Three sources have inspired this sermon, one literary, one Biblical and one, shall we say, contemporary. The literary inspiration was provided by a man named Horatio Alger, whom I suspect virtually none of you have ever heard of. But in the late 19th century and early 20th century, Horatio Alger was a household name in America. He was a one-man Hallmark Channel, though his genre was not romance but riches, specifically, rags-to-riches stories. He wrote about poor young boys of outstanding character who by pluck and luck rose from obscurity to attain positions of respectability, wealth and prominence. Horatio Alger was one of the first and most successful purveyors of what has come to be known as the American Dream.
Let me add that Horatio Alger somewhat lived the saga about which he wrote. He was the son of a prominent, but impoverished preacher, so sickly as a child that he nearly died from asthma. Nevertheless, young Horatio was blessed with a sharp mind, which, supplemented by his father’s rigorous training, enabled him to secure a scholarship to Harvard University, from which he graduated in 1852. His father had raised him to be a preacher, a profession at which the dutiful son failed miserably, though he managed to graduate from the Harvard Divinity School in 1860. His first church refused to renew his preaching contract after his first year in the pastorate, but already Horatio Alger had placed a few stories in reputable magazines, and when a journalist friend introduced him to a publisher searching for a writer of adventure books for boys, a budding career was launched. Over the next thirty years, Horatio Alger wrote one hundred and nine novels, virtually all about young men making their way through a tumultuous series of events to reach the pinnacle of success as businessmen, and more importantly, as men of high integrity.
Of course, Horatio Alger didn’t invent the Horatio Alger story. The Bible deserves credit for introducing this genre to the world. We have Abraham, an unknown Bedouin, chosen by God to be the father of the covenant people through whom the whole world would be blessed. There’s David, the shepherd boy, who comes out of nowhere to fight the Philistine champion Goliath and then progresses to become Israel’s greatest king. There are fishermen in the Gospel story, plucked from their nets by Jesus to serve as lieutenants in the army of God. Then there is Joseph, the pluperfect Biblical Horatio Alger story.
Initially, Joseph enjoyed some measure of a privileged upbringing. He was his father Jacob’s favorite son, the darling in a pack of twelve boys, and he paid dearly for that paternal favoritism. He alienated his brothers with his arrogant self-confidence and motivated his siblings to sell him as a slave, shipping him off to Egypt, seemingly dispensing with him forever. His luck seemed to have changed for the better when he was hired by one of Pharaoh’s high officials to run his household, but when he spurned amorous advances from this official’s wife, Joseph found himself accused of sexual assault. He was thrown into the abyss of the royal prison. At the heart of Horatio Alger’s stories is the firm belief that high character will garner high blessing. But in Joseph’s case, his display of high character landed him in the lowest of low places.
It is here that I want to pose the question that dominates this sermon: “What constitutes a successful life?” I suggest to you that a successful life is not measured in how many diplomas or academic awards you can affix to your walls. It is not measured by the nameplate and title on your office door. It is not even measured by the numbers that appear on your monthly bank account. No, a successful life from a spiritual point of view is measured by how well you receive and reflect the character of God in every situation.
Consider Joseph in the abyss of Pharaoh’s prison. A cynical philosopher once said that if you want more morality in the world, then raise the purchasing power of morality. In other words, if people are sure that doing the right thing will win them praise and recognition, they will be motivated to do the right thing. That is not Joseph’s mindset. Yes, he may have been self-confident to the point of arrogance as a child, but he never lost sight of the fact that he was a child of God, and believed, despite all appearances to the contrary, that he was God’s representative and servant. Doing the right and moral thing had not gained him any reward in this case. Rather, Joseph’s punishment for doing the right thing was being falsely accused of sexual assault and thrown in prison. At that point, had his morality been calculated to win him good things, he would have stopped being moral. Life had treated him evilly, so why not turn evil with it? But Joseph knew that was not the definition of true success. Spiritual success entails doing the right thing whether the world sees it and approves or not. As Joseph knew deep in his bones, God witnessed the righteousness of his heart and approved of his conduct and would not forget him.
Even though no one would have looked at Joseph in his prison rags and thought, “Now that young man is destined for success,” one man actually had noticed Joseph’s ability and integrity – the keeper of the prison. The keeper of the prison knew genuine righteousness when he saw it. He quickly elevated Joseph to the position of chief trustee in the King’s dungeon. Okay, maybe that is not the first accolade you wanted listed on your resume, but you young people listening to me this morning could learn a great lesson from Joseph’s example. The possibility was very real that Joseph would rise no higher in life than chief trustee in the king’s dungeon, but he invested himself in that lowly position with the whole of his heart and aptitude. There is great truth in the Biblical principle that those who prove themselves worthy in small endeavors will ultimately prove themselves worthy in large ones. Joseph may have been only the chief trustee of the King’s dungeon, but he poured himself into his job as if he was the chief trustee of the King’s treasury – which he one day would become. But already in the dungeon, he was a success.
Joseph was a success even in Pharaoh’s dungeon because even there – and there is no other way to say this – his godliness showed through. Joseph didn’t have to go around the prison talking about his faith to other inmates. His every action testified to the fact that he intended his personality to reveal the virtue of God. His every action revealed, as Genesis phrased it, that “the Lord was with Joseph and showed him hesedh, steadfast love.” Even in the darkness of the prison Joseph’s testimony exuded such a divine light that he engendered the trust and admiration of others. If he had never been delivered from that prison, he would have been a success.
Of course, because people trusted Joseph, they literally shared with him their dreams, and Joseph’s skill in interpreting those dreams brought him to the attention of Pharaoh, who had been struggling with his own mystifying vision. Pharaoh had witnessed this bizarre scene of seven fat and robustly healthy cows arising out of the Nile, only to be followed by the appearance of seven thin and scraggly cows who proceeded to cannibalize the first seven. Who could make heads or tails out of those images? Joseph could.
