Jeremiah was a prophet. And he never had a good friend his whole life. No one understood a single word he said and, in the end, he drank the same bitter wine drunk by everyone else in Judah: the bitter wine of exile. Wine fermented by the deep conviction that hearing the truth was the same as doing the truth, the conviction that our covenant promises can be faithfully ignored while God keeps God's, regardless – because that's who God is.
With Jeremiah, we've come close to the end of the Old Testament narrative. Babylon is crushing Assyria everywhere. Egypt wants Judah in place as a buffer on her northern border between herself and Babylon. Both Egypt and Babylon offer alliance with Judah, and the successive kings of Judah tease them each in turn, until Babylon has had enough. They invade. They occupy. The deportations begin in 598 BCE.
Jeremiah escapes into Egypt, which is exile all the same. Eleven years later, there's nothing left of Judah politically. The Temple is destroyed and the last deportations occur. All the while, Jeremiah is preaching repentance. Because no matter how late the hour, the truth is still the truth, even when conducted by kings and presidents. Repentance is theological work. Foreign alliance may or may not have been bad politics. It was terrible theology.
Judah made her alliance centuries before, in the wilderness promises of covenant. Promises summed up by the prophet Micah as “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly.” But as Israel grew in power and in wealth – became an empire in her own right – that theology morphed into another, one that said “we can do what we want, since God can't help loving us most,” despite all prophetic preaching to the contrary. Then other empires grew ever bigger, ever stronger, and these biblical people found a way to align themselves with empire values and still keep their theology – at least the part about being God's favorite people, about God's dedication to their personal well-being and safety.
They kept this theology, even as Israel collapsed to Assyria, even as Babylon breathed down her neck in pursuit of Egypt. Along came the next prophet Jeremiah, preaching into the wind, because no matter how late the hour, the truth is still the truth. Your presence in the Lord's house does not qualify as obedience to covenant, he said. Don't oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow; don't shed innocent blood in this place; don't go after other gods.
Who is he describing? He's describing every worldly empire everywhere. And Judah too, if they choose to make alliance. Their values will be yours, Jeremiah says. You don't get their protection without their reputation too. The blood they shed is on your hands as well. The prophet continues, You stand here, trusting in deceptive words, to no good end. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, lie, pledge allegiance to idols?
Is there any line you won’t cross? seems to be his question. Then come back in here, stand before me, in my house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’ – only go leave again and keep doing the very same things? Has this house become a den of robbers? (That should sound familiar to you!) You do know I can see everything you're doing, right? says the Lord, in the voice of Jeremiah.
The tricky part, of course, is that no one thought they themselves were doing anything wrong. Such is the nature of systemic injustice, systemic evil. Everybody feels personally innocent. Or, at least, nobody feels personally responsible. And great is the temptation, of course, to compare the times, to note how so-called biblical people in our own day bow down to empires, after kings and presidents who promise to keep us safe, no matter the price in terms of justice, kindness and humility, the things we know God requires of us.
And yet, I'm more and more convinced that faithfulness to the gospel is not concerned with how others ought to live, but how I choose to live. And how I live begins and persists with how I pray. And by pray, I merely mean, live inside my own heart, and soul, and head. Which is no small thing. And I keep wishing it came down to something other than this, other than each of us getting our own hearts/heads/souls right with God.
But if I skip that, I am ever-so-slowly coming to understand, nothing works. The longer I listen to myself pray those lists of things I'm always praying – the list of things I'm grateful for; the list of things I think I need, for myself, for others, for the world; and the list of things that grieve me and give me cause for fear – the longer I hear myself praying these three prayers, the more clear it becomes to me how innocent I believe I am when I’m not praying. The sense that this is MY life. That MY life is in some way removed from the flow of all life and every other life. The more it’s clear to me that the great pretense of my life is that all our destinies are not wrapped up together when, in truth, they are. The world does not go to hell in a handbasket and the church NOT go with it, simply because we think we are safe.
Jeremiah knew what was true and right. He knew what was wrong with Israel and Judah. But knowing did not save him from their same fate, any more than knowing will save us, if we are wise enough to know. Which I am certainly not.
Real prayer isn't political. It isn't knowing who is right and what the right course of action is. Real prayer is remembering where our alliance lies, so that our faith and hope can be rightly placed and our lives directed, not by the values of empire, but by the values of covenant: justice, kindness, humility. In prayer I put myself – heart, soul and head – before God alone, and stay there unafraid of whatever is at the gate or border of my country or my heart, unswayed by the empires or the personal promise-makers who beg for my allegiance as if they can protect me from the destiny of forgetful people or my own failing faith.
