There’s an awful lot of talk these days about what makes a family, who can be in a family, who defines a family, and what God desires for families, but the one argument, no matter WHERE you land on any of those questions, that just never quite makes sense to me, is the argument that we should return to biblical family values. When I read stories like this one, like the family of Jacob and Leah and Bilhah and Zilpah and Rachel, one husband for simultaneous wives or at least mothers of his children, like the twelve sons who have so much bad blood among them that eleven of them conspire to kill one, or at the very least just sell him off into slavery in a foreign land, I wonder if these are the biblical family values to which we are being begged to turn.
No this story of Joseph, the not-so-humble dreamer turned “Minister of Economic and Natural Resources,” isn’t really strong on the kind of family values that will make a nation great, at least not until the very end of the fifteen or so chapters of Genesis that this saga takes. It makes a wonderfully entertaining bit of musical theater; it’s a fantastic account of God working out a story of redemption through corrupt and sinful human behavior. It’s not so great as a blueprint for governmental policy.
In fact, the brothers’ reaction to their father’s favoritism draws out of them feelings of jealousy from such a deep place in their very cores that the family reaches its ultimate crisis point. It is summed up in what I think is a very easy verse to read right over, and yet it contains the essential problem in this whole text. It contains, really, one of the essential problems that can plague human relationships even to this day. It contains, I believe, one of the essential problems we face in the world, in our nation, in the state, and even in this very community these days. “They hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.” (Genesis 37:4)
The family was in utter shambles. Jacob gifts his favorite son with a special coat, publically sealing what we can only imagine was already obvious to the rest of the family. Joseph doesn’t help much by publically sharing his prophetic dreams with something less than compassion. In all of it communication completely fell apart. And the scripture doesn’t say that anyone gave anyone the silent treatment. No, it seems they were still speaking, they just weren’t speaking peaceably. The words that came out of their mouths toward one another did nothing for building each other up, did nothing for trying to understand, did nothing for coming to common ground. The words that came out of their mouths were only disruptive to the family system, disrespectful, and destructive.
Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, dividing the family, almost ensuring they’ll never have to speak to him again, peaceably or not. Today we ensure the same thing by dividing into concretized political parties along lines drawn in the sand. We over-simplify complex issues, assigning false black-and-white positions to very grey concerns. We throw each other in metaphorical pits so that we’ll never actually have to sit down face-to-face and work this stuff out. Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, sure that they will never see him again.
But they do. And at exactly the right moment. Reunited after decades apart, having just buried their father, Joseph’s brothers fall at his feet in desperate humility, and Joseph undoes what had been done so many years ago back in Canaan when the speech among them broke down. He spoke kindly to them.
That’s what it took for forgiveness to really be granted. That’s what it took for the reconciliation to be real. But what did it take for the speech between them to change? It took an awareness of God’s presence. It took a confession of God’s sovereignty. It took the realization that even in the midst of all the bad intentions, the violence, the hatred even among the brothers, God was able to work something beneficial, even blessed. The brothers in their fit of jealousy back at the beginning of the story had lost sight of the presence of God. Nowhere in all of their anger or scheming or actions is there any mention of God. They aren’t even angry at God, blaming God for their father’s preferential treatment of their brother. They don’t even cry out in desperation, “Why God?” Their ties with the divine are completely cut off, shut down, buried in the fields that will dry up in drought.
But the difference with Joseph is a steady attention to God’s presence in his life. Joseph isn’t perfect. When the brothers first come to him in Egypt, he conceals his identity for a while. He doesn’t feed his brothers right away out of selfless compassion. He sends them back to Canaan to prove the safety of his younger brother before he will feed them more fully. He plants a precious cup in Benjamin’s sack of grain to test them. He’s not the picture of perfection in this saga.
Yet what seems to be different, what seems to move the family toward forgiveness is Joseph’s attentiveness to God, what we might call being awake to the Spirit. When his brothers have fallen before him, when all that has happened in their lives together, then apart, and finally back together again is sitting at the surface, like raw nerves exposed to the air, when their father is dead and buried, and there’s a possibility for it all to breakdown, for the whole relationship to crumble, Joseph can point to the redeeming work of God that is still present, still active, still sovereign in their lives. He can recognize the deeper responsibility and call they have to forgive and move forward in peace together.
This is what it takes. This is what is required to move past such times of great division, great animosity, great ugliness and violence in the words we speak into God’s creation. It doesn’t require perfection from ourselves or others. (If we are waiting for that, we will be waiting a long, long time.) It doesn’t require winning the argument, because really,
when people are forced out of their homeland,
when wars are fought too long,
when the earth is cracked and parched,
when sons and daughters are laid to rest far from their parents,
when reconciliation comes so late,
who really wins?
What it takes to move forward in such times of great division, great animosity, great ugliness and violence in the words and actions is the recognition, the confession, that even in the midst of all of this God is present, and because we are in the midst of all of this God is working us out. Only when we are able to see that those with whom we argue, those with whom we disagree, those with whom we have generations upon generations of disagreements are still beloved children of God, through whom God is working out a way forward, will we ever speak kind words from the heart, will we ever be in peace.
- Why don’t we work to change the speech around us, this congregation with such diversity of thought, but who has already agreed to live in that diversity together?
- Why don’t we point to God who draws us together into community and works through our humble offerings and begin to demonstrate to the world not just polite speech which we do very well, but peaceful speech in the most difficult of times?
- Why don’t we commit to start talking to each other about things that matter in our lives and in our community?
- Why don’t we transform our gift of friendliness and politeness into a gift of peaceful speech - - not sanitized speech, not happy, ignoring-areas-of-disagreement speech, not speech that smooths over differences of belief, not speech that ignores areas of potential conflict? Peaceful speech – speech that recognizes that other speakers are children of God, blessed with the responsibility of discernment, gifted with the Holy Spirit to guide them, placed in our lives to add wisdom to our own understanding.
What if we talked about what makes a family? What if we talked about how we can best take care of the poor? What if we talked about what will build a strong community? What if we talked about getting along with people of other faiths, other ethnicities, other nationalities? And what if we did it all peaceably? What if we transformed our speech, even just in our congregation, could we begin a transformation in our community?
“When will people cease their fighting?” our hymn is about to ask. When people of faith recognize the dynamic love of God working toward a better end and join that love in word and action, that’s when fighting will end.