Many Tears Left to Cry
Once upon a time there was a preacher named Nathan. He was the personal preacher to a king. It was the worst preacher job ever, because the preacher sourced his advice from God and it was never the advice the king wanted to hear. Which meant that every time the king called for the preacher, the preacher risked his cushy job and his neck. But he did it anyway, because that’s what brave preachers do.
The first time the king called for him, the king said, “I have no enemies left to fight, so I’m thinking I will build an enormous temple to show everyone how good God has been to me in all my wars.”
“Yes,” said the preacher, before he checked with God. “No,” he said after. And the king seemed to take it pretty well. He prayed as if he thought God was right to tell him, “wait.”
But then, instead of building a building – and in spite of having no enemies – the king went back to war. He killed a zillion people and took all their gold and bronze, and the people thought him wonderful, as people are prone to do when their king is winning all the time. In all that war and conquest, the preacher isn’t mentioned. But the king got tired of fighting wars himself, so he outsourced that dirty business to a man named Joab. Today we’d call him a fixer.
The king stayed home and gazed upon the city he had built with that stolen gold and bronze and upon all the people he believed loved him for it. The king was so rich and powerful he no longer knew the difference between wealth and power, between what he wanted and deserved, between what could be stolen and devoured – and what God meant for him to have. He lost all sense of being king and he didn’t even know it. Until the preacher came back uninvited and told a simple story about a farmer and his lamb. Having forgotten altogether the point of being king, this pretend king was outraged. And ordered his own death.
The preacher stood his ground while the fake king raged. Then in his bravest preacher voice told him, “God says, ‘It is you. I gave you everything and would have given more. And this is how you treated me? You raped and murdered the ones who trusted you. That you might die by your own hand is too small a sentence for the evil that you’ve done. The sword you have wielded without regard for justice shall dangle over your house forevermore.
"Everything you have done in secret shall be done to you in public before the eyes of everyone who now thinks you great. Your contempt for me will be paid for by generations of your sons and begin this very night with the youngest one of all.’”
Friends, everyone is someone’s son or daughter. There is no such thing as selfish, when we are choosing how to live. Every move moves every life around us for better and for worse. The richest and most powerful move more lives than we ever will admit, pretending to ourselves we didn’t mean it or that we didn’t know.
God knows and calls the ones who claim him to tell each other what we know about ourselves and others. We are each other’s preachers. And there are sons and daughters dying just for being born in a world in love with whatever gold and bronze will buy, in love with winning wars against enemies invented because their gold would look better on our walls.
The weeping king prayed again and did his best to say “I’m sorry.” But what was done was done was done. He rose from prayer having no idea how many tears he had left to cry. There was to be another baby. The Lord named him Jedidiah, a name almost no one remembers – that ancient love of money forever on our minds.
The king’s fixer, meanwhile, was busy at the front. He called the king back to battle and, naturally, he went. Went and took yet another crown from yet another head and put it on his own. Enslaved another town to pick and ax and saw. For after all, he was the king.
For his part, that preacher, Nathan, outlived the king and advised him to the end. And then Jedidiah after that, whose other name was Solomon.
But Nathan always did his best, remembering he did not speak for kings, but for God.
Would you pray with me?
What Promise Will We Keep?
Weeks ago, speaking of Noah, I said covenant wasn’t the right word for the rainbow story, because in Genesis 6, God is the only one promising anything. Noah and his family agree to nothing. The only covenant made is by God, to God: “when I see a rainbow in the sky, I’ll remember that I promised not to kill you all no matter how much I want to.”
Today’s text, Joshua 24, is a true covenant story. God has kept a promise, and the people make a promise in return – a big promise. It’s the Bible, so naturally everyone repeats the promise three times. Joshua writes it all down and then moves a stone beside a tree – also a Bible thing – and then declares, “This stone shall be as a witness against you if you ever break your promise,” he says, also three times. But hardly anybody remembers Joshua said that. Today we remember.
Let’s pray. If only we truly trusted, O God, that where you want to take us is where we most truly want to be, that how you choose to lead us is how we most truly want to go. For this wisdom and this courage we pray. Amen.
Until this year, verse 15 was the only verse of Joshua I could quote from memory. And not because I’ve read it so often in the Bible, but because it was on a decoupage plaque in my in-laws’ bathroom for all the years I knew them: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” You only have to google the first three words, “As for me.”
