Sunday, August 27, 2017

No, That's Good

PROPERS:          PROPER 16, YEAR A 
TEXT:                 GENESIS 50:15-21 (though not in the lectionary)

ONE SENTENCE:        The movement of God is not always evident in events of the moment.  

            There is an old comedy routine that shows up periodically.  There are even versions of that same train of thought which show up within theological reflections.

            You might consider me a redneck when I share this, but one of the best riffs on this particular comedic idea was seen years ago on the television show Hee Haw.

            The basic concept is this:  The primary story teller shares something that has happened to him.  The person listening says, “Oh, that’s good.” To which the story teller says, “No, that’s bad,” and goes on to disclose some bizarre twist that made the happy event actually problematic.

            The listener responds, “Oh, that’s bad,” to which the story teller says, “No, that good.”  The story teller then tells why that negative event was actually good.

            The repartee goes on-and-on until it reaches some sort of climax.

            I’m sure I’m not doing it justice, but you get the point. Try Googling, “No, that’s good,” and see what you get.

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            There is a similar theme in scripture today – between last week’s Old Testament lesson and this week’s.

Our three-year cycle of scripture lessons for Sundays – called the Revised Common Lectionary – has to leave certain passages out.  The Sunday lessons for three years cannot cover the entire Bible.

            We have just experienced such a skip, and I am correcting it.

            Last Sunday, our Old Testament lesson was from Genesis, Chapter 45, verses 1-15.  That was an important passage.  Joseph, who had been sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers, years later discloses himself to them as the second most powerful man in Egypt.  They are stunned and frightened.

            But the next developments – very important ones – were left out, since today we begin the Book of Exodus: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph…”

            The closing chapters of Genesis contain punch – theologically.

            Keep in mind these predicates:

·      Joseph has been sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers.

·      He has risen to be a trusted advisor to Pharaoh.

·      He has interpreted Pharaoh’s troubling dreams, foretelling years or abundance and years of famine.

·      He has overseen preparations to store foodstuffs for the years of famine.

·      Joseph’s brothers – other sons of the patriarch Jacob – have come from their famine-starved homeland to Egypt seeking food.

·      They have begged, unknowingly, for food from their brother’s storehouses.

·      He has disclosed himself to them.  They are frightened of his wrath.

·      He has sent food home with them, and asked that his father, Jacob, be brought down to Egypt.

·      Jacob has been brought to Egypt and, there, he has died.

Now, the brothers believe that revenge will be a dish best served cold – and Joseph will exact his justice on them.

Hear the words, from Genesis, Chapter 50, not included in our lectionary:

15 Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’ 16So they approached* Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17“Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.” Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.’ Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18Then his brothers also wept,* fell down before him, and said, ‘We are here as your slaves.’19But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God?20Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. 21So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

            The key words I want to highlight are these:  Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. My favorite translation of this passage is, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”

Joseph’s interpretation of his life is gracious.  He is not denying the pain he felt at being betrayed by his brothers.  He is not minimizing the trauma of being held in an Egyptian prison.  He is not discounting the trials and tribulations he faced in captivity.

But Joseph is very wise.  And he is able to see the blessings in all of it. He is able to forgive.

We should face the reality – both existential and theological.  Scott Peck began his book The Road Less Traveled with these words: Life is difficult.  And it can be, and frequently is.  I am not recommending that we act like a Pollyanna and ignore the reality around us.  I am not saying that we minimize the pain we feel when life deals us a difficult blow.

I am saying that none of us can see over the horizon and we do not know where the trajectory of life and – more importantly – God’s grace will take us. We should be quick to forgive.

We could say that Jacob’s sons going into Egypt was bad, because the Jews found themselves in slavery. But they ended up being led into the promised land.

We could say that David’s illicit relationship with Bathsheba was wrong. But the wisest of kings, Solomon, emerged from that union.

We could say that Babylon’s destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B. C. and the resulting exile of the people was bad. But God spread his covenant people to other nations in that event.

We could say the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus was evil – and it was on some level. But it is through that central salvific act that we have found new life in his death and resurrection.

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            You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.  Until we gain a long perspective – maybe even in the life beyond – we cannot know the ultimate meaning of events.

