02-24-19 Messy Relationships

Genesis 45:3-11, 15

In his book The Price of the Ticket author and civil rights activist James Baldwin says, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” As a man who faced discrimination for his race and sexual orientation during the civil rights era, James Baldwin knew pain. He knew the brokenness of human relationships that led to discrimination, and he knew what it meant to be treated as less than a person. He used his platform as a writer and a professor to fight for equality by digging openly and honestly into the messy, complicated issues that we as society face. While James Baldwin eventually left the Christian faith, he still kept to the message that we as the church know to be true: we are a broken people who have broken relationships with one another. We know we are a sinful people; our sinful choices that point us away from God’s will of goodness, peace, truth, and love causes rifts between us and the people we love. However, we also humble ourselves and confess these sins every Sunday together. We know that God forgives and restores us when we seek reconciliation with God and the people around us. Our messy relationships are a fact of life, but if we turn to God in humility, forgive others, and seek reconciliation then God’s peace can prevail.
As we see in this scripture passage, Joseph and his brothers have complicated feelings toward one another because of their messy, broken relationship. Joseph had been arrogant about his status as the favored brother and bragged about the dream he had that one day his brothers would bow down to him. The brothers had been so jealous that they had become murderous; their bloodlust was satisfied by selling Joseph into slavery, which was only marginally better than killing him. After years of being separated and Joseph suffering from imprisonment from false accusations, Joseph had risen to power over Egypt at the side of Pharaoh. A famine had overtaken the land, and Joseph’s brothers had travelled to Egypt to buy rations of grain. Joseph had the opportunity to use his power to accuse his brothers of their crimes and withhold grain from them; instead he hugged them and they wept together. Joseph had decades to sit with the pain and anger at the betrayal from his family. Instead of holding onto grudges he chose to see God at work in his life to help save people from the coming famine. Instead of adding to the brokenness, he chose to embrace the messiness of the relationship with his brothers by humbling himself, forgiving them, and reconciling with them together. Their family was able to be reunited and made whole again in Egypt; there might have still been tension and pain, but they were able to come together and move forward.
Humility is the starting point for peace. Humility doesn’t mean sacrificing self-worth for the sake of keeping the peace; when someone’s self-worth is unimportant in a relationship, then that is abuse. Abusive parents or spouses or friends are people who manipulate others into thinking that their self-worth is not important, and that they are only as valuable as the abuser says they are. This can be manifested physically, verbally, emotionally, and sexually. We cannot let abusers steal our value; all people are valuable, important, and worthy of love. And true humility recognizes this. Humility means taking responsibility for wrongs done and recognizing that the needs and wants of yourself, and those that you love, deserve to be honored and respected. In her book, Letter to My Daughter, Maya Angelou describes a time when she travelled to Senegal to visit a friend and learned a lesson in humility. Her friend was throwing a dinner party and her home was beautifully decorated with many guests visiting and enjoying each other’s company. In the middle of the room was a gorgeous, expensive rug that everyone was avoiding stepping on. Maya assumed that her friend had told her guests not to step on the rug, and she wanted to challenge this notion because she believed rugs were meant to be stepped on. So, she went around the room looking at paintings and socializing, while intentionally stepping on the rug several times. As she began conversing with someone at the party, she noticed two maids who came into the room, rolled up the rug and laid out a new one with silverware, dishes, and food. Then everyone was invited to sit down at it and eat. This had not been a rug at all, but a tablecloth. Maya realized her mistake and felt deeply embarrassed for her assumptions of another culture. She is quoted to say, “In an unfamiliar culture, it is wise to offer no innovations, no suggestions or lessons. The epitome of sophistication is utter simplicity.” Maya did not have to set aside her value and self-worth in learning humility, but she did have to take some time to open her eyes to the value of the traditions and culture of the people around her. Joseph went from being the favored son, to being enslaved and imprisoned. He learned a hard lesson in humility, but this allowed God to use him to save the people in the land from famine and allowed him to be able to reunite with his family.