Those first Bible people used the word chosen-ness to describe God’s favor upon them. We Jesus people use the word grace. God's grace is what gathers us together; grace is that to which we sing and speak and testify. Grace is not most visible in here, but out there where we walk and talk, where we spend our money and take our stand.
Grace is first of all theological. It says the allegiances offered by the empires of this world are too little too late for humanity now. That what's needed, most of all and all the time, is justice, kindness, and humility. Covenant-keeping in quotidian scale. Daily justice. Daily kindness. Humility through and through. Discovered first and always in the quietness of prayer. Continuing here and now.
Pray with me.
When it seems like my sermons are long, I want you to remember that we have covered nearly the entire Old Testament narrative Genesis‒Chronicles in 8 weeks.
Israel is now split into two kingdoms: the northern, whose capital was Samaria; and the southern, also called Judah, whose capital was Jerusalem. One hundred more years have passed since the time of Elisha, the prophet in our story last week. Elisha was a preacher in the northern kingdom, still called Israel.
Micah was a prophet in the south, as was Isaiah; only, Isaiah was a headliner prophet, working out of Jerusalem. Isaiah had the ear of the king, as well as religious authorities. Micah was a small-town preacher from Bethlehem. He and Isaiah agreed on a few things: that Jerusalem was wildly corrupt, for one thing, in danger of being destroyed by the Assyrians. The northern kingdom has collapsed, been razed, and swept into Assyrian territory. Judah is merely occupied, functioning at the benevolence of the Assyrian king. However, Micah is less optimistic than Isaiah. More likely, he's an independent-contractor-kind-of preacher, less beholden to king or congregation, so he speaks more freely.
He's of the mind that Jerusalem is as doomed as Samaria, Judah as doomed as Israel. Not hard to see why he didn't have a job. Micah's pitch was that Judah's hope lay not in avoiding defeat, but rather in persisting in faith when defeat inevitably comes. Someday a new king will rise, he says. From the little town of Bethlehem. And his kingdom shall be different, not like any king or kingdom ever seen before.
Christians like us attach Jesus to that prophecy and mostly ignore the rest – at least the parts about disobedience and defeat and suffering. Maybe we do that because the defeat of Judah didn’t happen for almost 200 more years, and to us that's a really long time. But 200 years is only about two inches on a Bible page, a speck in the history of time. Nevertheless, we each only have this one life in which to do our part. One life with which to listen to Micah and to choose to hear or to ignore him, to admit that we do know what God requires – justice, kindness, humility – and that we are capable of all three, or to keep pretending that the principalities and powers of this world are somehow magically going to transform a dumpster fire into something other than a holocaust.
Let's pray: We wish you wanted something more exciting, O God, than our daily trust in you. We wish to do great works for you,to change the world for you, to be a great church for you. We pray for wisdom to listen to what you have already said, to do what we already know to do. Amen.
"National theology" is a term I first found in John Bright's book on the history of Israel. Others use it as well. National theology, in ancient Israel's case, was a geopolitical- religious identity of chosen-ness – a belief that God was on Israel’s side in every situation – that was thought to be natural to the very order of creation itself. Inasmuch as God made the heavens and the earth, God favored Israel. By God's own nature, God would preserve Israel in all circumstances. It was who God was. National theology, rooted in David instead of Moses, in monarchy instead of relationship, had no element of covenant. People could behave as they pleased, and God would replace bad kings as God saw fit.
The prophets pointed out the problems in this perversion of faith, faith in a government that impoverished and oppressed its people in order to expand territory, enrich the monarchy, then fund the troops needed to defend those lands and riches. Making alliances with enemies, while provoking division within. A clergy that sucked up to that government to their own benefit, leaving worship polluted and the truth untold.
All these things the prophets were warning Israel and Judah about, long before Micah. Reminding the kings and clergy and people of the conditions of covenant, in sermons nobody much listened to. Then, what was supposed to be impossible, happened. Assyria annihilated the northern kingdom, Israel. It jerked a knot in the tail of that national theology.
You might think Judah would take a new listen to the prophets. You'd be wrong. Remember what Jesus said about that: “A prophet gets no hearing in his hometown.” John Bright says there are two choices for die-hard nationalists (by the way, Bright wrote this in the 1950's). The first choice is fanatical confidence in a failing theology. There is no challenge too difficult, no mountain too high, no battle too fierce; just like when David struck down Goliath, God will forever be on our side too.
