From what I hear family reunions can be a lot of fun. There’s food, and games, and conversation. You get to catch up on the latest gossip and tell stories about long-ago exploits. For some of you this is an annual occurrence. I can’t speak with any authority on such matters because our family is small and scattered, and we just don’t have such things. But I trust that the stories I hear are true!
Of course, family reunions can also be uncomfortable and awkward. There might be a family feud going on or someone may have been hurt by what someone has said or done. There may be empty seats, left by those who felt excluded from the family. While some family members receive the invitation with eagerness and joy, others receive it with dread and wish they could find a way to skip the event.
If modern families can be dysfunctional, the biblical families weren’t any better off. I chuckle when I hear people extol biblical family values. What values are they talking about?
Could it be the values that led Cain to murder Abel? Or, the values that led Abraham to cast his second wife and her son into the desert? And what about the family values that existed in Isaac and Rebecca’s house? Remember how Jacob and Esau started fighting for supremacy in the womb, and didn’t stop until Jacob had to run for his life?
This morning we hear the story of Joseph and his brothers. Remember how Jacob gave Joseph that special coat with sleeves, and how Joseph had these dreams that suggested that he would rule of his brothers? They were so upset by Joseph’s behavior that they decided to kill him, but then they decided they would be better off selling Joseph into slavery and then just tell Jacob that wild animals had devoured his favorite son. Now, those are family values!
So, this reunion with their long lost brother must have come as a great surprise, and in fact may have been a rather uncomfortable reunion. The text says they were terrified when Joseph revealed himself to them. I expect they were also feeling a bit of guilt at having sold their brother into slavery and then telling their father that Joseph had been eaten by a wild animal. Wouldn’t you?
But Joseph isn’t out for revenge, and so this story that could have turned out very badly becomes a story of forgiveness and reconciliation, and isn’t that a word that’s needed today?
We also live at a time when there are a lot of dysfunctional families. Maybe we’re all part of dysfunctional families! Divorce rates are high, many young adults are either delaying marriage or simply deciding to live together rather than face the prospect of getting divorced. There are parents and children who fight, and siblings who fight – especially when their parents die and they have to split the estate.
But it’s not just families. Lots of churches are dysfunctional. And, so are our communities, states and nations. Just a little over a week ago we watched as Congress took the nation to the brink of default before passing legislation that no one seems to like to raise the debt ceiling. The vote was bipartisan, but the aftermath has been little more than a bout of finger-pointing, with each side trying as hard as possible not to own the results.
Is there any hope of having a positive reunion with these kinds of relationships?
Of course this isn’t the first time that our nation has been at loggerheads. This year, after all, marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. That war took the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, more than in all of America’s other wars combined. When that war that divided a nation ended four years later, the combatants faced a dilemma. Could the sides reconcile and once again be a family? And if they did, what would this family look like? History shows that we spent at least a century trying to resolve these questions, and we may still be trying to live together as one nation.
It was to this dilemma that faced the nation as the war come to an end that Abraham Lincoln spoke in his Second Inaugural Address:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Is this not the message that Joseph had for his brothers?
Although his brothers were terrified, knowing that they had wronged their brother and that their brother held their lives in his hands, Joseph wanted to host a family reunion. He might be the Prime Minister of Egypt, but he is also part of this family and he wants to see these broken relationships restored.
Now Lincoln wouldn’t live to see this dream fulfilled, but Joseph had the opportunity to bind up the wounds of his family. Instead of seeking revenge as so many of us try to do, he invites his family, including his father, to come to Goshen for a big reunion.
Why did Joseph do this? Could it be that he saw God at work in the world? Remember what Joseph said to his brothers. Don’t be upset or angry yourselves, because God sent me here to save lives. God has used me in this place to rescue you from this famine, and with you all of Egypt.
Now, I know that there are Christians who read this passage in such a way that God is said to have caused all of this to happen – from the selling of Joseph into slavery to the famine and even the rise to power. This is, as a famous Christian author puts it, Joseph’s “purpose driven life.” But what kind of God is this who does evil so that God can happen?
Maybe there’s another way of reading this story, where we have freedom to choose how we’re to live our lives, but where God is active in our midst, inviting us, as good invites Joseph, to be a partner in doing something good for the world. Joseph could have chosen differently, but he discovered that God was inviting him to a family reunion that would bring forgiveness, reconciliation, and hope to a broken family, his own family.
There is another story about a family reunion that may have a bearing on our conversation. It’s a different kind of story, but it carries a message of reconciliation. You may know this story. It’s about a man named Ray Kinsella, who decided to mow down his cornfield and build a baseball field on his land, because he heard a voice say to him: “If you build it, he will come.”
I’m sure all of us hear voices like this! Don’t we?
If you hear a voice tell you to build a baseball field, or maybe pack up your family and move half way across the country, what should you do? Are you ready to throw caution to the wind and follow the lead of this voice?
There is an important question that permeates the movie Field of Dreams. That question is: who is “he?” Is it Shoeless Joe Jackson, the disgraced baseball player? Is it writer Terrance Mann, who would rather be left alone than reminded of his fame? Is it Moonlight Graham, the now deceased doctor who had made it the majors, but never got to bat?
Not only does the voice say “if you build it, he will come,” but it also says: “Ease his pain.” But whose pain is going to be eased by building this field of dreams? As the movie closes, the ghost of Shoeless Joe points to Ray and says – it’s your pain that is to be eased. At that moment Ray spots his long dead father, from whom he had been estranged from his youth, as a young man with a dream of a major league career. In a conversation that has brought tears to the eyes of many a man, Ray says to this version of his father he had never known: “Hey Dad, . . . You wanna have a catch?” And his father says, “I’d like that.” In that moment a family reunion is held and the pain of both men is eased and reconciliation occurs.
On the day of Pentecost, after Peter finished his sermon, the people responded: How can we be saved – that is, how might we experience healing and wholeness in our lives? And Peter said – repent, be baptized for the forgiveness of sins, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. And on that day there was a really big family reunion!
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
August 14, 2011