When Life Doesn’t Go According to “Plan”
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
When Life Doesn’t Go According to “Plan”
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On September 25th, 2022
As you listen to today’s scripture lesson from the book of Genesis, you’ll note that it comes near the beginning of the story of Joseph (he of the coat of many colors). Joseph, you may know, was one of twelve sons of his father Jacob. Of those twelve sons, Joseph was his father’s favorite. He was the long-awaited first born of Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel. One of the ways Jacob showed favoritism to Joseph was that he gave him this coat—which translated literally was a long robe with full sleeves. The kind of thing you only wear in an agricultural society if you’re the one overseeing manual labor, not the one doing it.
Not only was Joseph put in charge of watching over his brothers, almost all of whom were older than he, he added insult to injury by telling them two dreams that he had about all of them bowing down to him. Not long after that, his brothers, resentful of this spoiled brat, resolved to kill Joseph. One day, when his father sent him out to check on them tending flocks some distance away, in a place called Dothan, they were about to do just that. They were about to strangle him, but at the last minute one of them spoke up and said—let’s just throw him in a pit instead. Which they did and sat down to eat lunch.
Then another of the brothers said, why don’t we sell him as a slave to these traders passing by—we’ll make a little profit off the deal. Then we’ll go back and pretend to our father that Joseph was killed by a wild animal. So they pull him out of the pit, and sellim to some Midianites, who then sold him to some Ishmaelites, who then brought him to Egypt, which is where today’s text begins. As you listen to it, pay attention to what happens to Joseph—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Listen for what it says about God being with him in the midst of all of it. Think about why the people who first started telling this story to each other—people who had experienced the trauma of being enslaved themselves, or carted off into exile far from their home—would tell and retell a story like this. And remember that the story continues on:
Now Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man; he was in the house of his Egyptian master. His master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands. So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him; he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field. So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge; and, with him there, he had no concern for anything but the food that he ate.
Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking. And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, ‘Lie with me.’ But he refused and said to his master’s wife, ‘Look, with me here, my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my hand. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?’ And although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not consent to lie beside her or to be with her. One day, however, when he went into the house to do his work, and while no one else was in the house, she caught hold of his garment, saying, ‘Lie with me!’ But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside.
When she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled outside, she called out to the members of her household and said to them, ‘See, my husband has brought among us a Hebrew to insult us! He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice; and when he heard me raise my voice and cry out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside.’ Then she kept his garment by her until his master came home, and she told him the same story, saying, ‘The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to insult me; but as soon as I raised my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside.’
When his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, saying, ‘This is the way your servant treated me’, he became enraged. And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined; he remained there in prison. But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love; he gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer. The chief jailer committed to Joseph’s care all the prisoners who were in the prison, and whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. The chief jailer paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.
Well now, that was an interesting story, wasn’t it?
There is an old Buddhist parable that comes to my mind every time I read the story of Jacob’s son Joseph. Perhaps you know it:
A farmer has a horse for many years; it helps him earn his livelihood and raise his son. One day, the horse runs away. His neighbor says sympathetically, “Such bad luck.”
The farmer replies, “Maybe. Who knows?”
The next day, the horse makes its way back home bringing with it another horse. The neighbor says with a smile, “Such good luck.”
The farmer replies, “Maybe. Who knows?”
The following day, the farmer’s son rides the new horse and seeks to tame it. In the process, he breaks his leg. The neighbor says sympathetically, “Such bad luck.”
The farmer replies, “Maybe. Who knows?”
The last day of the story, the military comes to the village to draft all able-bodied young men to fight in an unjust war. The son is exempt from the draft due to his broken leg. You can guess what the neighbor said, and how the farmer replied. Say it with me: “Maybe. Who knows?”
The point of the parable is that we shouldn’t be too quick to judge some occurrence as good or bad—and we shouldn’t judge such things at all—because we don’t know how it will lead to what comes next as life unfolds. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t some things that happen in our lives and in the larger world that are unequivocally painful, unquestionably gut-wrenching, undoubtably heartbreaking. We all know this. For some of us that awareness is way too close to the surface this morning. But if we take a larger perspective—we can affirm that the story doesn’t end there. Consider Joseph.
His mother Rachel is unable to have a child. Such bad luck.
She gives birth to Joseph, the long awaited one. Such good luck.
Joseph becomes a bit of a spoiled brat. Such bad luck.
He has a strong ego and is given special dreams. What good luck.
The ego and dreams make his brothers irate. So angry that they want to kill him. Ooh, that’s bad luck.
One brother says “instead of killing him, says let’s spare his life.” Good luck.
Another says, “How about we sell him into slavery and make a profit?” That’s bad luck.
He eventually winds up in Egypt, where his ego, charm and competence and his good lookshelp him to become a highly trusted servant in Potiphar’s house.
Those same characteristics lead Potiphar’s wife to try to seduce him.
Oh, that’s bad luck.
She grabs his garment, but he resists and runs away. Good luck.
With Joseph’s garment in hand, Potiphar’s wife convinces her husband that Joseph attempted to sleep with her—and he gets thrown in prison.
In prison, Joseph gains the favor of the chief jailer and the chief jailer gives him care of all the other prisoners. Good luck.
On and on the story goes throughout scripture. Joseph is in a position to make sure his brothers and their families don’t starve to death. Then a Pharaoh arises who doesn’t remember Joseph. On an on the story goes, the thing that seems at first to be awful becoming something that seems wonderful. From Joseph to Moses, through exodus and wilderness and conquest, from David’s kingdom to the exile four hundred years later. From Jesus life and teaching to his death and then resurrection. What seems at first to be bad luck might turn out to be good luck.
