Sunday, March 22, 2020

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, "Liminal Lent: Joseph," Genesis 39-40

Sermon 3/22/2020
Genesis 39 & 40

Liminal Lent: Joseph

I know some of you are joining us online for worship today who haven’t been with us throughout our season of Lent, so for you and as a reminder for others, I want to explain our worship theme. Our theme this Lent is “Liminal Lent.” Liminal means literally “threshold.” Think of crossing the threshold of a doorway. For a moment, when you cross over, you’re in two places at once - one foot in one room, and one foot in the next room. But you’re also not fully in either room. You’re in the in-between place. That in-between place is liminal space. And liminal space then also refers to time periods, seasons in our lives when we’re in-between, in transition, that time between endings and beginnings. We chose that for our worship theme here in Gouverneur because we’re in a liminal season as a congregation and as a denomination, and even the church as a whole is in a liminal season. But as things have unfolded, we suddenly also find ourselves in a national and global liminal season. We are in transition, in limbo, in this strange place that seems a bit unreal, where we are all trying to figure out what to do in this time in between. 
Sometimes it is actually easier in the liminal seasons of life to hear what God is saying to us. That seems to be the case in the scriptures. So many folks in the Bible experience significant liminal seasons, and in those in-between days, God is with them, redirecting their path. So each week in Lent, we’ve been studying a liminal story from the Bible. And this week, we turn to Joseph. Joseph’s story in Genesis takes up most of the last several chapters, starting at 37. Since we’re interested in the liminal season for Joseph, we’re focusing on the middle of his story. But it helps to know a little bit of context. Joseph is the son of Jacob and Rachael. We talked about Jacob several weeks ago - he’s the wily trickster who uses deceit to grab his brother Esau’s birthright. Jacob ends up having twelve sons (and a daughter) with his wives and their servants. But Joseph is the favorite child, because he’s the firstborn of his favorite wife, Rachael. Yes, Jacob had favorites. Joseph, growing up as the favorite, is a little full of himself, telling his brothers that he’s had dreams about how he’ll be greater than all his brothers, ruling over them. In turn, his brothers of course aren’t thrilled when they know that they’re only second-best in their father’s eyes, and so they plot to kill Joseph. They decide at the last instead to sell Joseph to slave traders and just make it look like Joseph has been killed by a wild animal. And that’s how we land in at the start of our text for today. 
Last week we talked about how long Noah and his family were in the liminal season on the ark - over a year. But Joseph’s middle time - from the time that he’s sold by his brothers to the time before he’s reconciled with them - this season in his life is more than 20 years long. Twenty years! Today, we’re looking at two arcs in his liminal season. After he’s first sold as a slave, he winds up serving in Egypt, in the home of Potiphar, who was the captain of the guard for the pharaoh, the king. And we hear right in verse 2 of chapter 39, that even though Joseph is a slave, God is with him and God lifts him up despite his circumstance. Joseph excels in his role and is given as much status and success as is available to him. He finds favor with Potiphar, and Potiphar makes him overseer of everything he owns. We read that because God is present with Joseph, God blesses what Joseph does, which in turn means that God blesses everything of Potiphar’s. So Potiphar gives Joseph more and more responsibility. 
But then Potiphar’s wife, whose name we never learn unfortunately, she begins to pursue a sexual relationship with Joseph. Joseph refuses. Joseph says doing so, breaking Potiphar’s trust in this way - it would be a great wickedness, and a sin against God. She persists, and pursues him day after day, until one day he actually has to run away from her when she grabs on to his garment. When she realizes, at last, that he won’t relent, she uses his garment to set Joseph up. She accuses him of raping her, and Potiphar has Joseph thrown into prison. It seemed like Joseph was finding his way to a new normal, but once again his world is toppled. First a slave, now a prisoner. Still, even now though, we read, “The Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love.” Even in prison, where Joseph is housed with others who are connected to the pharaoh, Joseph finds favor, prospers. The jailer gives Joseph more and more responsibility, and the text tells us that’s because God is with Joseph. Whatever Joseph does, God makes it prosper.  
Some time after he winds up in prison, two of Pharaoh's servants land in prison too - the cupbearer to the king, and the chief baker. Joseph is charged with serving them, and they are in custody for “some time.” One night, both the cupbearer and baker have dreams that trouble them because they don’t understand them. When Joseph sees that they are downcast, he asks after them and they say, “We have had dreams, and there is no one to interpret them.” Now, Joseph’s dreams were what started him off down this path to begin with. If he hadn’t told his brothers about his dreams that he would one day rule over them, they might not have been so moved to anger that they did such harm to him. But still, Joseph offers his ability, because he sees it not as his own talent, but God speaking through him. “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me.” Joseph hears and interprets both dreams - the baker will lose his life, but the cupbearer will be restored to his position. When Joseph gives the cupbearer the good news about what his dream means, he takes a moment to plead his own case too: “Remember me when it is well with you; please do me the kindness to make mention of me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this place. For in fact I was stolen out of the land of the Hebrews; and here also I have done nothing that they should have put me into the dungeon.” Everything that Joseph interprets comes to pass. The baker is hanged, and the cupbearer is restored. But the cupbearer doesn’t remember Joseph. He forgets him. He won’t remember Joseph for two more years in fact. And so for today, at least, we leave Joseph in prison. 
