Joe Neville

Psalm 133

Genesis 45:1-15



All Locked Up (and nowhere to go)

Isn't this a great story?  All the right pieces for a blockbuster production:  a hero, betrayed, captured, enslaved, seduced, imprisoned, released, and empowered.  Complete with a happy ending: . . . Joseph's identity is disclosed; he forgives his brothers and is restored to his family.  Just the way a good Technicolor Broadway musical should end: people smiling, happy music, the cast taking a bow as you leave the theater with a warm feeling.

But if faith is about the grit of life, how does this grand story of Joseph resemble our life, as we know it?  How is it a story about faith?  What does it tell us about God?

The triumphant ending of this story makes me wonder how a more "real-life" ending would change the theology.  What if Joseph never became governor?  What if Joseph, like so many others who are betrayed or victims of violence, lived and died unrecognized, unnoticed, unknown?

What would the story, with this new ending, say about God and about faith?

Part of me wants to tack this new ending onto the story because Joseph's story is only distantly related to most of our more mundane lives.  For most of us, everything doesn't always come out dazzling clean in the end.  Usually our endings are more frayed at the edges, more gray than rainbow colored.  Our loved one dies and never comes back.  We lose our jobs and may never know again the same vocational fulfillment or financial security.  We suffer violence at the hands of another and never know again the same emotional security.  We go to war and come back a very different person--still alive, perhaps, still physically whole, perhaps, but shell shocked and shattered inside.  If we put a dark gray ending to the Joseph story, what would it tell us about God and faith?

This week I was preoccupied by this revised version of Joseph's story, this "let's be real" version, and I came to the conclusion that no matter what happens to Joseph--fame or failure--the point of the story remains unchanged, because the point of the story doesn’t depend on how the story ends or on the outcome of events.  This conclusion surprised me a bit, because I'd often read this story in such a way that "poor, poor Joseph turns hero" was essential to the message, the message being: with God on your side, bad turns to good.  This week, I didn't read it quite that way.  The older we get, the less likely; it seems to me, we are to read the story like that.  At least, that is, if we want to believe the story has something true to say to us about God.

So what if the story of Joseph is not a story cheerleading us to trust in God and all will be well?

What if the story of Joseph is not a story about a God who will rescue us in times of trouble?

What if the underlying claim of the story is this: "God is with you no matter what."

And if that's the message, I want to ask, "What difference does that make?  What is it to trust in a God that is always there?"

And the answer the story suggests to me is that it makes no difference at all, and it makes all the difference in the world and beyond the world.

When Joseph found himself in prison, the narrator of the story reassures the reader four times, "The Lord was with Joseph."  Fine.  The Lord was with Joseph, and Joseph stayed in jail for two years.  Some comfort!

So the Lord was with Joseph.  And God is with you.  Right now.  No matter what is happening in your lives, no matter who you are and what you do. God is with you.  So what? -- Does that mean you suddenly get a raise and can pay off all your debts?  Does that mean you suddenly stop taking anti-depressants?  God is with me? -- Right!  And also with you, want to go shopping?

In Joseph's life and in our lives, even if God is with us until the end of the age, it doesn't seem to make our lives any easier.  Where was God when Joseph's brothers lowered him into the pit?  What good is an abiding God when a caravan hauled him off into slavery, or when he was disgraced, betrayed and unjustly put into prison?

Should a biographer have sat with Joseph and interviewed him in the Egyptian prison, I doubt if Joseph would have talked about the nearness of God or an overwhelming sense of God's saving grace.  He might well have raged about his brothers, about his seduction, about his life as a slave.  The sweetness of God's protection might not have been the first thing from his mouth.  As it usually isn't from my mouth when I find myself in the hospital or a car accident, when I watch the news and read the paper, or when I get a phone call from a troubled friend or family member.

But the story of Joseph insists that God is there with us, with all of us, and that God's promise of life may be working long before we know what is happening.  The underlying message of the story points to the hidden, life-giving power of God at work even in the most difficult situations.