There are thousands. All of them for sale, of course, at sites with names like “hischild.com.” The problem – because you know I am always going to find a problem – is that verse 15 is not the end of the text; it’s not even a natural break in the text. It’s mid-conversation.
The natural break in the text is verse 28, “Then Joshua dismissed the people, each to his own place of inheritance.” Which, to no one’s surprise, is not a big seller at hischild.com. Nor is his parting declaration: “This stone shall be a witness against us; a witness against you, if you deal falsely with your God.” Emphasizing the Hebrew insinuation of the marriage covenant throughout the text, The Message translation reads, “if you cheat on your God.”
When I googled “this stone shall” I got a verse from Matthew 21 and lots of memes about kidney stones. “This too shall pass. It may pass like a kidney stone, but it shall pass.” But nothing from Joshua 24. Because, obviously, who wants to read that, stumbling into their in-laws’ bathroom first thing in the morning? Joshua isn’t decorating. He’s giving his own eulogy. When he dies, there will be none left who knew Egypt, only people who knew people who knew Egypt.
So much is lost. In time. In translation. They’ve arrived – Canaan; Promised Land. Of course they are happy, but they have no idea what they are doing; and they have no idea that they have no idea what they are doing. His eulogy is Joshua’s last effort at reminding them: where they came from, how they got here, what their choices are now. Jewish history calls this text “the covenant is renewed.” And while Christians since that time prefer to quote Joshua, we aren’t him.
I’m pretty sure the Jewish storytellers didn’t intend listeners to identify with him, the same way gospel writers didn’t intend us to identify with Jesus all the time – standing next to Jesus pointing our own fingers at those self-righteous Pharisees. WE are the self-righteous Pharisees. And we are the wandering descendants of Abraham, people headed into an unknown future, forever tempted to glorify a past that is, at best, sketchy. And so, for the sake of faithfulness to the text, and for the sake of faithfulness in our lives and life together here and now, I suggest we sit not with Joshua, but with them, to listen. To listen and consider the choice Joshua presents them and to which they commit.
Choose this day whom you will serve. The two choices: God who brought you out of Egypt or Foreign God. Joshua has recited the history of their God, beginning with Abraham, and in the telling referred to some, but hardly all, of the available foreign gods from which they have to choose. “Oh we choose the same God as you” is their instant answer. Joshua argues back. “It’s no small thing you are promising,” he says; “this God is jealous. This God punishes the worship of foreign gods.” But they are unswayed. Why not, after all? God is finally on their side.
After forty years of wandering they’re home. They just whipped the Amorites, and they now occupy their land. What is not to love about this God now? Three times, Joshua argues. Three times, the people insist, “We will serve the Lord only. God forbid that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods!” God forbid, indeed! Again, from The Message, “We’d never forsake God! Never! We’d never leave God to worship other gods!” Three times, they say “Never!” When, of course, they did.
Everyone’s had that day of faith, the day we thought we’d never doubt God again. Days that sometimes didn’t even last a day. And the Hebrew people’s enthusiasm rings sad because we know they really meant it when they said it. And they truly believed they’d follow through. Because God had been so good that day or that week or that year, they let themselves believe that faith was something said and done. They had won a battle and thought the war against the Canaanites was over. In fact, it had hardly begun.
Who led Israel in the very last battle to drive out the very last Canaanites, do you remember? I’ve preached it a time or two. King David – defeating the Jebusites to take the ground that became Jerusalem. It was a long time after Joshua. Faith based only on past small victories will not sustain us in an unknown future. Nor does it promise to.
Faith comes as manna in the wilderness – daily and only enough for today. 14,600 days in the wilderness was meant to get them in the habit of trusting God one day at time. Turned out, that wasn’t enough days. And then, there were those other gods, the ones that Joshua mentions: Abraham’s originals, from back before, when he lived in Haran; and Egypt’s; and those belonging to the Amorites, so recently defeated.
A foreign god is any other one, of course, any other one than the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, the one we are reading about here, the god in no way confined to the tiny thoughts and words we have to think and say. Anyone who is not the God of Joshua in the Old Testament, Jesus in the New. (By the way, Joshua and Jesus are the same name in Hebrew.)
Seems to me, Joshua’s three examples make good archetypes of foreign gods of every time and place, including ours. Abraham’s – back when he was Abram, son of Terah; Egypt’s – the land of slavery; and the Amorites – recently defeated. I’m renaming these three foreign gods: 1. Possessions; 2. The Past; and 3, simply, Power.
