Cecilia Castell, "Unity is my Community"
There are few types of drama more painful and intense than family drama.
Maybe it’s the intensity of the emotions, the emotional and physical proximity of those involved. Perhaps there’s so much history, most of which never really gets resolved, that we can’t help but bring those into our present conflicts.
As my brother asks whenever we argue, “Why are you always bringing up old stuff?”
Why are we always bringing up the old stuff? Why do we hang onto the past, sometimes even clinging to it, refusing to let it go?
William Faulkner would tell us that it’s because “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Faulkner was probably right; the past forms the habits and patterns of relationships that guide how we deal with each other in the present. The deepest patterns, the pathways that have been cut the deepest, are in our family systems.
Sometimes these patterns are good and bear fruits of love. But in many families, there are patterns that need to be broken. There might be patterns of cruelty, forced and unhealthy competition, or a mindset that love is something to be hoarded or only shown sparingly. Sometimes these patterns are so deeply dug, the ruts on the path so deeply dug that getting out of them seems insurmountable.
But there is good news.
We can break those patterns; we can create new ways of being with each other that are based on mercy instead of cruelty, cooperation instead of competition, and abundant and overwhelming love instead of a mindset of scarcity. We can show the world that retaliation does not restore.
These changes are often phenomenally difficult; they take courage, compassion, and often a ton of support, and often therapy. Furthermore, these changes don’t involve fixing other people, but by the grace of God, fixing ourselves. Change in families happens when we correct our own destructive and retaliatory patterns of behavior. Doing this is not an easy fix, and perhaps not even a fix at all. Because breaking those patterns, doing the things that Jesus talks about in our gospel reading don’t fix other people, at least directly.
Loving your enemies won’t make those that hurt you treat you right or love you more. Becoming a better person than a bully won’t directly stop them from being a bully. That’s because one of the ultimate truths I have learned is that we can’t fix other people. Change is ultimately between a person and God.
What it can do- what we can do- is to demonstrate that new ways of being in the world are possible. Patterns of abuse are not our destiny.
Our first bible story today is a perfect illustration of this; It’s the story of Joseph, he of the amazing technicolor dream coat.
A Sunday School refresher on Joseph; he’s the beloved son of Jacob and Rachel. He was the golden child, beloved by his father. But he was also a bit roguish, a charmer, perhaps a bit over confident.
Joseph is the perfect example of something I learned while at my NGLI leadership conference earlier this year which has been incredibly helpful for me: No one, nor any group of people, is 100% a hero, a victim, or a villain. To assign someone completely to that category takes away their humanity, their sense of agency, and reduce them to an object in a morality play. All those categories really do is make us feel better about liking or hating someone.
Joseph is often a jerk to his half-brothers; not enough to justify them selling him into slavery in Egypt, but once again, not completely innocent.
Joseph, after some setbacks, is able to rise in the court of the pharaoh to becoming the prime minister, and he’s known especially for interpreting prophetic dreams. Most immediate to our concern is the one that the pharaoh has that ends up being about a famine.
Joseph encourages the pharaoh to stock up on grain, which saves the people of Egypt from starvation.
Two years into the famine, Joseph’s brothers show up to the palace, asking for shelter.
Some shenanigans ensue; Joseph never stops being crafty or having that trickster element to him, instead its used to figure out the intentions of his brothers, to see if they have changed and if so, how much.
Our scene, our reading today is the climax of these interactions, and perhaps of Joseph’s life.
Joseph faces down his brothers, who had acted with unspeakable cruelty so long ago, and reveals himself to them, and in doing so, forgives them.
We can tell that this is not an easy thing for Joseph nor is it immediate. This is something that Joseph had to work through. This scene doesn’t happen immediately.
I must note here that Joseph is in the position of power here; his brothers are not in a position to abuse him further. I do not want my words to be interpreted as giving free reign to abuse; that is not my intent.
Indeed, I believe Jesus wants us to excise our abusive relationships; eliminating the leverage points they can use to dominate us. Why else give a shirt along with a cloak? Jesus does not call on us to repair our abusers, to heal them, or even continue to work, or tolerate their abuse. Forgiveness is not for the benefit of the abuser. It is a tool for healing the abused, for moving and growing beyond our pain and trauma.
We hear this process of healing in Joseph’s words, the words of someone who is trying to heal from his trauma, trying to, assure himself that this is the right thing to do, that he should not continue the easy and usual pattern of cruelty, enslaving his brothers as he had been enslaved.
And he does it.
He ensures that the pattern which has destroyed his life would be ended with him.
This is a miracle as much as any prophetic dream; the ending of cycles of violence.
We cannot but imagine the nights that Joseph spent toiling as a slave or in prison, cursing his brothers in the depths of his heart, imagining what his life would have been like if they had acted differently, dreaming of the kindness his brothers could have showed him.
This is a living example of Jesus’ teaching in our gospel reading, which contains that Golden Rule, in our translation rendered as “Think of the kindness you wish others would show you; do the same for them.”
Joseph is able to imagine a new way of being a family together, not with love being dribbled out in small measure, but love that is abundant.
He does not portion out kindness and mercy in drips and drops. Joseph could have given them some grain and sent them on their way and been perfectly within his rights. But this is Joseph the dreamer. Instead, he gives them a sizable territory beyond anything they could have needed, or would have been politically useful for him. This is extravagant love; overflowing love and abundant.
One of my favorite lines in this translation of the gospel message, and the reason that I chose it instead of the more traditional NRSV, is that Jesus asks us not just to love our enemies, but to do good without restraint, to lend with abandon and not expect anything in return. There’s an extravagance of giving that we are called to as a reflection of God’s love for and to us.
Friends, Neighbors, children of God, the story of Joseph and this gospel remind us that we are called to mercy, to justice, to love in extravagant and abundant ways, reflecting God’s love for us. If we are to err in the ways we love, let them be errors of loving too much, not too little.
Don’t get me wrong, this is hard work. This is soul searching and gut wrenching work that we have to do, to identify and correct the patterns in our lives that do not lead us toward God. But it is the work we are called to do. Work we must do, for we are bound together, surely as Joseph and his brothers.