Scripture: Genesis 50: 15-21
Date: July 6, 2014
This is the fourth and final week of our Summer Makeover series focusing on Grace and Forgiveness. And today’s message may be the most difficult of all, but potentially, the most rewarding. Today we are going to consider the essential role of grace and forgiveness in our family relationships.
And so let me begin by saying this:
There are no perfect families. No perfect parents. No perfect children. No perfect siblings. But because we believe that God expects perfection in our families, sometimes forgiveness is extremely difficult to deal with. We don’t like to admit that there is trouble in our families. But God loves the family, the biological one and also our extended family. Much of scripture deals with dynamics of family relationships. One of the Ten Commandments is to honor our fathers and our mothers. And one of the most common ways that God is referred to is as Father. And so we are the Sons and Daughters of God and scripture is clear that that is an honored position. John writes at the beginning of his gospel that to all who receive Jesus Christ, God grants the “right” to be called “the children of God. And so the church becomes the Family of God. But even then, it is true that there are no perfect families. I believe that families become strong when we are willing to give and receive grace and forgiveness in the midst of the family.
Now we like to talk a lot these days about dysfunctional families. But we didn’t invent dysfunctional families. In fact, the Bible’s first family was about as dysfunctional as a family can be. This passage from the 50th chapter of Genesis is the culmination of the story of the first generations of patriarchs, and so to understand what is happening here, we need to go back to the beginning. And it begins with Abraham and Sarah whom God called to come and establish their family in the promised land. And so they made the journey from their own land to the land that God had promised and they settled there ready to raise the family that God had promised would be as numerous as the stars in heaven. But they grew old and were without a child and so fearing the time was running out on the promise of God, Sarah arranged for one of her maids to serve as a surrogate mother and a son, Ishmael, was born. And though Abraham and Sarah loved Ishmael, they never really considered him the child of the covenant, and so when Sarah miraculously conceived and gave birth to another son, Isaac, a great rivalry began between the two brothers and so, Abraham and Sarah made the decision to abandon Ishmael and raise Isaac as the child of promise. So Isaac became the child of the Covenant and he married Rebekah and they had two sons – Jacob and Esau. Talk about sibling rivalry and dysfunction. Isaac favored Esau the oldest but Rebekah favored Jacob. And when Isaac was old and blind, Jacob conspired with Rebekah to steal Esau’s birthright and blessing. So even though he was the youngest, Jacob became the child of the covenant. I hope you are following all of this. Now Jacob ended up having four wives, but the one he truly loved was Rachel. And so with those four wives, Jacob had 13 children but it was Joseph, the child he had with Rachel that Jacob loved the best. And Joseph knew that he was the favored child, and he never missed an opportunity to share that fact with his brothers. He especially liked to share dreams in which he saw his brothers bowing down and honoring him. Well, the brothers were not nearly as enamored with Joseph as he was with himself, and so they plotted to kill him but at the last minute they sold him into slavery and faked his death for their father. Now that takes dysfunction to a whole new level.
My brothers and I used to fight, and they have always had trouble dealing with the fact that I was my parent’s favorite, but they never tried to fake my death and sell me into slavery.
Well, eventually Joseph the slave found himself in Egypt where he not only spent time as a slave but also spent time in prison. But God continued to give him dreams and eventually he was able to share a dream with the Pharaoh in which Egypt was able to anticipate the coming famine and put enough food away before the famine came, so that the nation could survive the seven year famine. And the Pharaoh was so convinced that he had Joseph released and he was placed over the office of famine relief. Now I’m not making this up. You can read it for yourself in the Old Testament book of Genesis. So Joseph rises to arguably the most important person in all of Egypt, next to the Pharoah. And meanwhile, back on the farm, the famine comes to the promised land and Joseph’s brothers hear that there is plenty of food in Egypt and so they go to see if they can secure enough food for the family to survive on from the Egyptians. And when they reach Egypt, imagine their shock to discover that the one over the Pharaohs’ storehouse is their own brother, whom they had betrayed years before. Which essentially brings us to the scripture for today. To make a long story short, Joseph forgives his brothers, but they are convinced that the only reason he does that is for the sake of their father. And when their father dies, they fear that Joseph holds a grudge against them and that he will exact revenge. So they send word that their father, on his death bed, asked that Joseph forgive his brothers. And in response Joseph says to his brothers: don’t worry. Who am I to deny you God’s blessings. What you did, you did with the intent to harm me, but God has turned it into good. Certainly, Joseph had every reason to be angry with and hate his brothers. A huge stone had been dropped onto his soul through their actions. But in the end, Joseph chose to let it go. To choose the path of forgiveness and reconciliation. In fact, the first time that the word forgive appears in scripture is in this 50th chapter of Genesis. And the family was healed. Now surely if God can work that kind of miracle in a family over centuries of dysfunction, He can and will work a miracle in our family.
Now, for a few minutes, as we think in terms of our own family relationships, let’s unpack the story of Joseph a little bit.