Abram’s people back in Haran carried their gods in their pockets or on a donkey’s back. We know so from Jacob’s story, remember. When he fled his Uncle Laban’s farm, he stole Uncle Laban’s gods. And when Uncle Laban caught them on the road, Jacob made Rachel sit on them in the ladies’ tent, knowing her dad wouldn’t look for them there. (If you’d like this explained in detail, you can ask me later.)
The things we carry in our pockets or somewhere else: money; toys; food in the fridge; the fridge itself; the roof over the fridge; the paid light bill that keeps the fridge cold; clothes, a car, a bank account. We may not bow down to them, but our very lives are bent to their getting and their keeping. At what point is it worship? Things are means, not ends – at least they’re supposed to be. Except we, or me anyway, care which things we have. (Freegans?) The awesome thing about things, of course, is that they are so “thingy”; so touchable, tastable, visible: my flannel pajamas when I’m cold; things that I can touch and hug and pet and feel, that I can look at over and over and over again.
I can open my bank account online and know my rent and my lights and my gas tank are good for another month. OR I can open my bank account and know that they are NOT good at all. But I know exactly how not good they are. A student at Subway one day was counting all her pocket money to see if she could also have a drink with her lunch. Turned out, no – because the math was plain.
Things make promises we know they can’t keep, but we settle for those broken promises more often than we admit, because things demand no trust from us. No patience and no faith. But they are dependable. There are there. I get why Jacob stole Laban’s gods. They were insurance. Because, like it or not, the new God of Abraham wasn’t always so predictable.
Remember how the Israelites remembered their past in Egypt? Not as slavery. Every time things got scary in freedom (aka wilderness), they begged Moses to take them back to the fleshpots of Egypt. The perfect past – the “good, old days” when life was easier, simpler, slower; people were better; cities were safer; children more respectful; TV was better, movies were better.
According to a story I read this week, the evening news was done right, back when Walter Cronkite reported it. When it was unbiased. “He just told the truth.” Why do we romanticize the past? Obviously, it’s easier to bear, with the pain shaved off. We don’t romanticize anything about the past more than we romanticize war. I saw in yesterday’s paper IU ROTC cadets wearing WWI uniforms for homecoming. Really?
I’ve even had a little puppy fever lately. But luckily Rob and Erika got a puppy. and they have to walk him twenty times a day until he learns not to pee on the floor. So I don’t want a puppy now, because they reminded me what is true about puppies. Obviously, forgetting – or storing – past memory is a useful part of our brains’ design. We couldn’t function if a lifetime of pain, trauma, emotion was constantly replaying in our thoughts.
But I mean to speak spiritually – glorifying, worshipping, serving the past where God already did what God wanted done, through the lives of other people, who were not us. We live here and now. This is where God can use us. Only here and now can we hear and know God calling us. Here and now is the only time and place in which we can serve God.
Finally, there are the Amorites and the Hittites. (All week I’ve been saying the gigabytes instead of the Girgashites.) The occupants of Canaan. All those descendants of the son Noah cursed, the morning of his terrible hangover. I have no doubt why their gods would have been a temptation. They had towns and cities, protected by walls and armies. Power is what kept them safe. Economic power. Military power. What is not to love and want about that? Especially by a people who have never tasted it?
No foreign god will be harder for Israel to resist than this. The Amorites and gigabytes are just the beginning. When Egypt and Assyria go to war, the prophets remind Israel of the covenant, insisting that faithfulness to it forbids alliances, forbids them to pick a side. We are to trust in God alone. Which sounds very churchy and wise from here. Not so much to people who could hear Assyrian horses pawing the ground and snorting. And that really is the whole thing, isn’t it? God says, “Worship me only; serve me only; depend on me only. No matter what or who is at the door. No matter what promises they are making.”
The people do their best to promise. But then, God appears to go to sleep for 400 years of slavery in Egypt and then act surprised when we humans are the teensiest bit tempted to cast our lot with the offers we can see and hear and taste and sign onto – the job with the biggest salary, the team with the biggest army, the leader who makes us feel the least afraid of the unknown future.
We know all those promises are likely to be broken. But we cast our lot all the same, simply because they are promises we can see and hear and touch, promises that more people than not around us are professing faith in too. And there’s a certain certainty in that. Three times Joshua asks them to choose whom they will serve. Three times they promise the same: The Lord our God, they say, and they mean every word – from the very bottom of their hearts – being people just like us, hoping against hope that life will never be so hard again.
