Intended for Good?

a sermon on Genesis37&50

 

Bad stuff that turns out okay.

As we skip from the start to the conclusion of this story of Joseph and his brothers, we could be tempted to say that no matter what happens, it all works out in the end. In fact, I do frequently say something like that as a word of hope in a God of new life and resurrection. But with this narrative, let’s go tentatively and not leap to the conclusions.

As the story begins, we meet Joseph who is the 11th son of Jacob or Israel. From last week’s story of Abram waiting for God’s promise of a child, eventually Isaac, that son of laughter, was born. He and his wife Rebekah had twin sons, and Rebekah’s favorite was also favored by God. That was Jacob, a cheater and thief. He didn’t only struggle to steal from his older brother, but also from God. That wrestling for blessing late one night got him renamed Israel.

Obviously we know Israel as the nation bearing his name, a nation sometimes claiming to be right with God even as they continue wrestling with their brothers and sisters and neighbors. They took the name Israel since that became the identifier for the family of God’s people. We learned last week that God’s intention to bless all nations and peoples was through one specific person and family, Abram and his descendants. In today’s story, this Israel or Jacob has twelve sons and a daughter (from multiple mothers, and Joseph’s mother died in childbirth). Those 12 sons by next week will have grown and expanded into 12 tribes of Israel, 12 big extended family groups.

But before we worry about the family dynamics among hundreds of thousands of relatives, in today’s story we’ve got problem enough with just the close family, the brothers with each other and sons with their father.

Commentators like to point out that Joseph is a jerk. He’s a tattling younger sibling. He’s the favorite and he knows it and wants to rub it in. He dreams that his older brothers and even his father will bow down to him. And he tells them about it. He may have poor social skills or be a stereotypical younger child who can get away with too much.

Some older siblings would react by offering a hurts doughnut or a dutch rub or a wedgie, or would ditch the twerp and pedal away faster on bikes, leaving the whiner crying in the dust. Maybe since Joseph had gotten more on their nerves, or things were rougher in this family, the brothers decide to get rid of Joseph by killing him. Murder. Fratricide, like the first death in the Bible.

Again in the stereotypical way, the oldest sibling is the most responsible and concerned about parental response. Reuben tries to plan so he doesn’t have to answer to an angry father about why and how he let his littlest brother die.

A creative middle child has the entrepreneurial mindset to realize they can both be rid of him and make some cash on the side, so they sell him into slavery in Egypt, which I suppose we take as the less-worse of options, the lesser of two evils, maybe.

Joseph is sold to a high-ranking official, but that official’s wife tries to sexually assault Joseph. In what is much too rarely the Bible’s story (or any story), the vulnerable person escapes, and yet, as is more commonly the case, the victim is blamed nevertheless, and in Joseph’s case, it lands him in jail.

Eventually around more dreams, he is able to tell Pharaoh there is going to be a time of great harvests followed by a time of famine. So Pharaoh puts him in charge of all the crops and essentially all the Egyptians to sell them food when the hard times come.

These Egyptians aren’t isolationists. When disaster strikes and others also are starving, they are ready to help (again, at a cost). This includes Joseph’s brothers who come to ask for assistance. They have no idea their brother is alive, much less that he’s the second-in-command in Egypt, living with a new identity.

Joseph doesn’t quite welcome them with open arms. He does help with some food, but also plays tricks on them and is conniving and demanding. We can’t quite tell if it’s just in jest or if he’s vindictive and resentful of how they treated him, whether or not that would be reasonable and fair.

Eventually he comes clean, reveals that he’s Joseph. He’s weeping. They rejoice. It’s all such a happy family reunion at that point, overcoming decades of separation and worse.

Still, the brothers are fearful. Fearful enough that their worry comes up twice. Once in chapter 45, and then again in the part we heard today, later on after their father has died. They’re still trying to fabricate lies for things to turn out better for them, not to address straight on what they’ve done wrong.

And we might wonder whether Joseph would hold them to account, if he would recount the litany of his sufferings, if he would use his newfound power, if the expectation would be retributive justice. But Joseph forgives them. Suddenly he releases them from responsibility or liability for what they did wrong.

It’s easy to have this enshrined by Scripture and stand on its own, but I want to hear it differently and tentatively by making it more generic. Here’s a retelling for our ears:

A younger sister was disregarded by older siblings, and they found a way for her to satisfy their appetites of bad habits requiring hard cash. Her fate of human trafficking was the same as so many hidden others, modern day slavery, abandoned in a foreign place where she didn’t even know the language.

