Family systems can be messy. Most of us are keenly aware of that fact. We know the impact of generational trauma and dysfunction. We live in the highly charged atmosphere of family squabbles over fairness and favoritism. This morning, we are met with the reminder that families have always been this way.
This is the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph is the youngest…and the father’s obvious favorite. And you can imagine how well that goes over. In just about every family, it feels like the baby of the family gets away with murder compared to the older kids. And I say this as the baby of the family. Those first born children are laden with the weight of firm demands and expectations Parents are so very concerned with raising these children “right”…and making sure they follow the rules and do as they ought. But after all that hard parenting work…the youngest often are indulged in ways the older ones cannot believe. Particularly those ones who show up a few years after their siblings. One of my friends came along 12 years after her two brothers. She and her brothers are keenly aware that their childhoods bore no resemblance to one another. Luckily, they can laugh about it. Some families are not so lucky.
Joseph is that favored child of Jacob’s old age. Indulged. Beloved. And deeply resented by his older brothers. And with the utter cluelessness that so many privileged folk seem to have… Joseph shares his dreams with his brothers of his destiny for greatness. They will all bow down to him, according to his dreams. And they are livid. They have had enough. They are ready to be done with the brat once and for all…and they decide to kill him.
I’ve got to say…this sounds extreme to me. But really….how people talk themselves into horrific violent acts is startling. A thirty-four year-old was arrested for setting a Mosque on fire. When he explained his actions to a judge he said, “I hate those people.” A fifty year-old man was arrested for threatening an Orlando style massacre at several gay bars. “Those people are just losers,” he said. We have people talking about shooting people if the election doesn’t go their way…one man in Bonner county was ready to “ventilate some dems”, he said. The “ammos gonna fly”. And my jaw goes slack. They’re just like the brothers, making plans to kill Joseph and throw him into the pit. It is frightening how quickly we humans turn to violence.
Anyway, in the midst of the frenzy, Reuben…the oldest brother…tries to offset the craziness. To hold it at bay. Hoping that if they don’t kill Joseph before throwing him in the pit, he can bring Joseph back to his father. And after their tempers have cooled, sanity will prevail. But Reuben’s hope is in vain. His effort is too late and too small. It’s like when someone doesn’t want to stick their neck out in a group that is talking racist or sexist trash…they condone it by not speaking up at the time…only to find themselves part of something reprehensible — taunting, harassing…or abusing and violating another person because of their race or gender or sexuality. There are too many stories of people of color and women and gay and trans people who have been assaulted and abused by groups of folk all stoked up on their anger and resentment. And no one spoke up to stop them. Reuben didn’t speak up…he didn’t stand up to his brothers. And his brothers sell Joseph off to a travelling caravan as a slave. They are rid of Joseph. They have made a mockery of their little brother’s dreams. And they made a profit on top of it. How often do we abuse others for a profit? Too often indeed.
Then they kill a goat and put blood on it to fool their father Jacob into believing Joseph is dead.
Here’s where generational dysfunction makes its appearance. Some of you might remember the story of Jacob and his brother Esau. When their father was dying, Jacob cheated his brother and lied to his father to get his inheritance. He stole a blessing meant for his brother by serving goat stew to his father with goat skin on his arms to impersonate his hairer brother Esau. Here we are reminded that the apples do not fall far from the tree. Because here are Jacob’s sons now cheating him with another goat’s blood. Jacob’s sons are the way they are for a reason…they have learned the art of cheating and manipulation from the master, after all. Family dysfunction is passed on…until someone interrupts the pattern. This is a truth that goes as far back as human families go back.
And then ou story skips 13 chapters and many, many years — where Joseph makes his way from being a slave to landing in prison to fantastically and improbably becoming the person in charge of preparing the entire Egyptian Empire for a famine. A job he manages superbly. He becomes a big shot..a governor of Egypt. Not only does he manage to provide food for Egypt..but those in neighboring countries as well come to him to buy grain so they can survive. So it happens that his brothers head to Egypt on precisely that mission when the famine threatens their survival. And what do you know? They end up bowing before the Egyptian ruler their brother has become, requesting his help. The dream, it seems, has come true, after all. After some testing of his brothers…to see if they will leave his little brother, Benjamin, in Egypt, the way they abandoned him…(spoiler alert…they don’t. They’ve learned their lesson)…Joseph reveals himself to them. And the whole family moves to Egypt and lives under his protection…including his father, Jacob.
But then…Jacob dies. And his brothers are scared once again. Because they know that when they had power over Joseph…they used it for vengeance and violence. And if you read more of their story in Genesis…they are big on vengeance and violence in other situations as well. It’s no surprise that they expect the same from Joseph now that their father is no longer alive to protect them. They expect to get what they deserve. And so they appeal to Joseph…with what sounds like another lie. Another angle. Another attempt to manipulate. “Dad’s dying wish is that you would forgive us for trying to kill you.”..they plead. I kind of want to roll my eyes.
And then, I can’t help but think of how many families have fallen apart upon the death of their parents. I’ve seen it more often than I can tell you. When mom and dad are gone, siblings bicker over “what their parents would have wanted”, and family members on every side wrangle over what is fair…what each “deserves”. And before you know it…it’s ugly. It happens too often….and to really good people, too. It could so easily have happened that way when Jacob died. And, honestly, it would have been justified. But then the craziest… most unexpected thing happens. Grace happens.
Joseph forgives his brothers. They don’t deserve it. They were filled with hate when they sold him off and they truly meant to destroy him. And now they’re playing angles again…just like good old dad. But Joseph ….Joseph breaks the cycle. And offers grace. He takes all those years of resentment and hurt and abandonment and anger…and simply lets them go. It doesn’t matter. God made something good out of it, he says. Let’s move on.
He refuses to keep carrying his grudge. And instead he loves his family. Messed up as they are. He lets go of getting even and with tears to wash away the bitterness… he allows everyone to move forward.
The heart of this story is forgiveness. Because getting even never changes family systems or generational dysfunction. Vengeance never fixes anything. The only thing that transforms hearts and lives….is forgiveness. Grace. Undeserved. Unqualified. Unearned Grace. That is what Joseph offers. Because Joseph trusts God more than anything else…trusts that God is bigger than our messes and can miraculously work good out of the worst situations.
And isn’t that what Jesus offers us? In the face of everything we’ve screwed up individually. In the face of everything we’ve screwed up as human beings — you know — wars, pollution, injustice, our economy built on waste and human rights abuses…Jesus offers US forgiveness. And grace. Undeserved, unqualified, unearned grace. In Jesus…God takes the worst of us and our horrid penchant for hate and violence and vengenace and murder….and somehow makes good out of it in Jesus. We crucify Jesus…and God uses it to redeem the world and destroy the power of sin and death.
We are Joseph’s brothers after all. We are recipients of crazy and unexpected grace. But knowing that…maybe, just maybe, we might trust God enough, like Joseph did…so that we might dare to show grace to one another. Might dare to break the cycles of getting even. We might let go of our years of resentment and anger…let go of the bitterness and hate. And forgive. So that somehow, we can move forward together with our family. And who is our family? Well…all the other folks made in God’s image. All the other folks Jesus loves and redeems. And that’ means all y’all. Every color, every nation, every religion, every sexuality, every gender, every political persuasion….all y’all.
May we dare to trust God. To trust grace. For it is indeed, more powerful than any force on earth. It is grace, after all, that saves us. Amen.