Joshua knows better, even if they don’t. Three times he reminds them. Each reminder is also a warning, foreshadowing the entire story to come. Then, finally, he blessed them. Having done all he was meant to do, Joshua died. And the people’s promise became their way of life, as much as it is ours.
The Song of the Sea
Every week I feel like there are five to seven Bible texts you really need to hear to get the context for one. Just like me at the gym. My trainer feels like I need to do five to seven sets of my circuit, if I’m going to really benefit from being there. Like you, I prefer two. I’ll settle for three. But I’m not going to tolerate five or six or seven.
This week I’d have added verses from Luke 8, Colossians 1, and all of Exodus 15. Exodus 15 is The Song of the Sea (see how I’m doing it anyway), the liturgy Israel composed to memorialize the Red Sea miracle. The people’s fussing and complaining is conveniently left out of the song – appropriately so, as it is a song about God’s faithfulness, not theirs.
History becomes liturgy, the way events become stories. The liturgy is sung and sung and sung until it can be sung by heart. The singing becomes the act of faith, so that when trouble closes in again – because it surely will again – the words and tune of faith are limber, ready to be flexed again at a moment’s notice.
Let’s pray together: God of heaven and earth, God of land and sea, God of Tranquility and Terror, we never leave your reach. We are never outside your sight. Would that we might walk and breathe and work and rest inside this truth we know for sure on days this light and full of peace. Amen.
One of my neighbors has two young kids and sometimes we’ll visit on my driveway in the evening. She’ll procrastinate going home because she hates bath and bedtime. “It’s awful,” she says. “They act shocked and offended every single night, as if bedtime is something I invented that day.” Her kids are like the Hebrews on nearly every page of the Old Testament, positively shocked that God expects them to do anything they don’t want to do, something difficult or dangerous or simply unpleasant.
It’s been 400 years since Joseph. His descendant, Moses, was raised in pharaoh's palace, until he ran away – for good reason. Moses is an old man when he meets his God in the wilderness. God talks from inside a burning bush. As they talk here, God and Moses will talk to one another for the next forty years, using bushes, rods, and shepherd’s hooks, snakes and rocks and quail and plagues.
It’s the plagues that turn the story from Egypt towards promised land, from slavery towards freedom. Plagues of frogs and grasshoppers and oozy skin sores, water turned to blood, hail and darkness, and dead baby boys. It’s gross. But that’s the Bible. All of the plagues are sung about as battles between the gods – Pharaoh’s and Moses’ gods. Pharaoh finally concedes. When the Hebrew baby boys survive – Passover, remember – Pharaoh tells him they can go. They’re barely gone a month; Pharaoh reneges on the deal. He musters his entire army to go and fetch them back.
Geographically the text gets a little tricky from here. Theologically, it does not. The Hebrews are between a rock and a hard place. “Hell if I do and hell if I don’t,” my mother called it. Like the choice between being eaten by a lion and being eaten by a bear. I’d rather the lion eat the bear and leave me out of it, thank you very much. The sea to the front, Pharaoh’s army to the rear. They can drown or be cut down by the sword.
They do what people do. They panic. They cry. They blame their leadership. They fall out of formation. There’s noise. Chaos. “Were there no graves in Egypt?” they complain to Moses, which is to say, “Why didn’t you kill us before we walked all this way?” Moses does what leaders do – fathers, mothers, teachers, platoon sergeants. He yells at them to “SHUT UP!”
But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again.” And in saying so, Moses does what? He makes promises he has no way of keeping at the time he’s making them. He speaks for God before God has spoken to him, about this particular problem anyway. What’s Moses’ aim, do you think? I think he wants them to calm down. Nothing good is born of panic. We’re not our best selves during panic. Nonsense makes sense when we’re panicked.
Back when my paramedic sister rode an ambulance, she’d tell me such nonsense. Like the gunshot victim who fought her as she tried to start an IV – because he was terrified of needles. “You have a bullet in your gut, sir,” she had to remind him. Is Moses panicked? Maybe. We aren’t given to know how he feels. We know only what he does. What he does is, he leads as best he can. Because how we feel need not determine what we do. I appreciate that about him.
God, apparently, not so much. Moses offers this encouragement to the people, to which God responds, with kind of an exasperated tone (to my mind), “Why are you stopping? Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go!”