King Hezekiah fits this to a T. He was king during Micah's preaching career. He was determined to reform Judah, to restore the two kingdoms, even. He staged rebellions against Assyria, even rebuilding parts of Jerusalem's waterways in the event of a siege. All his rebellions failed, and Jerusalem was besieged, of course, with Hezekiah trapped there like a bird in a cage, the Bible says. What in the world made him think he'd win that? A detailed story shaped over long history – of God's providence, no matter what.
The second choice Bright calls, simply, cowardly faith: faith led, guided, and directed by fear. Hezekiah's son, Manasseh, is a study in the cowardly faith approach. When his father died, Manasseh couldn't kiss Assyria's foot fast enough. He undid every Hezekiah reform, and Judah survived as vassals until Assyria fell to Babylon. And in the midst of governments and religion, boomeranging from one form of nationalism to another, there are the prophets. There is Micah. We might hear him. But his people then could not. Because they would not.
From chapter 6, Oh my people, what I have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! You remember this, right? We read it every year. It's the liturgy of reproach which we read on Good Friday. For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, And redeemed you from the house of slavery. A litany of God's saving acts in the time of covenant.
Micah speaks for God, begging to know why the people have forgotten, why they have chosen to treat God this way. Then he turns, Micah does, praying on behalf of people who have not asked him to, “With what shall I come before the Lord?” Micah mocks their cynicism: Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
If Micah mocks them, it is because they have mocked God. And why might they do that? – because people are terrible? Yes. But also, people are generally the most terrible when they are the most afraid. And I can see why rank and file Judeans might have been afraid. There was no good news from the north, from Israel. None from Jerusalem. Leaders who were supposed to know what to do, clearly did not. Every day was a new dumpster fire, if you will.
In that space, Micah delivers the sermon for which he's remembered: God has already told you, O People, what is good and what the Lord requires. To do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with God. It does make a lovely cross-stitch, a nice painted plaque or bulletin cover. But really, as an alternative way of life to Empire? As a way of life in times like these?
Anyone else feel like things are just a little extra crazy lately? I read the news and think, “Is this The Onion? No. This is really happening.” With the Bible open on my lap, I find this text and wonder, Am I supposed to believe that justice, kindness, and humility are the alternative to. . . democracy? And friends, here’s the thing. If we’re going to compare the times, we have to admit that our empire is NOT Israel. We are Assyria, running roughshod over the little places of the world, taking what we want because we want it and we can, then needing bigger armies to defend it all.
Justice, kindness, and humility? Really? To which I hear Micah responding, Why are you asking questions you already know the answer to? Is it because you don't like the answer and are hoping for another? That's usually why we keep praying, don't you know? God hardly ever strays out of these three lanes: justice, kindness, humility. But these three don’t much suit our ego, do they? Imagining that the things God really wants are those ten thousand rivers of oil? How famous would we be if we gave that? And since we can't, well then, we're off the hook.
It's easier to pretend God wants what we can't give than to accept that God wants what we have: our breath, our will, our privilege, along with whatever influence and energy and resources are therein. God wants those things willingly given to God's purposes. Because God made us and keeps us, because God knows what's best for us. And when we let ourselves know the truth that we know, friends, we know that trusting in empires is a fool's game. You know that, right? Every empire from Egypt until now has the same things in common: they are self-indulgent, abusive, and arrogant; and none of them has ever lasted.
We are citizens of an empire, an empire no less self-indulgent, abusive or arrogant than any which came before. An empire that will not last forever. Does it scare you to think that? Or make you angry to be asked to think that? In empire years, ours is a baby. So maybe it will be around a long time. But back to the question. Am I seriously suggesting that justice, kindness, and humility are the alternative to Empire? I think Micah is. I think the whole Bible does. I think Jesus does, when disciples shake him awake in terror on that boat in the storm, and he says, what are you so afraid of? As if there's nothing in this world we can't lose and be okay without.
Chosen-ness, biblical chosen-ness, always exists as an alternative to Empire. (Walter Brueggemann said that.) What it means to me, is that we can either consider ourselves God's chosen people, or we can consider ourselves an empire. But we cannot, biblically, faithfully, be both. One must trump the other, because the rules are simply too different. Empire demands selfishness, cynicism, and pride. Armies, money, leadership, alliances. Aggression, coercion, and power. Unyielding power. And faith in the power of men and women to save humanity. And friends, the best of us are not interested in saving all of us. Only God cares for such a project as that.
