Trinitarian Congregational Church 12th Sunday after Pentecost
Anthony S. Kill August 27, 2017
Texts: Genesis 44 & 45
Today’s scripture readings tell the end of the Joseph story.
Joseph is the one of the sons of Jacob, who was the son of Isaac, who was the son of Abraham.
The Joseph story it’s the longest story in the book of Genesis.
It takes up 14 of the 50 chapters, almost one-third of the book.
So we can’t just tell the last chapters without more than a little background and context.
The story of Joseph has a good news/bad news quality about it.
Most people remember the beginning of the story, about how Joseph was his father’s favorite, how he received the coat of many colors, or “The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” as the Broadway musical called it. (That would seem like a good thing.)
But Joseph’s privilege and arrogance made his 10 brothers so jealous that they sold him into slavery in Egypt.
The brothers told their father that Joseph must have been killed by wild animals.
(That would seem to be a bad thing!)
But when he was sold into slavery, and taken to Egypt, he became chief steward of the noble Potiphar’s household.
(That would seem to be a good thing!)
But Potiphar’s wife lusted after the handsome young Hebrew, and when he refused her advances, she falsely accused him of attempted rape, and he was thrown in prison.
(That would seem to be a bad thing!)
But while in prison, he interpreted the dream of Pharaoh’s cupbearer and it was because of that dream interpretation that later, when the mighty Pharaoh needed a dream interpreted, the cup-bearer remembered to tell the Pharaoh about Joseph in prison.
Pharaoh brings him out of prison, and Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream.
(That was a good thing)
The dream was about 7 years of plenty with abundant crops (a good thing), followed by and 7 years of great famine in all the land (a bad thing)
But Joseph not only interpreted the dream; he also told Pharaoh how to manage the harvest and store up grain all over the country to prepare for the time of famine.
Because of that, the Pharaoh made Joseph his chief advisor, and gave him charge of grain storage throughout the land. And it was because of Joseph’s wise stewardship that Egypt had grain saved up to distribute when the famine came throughout the known world.
Now because Egypt had grain to distribute, Jacob, back in Cannan, sent his other sons, Joseph’s brothers, to Egypt to buy grain.
But Jacob did not send his youngest son, Benjamin, with the others, because he wanted to protect him.
Benjamin and Joseph were the only two children Jacob had by Rachel, his most beloved wife.
Joseph recognized his brothers when they came to Egypt, but did not make himself known.
Instead, he accused them of being spies, and held one of them, Simeon, hostage, insisting that the others go back to Canaan and bring their younger brother, Benjamin, back to Egypt with them.
They did so, to their father Jacob’s great heartache and protest.
Joseph secretly weeps to see his younger brother but he still doesn’t reveal himself.
And that’s where today’s scripture readings pick up the story:
Joseph sells them grain to take back to their land, but then he pulls the another trick on them, hiding his personal cup in Benjamin’s sack of grain.
In the story of Joseph’s encounter with his brothers in Egypt, he starts by hurling some pretty serious charges at his brothers, accusing them of being spies, detaining them in prison, holding one of them hostage, and planting incriminating evidence on them to get them in trouble.
He tests them and torments them and toys with them.
We might wonder if Joseph is out for revenge, making his brothers suffer for what they’d done to him.
And who could blame him for wanting a little sweet revenge?
But as the story develops, we learn that his real motive was not revenge.
He was really working toward reconciliation and reunion.
Joseph wanted to see his younger brother Benjamin, who is his only full brother
— the only other son of Jacob by Joseph’s mother Rachel.
And he wanted to see his father Jacob.
But more than that, Joseph saw that he was in a position to save his family from the famine, by bringing them to Egypt to be with him.
His string of accusations and deceits and threats to enslave them was all part of his strategy to achieve those goals.
So what started as a story of jealousy and violence and treachery, of brother turning against brother, now becomes a story of reconciliation and reunion, of brotherly love and family loyalty.