Because of her youthful good looks, multiple times her boss tried to harass, touch, grope, even rape her.

Rather than finding justice, she was the one who wound up in prison, where others forgot about her and she was left under a too-long sentence. Still, on her eventual release, unlike many, she managed to reintegrate and even move up in society, but with a role that made awful demands on people while claiming to help them—extorting their money, extorting their lands, eventually extorting their very lives into the confinements she had escaped.

Even her own family, when they came looking for help, she extorted their kindness, their regard for each other, making a mockery of their identity and making them bow and grovel.

But! it all turned out in the end.

See, we have to wonder at the sudden end and shouldn’t rush to God’s resolution. After all, whether the version from Genesis, or the updated retelling bringing it into a reality we know more about, these may feel more like real life, at least theologically, than last week where the voice and promise of God was loud and clear. We shouldn’t skip to the ending, as we’re left wondering: how do we attribute an invisible silent God’s place?

In this whole saga we heard, God isn’t mentioned until things turn good. But Joseph even there only raises the backward question that the role of God is to punish but that he can’t. So through this whole thing, do we expect that God is absent or negligent in the harder times? Or why do we give God credit especially for the good? Maybe we hold this as Don Tubesing shared in preaching a couple weeks ago, that we can’t see it as it’s happening but can later look back and see the “thin silver thread” running through it all, even when everything seemed lost and gone. That’s also a task and a vision we can only accomplish ourselves. We can’t tell others what the meaning was, or how to relate their difficulties to God.

But still, if God doesn’t get mentioned at all until the end, we wonder through it all, from back at the start, did God give Joseph the dreams, even while offending his family? Or was it just his subconscious at work?

Did God design for all the horrendous details, just to put Joseph through it to lead eventually to something else? Was the rotten stuff warranted because it turned out better? Wouldn’t we flee promptly from a God who used any means to justify an ends?

Or did God just manage to take what was available and turn it nevertheless to good purposes? Using imperfect materials and dull tools and the lack of clear blueprint that so often exemplifies our lives, if we’re God’s instruments, God’s stuck with not the sharpest knives in the drawer. That feels the most obvious to me, that a good God continually strives ahead in spite of our sin and stubbornness and suffering.

Was the alleged happy ending that Joseph helped save people from starving? Or more narrowly that he forgave and was reunited with his family? Both could be God’s work, of feeding the hungry, and of reconciling relationships.

And what about that not really being the end, with the ongoing hard edges, that everything isn’t fixed and made right, that by the time we turn the page into Exodus, this pleasant family get together will have resulted in the enslavement of the Israelite descendants and killing of their children. That will further result in the harm of many Egyptians and their livestock, including deaths of all the firstborn. And we might have to say it eventually results in the injustices perpetrated by Israelis against Palestinians.

In many and various ways, Scripture does assert that God is working for the good, that indeed “goodness is stronger than evil” (ELW 721), that our fallible wills will not inevitably lead to destruction, that God leads to new creation through God’s promising ever-resilient and tenacious will, always finding a way forward.

Sometimes we glimpse or taste that ourselves, as we share in a moment of healing or a change of heart or happy surprise or experience the power of forgiveness for new beginnings, as grace leads us home.

Sometimes we have to say it’s more than we individually know, that the arc of the universe is long but it does bend toward justice, that we can see the Promised Land, even though we may not each get there. There is that kind of larger hope, hope for our children, hope for our nation, hope for humankind, hope for the planet.

And then there’s even something beyond that, that death can never prevail against the God of life, even though sometimes that means God’s good work is not accomplished in this life but must wait for resurrection.

When we’re faced with hardships like human trafficking and sexual assault and exploitation and extortion just to be able to afford not to starve, when we’re faced with fractured families that may be downright dangerous or may just be the usual kind of frustrating and doing all sorts of wrong to each other and mourning loss of family members, when the story may be a long, long way from finished, we’re left to ponder how God is involved, whether God works with us to make things right, or we work without God, or God works in spite of us. Given the bleakness of the story, I can’t but hope in the biggest possible God with the most potential, even if it is yet to come.

I also know that I can’t muster that hope on my own. That, as the twisty pondering questions of this sermon have indicated, if I’m left to myself, then I don’t know where to locate God. I don’t know what’s right. I don’t know whether to hope or fear, press ahead or retreat, ask forgiveness, praise, or lament. That is why I’m here in worship, with you. That is why I need gatherings like this, for reassurance.

