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Proper 19, Year A

Who is my Brother?

Readings: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45c; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

The story of Joseph and his coat of many colours is a popular one. Consider that it was even a very successful stage production. One of the reasons of course, is that it is such an interesting yet unbelievable story.

Joseph is the baby of the family. Being the youngest, he is a favourite with his father. To make matters worse, he makes a bad report to his father about one of his brothers. They all wait for an opportunity to get back at him. It comes. They are looking after the sheep in a remote place. Joseph comes out looking for them. They conspire to kill him. Reuben, one of the brothers persuades them not to kill him, but to put him into a pit. His intention is to come back and rescue him. Then they seize upon an opportunity. They sell their brother to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites on their way to Egypt. And so begins a new saga in Joseph’s young life.

What fiction! What an unbelievable story! It takes our penchant for the dysfunctional family to a whole new level. How could his brothers do something so terrible to Joseph, their very own flesh and blood? It is almost incomprehensible. We would never sell our brother or sister. There may have been occasions when we felt like it, but we wouldn’t carry it out. Or would we? The answer to that question depends on whom you consider to be your brother and your sister. Let us consider for a moment. Who is my brother? Who is my sister anyway?

One of my sisters is a Filipino woman named Imelda. She lives in the slums of Manila where she works in a clothing factory. There are times when her employer keeps her working around the clock, a twenty-four hour shift. She is not allowed a washroom break. There is no water available in the plant. For all of her hard work and long hours she makes scarcely enough to feed her children. When the workers in her plant staged a strike recently, many lost their jobs. One of her friends was killed. Am I selling Imelda when I buy inexpensive clothing at her expense?

I have a brother named Amerigo. He is only ten years old, yet he lives alone on the streets unwanted by his parents. He used to collect trash and sell it to a vendor. He stopped doing so after he got a serious infection. The doctor warned him to stay away from the dump. Now he works for an ice cream shop owner selling ice cream on the beach. The owner feeds him and gives him a place to sleep. But he receives no money for his hard work. The ice cream box is quite heavy when it is full, especially for a small boy. He must walk for hours, offering ice cream to anyone who will pay. Sometimes he sells nothing. Yet he feels lucky to be alive. Some of his friends work ten hours a day and get so little that they haven’t enough to eat. One friend was killed when he fell into a hole that opened up in a pile of trash at the dump. Am I selling him and others like him?

Are my brothers forced to work on plantations so sprayed with insecticides that they risk early death so that I can have my morning cup of coffee? Do my brothers and sisters in China work for subsistence wages so that I can have inexpensive clothing? Do my little sisters and brothers in India chip away hour after hour on rocks barely eking out an existence so that I can have a decent life style? Do my sisters and brothers in Iran live in poverty while war wages so that I can fill my car with gas and complain when the price goes up?

What about here in Canada? In our own country there are the working poor who must survive on minimum wage. They must supplement their earnings by going to Food Banks. They are in serious danger of losing their homes. Who of us could raise a family on welfare? Are we selling our brothers and sisters? How do we respond to the needs of others? Are we responsible in our stewardship? Are we responsible consumers? How does the story of Joseph speak to us as Christians? What is our responsibility towards our brothers and sisters?

There is no question that it is difficult to know how to respond to such situations. How could we possibly improve the living standards of our poor sisters and brothers around the world? How can we possibly improve the living standards even of those in our own country? It would take a miracle.

There was a heresy prevalent in our past that said that there was nothing we needed to do. We had no responsibility for the rest of the world. There is an equally terrible heresy in the present that says that there is nothing we can do. The problem is too great for us. Our Christian faith must reject such reasoning. If we truly believe that God is in control, there is no room for withdrawal or resignation. Human responsibility and choice are awesomely real. We have the power to make or break our world. Yet in the frailty of our human nature, we hold back.

The gospel message is one of hope to the poor, to the sick, to those in need. The cross and resurrection are the sign of God’s struggle and victory, not just over the power of evil, but also of the status quo. The gospel message turns the tables on it all. What God has done in Christ affects not only us as individuals, but our lives within the whole social order of our world. Our call to faith is an invitation to work with God so that renewal and new life may come about in the affairs of the world, so that the status quo may change. As Christians, we see God most clearly at work in Jesus Christ. We need to continually ask that question that is bandied around society. What would Jesus do?

The answer is that Jesus would find a way to help. That is essentially the message of the gospel this week. Jesus performs miracles. He feeds the crowds. He heals their sick. He is there for the disciples when storms arise. He quells their fears, reassuring them, reminding them that he is with them and they do not need to be afraid. He is even there when get distracted and sink beneath the waves. He is there when they call out to him, “Lord, save me!”

It happens for us too. We call out to God for reassurance. And we reach out. We acknowledge our helplessness. It opens some gate in us that accepts help. It opens the way for others to respond to our need. We experience God’s love and forgiveness and healing and challenge. We are able to see Christ in others and allow them to see Christ in us. And then in turn we are able to respond to the needs of those around us. I am painfully aware that we cannot hope to fix it all. But there are ethical ways in which we can respond to the needs of our brothers and sisters around the globe. We can continue to explore those ways and consider how God is calling us to act on their behalf. We can help bring this wonderful but dysfunctional worldwide Church family of ours into fuller communion with God and with the world in which we live.

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