Proper 15A

August 11, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 15: (10-20) 21-28

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary

    Genesis 45: 1-15

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    When I attended the Fuller Seminary conference “Preaching in a Visual Age” in Hollywood about a year-and-a-half ago, I heard a lecture by screenwriting expert Bobette Buster.  Ms. Buster has spent her life studying films, teaching screenwriting, and analyzing narratives and so she knows that when a movie works, it is because it tells a good story that as often as not will be:

    * A tale of redemption (think of the movie Rocky or what happens to Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List or the trajectory of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader across the Star Wars films)

    * A tale of anti-redemption (like what happens to Michael Corleone in The Godfather)

    * A story of reinvention (think Julie and Julia or My Big Fat Greek Wedding)

    * A story of transformation (think of Cher’s character in Moonstruck or what happens to relationships in Field of Dreams)

    All good stories move toward a climax and very often, that climax pulls everything together in ways that draw you in emotionally.

    Genesis 45 brings us to the climax of the Joseph cycle of stories. These stories began with some dreams but then took the nightmare twist of Joseph’s apparent death. But we’ve known all along that Joseph was not dead, and so neither were the dreams. We’ve known all along the secret guilt of the ten brothers–the guilt they bore both for having sold Joseph in the first place and then for having lied so boldly to their father about what happened. And we’ve known since chapter 42 that the stern governor of Egypt before whom the sons of Israel bowed and at whose hands they were treated rather harshly was really Joseph, quietly taking some revenge on these fraternal scallywags. All along we as readers of the Genesis narrative have had a leg up on the characters: we’ve known things Jacob didn’t know, we’ve known things the ten brothers didn’t know, we’ve even known a thing or two Joseph himself may have missed.

    So as climaxes go, Genesis 45 is one of those narrative peaks we’ve seen coming from a long way off already. Still, it’s a powerful narrative high point. Three major plot threads all converge: the guilt of the brothers, the guile of Joseph, and the grief of Jacob. Guilt, guile, and grief are all going to be uncovered and then, in a flash, put away forever.

    The guilty brothers are going to be forgiven. The guile of Joseph will be ended when he lifts the mask of his deception because he just can’t take it anymore. And soon thereafter the grief of the old man Jacob will also vanish when he learns that his long-lost son is alive and well. We’ve seen this coming, but it’s still a startlingly powerful story to read. Suddenly the pages of Genesis are soaked with puddles of tears as one brother after the next weeps and sobs for sorrow or for joy, and sometimes for a little of both at the same time.

    Yet there is one element to this climax that we maybe didn’t see coming: the hidden hand of God in it all. Prior to Genesis 45 there is no hint that Joseph himself realized that all the bad things that had happened to him were part of a larger divine plan. Indeed, considering how wretched a good many events of the last twenty years had been, a more likely conclusion would have been that God had been absent from all the lies, cheats, careless abandon, and other shenanigans that had been going on for so long. God had seemed more off-duty than busily at work while all that dreadful stuff was happening.

    Certainly the brothers, bearing as they did a most horrible load of guilt, had never felt like the tools of divine providence.  (Actually, you could wish most of them had felt a bit more guilt than it appears they did!   They maybe had been the devil’s pawns, but God’s instruments? Not likely. For his part Jacob may have cried out to God, maybe even blamed God for letting his favorite son die so horribly at the claws of a lion, but Jacob never suspected that two decades’ worth of grief were going to lead to something wonderful for himself or the world. Finally, in more recent chapters it has been difficult to square Joseph’s vengeful actions with anything we ordinarily associate with divinely sanctioned activities.

    No one in these many stories seemed to have had providence much in mind as these events unfolded. And yet there it is in Genesis 45:5-8: the threads of guilt, guile, and grief converge in a shattering narrative climax. Joseph picks up these disparate threads, braids them together into a strong rope, and calls this the very cord of providence. “God did it all, not you, not me!” Joseph bawls out to his brothers. Suddenly, in the face of this suggestion, it seems as though all is resolved: guilt is lifted, guile is ended, and grief is assuaged. Suddenly there don’t seem to be any loose ends dangling anywhere. The presence and work of God are asserted in a way that seems to settle all old scores, levels out what had been very rough terrain, and connects what had seemed to be a series of random dots.

    God had been there all along. Because of that, the family is re-united but more than that, they are literally saved from death. The assertion of God’s work brings new life. Israel and his children are saved. Even Egypt and whole swaths of the larger earth are saved because of God’s work in Joseph. To Joseph’s mind in Genesis 45, it is this presence of new life that tells him something that he himself may have been missing until then: namely, he was witnessing the strange out-working of God’s mysterious plans. Joseph cannot account for all the life and love he suddenly sees around him in any other way than to give credit to the Author of Life and the Source of Love.

    That is the way this story’s climax plays out. All along in these stories, however, we’ve been wondering about all this. If God was involved, then did that make what the ten brothers did to hapless Joseph OK after all? Was this necessary in the sense that God himself mapped out that dirty scheme, slipped the plan into the heart of Judah, and then goaded Judah to carry it out? Is that what God’s involvement in this has to mean?

    These are among the most difficult of all questions to ask. Some Christians would have no difficulty answering these ponderings by saying that of course all of life is mysteriously scripted and pre-ordained by God. Although we avoid making God the source of evil or sin, we nevertheless conclude that even evil and sin couldn’t happen unless God let it happen. God operates some big secret plan that we cannot fathom but that somehow allows God to have something to do with the evil that happens yet without God’s being at fault for having caused that evil.