In one small way of that, I’ll tell you that except for the next song, the rest were chosen by Sybil Klatt as hymn selector. You can tell mine is more dour. She had upbeat and trusting choices, confident in a God who is with us and seeks our good in spite of too  much evil and sorrow around us. Today, because I’d spent a week struggling with where God was in this reading and where God is in my life, in your lives when you need God, in our desperately needy world, this week I needed Sybil and her hymns to help reinforce my faith and hope. Thanks Sybil. Thanks all for hanging in there as this community sustaining promise and hope and pointing to God together.

 

Hymn: God, When Human Bonds are Broken (603)

 

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Repentance for Tragedy?

sermon for 3rd Sunday in Lent (Luke13:1-9; Isaiah55:1-9; 1Corinthians10:1-13)
Among great philosophers, the ancient Greek Heraclitus said the only thing constant is change, while modern day mind Dan McGown reminds us that the only certainties are death and taxes.
With that, we’d have to expand the list to note that tragedies also seem all too regular and catastrophes much too common. The exact crises and numbers of victims may vary, but we’re never far removed from some sort of disaster. Unfortunately, it’s always been that way and likely will remain ever thus.

So also, today Jesus is discussing current events, two topics that would’ve been at the top of newspaper headlines or trending on Twitter in his day, though by all accounts, these persecutions and accidents are small potatoes. Other than this passage in Luke, there’s no record of these people killed by Pilate nor even of where the tower of Siloam was, much less the calamity of it collapsing. One is human-perpetrated evil, violence from a brutal despot. The other natural evil, an unintentional mishap, nevertheless causing devastating destruction.

By the fact that Jesus needed to address them, we might suspect these events were evidently a big deal at the moment, but soon faded from memory, supplanted by another horror, some new tragedy in the endless funeral procession. As I was reading past commentaries on these lectionary texts, looking back over three year increments the calamity du jour had been bombings in Madrid and federal government budget sequestration and an earthquake in Haiti and another in Chile and terrorist attacks and an immigration border conflict and after the “Titanic” movie won Academy Awards, which is a twist for not letting the wreckage disappear but resurfacing it for other purposes. Some of these moments you may recall, others are recessed farther back in memory.

I could similarly ask for three examples: what has been the worst news this week? In spite of still being able to name problems, we may say it’s a relief that today we don’t have to address the pressure of the hugest and hardest enduring questions confronting us with shorthand titles like “Paris” or “9/11” or “Katrina” or “Bangladesh” or “Exxon Valdez” or “Hiroshima” or any other days of infamy (a phrase itself that inescapably makes us continue to tremble from Pearl Harbor).

Large scale and small, passing or persistent, we’re continually prompted toward theological conundrum: Does God cause these events to happen? Are they punishment? Is God randomly cruel? Is God inattentive to suffering or impotent to repair it, or actually nonexistent? In official terminology of trying to discern issues of God, evil, and suffering, it’s the question of theodicy. Less officially phrased in protest, it’s “C’mon, God! What gives?!”
As we engage this topic, we might first do well to note that the deaths Jesus is talking about are remote. He isn’t dealing with the families of the victims or those who have been terrorized and traumatized by bloodshed and abuse. The question is more detached and speculative.

Yet we might also note that such distance has become more difficult for us. The pace of tragedy is increased by our 24-second news cycle that so continuously leads with what bleeds and updates us uninterruptedly with the latest shooting or senseless oppression or tower collapsing. The distance is decreased, as threats on the other side of the globe make us worry. Plus that somehow either is used to or unintentionally manages to keep us immobilized in fear. We stress at airports and for food supplies and in schools and over viruses and we attempt to barricade ourselves inside locked houses and big vehicles and with castle laws and even by conversing with those of like mind. This means we don’t do as well at assessing our fears and the problems and crises around us. All of it hits too close to home, so we aren’t able to remove ourselves to ask the larger questions. Even the answers of faith, instead of a firm foundation, become doses of a fleeting antidote, tiny disclaimers of responsibility rather than reservoirs of relief.

We would be well-served by more speculative examination. I always say that at a funeral or in a hospital room is the wrong time to try changing somebody’s theology. We need to be working on this and asking the hard questions so that we’re ready and well-prepared for when we need it, not as we’re grasping at the edge and gasping for breaths in the midst of trauma.

