February 14, 2016
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Genesis 39: 6b-23
Moral Support: Faith Locked Up
You might remember the political TV drama, The West Wing. At the end of one episode, there is a poignantly touching scene. Sam Seaborn had been running for a congressional seat in California, and his old friend Toby Ziegler stepped in last-minute to help advise his campaign, but it’s not going well for Sam. Now he and Toby are sitting in a bar after a campaign stop, arguing about strategy. Sam looks accusingly at Toby and says, “I’m going to lose.” Toby says, “Yeah.” “There’s no chance of a miracle?” “No.” Sam asks Toby: “Then why are you (even) here?”
The flash of light in Toby’s eyes softens. He leans forward and says without flinching: “You’re gonna lose. And you’re gonna lose huge. They’re gonna throw rocks at you next week. And I wanted to be standing next to you when they did.” “…Really?” “Yeah.”
Such few words and such a luminous moment of turning! First Sam thought Toby had come to rescue his campaign. Then he learns that his campaign is doomed. Then he learns that Toby has come to stand next to him on the worst day — a possibility that never occurred to him until just now.
Speaking of compelling television, if you ever watch any of those court shows, you’ll notice that sometimes the plaintiff or the defendant will come into the courtroom with additional people. When this happens, it’s common for the judge to ask the litigants, “Are any of these people here as your witness, or are they just moral support?”
See moral support is different from material support. Material support means “actual” help—like money, or campaign expertise, or the evidence that will win your case. Moral support, on the other hand, is open-ended. It usually follows the word “just” as in “I’m just moral support.” Not here as a professional expert, or a voting delegate, or someone holding an official position —just moral support, so this person doesn’t have to stand up there alone. Which is enough to make you wonder: Is moral support really the best we can hope for?
And what if it is…
And what if turns out that moral support is the very activity of God…
Friends, today is the first Sunday in Lent. We remember Jesus going into the wilderness, that region between heaven and earth, life and death. This year during Lent, we remember the people whose lives are touched by the criminal justice system, a place of wilderness where most things aren’t safe and most things are strangely charged with the holy. Our Lenten worship series is called “Faith Locked Up: Letters and Stories from Behind Bars.” Today our scripture comes to us from the middle of the story of Joseph.
This is the same Joseph who has the technicolor dream coat, or the coat of many sleeves, as it’s called in Genesis. The youngest of seven brothers, Joseph is an interpreter of dreams. Which makes him a kind of wilderness expert since dreams can only happen in that place between life and death, between waking and sleeping, where most things aren’t safe and most things are holy.
What happened was that Joseph’s brothers were jealous of his favored status, so they kidnapped him and threw him in a pit, and then pulled him out of the pit and sold him into slavery. (Meanwhile, they brought the torn coat to his father as a sign that Joseph had been killed.) Joseph gets sold again, this time to an Egyptian named Potiphar, and this sets the scene for the scripture we hear today.
In today’s story, the one to blame is Potiphar’s wife. She puts on all the charm, and day after day, she tries to seduce Joseph, but he refuses her. One day, she grabs him and he pulls away leaving his coat in her hand, so she uses it to tell her household and her husband that Joseph had tried to sleep with her. Coat torn, thrown into a pit. Now Joseph’s coat is torn again, and he is thrown into prison.
At this point, it would be lovely to skip ahead a few chapters and see how things turn out for Joseph. Let’s get to the part where he’s rescued from prison and hired to interpret the dreams of the king. In just a few chapters, Joseph will reunite with his brothers and his father; a few chapters after that, his brothers will beg for his forgiveness and receive it.
If we can just get to the happy ending, then the point of today’s story can be summed up by your favorite sparkly sing-song cliche. See lemons turn into lemonade! See God has a plan! See everything happens for a reason! Really?
I don’t know about that…
Listen to verse twenty: “And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison where the king’s prisoners were confined; he remained there in prison.” Next there is a chilling silence after that verse, a whole forty days in the wilderness in between verses twenty and twenty-one….
In verse twenty, Joseph is thrown into prison, and he stays in prison, and can you even imagine. Because it’s one thing to get arrested. It’s another thing entirely to be locked up for something I didn’t do. And no one believes me.
As we know too well, this kind of wrongful incarceration still happens in our society at an alarming rate. It’s a serious problem for the public, since it could mean that a person who committed a crime is still at large. It’s a serious problem for the state, since paying restitution can be exorbitant for the government (and never enough for the accused). It’s a problem for the person who’s been arrested. A common condition for getting released on parole is that you have to express remorse for the crime. How do you do this, if you never committed the crime in the first place? How would you ever piece your life back together? Yet, people keep at it.
In verse twenty, Joseph is thrown into prison, and he stays in prison. Potiphar’s wife doesn’t come to his defense a few minutes later with an “Oh I’m so sorry. I was just kidding.” There was no processing error that will get sorted out in a few hours. Joseph is really locked up. And that’s not even the worst part. The worst part happens in the space between verse twenty and verse twenty-one. It’s the chilling silence after the door slams shut. Turns out, God is not coming to the rescue.
God who hates wrongdoing and loves justice, God who is all powerful, God will not fix this.
First, live through the door slamming shut: This is actually what is happening. Second, live through the silence after that. Live all the way through it. Please. Even though we imagine the worst; even though every possibility is disintegrating… Hold on.
Because the next thing that happens is verse twenty-one: “But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love…”
Where is God while Joseph is getting arrested? Turns out, God is too. It is God who’s getting handcuffed, God who’s fingerprints are being pressed onto the machine, all her personal effects mailed to family. It is God who is made to stand in front of the height chart on the wall. And God is standing next to you on the worst day. So go on and let them throw their rocks, we’ve got moral support from the LORD.
And I know how this sounds. The person who comes with you for moral support does not change the minds of the parole board. Bring whoever you want; there’s no kind of moral support that reverses the ruling of the judge, or that undoes the cancer diagnosis at the doctor, or that makes the viewing room of the morgue seem like a normal place.
But it might do this. When someone comes and stands next to you on the worst day, when somebody stands next to me, the possibilities for what could happen get amplified exponentially. See when I’m left alone in the silence I imagine the worst, and I start to believe it. But once somebody shows up beside me, possibilities I never imagined begin to unfold. It’s like there is hope we can’t see by ourselves, but with somebody else, we might see it together. It’s like when you believe and I believe and we together pray, the Holy Spirit must come down and set the people free.
First we see that God will not be arranging a rescue operation because look, God is in here with us. Then we see, God is in here with us, so maybe we can turn and offer this help to somebody else who’s alone in the silence. And so the chief jailer committed to Joseph’s care all the prisoners who were in the prison, and the LORD was with Joseph, and whatever he did, the LORD made it prosper.
Friends, if you know somebody who’s in distress, please don’t feel like you either have to solve their problem or there’s just nothing you can do. Please don’t feel like all we have to offer are those sparkly sing-song cliches, “Everything happens for a reason.” “I’m sure this is part of God’s plan” (Well, I’m not.)
We have something so much better to offer each other. It’s this: “Would you like me to go with you?” Or “How about I come over and sit with you for a while?” Make no mistake; those are life-saving words. This is the steadfast love of the LORD that will not leave us to rot. So even if you are in the hospital, or the king’s dungeon, or serving on church council, all of us can offer each other the very promise of God.
You are not alone. We are with you. God is with you… Now who knows what might happen? Amen.