Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Family Dynamics

Genesis 37:1-8, 17b-22, 26-34, 50:15-21
September 24, 2016

            The thought that keeps coming to my mind when I read these excerpts from the story of Joseph and his brothers is that this would be the worst family to share a holiday meal with. Can you imagine it? Joseph, his brothers, their wives, their kids, maybe grandkids have all had a big meal. They are sitting around the table, perhaps drinking a little more wine or tea. The kids have left the table to play or fall asleep. The folks still sitting there are chatting, and as often seems to happen at meals like this, memories and stories from the past are shared.
Stories of boyhood escapades and close calls are told. And as these memories are resurfacing, Joseph coughs and says, “Hey, you remember that time when you sold me into slavery? That was funny.”
            Judah turns to Dan and says, “I told you he’d bring it up before the night was over. You owe me five sheckles.”
Levi drops his napkin and sighs, “This again? When are you gonna let it go?”
            Joseph loses all pretence of this being just another memory says, “Let it go?! You people sold me into slavery!”
            Simeon is exasperated and says, “We were young! We didn’t know what we were doing. And besides that, Rueben is the oldest. He should have stopped us. Blame him!”
            “Me? I tried to stop you! You did this behind my back. They wanted to kill you, Joseph, and I wouldn’t let them.”
            Naphtali adds, “Look, Joe, I know we shouldn’t have done it. I know it was wrong. But you’ve got to admit, you were so annoying. ‘Hey you guys, I had a dream. You bowed down to me. Hey you guys, look at this coat dad gave me.’”
            “It wasn’t my fault Dad gave me that coat. And I couldn’t help what I dreamed. Those dreams were from God, and you know it!”
            Benjamin speaks up, “You think you had it bad? You used me to get at them, Joseph. I never stole anything.”
            Zebulun says, “It’s not like things didn’t work out for you Joseph, Mr.-I’m-a –bigwig-for-Pharaoh.”
            Joseph is outraged. “I don’t care! You shouldn’t have sold me into slavery!”
            Asher tries to make peace, “We said we’re sorry, Joseph. And we really are. You said you forgave us.”
            “I did. But it still makes me mad. You all were just jealous, because I was Dad’s favorite.”
            This is how family dynamics looks sometimes isn’t it? One child seems to be the star, while the others either denounce that, act out against it, or feed into and perpetuate that dynamic. In reality, the dynamics of this family would give any modern therapist pause. The patterns of favoritism and family struggle have been sent into place since Abraham and Sarah. And while I’m starting us off with a little humor, I realize that the story of Joseph and his brothers was not a funny one. Joseph’s story is an extreme example of parental favoritism and sibling rivalry. What the brothers did to Joseph was horrible. No one deserves to be sold into slavery. No one deserves to be treated like this by anyone, much less at the hands of brothers.
            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. Last week in the narrative, we read about God’s extravagant promise to Abram. His descendents would be more numerous than the stars. Joseph, Reuben, Simeon, and the rest are the second generation of those descendents and God’s promise.
            A quick review of what has happened in the stories leading up to this one: Abraham and Sarah finally had the son they had been waiting for, the son they had been promised. Isaac, the son of laughter, was born. Immediately after the passage we read last week, Sarah took matters into her own hands and urged Abraham to have a child with Sarah’s handmaiden, Hagar. According to the customs of that time, Hagar would have been considered a surrogate for Sarah and Abraham. Ishmael was the son born of that union. He was soon to be the older brother to Isaac. He incurred Sarah’s anger by teasing Isaac, and she insisted that Abraham send him and his mother away. Abraham sent them out into the wilderness, and Hagar was convinced they would both die in that wasteland. But God rescued them and promised that Ishmael would father his own nation. 
            Abraham and Isaac seemed to have a solid father and son relationship, except for that brief moment when Abraham was told by God to build an altar and sacrifice Isaac on it.  Abraham was ready to do it, but an angel of the Lord stepped in at the last minute and stopped him, even as he raised the knife to his own child. Isaac grew up and met Rebekah.  They married, and she, like her mother-in-law before her, struggled with infertility.  She and Isaac finally had twin boys; Esau and Jacob.  Esau the older brother was exploited and tricked by Jacob, the younger brother.  Esau also went on to father a nation, but for a long time he was determined to kill his little brother; a desire that was shared by his nephews for their younger brother.
            Jacob ran from Esau, but met God in a dream and Rachel by a well.  Jacob was promised by Rachel’s father, Laban, that he would be able to marry Rachel, but Jacob the trickster was tricked. He thought he was marrying Rachel. He married her older sister, Leah, instead. Jacob was a man of many wives. He married Rachel, but he also fathered sons with Zilhah and Bilpah.  With Leah he had Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, and eventually Dinah.  With Zilhah he had Gad and Asher.  With Bilpah he fathered, Naphtali and Dan.  And with Rachel, his beloved, he fathered Joseph and Benjamin. 
            A lot of sibling rivalry; a lot of strange and strained family dynamics. Abraham and Sarah played favorites with Isaac over Ishmael.  Isaac played favorites as well, loving Esau more than Jacob. Rebekah favored Jacob.  Finally, Jacob played 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 gave him a special coat.  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 not only covered and protected one’s person; it signified someone’s 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 was 17, but his father made it clear with the gift of this coat that Joseph ranked higher, not only in Israel’s affections, but in status and position over his brothers. That favoritism did not go unnoticed, which brings us back to where we started.
The family dynamics that resulted in Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery began long before this brutal action. While we may scoff at the idea of doing something so utterly unconscionable to our siblings, think about how we humans treat other humans. When I was a kid, I was taught that I was a part of my immediate family, but even more I was a member of God’s family. Jill and Brad were not my only siblings, all of God’s children were. How do we treat our brothers and sisters? How do we harm them and they us? How do we respond to the dreamers in our midst?
In the courtyard outside of the Lorraine Motel, now the Civil Rights Museum, in Memphis, Tennessee is a plaque. The Lorraine Motel was where Martin Luther King, Jr. was staying when he went to Memphis to speak in support of the striking Black garbage workers and their demands for equal pay and just treatment. It was on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated, seemingly putting an end to his great dream for a truly equal and equitable America.
The words on this large stone plaque are a quote from Ralph David Abernathy, President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was quoting these verses in Genesis during his sermon and eulogy at the funeral service for Dr. King.
“They said to one another, behold, here cometh the dreamer … let us slay him … and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”
This human family we live in, well our family dynamics are flawed at best. Yet the stories of Genesis, the stories of these families, our families, make up the larger story of God’s promise – God’s promise to them and to us. God’s promise was not impeded or thwarted by the terrible ways our forefathers and foremothers treated one another. It was not stopped by favoritism or anger or jealousy or revenge. It was not held hostage to their flawed ways of being family. God’s promise is not held hostage by our flawed ways either. We humans are capable of wondrous things, and we are capable of great evil. But God’s extravagant and gracious and loving promise to us continues and grows and finds fulfillment in spite of ourselves. That is the great and glorious good news. God works through us, through our family dynamics, to bring about good and love for us, for all of us, for all of God’s family.
Children of God, let us give thanks and say, “Alleluia!”


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