I was struck, reading this text, that I can get lulled into thinking that Joseph has it easy. I know that sounds strange - he is sold by his own family as a slave, after all. But Joseph always seems to land on his feet. He’s the favorite child. He’s a slave, but one who becomes successful. He’s a prisoner, but one who is given status and position. Eventually, although we don’t read about it today, he gets out of prison, and becomes the pharaoh’s right hand, second in power over the nation. Even when it’s bad, it’s good for Joseph! But I was struck by his pleading words to the cupbearer: “Remember me, please do me kindness, get me out of this place! I was stolen. I’ve done nothing, and yet I’m in a dungeon!” Joseph has reason after reason to despair, and in this moment, we see that pain that he carries breaking through. Joseph might land on his feet, but he gets knocked down over and over. He gets the carpet pulled from beneath his feet over and over. Joseph is constantly building a new normal, thriving in his new circumstances, only to find his situation changed yet again. 
Maybe you’ve felt a bit like that in these past couple of weeks. I know I have! I know all of us have been trying so hard to adjust to every new reality that comes our way. Take extra precautions? Sure, we’ll wash our hands more, try to elbow bump instead of hug, keep everything extra clean. Ok, no gatherings of over fifty? No problem - we’ll worship online, have school online, work online - but we can still have our smaller group meet. Ok - no small groups either? Stay at home? Ok… we can do that… For how long? How long? It is hard to regroup again and again. We’re trying to keep it together. We’re trying to make the best of every new situation. But I know that I’ve seen more than one person hit a wall this week, when the enormity of our changed world hits them. I know I had my own meltdown this week, when I was feeling like I just could not keep up with the speed at which I was being asked to adapt. It’s ok to feel like that, friends. It’s ok to have those times when it is just too much, and you can’t hold it together anymore. If you read through some of the psalms in the Bible, you’ll find that the writers had no trouble falling apart and crying out to God: How long can we do this, God? Help! It’s ok to fall apart with God always. Like Joseph, we cry out: “Get me out of here!” And while the cupbearer might forget Joseph, God never forgets us
That’s a theme that runs through this text: wherever Joseph is, God is with him. Whatever is happening to Joseph, God is working out blessings in Joseph’s life in the midst of struggle. That doesn’t mean that bad things don’t happen to Joseph, obviously. Joseph endures trial after trial. But God is always with Joseph, and God always blesses Joseph in the midst of tragedy. God takes our brokenness, our pain, our suffering, and draws out goodness, love, and life. Please hear me: I don’t believe that God causes tragedy and struggle in order to prove a point to us. But I believe God is with us, brokenhearted with us in the midst of pain, and always seeking paths of blessing where it seemed no way was possible. What signs of God’s presence have you seen in the past weeks? I encourage you to share them now on our livestream feed, to write them in a journal or notebook each day and read over when you need reminding, to share these signs of God’s presence with others when they need encouragement. “But the Lord was with Joseph, and showed him steadfast love.” And God is with us. God’s steadfast love is with us always. 
I’m struck by - moved by the fact that Joseph continues to use the gift he has for interpreting dreams even though it was the very thing that landed him in the mess he’s in. His vivid dreams and interpretations drove a wedge between Joseph and his brothers, but he didn’t withhold using his gift when the need arose while he was in prison. I think that was an act of bravery on Joseph’s part. And he could be brave and courageous because he knew his gift was from God, that it was God working through him. If God was working through him, how could Joseph hold back? The baker and cupbearer need a dream interpreter, and Joseph offers himself without hesitation, because he knows God is at work in what he can do.
I’ve been moved by the way people are offering their gifts in these days. Teachers are offering help and tutoring for parents trying to help their kid with the science lessons they haven’t done in decades. People who love to cook are sharing the best ways to make use of a limited pantry stock. Artists are sharing their paintings. Poets are gifting us with words that help us make sense of our experiences. Musicians are filling our world with song. Volunteers are continuing to grocery shop and run errands for those who can’t. Healthcare workers and custodians and restaurant and grocery workers and other essential employees of all kinds are going out when others can stay home. People are making calls and writing cards. Sewers are making facemasks. Comedians are making us laugh. Folks are reading bedtime stories online to share with children. People are leading dance classes and fitness classes for all. It’s incredible to see people sharing their heart and soul to build each other up. Friends, you are gifted. God has put something in you that the world needs so badly. And when you share it, you aren’t just sharing yourself, you’re sharing the love of God. Someone is in need of just the gift you have to share. 
I wish that we weren’t experiencing this crisis. I grieve for the many kinds of losses we’re facing. But since we are here, I am thankful that God is here with us too. Since we are here, I’m thankful that God loves and comforts me when I hit the wall and cry out, “Get me out of here!” Since we are here, I’m thankful for the gifts God has given me to share, and the gifts that God has given you to share, because they’ll help us get through. May you feel today and each day God’s steadfast love, for God is with us always. Amen. 

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