A starting point is exemplified in a phrase from 1st Corinthians, about past deaths being for our sake. Paul recounts stories of Exodus and Deuteronomy about those who died in the wilderness. He writes, “these occurred as examples for us.” This perhaps parallels the concept “those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Yet we need to use it cautiously. If a past event may be employed to make things better for us, we are using it well. But we should not and cannot say that the crimes and disasters of history were caused for our sake, as mere learning opportunities. To say from the Holocaust “never again” is a lesson we must continue striving after not just in genocides but in our broad patterns of prejudice, exclusion, and hatred. But to claim that any death any suffering is worth it in order for us to know better or try harder is more than we ought to claim.

There’s another problematic phrase in this 1st Corinthians reading. (For how full of grace Paul can be, this reading instead seems densely packed in obscuring good news.) Besides the stuff on making examples and whether former difficulties were for your benefit, another questionable concept comes in a phrase that gets used at all the wrong times and becomes itself abusive. Though it tends to be offered with kind intentions, I’d almost like to eliminate this idea from our theological grab bag. The phrase is that “God will not let you be tested beyond your strength,” with a corrupted paraphrase as “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

First of all with this, we should clarify that nowhere in Paul’s understanding do the temptations come from God. It is not God who is putting you to the test or trying to see how much you can endure. It’s a despicable direction to say that you just need to put up with it because God won’t give you more than you can bear, so whatever you’re suffering must not be yet to your threshold. That leaves God as the bad guy and is essentially a message for you to buck up.

That distinction may not prove to be much resolution in the face of oppression or natural disasters, but it is critical amid crisis to be ready to declare that God is not causing those harms, or arbitrarily inflicting hardship on you. Instead, as Paul uses this concept, it is we who are testing or tempting ourselves. We are liable to lead ourselves astray and forget about or turn away from the good news of Jesus we share in community. That direction of turning is fundamental to this season of Lent, when we again focus specially on gathering together and being renewed by baptismal blessing from the God who promises to care for us. We re-turn to God.

This also at last returns us to our Gospel reading, which could have a difficult or misleading notion with Jesus talking about repentance. Again, it’s a critical trajectory to trace. Some of Jesus’ neighbors were killed by the vindictive Pontius Pilate. Did God cause it or allow it because they were worse sinners? Our hopeful answer is resoundingly reinforced by Jesus: By no means! How about those smushed when the tower toppled? Was it because they were worse offenders? No, I tell you! Are some lives worth less, because of location or religion or morality? No. Because of gender or age or how much or little good they accomplish? No. Because of some indeterminate quality, an attribute known only to and judged solely by a hidden God, and of which we nevertheless need to be extraordinarily cautious lest we too perish?

Here, for our typical understanding, is where the rub lies. Jesus says, “repent, or you’ll perish like them.” Having been assured that God is not vengeful, capricious, or malicious—much less simply careless—these words cannot stand as threat. Since God is not testing you and since the misfortune of others cannot stand as a warning of divine displeasure, the issue of repentance is not a question of shaping up or reforming your status as a bad sinner or worse offender.

The better solution is to notice what Jesus means when he invites you to repent. Contrary to a sense that repentance is acknowledging how shameful or miserable you are and just how awful your existence must be and turning from the error of your ways, this repentance is turning toward a gracious and loving God who invites you to abundantly shared life. Even in the worst moments, you have hope.

The repentance here is precisely turning away from the distorted image of a God who is out to get you, who is lurking with punishments, standing in the way of your wellbeing. That is the worst of oppressive inventions and the opposite of who God strives to be in your life and for the life of this world. This is not a God who surprises you by dropping towers on you but who surprises you with love, constantly and unconditionally. This is a God of patience. Like when a fig tree refuses to bear fruit and is unable to bring about any good, God is a gardener begging for more time, getting God’s fingers dirty to dump manure around you. This God is like Ann Ward walking into the office in the middle of a cold winter afternoon with a bag of bright green flavorful spinach from the hoop house, bringing good from unexpected places.

“My ways are not your ways,” God proclaims in our 1st reading, “my thoughts are higher than your thoughts.” When we expect retribution, God in Christ is ready rather with abundant forgiveness, and continues begging your pardon, with hope for the despairing, who won’t abandon you in the time of trial, won’t give up on you even when you’ve given up.

Repentance isn’t earning that from God, but turning to see God is already and always there

 

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