It is impossible, and maybe even irresponsible, to read this story on this Sunday, after the conversation that has been going on nationally this week and for some months, and not take some time to acknowledge the painful reality of sexual violence and the injustices that can occur when there is an imbalance of power between two people.
In Joseph’s story the genders are likely the reverse of what we typically hear about in reports of assault, but again, the power imbalance is recognizable. A majority person with social, racial, and economic privilege, in this case an Egyptian woman, the wife of the captain of the guard, Potiphar, in our context more often a man with similar privilege, attempts to take what they believe they have ownership of or access to, the body and agency of a minority person, in this case an enslaved Israelite man, while in our context it is most often a woman or a person who is a part of a racial or sexual minority.
The situation, sadly Scripture tells us, is not new. And I wish, I so desperately wish this story, or really any story in the Bible spent a lot more time declaring what I am sure we all agree on – – This is wrong. This is sinful. This is contrary to anything God desires for humanity. Even when the story turns out good in the end, it is not because God is using assault to prove a point. And I wish, I so desperately wish I didn’t have to say that in 2018, but I do because there are people out there who will say the exact opposite – that God will put someone through a sexual assault to make them stronger, make them better able to help others, or even to punish them. But that is false, and that is the kind of dangerous faith-based talk that keeps some people from speaking up sooner.
If there is anyone in this room that has been made to think that about the violence inflicted upon them, hear me now. That is false. God’s love does not work that way. God’s love believes you. God’s love sees you. God’s love weeps with you. And God’s love desires and works for your healing and wholeness. There is nothing more sure to me than this. You are not at fault, and if you ever need a place to share your experience of what makes you able say “me too” I will listen. Me too.
Born to Jacob later in life, the first-born son of his favorite wife, Joseph is his father’s favorite son. At the age of seventeen, with most of his brothers well into adulthood, Jacob gives Joseph the lavish gift of a coat – – many colors early Bible translations say, a long robe with sleeves later works report. We’re not exactly sure about the runway-readiness of this coat, but we know that it was precious to both father and son and a thorn in the side of the eleven other sons of Jacob.
After the coat bolsters his confidence, Joseph begins to share with his brothers about some curious dreams he has been having. In one the bound sheaves in the fields of the brothers bow down to Joseph’s. In another, eleven stars and the sun and moon bow down in Joseph’s direction. The coat, the sheaves, the stars – – all of these add up to no good in the minds of Joseph’s brothers. They plot to kill him, are persuaded by the eldest brother, Reuben to instead leave him in a pit, but in the end decide to make some money and sell him as a slave to some Egypt-bound traders instead.
I bet that’s not exactly how Joseph thought his dreams would play out. What good does it do him to have visions of his importance, his elevation over his brothers when he finds himself in a pit? What good does it do him to have what seem to be messages from the divine, if he is stuck in a hole in the ground? Being the favorite son, being called by God for something great is hard to hold onto when the dreamer finds himself at rock bottom, tied to the back of some Ishmaelite’s camel on their way to Egypt. As the song from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical says, “Poor, poor Joseph, sold to be a slave/Situation’s grave, hey, sold to be a slave.”
Things start to look up a little when he gets to Egypt, however. Or do they? Joseph is sold to the household of the captain of the Pharaoh’s guard. Potiphar is his new master. Regarded well by Potiphar for his prosperous work, Joseph is given much responsibility and at least some freedom within the household. Maybe his dreams are finally coming true. Maybe being the favorite, of descending from Jacob, and Isaac, and Abraham is finally paying off. It says it right there in verse 2 – “The Lord was with Joseph.” The Lord was with Joseph when he was at the top of his game, when Potiphar chose him and trusted him with his household. The Lord was with Joseph when the Egyptian household was blessed by his presence. The Lord was with Joseph when all the work of his hands prospered.
