Telling Stories: Family Therapy
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Telling Stories: Family Therapy
Rev. Amy Butler
What a drama we walk into this morning when we revisit the story of Joseph and his brothers! There’s no way to read the whole story in its totality from the pulpit this morning, but it’s great reading—worth your time to revisit all the juicy details, for sure!
Remember last week Joseph had stepped hard on his older brothers’ very last nerves. They responded to his arrogance by selling him as a slave to a passing caravan of traders on their way to Egypt . . . then told their father that Joseph, his favorite child, had died. Their father Jacob was devastated by the news of Joseph’s death and the brothers thought they had solved the problem of their pesky brother.
But life continued for Joseph in Egypt. Through a series of events that are definitely plot material for a juicy novel, Joseph eventually got the ear of the Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and, in fact, secured his freedom and started a career as a government bureaucrat. He must have been a good one, because Joseph quickly rose in rank until, by the time we encounter in him chapter 45 today, Joseph holds the highest rank in all of Egypt next to the Pharaoh. Not bad for a Hebrew slave!
The circumstances surrounding Joseph’s rise to power were dire, though. He’d interpreted a dream the Pharaoh had had, and predicted 7 years of abundance and 7 years of scarcity. Then, he’d put into place a system of production, preservation and distribution to store food so that the country could survive the famine. It’s easy to see why Joseph was so powerful; the people of Egypt were dependent on him and his food distribution system.
Meanwhile, folks in other regions were also suffering, even as far away as Canaan, where Jacob still lived with his remaining 11 sons. Word reached Jacob’s camp that there was grain to be had in Egypt, and as the family was on its last legs and desperate for food, Jacob made the decision to send his sons, 10 of them, all the way to Egypt to see if they could buy grain. He wouldn’t send his youngest, Benjamin, never! Benjamin was the only remaining son of his favorite wife, Rachel, and Jacob was still grieving the loss of Joseph. He wouldn’t let Benjamin out of his sight.
And so it was that two worlds, seemingly irretrievably split, collided again.
In my husband Mark’s family there is a long tradition of family lore surrounding his grandmother. It was widely known that she’d talk to anything that was standing still, and she had a knack for finding family relationships after a few minutes of chatting with almost anyone.
The most famous family story of an event like this happened in 1979. You have to understand that Mark’s grandparents lived their whole entire lives in North Mississippi, where Mark’s grandpa was a Southern Baptist pastor in very small, rural Mississippi churches. So it was quite a big deal in 1979 when Rev. McGee was invited by the powers that be to say a prayer at the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Houston, Texas.
Southern Baptist Convention meetings are huge events, as you might expect. Thousands and thousands of people come from all over the world to these meetings. That year the whole family, grandchildren and everything, came to Houston to be there when Mark’s grandpa delivered a prayer from the convention stage. It was a proud moment for a country preacher from Mississippi, for sure.
That day when they were all leaving the convention, they trekked out through the acres of parking lot at the convention center to find their car. As they were loading everybody in, someone noticed Grandma striking up a conversation with a small Chinese woman who was sitting on the bumper of her car waiting for someone. Sure enough, in just a few minutes Grandma discovered . . . you guessed it . . . they were related. Apparently, this woman was married to a distant cousin of a cousin, or some relationship like that. Leave it to Grandma!
The surprise of a rural Mississippi Baptist preacher’s wife finding a Chinese relative in the parking lot of a convention center in Houston, Texas is not unlike what Joseph must have felt the day that he walked into his office to go about the business of grain distribution and encountered the family he had not seen in many, many years. With so much water under the bridge . . . years of grief and pain . . . hatred, resentment and lies . . . his life that had moved on ahead despite the broken relationships in its wake was suddenly yanked back to the immediacy of the situation. Nobody thought—not Joseph, not his brothers, and certainly not their father—that they would ever see each other again. Nobody ever imagined that they would run into each other by surprise in the highest offices of the Egyptian government. No one thought there would ever be any hope or even the slimmest opportunity to make right what had gone so terribly, terribly wrong almost a lifetime ago. But here it was, and Joseph had to decide what he was going to do.
