Sermon Text: Genesis 45: 1-5
There’s something comforting about the consistency of our liturgy in worship. It’s nice to know that if you walked into most churches in the ELCA you will find a similar order of service. Sure, there may be different styles, different words, and different music, but it’s a safe bet that the order of the service will be more or less the same in a Lutheran Church in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania as it is in a Lutheran Church in Peoria, Illinois or Columbia, South Carolina, or Thousand Oaks, California. The risk of this consistency is boredom, which is why, to your approval or disapproval, I change the words up every so often for a little variety…but my point remains that the order of the service is the same.
What do we begin with in the services? For a good 40 or more weeks of the year we begin with the Brief Order of Confession and Forgiveness. Old, wise, and probably uptight liturgists decided that it was important for us to begin the service by telling the uncomfortable truth about ourselves; we are in bondage to sin, we are imperfect, we are broken.
That’s an uplifting way to begin each service, isn’t it? To lay bare the fact that we fall short in our relationships with God, in our relationships each other, and in our relationship with the earth. We have sinned in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. However, even if we say those words from rote memory, even if we simply read the words with no passion or self-awareness, or if we say the words with deep conviction, the fact remains; we are broken.
How would it be if we said those words and that was it? Nothing. Silence. If we acknowledged our sinfulness and were forced to stand with those words ringing in our ears? If we told the truth about ourselves but then did not receive the lifegiving and releasing words of Absolution? How vulnerable would that make you feel?
How do you imagine the eleven brothers felt when they heard the words “I am Joseph” coming from the lips of the man in charge? How vulnerable did they feel to have this awkward and painful situation brought to daylight? Here they are, looking for food, looking for relief from this famine that will last seven years, and the sins of their past rear their ugly head.
Last week we heard the story that set the stage for this week’s reading. At the time, Joseph was Jacob’s youngest and favorite son. Jacob had given him a special coat with long or colorful sleeves, a symbol of paternal favoritism. It was also a symbol of fraternal envy and hatred.
Joseph also escalated tensions in the family. First, he gave negative 1 Star reviews of his brothers’ shepherding skills to Jacob. That’s right, Joseph was a little bit of a snitch. On top of that Joseph had dreams, dreams that showed his brothers bowing down to him. Multiple dreams. And Joseph shared these dreams to his brothers on multiple occasions. They did not like that.
Given the opportunity, when Joseph was alone with them, the brothers plan to murder Joseph and blame it on wild animals. Then they change their mind and simply throw him in a pit where he’s uncomfortable. But then they change their mind again and sell Joseph into slavery as a caravan of traders passes by on their way to Egypt. They sell him for a measly 20 pieces of silver.
You think you have drama in your family.
Roughly 13 years pass between that fateful day when Joseph was sold into slavery and the moment we read about today when he reveals himself as Pharaoh’s high servant. I wonder how torturous those years were for everyone involved. I wonder if they replayed that day in their heads and imagined the different ways it could have ended.
For the brothers…did they carry the heavy burden of guilt with them? Did they feel crushed under the weight of their lie, as they fabricated the story of Joseph’s death to Jacob, as they watched their Jacob grieve, and as the buried the truth? Did they lose sleep at night imagining where their brother was or how they could have chosen a better way? How much self-conflict did they have in those 13 years.
For Joseph…was he filled with hatred and loathing and disappointment? Did he ponder his youthful arrogance? Did he scheme about the way he could get revenge on his brothers if he was given the opportunity?
Despite how extraordinary the story seems it is really quite plain. This story is one of family dysfunction. It is no different than any of the many ways families fight and fracture in our day, with arguments over family inheritance, or how to care for aging parents, or so-and-so’s haughty and judgmental behavior at every family get-together. No matter if it is Jacob’s family or your own, we stumble into brokenness through a multitude of scenarios, and they all lead to the same place: fracture. Strain. Pain. Isolation. Sin.
Sure, you may have never sold your brother into slavery (perhaps you wished you had), but this story of family dysfunction is our own. We begin each service with Confession and Forgiveness because God knows our deep and abiding need for reconciliation in our lives. For reconciliation is truly a universal need.
Today I would like for you to consider two relationships or friendships in your life that have turned sour, two relationships or friendships that have devolved into a never-ending source of discord, discomfort, stress, regret, silence, or anger. As I said, reconciliation is a universal need, we have all fallen out with people.
I would like you to think of that small list of two names and commit this week to pray for those individuals. DO not pray in terms of who is right or wrong, but pray that God would help fix the brokenness and restore relationship. It does not matter where the people are. Frankly, it doesn’t even matter if they are living or dead. God will help provide the gift of restoration. As we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
In Genesis we see the climax of thirteen years’ worth of dysfunction. As God sets the stage for the family reunion, Joseph shows us how love is stronger than hate. Joseph is in a position to crush his brothers for their past behavior, but he instead chooses love and reunification. It is a visceral and stunning scene; the brother cannot even speak until Joseph is weeping tears on his brother Benjamin’s neck. The family is restored, relationships are restored, and they reach a point where forgiveness is possible.
The Gospel news is that our God is in the business of forgiveness. We see that with God the Father as the people of Israel rebel and are forgiven countless time. We see that as we constantly blunder and stray and are made right. We see this in the ministry of Jesus, especially through his death and resurrection as all creation is reconciled and given the promise of rebirth. We see that in the Holy Spirit, as it guides our thoughts and actions, especially if we are in the difficult situations of hurt and repair. Ultimately, God’s desire for us to be one and whole wins out.
So take heart in this precious gift of reconciliation. Make your list and pray for restoration—that God would bring peace and healing into your lives. For God is in the business of forgiveness, it is an essential business, the storefront is always open, and grace and mercy always pour out. AMEN