Sunday’s sermon: Good Promises in Bad Times

Text used – Genesis 39:1-23

  • I recently finished listening to two really incredible books that shared a common theme.
    • One fiction, one non-fiction
    • Fiction: Woman 99 by Greer Macallister[1]
      • Story of Charlotte Smith and her sister, Phoebe
        • Phoebe is admitted to an insane asylum by their parents
        • Charlotte decides to basically bluff her way into the asylum to rescue her sister and bring her home
    • Non-fiction: The Woman They Could Not Silence: The Shocking Story of a Woman Who Dared to Fight Back by Kate Moore[2]
      • True story of Elizabeth Packard → committed to an insane asylum by her husband, Rev. Theophilus Packard (a Presbyterian minister, y’all) for thinking for herself and disagreeing with him
        • Discredited by her husband
        • Discredited by her husband’s congregation
        • Persecuted throughout the whole of her life by the doctor who was the supervisor of the asylum
        • Nevertheless spent her whole life fighting for legal rights for married women and for the rights of those in asylums
    • Both of these books took place around the same time period – the late 1800s. Both of them took place in America – one (the fiction) in California, the other (Elizabeth Packard’s story) in Illinois. Both of them explore two very powerful, very difficult themes.
      • Theme of how easy it was for women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to be shuttered away from everything they knew – their friends, their families, their children, and all of society – by the men in their lives (husbands, fathers, brothers) just for disagreeing with them or thinking for themselves or refusing to toe whatever arbitrary line was drawn in the sand
        • No kind of trial beforehand (at least, not until Elizabeth Packard had done much of her work after her eventual release)
        • No hope of release unless those who had them committed in the first place had a sudden and miraculous change of heart
      • Theme of the rampant abuse and horrific conditions found in asylums at that time
        • Physical actions by the staff that would certainly fall under the category of torture today
        • Forced, unpaid labor
        • Meals that were devoid of any nutritional value
        • Solitary confinement for the most minor infractions
        • Medical experimentation
    • And as I listened to the accounts of the horrors of imprisonment in these asylums – both fictional (though based on many historical sources and testimonies of the time) as well as the true story – I couldn’t help but think about today’s portion of Joseph’s story. → false imprisonment
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  • Generalities of Joseph’s story
    • Full arc of Joseph’s story
      • 2nd youngest of Jacob’s 12 sons
      • Interprets a dream to his brothers one day → “Basically, guys, I dreamed you were bowing down to me.”
      • Brothers grow angry, both with implications of Joseph’s and with the way their father, Jacob, favors him → last straw = beautiful cloak that Jacob gives to Joseph (gift that should have gone to the first-born)
      • Brothers decide to get rid of Joseph → toss him down a well → sell him into slavery, then tell Jacob he’s been killed
      • Joseph ends up in Egypt
        • First as a servant in Potiphar’s house (today’s story)
        • Eventually in the palace of Pharaoh → soon rises to place of unprecedented power in the land
        • Helps the land of Egypt survive a devastating famine → eventually Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt seeking food à don’t recognize Joseph
        • Through some subterfuge and cunning maneuvering, brothers prove to Joseph that they’ve learned their lesson → Joseph reveals his identity to them and the family is restored
    • Like Abram/Abraham (that we read last week), Joseph’s story takes up a good chunk of Scripture in Gen → begins in ch. 37 and continues straight through the end of Gen (ch. 50)
    • Unlike Abram (and many of the other people who receive God’s covenant promises throughout Scripture), there are no instances when God speaks directly to Joseph → None at all. Not in any moment of his story.
      • Lots of times that God communicates with Joseph through his dreams
        • Dreams that get him in trouble
        • Dreams that get him out of trouble
      • Many times throughout the text when we’re told that God was with Joseph
      • But not once do we hear God speaking to Joseph like God spoke to Noah or Abram. And yet it’s clear that God’s presence and God’s promise remained with Joseph through it all. – makes Joseph a more relatable character in God’s Grand Story of Faith à I mean, we get to walk through a lot of Joseph’s story with him – the ups as well as the downs – and a lot of those ups and downs are things we can relate to: family dynamics, power dynamics in relationships, moments when we feel like the bottom has dropped out of our lives, times when we feel like we’ve had to claw our way back. And throughout all those times, even if we find ourselves in deepest prayer, like Joseph, most people will go throughout their whole lives without hearing the voice of God. But like Joseph, that doesn’t mean that God isn’t with us.
  • So let’s dig into today’s portion of Joseph’s story a little deeper.
    • Great description from Spill the Beans: This is a humdinger of a story. It is a tale of trust and lust and enticement and exploitation with a lot of integrity and revenge thrown in. It has echoes of a tale as old as time itself, of power being abused for a moment’s pleasure, of reputation being besmirched to cover tracks of deceit and lies. And, of course, there is the theme of God’s favor (really?) resting on the one wronged.[3]
    • Particularly interesting that Joseph is simultaneously in a position of power and position of vulnerability in Potiphar’s house – position summed up well by Joseph himself: [Joseph] refused and said to his master’s wife, “With me here, my master doesn’t pay attention to anything in his household; he’s put everything he has under my supervision. No one is greater than I am in this household, and he hasn’t denied me anything except you, since you are his wife. How could I do this terrible thing and sin against God?”[4]
      • Heb. “sin” = particular word for “sin” that implies forfeiting something, losing something, missing something – also a word that carries particular connotation of bearing the blame for something → Joseph is being both very candid and very intentional here. He’s making sure that Potiphar’s wife understands just how much weight this betrayal would put on his shoulders – on his heart and his soul.
    • Despite Joseph’s reasoning and his wishes, Potiphar’s wife uses her power to again try to seduce him, and, when he refuses, to punish him → takes the truth, twists it and manipulates it → plants the blame solely on the victim → And in this part of Joseph’s story, I can’t help but draw parallels between Joseph and so many others throughout history who have found their lives irreversibly changed by those in power.
      • Women whose stories I mentioned at the beginning – women in the 1800s and early 1900s who were falsely imprisoned in insane asylums simply because they didn’t fit into society’s “womanly ideal” of the day → women who were too smart, too outspoken, too independent … women who fought back against physical and emotional abuse … women who dared to believe that they deserved the same rights as the men who held such tight-fisted power over them
      • All the people who’s stories began to surface in the face of the Me, Too movement → stories of people who had the sanctity of their bodies violated and the truth of their experiences questioned just because of their gender
        • Certainly women who were victimized by men
        • Also pertains to men who were victimized by other men, especially when sexual orientation was a factor but also those victimized at a young age by older men
        • Also pertains to men victimized by women (like Joseph) → less common but no less traumatizing and significantly less reported
      • All the people who have been victimized, oppressed, falsely imprisoned, persecuted because of their culture and their race
        • African slaves stolen from their homes and forced into slavery here in America and across the world
        • Native American children ripped from their tribes and their families and forced into boarding schools specifically designed and run to obliterate every aspect of their native culture – language, dress, spirituality, stories, identity
        • Japanese people forced into internment camps during World War II just for looking like “the enemy”
        • African Americans beat down – both emotionally and physically – by the Jim Crow laws of the early to mid-20th
        • Immigrant children torn from the arms of their families at the border – families that still, years later, have not been reunited
        • And anyone and everyone who feels like they can’t walk safely down the street as themselves today … because of the way they express their gender identity; because of the color of their skin; because of the language that they speak; because of the headscarf they wear; because of the gender of the person they love; because of the clothes they wear; because of the prayers they say; because of any other factor that people in power deem “inferior.” There are so many ways that those in power have tried to subdue those without power, and a lot of those ways are still going on today … whether we choose to see them or not.
  • Still, Joseph’s = story bookended with God’s presence
    • Beginning of today’s text: The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man and served in his Egyptian master’s household. His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord made everything he did successful.[5]
    • End of today’s text: While he was in jail, the Lord was with Joseph and remained loyal to him. … The jail’s commander paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s supervision, because the Lord was with him and made everything he did successful.[6]
    • This bookending drives home that point that God is an undeniable and unchanging player throughout Joseph’s story. God isn’t just there when Joseph is doing well. God doesn’t just make a fleeting appearance during Joseph’s darkest moments. God is a constant – always there with Joseph no matter what.
      • Important distinction: God was with Joseph in those difficult moments … but God didn’t cause those difficult moments → They were undeniably terrible things that happened to Joseph, and in the midst of those moments, God was there to hold Joseph up, to care for him and strengthen him. But God didn’t make the bad things happen like some cosmic test to see if Joseph was worthy of God’s presence and promises.
      • Powerful reminder that God’s promise is there with us as a constant as well → rejoicing with us in our best moment, holding us in our darkest moments
        • Promise of grace
        • Promise of compassion
        • Promise of hope
        • Most of all: promise that God is with us. No matter what. Amen.

