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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Corona Virus has brought yet another casualty to 2020- the annual family reunion. After nearly 80 years of regular gatherings on the first Sunday of August, the Norwegian elders in my family, the grandchildren and great-children of Ole and Maren Evenson wisely cancelled this year’s annual picnic and family reunion. As one of the pastors in our extended family, it was often expected that I would offer a few remarks and a prayer at the beginning of the meal. My humor at the family reunion, however, was not always appreciated. Now really, would you consider this offensive? “I’m here to today to talk about our family, but my Mom always taught me that if I don’t have anything nice to say, I shouldn’t say anything at all, so… let us pray.” Or, “We’ve decided not to serve alcohol at this year’s family reunion. We were concerned people would start being honest with each other –especially in an election year.” Or, “The only reason why I’m speaking right now is because Grandma bribed me with a piece of blueberry pie so I would say something nice.” Love them or love them not, there’s often a limit to what you can do with the difficult ones in your family. After all, if you can’t make them join the circus, what else are you supposed to do?
Of course, the family reunion is not new. And if anyone had reservations about gathering together with his brothers, it was Joseph. Poignantly, the Book of Genesis tells us that story. The young Golden Boy had been deeply hurt by his family, and in spite of the status he had achieved in the service of Pharaoh, he had not forgotten the years of separation from those he loved. So let us now pick up the story of Joseph, where we left off last week.
Joseph, you may remember, had interpreted the Pharaoh’s dream of seven emaciated cows devouring seven fat cows, as seven bountiful years of harvest to be followed by seven lean years. Pharaoh was so pleased with Joseph’s honesty, courage and interpretation of his dream that he appointed him to the second most powerful man in Egypt, the governor or viceroy, second only to himself. For the first seven years, Joseph traveled throughout Egypt, gathering and storing enormous amounts of grain from each city. Then, the following year, famine began to spread throughout the world. Shortages abounded, and Egypt was the only country that had food. Joseph, the 30 something year old, Golden Boy, was now was in charge of rationing grain to the Egyptians and to all foreigners in the neighboring lands who came to Egypt. And to Joseph’s surprise, one day, like a scene from the movie, Casablanca, his brothers who had betrayed him and sold him into slavery, 20 years earlier, appeared at the door of the Pharaoh’s palace seeking to buy grain.
Despite Joseph’s willingness to forgive, it is important to note that Joseph’s reaction was not immediate. His journey toward forgiveness spanned three meetings with his brothers. True forgiveness, you see, is seldom born of one dramatic encounter, but with most families, it is often a labored product of patience and time. For no one can hurt you more than the ones you love.
In the Book of Genesis, we read that when the famine hit Canaan, the patriarch Jacob had sent ten of his sons down to Egypt to procure food. “When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them; but they did not recognize him. “He acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them.” No doubt, he was suddenly brought face to face with his past. His memories of his plight at their hands still haunted him. There was no trust for his brothers. Joseph soon accused them of being spies, and confined them to jail for three days. Finally, he held one brother as ransom, demanding that they return to Canaan and bring back their youngest brother Benjamin. Only then would Joseph accept that they were not spies. The brothers agreed to this. Then they said to one another, “Alas, we are paying the penalty for what we did to our brother; we saw his anguish when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen. “ Then eldest brother Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to wrong the boy? But you would not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.” They did not know that Joseph understood them, since he spoke with them through an interpreter. But at that moment, Joseph turned away from them and wept. Perhaps their hearts had changed, but he was no ready to forgive.
Joseph’s second meeting brought him further along on the path of reconciliation. The famine was still great across Egypt and Canaan, yet Jacob was not willing to send his youngest son Benjamin to Egypt-even to save the life of his older son Simeon. Finally, Jacob consented and suggested that the brothers appease the governor by presenting him with choice fruits and nuts. They all promised as well that they would return with Benjamin- no matter what happened.
When Joseph saw his younger brother Benjamin, he was overcome emotion. We read that, “Joseph hurried out, for he was overcome with feeling toward his brother and was on the verge of tears; he went into a room and wept there. Then he washed his face, went out and restrained himself.” It was through Benjamin, the younger brother who had not participated in the plot against him, that Joseph began to reconnect to his past. But he could not be certain that he would be hurt again. Joseph needed to put his older brothers to the test to be sure they were truly repentant. Everett Fox, a noted biblical scholar observed, “Only by recreating something of the original situation where the brothers are again in control of the life and death of a son of Rachel and Jacob could Joseph be sure that they had changed.” To this end, Joseph instructed his steward to place his silver divining goblet secretly into Benjamin’s sack of grain before they journeyed back to Canaan. Hours later he sent his servants to retrieve the men and recover the “stolen” goblet which was discovered in Benjamin’s sack. The brothers were sent into a panic at the prospect of losing the only living son of Jacob and Rachel fearing the pain that it would cause their aging father. All the brothers returned to Pharaoh’s court weighed down with the grief and sorrow as they sought to save the innocent Benjamin.
And so we come to the third meeting. It was the final test. But it wasn’t just a test for Joseph’s 10 brothers. Joseph himself was being tested. He didn’t want to forgive and forget and let go of his pain. He didn’t want to attend a joyous, family reunion. He wanted instead to cling to his dark, bitter past- and let it define him and his future choices. There are many of us, and many in our own families who cling to their former days and their past sorrows. They refuse to move forward, and reconcile themselves with those who have hurt them- even members of own their family. Perhaps, that is your story. You have been told that forgiveness will make a world of difference in your life, but you wish those with such counsel knew your family and your pain.
Joseph was convinced he had created the perfect test which would justify him in his separation, but as his older brother Judah opened his mouth, Joseph was shocked. A truly repentant Judah pleaded with Joseph for mercy, on behalf of his father Jacob who had already ‘lost’ a child dear to his heart. But then Judah himself went one step forward. He offered his own life as a slave in exchange for the freedom for his younger brother Benjamin to return to Canaan. Joseph was convinced that their hearts truly had changed. Suddenly, he could not restrain himself. The wall of separation had collapsed; he wept in the presence of his brothers. “His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace.” Finally, Joseph was able to confront these foreigners as equals, and more importantly, as brothers. Joseph’s own transformation of forgiveness and reconciliation was complete. He was at last truly a free man.
Later Joseph commanded his brothers to go back to Canaan and bring their father and his household to Egypt. Thus, Jacob and his entire house of 70 came to dwell in Egypt. When Joseph finally met his father Jacob, after 20 years, they embraced each other and wept together. His father then remarked, “Now let me die, since I have seen your face, because you are still alive.”
There is a beautiful variation on this story in the Quran. When Benjamin was taken by his brothers from his father Jacob, the old man wept himself to blindness. But when the brothers returned from Egypt, they found a fragment of Joseph’s many colored robe. As Jacob wiped his eyes with it, miraculously he could see once again.
“Although Joseph’s brothers meant evil against him, God meant it for good.” That was Joseph’s abiding confidence and faith in the midst of his trials. Throughout his eventful life, he had learned a truth that we may have all experienced. People will let you down. People will fail you, disappoint you, and leave you hanging out to dry. Unfortunately, they are often your own family. But the story of Joseph teaches us that you need not let disillusionment with people turn you away from the goodness and faithfulness of God. For he will not disappoint you. He will be there in the seemingly, bottomless pits of life. He will be there when you are falsely accused of things you did not do. And he will be there to provide you with the wisdom to make sense of your dreams. Whatever happens in life, whenever people intend to harm you, God will order it for good. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.