This weekend in Charlottesville, white nationalists chanted the slogan “You will not replace us” – and it made me think of this pattern in Genesis, woven throughout the history of humanity. Brothers and sisters fighting for favor and birthright. How quickly that fight turns to blood!
According to the narrative of Genesis, it is the brotherly fight over favor and birthright that leads not just to the enslavement of Joseph for a time, but, ultimately to the enslavement of the people of Israel in Egypt – a slavery from which only God’s own hand plunged into history could free them. And I think it might be helpful on a day like today to reflect upon how our own infighting for favor and birthright amongst brothers and sisters here in our own country enslaves us – so that King’s dream remains unrealized – because we remain unable to, in his words, “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
So, what will you do? What will become of the dream of the dreamer? What will become of this American dream, which has become a nightmare for so many, when blood cries out from the soil of Charlottesville?
Perhaps your answer to that last question depends on what you think that blood cries out to God for. When Abel’s blood cries out from the soil, according to a pretty uniform history of interpretation, Abel’s blood cries out for vengeance initiating the world’s cycle of violence and self-protection. However, in the culminating vision of the Letter to the Hebrews, the writer transports his audience to the very judgment seat of God, where Christ, the mediator of a new covenant stands holding forth his “sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” as a sign. While the blood of Abel cried out to the heavens for blood vengeance starting cycles of violence and fragmentation, the blood of Christ, speaks a new word, a better word, a reconciling word. “Father, forgive”.
Today, as Heather Heyer’s blood cries out from the soil of Charlottesville, this might just be the last word we want to hear from Jesus, this word of forgiveness and reconciliation. It is an inflammatory word on a day like today. Today I would rather do something like post on FB about how a certain public persona’s statement about this tragedy was egregiously wishy-washy. Today seems to be a day for categorical condemnations of evil people who seek to sow division and violence. Today seems to be a day for closing the book on those who are racist – saying we will hear no more from you. And yet Jesus, never one to be shy about saying utterly inflammatory things – things like “love your enemy”, “pray for those who persecute you”, “take up your cross and follow me” – this Jesus stands before us with his blood, blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel, blood that cries out, “Father, forgive”.
My brothers and sisters, can you bear it? – this allegedly better word.
Can you take it up as your own, and carry it into a world where being an instrument of Christ’s reconciliation means that you can’t hide from the human face of pain and suffering. You can’t separate yourself from evil as though you are not complicit. You can’t definitively silence those voices you would rather not hear. And you can’t even really weigh the risks and the costs of getting involved in such a venture? In other words, you can’t stay in the safe confines of the boat. You have to get out and walk on stormy seas in order to piece back together the torn fabric of our common humanity.
Perhaps it seems impossible today. But remember, the way the disciples eventually recognized Jesus in the midst of fearful chaos on that dark and stormy sea, was that, while doing the impossible – walking on water, Jesus called out to them, told them not to be afraid and tells Peter to do the impossible. “Come” says Jesus, and Peter gets out of the boat and the crazy thing is that he does it – he sets out on an impossible walk. Yes, he falters. Yes, he needs a hand-up from his Lord and Savior, but still he does better than anyone I’ve seen attempting to walk on water.
Where will the impossible walk of reconciliation lead you? You know better than me. But you gotta get out of the boat.