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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Jeremiah’s Letter to Exiles

a sermon on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14

“My home is in heaven. I’m just traveling through this world.”

Billy Graham is among those to say things like that. It may not surprise you that I dislike this notion, locating faith as bound for far away, not here amid this world, amid creation. As an escape from our reality, not as God’s presence and engagement with us. I believe this world is our home. You’re not destined for someplace else. God created you and put you here, and our faith has its heart and essential vibrancy in that God is traveling through this world with you. Not only is this your home: the home of God is among mortals.

Yet that leaves some explaining to do. Not just for disagreeing with Billy Graham. Much more because this world is obviously so far from perfect and heavenly. We yearn for something much different, something better. That is what this heavenly notion points to—that suffering and worry is temporary, that those who are against you won’t be around forever, that the diseases infecting you and strains pulling at you and sadness drowning you will pass, won’t win, and besides coming to an end, must be replaced by wellbeing and peace and joy. Even if it’s having to wait until this life is over, still, if heaven were your home, then wrongs would by definition be a fluke, with bigger and better intentions for you.

I can’t just rule that out. The tension is that we do hope. We don’t simply resolve ourselves to say this is the best of all possible worlds, as bad as it is. We don’t put up with what’s not right as if pretending there’s nothing better. Our faith needs to say that God does not intend pointless suffering, that God is neither incompetent nor uncaring.* There must be some repair, some refreshing, some restoration and renewal. Whether elsewhere and later or here and now, we want something to hope for, to hope in.

Last week we heard hope with children, in a statement “unto us a child is born,” the possibility of the future, the very existence of a child’s life as a sacrament of God’s good intentions for life, with hope beyond the power of the fiercest empire, the ongoing turning of history, the sense of fresh beginnings.

Yet from Isaiah’s word then at the birth of Hezekiah, from his hopefulness that military might would not remain the determining factor against the people, from his declaration that even if you feared the darkness a light would dawn, as Isaiah’s vision was looking past the terrors of the Assyrian Empire, they ended up staring a short while later directly at another threat. Isaiah may have been right that the Assyrians wouldn’t conquer the southern kingdom of Judah. But the Babylonians did.

That meant the king and queen mother and family, the officials, the elders, the leaders, the priests, those with prestige or power, as well as pretty much anybody with talent or skills or crafting capabilities was deported, exiled to Babylon. They left behind the dregs of society, the poor and least talented, which included Jeremiah as sort of a remnant prophet, seen as not up to par with the others. And they left behind vast destruction. Much of the capital city of Jerusalem got obliterated.

That eventually included the temple, which bears a few extra words. A month ago, we heard about King Solomon building that temple, viewed as the dwelling place of God. Inside the Holy of Holies, seated on the ark of the covenant, was God’s place. That was where to go to get close to God.

Which raised the confounding question for Jeremiah’s people in exile: what happened to God? It wasn’t only a question of where to worship; they had to ask whom to worship. They were far from God’s place, but it may have even been that God was defeated, was gone. So what to make of life then?

Some counseled brief patience, that things would be brighter before long. These so-called false prophets—because they offered false hopes—said that the exiles would be home within two years. It’s a variation on being a stranger here traveling through this world, that you just need to put up with it, grit your teeth, grin and bear it for a little while, because it would soon pass. I read a phrase this week referring to their work as “merchandising nostalgia.”* Whether looking to the past or offering an impossible future, there is this business of trying to convince people of what will be, or could be, or anything other than present reality.

In the church, this it its own cottage industry, harkening back to the good ol’ days, when Sunday School classrooms were full and Wednesday night was church night and theologians had an important voice in shaping society and Christian values helped inform the norms of culture.

Those days aren’t coming back. One parent said this week that her child may be the only one in his class who goes to church. Lives are so fully programmed with activities that Sunday morning serves as another slot for more, or else the only pause during a hectic week. You know well you’re apologizing too often for allegedly “Christian” morality that’s perverse and shameful, like among those who remain vocally supportive of a senate candidate with predatory sexual tendencies. No, none of that points to a very immediate return to glory days of the church in America.

If such fears aren’t exactly where we’d set our sights at Advent and MCC anyway, if we’re pleased with Sunday School and using our voice for positive influence in culture and figuring out how to be Christians at this time and to live well, still we know the struggle.

On this day observed as Christ the King Sunday, we remember that this isn’t triumphal success or getting swept up in the endtimes, but is Jesus who loved to death, who told us to see him in the poor and hungry and imprisoned and ill and outcast, who revealed God for us not through visions of the future but within our own lives. We say he’ll come again. But we need him for now.

That’s also what Jeremiah’s talking about. He won’t claim everything will be alright, or same as it ever was, or all glittery and happy. Neither will Jeremiah suggest remorse that puts up with misery for the meantime. In this letter we heard today, he lets these people know they won’t be coming home anytime soon. It will be several generations before the exile is over. Throughout their lifetime, then, God’s word is to go ahead—to plant gardens, to have weddings and celebrations, even to strive for the good among their captors, to seek the good of the city where they didn’t choose to live.