Here I have come to appreciate an aspect of Joseph’s greatness that didn’t register with me when I was younger. A key element of Joseph’s success was his willingness to speak truth to power. Joseph told the whole truth. He didn’t just tell Pharaoh what the king wanted to hear. He told Pharaoh the bad as well as the good. He said, “Yep, you are going to see seven fabulous years of abundant growth and fecundity. But those years will be followed by seven years of cruel famine and extreme want. You had better use the first seven years of plenty to prepare for the next seven years of destitution.” Had Joseph only told Pharaoh the good news, people would have died. Part of Joseph’s greatness of character lay in his willingness to tell the whole truth, the dark as well as the light. In telling Pharaoh the bad news, it could have cost him his life, but if he hadn’t told the bad news he could have cost the whole region its life. He looked beyond the immediate gain of only stressing the positive to see life defined by the whole spectrum of challenge. As a result he became Pharaoh’s most powerful and trusted advisor. But he was already a success.
I want to pause here, for as I acknowledged at the beginning, there was a third source of inspiration for this sermon that has helped me define what constitutes a success. That inspiration was a bunch of tall, thin, black young men found by one of my Charlotte church members as they were gathered outside a grocery store wondering exactly what went on inside. These young men were among the so-called “Lost Boys of the Sudan,” and their story surpasses anything Horatio Alger ever imagined. Most of them were children out in the bush tending to their families’ flocks when Muslim marauders came in and destroyed their villages, killing their families and laying waste to their homes. Orphaned together, they banded in groups to begin wandering through jungles and across deserts, dodging lions, swimming crocodile-infested rivers, enduring searing heat and gnawing hunger, subsisting on dry grass and fetid water. Somehow, someway, they made their way nearly a thousand miles across the most extreme of conditions to reach refugee camps in Kenya. There, many of them were actually nursed back to life. Some of them spent nearly a decade in those camps before the US government began a program to allow limited numbers of these young men to make their way to the US, relocated under the auspices of the Catholic Relief Services. But once these young men were placed in sundry U.S. cities, they were essentially on their own. That’s when our Charlotte church took them in. I tell you plainly: if you submitted their story to any publisher of modern fiction it would be rejected as too implausible to be believed. But every word of their journey is true. I saw most of these young men graduate from high school and begin their college careers. I have lost touch with most of these young men, but wherever they are, I am sure they are spiritually successful. For as with Joseph, God has shown them hesedh. God has sustained them with steadfast love.
When I think of our present crisis, and of our population’s general impatience with the restrictions imposed upon us by the threat of this virus, I think of those Sudanese young men and their remarkable example of fortitude and faith. Could we, orphaned and bereft of every comfort, have survived a thousand-mile trek across deserts and through jungles? Would we have been patient enough to endure ten years in a refugee camp, trusting that God would one day provide a way for us to make the most of our talent? Would we have retained an openness to God’s providence and a trust in God’s leadership after everything we had cherished had been destroyed? When I ponder their example, I wonder, have we as individuals and as a society lost a sense of the depth of character and divine trust necessary to display true greatness and attain spiritual success, even as the prisons we endure are not those of Pharaoh or a destitute refugee camp but the affluent environs of our homes? Have we lost all sight of what truly constitutes spiritual success?
Joseph reveals his greatness and his spiritual success in one final way. When he finally does attain his goal of being the leader of his nation, when he actually is in a position where people bow down to him, he ceases to make his success about his success. He leads in order to serve. Even when his brothers come before him in obeisance, even when he has a chance to exact revenge upon them, he doesn’t. Just as he uses his foresight to feed the people of Egypt, he uses his position of responsibility to rescue and secure the lives of his family. Sure, when he was a kid, he dreamed of his brothers bowing down to him. But now that his dream had become reality, he realized that having people bow to him was not important. What was important was his stooping down to people in their need to feed their bodies and souls. As he said to his brothers, “What you did to me you did with evil intent, but God ultimately intended it to promote the cause of good.” That’s the voice of a spiritual success story.
Horatio Alger, by the way, late in his career began studying the lives of immigrant children in New York City, and in the process stumbled upon a crime ring, learning that Mafia bosses were importing Italian children into New York City to be victimized by the most shameless exploitation. Furthermore, he discovered that the police were receiving payment to turn a blind eye to this evil. Though his life was threatened, Horatio Alger courageously persevered to write a novel exposing this horrific system and shaming the New York police into shutting it down, and prompting the American government to change our immigration laws so that children from foreign countries couldn’t be similarly exploited in the future. Horatio Alger may not have been much of a preacher, but in his own way he turned out to be a spiritual success story who advanced the cause of God’s Kingdom.
On this strangest of Memorial Day weekends, it is easy to focus upon all that we can’t do. We can fixate on all those normal aspects of our lives that have been temporarily taken from us. But you know what? This might be a fruitful time to remember that God has not granted us the gift of life so we can design our existence around furthering our pleasure. Rather, God has granted us life that we might engage in a lifelong pilgrimage of developing those characteristics that will render us a spiritual success. Yes, there are aspects of our current world that threaten to overwhelm us as individuals and as a society. And yes, Joseph could have been overwhelmed by his brothers selling him into slavery or by an unjust employer throwing him in jail. He could have despaired of God making further use of him. And yes, those Sudanese boys could have just laid down on some barren patch of African desert and quit walking. They could have stopped believing that God could ever make use of them. And a failed minister turned writer of children’s adventure books could have decided that he had nothing worthwhile to offer his God. But none of them let circumstances define them. All of them attained true spiritual success. And we can gain inspiration from their example.