Psychologically and spiritually there is also a deeper truth being expressed here.
That is this: there is no easy or quick way to true reconciliation.
There are no shortcuts.
The only way to reconciliation is through confession, remorse and repentance and a new resolve for the future.
The brothers had broken covenant, broken the integrity of their family when they decided to betray and abandon their brother, and grieve their father for all his life.
They had to acknowledge and own their sin and cruelty, and make a new commitment to care for each other and take care of each other faithfully.
In Genesis 42, even though the brothers don’t yet recognize Joseph, they interpret everything that was happening to them in Egypt as retribution for what they had done to their younger brother twenty years before.
“They said to one another, “Alas, we are paying the penalty for what we did to our brother; we saw his anguish when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen. That is why this anguish has come upon us.” Then Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to wrong the boy? But you would not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.” Gen 42:21-22
The brothers said all this in Joseph’s presence, thinking that since he was an Egyptian, he wouldn’t understand their language.
But he did understand, and he was so moved that he turned away from them and wept.
With the threat of losing another brother, and breaking their father’s heart again, a deep and ancient wound in the family was being re-opened.
But sometimes, deep and ancient wounds have to be re-opened before the healing can start to happen. And then the healing can create a new beginning.
Joseph’s whole desire is to forgive his brothers and be reconciled with his family.
But first he needs to witness the authenticity of their confession and remorse.
Indeed, the brothers themselves need a heartfelt, genuine confession, with repentance and remorse.
It is the only way to true forgiveness and healing and reconciliation.
And Joseph, by his wisdom and cunning and persistence, becomes the instrument of their confession, and therefore of their healing and reconciliation.
So the Joseph story becomes an example for us of how even the most broken and alienated family relationships can work a way toward healing and reconciliation.
Joseph becomes a model of an abused child who does not remain a victim, or a hater, or a vengeance seeker.
He not only moves forward with his life, but also helps his brothers recognize and own their guilt, and become open to reconciliation.
Reflecting on the Joseph story, I want to share two conclusions:
First, I want to say a word about the image of the ideal family.
Sometime during the late 20th century, in our yearning for old-fashioned simplicity of life, I suppose, the “traditional” nuclear family came to be romanticized and idealized into some innate paradise, some pristine source of virtue and goodness and truth and beauty, where adults never fight, and love never falters, the children turn out perfect.
Or, as Garrison Keillor described life in Lake Woebegone, “Where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are well above average.”
And then people thought they had to protect and defend that ideal image of the family.
So “family values” became the rallying cry for the forces opposed to a variety of what some considered to be social ills – not just crime and drugs and unwed mothers, but birth control and feminism and abortion rights and homosexuality.
All these were cited as dangers to the traditional family and family values, and Christians were called on to protect and defend some ideal family unit.
Well, I don’t know where this myth of the ideal family came from, but it certainly wasn’t from the book of Genesis, or from the stories in the Bible!
The Bible presents the stories of a great many families in succession — important families, famous families, large families and small families, going back in time to the very beginning of God’s creation Adam and Eve’s children, Noah’s children Abraham and Sarah’s family, Isaac and Rebecca’s family, Jacob’s family, King David’s family.
And most of the stories of these Biblical families would never be put on the Family Channel as examples of family values.
The Old Testament is filled with “R” rated and “X” rated family histories.
They are the very definition of dysfunctional families.
The Biblical family histories are filled with rape and lust and incest, with drunkenness and violence and betrayal and jealousy and infidelity and deceit, not to mention polygamy and concubines and prostitutes.
Nowhere is the family portrayed as a secure center or haven for safety or sound values.
The Joseph story is just one of a long series of stories of rotten family values.
I say this not to be dismissive of marriage or parental love or family loyalty or commitment, but to remind us that even the authors of the Bible seemed to understand that families are not always perfect or safe or faithful or loving environments.
