The Bible is a drama in six phases. Phase 1 is Creation: a good God makes a good world and fills it with good things. Phase 2 is Crisis: the good creatures begin to use their God-given free will to make not good choices. Not always, but small individual choices turn into big nasty systems of sin and injustice. A few weeks ago we heard the story of the great flood, and the promise God made afterwards to never again destroy the world in a flood. God promised to never again respond to our violence with the same kind of violence. And yet, the wickedness that we choose to do to one another and our world still breaks God's heart. So God must find another way to destroy evil without destroying the people who are doing the evil. God's response to evil is Phase 3 of the Bible: this is Calling. God calls or recruits one specific couple to found a tribe that will partner with God to work against evil, to continue God's work of creation instead of engaging in corruption and destruction. This week I'd like us to hear that promise again, spend a little time talking about what a covenant is, and then see how this covenant plays out in an individual life.
Scripture Reading Genesis, Chapters 12 and 39 (NIV)
The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
2 “I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
4 So Abram and Sarai went, as the Lord had told him …
6 Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “I will give this land to your descendants.” So Abram built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him.
Second reading: Genesis 39 New International Version (NIV)
Narrator: Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. Potiphar,
an Egyptian who was one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him there.
2 The Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master. 3 When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did,
4 Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant.
Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned. 5 From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the Lord blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph. The blessing of the Lord was on everything Potiphar had, both in the house and in the field.
6 So Potiphar left everything he had in Joseph’s care; with Joseph in charge, he did not concern himself with anything except the food he ate.
Now Joseph was well-built and handsome, 7 and after a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said,
Wife: “Come to bed with me!”
Narrator: 8 But Joseph refused, saying to her,
Joseph: “With me in charge my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care.
9 No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife.
How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” Narrator: 10 And though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her or even be with her. 11 One day he went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside.
12 She caught him by his cloak and said,
Wife: “Come to bed with me!”
Narrator: But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house.
13 When she saw that he had left his cloak in her hand and had run out of the house, 14 she called her household servants, saying,
Wife: “Look, this Hebrew has been brought to us to make sport of us!
He came in here to sleep with me, but I screamed. 15 When he heard me scream for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”
Narrator: 16 She kept his cloak beside her until his master came home. 17 Then she told him this story:
Wife: “That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make sport of me. 18 But as soon as I screamed for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house. This is how your slave treated me,””
Narrator: 19 When his master heard the story his wife told him, he burned with anger. 20 Joseph’s master took him and put him in prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined. But while Joseph was there in the prison, 21 the Lord was with Joseph, showing him kindness and granting him favor in the eyes of the prison warden.
22 So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there.
23 The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
Has anyone here ever tried to do business with a family member and had it not go well? Or maybe doing business with your family is fine, but you have a friend who's had a bad experience trying to business with their family. I'm thinking specifically here about buying or selling something from a family member, or maybe renting a house from a family member. Have you ever noticed how often that can turn nasty?
It's because we are trying to mix love and transaction. 10 years ago when I moved here, my younger brother rented my house for a while, and we ran into this. I wanted him to pay me on time or pay a late fee like a tenant should. But I also wanted to leave some things in the garage, which a landlord should not do. Now you might say, "Well you guys can work that out," and we did. But you do see that on one hand I wanted love and on the other I wanted straight impersonal transaction? Love is patient and kind and gracious and keeps no record of wrongs. Love acknowledges differences and is flexible. Transaction says you pay me this much and here's what you get. If you don't like it, there's a rule set in advance about whether you can get your money back. It doesn't matter who you are, this is how the transaction works.
This is an important distinction to make when we think about God. We just finished studying the book of 1 John, which very clearly says that God is love. And yet, I bet that most us have a faith that is still built on transaction. See if this sounds familiar: If I pray the right prayer and/or do the right religious works, God will let me into Heaven. If I pay my tithe, God will give me plenty of money. If I pray hard enough or have enough faith, God will heal my loved ones. If I live a good life (whatever we think that means), God will bless me.
Part of the reason we think like this is because people have always thought like this. We must please the fickle gods so they will make it rain or help us win a battle. The other reason we believe this is because we have mixed up the Gospel and the American dream. Individualism teaches that people earn whatever they have. When we layer Christianity on top of that, we start believing that God gives us what we "deserve." And then, understandably, we get very upset when we get something that we don't think we deserve. Please hear me very clearly: this is transaction. This is not love. This is a cheap and easy way for privileged people to explain God, and it is wrong.
The kind of love that God shows us is called covenant love. Sometimes in our culture we use the word covenant when we really mean transaction, but we shouldn't because they are very different. Covenant is a promise to be in relationship, in fact you can't have a covenant without a relationship. You can conduct a transaction, you can buy and sell something without any kind of relationship. A covenant is a statement about who we are and whose we are. Covenant is how we describe our relationships to one another in the United Church of Christ. We commit that we belong to God and to one another. Yesterday when I was installed as your pastor, we all entered into a covenant together. It's not just that you pay me a salary and I show up and talk on Sunday mornings. In the presence of God and other Christians, we made promises about what not just what we are going to do together, but who we are going to be together and how we are going to treat each other. That is covenant and not transaction.
It's very easy to switch from covenant to transaction, because we always want to think about what someone else is going to DO for us, and what we will DO for them in return. Covenant encourages us to ask WHY would we do those things? Not out of fear of punishment or legal obligation, but out of love.
In God's covenant with Noah, God promises to never again to destroy the earth with a flood. That's a pretty good promise. In God's covenant with Abram, we see a click forward. NOW God promises to only to refrain from destroying but to bless. God says, "I will bless you and you will be a blessing to all the world." This covenant with Abram shows up three times in Genesis. Here in chapter 12 and also in 15 and 17. God promises Abram many descendants and a land of their own. And most importantly, God promises to be the God of Abraham and Sarah and all their descendants, and promises to be with them. As we think about God's promises I want to point out a few things to you. What I am about to say is hard. It pushes against our desire for health and wealth and our transaction theology. But I believe it is the growing edge of our emotional and spiritual awareness and self-control.
In the flood story, God promises never to destroy us again. But God does not promise that we won't continue to destroy ourselves and our planet through our own willful corruption. I'm not saying we are inherently bad creatures. We are good. But we may really bad choices, and God does not promise to shield us from the consequences of our own actions. And God does not promise to shield other people from the consequences of our actions. We can do plenty of damage without God's help, and that is not God's responsibility. It is our responsibility.
God promises to bless Abraham and Sarah so that they will be a blessing. But God does not promise to keep others from cursing them. In fact, the more we live in God's way, resisting injustice, the more likely we are to be cursed by others. God promises we will be blessed, but not that being a blessing will be easy.
God promises Abraham a multitude of descendants, but he probably didn't live to see his own grandchildren. God promises his descendants will have a land of their own, and when Abraham dies, he owns only one tiny plot of that land. God fulfilled the promises even though Abraham never saw them in his lifetime. Friends, God is writing a very long story. And even though we are the center of our own universes, God is working beyond our lifetimes. It is possible for God to be faithful and for us to not get what we want.
God promises to be the God of all Abraham and Sarah's descendants, which by faith includes us. And this brings us to Joseph. For a while, Joseph has a pretty sweet life, although one could argue that he's not very tactful. But then his brothers get jealous and they sell him into slavery. He is taken to Egypt, purchased like a piece of property, and put work. He doesn't speak the language, he doesn't know the customs. He doesn't share the religion. And Genesis 39 verse 2 says, "The Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered." For a while again things go well enough considering the circumstances. Then he is falsely accused and thrown in jail. And Genesis 39 verse 21 says, "But while Joseph was in prison, the Lord was with him and showed him kindness." Friends, the hardest lesson is that it is possible for God to be with us, to be our God, to be faithful, to be keeping promises, and really awful things can still happen to us. God's unconditional commitment to us is not a guarantee of physical or financial security.
God's ultimate promise, demonstrated in Jesus, is that God can redeem anything. There is nothing that can happen to us that is so awful that God cannot bring something good out of it. That doesn't mean God caused it. It means that our infinitely creative and loving God can make something beautiful out of it, even if we don't live to see it.
Now it is natural for us to want safety and security for ourselves and our loved ones. God's word tells us that when all things have been restored there will be no more pain or sickness or tears. When we pray for healing and peace, we are praying in line with God's ultimate intention for creation. The ninja-level Christianity is to believe that God is still at work, still loving, still faithful to God's promises, and most importantly still WITH US BEING OUR GOD even when we don't get what we want. God promises to never leave us alone in our suffering. God leads us into community so that we can be a blessing to one another, to remind one another of God's ultimate goodness, to encourage one another, to in fact be God to one another in that moment. We both experience and extend God's covenant with us when we live in covenant love with one another. Amen.