God’s project operates on justice, kindness, and humility. They are so little and undramatic. So quotidian, if you will. Do you know that word? It means daily and never done. And, most of all, ordinary. Like laundry and dirty dishes. No one anywhere imagines laundry done once and for all. My laundry will be done when I'm dead, and probably there will still be a load waiting to go into the dryer. We can do justice, kindness, and humility all day today and have just as much to do tomorrow and the day after. Because tomorrow will have its own set of human beings in need of all three.
Micah was a small-town preacher from Bethlehem. Like King David. And Jesus. Between them, actually. A lovely preacher, though virtually ignored in his own time and place. The essence of his preaching was hope. Quotidian hope. Hope re-centered in little-ness. In the ordinary, in the everyday lives of people who know God made us and saved and sustains us. Hope re-centered away from Empire, away from government and religion.
Both are corrupt beyond redemption, Micah was not afraid to say. He said that the only hope his country had left lay in whether or not ordinary, god-fearing people would choose to do what they already knew God wanted them to do. Would you pray with me?
Naaman was a foreigner – and Syrian at that. Syrian, mind you. He was general of the army of Syria, called Aram in the story. Naaman's Aramean army had recently crushed Israel and carried young girls away as slaves, one of whom lived in Naaman's own house. Today we call such men – what? Syrian militants who attack other countries and enslave their citizens? Terrorists, right? We call them terrorists.
Not the Bible, though. The Bible's adjective for Naaman the foreigner is “highly favored of the Lord.” The Bible says it was the Lord who gave him the victory in battle, battle against Israel whose children were captured and enslaved. Friends, I cannot say the Bible has an answer for every question of our lives. But one thing I know for sure: there are more lessons here than we can learn in one lifetime.
Would you pray with me? How you, O God, manage to teach redemption out of violence and war is a mystery to us. And yet, our own hearts are neither free nor clean. We covet. We wish harm upon our enemies. We need much faith if we are to let ourselves know the truth of our own fear and weakness. Let us read and hear your word with faith, we pray. Amen.
How rarely I open my commentary on 2nd Kings became clear from a note I found there, dated July 14th, 1998. “Annette, congrats on being officially voted in. That made me very happy. I'm leaving for a 5-day vacation so I won't be there Wednesday or Sunday. Rob D. already knows I won't be there Sunday. Also, here are the ushers for Sunday: Andy C., Michael U., Alisa T. Andy and Michael will find a 4th person, perhaps Mitchell, and Andy has the notes I made about what needs to happen. I think they'll do a great job. See you next week. Greg.”
The church knows something of the healing of Naaman – more from Luke, chapter 4, than from 2nd Kings, chapter 5. Jesus' mention of it made his hometown congregation so angry they tried to throw him off a cliff – on the same day they praised his parents for what a good son they'd raised. They tried to kill him, simply for pointing out that God chose to heal a Syrian leper rather than a Jewish one.
How afraid does a people have to be, to get so worked up over the idea of God being kind to foreigners? There's the story-you-know; today is the story-we-don't-know, the story of Gehazi. Gehazi isn't a foreigner. He's Jewish – and religious. A prophet in training. An assistant pastor, we might call him in church. In the service of Elisha, 2nd Kings says, as Samuel had been to Eli once upon a time.
Naaman is headed home from Israel now, healed both of leprosy and his arrogance. He professes faith in the God of Israel, and he promises henceforth to worship Yahweh only. Furthermore, as a symbol of his gratitude, Naaman offers Elisha a fortune: ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. Two to three million dollars to us. Every penny of which Elisha refused, as was – and is – entirely proper. The healing of God is not for sale. The grace of God is not for sale.
Instead, Naaman asks for two things. He asks for some dirt – two mule loads are enough, apparently – to take home and spread around so he can worship Yahweh on the ground where he'd first met Yahweh. Secondly, he asks for some pliancy around the interpre- tation of the first commandment. “Yes, I'm only really going to worship the God of Elisha,” he says, “but I still have to work for Aram, which means I'm going to have to pretend to worship those other gods. So, just know, really, I don't mean it.”
Naaman is gone from Elisha just long enough for Gehazi to drum up his angle on the offering Naaman mentioned. Gehazi catches up to him with an adjusted explanation. Turns out there's need for a small gift, after all – just one talent of silver and two sets of clothes. $15,000 and the clothes. Some other prophets just arrived and need to be outfitted. Can Naaman help?