This passage raises the interesting theological question of how and to what degree God is involved in human events—theologians have been arguing about it for centuries. Are we like puppets with strings that God pulls on a whim? Are we free to make our own decisions and just live with the consequences? No one has come up with an easy answer to that one, but we do know this: whenever there is the possibility of wholeness, healing, reconciliation, connection and hope . . . you can be sure that God is there and involved somehow. This is at the core, you see, of what we believe about God: that God is about the business of healing and hope—maybe not in the ways we’d imagined—but certainly, definitely, when we see hints of these kinds of things, we recognize the fingerprints of God.
Who knew what Joseph thought when he saw his brothers? He probably didn’t immediately think God was up to something . . . instead, all those old feelings of resentment and pain, loneliness and fear surely bubbled to the surface. Though Joseph knew who his brothers were, they didn’t recognize him. The text tells us that Joseph questioned them pretty intensely, securing details that assured him they were who he thought they were—his brothers. But Joseph didn’t tell them who he was. Instead, he sent them home, all except Simeon, whom he kept in jail, and instructed them to return to him with their youngest brother—his full brother—Benjamin, if they ever wanted to see Simeon again.
It took some convincing for Jacob, their father, to let Benjamin come back to Egypt, but the family ran out of grain again and the brothers knew they could get no more without Benjamin. Judah promised their father they’d take care of Benjamin; they all knew that if anything happened to Benjamin, that would do their father in. They returned to Egypt and Joseph could hardly bear the sight of his brother, Benjamin—he was so grief-stricken.
Remember, the brothers are still clueless—they don’t know who Joseph is or why he is making all these strange requirements of them, but you know how it is with government offices . . . you do what you have to do to get what you need. And they needed food for their family. So, Joseph sent the brothers home again with food, but he was still so conflicted about what to do. He was utterly torn between the desire to get back at his brothers and the distant dream that there might possibly be a chance for reconciliation, somehow.
I don’t know what was going through his head, but Joseph decided to plant his very special silver cup in Benjamin’s bag of grain and then sent his guards after the brothers to accuse them of stealing from him. You can imagine the drama that ensued! Joseph “discovers” Benjamin’s supposed crime and demands that, as punishment, Benjamin stay on as his slave. But remember what state Jacob was in . . . the brothers knew he could not survive the loss of his next favorite child, too. Judah, who had promised to take care of Benjamin and bring him back safely, was particularly bereft. He begged Joseph to please let him stay as his slave instead. They all begged, explaining to Joseph over and over why they feel their Dad cannot handle the loss of Benjamin.
Well, that was it . . . the final straw for Joseph. After all the conniving, after framing his brothers for crimes and trying desperately to decide how to get back at them for what they’d done to him, he realized that they would never make any progress—they would never even have the opportunity for reconciliation if Joseph didn’t tell them who he really was.
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The next scene, the scene we read today, was like a really emotional family therapy session. The text tells us that Joseph didn’t want the Egyptians to see how emotional he’d get, so he sent them out of the room, leaving him alone with his still-clueless brothers, who by now were probably thinking they were in really bad trouble.
Then, crying loudly and inconsolably, so loudly even the Egyptians on the other side of the door could hear him, Joseph told his brothers everything. He told them who he really was, what happened after they sold him into slavery and how he’d come to be in this position of power. He asked after his father again, and clung to his brother Benjamin.
They were stunned. Stunned and full of fear and shame. So many years of broken relationships . . . of isolation and alienation, years of potential relationship wasted. They didn’t know what to do. They were certainly all wondering: could there ever be reconciliation and forgiveness after all that hurt?
Not likely. You can’t just waltz back into your family’s life after all that pain and expect things to be just like they were. Good relationships are built over years of commitment, any good family therapist would tell you. The best approach to having a healthy family is to work things out before you find yourself in a heart wrenching situation like this one, right?
