The Lord was with Him
I struggled a bit with what to say about this week’s Bible story. Any other year, I could have liked this scene to something you would see on a nighttime cable TV drama like “House of Cards” or “The Real Housewives.” But this week, this story hits a little too close to what we see playing out not on fictional dramas but on our nightly news programs: a woman accuses a man of sexual assault. He is presumed guilty on her testimony, loses his position, and is sentenced to prison.
I was not sure whether I would even mention sexual violence and the #metoo movement when I first read this story. That is not ultimately what this story is about. But in my research this week I saw too many evangelical and Republican commentators using this story to “prove” that women who claim to be sexually assaulted cannot be trusted. They have been quick to make links between Judge Kavanaugh and Joseph; between Christine Blasey Ford (his accuser) and Potiphar’s wife. In the most extreme cases, these commentators even argued that women who accuse powerful men are trying to destroy our society.
I do not want to use this sermon to weigh in on the question of Judge Kavanaugh’s suitability to serve as a justice on the Supreme Court of the United States. But I do think it is important to challenge abuses of Scripture, especially when those abuses serve to silence victims of violence or disempower people on the margins.
In the Bible story, the woman making accusations is a general’s wife. After her husband, she is the most powerful person in Potiphar’s household. The accused is Joseph, a Hebrew slave. While Joseph has gained a great deal of respect and authority in Potiphar’s home, his existence basically hangs on the will or the whim of his master. Compared to Potiphar’s wife, Joseph is fairly powerless.
What we have seen unfolding in our time, however, is different. The modern women (and some men) who have had the courage to speak up about sexual violence are not in positions of great power. They are often young or early in their career or otherwise of lower social position than the men they accuse. And while Scripture tells us that Potiphar’s wife makes a false accusation, today we can see patterns of misconduct, assault, and violence that confirm that too often the women’s accusations are not only true but also have been too long silenced.
This story does not indict women for being dishonest. This story indicts the powerful of any gender for abusing their power at the expense of the powerless.What happens when the powerful tell lies? People believe them; they get away with it. What happens when the powerful feel threatened by ethnic or religious minorities? Those minorities end up in prison. What happens when the powerful see the lower classes prospering? Laws are enacted to move wealth back toward the top and to keep the lower classes in their place. It turns out that this story does have a lot of parallels with our modern context and the stories unfolding on our nightly news. But those are not the parallels that conservative commentators have drawn to support their political agenda.
This story does not indict women for being dishonest. This story indicts the powerful of any gender for abusing their power at the expense of the powerless.
So where is God in all of this drama? The text tells us four times where God is. God is with Joseph. God is with the boy Joseph who was abused by his brothers and sold into slavery. God is with the slave Joseph as he deals honestly with his master’s affairs and is falsely accused. God is with the incarcerated Joseph as he waits in prison for justice that never fully comes.
Where is God in all of this drama? God is with boys and girls and men and women who suffer abuse and injustice at home. God is with those enslaved by human trafficking and enslaved by addiction. God is with those who are falsely accused, whether by a friend, a coworker, or the authorities. God is with those who languish in prison or detention centers, waiting for a kind of justice that will restore and renew their lives.
The gospel of Matthew also promises that God is with us: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us’” (Matthew 1:23). And Paul, writing from prison himself, tells the Philippians to be like Christ, who gave up all the power of the Godhead to become human, to be with us and to be one of us (Philippians 2:5-8).
When we are betrayed or abused by the ones who are supposed to love us, God is with us. When we are enslaved by addiction or by harmful relationships, God is with us. When we are wrongly accused or unfairly stereotyped, God is with us. When we are imprisoned by our past or held captive by anxiety, God is with us. “No matter what seemingly bottomless well we think we’re stuck in, no matter what strange situation, no matter how distant we may be from all that is comfortable and known, God is with us,” especially when we are powerless or pushed to the margins.
And when we are not powerless, when we find ourselves at the center instead of the margins, Christ is there, too. But he is not there to pat us on the back and tell us that we’ve made it. Instead, Christ-with-us invites us to do as he did: to give up power and all the comforts that come with it. Christ-with-us invites us to humble ourselves and to be with the abused, the enslaved, the falsely accused, the imprisoned. Christ invites us to be like Joseph, who displayed incredible integrity, who did not sell out his values or his faith for sex or power. When we are at the center and we stay with Christ, we can turn the power-hungry system on its head. When we are at the center and we stay with Christ, we can expose the lies that the powerful tell to protect and enrich themselves. When we are at the center and we stay with Christ, we can speak up for and with religious and ethnic minorities and we can reform a justice system that unfairly targets them. When we are at the center and we stay with Christ, we can fight against economic policies that keep wealth and power in the hands of a few.
Christ is with us. God is with us. That is the moral of this story. When the powerful of this world tell their lies, criminalize the other, and enrich themselves God is with the powerless. And when we get close to power, God is with us still. It is God-with-us who strengthens us to live with integrity, to tell the truth, defend our neighbors, and share the wealth. The nightly news may feel like a soap opera or a cable TV drama, but still we hope. We hope because God is with us and with all who suffer at the hands of the powerful. We hope because the dream of God’s kingdom (Joseph was a dreamer, after all) is still alive .We hope because Christ is still empowering his people to do the truth-telling, neighbor-loving, wealth-sharing work of his kingdom. God is with us. Christ is with us. It is so. May you believe it. Amen.