Classic, I am telling ya. I've been in ministry a long time. It’s a classic, minister, sideways way of pretending their malfeasance is for the benefit of others. Naaman couldn’t be happier. He gives Gehazi double what he asked for, plus servants to carry it back – 150 pounds of silver, plus the clothes. Gehazi has his hidey hole picked out, and he's back at work before Elisha could miss him.
Of course Elisha missed him. Elisha is a prophet. We know Elisha always knows what’s going on around him. Furthermore, Elisha is Gehazi’s teacher, his mentor, his spiritual director. Elisha gives Gehazi the chance to turn this mess around. Gehazi declines. Then, Elisha sounds just like Bill C.'s grandma, when he and his brother were acting up: “I seen what you done and I know what you're up to.” Elisha goes on: the leprosy that once afflicted Naaman would now cling to Gehazi and his descendants.
The question that clings to me as the story closes is: did Naaman also know? Did Naaman also know that Gehazi was lying? Did Gehazi really fool him or did Naaman give away the treasure knowing full well he was being swindled? It's always the question, isn't it, when we're asked to help? Whether or not we help depends upon who's asking – and if we believe they're being true. Because, unlike Naaman – who felt privileged to be able to give – our own sense of privilege too often has us feeling like stakeholders, complicit in the outcome of the investment we're being asked to make.
What if Naaman knew? What if he knew and gave Gehazi twice what he asked for anyway? Does that make him crazy or faithful? And is that question “either/or”? Everyone knows, don't be like Gehazi. “Don't be like Gehazi” is a perfectly good sermon. It’s also a really good theme for a mid-career pastors' conference.
But what about “be like Naaman”? The Bible says he was God's highly favored. We first hear of him from Jesus, but it's almost as if Naaman's heard of Jesus too: the things Jesus says about giving everything you have to follow him; stories of Zacchaeus,and Jesus’s friend Mary and her perfume. “Be like Naaman,” who was healed not only of his gross skin disease but his arrogance – the arrogance with which he insulted Elisha in the beginning, that turned to gratitude that had him on his knees ready to give Elisha all he had at the end, because of what God had done for him at his baptism in the Jordan river.
“Be like Naaman,” who couldn't wait to give away his fortune to anyone who asked, apparently, regardless of their motive or their reason – as if he didn't even want it, as if it didn't much matter if he was rich or poor, or what other people did or didn't do. As if what mattered is what God had done for him.
Of the dozen sermons in this story, one runs below them all: God does as God chooses. And if we can get quiet enough to listen, the same true things stay true. Hear two of those true things:
ONE: God loves whom God loves, whether we like it or not. And however articulately we state or how deeply we believe in this world's most sacred standards of who is right or wrong or good or bad or who belongs or doesn't, we'll never pre-determine God’s preference. And if the Bible is any indicator at all, God’s preference leans to the poor, the outcast, the foreigner.
TWO: Knowing God changes people's values. Before he knew the Lord, Naaman cared deeply about his own reputation. How he was greeted mattered to him. Afterward, he bowed in gratitude to the same man. Jesus said, Give to anyone who asks. Naaman did. Was he a fool? was he a victim? or was he, simply, a very grateful, faithful man with his priorities finally in order? And if he was, what does that mean to you, a person of faith today?
Has your experience of God left you more grateful than arrogant, more generous than suspicious, and more sure than ever that God chooses and God favors whomever God chooses and favors, for God's purposes in the world today? – just like God has always done.
Would you pray with me?
Having promised certain of his enemies their blood feud would die with him, King David finally does die. But he dies a liar, because with his last breath he instructs his son Solomon to kill all those enemies. Thus, murder is King Solomon's first use of kingly power.
Solomon, you'll remember, was not natural heir to Israel's throne. Nathan the preacher and Bathsheba his mother colluded to coerce the dying David to skip over his oldest living son, Adonijah, in order to crown Solomon. So naturally, Solomon is also forced to kill Adonijah – along with others, including his father's fixer, Joab. It's ugly business, being king.
Then King Solomon lies down and dreams that he's wise and he'll be rich to boot. God says so, in his dream at least, and the church of my childhood more or less believed the same: that, based on Solomon, wisdom is the thing to ask for. Pray like you don't want wealth and power in order for God to give it to you. Those same preachers always smiled a little sideways at all of Solomon's wives and ladies. One thousand of them, the Bible says; the marriages, at least, forged for political and economic alliances, Egypt being the first. Egypt!
