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The next time you worry that there’s something wrong with your family, I encourage you to break out the book of Genesis and read the story of the worst family ever, the Jacob saga. A quick recap of Jacob’s story is necessary so that Joseph’s story makes sense. This is, of course, because one generation’s craziness makes a lot more sense when considered together with its forebears.
Jacob is the third character in the trilogy of the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Like most of us, Jacob had his moments, that’s for sure! His name has all sorts of meaning hidden in plain sight. At its root, Jacob means “heel-grabber.” His birth story is that, one of twins, he grabbed his brother Esau’s heel as Esau was being born first and pulled him back in and went ahead of him.
This implausible birth narrative, like many birth stories, was rehearsed often throughout his life as his character was famous for taking unfair advantages in life, tricking his brother Esau on many occasions out of what was legally his, including his father’s death bed blessing.
Later, while “on the lam,” escaping his brother’s justifiable wrath against him, he fell in love with a young woman named Rachel and arranged to marry her. To his dismay, the trickster met his match, allegedly discovering only on his wedding night that his father in law Laban had sent in NOT Rachel, but her older sister Leah. Laban promised that Jacob could eventually get Rachel, if he would work for his father in law for another seven years.
In the end, Jacob managed to eventually get not only Rachel, but most of his father in law’s livestock in the bargain.
Between his two wives, Leah and Rachel, and their two maids Zilpah and Bilpah, Jacob had 12 sons – the scions of the 12 tribes of Israel.
By all accounts, however, it was Joseph, his eleventh son, who was his hands-down favorite. While all his brothers worked the fields and managed the herds, Joseph was allowed to spend his days playing. His interactions with his older brothers focused on boring them with details of his many dreams, some of which involved situations in which he became ruler over his brothers, an idea that cannot have done much toward easing tensions between them and him. His father Jacob even gave Joseph a beautiful and expensive cloak woven of vibrantly died skeins of lambs’ wool.
Not surprisingly, the brothers hatched a plan to get rid of Joseph. First, they left him at the bottom of a dry well to starve to death; later, in a moment of tenderness, they took him out of the well and sold him to a traveling caravan where he eventually ended up in Egypt. The story they concocted to tell their father Jacob was that Joseph was unfortunately killed by wild beasts, perhaps living out scenes from their own dreams.
So we can imagine the brothers’ surprise when, having traveled to Egypt during a worldwide famine seeking help from the Pharaoh’s right hand, they discovered that this important person was, in fact, none other than their brother Joseph.
Here is the intersection in this drama where we are invited to join in, not just this morning, but at all times. Because, to one degree or another, each of us has a family story that involves cruelty, jealousy, injustice, and broken hearts.
And as we approach Ash Wednesday and the beginning of a season of repentance and the possibility to begin again, here is the choice that the word of God offers us:
Do we continue the pattern? Or, do we break it?
Here’s what Joseph chose to do. He was certainly in a position to take his revenge. After all, his dreams had come true. Here he was lording it over his brothers who were literally groveling before him, begging for food. All of these men had been raised by Jacob, the heel-grabbing patriarch. Should Joseph crush them as his father Jacob might have done? Or, caress them?
Family system drama doesn’t develop overnight, but ironically it can begin to change overnight.
You see, Joseph had another family story he had carried. Late in life his father, the heel-grabber, spent an entire night struggling against his past life with all its corruption and lying, and at the end of that night, as he lay wounded and exhausted, on the losing end of a wrestling match with an angel sent from God, Jacob received a new identity. No longer would he go through life as a heel grabber. From that night on, he would go through life known as one who struggled against God – ezer El – Israel.
So in that moment with Joseph and his brothers, Joseph had two choices. He could choose one family story and continue the contempt, or another family story and begin again.
This is where we find ourselves, friends, in the story of God. Do we choose to rehearse a family story of anger, injury, jealousy, based on so many generations of the same?
Or, do we find a story of grace, of transformation, and choose to go with that story?
One of the funerals that happened last week from this parish family was for Anbrown Bowen, a lovely and elegant woman who lived 92 years. For most of her adult life, Anbrown and her husband managed a large equestrian ranch featuring hunter-jumper thoroughbreds. Her reputation as an equestrienne was well-earned.
What many did not know is that she hardly came up through what we might think of as the “horsey set.” Always wanting to ride, her single mother and grandmother who raised her in Florida explained that the closest thing she could have to a horse would be the mule that belonged to the owners of the land and house which they rented.
And so, with great patience and much integrity, Anbrown finally managed to teach that mule to jump.
Cheryl Kelley explained to me, using several photographs, the difficulties in such an endeavor. Quite simply, God did not design mules to do this easily.
I’d say that the same applies to us when it comes to choosing which family story we will continue and which stories we will tell no longer. It is so much easier for us, like that mule, with our oversized heads and stiff necks to resist learning how to get over any sort of “bar.”
But it can be done. What helped Joseph was that, after a long time suffering for a crime he didn’t commit (a story for another time) he developed the capacity to see his circumstances from another perspective, God’s view, if you will, and could see that although he was in the middle of the action, he was not the star of the story. So that by the time of his family reunion that day, Joseph could truly see that God was offering to write a new chapter out of all the tragedy that had come before IF Joseph would be willing to set aside his right to be bitter and instead choose to be merciful.
Perhaps today you feel that you are in the suffering unjustly stage, not yet in the place where you can see God’s transforming work. If this is where you are, consider the family stories that have contributed to ending you up here and ask yourself what it would take to choose another story to define your life from this point forward.
Jesus lays it all out for us in his gospel. Continue with the old drama and we will continue to get the same results. Choose another path, and exchange the old equation of scarcity, small love, favoritism, for another possibility:
“… a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, placed into your lap; for the measure we use to give will be the measure used to give us back.”
It’s not easy; but, with God’s help, it can be done.
The Rev. Cynthia Park, LPC, PhD
February 24, 2019