Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, ‘Send everyone away from me.’ So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?’ But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come closer to me.’ And they came closer. He said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither ploughing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, “Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.” And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honoured in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.’ Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
Making A Way In Egypt- Genesis 45:1-15
Oh, these descendants of Abraham and Sarah know how to fight, don't they? Sarah kicked Hagar and Ishmael to the curb in order to secure a blessing for Isaac. Then, Isaac's boys, Jacob and Esau, continued the family tradition. Jacob was willing to trick his dad and his brother to secure his own blessing from God. Esau was enraged about this and planned to kill his brother. Jacob had to go into exile in order to save his own life, though he would eventually return to Canaan. Even after he got back to his homeland in Canaan, Jacob's family still wasn't settled. His own sons began to fight amongst themselves. You see, Jacob never learned not to show favoritism to family members, and he regularly made it clear that he loved Joseph the most. Joseph's brothers did not take this well, and eventually planned to kill him. Hm. That's sounds familiar to me. Does it sound familiar to you? Do you hear how some patterns in families repeat themselves generation after generation unless someone has the courage to stop it? Do you hear how favoritism, unjust cultural dynamics, scarcity thinking, and jealousy can so easily develop into violence?
Fortunately, fighting is not the only legacy of this family. As we have journeyed through these three generations, we have observed a people in the family develop a deep and mostly unwavering faith in God. We have watched a trickster learn patience and seen brave women build new lives for themselves in the wilderness and far from home. And, this family gives us some of the most beautiful scenes of reconciliation and restoration in the whole Bible. It was only a few weeks ago that we read of Esau and Jacob's tearful reunion. Something happened in twenty years that Jacob was away that softened Esau's anger with his brother. Honestly, I don't think it was all the livestock that Jacob sent him. Esau wept too much and held him too hard to have simply had his forgiveness purchased. It's too bad we don't have Esau's side of the story to hear what inspired his change of heart.
Knowing the story of Jacob and Esau, you might wonder if Joseph will be able to reconcile with his brothers. If Esau can forgive Jacob, then maybe Joseph can forgive the brothers who sold him into slavery (a fate that could have easily led to his death). It is not at all clear that he would be able to when he first sees them after many years in Egypt. Let me tell you a little about what has happened in the last several years of Joseph's life. After years in slavery, years that included imprisonment but also great success as a manager of the homes of the people who owned him, Joseph had developed a reputation as one who could interpret dreams. He had helpfully advised the pharaoh on how to plan for a famine that was foretold in one of the pharaoh's dreams. The pharaoh has such faith in him that he appoints him to a place of great honor and prominence in his court. He gave him an Egyptian name and an Egyptian wife.
When the terrible famine hit, Joseph had made sure that there was plenty of grain stored. People would end up spending all their money, selling all of their land, and, eventually, selling their own bodies into slavery in order to have enough to eat. He kept people alive and greatly increased the Pharoah's holdings, but at great cost to the people of Egypt and the surrounding countries who came to him for food. Perhaps he was getting revenge upon the people who enslaved him... becoming more successful than them and gaining more power than them. Or, maybe he was just using his good luck and great skill to replicate the unjust system he was sold into. He demonstrated a keen ability to assimilate, but little will to try to make their political system more just. His assimilation allowed him the power to survive and maybe even the power to keep people alive (if under his thumb), but, would it allow him the power to forgive?
Joseph once had a dream where his brothers' eleven sheaves of grain bowed to his one sheaf and a second dream where the sun, moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to him. I wonder if he recalled those dreams when he found ten of his brothers bowing before him with their faces on the ground, hoping that the Pharoah's representative would be willing to sell them enough grain so they themselves could survive. These brothers had no idea who he was, and certainly would never have imagined that their enslaved brother could have ended up a primary advisor to the Pharoah. When Joseph accused them of being spies and require them to bring their youngest brother Benjamin to him to prove their innocence, they have no idea that these actions could be rooted in a powerful man's need for vengance, though they did wonder if God might have been punishing them for what they had done.
Reuben, who had once tried to save his brother, also thought God was holding them accountable for their actions. Joseph wept when he heard his brother's words. Maybe he never knew that one of them had tried to save him. He then heard his other brothers express great fear, but, hearing their fear and Reuben's regrets was not enough to soften Joseph. He held Simeon as collateral until they are willing to bring back Benjamin, the youngest brother. Joseph also has their money, the money that they were supposed to use to pay for the grain, slipped back in their bags. This isn't meant to be a refund. I think it is done to make it look like they cheated the Pharoah. Their father, Jacob, is bereft at the idea of sending Benjamin back, remembering the loss of Joseph and assuming that Simeon has been killed, but, they run out of food again. Egypt, and an angry Joseph, are their only options for salvation.
