Based on Genesis 37 & 39
I wonder how many of you have Andrew Lloyd Webber’s soundtrack of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat running through your head after opening my email yesterday about what the theme for worship would be today. One of the songs stuck in my head is –
Go, go go Joseph, you know what they say Hang on now, Joseph,
you’ll make it some day Don’t give up, Joseph, fight till you drop
We’ve read the book, and you come out on top.
But we aren’t quite to the end of the story, where Joseph comes out on top, so the more appropriate song for today’s worship is the one with the words:
Close every door to me, Hide all the world from me
Bar all the windows And shut out the light
Do what you want with me, Hate me and laugh at me
Darken my daytime And torture my night
If my life were important I would ask will I live or die
but I know the answers lie far from this world
In chapter 39, Joseph is in prison, without a much hope of ever seeing his family again, let alone see any of his dreams come to pass. How did he end up in what the Psalmist calls the pit of despair?
We meet Joseph, at the age of 17, the 11th son and favorite child of his father Jacob, now called Israel. It’s a recurring theme in the book of Genesis – of the younger son being favored, ultimately creating a fair bit of family dysfunction and family strife. You would think Jacob would learn from his own life experience that playing favorites only wreaks havoc in the family. If you ever see a therapist, one of the things they most likely will want to know is about your family of origin – to begin to see how the ways of growing up in your particular family impacted your life – how to be grateful for the healthy aspects, and how to notice and not repeat some of the more dysfunctional ones. But people don’t always learn from history and seem destined to repeat it. Certainly that was the case with Jacob repeating the error of favoring one son over another, symbolized by gifting Joseph with a special robe. Today we refer to it as the “the coat of many colors” because that’s what the KJV decided to call it. But the Hebrew refers to it as an ornamented coat with long sleeves. Apparently sleeves were a big deal back then – like Anne of Green Gables and her puffed sleeve obsession. It appears Joseph flaunted his robe, but when he started having dreams about the future of a different distribution of power within his family, with his brothers all bowing down, subservient to Joseph, it infuriated the brothers.
“They could no longer bring themselves to say ‘shalom’ or speak peaceably to him.” They conspired to kill Joseph. Reuben, took pity, and convince his brothers to throw Joseph into a pit instead — most likely a dry cistern – planning to come back later to save him. This is the first of several literal and spiritual descents Joseph will make into the pit. Instead of leaving him in the pit, the brothers devise a plan to profit off of Joseph—they lift him out of the pit and sell him to some merchants passing by.
When you think about the word pit, what connotation do you give it. Do you conjure up any positive thoughts about the word pit? When the Psalmist refers to the pit, it’s not necessarily a good thing.
Psalm 88 – You have put me in the lowest pit, In dark places, in the depths.
Men of bloodshed and deceit will not live out half their days.
But I will trust in You.
Psalm 103 –Who redeems your life from the pit,
Who crowns you with lovingkindness & compassion
Psalm 143 – Answer me quickly, O Lord, my spirit fails;
Do not hide Your face from me,
Or I will become like those who go down to the pit.
Jonah 2 “I descended to the roots of the mountains.
The earth with its bars was around me forever,
But You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God.
Lamentations 3 – They have silenced me in the pit & have placed a stone on me. Waters flowed over my head; I said, “I am cut off!”
I called on Your name, O Lord, Out of the lowest pit.
It’s hard to say what the low point of Joseph’s life was: the betrayal of his murderous brothers throwing him in the pit; dipping his robe in goat’s blood to deceive their father into thinking he was mauled by an animal; being sold into slavery; or being cast into an Egyptian prison, after being falsely accused of attempted rape by Potiphar’s wife. Joseph’s life was “the pits.” So much for his dreams.
COVID-19 is causing a few people to be in what the Psalmist calls “mired in the pit” or feeling a bit low, off-balance. Last week during our fellowship time after worship, there were a number of people who shared feeling a bit unmoored, untethered, sad, trying to hold on to hope. A number of people, on any given day, may feel they have lost their bearings in 2020 and may feel a bit mired in the pit.
