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So twisted, so gripping, so reflective of all the good and bad of human nature are some stories that we sometimes get lost in all their soap-opera drama. A storyline can be so compelling that we forget what it’s all about.
The convoluted saga of Joseph and his 11 brothers (and their father, Jacob, and their four different mothers) is one of those stories.
So before we even get to the story, before we get lost in the betrayal and brokenness, the redemption and reunion, and more weeping than a Hallmark made-for-TV movie, let’s be clear about what is happening here:
The human family is one huge, diverse, complex, messy, conflicted, and often dysfunctional collection of beautiful but flawed and wounded people. So varied are their backgrounds and experiences, so different are their personalities and perspectives, and so hard and demanding is life in this world that sometimes they actually forget that they are family. They might run into each other now and again and not even realize they are related; their circumstances might take them in such different directions that they never see one another; their hatred for each other can become so all-consuming that they no longer remember sitting together in their daddy’s lap.
All of that and more had happened to Joseph and his brothers. Their story reminds us:
That we are all related; we are family; and we need each other. Yes, we humans have the capacity to do horrible things to one another, to individuals and to entire categories of people. We persecute and oppress, we torture and belittle, we enslave and segregate; we shoot and imprison; sometimes we literally sell one another down the river.
This meta-story, whether of a nuclear family, or the entire human family, can take a long time to play itself out. But here’s the thing: In the end we often discover that our salvation—our healing, our hope, our redemption, even our survival—comes through the least of us all, the very ones we have cast out and walked all over, the ones we have oppressed and hated, the one we have sold into Egypt or nailed to a cross. This story also tells us the importance of keeping family together.
That is the truth we see played out again and again throughout history and, if we’re paying attention, in our own lives.
Are you with me?
Remember that, now—that our salvation comes from the oppressed, that we have to stay together— because there’s a whole lot of drama coming, first in the story of Joseph and his brothers.
I commend this story to you. While our scripture comes from the 45th chapter of Genesis, the story really begins in chapter 29, when Jacob, who has cheated his twin brother, Esau, the first-born, out of his inheritance and has, nevertheless, been blessed by God, meets Rachel, the love of his life. Her father, Laban, tells Jacob he will have to work seven years to win her hand but then, when seven years are up, he turns the tables on Jacob the table-turner, giving him, instead, his older daughter, Leah. For Rachel, Jacob must work seven more years.
Recall that this is happening in a patriarchal, polygamous culture in which women are little more than property. In the end, Jacob will have 12 sons and one daughter by four different women. Joseph is the 11th son born and the 12th child, but the story tells us that Jacob loved Joseph more than any of his other children because he had been born in Jacob’s old age, and because he was the first-born of his beloved Rachel, once thought barren. Jacob expressed his favoritism by making for Joseph a special, some say multi-colored coat, with long sleeves. As if there was not enough love to go around, as if they had not also known their father’s love, Joseph’s brothers hated him.
By the time Joseph is 17, he seems to have let his father’s love go to his head. He has fantastic dreams of greatness and success, and this next-to-youngest son tells his older brothers they will someday bow down to him. They hate his audacity; they resent his ambitions.
“Here comes this dreamer,” they say one day. “Come now, let us kill him—and then we’ll see what will become of his little dreams.” (You can almost hear them saying, “Na, na, na; he will not replace us.)
Well, Reuben, the first-born of them all, talks them out of murder. Instead, they sell Joseph to some passing traders for 20 pieces of silver, and the traders take Joseph to Egypt. Then the brothers kill a goat, dip Joseph’s robe in the blood, and take it back to their father, saying poor Joseph must have been killed by a wild animal. Jacob is inconsolable.
Many years pass, time in which Joseph has slowly but surely risen to power in Egypt. One gets the sense that he has never quite gotten over his rejection by his family, but he applies himself. There is more drama and suffering for Joseph, including blackmail and prison, but eventually his dreams and dream-interpretation skills land him a job as Egypt’s secretary of agriculture in a time of famine. Because Joseph had told Pharaoh to set aside grain enough for seven years, the people of Egypt are fine. The people of Canaan, or Israel, are not.