The Bible of my childhood was simpler. Solomon was wise and he built the temple. That's what we knew and loved about him, which only works so long as we skipped acres of scripture. Our Thursday Bible Study students never skip those chapters. One summed Solomon up this way: “the whole thing is just so smarmy” (think of The Godfather ).
And therein is the problem – the problem of finding our way as God's people, using people as our guides; the problem of confusing God with people who put God’s name on their own dreams; the problem with being more interested in the ways of kings and presidents than we are interested in the ways of God. We are inevitably forced to shave the parts off his character that don’t feed the story we need, to have the life in God we dream of for ourselves.
Then the scripture offers up a story of two mothers and their baby sons, a possible side door into the hall of justice, where God-blessed kings judge prostitutes.
Let's pray. Some days and places, more than others, O God, bear no resemblance to grace. Where hurt and hate and constant pain thrive like weeds, choking every kindness trying to take root. “How to live in hope and faith, O God?” we come asking once again. Amen.
If the story were thirty-one books later, we'd call it a parable. A parable of justice, maybe. Two women – working mothers; business partners, it appears; and housemates, along with their kids. We don't usually get this much detail about such lowly characters. Each has a newborn son. One baby died. Both claim the living son is her own.
Their dispute lands before the king himself. Are these the moments for which he dreamed of being wise? Settling such small-time cases? Is his outrageous solution some indication of his small regard for everyone involved? “We'll slice the child in two,” he says, “and give each mother half.” My brain and belly hate this story, because I've read chapter 2. King Solomon's not playing here. He’ll do it! This is the kind of king he is.
But if I try to think in parables, I can keep listening. Maybe wisdom's aim isn't fairness, but to cleave open the truth. In which case, it does. My childhood church said, essentially, all's well that ends well. Except, it isn't and it doesn't – does it? My brain feels better, but my gut still hurts. Is my gut less God-given than my brain?
At least one mama is always without her baby, and all is not well in the world. Especially if the people of God have agreed to admire a king who proposes to cleave a child in two. Who is the one who taught us in parables? And how did he teach us to hear them? What does he teach us here? When we sit long enough with this story as parable, we will realize who the hero is . . . and he is not Solomon. She is the second mother. The one who will sacrifice her own motherhood before she'll agree to cleave a child.
Solomon may dream that this is wisdom – and all of history with him. But she'll have no part of it. She doesn't change her story, but neither will she bend to evil. Life isn't “either/or” to her. So justice can't be either. And yet, amazingly, we give all the credit to the king. It's he who saved the day, according to his fans. Finally, for a parable to work, it can't be about the characters, but about the listeners. About us, about seeing the light it trips in us, seeing ourselves in that light . . . and how we need to change.
I know the second mama is the teacher, the one showing Jesus to me, reminding me:
● that to follow Christ is never to be surprised at how broken this world is;
● how badly the best of humanity is prone to act, especially from places of great power;
● that the fact that kings and presidents know what is right is no guarantee they'll do it;
● that if we are surprised to see them protect themselves at the cost of human decency, we are the foolish ones;
● that this lowly woman before a king – she is how God is in parables. God never pushes front and center, never speaks in the loudest voice. God waits on the porch and watches for us to come around;
● that the fact that Solomon was “smarmy” did not make him of no use to God – thank God, or we are all useless too.
And of his dream I will say this: he knew what a king was supposed to do. Give me, O God, an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern so many people? (my paraphrase)
But knowing right from wrong is not wisdom and neither is it justice, if there is a difference. This woman the Bible makes sure we know was a prostitute is the hero of the story. We can't unknow it once we do. We know we ought to be like her, should we ever face her choices. Justice consists of the choices we make in the midst of the terror and tragedy of this world. But justice in the daylight is hard. We're more like the other mother than we can readily admit. Fair matters to us.
If we've been broken, taken from, or offended, we are as likely as her to deny others what we don't have, rather than let mercy and goodness thrive. The difference between the two women is what Richard Rohr calls moral conversion, the difference between fairness and God's justice. Fairness means no one gets more or better than Mama Number One. Justice allows the mother of the living child to act against her own self-interest for the good of all people. That is moral conversion.
Moral conversion is critical to life in Christ. Nothing suggests it's easy. But neither does such faith ask us to pretend that evil isn't evil or that broken things aren't broken. We can hate how hard and hurtful this world is – and choose to live by love, trusting God is always there: above; below; behind; ahead – like we pray at the end of every Sunday. Let's pray now.
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?
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.
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?
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.