Sunday, August 10, 2014

Family Systems

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
August 10, 2013

            One of the most enduring skills I learned in seminary was the ability to create Genograms.  For those of you who may not be familiar with the term, genograms are a diagram of a family tree.  However, instead of only tracing family lineage, a genogram shows patterns of relationship.  Struggles, issues, ways of dealing with conflict both positive and negative, and the connections between family members can all be diagrammed in a genogram.  If something happened in your grandparents’ family, there’s a good chanced it affected your parents, and that in turn affected you.  I find the genogram to be a powerful tool in understanding how family systems and dynamics work, in good ways and in bad ways. 
            In today's passage we come to the story of Joseph.  Although we only touch on a small part of his story this Sunday and next, these last 14 chapters of Genesis are known as the Joseph Cycle.  These are the final stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs of our faith.  Quite frankly, the stories that we have about the patriarchs and matriarchs of our faith make the Ewing family in the television show Dallas look rather tame.  Because of that I decided it would be interesting to create a genogram for Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants. 
            As we’ve already reviewed this summer, Abraham and Sarah finally had the son they had been waiting for, the son they had been promised.  Isaac, the son of laughter, is born.  But we also have to remember that Abraham first had a son with Sarah’s handmaiden, Hagar.  Ishmael, the older brother who upset Sarah by teasing Isaac in some way, ended up being put out into the wilderness with his mother.  God rescued them and promised that Ishmael would father his own nation. 
            Abraham and Isaac have a good father and son relationship, except for that brief moment when Abraham is told by God to build an altar and sacrifice Isaac on it.  Abraham is ready to do it, but an angel of the Lord steps in at the last minute and stops him.  Isaac then grows up and meets Rebekah.  They marry, and she, like her mother-in-law before her, struggles with infertility.  She and Isaac finally have twin boys; Esau and Jacob.  Esau the older brother is exploited and tricked by the younger brother.  Esau also goes on to father a nation, but for a long time he’s determined to kill his little brother. 
            Jacob flees Esau, but meets God in a dream and Rachel by a well.  Jacob is promised by Laban that he will be able to marry Rachel, but when he thinks he’s marrying Rachel, he ends up with Leah.  Jacob does marry Rachel, but he also fathers sons with Zilhah and Bilpah.  With Leah he has Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, and eventually Dinah.  With Zilhah he has Gad and Asher.  With Bilpah he fathers, Naphtali and Dan.  And with Rachel, his beloved, he has Joseph and Benjamin. 
            There are several patterns that emerge from this genogram.  The younger son always manages to usurp the eldest.  That usurpation happens in different ways; through banishment, deceit, or dreams, but it does happen.  There is a pattern of barrenness.  Is this solely an issue of infertility, or is it about the disparity between our time as we perceive it and God’s time?  How and why do the promises of God, the covenants of God, seem to come to fruition after a time of intense waiting?  Another pattern is favoritism.  Abraham and Sarah play favorites with Isaac over Ishmael.  Isaac plays favorites, loving Esau more than Jacob. Rebekah favors Jacob.  Finally, Jacob plays favorites with Joseph.  That’s our jumping off point today. 
            Jacob and his entire clan have settled in Canaan.  The first detail we read about Joseph is that he’s 17 and has been with his brothers, helping them tend the flocks.  For some reason, he brings a bad report about them back to Jacob.  The text doesn’t mince any words about Israel’s love for Joseph.  “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age.”  Because of Israel’s love for Joseph, he made him a special coat for Joseph.  While the traditional interpretation has been “a coat of many colors,” the closer translation is what we read in our text, “a long robe with sleeves.”  Why would this long coat with sleeves have been such an extraordinary gift to receive?  Why would it have signaled Israel’s favoritism for Joseph, other than he took the time to make only one son a coat?  Clothing was much more than a way to cover your body.  It signified your place, your position in society.  A common laborer wore the clothing of a common laborer.  A shepherd wore the clothing of a shepherd.  Someone who had a long coat with sleeves probably wasn’t destined for the fields for very long.  Besides the impracticality of that kind of garment for shepherding flocks or harvesting crops, it would have been a coat worn by someone with status.  Joseph is17, but his father has made it clear with the gift of this coat that Joseph ranks higher, not only in Israel’s affections, but in status and position over his brothers.  That does not go unnoticed by the rest of the boys.  A friend of mine preached a few weeks ago that for people of our generation, there are three words that sum up sibling rivalry.  “Marcia.  Marcia.  Marcia.”  If you don’t know, that’s a reference to the television show The Brady Bunch.  Jan, the often overlooked middle sister was envious of her older sister’s looks, popularity, style, privilege, you name it.  She expressed this by saying, “Marcia.  Marcia.  Marcia.”  Although verse 4 may actually read, “But when his brothers say that their father loved Joseph more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him,” perhaps the contentious words they spoke to him began with, “Joseph.  Joseph.  Joseph.” 