Joseph’s brothers don’t yet know it, but they need the sibling they hated and cast off. They need his food, yes, but they also need his forgiveness—but they don’t yet know this. All they know is that Egypt has food and they don’t—and so they go to Egypt to try to buy some grain.
There is guilt and shame, regret and much pain. There is still more intrigue: the brothers’ meet with Joseph without realizing who he is; Joseph tricks and manipulates them and sends them back home to get Benjamin, his little brother; Joseph walks away to cry his eyes out; Joseph strings them all along and then, finally, in our reading for today, Joseph reveals himself to them as their sibling.
There is much weeping—loudwailing—all around, and more than enough food for all. Soon, they are telling stories and getting to know one another—for the first time, really. Soon, old-man Jacob will learn that his beloved son still lives, and they and all their families will live together in Egypt as one big family.
Friends, is this not the human story writ large? Is this not where we find ourselves today?
We have forgotten that we are siblings. We white folks have lived through—and profited from—centuries of incredibly brutal racism and white supremacy. We have stolen this land from the native siblings. We have bought and sold our African American siblings; we have segregated them and oppressed them; stripped them of their rights and imprisoned them. Even as we have begun to repent of our racist ways, we white folks still benefit from those ways, and our African American siblings still suffer from them.
We have forgotten that there is enough love and justice for all, and so our nation still fights over jobs and college admissions and housing and police brutality and, yes, over Confederate war memorials erected to intimidate and oppress.
We saw it plain in Charlottesville last weekend. We could not deny the ugly depths of our ongoing division and racial injustice; we could not escape the violence it spawns or the desperate political attempts to deny it.
It is an ugly, heartbreaking story that comes ’round again and again. It might leave us disheartened and more divided than ever if not for the precious truth it reveals: That we are family, siblings all. That our healing, our hope, will come from the very people we have persecuted for centuries on end.
I saw that hope in Boston yesterday, as more than 20,000 of us marched through the streets chanting “Black Lives Matter,” and “Stop white supremacy.” I saw that healing happening as our mighty action was led by African American and Latina women. All through the crowd, all along the march route, African Americans, Latinx and Jews revealed themselves to us white folk as our beloved siblings. They reminded us that we are family, that if our nation is to heal and become truly great, we will need each other. We need Black Lives Matter. We need LGBTQ pride. We need immigrants and refugees and Jews and Muslims.
We need repentance and forgiveness, reconciliation and justice. It will take risk and sacrifice, revelation and reparation. We will have to put aside old ways of thinking and being, we will need to both use and surrender our privilege, and some of us will be called to put our bodies on the line.
And there will be much weeping along the way.
More than anything, healing and reconciliation, equality and justice will require us to remember that we all of are siblings. It will mean remembering, and living as if, we all are family. It means loving our neighbors—all of them.
In Boston yesterday, as our huge throng of marchers was about to finally enter the Common, we heard a commotion. Over to our left stood a tall white man wearing a Trump hat and T-shirt. He was more lost than anything, but his presence was perceived as a threat and an offense, and many of the anti-racist marchers began verbally assaulting him. Some of them surged toward him, and one very angry woman tried her best to get right in his face. It was ugly.
Skyler and I had been marching with Kelly Gallagher, an associate minister of the UCC Massachusetts Conference, and Chip Hurd, another UCC pastor. Thanks to the quick thinking and peace-loving hearts of Kelly and Chip, all four of us put our bodies between the befuddled white nationalist and the aggressive anti-racists. We stood behind and beside the Trump supporter, blocked the angry woman, and as more and more people shouted profanities and threats at the man, we ushered him away from the crowd and out of harm’s way.
Because we are family, siblings all. Because the only way out of this mess is love.
How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like a non-violent march in the face of hatred; it is like being led by the wisdom of the very ones we have oppressed; it is like waking up and realizing that we are starving for justice and peace; it is acknowledging that we are all dreamers; and giving thanks that God has promised us all a blessing: life abundant for all, and peace that passes understanding.