It’s notable within this that Jeremiah doesn’t direct them how they ought to practice religion without the temple, when life won’t allow for weekly worship. Neither is there the standard biblical injunction not to get tied up risking intermarriage with foreigners. Indeed, before the people leave from Babylon they’ll have assimilated enough to take on Babylonian names and adopt some of the language as their own. They’ll have had to deal with the rest of life, like other foods and jobs and changed social standing.

With this, I read plenty this week on society receiving strangers, on what it means to be a refugee or immigrant, how they adapt to new cultures and maintain old identities. Those are important cultural conversations.

But I’m most invested in what God’s word means for your lives, especially those places you’d prefer not to find yourselves, for what’s not going perfectly, for what seems too often boring or frustrating or, indeed, hopeless. I hear dissatisfaction with jobs and worry at how family gatherings play out and the feeling of wasting valuable time that has been given to you, wondering what else may be and where faith fits into it.

I’m not immune from those things, whether with family friction ill-resolved by me or with spending my vacation day working on this sermon with diversions putzing with laundry and ridiculously mowing my lawn after Thanksgiving while distractedly and desperately pondering selfish wishes and seriously speculating on what would be more important, how I could really make a difference, what exactly life is supposed to be.

In that way, there’s a verse in our reading that gets an awful lot of attention. Verse 11 said, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not to harm, to give you a future with hope.” This verse suffers the inspirational merchandising of posters, graduation cards, mugs, blogs, and more. I take that to mean people like to focus on what those future plans of God might be, trying to figure out what is in store, to get geared up for it. It could easily lead to the sense that heaven is your home and this world is only an inconvenient temporary holding area. Or, maybe less supernaturally, that God has big intents and purposes to prosper your life, so you probably should be doing something else, more important and exciting, or even just dreaming about it.

Those reading the Reinhold Niebuhr book might have come across the quote that Christians shouldn’t presume to know too much about the temperature of hell or the furniture arrangements of heaven. It’s the sense that we can’t predict much of any of what is yet to come.

Jeremiah 29:11 says you don’t need to predict it. Your future is entirely secure with God. There is no reason in the world to doubt God’s unfailing goodness and unconditional love for you. God will give peace more than you can possibly understand. You are secure in God’s blessing and promised life. Even if you waste your time or miss the point or blow it completely. Even if you try your hardest and nearly succeed. If you meet everybody’s goals or fail at every last expectation. If you feel comfortably at home or like everything is foreign and you’re far from where you’d prefer to be, still God’s assurance remains with you.

Since you don’t need to be elsewhere or elsewhen, the remaining question is, what do you do for now? One good set of answers: don’t just pass through. Instead, care for the city. Celebrate life. Build your house and cultivate your garden.

* http://www.enterthebible.org/oldtestament.aspx?rid=44

* Peterson Run with the Horses p150 (cited by Andy Twiton)Peterson, Run with the Horses, Pg. 150 Peterson, Run with the Horses, Pg. 150 Peterson, Run with the Horses, Pg. 150

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Watch Night / New Year’s sermon

Matthew 25:31-46; Ecclesiastes 3:1-13

 

This Watch Night service is a new thing to me, and maybe to you, too. Pastor Sonja has known of them, primarily as a practice of African American congregations, and she was eager to explore it here.

The history actually began with Moravians in the Czech Republic who first held this service in 1733. A few years later it was picked up by John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement. His vision was to have one of these each month on the full moon.

Partly this shape was as a covenant renewal, and the “watch” of the service was about watching over relationships with God, a chance to reaffirm that commitment. The basis and title came from Mark’s Gospel: “Watch therefore: for you know not when the master of the house comes, at evening, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning. What I say unto you I say unto all, Watch” (13:35-37, KJV).

For Wesley’s piety and reforming instinct, Watch Night also provided a religious community alternative to the drunken celebrations common in society, a way to gather in church instead of at the alehouse.

Oh, and this all comes together with another important part of this history that I hadn’t mentioned yet: it’s called Watch Night because it was a vigil, a watch being kept during the night. Specifically, these gatherings mostly would have meant that you would have arrived here at church last evening around 9pm and we would have kept at it until after midnight struck and the New Year began.

Now, I recognize we’re already lower attendance on this Sunday morning because of celebrations last night. And if we would’ve tried to hold church instead of those celebrations, I suspect even fewer of us would’ve been here.

Still, it’s tempting to take the Wesleyan tack and pat ourselves on the back for starting the New Year right by being here in worship and then criticize the late night revelers for neglecting what’s important, being inattentive to the covenant, failing to keep watch. There’s even scriptural precedent for it, like in the letter to the Romans: “salvation is nearer to us now; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (13:11-14)

The counterargument is that I rather like gratifying the desires of the flesh. I cherish those celebrations with family and friends. In that light, we may well agree with the unusual Ecclesiastes perspective struggling to make sense of how we should live. It doesn’t arrive at typical morality like John Wesley pursued. Along the way it barely mentions God, reiterating that we might as well eat, drink, and be merry, since there doesn’t seem to be a larger purpose in life than that.

