SCRIPTURE: Genesis 39:1-23
This week we marked the seventeenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11. Most of us in this room can remember the events of that day, maybe even where you were and what you were doing when you first heard or saw the news. I know I can. For me, that day marked the end of life as I knew it. In one day, the world had changed. That’s a national event that happened during most of our lifetimes – something that we all know about and experienced in some way. And because of this shared history, we may feel comfortable enough to share our own stories of how that day impacted us – stories of the fears we experienced in the aftermath, or of the people we knew personally who perished, or of the ways that our faith may have been impacted – especially in the way that many communities of people began to pull together to comfort one another, and to join together in prayer.
I remember that our churches became fuller after that – it seemed that many who had stopped attending churches, as well as some who never stepped foot into a church before were seeking out a safe place to come and connect with other people who could understand their pain and sense of loss, to connect with others who were searching for the same hope and goodness to emerge from the darkness that had descended over us, and to connect with something bigger than ourselves – with God – in an effort to find strength, to find comfort, to find peace. I read two important books after 9/11 that have each had a huge impact on my faith: When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold S. Kushner and Disappointment With God by Philip Yancey. These books both dealt with that question that we all have from time to time, “Where is God When it All Goes Wrong?”
If we as people are able and willing to come together after some national tragedy and traumatic event like 9/11, and know how comforting and reassuring it is to have a shared story of this collective pain, fear, worry, or of hope and even faith, then imagine how much strength, and comfort and encouragement we could all be experiencing on a regular basis if we came together with people more often to share our other stories! If, when we experienced tragedy and trauma on a more personal scale, we still sought out others who also knew tragedy and trauma and pain and who could console, and comfort, and encourage, even in the personal experiences! That is why we are involved in a worship series called, “What’s Your Story?”
As we’re reading through the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis, we’re discovering that Joseph’s story is one example of the classic hero’s journey, similar to those epic fantasy stories like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. In his story, we will see that Joseph, who comes from a pretty dysfunctional family, is not perfect; but that God is working through Josephs’ series of unfortunate events to fulfil the promises first made to Joseph’s great-grandfather Abraham, to make him the father of many nations, and to bless him and his family so that all people on the earth will be blessed.
When we left Joseph’s story last week, his brothers had just conspired to kill him, and threw him into a dry well, or pit to die. But along came a group of Ishmaelites, who apparently dealt in slave trading, and so Joseph became a victim of human trafficking instead of murder. Joseph must be asking himself, “Where is God when it all goes wrong?”
Before we pick up with today’s scripture reading, I want to give you a content warning. Today’s scripture and sermon will be touching on the subjects of mental illness, sexual assault and harassment, and incarceration. They won’t be discussed in any graphic ways, but they will be mentioned. So while I think it is extremely important that church be a safe place where we can talk about real life, and real issues that humans struggle with both in the bible and in contemporary life, please do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself as these topics are discussed. Whether that includes stepping out of the room, taking a break, or asking for a follow-up discussion. I want to create a space where we can all be our authentic selves, and where we can respect one another’s stories as well as boundaries.
As we continue, I want to ask you to consider a time when you felt like you had been thrown into a pit. When have you felt the other shoe drop? The bottom fall out? When is the time you asked, “Where is God when it all goes wrong?” As you hold this thought or memory in your mind, please join me in prayer.
In a dark world we live; from a dark world we come to worship, God of light. Let your light by the Spirit shine through your Word today to illuminate all the dark corners where fears, doubts, and worries hide. Bring us into the light of your presence and peace. Amen.
Remember that Joseph was seventeen when he was thrown into a pit by his brothers and then sold as a human slave. I want to take a moment here to talk about the pit of mental illness. I was first diagnosed with an anxiety disorder when I was in college. At that time, I didn’t know many others my age who were being treated medically or who sought counseling for anxiety or depression. We’re finding that today’s teens and young adults are experiencing anxiety and depression at an exponentially higher rate than any other previous generation. It is estimated that 1 in 10 Americans ages 12 and up struggle with some sort of mental illness today, and it’s something I have struggled with on and off as an adult.
My anxiety became severe after the attacks on 9/11. Those events triggered my anxiety in a way that made it difficult for me to even leave the house for simple errands like grocery shopping. We were living in new state and I was staying home with 3 children ages 4 and under! And I didn’t know many people. That was hard enough! And on top of that, I was now living with the very real and paralyzing fear that had taken over my life. It was debilitating! But it got better when I began to share what I was experiencing with my doctor, who changed my therapy and prescriptions, and when I was able to talk about it with other moms in my small group at church. Moms I was still meeting and getting to know, at a church that was still new to me. But I was at a point where I had nothing to lose by sharing this with others. It was too big for me to carry by myself. And something amazing happened.