A clown followed four-year-old Mariah into a room at a birthday party once. When she turned around and saw him, she literally ran up her daddy’s body like a squirrel up a tree. There’s no mystery why kids are scared of clowns. Clowns are terrifying. Being trapped between a sword and the sea is terrifying, as Syrian women and children on the beaches of Turkey today know better than us.
And it seems awfully privileged of God to ask, “why are you stopping?” assuming God has the advantage, the privilege, of being able to see well beyond the border of that moment. A similar biblical moment comes to mind from Luke chapter 8. Jesus and his disciples are in a boat crossing the sea of Galilee. Jesus falls asleep and a storm comes up. The disciples are sure they’ll die. Just like the Hebrews, they blame their leader for not caring if they die. Jesus wakes up, looks around and responds much the same as in Exodus, “For God’s sake, what are you are so afraid of?” As if to say, it’s just a little storm. It’s just a little water; it’s just death by drowning. You act like dying is the worst that might happen to you. What are you so afraid of?
Only that’s not what he says in Luke. He says, why are you so afraid? in Mark. In Luke he says, where is your faith? And it’s so, so easy to rush to verse 16, to the miracle, to consider too lightly that God is instructing Moses to instruct these people, tens or hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children to flex the faith (which they’ve just put on, remember), to step into the water and keep walking no matter what, knowing full well that as their feet sink in the sand, the sword is gaining on them.
Again, how does this fit the broad biblical narrative? Old Testament miracle stories are the bread and butter of American evangelical Christian nationalism. From them I learned that God always rescues us and that our enemies will inevitably recognize ours as the one true God. Extrapolated from there was the understanding that we are the one true nation, the one true people called and blessed to lead the world. And being the one true and faithful people, we can depend on God in any given situation in which we are trapped between any given sword and sea, any particular crisis, to be miraculously evacuated to the safety reserved for God‘s chosen people.
Long before that was the American narrative, it was Israel’s narrative until exile. It was Israel’s narrative in the days of David. But this story took its final shape in exile. And exile shadows every story that leads to it. Even the people telling the story know that God with us does not mean God delivers us from every earthly toil and trouble, that God with us does not mean we shall not taste death.
You’ve read the story. How many of them died in the wilderness? Every single one of them. As will all of us. In this chapter, they believe themselves free of Egypt only to find out they weren’t free of Pharaoh. They got free of Pharaoh and his army to discover, just two chapters later, they are not free of starvation. Right after the Song of the Sea, they’re begging to go back to slavery. Slavery to the very people who just chased them with swords. Only they don’t call it slavery, do they? They call it sitting around the fleshpots of Egypt feasting on cucumbers and melons and fish.
Friends, over and over and over again, we will take the slavery we know over the trouble we don’t. Forgetting the gospel we knew for sure yesterday, last week, last year. The event and person of Jesus has taken away every cause for fear. Death holds no threat over us. The exile may shadow the Old Testament. The cross shadows the whole story, from Genesis forward. We live ever in that shadow.
Jesus appeared caught between capitulation to Empire and certain death. Momentarily, but only momentarily, he prays for a third option. It doesn’t come. He doesn’t panic. He rises. And we will too. So we need not panic either.
Jesus rose and we will too. He rose from that prayer and moved, calmly, fearlessly, pur- posefully, intentionally, in the direction of death, so that we can too – seeing, believing and knowing that death at the hands of this world is hardly the worst thing, hardly some- thing worth panicking over. After all, we live these lives and our life together in the shadow of the cross, from whence we know that death is barely the beginning.
Would you pray with me?
Suppose She’s Telling the Truth
To this text, I've three questions: What if Potiphar is a good guy? What if we remember what we know about how history gets written? What about Jesus' example regarding where to stand when it comes to justice?
From the text, I've two conclusions: The only truth I will ever know for sure is my own; likewise you and your truth. Forgiveness is not the same as justice; and justice matters, too.
Let's pray: “Open our eyes and ears that we may see and hear the truth, O God,” may be the hardest prayer of all to pray, O God. For fear of all the truth might show and tell us about our own lives. For the wrongness of our thinking and believing. For the depth of our need to feel safe inside that thinking. Give us courage for praying and then for receiving what we've prayed for, trusting you are with us in the light as well as in the dark. Amen.
