I preached this sermon at St. Lydia's on Sunday, July 25, as part of our exploration of the stories of our ancestors in the book of Genesis. The text is Genesis 45, in which Joseph and his brothers reconcile many years after they sold him into slavery in Egypt. Read it here.
It takes four actors to put on a production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.
Amanda, the mother, described by Williams as
“a little woman of great but confused vitality,
clinging to another time and place.”
Tom, the son:
a poet stuck in a day job,
on the brink of escape.
Laura, the daughter:
who lives in a world of illusions,
isolated and fragile.
A gentleman caller.
“A nice, ordinary young man.”
It takes four actors to put on a production of The Glass Menagerie,
but there are not four characters.
There are five.
On the wall of the living room in which the play is set
looms a photograph of Mr. Wingfield, Tom and Laura's father.
He worked for the telephone company and then,
as their mother puts it, “fell in love with long distance.”
Mr. Wingfield has been gone for sixteen years.
He never takes the stage; there is no one to play his part.
And yet, he is very much present:
The fifth character in this four person play.
His absence speaks louder than his presence would.
If we were to write a play about Jacob’s family
the photograph in the living room would be of Joseph.
Joseph is gone.
His brothers got rid of him.
But you would be surprised just how much someone who’s gone
doesn’t seem to go away.
Joseph’s absence speaks louder than his presence.
First of all,
there’s the loss,
which lives like a living, breathing thing
at the center of Jacob’s family.
there’s the lie.
Whether Jacob knows that his sons lied to him,
or whether he believes them,
the brothers share a terrible secret:
that together, they did something
that broke their father’s heart.
And instead of going away,
the pain is only getting bigger.
Joseph is gone,
but he is so present in his absence.
Even a stranger walking into the house
would know that there is something missing in this family --
would sense the afterimage of something that was there
and is now gone.
Joseph is the missing piece.
I think we all probably have different kinds of missing pieces in our lives.
Sometimes, as in Jacob’s family,
we are missing some central piece of what held us together.
Sometimes there is some other missing piece:
a sense of direction.
a relationship that we’re waiting for
but never seems to come.
A sense of emptiness we can’t seem to fill.
I’ve felt that sense of missing something
at different points in my life.
My family has their own set of pictures that hang on the wall.
It’s taken some time to figure out
what those pictures on the wall are all about,
and how they’ve influenced the particular living room
that I grew up in.
The story of Joseph is the story of four generations of ancestors.
Abraham and Sarah,
who gave birth to Isaac and Ishmael.
Isaac and Rebekah who gave birth to
Jacob and Esau,
Jacob and Rachel who gave birth to Joseph.
Four generations of brothers,
all of whom have been pitted against one another
in jealousy, trickery, and violence.
We’ve followed the story through,
from Isaac and Ishmael who play together as children,
but are harshly separated when Ishmael’s mother Hagar is exiled to the wilderness.
Jacob and Esau who fight tooth and nail their whole lives for birthrights and blessings.
And now Joseph who becomes the scapegoat for all eleven of his brothers
when they sell him into slavery
and tell their father he’s dead.
Four generations of ancestors.
And this pattern of brothers pitted against one another.
But there’s another pattern that shows up in this succession of stories:
a pattern of growing reconciliation.
With each generation,
the brothers who have harmed one another
become more and more able to reconcile.
Isaac and Ishmael come together only for their father’s funeral.
Jacob and Esau fight for years,
then are reconciled to one another in middle age.
Joseph who perhaps has the greatest reason
to never be reconciled to his brothers,
tests them for months until he’s sure they have changed,
and then breaks down in tears,
and tells them who he is.
He tells them not to be worried,
because everything that happened
happened so that God might save them from this famine.
After their reconciliation,
everything he does for them is the inverse
of the way they treated him so many years before:
They threw him in a pit with no food,
and stripped him of his garment.
He feeds them lavishly,
and dresses them in new garments.
Everything they did to tear him down,
you have hoped at times (after a family reunion, for instance?)
that with each passing generation,
we get just a little less crazy.
That the missteps and mistakes of our parents before us
and their parents before them,
are somehow worked out through the ages.
There is a sense that,
through the story of Jacob’s family,
through the story of our families,
through each generation as it unfurls,
God is doing something:
patiently untangling our histories
through our daughters and sons.
Is it possible that Joseph’s reconciliation with his brother
and his reuniting with his father
somehow disarms and dissolve
all those conflicts of his ancestors before him?
His reconciliation seems to reverberate backward in time.
Fighting brothers is one theme in Genesis.
Exile and return is another.
Throughout the generations,
our ancestors moved in and out of the land that God promised them,
leaving Canaan and then returning.
Now, in a time of famine, Jacob and his sons leave Canaan
to travel to Egypt,
where in just a few decades,
there will be a new Pharaoh:
one who doesn’t remember who Joseph was.
And so beings yet another struggle,
as the children of Israel
are liberated from bondage,
but only after forty long, hard years in the desert.
God’s promise comes into focus with every new generation.
It doesn’t happen all at once.
But I have the sense that we are headed somewhere,
that something is being untangled, unraveled;
that God will carry us through to the promised land.
On the stage of Tennessee Williams,
Tom follows the path his father paved for him,
abandoning his mother and sister
as he slips out the fire escape.
but in the street he is pursued by something.
“Oh Laura, Laura,”
"I tried to leave you behind me,
but I am more faithful than I intended to be!”
At Jacob’s house,
the patriarch balances on his tiptoes
to take the photograph of Joseph,
the missing piece,
down from the living room wall.
His son has returned to him.
The one who was so present in his absence
isn’t absent any more.
A couple chapters later,
Jacob is on his deathbed,
and unlike his fathers before him,
blesses not one of his sons,
With beautiful poetry
he bestows a blessing on each of them:
each of the twelve sons of Israel.
We must follow in the path worn smooth by those who came before us,
we have no other choice.
But perhaps in following their path,
we will find that God has somehow brought us somewhere new.
We will follow.
We will follow,
be reconciled and then abandon,
be exiled and then return.
We share the sermon at St. Lydia’s. And so I invite you to reflect in silence and then, if you feel moved, to share a story that’s been sparked for you by the text.