Updated: Aug 6, 2020
This sermon was preached on August 20, 2017 At Westminster Presbyterian Church In Trenton, New Jersey Text: Genesis 45:1-15
What is unity? How do you know when you have it? How do you know when it’s not there? What are the signs?
While it may be hard to name what makes unity unity, it is not hard to name the fact that we are not experiencing in America. As a millennial, all I have to do is log onto to Facebook and read the posts from my Pentecostal friends, my conservative friends, my liberal friends, my mainline Christian friends, and my friends who are just posting pictures of their food. Throughout these posts, I see so many desperate cries to be seen and heard. What are we to do?
As each day passes after the white supremacist attack at Charlottesville, it becomes clearer and clearer that the cries in response to this event are not new ones but manifestations of pain that has been held and ignored for quite some time. It is clear that there is mistrust. A mistrust that is rooted in historical privileges, advantages, and injustices that were based on the color of a person’s skin.
This mistrust makes the idea of unity seem impossible. Is unity—whatever it may be—merely a utopian dream that we ought not desire?
What does it even mean to be united in a context like this? Is this about unity of one group over and against another group? Or is it about unity as a whole group—including white supremacists?
Another way to ask these questions is: How do we create trust between people who do not trust one another?
These questions are complex and do not have easy, cookie cutter answers. I do not have answers myself but I do believe that we ought to wrestle with these questions and we are better for it if we wrestle with them as a community.
What I do believe, however, is that liberation is at the heart of this matter. Liberation from false ideals of supremacy can liberate all persons involved in this war.
As we look at our Scripture reading this morning, we find the climax of a journey of supremacy. Prior to our passage, the Genesis narrative tells us about a man named Jacob who had two wives—Leah and Rachel. There was jealousy and strife, because Jacob loved Rachel more. Rachel, however, could not bear children. Thus, the answer for her was to give Jacob her slave whom he would impregnate. Leah, although she could bear children, also gave Jacob her slave. Rachel eventually bore Jacob’s final sons—Joseph and Benjamin.
Joseph was supreme to Jacob. He was the first son of Jacob’s favorite wife. Jacob gave him a rainbow coat. Joseph also dreamed of reigning supreme over his brothers and openly shared with his brothers about these dreams.
This led to further jealousy and strife. While all the brothers plotted to get rid of Joseph and prove to him that they were supreme, it was Judah who actually argued that they should not just leave Joseph to die but instead should sell Joseph into slavery and thus make a profit off of his life.
It seems that complicated relationships with in-laws is not just a modern day issue. Judah also had a complicated relationship with his daughter-in-law, Tamar. After her first and second husbands died—both of which were Judah’s sons—Judah told her that she could marry his youngest son when he was old enough. Once it became clear that this was not going to happen, however, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and allowed Judah to impregnate her and made him leave his signet and cord so that she could later prove that this was Judah’s child. Upon realizing what he had done, Judah’s attitude changed. He realized that he never fulfilled his promise and Tamar found herself in a difficult situation as a woman in her culture that was hoping to bear children. When Judah was going to kill Tamar for being pregnant, Tamar owned her story and shared it with him. As a result, he realized that he was not as supreme as he had perceived.
Within these Joseph stories, this odd story about Judah and Tamar is found. It is important for us to note that Tamar acknowledged her status as a woman in a culture that identified her as property. She creatively resisted the culture and owned her story. She exercised her autonomy—though limited by her circumstances. And as a result, Judah was forced to examine his own privilege and sense of moral supremacy.
As we move towards our passage today, the Genesis narrative also shows the way that Joseph also challenges Judah’s privilege and supremacy. Though Joseph was sold into slavery, then accused of sexual assault, and finally thrown into prison, he continues to find ways to exercise his autonomy. Eventually, by using his skills, Joseph is recognized by Pharaoh and released from prison and eventually put in charge of distributing food during the famine.
Judah and his brothers come to Joseph to get food, although they do not know it is Joseph. They even bring Benjamin on their second journey at Joseph’s request. To do this, Judah had to barter with their father Jacob using his own life so that Benjamin could come. When Joseph asks that the brothers leave Benjamin, Judah pleads to Joseph and is willing to make himself Joseph’s slave.
This is where things become tricky and where we pick up the narrative. Joseph owns his identity to his brothers and acknowledges the injustice that had been done to him. But he also acknowledges that the divine was with him in the midst of the injustice. And furthermore, Joseph believes that he was sustained so that he could sustain others.
When Joseph sees the willingness of Judah—the one who initiated Joseph’s slavery—to become his slave, Joseph is moved to extreme grief. Joseph feels his feelings. He does not suppress them. He allows them to come. Furthermore, he owns his narrative—he acknowledges who he is and what happened to him. Joseph is vulnerable with his brothers about his experience.
Let’s think about this for a moment. What would it look like if we owned our stories? What would it look like if we chose vulnerability and empathy over supremacy?
What would it look like if we didn’t ignore the painful parts of our story but we acknowledged all that has happened to us and we dealt with it?
What would this look like if as a nation, we could hear the stories of those of us who have been marginalized by others because of white supremacy, xenophobia, homophobia, and transphobia.
What if we could find the courage to deal with the pain that we have endured?
What if we could find the courage to deal with the pain that we have inflicted?
Our pain is not the only pain in the world. And our experience is the not only experience in the world. If unity is a destination that we care about, empathy is the pathway.
If empathy is the pathway, we cannot privilege our own experiences alone. We must hold in tension that others have experiences of the world that are diverse and different from our own but also valid. This is particularly applicable when we are the person with more power and more privilege in our relationships.
On the flip side, we cannot disadvantage our stories. We must own our stories. This means that empathy must begin with ourselves. We must find unity within ourselves if we are going to find unity outside of ourselves. Allowing empathy to grow inside of us allows us to recognize our own faults and not inflict punishment or shame upon ourselves but wisdom, kindness, and love. Taking care of ourselves is essential.
When we own our stories and are vulnerable enough to share them, we also find that we are more connected with one another than we had at first believed.
Our passage today ends with a powerful image of Joseph kissing and weeping with his brothers for the first time in 22 years. The last line is, “after that his brothers talked to him.” Joseph’s courageous vulnerability opened the doorway for empathy. He created a space where his brothers who had dehumanized him could begin to see him as a full human. And together they could build the process of trusting one another again.
Friends, may we find the courage to own and share our stories as Joseph and Tamar did. And once we do, let us pray that we will find our siblings that are both like us and different from us talking with us—perhaps for the first time. And then we will know that we are on the pathway of empathy towards a destination of unity.
Benediction Since the divine at work in us, may we find the courage to own our stories and share our stories with the world.
May God bless and keep you.
May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May God’s countenance be lifted upon you and give you peace.
The Lord be with you…