That’s life, right? At least when we’re able to view it from a larger, dare I say eternal, perspective. I have friends who like to say, “This too will pass.” Sometimes they add, “It might pass like a kidney stone, but it will pass.” Whatever it is, it is going to pass.
So three quick things in light of that before we go any further. One, we might try to be fully present to and grateful for the moments that seem especially wonderful (and even the ones that don’t)—because they’ll be gone as quick as wink. Two, we might keep in mind that what seems awful won’t last forever—it too will pass, maybe like a kidney stone, but it will pass. Three, we might keep in mind that all of this unfolds on a much larger, eternal, scale than we can possibly imagine. Which far from making our thoughts and actions meaningless, means that what we think and do in the here and now matters in eternity. It really does.
What do we do with all of this, then? How do we apply it? How do we who live our lives in an existence where we and our dear ones die, whether too quickly or after a long battle, learn from this? How do we take what we might learn from Joseph into a nation and a world that seems as unstable politically and economically and ecologically as it has been in a long while? How do we take what we might learn from Joseph into the day to day, and week to week challenges we might face—as individuals, as families, as a community? Let me offer three things:
Remember that whatever seems like the end is not finally the end on a larger level. That’s kind of a fundamental affirmation of our Christian faith isn’t it? Death doesn’t get the last word. Even after the death of a loved one, or the divorce, or the departure, or the dread diagnosis, there is life to be lived.
Leave space for grief. Let there be room for tears. But stay open to how life may yet surprise you.
Some of you know that I love to conduct weddings. I love to do premarital work, I love to deliver the homily, I love to dance at receptions. I can’t really pick a favorite wedding, or a most special couple, because they are all special. But I have to say there is always something particularly wondrous about the people who find each other later in life, when they have all but given up on the possibility of experiencing romantic love—either again or, maybe, for the first time.
Take it out of the realm of weddings into life period—there is something wondrous, particularly wonderful, about people who after they hit bottom find their way into recovery. They don’t let their bondage to addiction be the last word about them. There is something wondrous about the person who lets go of the long-hold resentment, the one who doesn’t succumb to despair about the state of the world but keeps doing their little piece to make this world a better place. And I think of Joseph. Despite all of the setbacks he faced, that man stayed plucky. When people ask me about my mom and say, “How’s she doing?” I reply, “She’s plucky.” I think of plucky Joseph in that jail cell doing what he could in the place where he found himself. And I can’t help but think of another Joseph who more than a thousand years later made the best of what was when his young fiancé turned up pregnant and Joseph knew that he wasn’t the daddy. What Joseph figured out, what he learned as a righteous person, is that it is what it is, but God can work with what is.
Which brings me to point two. The living divine does work in and through what is. That’s what we have to work with in life. My quibble with this story about Joseph in Potiphar’s house and then in prison is that it seems to indicate that the way to tell if God is with you is whether or not you happen to be prospering. If the decisions you make all turn out right, if the plans you lay out all come to fruition, this story seems to say, then God is with you. The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man; he was in the house of his Egyptian master. His master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands. Okay, fine, but what about when things don’t prosper? Where is God then? I would say that God is in the midst of that, too. Holding our hands, letting us know that we are beloved, and helping us get up and face another day.
The trouble with “God was with Joseph and everything that he did prospered” is that it sets up some really interesting/unfortunate metrics around God’s presence. God is with me if I am successful. God is with me if the healing that I pray for comes. God is with me if I have everything I need all the time and lots and lots more.
There is a word in the street about churches and how we are all trying to figure it out post-pandemic. There is some question about the metrics we use. Someone has asked, “Do the metrics continue to be bucks, and buildings, and butts in the seat? Or is there another measure that we use to gauge whether or not God is with us?” Make no mistake, stewardship season is coming, we want bucks. Make no mistake, we want butts in the seat. I don’t want to do a building project, so you can relax about that.
But the truth is, being faithful doesn’t always lead to great personal outcomes. Sometimes doing the right thing lands you in a heap of trouble rather than on the top of the heap. The rain falls on the just and the unjust unlike.
Which brings me to number three. Look for the silver lining to the grey cloud. Can there be a better example of silver linings than this pandemic that we have lived through—at least some of us? Again, we don’t have to take anything away from the cloud to acknowledge that. We don’t have to discount the millions of deaths that occurred from COVID, or downplay the ongoing issues that our national response to it on all sides caused, to say that there have been some silver linings to the cloud that is the pandemic.
While it caused some people to drift away from church congregations, it allowed us to think afresh about why church matters and to feel less constrained by the way we have always done it. Those are the seven last words of the church by the way. We have always done it that way.
One of the big silver linings of the pandemic for me is the fact that, after years of talking about how livestreaming might be a good idea to reach people who can’t physically come to church, the pandemic forced us to take action on that. Which means that right now, there are people watching this service at home who never would have been able to see it unfold in real time. There are people who are here in this building today who found us by watching us on video.
One of my favorite silver linings stories is that my Mom’s college roommate, who I always knew as Aunt Joyce, started watching us online every Sunday during the pandemic. That reconnected us. She occasionally sent a letter and a check to Immanuel. Regardless of whether she did that, we were reconnected. When the cancer that eventually took her life got bad enough that she wound up in the hospital in Rochester Minnesota, I was able to call her and pray with her over the phone. When she realized it was me on the line, she said to her husband, “Bob, it’s our pastor calling!”
I know a lot about what a lot of people are going through. That’s one of the burdens, and the privileges, of being a pastor. I also believe that the end is not the end, that the living divine does work through what is, even if what is seems crummy, and that even in the midst of the darkest clouds, there are silver linings.
So the question I would leave all us with is “What silver linings are we going to look for and act on this week?”