First, it was very helpful to get help from my doctor for the neurological and physiological things that needed to be address by a medical and mental health professional! But my fears and feelings of isolation began to melt away when I risked the vulnerability to let others know that I wasn’t okay. Some of them understood exactly what I was feeling, because they had been feeling it, too. Or had experienced something similar in another time in their lives. And others were able to simply assure me that they wanted to be there for me – to bring me groceries, or bring their kids to play with mine, or just share coffee and conversation when I needed it. I had been asking myself, “Where is God when it all goes bad?” And I realized that God was there in my doctor’s office, God was in the friends I made at church, God was in my husband who patiently took the whole van-load of Webbs to the grocery store, or who came home occasionally to have lunch with me so I didn’t feel so alone. God was with me.
We’re continuing Joseph’s story in chapter 39 of Genesis today, and I’m going to break it into three sections; the first section is verses 1-6a:
1 Now Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. 2 The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man; he was in the house of his Egyptian master. 3 His master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands. 4 So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him; he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. 5 From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field. 6 So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge; and, with him there, he had no concern for anything but the food that he ate.
After being thrown into a pit and sold into slavery, we hear the assurance that God was with Joseph, and that Joseph became a successful man! If Joseph’s story ended here, it would be a nice little rags-to-riches story, and we could all go home saying, “And he lived happily ever after.” But we’re still just getting started. One thing I think we can truthfully say about this part of the story is that no matter what may have happened in Joseph’s past, God did not abandon him. God was right there with Joseph in the pit, and God stayed with Joseph when he was sold into slavery; God worked through these situations to bring Joseph to this man, Potiphar, who recognized God’s presence with Joseph and, even though it was for selfish reasons, decided to elevate Joseph to head of his household, because he saw that God was working through Joseph to bring blessings to others.
Before we go on with the story, there is a very important theological point we need to be clear about here. God was with Joseph – God worked through Joseph’s circumstances, to bring something good from a bad situation. Does that mean that God caused the situation? Does ‘everything happen for a reason?’ In the United Methodist faith, we believe the answer is unequivocally, “NO!” I mentioned those books that I read after 9/11, and one thing they both emphasized, and that our Wesleyan faith supports, is that bad things happen in our world because of humanity’s free will.
When God created the world and all that’s in it, everything was good. Everything was as it should be, in perfect wholeness. But God, in God’s wisdom, gave human beings free will, to chose to love God and God’s creation without coercion. That also meant that humankind could reject God’s love, and make choices that were selfish, and that were not what God intended. Humankind’s free will has caused chaos and brokenness, and that is why God’s love story to us, the Bible, is full of stories of God pursuing humankind in order to restore broken relationships, and restore creation to its intended wholeness – that’s why God sent Jesus, and why God invites us to co-create with God the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. So – as we continue Joseph’s story and all the other stories of the Bible, always read them with this theological point in mind. God does not cause bad things to happen, but as Romans 8:28 reminds us, God does work everything together for good for those that love God and are called according to God’s purposes.
Now Potiphar was a very important and powerful man in Egypt – he was Pharaoh’s Captain of the Guard, which meant that he was the head executioner, and over all the other executioners. So it’s in Joseph’s best interest not to get on his bad side. Joseph’s story continues in verses 6b-18:
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 his master’s wife, “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 fled 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 outside.” 16 Then she kept his garment by her until his master 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 outside.”
Now we see Joseph’s story taking a turn for the worse. Joseph seems to have realized that God has been with him throughout his ordeal. He has acknowledged God by refusing to give in to Potiphar’s wife and sin against God. Have you heard of the #MeToo movement on social media? Over the past year or so, many women and even some men have been using this hashtag to publicly share their stories of sexual harassment and assault – some of them for the first time. This is Joseph’s #MeToo moment – this is an ancient example of an all-too-common situation of someone in a position of power using it to harass and abuse others. There are too many contemporary examples to name today, but brave women and men in our country have begun to join together to shine a light on this age-old problem, and call out those who have gotten away with it for too long. In fact, Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2017 was “The Silence Breakers” – those who were willing to stop hiding in fear of retribution, or in the shadows of shame for what happened to them.
