Sunday, September 23, 2012

These Family Values?

Genesis 37:3-8, 26-34; 50:15-21

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 return.

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.

Joseph immediately becomes the favorite son of the eleven at the time, the first son of Jacob’s beloved Rachel and a son born to him in his old age. He gives Joseph a special garment, a coat of many colors in older renderings of the story, a coat with long sleeves in newer translations. We don’t really know. What we know is that it set Joseph apart. It filled him with great pride, maybe too much pride. It reminded his brothers every single time they saw him that he was the favorite. Never a great situation for peaceful family dynamics.

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.

Sounds a lot like the speech we’re all hearing (and maybe are a part of?) in the human family these days. The political conventions were full of it. The advertisements continue it, but lest we think it’s all coming from some ethereal or far away “them,” let’s not ignore the speech in our own community, in the newspapers, at city Planning Commission meetings even… maybe even around white tables while drinking fair trade coffee? Maybe? The sin of ugly, broken down, and even at times violent communication is an easy sin into which we slip, and adds a toxicity to the environment that can poison even the closest of relationships. It fractures families; it cuts through communities. It makes life impossible to live together in love, compassion, or even just productivity.

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.

Someone has to lead the way. Someone has to make the first declaration. Someone has to work toward the real biblical value of peace for the whole human family.  Someone has to point out, speak up, say out loud, that God is at work in us all. So, why not the church? Why not this church? We are certainly set up well to do the work. We share a common belief in God, our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. We share a common trust that God can and does work through the lives and efforts of creation. So why not this gathering of believers who even in the midst of our common beliefs have a whole lot of different understandings of who God is and how God works and what that means for how people live together?

  • 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 smoothes 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.

 ("Vote for me" by Cheerful Monk, Creative Commons License)

No comments: