|Today’s scripture reading:
I’m sure that most graduation speeches are fairly forgettable, but there’s one that I will remember for the rest of my life. When I graduated from Great Falls High School in Great Falls, Montana, the student body choice for graduation speaker was Brian Johnson, an outstanding musician, successful debater, and all-around nice guy. Brian was also a friend of mine, and a member of my church youth group. Because of that, I knew more than most about the trials of his high school years—getting out of a bad home situation and couch-surfing for a time, then eventually raising the money it took to hire a lawyer, go before a judge and legally change his name in an act of self-preservation and self-definition. So I remember well Brian’s speech on our graduation weekend. I remember the staccato tapping of a wooden stick on the talking drum that he used to frame his message. I remember the audience of hundreds paying rapt attention to each word, and the silence in between them. Most of all, I remember the illumination inside of me when Brian said that character is not so much who you are when everybody is watching, but who you are when nobody is watching.
That comment about character comes up when I think about the biblical figure Joseph. Last week we heard about God’s call to Abram and Sarai, telling them to go from their country and kin to a new land promised by God. When God says “you will be my people, and I will be your God”, it wasn’t a once-and-done thing, but a timeless commitment to relationship with their descendants also. Because Abram and Sarai followed God’s lead, today we glimpse how God’s covenant endures generations later through their great-grandson Joseph. Like Abram and Sarai, Joseph is not perfect. Throughout twelve chapters at the end of Genesis—the enchanting little novel that tells his story—we see him as a cocky youngster whose dreams of grandeur get him in trouble, and later as an Egyptian prince using his power to play tricks on his brothers. But even with these flaws, Joseph’s character hews toward righteousness. God’s covenant with Noah to preserve life, then with Abram and Sarai to be their God and the God of their descendants, becomes God’s durable, persistent covenant with Joseph through a lifetime of ups and downs.
Because having God’s covenant is no promise of easy living, mind you. Joseph is betrayed by his jealous brothers, then sold into slavery and shipped off to Egypt. He bounces back and rises to become the head household servant for Potiphar, his prominent and wealthy Egyptian master. Joseph then has one of the many #MeToo moments we see in Scripture, and this is one of the few cases where the charges are false. Potiphar’s wife frames Joseph for sexual assault, and despite ample examples of the servant’s honorable character, Potiphar throws Joseph in prison, where he faces likely execution.
Living under the covenant of God’s loving presence does not mean there will never be hardship. It does not mean that there be no life-threatening storms, or that your toast will always fall butter-side-up. But it does mean, in the words of the UCC Statement of Faith, “courage in the struggle for justice and peace, [God’s] presence in trial and rejoicing”. God’s promise is not measured in fortunes, be they money or circumstances. God’s covenant is revealed in the human ability to persevere in the face of wrong, and to overcome the obstacles of injustice. We see that several times throughout the Genesis passage. “The Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love”, according to verse 21, and that’s when Joseph is in prison! This is how we are to understand the beginning, where we read that God “caused all that he did to prosper in his hands”; and at the end when we hear that “whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.”
A quick reading of this might imagine that God’s favor equals worldly success and material prosperity. Indeed, there’s a whole strain of flawed Christian theology which says this. The so-called “prosperity gospel” suggests that wealth is the measure of how much God loves you or is pleased with you. To that end, there are television preachers who will take your money, buy themselves private jets, and tell you this is what God’s love looks like. But check your wallet or their motives, and you’ll see that something is missing. Recognize something different in today’s Scripture. Joseph indeed is blessed, but God’s covenant doesn’t come with guaranteed fortunes. The covenant is within a person, as a character of righteousness.
We see this in Joseph’s private conversation with Potiphar’s wife. He recognizes how God has blessed him and shown him kindness. He understands his duty to put his success in the service of others. Above all, his relationship to God requires that he not take advantage of divine favor by indulging what would be a selfish motive. He names such an abuse for what it is: sin. Joseph states his conviction in the manner of Martin Luther, millennia later: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise. So help me God!” This is what my friend Brian means by character, revealed not just in public, but also in private moments.
Beloved people of God, we are similarly held in the abiding promise of God’s favor. This day—and each day—will bring us opportunities to receive and respond to this covenant. Will we lament that God must not love us because we find ourselves facing injustice, or doing our own version of unmerited prison time? To do so would suggest that the prosperity gospelers are right, and God’s favor is measured by fortunes alone. Or will we call upon our inward character like Joseph—seeking justice and righteousness even in the face of sin, using what privilege we have in the service of others? Will our speech and actions, in public and private, cooperate with the enduring covenant of God’s character within us, extending mercy and justice to all in the name of Jesus Christ? May it be so. Amen.