And the first thing that we need to see is that conflict in families is often deep rooted and extends over a long period of time. Scholars estimate that Joseph was probably about 12 years old when he was thrown into the pit by his brothers and then sold to the Midianite slave traders. Imagine how frightened and confused and betrayed a 12 year old boy must have felt at all that was happening to him. And then he spent many years enslaved and imprisoned (all through no fault of his own) before being rescued by the Pharaoh from that life. Certainly he would have been justified if his anger and resentment towards his brothers built up all of that time. The natural reaction would have been plotting ways to get back at them if he ever had the chance. But we said last week that when we forgive that one of the things that happens is that we give up the right to retaliate. And not only the right but the desire. Often times what keeps families from healing is this human desire to hold on to and nurture a grudge, so that the pain continues to manifest itself in different ways. Sometimes, as is true in all relationships, they are small things that if held on to can become major problems. In Joseph’s case, the problem with his brothers started as minor things. Taunting them with the dreams. His father’s favoritism. The many colored coat. But all of those things started to add up over an extended period until finally the brothers couldn’t take it anymore.
And then it was the consequences of their action which caused the embers to continue to burn hot. Joseph in captivity with lots of time to reflect on what his brothers had done. And scriptures tell us that the report of Joseph’s death began a long but steady decline in both the physical and emotional condition of his father. And then the burden of guilt the brothers must have felt and the constant fear that others (especially their father) would find out what they had done. Often times when dealing with the dysfunction of a family, it is revealed that it’s not just one isolated act that leads to the breakdown of the family structure but rather it is the long decay brought about by the unwillingness to deal with conflict as it arises. When it comes to family relationships we often try to sweep things under the rug, pretend they didn’t happen, cover them up, rather than deal with them. We don’t want to make waves. We don’t want to stir things up. Good families don’t have these kinds of problems. But often times it’s the cover up that causes more pain and brokenness then the original actions. Sometimes that becomes more of a betrayal then the original act itself. Last week I talked about the websites where you can go and offer an apology. Most of the posts are pretty humorous but then there are a few like this one from a Mom to an adult child.
For all the things that happened to you as a kid that I tried not to know about. Maybe you were told not to tell me, but I should have been there for you, and you should have been able to tell me anything. For the fact that you weren’t and I wasn’t, I am truly sorry. Mom
So often we make the decisions to just carry the stones, keep them in our own back pack, rather than deal with them because we don’t want to upset the family even more than it is. But eventually that will become too great of a burden for even the strongest among us to carry. Sin without repentance and forgiveness will eventually crush our souls and destroy our families. The weight, the burden, becomes greater and greater as it builds up over time.
And then the second thing that the story of Joseph tells us, is that more so than in any other relationships, it is the larger stones that we deal with when it comes to families. We often reserve the greatest hurts that we inflict on others for members of our own family. Some of the large stones that families struggle with are physical and emotional abuse. The heart break of sexual molestation. Abandonment. Or prodigals who leave home, who take and take from their parents and others and never give back. But, the problem is that when it comes to families, those kinds of sins within the family that are not dealt with become sources of dysfunction for subsequent generations. So those who are abused as children often become abusers as adults. And those who are molested as children, often become molestors as adults. Sin without reconciliation and forgiveness will find it’s expression in some way in the family structure for many years to come. Adam Hamilton tells about a group of siblings who came to him to share about the way their father had treated them when they were growing up. He was a hard man. Very strict. And he didn’t know how to show them any love or compassion. Each one of them carried a lot of pain from their childhood and they were afraid that it would effect their relationships with their children. And then they discovered something that helped them understand their father better. They learned that when he was a child his parents punished him by regularly locking him in a dark closet, often for hours at a time. And he had vowed that he would treat his children differently and love them enough to never lock them in a dark closet as punishment for anything. And while he had been successful in that, he had never really been able to remove himself emotionally from that closet where he had learned to isolate himself from the rest of the world in order to cope. When his children understood what had happened to him, it didn’t make them view him as a better parent, but it did help to know that he was doing the best he could under the circumstances. And so they found it easier not to continue to pass those stones along to the next generation. I had wonderful parents but there were some things that they did that I vowed I would never do as a parent but I did anyway (and still do). And now I have passed those stones on to Anna.
So in our family relationships, the stones which weigh us down are likely to be really big stones and often, rather than really deal with them in a grace filled and forgiving ways, we choose to cover them up and pass the burden from generation to generation. It is grace and forgiveness that gives us the strength to break through those destructive patterns so that our families can heal. And so, as we prepare to receive this Sacrament this morning, I want us to think for just a few moments about how we deal with these huge stones, with the big sins, in our family relationships.