            The author Frederick Buechner said it well:

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Presence in the Storms

PROPERS:          PROPER 14, YEAR A 
TEXT:                 GENESIS 37:1-4, 12-28; MATTHEW 14:22-33

ONE SENTENCE:        Even though it is may be unseen, God’s presence remains with us during the storms of life.      

            Four years ago, I was leading a pilgrimage to Jordan and Israel.  It was something I did every couple of years.

            As a usual part of the pilgrimage, we were taking a sailing trip on the Sea of Galilee.  We were in a boat, probably 40-feet long, fashioned to look like a larger fishing boat from Jesus’ time.

            We would always stop the boat mid-lake and celebrate the Eucharist.  We would give thanks, break the bread, and sing my favorite hymn, “They cast their nets in Galilee.”  It was all very appropriate for that setting.

            But this time was different.  Even though there were clear skies, the wind was strong and the waves on the inland sea were high.  An east wind, from the adjacent land of Syria, was pouring over the Golan Heights and causing havoc on the lake. More than any other time, we were tossed about by the waters.  The boat heaved to and fro.  I could hardly maintain my footing.

            It was not the same as the storm on the sea that the disciples encountered, but it was enough for the landlubbers on the boat.

            Despite the rough waters and the pitching boat, we went ahead and offered our prayers of thanksgiving to God.

            It was, for me, a metaphorical moment.

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            The disciples likely wondered where their master had gone, as the storm rose and tossed their small fishing boat about.

            I suspect Joseph, the favored son from the first lesson, wondered where his God had gone, as he was sold into slavery by his brothers.  He must have felt alone, abandoned.  The Psalmist’s words from Psalm 130, “Out of the depths have I called to you,” no doubt, would express his feelings.

            Have you ever had such a feeling?  Have you ever wondered, “Where has God gone”?
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            Elie Weisel was a 15-year-old Romanian Jew when he, his father, mother, and three sisters were rounded-up and taken to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.  His mother and youngest sister were immediately murdered.

            Elie and his father, Shlomo, were transferred to Buchenwald, where they were assigned as laborers.

            One day, the prisoners were all called together.  It seems a young boy had been accused of stealing some bread – out of his experience of starvation.  The assembled body of prisoners were to stand and watch his execution.

            The boy was taken up to the gallows as his fellow Jews watched.  A noose was placed around his neck and the chair on which he was standing was kicked out from under him.  His death was not quick in coming. He lingered at the rope’s end for 30 minutes.

            Wiesel and the other prisoners were forced to stand there – in shocked silence.  Finally, someone standing near Wiesel, uttered these words quietly: “For God’s sake, where is God?”

            Wiesel’s words gave his silent response: And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
‘Where is He? This is where--hanging here from this gallows...’"

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            I suspect all of us here have experienced something which would compare to the great range of experiences between being tossed by a storm on the sea, being betrayed by siblings, and being a prisoner for unjust reasons. That’s a pretty wide range.

            Most of our experiences could probably be classified as the storms of life. Under that description we could include illness, loss of loved ones, loss of jobs, depression, divorce, alienation from those we love, addiction, or just plain old disappointment.

            It would be normal human nature in those moments to say, “Where is God?”. And we would be right to wonder.

            Joseph must have asked that question. Certainly, Peter and the others in the boat had a sense of abandonment. Why shouldn’t you?

            Of course, God did amazing things through Joseph, after his being sold into slavery.  And we have 27 New Testament books and volumes of church history that were written after the storm on the sea.  Neither one of those episodes was the last word.

            Nor do we experience the last word. The truth that comes through – from the story of Joseph being sold into bondage, the storm on the sea, and, yes, the tragedy of Good Friday – is that God is with us always, in the midst of those experiences.

            To paraphrase Elie Wiesel, God is at the bedside, at the graveside, when we are clearing out our desk, in the brokenness of addiction, in the depths of depression, in the tears of betrayal… and in all moments of life.

            You may feel alone at that moment – as so many have.  But that does not change the divine reality that is so elegantly expressed in Psalm 139:

6Where can I go then from your Spirit? *
    where can I flee from your presence?

7If I climb up to heaven, you are there; *
    if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.

8If I take the wings of the morning *
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

9Even there your hand will lead me *
    and your right hand hold me fast.

10If I say, "Surely the darkness will cover me, *
    and the light around me turn to night,"

11Darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day; *
    darkness and light to you are both alike.