We might find a bit more answer for life’s intentions than that. But first, especially as we’re here on the 8th day of Christmas, we should be cautious about where we look for godliness, about excluding God from parties and merriness. Indeed, the much larger biblical precedent than abstention is about God’s involvement in and love for this world and its delights. If we get too prudish and suspect we need hang out in some holy place to impress Jesus, then we’ve missed the notification that he didn’t come to the holy people in the holy place, but was born in a barn and celebrated by raucous shepherds.

That trend continues today in our Gospel reading from Matthew, that when we look for Jesus we don’t best look at the pious following religious rules, snooty and too often hypocritical. Instead Jesus says he’s identified in the hungry and thirsty, the ill and imprisoned, the homeless and the stranger. Or as Dorothy Day said in one of our lessons on Christmas Day: “it would seem raving lunacy to believe that if I offer a bed and food and hospitality to some man or woman or child, and that my guest is Christ,” but nevertheless store clerks, factory and office workers, slum dwellers and suburban housewives, soldiers and tramps don’t just remind us of Christ, they are Christ. (I’ll post the whole reading on our Facebook page, in case you were off celebrating amid regular life and not at church last week.)

That continues to shape our caution about where and how we perceive God. Just as godliness can’t de facto be excluded from the delights and merriment, neither do happiness and abundance indicate a sure blessing from God, since Christ promises to be present for and with the hurting and lonely and outcast and all in need.

So as we gather here at a moment of transition, of watch that looks back at our past year and forward into the new, we consider the times—as Ecclesiastes has them of opposites—a time to dance and a time to mourn, a time to plant and to harvest, for war and for peace. We might well notice that in its reluctance to speak about God, Ecclesiastes doesn’t label these as times appointed by God, of God wanting times of war, weeping, hate, or death.

Yet amid these times and seasons we are left to contemplate what we may rightly name as caused by God, of what transpires in our world being labeled with the risky and uncertain term of God’s will, and what more easily may be labeled as the cursed effects of our sin or neglect or disregard. In both, we’re left to consider this past year more fully, to reflect on God’s presence.

To start, the moments we shared together at church fill me with plenty of gratitude, to be here with you and with Sonja, for the new beginnings and continued journey on the Road Ahead.

But it’s not just here, as we’ve recognized. We should look back on times of celebration and the highlights of 2016, the new sights we visited and transformative experiences, the progress we made and the simple joys, the sustenance of daily bread, the possibilities of reconciliation. Those we may consider gifts of God. Maybe recall or jot three of those things now.

On the other hand, I also know there’s a lot of sentiment about being ready to be done with 2016, to put that year behind us, from the small scale of facing illnesses and worries to the societal and global scales of conflict and anger and elections. Recall or jot three of those areas now. With those, in Ecclesiastes’ alternating times, 2016 may be mainly a time we’re ready to be done with and onto something else.

Looking ahead, then, watching out for this coming year, we also know our tasks and projects, we can predict what our work will and should be. We may see that as finding the delights, the celebrations in community, the relationships we need to revitalize us. We may take pleasure in our toil, in roles of finding Christ in our neighbors, in giving food and drink, welcoming and visiting, in responding. We may anticipate the renewed importance of care and support and advocacy in this new year. So I invite you to resolve yourself for three of those things now.

There’s one more aspect of this Watch Night tradition that’s not immediately satisfying or instantly gratifying. This keeping watch is also traditionally about waiting, about fortifying us for what is yet to come.

I mentioned that this is an especially important service in African American congregations, in spite of its European origins.  The strength of that connection arose on December 31, 1862, a day known as “Freedom’s Eve.” On New Year’s Day, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was to go into effect, and so African American slaves gathered for Watch Night worship services to pray, to hope, to wait, to celebrate as midnight came and, with it, the news of freedom.

But that wasn’t the culmination. As you may know, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation didn’t effectively emancipate or free any slaves. It declared that the slaves in rebel southern states were free, but there was no way to enforce that rule, precisely since those states had withdrawn from the Union. So that New Year’s Eve could have been a moment of disappointment or despair or frustration at the circumstances, but instead it was lived as a delight in the astounding good news even though that had yet to become a full reality. And still 154 years later in African American communities, they’re waiting and hoping for liberation and opportunity that’s still a long time coming, still not achieved, not right.

Maybe that’s some of our sense, too, the proclamation of God’s amazing efforts for freedom and good will, of peace on earth, of joy and celebration and merriment, of love and abundant life. Yet we wait. It is not yet fulfilled. The proclamation goes against too much of the current evidence. So the labors continue with renewed vigor, and we understand ourselves rejoined in the covenant, recommitted to the cause, abiding with hope in God.

Again, since this service was her design and excitement, final words go to Pastor Sonja, with a prayer she shared last midnight which she had found inside one of her father’s Bibles: “Almighty God, who hast promised to restore my soul, enable me now to be quiet and to know that my life rests in Thee. Let Thy healing energy come upon me to give me power over such opposing conditions as fear and worry, to bring me great courage for daily living, beauty to refresh my spirit and a wonderful sense of fellowship with Thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

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