Travelling Mercies on Family Journeys – Genesis 37:17-35

The story of Joseph and his brothers has captured our attention for thousands of years. It’s a story of family violence. A story of a family walking a long journey with the consequences of that violence. It’s a story of how God can take violent people and turn them around.

Why did violence happen in that family? Maybe it wasn’t the coat they saw in the distance that tipped the balance on the day Joseph was sold into Egypt. Maybe it wasn’t because Joseph was a tattle tale, squealing on his brothers. Maybe it wasn’t the father’s love given unequally, unfairly. Maybe it wasn’t because of the dreams.  Maybe it wasn’t any of those things. Maybe it was simply the weather was too hot, everyone was cranky. Or maybe it was because the brothers chanced upon a pit that day. If the traders hadn’t happened by at exactly that moment, they would have pulled Joseph up out of the pit and all had supper together.

But instead the cup of resentment, which had been filling drop by drop is drained in one sudden act of violence. The deal is done, the money has changed hands. Joseph is sent in chains to Egypt.

Today I want to talk about a journey, but not Joseph’s journey to Egypt. I want to talk about the journey Joseph’s brothers take. It’s a journey that begins with a first little step, a thought: “Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to see our pesky younger brother anymore.”  And the next thing you know Joseph is fading into the distance with the traders.

When the brothers have to tell their father about Joseph’s disappearance, the coat is the cover-up they need. They dip it in blood, and rehearse the scenario. No doubt they congratulate themselves on their cleverness because they don’t have to say one word of a lie to their father. All they ask is, “Is this your son’s coat?” A tragic story leaps to Jacob’s mind, and they are spared having to tell more lies. That’s Day One of the journey, just a few hurrying steps. They think it’s a short journey. A few days of lying, and then life will return to a new better normal. They couldn’t be more wrong.

The thing they hadn’t counted on was Jacob’s grief: it’s expansiveness, its power to fill them with guilt. The brothers find themselves pursued by their lie; day in and day out, they see Jacob’s grief. They are haunted by their deed.

Where does the journey take them? For Judah, at least, it takes him to a place called Remorse. The story in Genesis follows this family, and we hear about these brothers years later. There is a famine, and they have gone to Egypt looking for food, and they see their brother, Joseph, who is now a man with great power. It’s a convoluted story, but Joseph tries to hold one of the brothers captive. And there we see how far Judah has come. Instead of sacrificing a brother, Judah is willing to give his life for his brother.

Why is he willing to do this? Judah says, “I fear to see the suffering that would come upon my father.”(Genesis 44) God has taken Judah from a place where he was a slave trader, selling his own brother into bondage, to a place called Brotherly Love.  Somewhere along Judah’s journey, God has changed him. God has shown travelling mercies.

Family violence often begins with small steps and the destination is not premeditated. I have performed a lot of marriages, and couples don’t get married with the secret idea, “My hope is to hurt and betray this person.” I’ve seen a lot of new parents.  We don’t cradle little babies and think, “I wonder how I can make this little person hate me.” And yet spouses do hurt each other terribly, and children are made miserable by their parents, and it all begins with tiny first steps.

Let me tell you a story from my own life about a family relationship that went wrong. My step-mother joined our family when I was 8 years old, and I had a complicated relationship with her for lots of reasons…. I will tell you one little part of the story that has to do with my actions. When I was in my thirties, after a rocky and unpleasant visit with her, I was stewing on the fact that it was always me who had  to initiate any contact we had. And I had a little thought about how nice it would be if I didn’t have to make those calls. And I just decided, “I’m not going to call her anymore, she’s going to have to call me.”

Have you ever made one of those decisions? You draw the line in the sand, for whatever reason. If she wants to see me, she can call–I’m not going to call. Isn’t that the tiniest of steps, not making a phone call? That was Day One of the journey. I didn’t realize then where I was going, where the road was going to lead me. We went along week after week, month after month with no contact.  At first it was nice, “I don’t have to see that person!”  At first I felt that I had travelled to the land of Relief, I looked around, and said, “I love living here, this feels great!”

But as time went by, it wasn’t feeling so good. It felt rocky and unfamiliar and treacherous. Easter went by with no contact with my step mother. Christmas went by with no contact. Another Easter rolled by. I found I was wandering in the wilderness of Estrangement. 

I remember having dreams during this time that I had killed my step-mother, and buried her in my backyard. In my dream I was consumed with guilt, “Why did I bury her in my backyard…I’m going to be caught, everyone will know I’m a murderer!” My subconscious was working overtime!

But everyday things were hard too. The phone would ring, and I would always wonder, will it be her calling?  This goes on and on, and after a couple of years you wonder, “How did I get here? 

How did it come to this?” What was once as simple as picking up the phone now felt like a mountain range with icy peaks between us. I didn’t set out to go there, but I was stuck in that place called Estrangement, and I hated living there.

So often we begin journeys with no big destination in mind. We just take a few simple steps. I have a friend whose journey began with a drink. Maybe not the drink of wine with friends over a meal, but the drink that happened one day he was alone at home and feeling depressed, and it seemed like a good idea at the time to see if some vodka might take the edge off that sadness. A drink was a first step, and it was followed by more drinks on more days, month after month, year after year.  The steps were so easy, because he didn’t realize it was a downward path.

His family and friends knew for a long time where he was living before he would admit it. They told him, “You are living in the land of Addiction,” But he told them they were crazy. When he was drunk he was abusive, saying things and doing things that were ruining his marriage. And at work he was tired and hungover all the time, he was hard to be around.

