A FAMILY REUNION
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. 2And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. 3Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. 4Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life…9Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. 10You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ (Genesis 45:1-5, 9-11, NRSV)
Growing up I could never understand the Jones and Smith families (names changed for privacy). They were good people, upstanding citizens in our town, and leaders in our church. But for some reason that no one completely understood, the family was split right down the middle. Every Sunday morning when they came into our small sanctuary, the brother, Mr. Jones, his wife and children sat towards the front over on the right. Mr. Jones’ sister, Ms. Smith, her husband and children sat towards the back over on the left. While in church, the families never acknowledged one another because there had been a major rift in the family and they had not spoken in years. Brother and sister, Mr. Jones and Ms. Smith lived only a couple of miles from each other but sent their children to different schools. The only time they were intentionally in the same place at the same time was on Sunday mornings when they came to church and retreated to their various corners. How did it start? The details are sketchy and it depends on whom you ask, but apparently after Mr. Jones married, his wife and his mother didn’t get along and eventually stopped talking to one another. The sister, Ms. Smith, sided with her mother, angering her brother and his wife. One thing led to another, each side refusing to communicate with the other, and the rift was never healed. This family feud has continued for over 60 years. The brother and sister are now in their 80’s and 90’s respectively, and will likely go to their graves with hate for one another in their hearts. Sadly the feud affected their children and grandchildren. And don’t forget, this family feud is perpetuated by good people, nice people, decent people who served our church and community well for decades.
Presbyterian minister and author, Frederick Buechner, writes, “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
If anyone had a right to be angry in today’s story, it was Joseph and his father, Jacob. Last Sunday we examined the first half of the story including the fact that Jacob angered and alienated his sons by playing favorites, loving Joseph more than the rest. Had Jacob kept his preferences to himself we might have a very different story today if we even had a story at all. For whatever reason, Jacob could not or would not keep his feelings to himself and flaunted his exclusive love for Joseph with an extravagant, over the top gift—a beautifully embroidered multicolor coat. For his part, Joseph was a tattletale who needled his brothers by sharing his dreams in which his siblings bowed down to him as sheaves of wheat and then as stars in the sky. Fed up, the brothers toss Joseph into an empty cistern, eventually selling him into slavery to a caravan travelling to Egypt. That’s where we stopped the story last week.
This week we pick up with Joseph in Egypt. He has been bought by a military man named Potiphar, who thought the kid had potential. So Potiphar promoted Joseph and brought the servant to work in the family home. Joseph was a strikingly handsome young man and it didn’t take long for Potiphar’s wife, Zuleika, to notice him and before long try to seduce him. Joseph rebuffed her frequent passes. One day they were alone in the house and Zuleika, taking advantage of the situation, grabbed Joseph’s coat so he could slip into something more comfortable. Joseph refused this final seduction. He quickly turned away as his coat fell from his shoulders. Joseph then ran out of the house forgetting all about his coat now in the hands of Zuleika. When Potiphar came home, Zuleika accused Joseph of trying to rape her and handed over the coat as proof. Normally if a servant was accused of rape he would be executed. Instead Potiphar reluctantly sent Joseph to prison. Why? Possibly two reasons. First, Potiphar believed Joseph to be a righteous man despite the accusation. Second, according to some sources, Zuleika had accused other servants of the same crime in the past, so she had no credibility. Be that as it may, Potiphar had to do something so he did.
At this point if I were Joseph, I would vow never to wear a coat again! His first coat caused his brothers to toss him in a cistern and then sell him into slavery. His second coat led to a false accusation and a prison sentence. My advice to Joseph, layer your clothing and avoid coats at all cost!
While in prison Joseph met Pharaoh’s chief baker and chief cup-bearer who had mistakenly offended Pharaoh. They both had dreams that Joseph interpreted. The bad news was that the baker should get his affairs in order because he would be hanged. The good news was that the cup-bearer would be reinstated. Joseph begged the cup-bearer to present the unjust story to Pharaoh. Unfortunately, back in Pharaoh’s good graces, the cup-bearer forgot all about Joseph who languished in prison for two more years.
