The Faith That Keeps Us Afloat

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
St. Mark’s, Little Rock
August 7, 2011
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 14, Year A

The story of Joseph and his brothers is well known in my family. We happen to own the DVD of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat starring none other than Donny Osmond. And interestingly it gets just about as much play time as Superman, Batman, Scooby Doo, or Dora. My four-year-old son has a robe he has affectionately named his “multicolored coat,” and he wears it around the house with pride while singing musical theater. The great thing about Joseph and his dreamcoat is that they pass the “Kix test”— it is “kid tested and mother approved.” Not only is Joseph a biblical character, but according to my son, he’s also really, really cool.

There was a time, though, as Jospeh began to grow in popularity in my house, that my son began to hear beyond the melodies and internalize the story. That’s when the questions started. “Daddy, why did Joseph’s brothers throw him in a pit?” “Did it hurt when they threw him in?” “Did it make Joseph cry?” “What’s it like to be in a pit?” Next the reenactments began. My son would build little “pits” by piling up his toys in a circle and then ask me to throw him in. He was obsessed with the pit. So we talked about jealousy and anger and how the brothers were being mean to Joseph and how this is, in fact, no way to treat your little brother should you become angry with him.

As is often the case in conversations with children, I came to realize that my son had stumbled upon something deeper than I’d bargained for. We had moved beyond Donny Osmond and dreamcoats and entered the realm of existential philosophy. Of course my son is fascinated by pits. Aren’t we all? Individually, as communities, and as nations we are constantly talking about getting others or ourselves out of a pit, avoiding the next pit, or whom we want to throw into a pit.

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but apparently our nation is now officially in a pit, at least financially. Some might argue that the pit has to do with morality as well. There is endless commentary on the state of our pit. News of the debt crisis has been blaring at us through our TVs and radios nonstop for the past couple of months. Just the other day I read that our credit rating had been downgraded from AAA to AA+. It seems that in some cases one can measure the depth of one’s pit.

A little closer to home, most Sundays I travel and visit other Episcopal churches in this state and am told similar stories of the challenges we face as churchgoers in the twenty-first century. Very few of us have overflowing coffers, and part of that is simply the nature of being a non-profit organization. Most of our congregations in the Eastern part of the state are in towns whose populations are dwindling, and years of trying to climb out of that pit and revision a positive future have left many exhausted and depressed. It is easy today for churches to become overwhelmed by the pits they perceive themselves to be in.

Whether the pits we encounter are emotional, physical, or financial, one thing is certain: they are everywhere, and they can define our lives.

The stories we have been hearing from Genesis over the past several weeks have been full of these pits. They say conflict makes a story compelling. The Bible is no exception. Not to be sacrilegious, but this stuff could have been ripped from the pages of the latest trashy romance novel, or pulled from one of those sensationalist reality TV shows. We have witnessed a wife and son betray a husband and father. We have heard a tale of a polygamist marriage mixed with Shakespearian mistaken identity plotlines. We have seen mysterious dark angles wrestling with humans, and today we have only scratched the surface of the juicy Joseph story. Taken at face value this is great summer reading, but if we dig a little deeper we can glean some insight into the relationship between God and us.

Years before Joseph was thrown into a pit by his brothers, God entered into a covenant with Joseph’s great-granddad, Abraham. This covenant was simple. Abraham would remain faithful to God and God would bless Abraham and his family for generations. His descendants would be as plentiful as the stars in the sky. Through a complex, and at times impossible, series of twists and turns the responsibility of maintaining that covenant was successfully passed down to Joseph, who, as we have already established, is in a pit. Ever faithful to God, Joseph somehow manages to become Pharaoh’s “number two,” is reunited with his penitent brothers and overjoyed father, and lives to carry on God’s covenant another day.

One certainly cannot deny God’s tenacity. That night gazing at the stars with Abraham, when the covenant was struck, God asked us to be faithful. Faith is what you do between the last time you experienced God and the next time you experience God. Faith is what you do “in the meantime.” Faith is what you do when you’re in a pit. And if this long, tortured tale from Abraham to Joseph has anything to teach us, it is that God will keep God’s end of the deal. This does not mean that God will prevent a “debt crisis,” or a church from being challenged by declining populations or shifts in social politics, but it does mean that God will see us through it all. Our life-giving relationship with God will be maintained, however pitted the journey.

After witnessing Jesus walk on water, Peter boldly asked Jesus to bid him come out onto the water as well. Jesus extended the invitation and Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on water himself. When the wind picked up Peter became frightened and started to sink. Jesus reached out his hand, caught him, and said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Like their ancestors before them, the disciples encountered many hardships as they lived into their relationship with God. They lived in the same world as those who did not follow Jesus. They paid the same taxes, ate the same food, and lived in the same houses. But unlike those others they knew something. They knew that they did not have to be defined by the pits they encountered. They were not paralyzed when met with challenges. They could rely on a deeper hope that there really is a God who sticks it out with us.

And that is how we are to live as well. We walk in the very footsteps of Joseph and his brothers and of Peter, stepping out onto the water. We probably do it just about as gracefully as they did. But the covenant remains and continues through our lives. As Christians who have been told in story after story that God is faithful, we can trust that we are defined not by the pits we sink into, but by the faith that keeps us afloat.