A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, August 13, 2023, the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost. “Family Matters” series.
Text: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Today we begin a new series called “Family Matters” in which we will be exploring core stories of the family of God from the books of Genesis and Exodus. These are stories of our ancestors in faith, stories that help us understand who we are, stories that challenge us to wrestle with who God is, stories that are key to the story we tell of God’s saving activity in the world. This series in which we recount some of our family stories from the Bible is a precursor to our upcoming House Meetings (coming this fall) in which we will gather to share our favorite and most meaningful stories of our experience in this Foundry family. Our shared stories will give shape and energy to a new strategic vision for Foundry’s future. I encourage you to make plans to participate. Look for information coming in the weeks ahead.
Let us pray… [prayer]
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One of the daily devotional readings I receive is from a retired United Methodist Pastor named Steve Garnaas-Holmes. He writes poetic reflections, often on texts in the lectionary and sometimes on other things. His reflection on our storyfor today begins this way:
[Poet Robert] “Frost is mostly right that home is where,
when you have to go there they have to take you.
Mostly. But what would Hagar say? Or Joseph?
Biblical families aren’t havens of belonging,
Places of safety or unconditional acceptance.
Think of them. Every one. They struggle to be decent.
I can’t break it to you easy:
Loving or not, family is where your [bleep] comes from.”
In these lines, the author reminds us that the stories of families in the Bible—our ancestors in faith—are filled with drama; he goes on to make the implicit connection to our own family experience. “Loving or not, family is where your [let me say “baggage”] comes from.” Even in the best, healthiest, most loving family systems, there is drama, there is conflict, there are unmet needs and unspoken resentments and unresolved hurt. In the most painful family experiences, there can be bone and soul-deep trauma inflicted. Family is a gift. But family—whatever that looks like in our lives—is the primary context for us to grow up.
Growing up includes awkwardness and mistakes and ignorance and fears. Growing up doesn’t end when we leave whatever home we inhabited as children, but is a process that lasts as long as is necessary. There’s the growing up that is physical and hormonal and all the things that come with being a child and teenager. And then there’s the growing up that is more emotional and relational, the part where we might find the courage to address whatever internal baggage we carried with us out of our childhood home and begin to understand how that baggage affects who and how we are as adults. All of this growing up is messy and it’s difficult and fraught with opportunities for learning and for pain. //
The story we receive today from Genesis is the beginning of the Joseph saga, the fourth generation of the ancestors of Israel—the first being Abraham and Sarah, then Isaac and Rebekah, then Jacob and Leah and Rachel. The fourth generation are made up of Jacob’s offspring from four wives: Rachel, Leah, Zilpah, and Bilhah. We read in Genesis 29, that Jacob originally wanted to marry Rachel, but her father tricked him into marrying Leah first. And in their fight to bear sons for Jacob, both sisters made Jacob conceive children with their maids. Rachel bore Jacob no children until after Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah had between themselves given birth to ten sons. When Rachel finally conceived, she gave birth to Joseph and Benjamin, and she died giving birth to her second son. Joseph, the first born son of the beloved and favorite wife, became Jacob’s beloved and favorite son.
This favoritism is shown in part through the special gift from Jacob of a special, ornamented tunic—you may know it as “a coat of many colors” while some modern feminist scholars have pointed out that the Hebrew word used points to a woman’s garment (make of that what you will). This fancy robe may have been one reason the elder brothers hated Joseph. But there are others. In verse 2 we’re told that Joseph “brought a bad report” of his brothers to their father. In other words, he was a tattle-tale.
And then, in the verses excluded from our lectionary reading, Joseph tells his brothers of two dreams he’d had—and of his interpretation of those dreams; namely, that Joseph’s parents and brothers would bow down to him. The spoiled, bratty Joseph knew just how to stir sibling rivalry and rage.
Some of us will be blessed with sibling relationships that have always been pretty positive. But others will have some experience of sibling rivalry in your family; maybe you just never got along or used to get along and have become estranged due to different paths your lives and perspectives have taken. It’s bad enough to have strife between siblings. But when the love of a parent gets added to the mix and there are feelings of being less cherished than another sibling, or of being unloved or unseen by the parent, then the pain goes to a whole other level. Whether you have siblings or are an only child, it is among the most primal human traits to yearn for parental love, approval, and connection. When that is not felt or received, the wounds can be deep.
Even with all that, what happens next in the story of Joseph seems rather extreme—though it won’t be the first time in the Bible that a brother has conspired to kill a brother. In fact think about all the drama and trauma that happened in the family generations who had come before—for example, Jacob, the brothers’ “own father treated his brother deceitfully when they were growing up, with Jacob stealing the blessing Isaac intended for Esau and taking his birthright. The multi-generational family fighting and trauma leads us to wonder whether what was playing out on the fields of Dothan was really just about the brothers’ own feelings; could it be they were embodying the generational strife they were born into?”
Studies show that there is something called “intergenerational trauma” that can be passed down both genetically and psychologically. It doesn’t seem out of bounds to suggest this is at least partly in play in this story. And perhaps the recent discoveries about intergenerational trauma provide some concrete data to explain the rather troubling idea found in scripture (Exodus 34:7) that children get cursed for the “sins of the parents.” The data would suggest that whatever observation got interpreted by the ancients as a theological issue—something that God does—is really a relational issue that is based on things that humans do. The ways we are with one another, with our children, have an impact. There are consequences when violence of any kind is done. And those consequences ripple through families and from members of families into their other relationships.