As the story goes, Pharaoh began having strange dreams that even his professional dream interpreters could not figure out. When Pharaoh was at his wits end, the cup bearer remembered his old pal Joseph, interpreter of dreams, who was still in the slammer. Pharaoh had Joseph brought before him and recounted his strange dreams. In the first dream, seven lean cows devour seven fat cows. In the second dream, seven withered ears of grain consume seven healthy ears of grain. Pharaoh had barely finished speaking when Joseph offered his interpretation that both dreams meant the same thing. Egypt would experience 7 years of bumper crops followed by 7 years of famine. During the 7 years of plenty the government should stockpile the excess grain to be distributed during the 7 years of famine. Pharaoh was so impressed by Joseph that he appointed him the secretary of agriculture and eventually his “right hand man,” all without senate confirmation!
I like the way Frederick Buechner retells this part of the story, “Years later, Joseph’s brothers, who had long since succeeded in putting him out of their minds, turned up in Egypt too, looking for something to eat because they were having a famine back home. Joseph knew who they were right off the bat, but because he was wearing his fancy uniform and speaking Egyptian, they didn’t recognize him. Joseph couldn’t resist getting a little of his own back for a while. He pretended he thought they were spies. He gave them some grain to take home, but made one of them stay behind as a hostage. He planted some silverware in their luggage and accused them of [stealing] it. But though with part of himself he was presumably getting a kick out of all this, with another part he was so moved and pleased to be back in touch with his own flesh and blood after so long that every once in a while he had to get out of the room in a hurry so they wouldn’t see how choked up he was and discover his true identity.”
Some commentators paint Joseph as a cruel man, accusing and threatening his brothers as a means of sweet revenge. On this point I prefer the more traditional interpretation. Joseph was testing his brothers to see if they were the same old thugs who almost killed him and then sold him into slavery, or if perhaps they had changed. The latter was true. They were different people than they had been all those years ago. They were now honest men who looked after the father’s new favorite—Benjamin, brother number 12 born after Joseph was in Egypt. Benjamin, like Joseph, was the son of Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife. Judah even offered to be a slave for Joseph if he will free Benjamin. Judah recounts the conversation he had with their father before they returned to Egypt with Benjamin. It nearly broke Jacob that his youngest son was being taken away from him. In the end he had no choice but to let him go. In the ultimate irony of the story, Judah tells Joseph that their father had already lost one son and if he lost another, he would likely keel over and die on the spot.
Hearing that, Joseph weeps bitterly and finally says to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father really alive?” For a moment there is dead silence, the brothers have heard the worst possible news and expect to be summarily executed for their crimes against Joseph, but of course nothing could be further from the truth. Joseph tells his brothers not to feel bad because God had used him in Egypt to save much of the nation from starving. And now he was going to save his family. Joseph offers for the entire household to move to Egypt where there was plenty of food, and to make Egypt their new home where Joseph can look after them and be sure that they were taken care of. More than anything of course, Joseph wanted to see Jacob, his dear old dad. When the sons return to Jacob and tell him the truth about Joseph, he does not even seem angry as he is caught up in more unexpected joy than he had ever known before. Joseph’s long lost family pack up all their possessions and head back to Egypt. Like the Prodigal’s father who was staring off into the distance, praying for his son’s return, Joseph, stared at the horizon, praying that his father was well enough to make the trip. When Joseph sees his beloved father in the distance, he runs to him and they hug, and they kiss, and they cry, not bitter tears of regret, but tears of joy that against all odds they had been reunited at last.
Joseph’s story, the longest continual story in the whole Book of Genesis, overflows with nuggets of wisdom and insight. Among the best are these—1) don’t play favorites with your children or grandchildren, 2) keep your anger and jealousy under control or you might do something you’ll regret and possibly end up like the Smiths and the Joneses, 3) even when the worst has happened, keep the faith that maybe a longshot will turn it around, 4) that people can learn from their mistakes and change for the better, 5) and that in the end, reconciliation is better than retribution, and reunion is better than estrangement. And finally, don’t stop dreaming, but think twice before sharing them with your brothers! AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
March 26, 2017
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Most merciful God, we are your broken and sometimes bewildered people, gathered in this holy place to offer you our thanks and praise. While we know that you are a God of reconciliation and peace, we admit that sometimes we hold on to anger and grudges from long ago. Help us make peace with those from whom we are estranged, but help us stand strong against those who wish to do us harm. May we have the insight to know when to strive for unity, and when to risk disunity by speaking out for those with no voice and standing up for those who have little or no power.
Through Jesus Christ our Way, Truth, and Life we pray. AMEN.
 Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC
 Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures