August 20, 2017 The Mercy of God


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Scripture: GENESIS 45:1-15
When my brother Tim and I were young—he’s two years younger than I am—we were not always the most lovey-dovey brothers you ever saw. In fact, my mother will say we fought all the time! I remember standing on our porch one day, my brother facing me, with a drinking glass in his hand, poised to throw it at me. I was petrified. He could tease me like nobody’s business. He knew just how to get under my skin—I guess that’s what younger siblings do to level the playing field.
As adults we’ve had our moments, too. Some of you know that, when I was in my mid-twenties, my mother left her position as a local church pastor in Bangor, Maine, to move to an entirely new position with the UCC. This was at a time in my life when I had no idea what I was doing. When we arrived at the church on the day it was to celebrate my mother’s ministry there, the greeter at the door said to my brother, “Hi, Tim.” And then she turned to me and said, “You must be the other son.” Maybe it won’t surprise you if I tell you I felt totally erased.
Later that day, Tim and I were moving a large piece of furniture in my parents’ house. As we move it through a door, it banged against the door jamb. I was infuriated, and blamed Tim. I pushed him up against a wall, whereupon he threw me back and said, “You don’t want to do that.” It was an ugly scene.
It wasn’t until later that I made the connection between the morning snub I had received at church and my afternoon fury. But in any case, it shocked me how angry I could still get at my brother. And while nothing like that has happened since, and we love being together, I am always aware that virtually all relationships are tenuous.
I suspect it wouldn’t have taken much for me to be convinced, that day, to sell my brother to anyone who might have wanted to buy him. Get him out of my life! So I get the story of Joseph and his brothers. I suspect many of us do.
And even if you’ve never had a cross word with a sibling, maybe you know such an animus toward a neighbor or co-worker or parent or child or spouse. In many settings, relationships crash and burn. Jealousy, snubs, betrayal, political disagreements, financial distress, wildly opposing views on social issues: you name it, lots of forces undermine relationships and lead to estrangement.
In my last church, I was sitting in a Deacons’ meeting one night as we debated a thorny issue that had raised hackles on all sides. A guest at the meeting, totally exasperated by my position, suddenly pointed his finger at me and yelled “I thought I could outlast you here, but I don’t think I can any more!” As you probably have, I’ve watched as good friends stopped speaking to each other, as apparently small slights turned into huge chasms, as parents and children have icily drawn their battle lines. We’ve all seen business partnerships dissolve and apparently good marriages come to a crashing halt. Sometimes we can see why it happens, and sometimes we just scratch our heads in bewilderment.
So I get the story of Joseph and his brothers. I understand the desire to rid yourself of a nuisance, a thorn in the side. I can fathom that sort of breakdown in a relationship, and how easily and quickly things can go south. I suspect most of us can. And of course we see it culturally, as well. The demonstration and violence in Charlottesville, VA a week ago point to the vast divisions that split this country.
It you’ve ever been totally at odds with a family member or a neighbor or a whole segment of the nation, you know how hard it is to find détente. If I want peace and my brother doesn’t, how can I make it happen? If I’ve been hurt and the one who’s hurt me makes no move to apologize, how are we ever going to reconcile?
In the story of Joseph, it takes many years for a thawing to happen. The relationship between Joseph and his brothers has totally disintegrated and it looks as though nothing will ever repair the breach (Isaiah 58:12). Joseph, it’s fair to say, is not entirely innocent in the matter. He basks irritatingly in the elevated status his father Jacob has given him. But the deeper damage is done by the brothers who cruelly sell the chosen one to some passing travelers. What a reprehensible thing to do! And their relationship is apparently permanently severed.
So after years of operating in their separate orbits, what should happen but a famine overtakes that entire region of the world. The brothers are starving, and they can think of no solution but to go Pharaoh to see if he might have any food for them. Egypt has done very well in this famine—because of Joseph’s prescient warning about their need to prepare for the down years—and the brothers think they might be able to get some relief from Egyptian leaders.
The climactic moment of the story happens as the brothers are escorted into the office of Pharaoh’s second-in-command. Totally unaware of whom they’re talking to, they beg for help. Joseph, the unrecognized second-in-command, puts up with the charade for a while, but finally he can stand it no more. Suddenly, the story says, he can “no longer control himself” (Genesis 45:1), and he blurts out the secret.
As Joseph tells his brothers about everything that’s happened, part of what’s striking is the way he tells the story. He doesn’t say so much, “You did so-and-so and I did so-and-so in response.” Instead, what he says is God did all this. “Don’t feel badly,” he says, “don’t blame yourselves for selling me. God was behind it. God sent me here ahead of you to . . . save your lives in an amazing act of deliverance. So you see, it wasn’t you who sent me here but God” (45:5-8, The Message).
Most of us don’t tell the story of our lives this way. We don’t imagine God as the sole significant actor, with us as the puppets. In fact, that way of looking at things gives many of us the willies. What are we, just pawns in a board game, with God moving the pieces around? Marionettes being played? Puppets on a string? No! That’s not the way things work. We have more freedom than that. And God isn’t just a manipulator of chess pieces.
If you’re like me, you struggle with this whole notion of who it is that’s making life happen. On the one hand, life feels to us like an enterprise in which we have freedom and agency. I decide whether to scratch my ear now. I decide what time I’m going to go to bed. When I see you after worship, I decide whether I will hug you or scowl at you. If I say, “I’m going to jump up and down right now,” I can make that happen. You and I aren’t just being pushed around, with someone else dictating the moves. To a large extent, we determine the course of our lives. Why would God make a preacher jump and down in the pulpit? So what’s all this “God was behind it,” “God sent me”? No. You and I determine these things, not some power-mad, all-controlling deity.
Joseph nudges us on this, though. Yes we’re free, he seems to affirm, but we’re never severed from an active, gracious, holy energy. God is somehow shaping the events of our lives. Now we have to be extremely careful when we say that God shapes life’s course. The danger, the potential trap of such a belief, is to blame God for all the dire and suspect events of life, as though God caused my miscarriage or my job-loss or the events in Charlottesville or Barcelona. If we conclude that God causes all those events, then we fall into the rabbit hole of thinking that God is behind life’s evil as well as its good. That’s not a sustainable spiritual stance, as though God is some reckless, amoral gremlin playing fast and loose with this precious life that means everything to us.
If we go the other direction, though, and presume everything is up to us, then we’ve fallen into the opposite trap. We’ve elevated ourselves to an insupportable throne, in which we are the masters of the universe, and we are the ones who make everything happen. We’ve become practical atheists, and forfeited any sense of mystery and wonder and gratitude. It’s all up to us, and we make all the choices that really matter.
So what’s the middle course between concluding that it’s all up to us or that it’s all up to God? How do we avoid these two mis-guided poles, the one that says God totally controls every detail, and the other one that says everything that happens is up to us? Frankly, I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that. But it does seem to me that one way of making peace with this paradox is to live with some combination of gratitude and responsibility. Gratitude and responsibility: it’s a variation of the old saw that we should pray as though everything depends on God, and act as though everything depends on us.
First the gratitude: we can wake up every day, and go to bed every night, with the conviction that we have been given an unparalleled gift. We are the recipients of blessing upon blessing, none of which we made happen. When I look at my children, I don’t think, “Look there at all the good things I’m responsible for. I raised them right so their strengths are due to my saintly efforts.” No, instead I look at them and I say, “Wow. Look what a gift they are. They have qualities I could never have imagined. They have virtues I didn’t make happen.” The same with the larger world. I didn’t produce Mount Rainier or the Grand Canyon. I didn’t bring about Rosa Parks or Mother Teresa. And as hard as I might try, I am again and again awed by the remarkable kindness and love and acts of reconciliation that happen without my having lifted a finger. Gratitude: for the gifts of a magnificent Giver.
In the last church I served, a church member called me up one day to rail at me about everything I did wrong. She was furious about my shortcomings, and wanted me to be sure I took it all in. Seven faults she itemized, salivating over each one. (Don’t get any funny ideas here!) She was a runaway train, and I knew all I could do was listen. I felt as I imagine Joseph might have felt, run over by a sister in the faith. It was disheartening and dispiriting, to say the least. I’m convinced I could not have righted that situation.
