“Privilege, Power, Prison” Genesis 39:1-23
Rev. Sean Weston
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
September 23, 2018
We are three weeks into what is called the Narrative Lectionary. This lectionary is a four year schedule of Bible texts for worship, focused on telling the story of God’s work in the world throughout the whole Bible. For some time, this church had been on a different lectionary called the Revised Common Lectionary, which worked a little differently. One thing this means is that we’ll be hearing some texts in worship that we may not have heard in a long time, or even ever. Today is one of those days.
It’s a good thing. This lectionary makes preachers like me deal with difficult stories that we are used to ignoring. I wouldn’t have chosen to preach on this text, probably ever. You probably wouldn’t have chosen to hear it. But it is a story that is part of our heritage. It is there in the first place because our ancestors believed it said something worth saying. So, here we are. Think of this as walking an unfamiliar trail with me as your trail guide. I’ll point out the things I think are important. I hope it is helpful for you, and that you keep an open mind, if for no other reason that I’ve spent a lot of time on this particular trail recently. But you might not see what I see. You might focus on different things, or even think I made a wrong turn. I don’t ask you to see everything I see. I do ask you to keep an open mind before drawing your own conclusions.
There are three main parts of this story. The first part explains that Joseph was rising through the ranks as a slave. Nearly every system of slavery has different ranks. In the United States the classic division was between those in the fields and those in the house, though there were other divisions too. While there are benefits to being higher on the ladder, you’re always a slave.
The second part of the story is when the wife of Joseph’s master wants to sleep with him. He refuses, and in her rage she accuses him anyways, to her husband Potiphar who is Joseph’s master. She takes great care to note that he is a Hebrew slave.
For this, Joseph gets sent to prison, which is the last part of the story. Here, even though he is in prison, God is present with him. There is hope for him, even in the most challenging and unfair of circumstances. Because God is with him.
In 1955, in Money, Mississippi, 14-year-old Emmett Till, entered a store in Mississippi. Four days later, he was killed in a case that gripped the nation. See, a white women named Carolyn Bryant Donham was one of the storekeepers, and she claimed that Till had propositioned her, and verbally and physically assaulted her. She made this claim in sworn court testimony. Her husband and the other man involved were declared innocent by an all-white jury, only to admit guilt shortly afterwards. In many ways, this case ignited the civil rights movement.
Early last year, a book came out which reported that, in an interview with the author, Donham admitted to making it all up. From the historical record, it seems that Till whistled at her as a result of a dare from friends. That was the action he paid for with his life. Of course, no matter what he did, death was not the deserved punishment. But Emmett Till never had a chance, because he would never be believed.
He was a black boy, and she was a white woman. He was a Hebrew slave, and she was an Egyptian woman. Nothing more mattered.
Was there hope in this situation, like there was for Joseph? Was God in that story? Where? People see that differently. It’s true that this was one of the things that led to the successes of the civil rights movement. Hope can be found there. But the cost was so very high.
Why do some people get treated differently than others, for reasons having nothing to do with who they are? Why are some – like Potiphar’s wife, like Carolyn Bryant Donham – are believed, and others – like Joseph the Hebrew Slave, like Emmett Till – ignored? Here we find ourselves in the thorny thickets of privilege and power. I’d like to share a video with you that explores the concept of privilege. Privilege is complex. The video is a start:
It was privilege that sent Joseph to prison at the mere word of his master’s wife. It is also privilege that the story doesn’t tell us her name, but we know Potiphar’s name. It was privilege that let Emmett Till’s killers live free their whole lives long. It is privilege that allowed rich CEO Elon Musk to smoke marijuana on camera while countless people of color are locked up for doing the same thing. I could go on and on and on with modern day examples: some big, some small, in courthouses in Chicago, in Senate committee hearing rooms in DC, in classrooms, on the street. There’s plenty, right on the front page of the Chicago Tribune.
Where is God in all of this?
If the Joseph story is any indication, and I think it is, God is with those who are victimized and abused. When we ourselves are hurt for lack of privilege due to race, sex, class, sexual orientation, and so much more, God is with us. And I don’t just mean that God is present. I mean that God is on the side of those our society sets aside. God is always seeking to make bad situations better: the Joseph story ends not with him in prison, but with him helping people through a famine. Joseph will say to his brothers later on in Genesis: “You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it.” (Genesis 50:20 CEB)
God is an expert – the expert – at producing good from bad. It’s kind of the big thing that God does. So to be with God means to do the same. To look at people and situations not through our own filters or the way our society tells us to, but the way God does. To ask “what unfair assumptions are being made?” “What does God see here?” It starts with some reflection about where you stand. The privileges you enjoy, and the ways you have been set back. The assumptions you carry. To seek to see through God’s eyes. Only then can we be ready to stand where God stands. Only then can we join God in the great mission of bringing good from bad.
I wish I could proclaim an easier hope. A hope that didn’t have to deal with difficult things, or ask hard questions of ourselves, or call us to change. But the hope God offers is no such hope. The hope God offers doesn’t take us away from the hard things that happen in our lives and in the world. It takes us towards them: towards the hard questions, the problems that seem unfixable, the prisoners unfairly detained, the tensions that seem unbearable, the people and places left behind. God takes us there, because only when we face the hard stuff can it start to be changed. Only then does hope emerge. Heaven is heaven and not earth. But until we get to that place of eternal joy and ultimate fairness, let us make this a fair and equal world, as much as we are able.
For a hope that grows in the most desolate of places, thanks be to God. May we be brave enough to search for that hope. Amen.
 The Blood of Emmett Till, by Timothy B. Tyson.