Genesis 45:3-11, 15
Luke 6:27 – 38
February 21, 2016
Chilmark Community Church
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
Starting out, the working title for this sermon was “Sin, Repentance, Redemption, and Repair”. When I shared my thoughts with my rabbi friend, Lori Shaller, she said: “boy – that sounds heavy –are you trying to scare people off?!?” While I really liked the way the words roll of the tongue, I was inclined to agree with her. While sin and repentance and redemption and repair are central themes throughout the scriptures, the bible comes at them rather obliquely – – through stories – – rather than hitting us between the eyes, as it were. The stories show us the great patterns sin and repentance, redemption and repair in more palatable ways as the saga of God’s people unfolds.
And so it is with the story that we read to day. A lot of time has passed since the day that Joseph, perhaps 17 years old at the time, was thrown into an empty cistern by his brothers – left there to die because they just couldn’t tolerate his brazen, favorite son, tattle-tale behavior even one more day. A lot of time has passed since his older brother, Judah, said “What good is it if we kill him and try to conceal it – – Let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother after all – our own flesh.” An ironic afterthought.
The story of Joseph and his brothers follows closely on the heels of the stories of a number of other brothers in the Hebrew scripture – stories that seem to unfold in a pattern of dysfunctional families, parental favoritism, sibling rivalry, mistrust, mayhem and murder.
Starting with the story of Cain and Abel at the beginning of the biblical narrative of humankind – we find brother at enmity with brother.
Cain is the first born son – a farmer – a tiller of the ground. He is followed by Abel who is a sheep-herder. Cain brings an offering of grain to God. Abel brings an offering of one of the firstborn of his flocks. God likes Abel’s offering better. Cain gets angry and kills off Abel. And a pattern of enmity between brothers starts.
Often the pattern is aided and abetted by parents who favor one child over another. Abraham and Sarah wait a long time to have a child. Sarah is not able to have children so she provides her handmaid, Hagar to Abraham as the first surrogate mother. Hagar gives birth to Ishmael. In her old age, Sarah does indeed finally become pregnant as God has promised and gives birth to Isaac. Even though he is the younger son, Isaac will be the son who receives Father Abraham’s blessing. Isaac will carry the covenant of God forward into the future. An enmity arises between Sarah and Hagar. Sarah jealously drives Hagar and Ishmael out of the tribe. The seeds for the enmity between Isaac and Ishmael are planted. They go their separate ways and become the ancestors of two multitudes of people: Ishmael, the father of the Islamic peoples, Isaac, the progenitor of the Jewish people.
In the next generation, Isaac, now married to his beloved wife, Rebecca, becomes the father of twins. Esau, the firstborn, is the rightful heir to Isaac’s blessing. Jacob, the second born seizes his elder brother’s blessing from their aged and blind father. A life long enmity rises up between the twins. With murderous threats hanging between them, they go their separate ways as well.
Jacob marries first Leah and then his beloved Rachel, Leah’s younger sister. Jacob fathers 12 sons by these two women and also by two of their handmaids. Joseph, the 11th son is the first son born to Rachel, the beloved wife. He is Jacob’s favorite – resented by his 10 elder brothers as a whining, tale bearing upstart. The brothers plot his murder, change their minds, and sell him into slavery in Egypt.
A lot happens to Joseph in Egypt in this longest story in the book of Genesis. When Joseph’s brothers encounter Joseph in Pharoah’s court after so many years of separation, they do not even recognize him – – although Joseph know exactly who they are.
It is here in this emotionally charged reunion of the brothers that we see the patterns of the past beginning to be reversed. In one of the most poignant scenes in the scriptures, Joseph, threatened with the loss of his life, thrown into a pit, and sold into slavery by his own brothers so many years ago, forgives them and sows the seeds of a new pattern of possibilities.
Patterns of harm and hurtfulness, no matter how deeply seated, can be reversed and changed. This is the word of hope that runs throughout our sacred texts. Buried in each of the stories of the hurt and pain between brothers there is a tiny glimmer of hope. God cares for Cain and places a mark on him so that he can move through life unharmed in spite of the shameful crime he committed against Abel. Long after the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael, Ishmael and Isaac return to stand next to each other at their father’s funeral. After years of separation Jacob and Esau embrace in generosity – seeing God’s face in one another. Joseph sees the graceful and guiding hand of God working through his brothers’ actions and through his suffering.
The long Joseph story is a story of sin and repentance and redemption and repair –a story of brothers finding their way through their alienation from one another to healing and reconciliation. It is a story of repaired relationships. With the Joseph story, the pattern of sibling rivalry in Genesis ends. The pattern is broken – – and it is broken by Joseph’s ability to forgive the past, to heal it and to permit both himself and his brothers to move forward into the future free of the burdens of sorrow and guilt and fear that they carried for so many years. With this willingness to forgive and reconcile, the narrative is infused with energy to continue on.
When we hear Jesus’ teachings about loving our enemies, doing good to those who curse us, praying for those who abuse us – -turning the other cheek, what we are hearing is an invitation to reverse the pattern of withholding forgiveness. Most often this is an inner work that may have to happen long before the actual rebuilding of broken relationships can begin to happen. Many years passed between the departing murderous threats that Esau made against his brother Jacob and their eventual reunion. Many years passed between the day Joseph’s brothers threw him into the pit and the day when they were so emotionally reunited in Pharoah’s court. The process of coming to a place of being able to forgive can take a very long time.
The work of Lent is about recognizing where we need to be about the work of breaking old patterns that limit our lives in unproductive ways. The work begins with simply recognizing where we feel alienated – separated, whether from others, from ourselves, or from God. I am never quite sure whether this is the hardest part or not – – because it means saying “yes –this is where my sin is.” I say that, because the next part of the process may be even harder – and that is the work of returning – turning – toward the other, turning toward our innermost selves, turning toward God – the work of repentance – of seeking or of giving forgiveness. Once we have made the choice to face toward the work of forgiveness then the energy of forgiveness has a chance to begin its flow.
I think we see the redemption part when we see Jacob and Esau embrace after years of alienation – – when we see how Joseph forgives and releases his brothers from all the years of guilt about what they had done. Their lives are indeed redeemed, brought back from the terrible exile of separation. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to be best buddies, but through the work of turning toward one another, they get their lives back. A kind of repair work happens and the story is allowed to move forward. If a refusal to forgive had happened at any point, the story would founder and stagnate – unable to reach a satisfying conclusion.
Repentance, turning toward the highest and best for ourselves and the other, redeeming and repairing the fractured places and relationships in our lives – – these are the movements of the spiritual life. They are the movements of the life to which Jesus invites us. They are not easy movements. They inevitably cost us something. We don’t do any of them without at least a bit of struggle and sometimes with a lot of soul wrenching anguish. But this is the work we are called to do.
Still, as Joseph recognizes–there seems to be a deep grace, a hidden involvement of the Holy One, governing the process when we decide to undertake the work of breaking the old patterns of separation and brokenness. A little later in Luke’s gospel Jesus is heard to say “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who do not need to repent.”
It seems that God takes great pleasure in our willingness to do the work of repairing the world through our willingness to do the work of forgiveness – both in the giving and the receiving. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Forgiveness is not an occasional act but a permanent attitude.” Even the smallest increment makes a huge difference.