Carrying with them double the money and their brother Benjamin, the brothers go back to Egypt. Joseph surprises them by claiming to have received the first payment and bringing Simeon to them, very much alive and in one piece. When Joseph, still unrecognized by his brothers, sees Benjamin, he nearly weeps in front of them. He hid his tears away in another room. When he sent them away with food the next morning, he had their money replaced again, along with his own silver cup in Benjamin's bag. Joseph then directed his steward to accuse them of being thieves. Certain that none of them had taken it, they promise the steward that he could keep any man whom he found carrying the cup. They tore at their clothes in mourning when they realized Benjamin had the cup.
So far, in this story, there is no Jacob and Esau-like reconciliation, only Joseph using his power to make his brothers suffer. They knew that he had the power to do much worse. Oh, and they still didn't know who he was. Judah, the brother who had originally suggested selling Joseph, stepped forward in one last ditch effort to save them. He explained to this man whom he thinks is a stranger just how much their father loves them, and loves especially Benjamin. He explained how this son and another, one who has died, were the only sons from Rachel and Jacob's relationship. He explained that grief over Joseph's death had already nearly killed his father. He said that his father will blame him, Judah, for the rest of his life if they don't bring Benjamin back. He offered to stay in his place, giving his own life to save the life of a beloved brother.
Judah had been the one who suggested selling Joseph into slavery, an action that could have likely led to Joseph's death. His legacy up to this point was violence. And, yet, here he is, stepping forward to save his brother and to honor his father. Judah demonstrates a care for the other that Joseph must have wished he could have shared with him. This is what finally softens Joseph. This is what stops the spiral to revenge. Joseph sent his Egyptians away, and stood to face his brothers, saying who he really is, asking after their father, and weeping. His brothers are initially terrified that this news certainly spelled doom for them, but, it didn't.
Joseph explained that he felt that God had turned what they intended for evil into good. Though God had never said this to Joseph, Joseph had begun to feel that God had placed him at that exact place for a purpose. In this case, the purpose was to save his family and all of his nation. He offered his brothers and the rest of the family a level of mercy that would surprise many people. He invited all of them to come to Egypt and live under his care. He told them to make sure to tell his father that he was alive and well respected. Then, he and all of his brothers wept in each other's arms.
Here's the questions I'm left with after reading this story, with the world's news in mind: In a world where entrenched unjust systems continue to breed violence, in a world where assimilation can still be the easiest way to survive but often asks us to reproduce oppressive systems to remain in power, in a world where plenty of Judah's haven't yet developed the courage to change for the better, where do we find reconciliation? How can we help create spaces for aggrieved parties to hold the ones who have harmed them accountable without resorting to revenge? What is the church's role in modeling and facilitating forgiveness? Reconciliation is possible. We just have to, with God's help, build a place where it can happen.
On my drive into church this morning, I heard one story that seemed like a space for reconciliation that we might learn from. There is a pastor named Robert Lee who lives in North Carolina. Yes, he is named after that Robert E. Lee, the former general of the Confederate States of America. He is a descendant, a nephew many times removed, of him. Rev. Lee has recently spoken out about his family legacy, stating clearly that he believes his ancestor fought on the wrong side of history and monuments to him should be taken down because they have become props for white supremacy. The part of the story (I will include the link to the report at the end of this sermon) that most cost my attention was that he had been emailed by a woman who was a descendant of the people whom General Lee owned. She shared that it meant so much to her that a descendant of the people who once owned her family was speaking out against racism so forcefully. Now, that sounds an awful lot like reconciliation to me. May we be inspired by their witness.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Beth L. Tanner: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3368
Wil Gafney: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1026
Jane Rachel Litman: http://www.beliefnet.com/faiths/2001/01/joseph-comes-out.aspx?
Kimberly Dawn Russaw: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kimberly-d-russaw/acknowledging-our-divine-positioning_b_5668016.html
John Holbert: http://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/revenge-is-sweet-john-holbert-08-11-2014.html
Another story about a complex reconciliation by Eugene L. Pogany: http://www.aril.org/pogany.html
The story about Rev. Lee and his family's legacy: http://www.npr.org/2017/08/20/544817830/robert-e-lee-s-descendant-on-confederate-statues?utm_campaign=storyshare&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.