CHARGE (from the end of the worship service):

          Award-winning American novelist Alice Walker said, “No person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow.” I came across this quote this week because it was posted by BlackLiturgies, an Instagram account that posts a lot of beautiful, powerful prayers and quotes and reflection questions about race and faith and listening to suppressed voices. With this quote, they also posted this: “You shouldn’t have to silence yourself to belong. Who will stay with you once they’ve heard the truth of you?” It’s a powerful question in and of itself when you start thinking about the people in your life, friends, but before you leave here today, let me reassure you of this: No matter what, no matter where, no matter how, God will stay with you. God already knows the truth of you, and God stays with you.

 

 

[1] Greer Macallister. Woman 99. (Naperville: Sourcebooks, Inc.), 2019.

[2] Kate Moore. The Woman They Could Not Silence: The Shocking Story of a Woman Who Dared to Fight Back. (Naperville: Sourcebooks, Inc.), 2022.

[3] “Pentecost 15, Sunday 21 September 2014 – Keep Calm and Carry On: Bible Notes” from Spill the Beans: Worship and Learning Resources for All Ages, iss. 13. (Scotland: Spill the Beans Resource Team, 2014), 23.

[4] Gen 39:8-9.

[5] Gen 39:2-3.

[6] Gen 39:20b-21a, 23.