In my own defense, and for the record, this sermon is no Saturday night special. I picked this text months ago, having no idea it would be all over the news this week – an allegation of sexual assault in the highest realms of government. I could have gone with the Matthew text, but it is hardly easier. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely.” Both demand faithfulness in a world full of liars. And if only that were the only problem! The greater problem lies in that the world rewards NOT whoever tells the truth but whoever lies the best.
To refresh your memory on Joseph: he's the second youngest of Jacob's twelve sons – the brat, remember. The one Jacob loved the most. The one Jacob went and had a special coat made for. The brother who dreamed that he was king and all his brothers bowed down to him like slaves. He loved to tell them about his dreams. So they decided to kill him and take his pretty coat. But at the last minute they got the chance to sell him to slave traders. So they dipped the coat in goat's blood and took it to their father as proof that Joseph was dead. The traders carried 17-year-old Joseph to Egypt and sold him to an official in Pharaoh's cabinet, a man named Potiphar.
By conventional interpretation, Joseph can do no wrong. I still think he's a brat – maybe because I had a baby brother. “Prince Tony” we called him. Only boy. First boy on my dad's whole side of the family. Our only boy cousin was also the youngest after three girls. Both those boys hung the stars and the moon, in our grandpa's eyes. If he'd told us dreams like Joseph did, we'd have beaten him up daily. And he would have deserved it.
Brat or prince – there's no rule that says he can't be both! Joseph serves a purpose in the larger narrative. He gets the Hebrews into Egypt, so they can get out again, 400 and some years later. Israel isn't Israel without the Exodus. Without Passover. Without the story of how God is with us and we are chosen – even without the Promised Land. How the covenant is still covenant even without the guarantee of place. How covenant is written not onto stone but upon the human heart. Joseph’s purpose persists, however faulty his delivery of it at times.
Potiphar's wife is an episode like so many in a typical hero narrative. Overcoming hurdles and hardships as proof of his unyielding faith in his purpose. In Joseph's case, the purpose is God. In that rendering the woman is the antagonist – the hurdle, if you will. The temptation to be overcome in order to prove faith once again. Joseph passes the test, with flying colors, even. And we can all relax. The truth as we've heard it and known it stays perfectly in place. At least until someone comes along years later and says, “Wait, you don’t know the whole story about that guy.”
Getting folks worked up over something that “wasn't even a problem” before. How many times, back in Arkansas in the 80’s and 90’s, did I hear it said at family gatherings, “We didn’t have no race relation problems till that Dr. King started stirring things up.” Preachers! They are the troublemakers. Believe me, I don’t disagree. In that case, read the story and pretend you’re not at church. Does anything at all seem just a little off? Is there anything that doesn't sit quite right?
I have SO many questions – three of which I'm posing here. First: what if Potiphar was a good guy? What suggests he might have been? He believes his wife. He believes her, and he takes immediate steps to protect her. Maybe she's lying. But he assumes she's telling the truth. He acts like a good husband BEFORE he acts as a good servant of Pharaoh. Working for Pharaoh is not the same as working for Michael McRobbie. All Dr. McRobbie can do is fire you. Pharaoh can KILL you. That Potiphar believes her may or may not mean anything about her character, but it means something about his. He may be Egyptian – the enemy in the narrative – but we cannot dismiss him as without values, values that we share. He loves his family and takes risks to protect it.
The second question: what do we know about how history gets written? It is written by people deeply invested in how history gets remembered. American history written by white Americans looks very different from American history written by Native Ameri- cans. Why? Because they are very different stories. The same war in our history goes by two very different names: “The Civil War” and “The War of Northern Aggression.” Even battles fought at the same place have different names. Antietam – or what? The Battle of Sharpsburg, fought in 1862 in Sharpsburg, Maryland.
The only account we have of Potiphar's wife and Joseph is whose? The people dedicated to the hero narrative of Joseph. The same people who found it possible to bless rascals like Jacob, and David, and so many others. And remembering how history gets written, I can't help but wonder for a moment, how might Potiphar's wife have told it? We don't even get to know her name. But just suppose, just for minute, that when she told her husband what happened to her, just suppose she was telling the truth.
Christendom doesn’t hang on the answer. We are just walking around inside the text for a minute. I know it feels itchy. But it’s okay. It’s not a sin to ask questions of the Scrip- ture just because we haven’t asked them before. The strongest evidence to me is what I've said already: her husband believed her. He believed her at great risk to himself. Secondly, if she’s telling the truth, the story that was concocted and that survived is the same cover story for sexual misconduct that is almost always told: “It was the woman's fault. She seduced me.” Friends, I’ve heard a nine-year-old be blamed. A nine-year-old!
