Every Sunday when we begin our service of worship, we make a few announcements and then, before calling you worship, we have a time of reflection.  We invite you to close your eyes, take a deep breath, slow down enough to experience the presence of God surrounding you…  And we know that some of you are greatly fed and relieved by that moment of meditation, that opportunity for centering, that reminder that you are loved; and we know that for others of you, it feels like a squishy, awkward, waste of time, and it has nothing to do with what makes you feel like a spiritual person.  And that’s okay—because here in our sacred community, just about no one agrees upon everything, and there is all kind of difference of opinion…and that is how God made us.   

There are all kinds of manifestations of the differences in our community.  Some of you come to worship and are mesmerized by the beautiful music that inspires us in worship, and others just wonder how much it must cost.  Some are deeply moved by the efforts we make in mission and outreach to help people living on the margins…and others are confident that some other organization could do a much better job of it.  Some of you wish that I would say things in the pulpit that lean more liberal and others want me to be more conservative, and some don’t want me to say anything about politics or social issues at all…and it is impossible to make all of you happy.  And in plenty of circumstances, because of your passionately held views on each of these topics and many others, you get mad at each other.  And sometimes we have to apologize, and reconcile, and try to start over as friends in Christ. 

As we’ve talked about the idea of sacred community over the course of this summer, I knew it would be important to talk about this final idea I will share with you today:  that in a community that is sacred—not perfect or ideal, but sacred, we are all different, with different preferences and needs and imperfections of our own, and we disagree and even fight, and in order for a sacred community to survive, forgiveness and reconciliation and the chance to start over needs to be a part of who we are. 

As with all of the sermons in this series, we’re drawing the content from the stories of the Book of Genesis, some of the oldest of our sacred texts.  And this morning, I want to remind you of one of the grand narratives in that book, a story of a far-from-perfect family which undergoes a lengthy period of brokenness and finally finds their way to repair.  Today we’ll listen to their story. 

Joseph was the son of Jacob, one of 12, and his older brothers did not like him.  You could hardly blame them; Joseph had a pretty high opinion of himself and shared it with anyone who would listen.  Joseph knows that he’s his father Jacob’s favorite son; he’s given the long robe with sleeves mentioned in this story—the technicolor dreamcoat—and he has arrogant dreams that he shares with his brothers.  In both dreams, his brothers gather around him and bow down before him—and he wakes up in the morning and tells them about the dreams!  So eventually, the brothers get mad enough that they beat him up and throw him into a pit and then when a slave caravan comes by on the way to Egypt, they sell him into slavery, and they tear up his robe and wipe some goat’s blood on it and tell their father Jacob that Joseph was tragically attacked by wild animals.  I’m not sure who you’re inclined to side with in this sibling rivalry, but it seems like the main idea is to tell us this is one messed up family. 

The unfolding story of Joseph is well worth reading at length, it runs thirteen biblical chapters beginning with Genesis 37.  It includes Joseph’s enslavement in Egypt and his creative liberation from it through the generosity of a powerful man named Potiphar, who treats him almost like a son only to throw him back into prison when Potiphar’s wife seduces Joseph and wrongfully accuses him of rape.  Joseph again escapes desperation when he is released from prison for interpreting the troubling dreams of the pharaoh, king of all Egypt.  By cozying up to the Pharaoh and helping him lead the country through a famine, Joseph becomes one of the most powerful men in all Egypt.  Throughout the story, we are told that Joseph’s gifts at dream interpretation are God-given, and we get the impression that even though Joseph experiences tremendous shifts of fortune, God is with him.  And yet God’s presence does not necessarily make Joseph a holy man.  He’s got plenty of faults, and in fact, Genesis 45 reveals that Joseph’s individual elevation to power is also the means by which the whole people of Israel are eventually enslaved in Egypt.   