Another layer to our story is highlighted by a question asked early in our study of the passage by Rabbi Steve Weisman in our “Ask the Rabbi” session last Tuesday night. He asked “Is this a story of a family or a paradigm of what it looks like to live in community in a tribal federation?” The answer is likely “both.” The twelve tribes of Israel are formed from the 12 sons of Jacob—and the tribes each bear the name of a son (except Joseph whose sons, Manasseh and Ephraim get the honor). By the time our story today got written down the tribes were already established. Understanding even the slightest bit of the tribal history lends texture to the family story. For example, Reuben is the first-born son and Judah is the fourth-born son—both sons of Leah. But even though Reuben was the first born son which usually comes with pride of place, Judah becomes the predominant tribe—more numerous and in a better geographical position. Historically there was conflict between the tribes of Reuben and Judah. And in our story today we see this as well. Reuben is the one who speaks up to save Joseph, convincing the brothers to just throw him into a dry well with the idea that Reuben would come back later to take Joseph home. Initially the brothers agree and strip Joseph of that fancy coat and throw him in a pit. But, evidently while Reuben had wandered off, Judah decides that what they should do is sell Joseph into slavery and his word prevails. Joseph is sold and taken to Egypt by the Ishmaelites (distant relatives in the family tree, mind you—the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham’s son with Hagar and brother of Isaac).
The end of this part of the story, also not included in the lectionary, is that Reuben returns to the empty pit, learns what’s been done, and goes into mourning, tearing his clothes. And the brothers cover their tracks by deceiving their father and convincing him that Joseph is dead. They slaughter a goat, dip Joseph’s coat in the blood and bring the bloody coat to Jacob who assumes Joseph has been killed by a wild animal. Jacob becomes inconsolable.
This, my friends, is some serious family drama—raised to the level of trauma. It is a story of jealousy, betrayal, pride, and violence on both the personal and communal levels. Though the story happened many more than four generations ago—more like thousands of generations—and even though it is extreme (little brother is stripped, thrown into a pit, and sold into slavery) it is still a relatable, human story. We understand how jealousy, betrayal, pride, and violence can show up in families in small and large ways, through damaging words and through wounding actions. We know how land and money and ideology and fancy things can get tangled up in our tribal and family dynamics. And to be clear, our tribes are many and diverse—nations, cultures, faiths, parties…and all the subcultures and internecine feuds within those larger communities. Our United Methodist Church has been in tribal conflict for decades.
One of the things that I love about our holy text, what we call the Bible, is that it wisely includes stories that reflect the human experience, even the painful and difficult parts. It shows a high level of awareness on the part of the original storytellers, of the family baggage that is there to be worked on. By telling the family story, it also brings the conversation forward and keeps it alive through the generations, as a cautionary tale and explanation for some of what we might still experience in our own family and tribal dynamics.
Both awareness and talking about it—telling the stories—are healthy practices for dealing with drama and the more painful trauma we experience in our families. So often families simply carry around the baggage of pain and conflict instead of consciously acknowledging and unpacking the baggage to better understand it and let it go. And when we don’t talk about what’s happened or what’s happening, when “we don’t talk about Bruno” or about whatever the reality is, then the trauma gets stuck in a place of shame. Talking about it releases the shame and allows us to integrate the trauma “into a narrative [for our lives] that is more flexible.”
Trauma practitioners encourage this “reframing” of the drama or trauma—they encourage creation of a new story that creates space for healing, forgiveness, and kindness. This reframing keeps us from getting stuck in victimhood or shame, but rather allows us to claim our agency and gain resilience and freedom. When we are able to do this work, we also gain the capacity to break the cycle in our own family. We become agents of healing not just for ourselves but for our family members, our children, and for generations to come.
Part of what the stories of our ancestors teach us is that it’s in the midst of family that we work out our stuff. Whether that family is our family of origin, our found family, or our church family. I like to remind us from time to time that it is in this context of life together as a church family that we get to practice the hard teachings and insights of our faith. And the work of reframing and breaking the cycle of baggage-laden reaction, thought, or behavior can begin in conversation and relationship in this Foundry family—so that, perhaps, at the right time, you’ll have the courage to go “home” and reckon with the family who raised you—whether they are living or dead. Steve Garnaas-Holmes writes:
It’s the final frontier: the deepest wounds, the greatest fears,
the heaviest failures, the sneakiest neuroses
We have to wrestle with. Jacob and his angel.
Face to face or elsewhere, we have to go back into that house
and work things out. Engage in loving conflict.
Accept without yielding. Take what’s true and flush the rest.
Forgive them, and ourselves. Honor the child of us—
and thank that child, and say goodbye. Let them stay there
while we move on. It’s how we get free.
It’s the hard work of continuing to grow up, to be released from whatever holds us captive, and to move forward into the future that God has in store.
The end of our story for today is not the end of the story—either in the Joseph saga or in our lives. Because God is with us and that means that there is always a new day ahead, a new day to be better than we were yesterday, to give better than what we got yesterday, to receive healing, to tell a new story, to know we are loved, and to love others and ourselves more like Jesus loves us. By God’s grace it may be so. Thanks be to God.