And this has been so from the beginning of time.
To evaluate our experience of family, or establish our expectations of family, or measure your own success as a family, against the standard of some mythological “ideal” Christian family or system of family values is surely a set-up for failure, and is also totally bogus.
As Lee Hayes of the Weavers used to say, “The good old days ain’t what they used to be, and what’s more, they never was.”
That is not to deny that families can be places of blessing and grace and nurture or to ignore the loving families that some of us grew up with or are now living in.
But it is to acknowledge that there can be, and always have been, many kinds of family configuration, and that most families have experienced troubles or secrets or heartbreaks or failures.
And, as Joseph so clearly demonstrates to his brothers in today’s scriptures, God can use even mistakes and abuses and missteps in relationships to bring about good ends.
In the stories of the patriarchal families in Genesis, despite all the sad and sordid things that happen to them — in their families and in the larger society, people survive and thrive and grow in their relationships with God and with each other.
Bad things happened. Horrible things happened.
But forgiveness and healing happened too.
Rescue and reconciliation happened too.
New beginnings happened too.
God continued to work his will through these people and through these generations.
God’s hand still guided human history, to God’s own ends.
The Joseph story (and the Book of Genesis) ends with the entire Hebrew people – all of Jacob’s clan, moving to Egypt and settling there.
Then the cycle of “good news, bad news” starts all over again.
The story moves quickly to the book of Exodus, where another Pharaoh was afraid of the immigrant Hebrews, and forced them to be slave laborers.
Then begins the story of the rescue of the infant Moses, whom God will raise up to deliver his people from slavery and lead them to the promised land.
And so the cycle goes on and on.
And now, my second conclusion:
The events of the past few weeks in our country have revealed some very disturbing rifts of hatred and distrust and prejudice, with white supremacists and neo Nazis and racists and anti-Semites feeling emboldened and encouraged by mixed signals and so-called “dog whistles” coming from the highest levels of government. On the other hand, counter protests have been massive and vocal – witness the thousands who marched and gave witness against these right-wing extremists in Boston and dozens of other cities last weekend.
My reflection is this: Just like all those broken and dysfunctional families in the Bible, human society will always be a mix of the best and the worst of human inclinations and human behaviors.
We can never take our justice or freedom or mutual respect for granted.
We must always be vigilant.
And if people of integrity and good will are vigilant and courageous, every cruel or hateful movement can and will be countered by a movement toward healing and restoration, as Joseph was toward his brothers.
We can become a better, stronger, more just society as a response to evil and injustice erupting in our midst.
Witness the strong and swift response of the commanders of the Army, Navy, Airforce, Marine Corp and National Guard, condemning racism and hatred after Charlottesville. Even the Republican National Committee felt compelled to unanimously condemn white supremacy and racist beliefs, to counter the ambivalent responses coming from the White House.
And that must be the role of the church and its members as well.
Christian clergy and laity were at the center of the counter-protests in Boston last weekend, both to give witness and to maintain peace.
It is a core belief and value of our Christian faith that we are all beloved children of God, and that we are called on to love and lift up the least and the lowliest among us – indeed, even to love our enemies.
We in the church have a key role to play in these turbulent times – even if we only give witness in our own neighborhoods, or the local streets and shops and schools around us.
I will close with the lyrics of one of the newer hymns in your hymnal that express this Christian commission very clearly: Community of Christ.
Community of Christ,who make the Cross your own,live out your creed and risk your life for God alone:the God who wears your face, to whom all worlds belong,whose children are of every race eand every song. Community of Christ,look past the Church’s doorand see the refugee, the hungry, and the poor.Take hands with the oppressed, the jobless in your street,take towel and water, that you wash your neighbor’s feet. Community of Christ,through whom the Word must sound –cry out for justice and for peace the whole world round:disarm the powers that war and all that can destroy,turn bombs to bread, and tears of anguish into joy. Amen.