    Others would say that free will and the way God set up the world means that God has not pre-written a script that we humans can do no more than blindly follow like actors on a stage. Instead, God has programmed some free play into the universe. Yet that freedom of choice does not cause this world to be out of God’s control. Instead God is actually powerful and clever enough to be able to realize his larger purposes despite, and sometimes even through, those events that also God despises as sinful.

    Still others would parse these matters in a quite different fashion. Some would say that we’re fooling ourselves if we think we can look back on an unhappy series of calamities such as Joseph had experienced and then retroactively stamp it all with God’s seal of approval. We’re merely trying to comfort ourselves by making sense of the senseless through invoking God as the ultimate arbiter of all confusing things. That is a cynical point of view, of course, though we should admit that we’ve all seen something of this in action at one time or another. A drunk driver runs down a two-year-old, and yet the parents look unblinkingly into a TV camera and say, “We know it was really God who took little Felicia home and so it’s OK. We’ll submit to God’s superior wisdom.”

    Sometimes we are too quick in our claims to know exactly what God makes of a certain bad situation and/or how God may have been active in or through a tragic event. Speedy answers are often wrong answers. Conversely, though, there may be other times when we are too slow to recall that if God is as sovereign and powerful as we confess him to be, then there is finally something bigger and more full of purpose that is always coming under, over, and beyond the booming-buzzing nature of global events and history. We may not always achieve the clarity Joseph displays in Genesis 45, but neither should we dismiss the idea that probably there is much more going on at any given moment than we suspect.

    We don’t always know what God is up to, and we are properly cautious about too quickly saying we do know not just what God is doing in the world and also just why he’s doing it. But if we are Christians, then we cannot give up on the twin notions that there is ultimately both a what and a why to things as God is working them out.

    It’s all so complicated and yet Christian people have long confessed that it all comes together in the simplicity of God. To those not versed in theology, it is sometimes a bit of a bracing surprise to hear God described as a simple being. Yet simplicity has long been a key attribute that theologians have ascribed to the Almighty One of the cosmos. God is a simple being in the sense that God is not composed of various diverse elements. God has no accidental qualities (the way a human person might have blue eyes or brown, might be short or tall) nor does God ever find one part of his nature at odds with another part. God is pure divinity, pure and simple being, all the way through. And so if and when God has a certain plan, everything in God is directed toward that plan’s execution–no one part of the divine being will ever hinder or get in the way of some other part. There is no competition within the Trinity, no disagreements, no doubts as to what must be and will be accomplished.

    Life is complicated but the simplicity of God assures us that in the long run and in the last analysis, God will finish what he intends for us. And when the great cosmic climax one day comes–when not just a few narrative threads come together as happened in Genesis 45 but when untold billions of such threads come together before the judgment seat of God–then we should hope and expect that diverse though those historic threads are, they will all find one final answer in God’s providence in a similar way to how guilt, guile, and grief all found their final answer in Joseph’s eloquent, yet simple, declaration: “It is all of God!” It is our hope that when God’s kingdom fully comes, we will see something in the divine heart and mind that will answer our many questions. It is our hope that our various guilts and griefs, our many questions about evil and goodness, the myriad issues of history that vex us now, will find resolution in the awful grace and tenacious execution of a universe-wide providence.

    That’s our hope. If we knew all of this for sure at this present moment, if we could see it all with utter clarity, we wouldn’t need hope. But for now we do. Because for now we need the gentle power of a grace that holds faith together; a grace that once in a while affords us a glimpse over the distant horizon into that far country where God will be all in all.

    I like the way this first part of the story ends in verse 15. After the shock of it all wore off, after there had been a whole lot of weeping and hugging and expressions of disbelief, it seems like everyone took a deep breath, wiped their eyes, and then, the text says, the brothers all sat down “and talked with Joseph.”

    It’s such a common image with which to end such an uncommon and climactic story. But there’s something about the purely mundane and ordinary nature of this closing picture that fits. In a way, it’s what we hope will happen for all eternity once the kingdom fully comes. The larger sweep of God’s cosmic providence will be revealed for all to see. There will be astonishment, weeping, gasps, and wonder. But once that all begins to lift, perhaps we will all be able to take a deep breath, sit down with our Lord Jesus Christ and spend a long time just talking about it all. We’ll have plenty of time–an entire eternity in which to explore the riches of the mysteries of our great God and the universe he created.

    Illustration Idea

    Frederick Buechner once wrote a lovely book called The Alphabet of Grace. Near the end of this volume, Buechner compared life to the Hebrew language. As some of you know, ancient Hebrew contains no vowels but only consonants. So you have words that, all by themselves on paper, look like BRK, GDL, BNJMN. You can’t pronounce such things, of course, without vowel sounds to slide in between those consonants. Native Hebrew speakers know just which vowels to supply where. And so BRK becomes barak, GDL becomes gadol, and so on.

    Life is a little like that, Buechner suggests. There are lots of hard truths, hard sounds that get jammed together in the tragedies (and even in the ordinary circumstances) of our lives. It doesn’t always make sense or seem even very pronounceable. But it is finally faith that provides the vowels at just the right points, making even for now at least a little bit of sense of things. Life isn’t always very phonetic in some literal sense, but with the Spirit’s help, perhaps grace can supply what is sometimes missing.

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 133

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    Romans 11: 1-2a, 25-32

    Author: Stan Mast