We say something very similar in worship most weeks. It’s an ancient liturgical greeting. “The Lord be with you.” And the response, “And also with you.” We declare it and hope for its truth for one another as we gather in the sanctuary to begin to worship together. We remind ourselves of it and ask for its reality again sometimes as we begin to pray together in the midst of our worship. But what are we really saying? What does it mean? How would we know if it is really true?
We can get a good idea of what we usually mean when we look at the other times we talk about God’s presence and blessing. We say it when we walk away from an accident. God was really with me today. We say it when surgery turns out to be successful. God blessed him today. We say it when there is an unexpected joyful surprise. The Lord is with her! She’s been blessed! We say it when luck goes our way. The Lord was with me that time. The Lord was really with me.
It is easy to talk about God’s blessing and God’s presence when good things are happening, and the risk we run is in thinking that the Lord is only with us when life is going smoothly. But Joseph’s story doesn’t always line up with that. He is a slave. His master’s wife tries to seduce him. In a position of weakness and while enslaved he is falsely accused of a violent crime. His integrity is called into question. He is unjustly thrown in jail. All of this complete non-blessing by any typical definition is happening to him, so how in the world can it be true that the Lord is really with him?
It’s true because God’s presence isn’t only real when it feels obvious. It’s true because God’s promise has nothing to do with complete safety, with total protection. It’s true because God’s blessing doesn’t mean we’ll never have another bad day in our lives or we’ll never struggle with injustice.
“The Lord be with you,” when we look at when we say it and what it promises is actually a very counter-cultural statement. We don’t say it just when times are good. I don’t do a quick survey before worship and find out who had a good week and who had a bad week, therefore only saying “The Lord be with you” to those for whom it seems true, or wish it only to those who seem to need it the most. Instead when we say this to one another, when we ask for its blessing and declare its truth we do so for the whole community, no matter where we are or what we’re experiencing.
The Lord is with you when powerful voices are trying to silence you. The Lord is with you when powerful forces are trying to discredit you. The Lord is with you when the life you are living is not the life you dreamed of. The Lord is with you when you have been abused. The Lord is with you when you are falsely imprisoned. The Lord is with you when you are in your deepest pits. The Lord is with you when you are bullied. The Lord is with you when you are drunk or high. The Lord is with when your relationships are broken. The Lord is with you when you are mourning. The Lord is with you when you are depressed. The Lord is with you when suicide seems like the only answer for yourself or for a loved one. The Lord is with you when you are struggling to make ends meet. The Lord is with you when you are angry. The Lord is with you when you are in pain. The Lord is with you. It’s not just that the Lord will be or may be with you some day. The Lord IS with you.
And I know that can be hard to believe when the exact opposite feels true. I know there are days and weeks and years when those words themselves can even feel like a slap in the face, when all we want to do is scream back at them, “Then why doesn’t the Lord who is with me take this hell away?” I know there are seasons when belief in God’s presence, belief in God, is the last thing we feel like we can do, and you know what? That’s OK.
That’s what the church is for. Well, let’s be honest. That’s what the church is for when the church, any church, isn’t the perpetrator of the abuse or the sanctuary for abusers. That’s what these people all around us are for. They are here to believe when we can’t, to see our value when we don’t, to trust in God when we don’t want to, to see God’s promise, like even the jailer could see for Joseph, when it is otherwise invisible.
This is what the church does for each other, and this is what we are called to do in the world. We hold fast to the promise of God’s presence until they day our siblings in faith can hold onto the promise again themselves. We believe when others can’t, and when we ourselves are among those who can’t we rest in the knowledge that others are believing for us. The Lord is with you.
A former colleague of mine at a neighboring church in Wisconsin actually changed the wording of that ancient liturgy in the worship he led every week. Instead of greeting worshipers or starting prayers with the traditional, “The Lord be with you,” he made a more declarative statement – – “The Lord IS with you.” The truth of that promise was too important to him to be confused by antiquated syntax or misunderstood meaning. The Lord is with us. The Lord is with you yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And the Lord is with #MeToo.