“Pits, Prisons, Power, and the Providence of God”

September 23, 2018 | Genesis 39:1-23, 50:20

This is our third week hearing stories from the Hebrew Bible, which we call the Old Testament.  Last week we heard the story of Abraham and Sarah who were called by God to leave their home and set out on a journey with God.  God covenants with them and promises three things:  from them will come many, many descendants; they will have a land of their own, and God will be with them and bless them, and make them a blessing in the world. This morning we hear the story of Joseph who is the great grandson of Abraham and Sarah–we jump ahead three generations.  These stories are messy, these families are dysfunctional, and the narratives are full of tension as they explore two questions:  Will God be faithful to God’s promises?  Will these human beings make choices that support God’s promises and desires, or will they not?

Joseph is the 11th son of Jacob, born late in his father’s life, and the favorite son.  Joseph is spoiled.  His father gives him a special coat with rainbow colors, and his older brothers are jealous of him.  Joseph himself, as a boy tattles to daddy about his older brothers, and he is a dreamer.   In one dream, that he eagerly shares with his jealous brothers, the interpretation is that someday they will all bow down to him.  In another, he dreams that the sun, moon and stars will bow down to him.  The brothers do not take this well.  In response they first plot to kill young Joseph and his dreams, then throw him in a pit instead, and finally, draw him up from the pit and sell him, for twenty pieces of silver, to some passing slave traders.  They strip him of his colorful coat, soak it in the blood of a goat to make it look like he was killed by wild beasts, then present the bloodied coat to their father Jacob, who is overcome with inconsolable grief.  Joseph’s story unfolds in

Genesis 39:1-23

Now Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an Egyptian, an officer of Pharaoh, bought him from the slave traders who had brought him down there. 2 God was with Joseph, and he became a successful man…. 3 Joseph’s master saw that God was with him, and that God caused all that he did to prosper. 4 So Joseph found favor in Potiphar’s sight and he made the young man overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. 5 From that time God blessed the Egyptian’s household and all that he had, for Joseph’s sake.

Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking. 7 And after a time, his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” 8 But he refused and said to her, “Look, with me here, my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my hand. 9 He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” 10 And although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not consent to lie beside her or to be with her.

11 One day, however, when he went into the house to do his work, and while no one else was in the house, 12 she caught hold of his garment, saying, “Lie with me!” But he left his garment in her hand, and ran outside. 13 When she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled outside, 14 she called out to the members of her household and said to them, “See, my husband has brought among us a Hebrew to insult us! He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice; 15 and when he heard me raise my voice and cry out, he left his garment beside me, and fled.” 16 Then she kept his garment by her until his husband came home, 17 and she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to insult me; 18 but as soon as I raised my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me, and fled.”

19 When Potiphar heard the words that his wife spoke to him, saying, “This is the way your servant treated me,” he became enraged. 20 He took Joseph and put him in prison, and there he remained. 21 But God was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love; God gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer. 22 The chief jailer committed to Joseph’s care all the other prisoners and whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. 23 The chief jailer paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph’s care, because God was with him; and whatever he did—God made it prosper.

While in prison, Joseph interpreted the dreams of two of Potiphar’s servants.  Two years later, when Pharoah, King of Egypt, had some troubling dreams, one of the servants remembered Joseph’s gift as a dream interpreter.  He was brought from prison to interpret the King’s dreams.  Joseph told him that in seven years there would be a great famine in the land, and that he should store up grain so that all the people in the region would have food to eat.  Seeing that Joseph was wise and discerning, Pharoah released him from prison and made Joseph his second-in-command within the Egyptian empire.

When the famine did happen, Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to buy grain from him. When Joseph saw them, he recognized them, but they did not recognize him.  Joseph accused them of being spies, and made tortuous demands of them, and deceived them to avenge them for what they had done to him.  But, he could not bear to see their anguish, and was filled with love and compassion for them.  He wept bitterly, and finally revealed his identity.  Seeing him alive and remembering what they had done, they were filled with guilt and afraid of what he might do.

50:20    But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid, even though you intended to do harm to me, God has turned it to good, in order to preserve many people, as God is doing today.”

The story of Joseph and his family is the proclamation.  It is the preaching and the hearing of God’s Word of promise.   And because the story is so rich and so long, I don’t have time to say much about it.  So briefly, focus with me on the question of our identity as human beings.  Who are we truly and deeply? And how do we come to know who we are?  And how can we live from our truest, deepest and best selves?  Consider Joseph. Who is Joseph? He is a beloved son.  A spoiled kid.  A dreamer.  A hated brother.  A tattletale. He is rejected by his blood kin, thrown into a pit that he can’t climb out of, traumatized as a boy.  He is a victim. He is a slave.  He is accompanied by God.  He is honored by Egyptians with power who are blessed by his presence.  He is a man of integrity who does nothing wrong, but is falsely accused of sexual assault, then doesn’t defend his honor.  He is labeled as less than, a Hebrew, an outsider, an interloper. He is a prisoner.  He is an interpreter of dreams.  He is raised to power by Egyptians with power.  He is wise.  He is hurt and wants to hurt the brothers who hurt him.  He loves and provides for the brothers who betrayed him.  So who is Joseph at the deepest level?

Think about your own life.  All your given identities as male, female, gay, straight, bi-trans-, or not exactly any of the above.  Think about your life as son, daughter, brother, sister, partner, parent, grandparent, friend, neighbor.  Think about your gifts and vocations.  Think about all the things that have happened to you, big things, little things, hurtful things, lovely things.  Who you are, who I am as we live our actual lives is in so many ways beyond our choosing, beyond our control.  There is a certain givenness to all of it.  We don’t make ourselves up out of nothing.  Who we are, how we are, is a response to the great messy mix of our DNA, our roles, relationships, responsibilities, the stories and experiences that make up our lives, over many years, and hour by hour.  Sometimes we are wonderful and we feel wonderful, and sometimes we are quite awful and we feel awful too.  Sometimes things go well for us, and other times things go badly.

And what I love and want you to love is the gift of these stories from the Hebrew sacred scriptures where we get to see that being human beings is always both fraught and fabulous.  Like Joseph’s life, our lives twist and turn.  His story confirms what we already know about being human.  And it tells us more.  We are part of a much bigger story about a God who creates us and every person in God’s own image, and breathes divine life and Spirit into us, and loves us immensely much.  Even when our lives are hard and hurtful, and it feels like we are alone and forgotten, the good news is that we are accompanied by a God who holds, and heals, and hunkers down with us when we can’t get out of the pit or the prison we are in.  The world belongs to God who in suffering love stays, and enters into the pain and messiness to lift us up and unlock the door and free us to be who we most deeply and truly are.   We are beloved and we share life with this Divine Cosmic Dreamer who is weaving good out of evil, sculpting beauty from the wreckage, birthing life out of death.  This is God’s providence, God’s faithful active love and care for creation, for Joseph, for his brothers, for you, for me.  This is God’s long slow labor, often hidden from our eyes, and hard to believe given all the evidence to the contrary.  So we just keep listening to all these fraught and fabulous stories (the ones in the Bible, and the ones we are living) and we keep praying for the holy imagination to imagine and trust that all God’s dreams and purposes truly are coming true in us and through us, and in the world.

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