My family has always struggled with homesickness. When my sister and I were little girls I remember the phone ringing at 11:00pm on a Friday night and my mother slipping back on her shoes and throwing a coat on over her pajamas to go pick my sister up at her friend’s house where she got too homesick to be able to stay the whole night. “Who doesn’t like to spend the night at a friend’s house?” I always thought. My sister is so weird.
Going away to summer camps was an even greater challenge. Fortunately my sister and I were very close in age so when mother would send us off to camp, she would specifically tell Amy, if you start to cry at night go to your sister’s cabin and sleep with her.
She usually did.
I remember one year as we were preparing to go to children’s camp and my mom was doting over Amy who was weepy in the parking lot, I felt my own pang of homesickness, my own desperate feeling of not wanting to be sent away, but as I looked back and forth between my mother and sister, I swallowed hard and shook it off. Amy was the one who got homesick. Not me.
College is what finally did me in. After a rocky road through my teenage years navigating my low self-esteem and the need to assert myself and succeed through the hormones and opinions of four women living in one house together was a challenge to say the very least and I often failed. But when I finally left for college low and behold I discovered I actually loved those people I’d spent the last four years fighting with and homesickness set it. There was no driving home on the weekends because I didn’t have a car. And by fall break when I went on tour with my freshman choir instead of going home, I choked up at McDonald’s, not because of the bad food, but after explaining to my professor why I wasn’t having a good time. I was homesick.
Moving to Texas was the worst. My mother and I drove to Texas with all my stuff not knowing where I would live. When we found an apartment with three girls I didn’t know and got my stuff all settled in, she left and I stood in the middle of Texas and wondered how the hell I got down here and if I could get out. At Christmas break that year, I drove home for the holiday and when it came time to return to school in Texas everyone said their goodbyes, went to work and I headed down I29 towards I35 which would take me straight back to Texas. But I never made it to I35. At Platte City I was crying so hard I turned around and drove back to St. Joseph. My mother came home from work that December afternoon to find me sitting on the couch in the TV room. I should have been cruising through Oklahoma by that point. We tried again the next morning and with new resolve the second attempt was successful. I returned to Texas.
Spending a semester studying abroad in France proved a challenge too. And by that time I had a boyfriend which only magnified the homesickness. I was miserable there and one morning I woke up alarmed to discover that I had dreamt in French. Not only was I living in France and doing as the French do but now I was speaking French in my dreams too! “Please God,” I begged. “Let me at least go home in my dreams. And let me at least be speaking English in them.”
Sometimes I wonder if Joseph from the Genesis narrative felt the same way. It was no secret that he didn’t get along with his brothers but we have to think he loved them despite the way he gloated around them. And certainly he loved his father Jacob the patriarch and his baby brother Benjamin. Already we know he had lost his darling mother who had died in childbirth with Benji. And so his dad, his brothers and his other aunties, Leah, Zilpah and Bilhah were his family.
But his brothers turned on him. His stomach must have dropped along with him when they dropped him in that pit. Were they leaving? Were they leaving him in there? Or was this another prank? Some of them sauntered away in delight. And then with relief Joseph saw the rope swing down into the pit and he began to climb out of it, figuring the gag was over. Okay guys, very funny. You’ll be lucky if I don’t tell dad.
But it wasn’t just his brothers waiting at the top. There were some merchants probably Egyptian, Joseph figured based on their clothes, jewelry and smooth skin. What were these boys up to now? Joseph’s hands grabbed the top of the rope and his brothers pulled him up, yanked his arms behind his back, bound his wrists with the rope and handed him over.
Talk about homesick.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have shared that last dream with the fellas,” Joseph thought and desperately began his shower of verbal apologies. “Guys, seriously. Please. Y’all, I didn’t mean it. Okay, this is very funny. Reuben, come on. Benjamin, get dad. Benjamin!” But one of the men speaking a language he didn’t understand stuck a sweaty stinky rag in his mouth that made him gag and yanked so hard on the rope tied to Joseph’s wrists that he would have fallen down if the rope had been long enough. But it wasn’t so he stumbled forward, alongside the camels carrying his new masters across the desert. He turned his head to look behind him as they headed off, no longer sick to his stomach but sick in his heart because he now knew what had happened. He’d been sold not only from his family but by his family into slavery.
Talk about homesick.
Of course that’s just the beginning of Joseph’s story. Then comes the saga in Potipher’s house where he made it out of servitude and into actual employment to a man who became a father figure to the now fatherless Joseph, teaching him his business and grooming him to someday take over. But Potipher’s loose wife fouled all that up. And then there’s the jail stories where Joseph again makes some new friends and seems to find a community again, a new home if you will. But his friends are either released from prison or killed on death row and Joseph is forgotten. But only for a few years. Years. Because when Pharaoh has a dream he can’t get interpreted one of Joseph’s cell mates remembers his old buddy in prison who interpreted dreams and suggests to Pharaoh Joseph’s services and after a good dinner and a shower, Joseph finds himself making a new life for himself a third time, now at the top.
