St. John the Apostle, Port Moody
I speak to you as a sinner to sinners, and as one who is loved to the beloved of God, through the mercy of God. Amen.
Family reunions can be such tense occasions that there are whole websites devoted to how to plan fun and stress-free encounters with one’s relatives. First you have to decide who to invite. Then where it is going to be held. Oh, yes, and who is going to pay for it (or how you are going to get your relatives to contribute a fair amount.) How long can you put up with each other, and what are you going to do together so that nobody gets bored or offended? What to wear so that others don’t judge you? I got stressed just visiting the websites.
Once we get to the meet and greet, we all have a “best self” that we want others to see. But the temptation is to slip into a role that we have previously been cast in during our family history. Do we once again succumb to the “favoured child”, the “peacemaker”, the “martyr”, the “only one who gets things done around here”, the “font of all wisdom”, or another character? The label we wear doesn’t just identify who we are and how we fit in to the family tree, it also can determine whether we help or hinder healthy relationships. Reunions can strengthen ties of affection or they can enforce barriers previously built between people. It is up to each of us to react to others the way we always have or to find a way to get unstuck.
Reconciliation is about getting unstuck. When we no longer cling to a previously believed right way of doing things, and we are willing to try something different for the sake of the relationship, there is opportunity for forgiveness and healing. It’s too bad that it took Joseph and his brothers 8 chapters in the Bible to get to this point. That’s how much of the story we have skipped from last week’s tale of Joseph being sold into slavery and today’s reunion. There is a happy ending, but a lot of troubling stuff happens in between if you go back and read Genesis 38 through 45. This is the stuff of human relationships:
- envy and revenge
- attempted fratricide
- human trafficking
- deceit and fraud
And you thought the Bible had nothing to do with everyday life? All of these events have shaped Joseph and his family. They are not the same people as when they last saw each other. They have hurt each other and they have hurt themselves with their choices, and they have been hurt by circumstances sometimes beyond their control.
And was any of this God’s will? God doesn’t say that this is so. It is Joseph who, through his trials, has come to an understanding that good has come out of the bad that has befallen him. When he comes face to face with his brothers, who are pleading for mercy with this prince of Egypt, Joseph has a choice. He can do likewise. He can play the official card and hurt the children of Jacob just as he has been hurt, or he can reveal his best self. Joseph choses the path towards reconciliation. He reveals himself to his brothers as their sibling, and tells them, “God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5).
They all weep, with both joy now and sorrow for what has been. And they exchange the kiss of peace, symbol of love and right relationship. This complicated family is restored to a balance that has world-wide implications. The tribes of Israel, also known as Jacob, are reunited. At least for now. But the work of reconciliation doesn’t happen just once. It is an ongoing labour. Time and time again in the Biblical narrative we encounter the friction points and fractures amongst these twelve brothers, making future family reunions just as difficult.
And so it is in the world today. Reconciliation is an ongoing labour that requires each of us to understand and to relate in healthier ways. We can’t just fall back on familiar roles, whether it is in a family or community, or nation. That’s just too easy. It is too easy to harden into a narrative of fear and hate when we don’t want to face past hurts. It is too easy to stop listening to the voices that cry out for change when we don’t want to give up power. And it’s too easy to rewrite history rather than figure out where things started going wrong and how they need to be different.
As Christians, we need to be consistent in our message that the good news is for all of humanity. God’s children can’t be sorted by mother or colour or race or ethnicity. Racism and hatred have no part in our creed. The gospel condemns the violence and ignorance of individuals and groups that refuse to admit another human as their brother, and who refuse to find ways to reconcile and overcome their hurts and prejudices.
Our times call for brave voices that don’t give in to violence or appeasement. This week I was listening to William Bell, the mayor of Birmingham, Alabama. This is the city which is considered the birthplace of the 1960’s civil rights movement. Now the state of Alabama is threatening to sue him and the City because there is a law on the books that prevents the removal of commemorative works of art. He was weighing in on the debate regarding a Confederate statue in a public square that, like so many, has been a flashpoint for race relations. In a very measured response, he said that there were two options. Either the statue could be removed to private land, and the owner could do whatever he wanted with it. Or the history of slavery and the struggle for equality could be the narrative to explain the statue’s public presence rather than the glorification of a white Confederacy. The face it presented to the public had to change to bring reconciliation. In a like manner, William Bell commented that mayors across the United States have stood up to voice their dissention from the White House on issues such as climate change, immigration, and heath care. It gives me hope that people are coming together to take action in spite of the fear, greed, and hatred that come from other groups in the civil society.
Every day we are called upon to practice healthy ways to live in relationship with each other. And although we will certainly at times fall back into earlier patterns and roles, the more we practice, the better we will get. Long years of using our forgiveness muscles and striving for a posture of empathy will strengthen us for the trials we face in the future. Even a family reunion. Amen.