And I think the first thing we need to do is confront it. We have to rip the cover off and deal with it for what it is. Often times we can’t do that on our own. Often times it takes pastoral counselors like our own Don Cutter in the St. Luke Counseling Center to help us do that. But to forgive the sin, we’ve got to acknowledge it for what it is. Like I said last week, we can’t really deal with these large stones all at once. That forgiveness comes as we chip away at it over time until it is finally a size that we can handle and let go. But the first step is confronting the sin. Now that can happen in a lot of ways. Sometimes it’s a direct confrontation. We go to the person that has hurt us and name the sin. Hamilton shares the story of a woman in his congregation who wrote a letter to a parent that abandoned her as a child. In the letter she described all the hurtful things that she remembered from her childhood and said she didn’t want to be held captive by those anymore. She wrote: “These things happened and we have to acknowledge it.” And she went on to say: It was so hard writing every sentence. It was so painful. I had never actually formed those words before. But when I was finished and I sent the letter, it was like a boil had been lanced. I felt like there was the beginning of healing because I finally acknowledged and confronted this.” In our family relationships, forgiveness often begins when we confront the sin. But here’s the thing – because we sometimes drag these stones through many generations of family, sometimes the person that needs to be confronted is long gone from this earth. But we still need to confront the sin in order for the healing to begin. One man writes: I had a Dad who was abusive. Then in the last few years of his life, he actually had to come and live with me. It was a real struggle taking care of a father who had abused me. Right at the end, he took my hand in the hospital. He came as close as he had ever come to saying he loved me, and he thanked me for taking care of him. And then he died. We never really had a chance to work things out. So, a year after he died, I took a lawn chair, a bottle of wine, and a sandwich to his grave. I sat down and talked it all out with him. I told him all the things that have been hurtful to me and told him I forgave him. And I asked him to forgive me for the things I had done that had been hurtful to him. We must find a way to rip the cover off and confront the sin for forgiveness to happen. If sin is straying from God’s path, then the way back to the path that God has planned for our family begins when we recognize that we are lost and what caused us to stray in the first place. One writer has said: Forgiveness is the path from hurt to healing, from anger to peace. Why forgive people who have truly hurt you and treated you unfairly? Because forgiving them will make you healthy and happy.
So we must confront the sin, confront the hurt, confess, bring it into the light of day. And then in the end, we need to give it to God. Give our family relationships, and all the burdens that sometimes come with them to Jesus. Because in His hands even these largest stones become something of beauty. After all that happened to him, Joseph was able to forgive his brothers and in doing so said this: Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good. I really like this definition of forgiveness: It is giving up the hope of a different past and taking on the hope of a joyful future. One writer described that process in her life in this way:
You can choose to harm everyone because you were hurt , or you can choose to harm no one because you were hurt. Either way it’s a choice. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of victimhood and choose the former, but thankfully God gives us the capacity for love and forgiveness. And when we use that gift, it fills our lives with so much joy that it’s impossible to be resentful to those who do not have that same joy in their lives.
God desires to take even the largest stones in our lives and make beauty from them by soaking them in grace and forgiveness. You know, tradition tells us that Joseph, the father of Jesus, was a carpenter and the assumption is that as a Jewish boy, Jesus would have learned the trade of His father. And so we sometimes picture Joseph and Jesus working side by side in Joseph’s carpenter’s shop. But the reality was probably very different than that. The better translation of the word for carpenter is probably “construction worker”. And archaeologists have discovered that in the time that Jesus was growing up in Nazareth, there was a new town being built not far from Nazareth. They conjecture that Joseph was probably one of the laborers working on that town. Now there were very few trees for lumber in the area at that time and so the buildings would have been primarily made of stone. And so rather than being a carpenter, Joseph was most likely a stone mason, chipping and shaping stones to fit into the foundations and walls of the homes and buildings of that new town. That was the trade that Jesus would have learned from his father. Shaping stones into places for people to live and thrive. For the last four weeks we’ve been talking about the stones of sin that fill up our souls and weigh us down. And, you see that’s what Jesus wants to do with the stones of our lives, through his grace and love, chip and shape the stones that weigh us down until they become not ugly burdens but the foundation of the abundant, joy filled life that he desires for all us who are members of His family.
In scripture, stones often become monuments to the triumph of God. When God and the people want to recall a special high point in their relationship, God would often say: Gather stones together and build an altar on this spot to recall My presence with you here.
In the seventh chapter of the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel, we are told of the triumph of the Israelites over the mighty Philistines. And in response to that great victory, we find these words:
The men of Israel went out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, and struck them down as far as below Beth-car. Then Samuel took a stone and set it between Mizpah and Shen, and named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the LORD has helped us.”
And so the stone of Ebenezer became the symbol of a new beginning for the people of God. When we celebrate Holy Communion, we celebrate new beginnings. We celebrate that through the sacrifice of Jesus, the Cross becomes a symbol of new beginnings for us, and that on the Cross the stones of sin and burden become the stones of grace and forgiveness. So this morning may we come to this altar and receive his grace and love through these elements of Holy Communion, so that we may then go from this place and raise our ebenezer high in the midst of all the relationships of our lives.