I’m not one to give my sermons titles, but if I were to give this sermon a title it would be either, “Wounded People Wound People,” or “Heal Yourself and You Heal the World.” To me these are the same titles you could give to most of the Book of Genesis, particularly when we get to the story of Abraham and Sarah and the generations that follow them. When I read these stories, I find myself putting my counselor hat on and viewing them through the lens of the various family systems theories. According to most of the theories in the field of family systems, patterns in families will repeat themselves generation after generation, unless someone in the family becomes aware of the pattern and chooses to do something to deliberately break the pattern. In other words, wounded people wound people and if you heal yourself you heal the world.
Just look at the story of the patriarchs and matriarchs, beginning with Abraham. There is a whole lot of dysfunction in the family system that is the family of Abraham. If I was working with this family in counseling, the very first thing I would do would be to draw what is called a genogram. It is a map of sorts of a family. It clarifies the members of the family and their relationships with one another. It helps to show patterns that exist across the generations of a family. So, just for fun, I decided to do a genogram of the patriarchs and matriarchs of our faith. It was the craziest and most difficult genogram I have ever drawn.
God speaks to Abraham and promises him that he will be the father of a great nation. Unfortunately he and his wife Sarah seem unable to conceive a child that would lead to Abraham being the father of a great nation, so Sarah gives Abraham her maid Hagar. Hagar and Abraham have a son, Ishmael. As you might expect, having a son when Sarah cannot have one gives Hagar some moxie. She and Sarah get into conflict and Abraham sends Hagar and her child into the wilderness. God saves Hagar and Ishmael. Eventually Sarah does conceive and gives birth to a son, Isaac. Again, Sarah becomes jealous of Hagar and Abraham’s firstborn son, and so they are sent away.
Isaac, Abraham’s second son, grows, and all seems good with the world, until the day God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham follows God’s commands. Thankfully, at the last minute God stops Abraham and Isaac lives. Scripture does not speak to this, but I would have to imagine that this has a great impact on Isaac, and not in a good way.
When Sarah dies, Abraham marries Keturah, and together they have 6 sons. Before Abraham dies he gives gifts to his sons, but he leaves all that he has to his second born, Isaac. Abraham also sends his 6 sons from Keturah away, so that they will not compete with Isaac. Now I should note here that the custom of the day amongst all the various peoples of the Middle East was for the firstborn son to inherit his father’s goods and estate. Abraham has broken with tradition in passing everything, including God’s promise, on to Isaac.
Both Ishmael and Isaac marry. Ishmael has 12 sons and at least two daughters. Isaac marries Rebekah, sister of Laban. Isaac and Rebekah, like Isaac’s parents, struggle with infertility. They are married 20 years before Rebekah conceives and gives birth to twin boys, Esau, who is born first, and Jacob who is born second. Isaac and Esau have quite a connect, as many fathers and firstborn sons do, but Rebekah loves Jacob the most. As you might expect this differing treatment by the parents creates conflict between the boys. It didn’t help that by temperament the boys were as different as night and day.
In our reading from Genesis for this morning, we can see the conflict. Jacob tricks a very hungry Esau out of his birthright. These are not two boys who get along. When Isaac is close to death, Rebekah and Jacob work together to trick Isaac into giving Jacob, the second born, the blessing that belongs to Esau, the firstborn. Esau is understandably outraged, and Jacob has to flee for his life. He goes to live with his uncle Laban.
While living with Laban, Jacob falls in love with Laban’s daughter, Rachel. Jacob agrees to work 7 years for Laban in return for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Laban, like Jacob though, is quite a trickster, and on Jacob’s wedding night he ends up married to Rachel’s older sister Leah, rather than Rachel. So Jacob works another 7 years to earn the hand of Rachel. In the end, Jacob ends up with 4 wives: Leah, Rachel, and their maids Bilah and Zilpah. With these women he fathers 12 boys and at least 1 girl. Rachel, the wife he loves the most, gives birth to his last two sons, Joseph (number 11) and Benjamin (number 12). Again, Jacob, as is the pattern in his family, favors a younger son more than the eldest. Jacob loves Joseph the most. Are you beginning to see a pattern here?
In the meantime, Jacob returns to his brother Esau. Esau accepts him back. Esau himself has married, and had children of his own. Esau deliberately chose to marry Canaanite women, because he knew that his father would not like this. One of his wives is Basemath, the daughter of Esau’s uncle Ishmael. Once Jacob returns, Esau moves his family and possessions to another area, because there is not room for both brothers.
As Jacob’s children grow, it is clear that his favoritism of one son is not a good thing. The other brothers are jealous, and Joseph becomes a little bit of a spoiled brat. He regularly reports to his father any transgressions of his brothers. The brothers finally get fed up, and well, you probably know the story. They sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt. Joseph becomes a great success in Egypt, and his brothers end up coming to him for help during a time of famine. Joseph could have gotten revenge, but he doesn’t. He helps his brothers and saves his family from starvation.
One day, Joseph gets word that his father, Jacob is dying. Joseph and his two sons, Ephraim, the firstborn and Manasseh, the second born. Travel to visit the dying Jacob. Jacob gives his blessing, not to Joseph or any of his other sons, but to Jacob’s second son. The pattern continues. Then Jacob dies. Though Joseph has given no indication that he wants to punish his brothers, his brothers believe that he will try to now that their father has died. So they come to Joseph and they lie to him. They tell Joseph that their father told them before he died that Joseph should forgive his brothers for the harm they did to him.
Joseph says to them in reply, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”
In other words, Joseph after four generations of dysfunction and conflict breaks the cycle. Joseph has healed himself, and in healing himself, heals his family and in healing his family heals the world. Joseph plays no games. Joseph does not involve himself in any deception. He sees where God has been working in him and his family in spite of their poor behavior. Joseph breaks the cycle.
So why have I spent so much time telling you this whole story? Well, I think if everyone in this room took a look at their own families each and every one of us would discover patterns that have been repeated generation after generation. We would discover, perhaps to our dismay, how we play a role in helping some of the less helpful patterns to repeat in our generation. After all, wounded people wound people. I also believe that God wants reconciliation for the this world. God wants reconciliation for each of us individually and for entire families, communities, and nations.
And when we are able to see in our own families how we are a part of dysfunctional patterns, we can step back and see how this is true for our society as well. Our country is a system formed by hundreds and hundreds of years of previous generations. There are dysfunctional patterns that have been repeated over time that we are unwittingly a part of such as white supremacy and all the other supremacies that make life harder and frequently impossible for those who don’t sit at the top of the hierarchy that rules or society. We may not intend to participate in these systems, but without conscious examination of these systems and work to break the cycles, we become a part of them whether we want to be or not.
Joseph stopped the cycle of conflict. Joseph was God’s reconciling force in his generation. Joseph, in healing himself, helped to heal his world. May we too be open to healing, that you too might be a part of God’s reconciling work in the world. Amen.