Following a lesson in humility comes a lesson in forgiveness. It seems like we, as people and as the church, really struggle with forgiveness because when we are hurt or wronged, we want the person to receive justice. We want them to admit their wrongs and then pay for it. We want them to get on their knees and offering a sobbing apology. If none of that happens, and we all know that in reality it almost never happens, then we hold onto the anger towards them as if it punishes them. Again, this is not reality. We are punishing ourselves when we let our rage burn. Forgiveness does not mean we excuse a wrong done toward us, and it doesn’t mean what they’ve done is okay. It means that we are refusing to allow the bitterness to erode all the goodness that God has placed in our soul. It means we are trusting God with our pain and rage and allowing our souls to reflect the forgiveness that God has extended to all of us through Jesus Christ. When we forgive, we can heal.
Author Jen Hatmaker writes in her book Of Mess and Moxie of a time when her life erupted in pain and anger. Her friends and her church turned against her and her family, and they lost many of their friends. Months, even years later Jen found herself having pretend arguments out loud with the people that she held grudges against, practicing in the mirror so that if she ever encountered them again she would make them feel the wrath of the pain that they had caused her. She would go over old conversations in her head, re-read emails from people who’d hurt her, and just re-open the same old wounds over and over again. One day she decided that she couldn’t remain this bitter and this miserable anymore. So, Jen decided to pray for her enemies just like Jesus wanted us to do. After months of praying for these people, she found that her rage was gone and that she was healing. She had finally forgiven the people who hurt her. She hadn’t forgotten the pain, because there really is no such thing as forgiving and forgetting; but she had allowed her wounds to be healed so that she could finally move on in her life and find peace. Jen was making room for God’s peace in her heart, like Joseph. He was able to make room for peace by forgiving his brothers by telling them not to be angry over the past anymore.
Joseph was able to reconcile with his family. They were able to reunite in Egypt and live through the rest as their days together as a restored family. In Madeleine L’Engle’s novel, A Wind in the Door, a fourteen-year-old girl named Meg must save her brother, Charles Wallace, from an evil force that is making him deathly ill. She must shrink down and go inside his body to fight off the evil that is infecting him, but she doesn’t go on this journey alone. Meg must go with the school principal, Mr. Jenkins, who she detests. She doesn’t like Mr. Jenkins because he hasn’t stopped the bullies who beat up her little brother. However, the evil in her brother’s body feeds on the anger and the tension between the two. Meg must find empathy for Mr. Jenkins and see him as a valuable human being before they can work together to save Charles Wallace. Mr. Jenkins risks his life to save Meg’s brother, and this helps her to forgive him. Once the two reconcile their differences, Charles Wallace is saved. This type of reconciliation is the ideal: when we are able to heal from our hurts, repair our relationships, and be at peace with one another. This is a possibility in many circumstances when we humble ourselves and forgive each other; but in some circumstances this is impossible. People who are abused should never be required by anyone to go back and live with their abuser. Some people are rejected by their families for marrying someone they don’t approve of or refusing to go into the family business. In many of those cases, the family remains estranged. In our broken relationships, sometimes even when we do the very best that we can our relationships can’t, and maybe shouldn’t, go back to the way they were before. This is the harsh reality of our messy relationships. When this happens, we try to find reconciliation with ourselves and with God, trusting in the hope that God’s perfect justice and reconciliation will restore the relationships that we cannot heal in this lifetime. God can make us whole in and of ourselves.
Joseph’s story is a messy one: his parents choose favorites, he shoots off at the mouth, his brothers want to murder him, then they sell him into slavery instead, he’s falsely accused and imprisoned, and then he rises to power alongside of Pharaoh. In all of this God was working to save the people from starvation and to heal the broken relationships in Joseph’s family. Whatever situations we might be facing, whoever has hurt us, whatever fight we find ourselves in, this pain and anger doesn’t have to define us. We can learn right along with Joseph that humility, forgiveness, and reconciliation help us embrace and heal the messy relationships that we inevitably find ourselves engaged in. Also like Joseph, may we also trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives, so that we might know that we do not face our hardships alone.