Even former first lady Michelle Obama recently revealed that because of the pandemic and racial injustice in the US, she has been experiencing low-grade depression. To be so candid about her mental health is significant, as it helps normalize the fact that anyone can struggle. According to CNN on August 6th, the pandemic has turned life upside down, with people losing jobs, parents worried about how they will manage their kids at home and stay sane in a virtual learning environment. According to a survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 1 in 3 adults report symptoms of anxiety or depression. I would anticipate that 1 in 3, while it seems high, is probably understated.
We have all experienced thwarted dreams and plans this year. I imagine a few of you bought a 2020 journal and actually wrote in it on January 1st – setting an intention for what this new year would bring and how you felt God leading you this year. But on approximately the 60th day of the year of our Lord 2020, our lives changed. It was February 29th – leap day of leap year – when reports were coming out of LifeCare Center in Kirkland. The very next day in worship we began changing how we would interact with each other at church, how we would receive communion. That was short-lived. Later that month schools closed, we were worshiping at home, with plans and vacations cancelled. It’s all 2020 hindsight now.
While in the pit in prison Joseph had time for reflection in a refining process of humility and suffering, where God was working God’s purposes out and growing Joseph’s interior spirituality. He was being spiritually formed. Perhaps in this season, in this chapter in our lives, we too, can turn to reflection, to allow God’s refining process in being spiritually formed. There are a few verses in the Bible that I love to wrestle with, but I also acknowledge the truth in them. One is from ROMANS 5.
We gladly suffer, because we know that suffering helps us to endure. And endurance builds character, which gives us a hope that will never disappoint us. I’m not quite sure of the “gladly suffer” part, and I definitely think I have enough character. While I don’t think suffering in itself is a good thing, or ordained by God, it can strengthen us for the journey and give us hope for the future.
Many of you know the name Viktor Frankl – he was a victim of the Nazis, and spent time in various concentration camps during the Holocaust. Frankl used his training as a psychiatrist, and observed in the camps that one of the primary tools of survival was a sense of hope—that something worth living for awaited them on the other side of imprisonment. Frankl miraculously survived, and would go on to develop his theory more fully in Man’s Search for Meaning.
And so we turn to the Psalmist again where he talks about the pit in Psalm 40 –
I waited patiently for the LORD; And God inclined to me and heard my cry. God brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay, And set my feet upon a rock making my footsteps firm. God put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.
The African American Lectionary in 2008 contained these words:
Dreams don’t happen overnight; there are many midnights to endure. Joseph had to wait and watch. We still wait and watch for racism and other forms of discrimination to be eradicated. We still wait for a restructuring of the prison system where a disproportionate number of African American men reside compared to other ethnic groups. We still wait for peace on our streets rather than insane violence. We still wait for affordable healthcare. We still wait for the same quality of educational resources for inner city children as for other children. We still wait, even though it isn’t easy. But even as we wait, we hold to God’s unchanging hand and sing in the words of the South African freedom song, “Freedom is coming.”
How do we move beyond betrayal and deception in our families or our government? How do we hold on to hope and wait patiently for God to bring us out of whatever pit we might experience? Both the Bible and Viktor Frankl invite us to hold on to hope. Joseph was living between the pit & the promise. We can too. And recognize that we are not alone. The Andrew Lloyd Webber song ends like this.
Close every door to me, Keep those I love from me
but Children of Israel Are never alone
For I know I shall find My own peace of mind
For I have been promised A land of my own
Last fall, way back in the day when we were allowed to meet in person for worship, I asked Angie to video the choir singing an anthem. It’s raw footage of who we are as a faith community, and God’s continued message that
“We are Never Alone, for God is with us, God will make us strong. We will press on For God is with us Through all our days We are never alone”