In the story of Joseph, we are assured that even the most blind, most cruel events have the potential to lead us to deeper springs of living water.  How? // We are taught and struggle to believe that God doesn’t will hardship upon us, but God is with us through our hardship.  God's purposes, like a seed, can grow in the dark as well as the light, under rain as well as the sun.

So the core message of the story of Joseph doesn't change if we alter the ending and make it more realistic.  It is still a story about God with us. It is still a story about God working to preserve life. It is still a story of faith in the face of peril or power.

But if that was all to the story of Joseph, it might be enough to slightly arouse our interest, but it would not be enough to change us. God is with us no matter what.  Fine! -- But what difference does that make in how I live my life?  And if God isn't going to prevent me from falling into the pit or rescue me from sitting in jail for two years for something I didn't do, why should I seek the company of this impotent divine being?

Joseph might have asked these questions.  But he didn't live by them.  He lived with the trust that God is the foundation upon which everything rests.  Whatever happens, God abides. And this trust didn't change anything, and yet it changed everything.  Joseph suffered, as we all do.  But the trust he had in God allowed him to walk out of the jail after two years with a clear head and interpret Pharaoh's troubling dream.  It allowed Joseph, after unspeakable betrayal from his brothers, to say to them through unharnessed tears of relief and joy, "I am Joseph, your brother."  God abides, and Joseph abided with God.  We may wish our God and our faith protected us from suffering.  We may wish our righteousness insured the blessings of the world.  But the story teaches us something less grandiose.  From Joseph we learn that our faith gives us the power to forgive and the power to preserve life.

I read of a woman who was married at one time to a minister.  Together they had five children, all boys. When the oldest one was 11 and the youngest was still in diapers, her husband, the minister, left.  He left the ministry.  He left his marriage.  He left his family.  She was left alone, with all five boys.  I wouldn't have been surprised if she had said, "I'll never go to church again for the rest of my life!"  I wouldn't blame her if she had said, "I'll never talk to him again as long as I live."  She raised all five boys by herself.  Boys who wanted to run the streets instead of go to class; Boys who smoked marijuana until she found it, Boys who loved their mom but also wanted (needed) a dad.

Well, a recent accounting disclosed that by the time she was in her fifties, she had remarried.  All of her boys were men.  She still went to the same church her husband had once served, sang in the same choir, worked with the same people, lived in the same house.  She never wanted to be married again to her first husband, but had forgiven him and spoke with him as a friend.  She was even good friends with his second wife.  She was not embittered.  She was changed, but not deformed from the experience.  She, like Joseph, trusted in a God that was with her throughout, and this trust made her free.  This trust did make a difference in her life--all the difference in the world.

She, like Joseph, could have been locked up with resentment.  Having suffered injury, she might have harbored a rage within her.

All locked up.

Having been abandoned, she might have sought revenge.

Having her heart broken to pieces, she might have allowed it to become hard, distrusting men and sneering at religion.

But she didn't allow herself to be locked up, and I am amazed that she didn't.  And Joseph received and forgave his brothers, and I am amazed.  And God was with them. And they suffered.  And God was with them.  And they flourished.  And they trusted in God.  And that made all the difference.

In the end, I don't want to change the outcome of Joseph's story to make it "more realistic," not only because it would be slightly heretical to tinker with scripture, but also because something is being communicated in this story just the way it is.  The God that is presented in the story of Joseph is the God we recognize throughout scripture.

It is a God that seeks to preserve life.

It is a God that delivers us from oppression.

It is a God that brings us from the darkness to the light, from death to life.

And what difference does it make to believe in this God with us?  No difference at all to what happens to us, and all the difference in the world to who we are when it does.  The God who liberates Joseph liberates us.  So we can live openly, unafraid, trusting, forgiving, and joyful.

The story of Joseph is dramatic not because of his success in agribusiness.  The story of Joseph is dramatic because of his trust in a God that abides and moves as a hidden power to transform, redeem, and resurrect.  This hidden God is with us all.

If we trust in this restoring power maybe nothing will change.

But then again, everything might change.

We pray, God, that everything might change. Amen.