Delivered at Ames UCC on September 23, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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After worship last week Jeremy, who had read the scripture, asked me if there is ever going to be a time when I can just preach, “Good job, Christians, we’re all done.” Basically, will there ever be a Sunday when I am not either having to agitate or to soothe?
I shared that in my understanding of preaching, I am to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. It is a phrase originally spoken in relation to the role of a free press, but is also a very accurate description of the life of Jesus and his disciples: Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
As I’ve gotten older, though, the boundary between the afflicted and the comfortable has become much less clear to me.
The same is not true of our scripture today.
In this encounter between Joseph and the wife of Potiphar, there is no question who is on which end of the spectrum: Joseph is afflicted and Potiphar’s wife is comfortable.
Joseph was once comfortable, very much so.
When we first meet him, Joseph is described as the favorite son of Jacob, one of the best scoundrels in Biblical literature, and his cousin-wife Rachel. Jacob does not hide his preference for Joseph from all of the other kids, and he had a lot of them between his four wives.
As a sign of his preferential love, Jacob gives Joseph a gorgeous coat, which in contemporary imagination is described as amazingly technicolor. Constantly confronted by that rainbow of partiality, Joseph’s brothers decide to do away with him: They sell him to slave traders and cover the coat with animal blood, which they take to their dad Jacob, tricking that old trickster into believing that Joseph is dead.
Joseph’s comforts are now gone.
As we heard today, Joseph is sold into the house of Potiphar, an Egyptian court officer. Potiphar does give Joseph a great deal of responsibility, but he is not a free man, he is not a citizen.
That bondage is worsened by Potiphar’s wife. She wants to have sex with Joseph. Her offer, or command, puts Joseph into a no-win situation: If he says yes, he will be betraying his owner. If he says no, he will anger his owner’s wife. He does say no, and she is angry. To punish Joseph for his refusals, Potiphar’s wife takes advantage of a piece of clothing she’d grabbed off of him to frame him for rape.
Potiphar does not doubt his wife’s claim, though it is a no-win situation for him, too. If Joseph did perpetrate the crime, then Potiphar’s judgment has been betrayed. If Potiphar’s wife had simply cheated on him, then regretted it, Potiphar has been cuckolded and has to save face.
So either way, there is only one place for that Hebrew slave to go: jail.
Several chapters later, Joseph is redeemed, to a point. He rises to the most powerful position in the house of Pharaoh, and is able to save his duplicitous brothers and mourning parents and sisters from hunger. But Joseph is never a truly free man again. Having been made into outsider-property, by the action of members of his own family, Joseph can never escape the knowledge of the tenuousness of freedom.
In his life, Joseph knows comfort, then terrible affliction, then a tempered kind of comfort.
That could describe any one of us.
In the collection of years we call a life, we are marked by each successive day. We carry scars and the knowledge of the scars we have inflicted. Few, even none, of us will ever be completely comforted or permanently agitated.
Maybe, someday, that is where the parents of Celia Barquin Arozamena will find themselves: experiencing moments contentment, ever shadowed by resentment. Though the betrayal of that actual murder right here in Ames is far worse than the one faked by Joseph’s brothers in this ancient morality play.
So, what is my job in a time such as this, a time of real murders in Ames, a time of real jealousy and real lies throughout our nation?
It is to offer what might be the most comforting and afflicting invitation of all: Let God be with you.
Consistently in this passage we hear that God is with Joseph.
Potiphar, who was not a Hebrew, saw an aura of the sacred around Joseph. That is why he put Joseph in charge of his household. It happened again with the chief jailer. He, too, saw holiness by Joseph’s side and so gave Joseph freedom to lead, within the confines of the jail.
We don’t know how it is that Potiphar and the jailer saw God by Joseph, but they did. Even without a shared a nationality, culture, or religion, both men recognized that that which transcends all nationalities, cultures, and religions was with Joseph.
The same was true of Jesus.
His work was not to run households or jails, but to reiterate the covenant God made with Noah and with Abraham and, as we will study in a couple of weeks, with Moses. Love God with all your heart and all your might and your neighbor as yourself. No matter where he was or who he was with in his life’s journey, Jesus said the same: Love God with all your heart and all your might and your neighbor as yourself.
Whether the recipient of that message fled from or embraced it was a matter of their position in the world. Toadies to the Empire, misogynists, and financial hoarders were agitated. Victims of the Empire, women, and the poor experienced comfort.
But people at both ends, and the bulk of humanity that was in between, saw that God was with him because of an integrity of faith, and a willingness to publicly live faith no matter the circumstances, be it Potiphar’s house or Pilate’s court, stands out.
The world still needs people who stand out because the integrity of their faith allows others to see that God is with them.
Which is not easy.
It is not be easy to overcome our contemporary skepticism of the notion of God and justifiable suspicion of institutionalized religion. It is not be easy to daily give five, ten, or twenty minutes to silence in the name of God and truly welcome whatever unspoken Word may be heard. It is not easy to give of our sparse free time to learn, lead, and repeat.
But as long as broad daylight remains dangerous to women, and entire cities can be left for years without potable water because most of the residents are black, and cancer can come to us all, nothing in life is easy.
So, disciples, let God be with you.
Let God be with you when you feel completely abandoned by your family and beholden to people who do not respect your humanity.
Seekers, let God be with you so that you will not be blinded to your own complicities by self-righteousness and the judgment of others.
Doubters, let God be with you so that you have the strength to not only love your neighbor, but even yourself.
Dearly beloved, let God be with us all so that no matter where we are or who we are with on our life’s journeys, we are demonstrating that disquieting peace that passes all understanding.
In this blurry and bewildering life, hold fast to the clarity and certainty that God is with us. And maybe someday, in the presence of God, we, too, will play a small part in the redemption of the world.