Well, that’s not entirely true. The thing I did right was listen to her. I asked her to clarify some of her points, maybe to give some examples. And I wrote down what she said, to keep me from interrupting and countering her. But I also knew that I couldn’t rectify the problem. As with Joseph, this breakdown was beyond my control (45:1).
Nevertheless, something happened that totally turned the situation around. One day some time later, this woman called me up again, and for reasons I cannot fathom, she said to me she didn’t really know why she had had that outburst. And she said to me, “My daughter asked me, ‘Why are you mad at Hamilton for all the things you’re really mad at Dad about?’” How perceptive and confessional was that!
It was one of those revelatory moments. And it combined something of my own energies with an energy that came from somewhere else. I had to listen and be open to this woman. And I think I did that. But I also needed something from beyond me finally to make things right. When this woman called me to issue her sort of back-handed apology, I felt like I had received a totally surprising and transforming blessing. A gift from beyond had righted a sinking ship. And it was pure grace.
Did I play a part? Certainly. Did I play every part? Not a chance. I was the beneficiary of an embracing presence who had made something more than I could have made myself. So as I look back at that episode, I think of it in terms of both gratitude and responsibility. Yes, I played a role. I had to show up and be present and hope for the best. But there was a whole other dimension to that reconciliation. It could turn out the way it did because some power larger than either of us moved between us and brought peace where there had been mostly animosity.
We don’t always know how God is moving in our lives as we’re living those moments. It’s often only in retrospect that we can see a divine hand shaping a new and hopeful reality. Just yesterday a Federated man told me that as he looks back over his life, he can now see the movement of a holy hand in so much of what has happened. By sheer happenstance, he took a college course that inadvertently and wonderfully shaped his professional future. By apparent chance, he went one day to the church at which, on his very first Sunday there, he met the woman who’s now his wife. At the time, these things seemed like pure coincidence. With his now more refined gaze, though, he sees a hand of wonder and beauty at work. He took all those steps—that was his role—into the college class, into that church. And at the same time a radical goodness seemed to be living itself out through him. “God comes to us disguised as our life,” as Paula D’Arcy so pithily puts it.
I’ve quoted James Forbes on this subject before, and I know I will again, because something he said in the week following 9/11 has stuck with me a powerful way. When Bill Moyers asked the then-senior minister of Riverside Church in Manhattan what role God had played in the gruesome events of that week, Forbes said, “I don’t believe that God makes everything happen. But I do believe that God can make something happen out of everything.”
So the lessons for today from the story of Joseph and his brothers are plentiful. First, the movement of God is often not quick and dramatic. It can take years or a lifetime. So be patient. The great Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin once wrote, “Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything . . . And yet it is the law of progress . . . that it may take a very long time. And so I think it is with you; [your life matures] gradually. . . . Don’t try to force [it along], as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow.” First, trust in the slow work of God.
Second, there is something sublimely grace-filled about these lives of ours. You and I are the recipients of gifts that are breathtakingly beautiful. A force is working relentlessly for good in our lives, even when we can’t see it. It’s vital that we open ourselves to that force, that we ride its currents, that we rely on its tireless tide. We don’t have to do all the work. A power for good is at work in and among us. As Martin Luther King famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” And it bends toward goodness. And it bends toward beauty. Let’s bend with it.
And finally, good things happen, at least in part, because you and I get on that fantastic roller coaster that God is piloting. We have the high privilege of being serious, intentional agents of our own lives and of the common life we share. In our families, in our workplaces, in a world that needs forceful denunciation of white nationalism and supremacy, something is asked of us. We’re not to remain silent. We’re to claim our roles and step out for kindness and equity and justice. We’re given the joy and the freedom and the opportunity to respond to a hurting world. Like Joseph, may we live gratefully in and from the midst of holy grace, eager to be its partners in the dance of love and forgiveness and reconciliation. May it always be so.

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