            The lectionary skips over these next verses and moves us quickly to the end of chapter 37.  But we can’t fully understand this opening scene from the Joseph cycle without knowing what happens next.  Joseph has two dreams.  The first was about him and his brothers binding sheaves of wheat in the fields.  His sheaf of wheat stands upright, and his brothers’ sheaves gathered around his and bowed down to it.  Joseph then makes the mistake of telling his brothers this dream of his superiority. They didn’t much like him before, but now they hate him.  What makes it worse is that Joseph has a second dream.  This dream is even grander than the first.  The sun, the moon and eleven stars bow down to Joseph.  Joseph foolishly tells his family about this dream as well.  Even Israel has a hard time with this one, and he chastises Joseph for it.  “What?!  Your mother, your brothers and I are going to bow down before you?”
            Let’s be honest.  Joseph isn’t coming off so well.  He’s a tattletale.  He is dad’s favorite.  He gets the special coat.  And he keeps telling his family about these dreams where they all pay homage to him.  Sibling rivalry being what it is, Joseph was, as some folks in my family would have said, cruising for a bruising.  But Joseph gets far worse than he really deserved.  Israel, who apparently doesn’t remember how real and how deadly a sibling’s wrath can be, recklessly sends Joseph out to find his older brothers.  When they see Joseph coming near, they devise a plan to get rid of “this dreamer” once and for all.  They want to kill him and blame it on a wild animal.  But Reuben the eldest stops them.  He convinces the others not to harm him, but throw him into a pit.  Reuben’s plan was to rescue his little brother later.  The brothers agree, so they grab Joseph, strip off his coat, throw him into this dry pit with no water, and then in an act of pure callousness, sit down to eat their meal.  When they see a caravan of Ishmaelites on its way from Gilead, they decide to sell Joseph instead of kill him.  He is their flesh and blood after all.  So they make some money off him.  When the traders, described as both Ishmaelite and Midianite, pass by, the brothers pull Joseph out of the pit, sell him for 20 pieces of silver, and Joseph is taken from Canaan to Egypt. 
            Reuben now returns to the scene.  When he sees what his brothers have done, he’s distraught.  What will they tell their father?  They resort to their original plan.  They kill a goat and dip Joseph’s coat in it. They bring the coat home to show it to dad, and Israel is convinced that his beloved son has been killed by a wild animal.  Israel, Jacob, who once deceived his own father with the skin of a wild animal, is now deceived by his sons to believe that Joseph is dead.  Family systems indeed.
            I’ll be honest, o faithful folks, I don’t really know where to go with this story.  It’s been both fun and challenging to look at this from a family systems theory standpoint.  But how to make this applicable to us today, how to find the good news in it, how to wind this up to the final “God moment” that I try to come to at the end of each sermon, I’m just not sure.  I know that my recurring theme this summer has been that these people were real people.  The formal terms patriarch and matriarch sound so noble.  Those words make it easy to elevate our spiritual patriarchs and matriarchs to superhero status.  Yet perhaps it can’t be said too many times, that these were real people.  This was a real family, with problems and pettiness, jealousy, conflict.  Each person that we read about is flawed.  They make some terrible choices and act without thinking.  It’s hard not to question their judgment.  In other words, they were really real people.  And this was a really real family, messy and imperfect just like our own.  While we may not actually sell our siblings into slavery or trick our parents out of a blessing, our family systems are messy.  I bet any of our genograms would show lines of relationship that are both loving and strained.  There’s tension and reconciliation, anger and love. 
            But maybe what we take with us this morning is that God was always a part of this family’s story; even when God wasn’t mentioned at all, as is true in our passages today.  Beginning with Abraham, God made promises to them, covenants with them, and those covenants never faltered.  God was always able to work through this imperfect, flawed, and rather dysfunctional family to bring God’s purposes for them and for all the families in the world to fruition. 
            In Leonard Cohen’s song, Anthem¸ there is a line that says, “There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.”  There are so many cracks in this family tree from Genesis it’s more like a sieve than a system.  But that’s how the light got in.  That’s how God got in.  That is the good news, for the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob -- and for ours.  Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”  Amen.

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