The irony was that he started drinking to help him with his depression; but drinking in the end made his life so much worse. Before he started drinking he was married and he was employed. In the land of addition, he ended up separated and unemployed, with gaps in his memory of what he had said or done to the people who were most important to him.

You can probably think of people you know who have taken journeys like this. Starting out with small steps, ending up in terrible places that they would never have chosen to be. Maybe you are unhappy with where you yourself are right now. You’re asking, “How did I get here? How did our relationship end up in this horrible place?” Families, which are the place where we are invited to feel the most safe, the most loved, the most cherished, can also be the place where we feel the most bruised, the most vulnerable, the most damaged. Families are the place where people who think of themselves as good people can bruise and damage the people they love the most. And that damage can take lots of different forms: physical, sexual, spiritual, emotional abuse. Where do we find God on these hard journeys??

God is there with us the whole time and especially at the low points on the road. God is with us, opening our eyes. Through God’s eyes we see both the pain we are in and the destruction we have caused. When we find ourselves miserable and unhappy where we are, that very feeling of being unsettled is a gift from God. It’s a wake-up call, it’s a check-in. It’s chance for us to ask, “What am I doing here?  Do I want to stay here?”

God provides signposts for a different future. Even though we may feel that we are in a godforsaken place and are alone with our troubles, there are no godforsaken places in this world. God is with us

And God is like a divine GPS.  Lost in the land of estrangement?  Bewildered in the land of addiction? Trapped in the land of violence and misery? You want to get to Peace, to a land that feels like home? God says, “Yes, you can get there from here.” Sometimes God only gives us the directions one step, one screen at a time, but that is all we need.  What step do I need to take today?

When I finally realized where I was living, in the land of Estrangement from my stepmother, I had basically given up hope; “It’s never going to get better. We will live and die in this place.” I was fatalistic, I could not imagine a different future. But God provided a way to leave, the same way I got in…with small little steps, and God gave me the strength to keep going. It took a bunch of years for that to happen, but God goes the distance with us.

Judah probably felt that way too; “I am a terrible brother, I sold my brother into slavery.”  Did he feel like that defined him? He had no idea how he would eventually be given a chance to redeem himself.

Many people here today have experiences with family violence. The grandfather who punished children with a belt buckle. The mother who left emotional scars because she was so critical. The brother who bullied his siblings. The parents who drilled into the children a sense of shame about their bodies and their sinfulness. An aunt who was legendarily angry at everyone in the family. A cousin who sexually abused young children. Maybe you know what you have done to others.

What does it mean to be hopeful for someone who is being violent?  What do we do with those people who are lost in the land of abuse? That is a dilemma that church communities struggle with.

Sometimes churches never find out about the violence, because we keep it so secret. Sometimes churches know it’s happening but they have turned a blind eye to the violence, and minimized it, saying,  “It’s not that bad.” We can be reluctant to confront violence–we are conflict avoiders. We can hope the violence will go away by itself. Or we can spiritualize it, “We will pray for everything to get better” and we do nothing else.  Or alternatively we can demonize a violent person, push them out of the community. None of those approaches are helpful,  they don’t lead to a land called Repentance and a place called Safety.

We can have hope for someone, and set boundaries. We can believe someone will change, and also take steps to keep people safe. Someone I know had a young adult son who was violent. This mother believed God could help her son, and God could do good things in his life, but she couldn’t make that happen. She personally could not break the chains of addiction that held him. What she could do is tell him, after he came into their house and stole money, “I’m sorry, you are not welcome in our house, we’ve changed the locks.”

After he assaulted a family member, they could say, “We love you, but we can’t meet one on one with you anymore, we will only meet in a public place. We are doing this to protect you from harming us, because you aren’t controlling your anger.”

The church community could come alongside to support this family. In these excruciating decisions, they did not judge the parents for the choices they were making. And they did not abandon the young man, who needed friends to hold him accountable.

The journeys we take with loved ones can be agonizing, beyond anything we expected. Sometimes we dream of restoration, but that doesn’t happen. Marriages break down, some families cannot be reunited. But even within that brokenness, God can work within  us. God can take away hatred. God can heal wounds. God can help us learn to let go. God can give us new  beginnings.

This week I encourage you to think about where you are. Are you in a place where you don’t want to be? Do you need to get somewhere else?  There is help available, and it will probably involve God walking with you to get professional help. Therapists who specialize in broken relationships, counsellors who deal with addiction.

I hope that in our church community, we can foster honesty. We can share about where we are, and where we’ve been, and  the faithfulness of God on these journeys. We can testify to God the amazing Navigator, who has given us direction and taken us out of the wilderness.

I am so thankful that God has hope for us all and offers travelling mercies to each one of us. I hope that our church community can do the same.  Amen.

A sermon preached at
The First Mennonite Church
Vineland, ON
by Carol Penner
October 3, 2021

About Carol Penner

I am a Mennonite pastor currently teaching theology at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario. I’ve served congregations in Ontario and most recently, Alberta.

I love to write and to lead worship! If you are finding my writing helpful, I would love to hear from you! Feel free to use or adapt the material here, it is all written by me. If printing material, please credit “Copyright Carol Penner www.leadinginworship.com” (and say whether you modified it). If publishing, please contact me for permission. Contact me at carol@leadinginworship.com

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