Today is August 17. Every year around this time I think of August 17, 2003, which was a day on which I began a new relationship. With you. Five years ago I preached my first sermon as your pastor, and for any of you who ever wonder if I know what I am doing these days, I was really green then. All I knew was that we were beginning a new relationship and there were some things I really hoped for as we started. I knew I told you all these things in that first sermon, so I went back this week and read it again. Truthfully, it wasn’t as bad of a sermon as I’d feared. In it I said I hoped we would be open with each other, talk to each other about what we were feeling, work through problems together and pray for each other. I talked a lot about dealing with conflict . . . that I hoped we would come to each other to talk things out. I talked about open communication, about voicing questions and concerns and committing ourselves to hearing each other and responding in love. I also said I hoped we would make God the central piece of our relationships with each other so that we could know our corporate direction clearly and insure that we always were striving together to follow God as best we could.
They were pretty good hopes for our relationship, and in most cases I would say I see those sorts of relationships sprouting and being nurtured all over this church. To me, this church is a place where honest communication is valued; where we all try diligently to hear each other; and where we remind each other regularly what we’re here to do—love God and love each other, and to share the good news of relationship with Jesus Christ. We’re not without our troubles, to be sure, but overall I think this church is full of pretty healthy relationships. And, I think that fact is related to our corporate commitment to carefully tend them.
Such was not the case with Joseph and his brothers; it’s not the case in many relationships in our lives. All of us can think of relationships in our families or extended families that are strained or broken, some that even seem irretrievable. It’s all well and good to be thoughtful and intentional about building healthy relationships and working through conflict, but what about when you’re not? What about when communication is breached and trust is broken and relationships are severed beyond repair? What then?
Most of us probably have not sold a sibling into slavery (though many of us have wanted to) but we all read this story with regrets for mistakes we’ve made and relationships severed. Some of us come to worship today wondering if there might ever be healing for those relationships in our own lives that have been broken. How could reading this story of dysfunction far beyond even our own help us figure things out?
Well, we can tell this story of a family torn apart by poor choices and unhealthy relationships and it becomes then, for us, a frame in which we can look and see for sure the presence and work of God. We know too well: left to our own devices we are sure to live lives marked by estrangement and broken relationship—just look: it’s all around us.
But there are also glimpses of promise, wherever God is at work. You see, God is in the business of creating possibility where there is none whatsoever. Even in the most bleak of situations, we can hope for healing because we follow a God who is known for taking the most painful, ripped up parts of life and, impossibly, stitching them back together.
Wherever there are signs of life instead of death, reconciliation instead of estrangement . . . these are sure signs that underscore this ridiculous hope to which we cling. God makes possibilities out impossibilities, hope out of hopelessness, and most unlikely of all, peace out of pain.
It would have been good, of course, if Jacob had taught his family how to communicate honestly, to share their problems and to resolve their conflicts. And it would have been a good thing if Joseph was reprimanded for his selfish behavior and if Jacob had treated all his children the same. It would have been good if Joseph’s brothers had expressed their anger using words rather than actions, and worked through the pain instead of using violence. Or, they could have run after the caravan that took him to Egypt. Or told their father the truth and tried to find Joseph. It would have been good, of course, if Joseph was able to work through his grief and go back home; if, upon seeing his brothers he immediately reconciled with them rather than throwing them in prison and framing them for a crime. All of these things would have been better choices . . . and all of us have had relationships in our own lives in which we could probably have made better choices, too.
But even in a story that spans cultures and countries, a whole lot of isolation and separation and brokenness and pain . . . still, God works to bring healing.
And so we tell the story of Joseph and his brothers finally finding each other again and managing as best they could to mend what was a very broken and hurt-filled relationship, and we remember that the God we follow is a God who can bring healing into even the most hurt-filled places of our lives.
It’s for this kind of healing that we long, isn’t it? War tears across our world, violence stings our city, our lives have broken relationships and private pain.
And, God is about the business of bringing healing and hope.
Thanks be to God. Amen
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2008, Amy Butler. Used by permission.