Over the past year, more than 200 well-known celebrities, politicians, CEOs and others have been named by survivors who were willing to break their silence. Next came the #ChurchToo movement, in which people began to share the same sort of sexual misconduct that was perpetrated against them by religious authorities, which has included pastors and priests from all denominations. Most recently, a grand jury report revealed over 300 ‘predator priests’ who allegedly abused over 1,000 children in only 6 Pennsylvania diocese.
The reason I’m pointing all of this out is because sexual assault and harassment are very real issues that go all the way back to our earliest human stories. In fact, in the previous chapter of Genesis, before we read about Joseph’s sexual harassment, we are told about his sister’s sexual assault. Even going back to Abraham, we read of both men and women who had to be protected from would-be perpetrators. Statistics say that about every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted, and about every 8 minutes, that victim is a child. So I’m addressing this in church today because I believe that church is the place where no topic should be “off-limits” – especially when it is something that affects so many people!
I can share with you today that I myself am both a survivor of sexual assault and harassment, as well as the mother of a survivor. I know first-hand the pain, the shame, and the mental and emotional suffering that results from sexual misconduct. And like Joseph, sometimes you can do and say all the right things to try to avoid it or stop it and it happens anyway. In fact, sometimes you may even be the one wrongfully, or rightfully accused. And no matter which side of this issue may affect you or someone you love, we cannot just sweep it under the rug and pretend that it doesn’t affect our faith. People touched by these situations surely ask themselves, “Where is God when it all goes wrong?”
A survivor shared with me once that after she was violently attacked by an acquaintance, that part of her therapy each week included lighting a candle and praying for him. She said in the beginning, she used to question where God was when she was attacked; why did God let this happen to her? Why didn’t God do something to stop it? And she shared that one day, while she was praying for her abuser, and having this conversation with God in her prayer time, that she suddenly realized that God was there! She said she believes that God was right there whispering in the ear of her attacker, pleading with him to stop; but that he refused to listen to God – and so she holds her perpetrator alone responsible, and not God.
“Where is God when it all goes wrong?” Maybe we can’t always sense God’s presence in the moment, but God promises to be with us no matter what. And when others choose not to follow God’s will for good, God – in God’s great faithfulness – has the power to take the bad and make something good out of it! God has the power to heal, to redeem, and to restore!
Here’s the rest of chapter 39:
19 When his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, saying, “This is the way your servant treated me,” he became enraged. 20 And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined; he remained there in prison. 21 But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love; he gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer. 22 The chief jailer committed to Joseph’s care all the prisoners who were in the prison, 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 the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.
“The Lord was with Joseph; the Lord was with him.” But that didn’t safeguard Joseph – even though Joseph was wrongly accused, he was still incarcerated. Even today, there are people behind bars that either committed no crime, or are being treated by the criminal justice system either because of mental illness or drug addictions or sexual abuse. Did you know that over 90% of the women incarcerated in America today were first a victim of sexual or domestic violence? Many of them as children? This is another one of those things no one really wants to talk about, that we need to talk about, because it affects real people who we know and love.
Bad things happen in this broken world because of the choices that humankind have made that have been against what God intended. But God has not abandoned us. God promises to be with us, no matter what. There will be plenty of times in our lives when we don’t feel God’s presence, when we can’t confirm with our feelings that God is with us, or that God is working to bring healing and wholeness – that’s why it is so important to share our stories of faith for those times when someone else is lacking in theirs. Sometimes you may be the one who needs to lean on the strong faith of others. And so I pray that each one of us will become more willing to tell our stories of when God has been with us.
Last week we began two small groups for this very purpose. Unfortunately, only five people attended the first week. This week, I want to encourage each and every one of you to get connected in a small group. There’s a daytime group on Mondays, and an evening group on Thursdays. If those times don’t work for you, write a note to me on your connection card about a time that does work – and we’ll work on adding another group if we need to.
“Where is God when it all goes wrong?” God is with us! Let’s go out and tell others that God is with them, too. We can start a #GodToo movement to share how God wants to join with us to write a new story of healing and hope!
PRAYER: Dear Lord, when all we have left to do is cry out in the midst of the pain, give us hope. When our tears feel like the only way to quench our thirst, remind us of your providing presence. When loneliness seems overwhelming, make your presence known. This world seems so full of death and destruction, but you are a God of life and restoration. Mold us into an unwavering people of grace, passion and love that cannot ever be ignored. Amen.