He even got married and started his own family, naming his sons, Manasseh, “For God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.” And the younger son, Ephraim, “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes.”
But was it enough? Was all the power and jewelry and fine clothes and fine dining and the pretty wife and the cooing young sons enough? Was it enough to hide the ache in his heart for his own father, for his own younger brother probably all grown up now, even for his pain-in-the-butt-brothers who got him into this mess? If bitterness didn’t get the best of Joseph, then was the longing to go home, to his real home, still in him? If God healed him of remembering his hardships, was the luxury and power enough? Or did Joseph still experience pangs of homesickness?
Let’s look at the text. Genesis 42.
Reading verses 1-7 we would answer no, he didn’t still feel homesick. He didn’t miss what once was. But let’s keep reading. In verse 15 Joseph insists that the men bring their youngest brother to Egypt to prove they aren’t spies and the reader begins to wonder what Joseph is up to. And by verse 24 we realize that indeed Joseph is not only touched by seeing his brothers again, but he weeps, overwhelmed one can only assume, by the memories, by the love and by the frustration of being a family. Everything is coming into place: the dreams are making sense, his brothers are remorseful. Maybe it’s not strange that all these years he has longed to go back to a place where so much misery surrounded him. These men were his family and they had come home.
Of course, like any good sibling, Joseph messes with them. Or as the Bible puts is, “tests them.” He hides money in their sacks and holds one brother ransom and demands the return of the youngest brother and frames them again with his gold cup and all of this to test his brothers before his final revelation to them in chapter 45 verses 1-15.
And his revelation is this: that it is not in bitterness or anger that he remembers his family, for God orchestrated everything in Joseph’s life for a purpose. It is in love and affection and fondness and indeed homesickness that he remembers his family and longs for them to be reunited again.
And except for the fact that the Hebrews eventually become slaves under Egyptian rule after Joseph is long forgotten, his story ends happily with the reunion of all 12 brothers and his father (and presumably his aunties and Dinah too) where they all live in Egypt with well rationed food for the rest of their lives.
I just love happy endings.
So why did I choose to tell a story tonight of homesickness? Seems a strange topic for a bible study at a church.
Most of you know, or should know (and if you don’t you need to read your Clarion more often and quit sleeping through church) that I just returned from a mission trip to Chile. Everyone asked me if I was excited before I left, and the answer was yes! But in my mind there was a little reservation. If you haven’t figured it out already, I’m a homebody. I love my little house and my Austin family, even if they have four legs and are covered in fur. I worry about them and leaving and whether the cats will run away or whether the dog will sadly stare out the front window all ten days I’ll be gone or just five of them. I worry whether the pet-sitter will remember to give them water or whether my neighbor will remember to water my plants. I’m a worrier (Sundays sermon was very good for me) and I get terribly homesick, even if my home is only a dog, two cats and some cacti.
But the trip was amazing and went off without a hitch. And when I returned I discovered something I hadn’t ever noticed or experienced before.
I was homesick for Chile.
Well, not Chile necessarily, but for the girls at the Baptist Home we worked at while we were there. I’ve been writing about the trip on my blog every night, trying to tell our story. And every night I upload pictures to the internet and while I’m picking out the very best ones to share with the World Wide Web, I scroll through and whisper the girls’ names. I giggle as I remember the contexts of the pictures. I get sad when I remember which girl was angry at her mother that day and wouldn’t smile for the camera or which girl is missing from the photo because she hadn’t taken her medicine and ran away.
And I’m homesick for those girls. And I wonder if they’re homesick for us. Or if they’re homesick for the homes they’ve been court-ordered removed from. I wonder if they’re homesick for the parents who abused and neglected them. For the siblings left behind. I’m homesick for Tabitha whom I could have adopted a brought home with me to Austin.
And I wonder if someday they’ll be able to say to their mothers who neglected them to their uncles who took advantage of them, “Now therefore it was not you who sent me here, but God.” I wonder if they’ll be able to see the evil that they have experienced already in their young lives and part of a bigger story of redemption through the love of Jesus Christ. I wonder if they’ll see God delivering them and putting them in the position to choose to help others as a result.
I wonder what will become of their homesickness. Bitterness and anger? Forgiveness? The opportunity to break the cycle of poverty and abuse? A chance for success, normality, school, friends, college, a job and a family of their own?
I’m homesick because I worry I admit it. I’m homesick because in just one week I fell in love. I’m homesick because I want the best for children who are a lot like Joseph.
And when I look at those pictures on my computer, and read stories from the Bible about hurting people and tell about my trip in my sermons and on Wednesday nights, I utter prayers for all those girls who get just as homesick as I do. If home is where the heart is and our hearts are with God then we can be home all the time. And I want those girls to feel at home. Home with God. Not in a dying and living in the clouds for all eternity home, but in a here and now “God has healed me from the hardships of my father’s house” home. I want those girls to find their home in God. And someday maybe this year, maybe next, I’m going back to the Baptist Home to be reunited with them again.