Be they teachers and students, bosses and employees, doctors and nurses, pastors and congregants, pastors and staff, the details vary but rarely the plot. When it comes to sex, women are a threat and men are weak. It’s not true in either case, but it is still the plot we believe most readily. The plot with which we feel safest. Not Potiphar obviously, just everyone else.
The third bit of evidence: Joseph's own telling. Listen to his own words in verses 8-9, refuting her seduction: “my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my hand. 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?” Joseph appears to believe that Potiphar is his equal; the man who bought him from slave traders is his equal. It rings of his bragging about his brothers bowing down and foreshadows the torture he will put them through later. He is not greater in this house than I am. Yes, Joseph, he is! A fact made most plain when Potiphar threw him in prison once his wife told her side of the story.
But Joseph apparently goes about his business believing this is his house and his staff to do with as he pleases. With one exception. He is not greater in this house than I am nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself. Now, I could be reading stuff into the text at this point, but it sounds to me like he's thought about it. I can have anything in this house I want except you. Does that ring of anything else you recall from Genesis? We can eat off all the trees in this garden except this one.
Her husband believes her. The cover story isn’t even original. Joseph appears to have considered it. Is that enough evidence to prove she's telling the truth? No. Is it enough to make me doubt him? Absolutely. And enough to remind me that any history has more than one side that must be heard if the truth is to be known.
The last question the text brings to me this morning: what about Jesus' example when it comes to justice; in particular, with whom are we called to stand? The New Testament list includes, but is not limited to: the poor, the grieving, the hungry, the thirsty, the widow, the orphan, the refugee, the prisoner, the abused, the oppressed, the marginalized, the enslaved. In a word, the powerless. In any given contest, the followers of Jesus join the weakest team. Not because we intend to win; not because we insist on being right; but because we choose to imitate the Christ, and weakness was the path he chose – humili- ation before the powers of this world.
In his contest, Jesus’s opponents and his friends were liars, every single one of them, from the Temple to the Praetorium. And he did not correct them. He let them lie their pants off and never said a word. Because – and this is what holds my own heart fast – no lie lives forever. Jesus said over and over again, My time has not yet come. And when his time finally came, he said all he had to say in rising from the grave.
His rising says that every lie and every death ever buried in the past will not stay there forever! You shall know the truth, Jesus told this world, and the truth will set you free. Each and every one of you. If not in this world, well then, in the next.
Which brings me to my two conclusions. They are brief. One: this side of heaven, the only truth that I will ever know for sure is my own, and I can make peace with that or not. I know what I have done, and I know what's been done to me. It’s mine to tell or mine to keep, as I choose. Others have their side to tell, and people will believe whatever they choose to believe. The same for you and yours. This side of heaven you may be the only person to believe what you know is true – what you have done, what has been done to you. And it is up to you to make peace with that. Maybe someone stole your child- hood. Maybe someone stole your trust. But they cannot steal your peace, because your peace was never in them anyway. Our peace is in Christ alone.
Conclusion number two: whatever stories your past contains – stories of being mistreated, stories of mistreating others – God has already forgiven you. That is the gospel truth. There is freedom in God's grace. And in that freedom there is courage. And because of that courage there can be justice. Because forgiveness is not the same as justice, and justice matters too. And without justice, this side of heaven, we cannot begin to taste the peace God means for us to have.
It’s not a buttoned-up, let’s-pretend-everything’s-okay, nervous, anxious peace that falls apart, depending on what’s on the news, but rather peace that is deep and abiding, that draws in everything I’ve ever done and has been done to me. And it all sits sweetly in one place, without condemnation, shame or fear. Just peace. And we deserve to be at peace. God means for us to be at peace. For our own joy this side of heaven, and so we can bring that peace to others. The hard part: peace lives on the other side of truth. Truth desired. Truth confronted. Truth told and listened to and heard.
God is bigger, stronger, and more merciful than any lie any human ever told. Than any secret any human ever kept. Either what you did or what was done to you. We can tell the Lord. And the Lord will help us make it right. Will you pray with me?
That we don't have to live the way this world lives, O God, we are grateful. That our lives not be a constant balance of secrets and lies, O God, for the courage to be different, to trust you and one another with the truth, we pray. And for the faith and focus it takes in this world right now, O God, to use our privilege to stand with the most powerless among us, for this we pray. Amen.