So in this story we see that no one is perfect.  Jacob the patriarch plays favorites with his children, the brothers are deceitful and cruel, the Pharaoh saves his people from death by famine, but only by price gauging his neighbors for much needed grain, and Joseph, who is often talked about in Sunday School as the hero of the story, is egotistical and self-serving even in the very presence of God. 

In the midst of all of this family brokenness, perhaps the most moving element of the story is that Joseph and his brothers figure out how to forgive one another and start over.  In another layer of the story I skipped over, Joseph’s brothers, who are threatened by starvation in light of the famine, have come to Egypt to buy grain.  They arrive at the home of none other than their long lost brother Joseph, who hides his identity from them and sets them up to be arrested for stealing from the royal palace.  But when the palace guards drag the brothers before Joseph and he sees them face to face, he is overcome by grief over all the time they have lost together.  He breaks down in tears, forgives them for selling him into slavery and begs that their family might be restored.  In this story, the brokenness of the family is healed and their bonds are restored. 

I really do encourage you to take some time to read Genesis 37-50 on your own or with a friend, and to do so prayerfully, and think about what questions it raises for you.  It’s a powerful story, and I think you will find that the story carries more wisdom on its own than I can offer by trying to explain it to you.  But I’ll offer just a few reflections that occur to me as I read it. 

The first thing that occurs to me when I read this story is that everybody hurts.  Human brokenness (some call it sin) is so universal and comes in so many forms.  Some of us are overly aware of our own faults and believe incorrectly that we are unforgiveable.  Some of us worry that the struggles we see around us are unresolvable and often feel hopeless.  Some of us struggle with anger and resentment; we lie awake at night and struggle through the day wasting our time brooding about things in the past or in the future feeling helpless to do anything about it.  But in whatever forms it comes, there’s no denying it, brokenness is all over the place, so reconciliation is one of the most important marks of sacred community.  We have to figure out, wherever we can, to forgive one another, so we can heal and get better. 

But another thing the story shows us is how difficult it can be to forgive and start over.  Joseph really struggles with this.  He avoids and deceives his brothers so many times before they ever reconcile; and if you were paying attention, the story says that by the time he finally gets real with his brothers, Joseph “could no longer control himself…” and that “he fell on his brother’s neck and wept…”  I would imagine some of you have witnessed a moment in your own families or among friends where someone else—maybe you, was so overcome with guilt or anger or fear and had been carrying it so longer that they could no longer control themselves and wept uncontrollably.  This story is real.  And it isn’t until that breakdown that the healing can begin.  After the weeping, the story says that his brothers talked with him.”  What was that talk like?  What did they say?  On the other side of reconciliation, this family is not “fixed” or perfect or never sin again, but they no longer are carrying the burden of their hate or the illusion of perfection.  What was it like to finally get real? 

Finally, I’ll offer that sometimes reconciliation does not happen, and sometimes not for a very long time.  Plenty of Bible stories are about conflicts that don’t get resolved.  But a community that gathers in the name of God is meant to stand for something better.  For the world is also full of stories of unforeseen forgiveness and grace—and we long for a world that is different and better than living in conflict forever. 

God is always up to something, even in the midst of hard times.  I sometimes find myself, in the midst of some problem or conflict I can’t make sense of, finally abandoning my own pride and opening my hands to heaven to ask, “God, what are you trying to teach me out of this?”  The answer usually does not come right away. 

Being in a sacred community that involves difference is a choice, and many people choose not to do it.  It is a hard choice, but an important one.  Think about the many families, office environments, schools or community groups, or political situations in which people refuse to be in community with other people with whom they disagree; they only want to be around people just like them or with whom they always get along.  You can do that if you want to; people do it all the time.  But in a sacred community, we are called to be together in a way that acknowledges brokenness and the pain that comes with it and that works to repair it.  We live in the plain sight of God where none of us are perfect but where forgiveness is real.  It’s something to aspire to, for we don’t always to it perfectly.  And it is God’s gift to us.  Amen.