Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b
This week’s readings are about God’s safekeeping of fallible, wayward, and mortal humanity. God responds to all who call upon God. God wishes to save persons in distress; in this we can have faith. Still, we must ponder the circuitous routes of salvation and wholeness and the reality that not all prayers for deliverance appear to be answered – violence takes the lives of innocents, often through the machinations of religious zealots; young children die of cancer; homes are foreclosed forcing families to depend on the mercy of strangers; and pleas for rescue from domestic violence are unnoticed.
We are introduced to Jacob and his family in this week’s Hebraic scripture reading. This is surely a dysfunctional family, headed by a narcissistic parent. Perhaps, Jacob/Israel can’t help it; but the child of his later years is his favorite. He treats him with greater affection and gives him more opportunities to shine and grow than his brothers, and they are rightfully angry. Perhaps, Jacob/Israel sees himself in his youngest son; Joseph has an intuitive sense that mirrors his father’s experiences of the Holy and a cocky attitude that mirrors his own youthful self-confidence. To make matters worse, Joseph knows he is the favorite, and lacks the maturity to filter his dream sharing as they relate to his brothers.
The brothers conspire to kill the favored son. But, they don’t. Selling him into slavery is evil; however, it is preferable to killing Joseph. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said that God’s aim in any given situation is the “best for that impasse” and this “best” may not always be very good. Contextually, sometimes our level of previous choices, spiritual maturity and ethical understanding limits our possible courses of action. No truly good decision is possible; simply the least damaging one. Jacob survives and eventually saves his family. He grows through his experiences and overcomes his alienation. “In all things God works for good,” as Paul notes in Romans 8. God was moving through this less than optimal decision to bring forth future decisions and actions by Jacob, such that what his brothers aimed for evil, God turned to good. (Genesis 50:20)
Psalm 105 is a hymn to God’s deliverance of Israel. God is at work in the details of our lives, large and small, to secure our people’s well-being. God’s rescue and ongoing inspiration of Joseph enabled the Israelites to flourish in the centuries ahead. God chooses all, but works in each person’s life to realize God’s Shalom in our world.
Just yesterday, I saw this quote from Romans on Facebook on a friend’s page: “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” This passage led to a variety of interpretations, some of which implied that God only loved some of God’s children, predestined others to damnation, or that those who don’t explicitly believe are left out of God’s plan and will suffer the consequences of divine abandonment. The passage raises many possible interpretations, inclusive and exclusive in nature. It can be viewed primarily as a doctrinal litmus test as many of the Facebook commentators saw it, or it can be viewed more inclusively, if taken in its fullest context, the salvation of both Jew and Gentile. It can be interpreted holistically to embrace the confession of our lives as well as our words.
While we can’t fully ascertain Paul’s exact intention, the passage makes clear, first, that salvation and wholeness are for all people and all nations and not exclusive to religious and ethnic Jews. This is a radical statement that challenges any parochial images of God or divine favoritism. God favors all people. Moreover, all who call upon God will be saved. Any who ask for divine help, even if they lack words or theology, will be welcomed into God’s realm. God looks to our hearts not our theology. Beyond this, I believe that Paul’s affirmation joins faith and action: as the Quakers say, “let your life speak.” Our lives are our testimonies to our faith. Apart from love, doctrine is lifeless; faith without works is dead; doctrine without welcome is destructive.
The adventurous preacher might ask his congregants to reflect on the ways that they confess their faith in daily life. They might also consider what their lives reveal about their faith.
This week’s gospel begins with Jesus at prayer. Action leads to contemplation in the rhythm of faith and personal well-being. After transforming – by what means we don’t know – a few loaves and fish into a banquet and a day of preaching and teaching, Jesus retires to a quiet place to commune with God. Our worship involves the private and public aspects of faith. We need to gather as a community and to reach out to the world; we also need to be still and listen for God’s voice in stillness, in the still small voice, as well as maelstrom of daily events. (For more on this in pastoral ministry, see Bruce Epperly, A Center in a Cyclone: 21st Century Clergy Self-care and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Kate Epperly)
From silence Jesus goes into action, riding the waves to meet his followers. Once again, they are afraid of the storm. Jesus reassures them that all will be well, inspiring Peter to jump out of the boat. As long as Peter looks to Jesus, he can walk on water. The moment he is overcome by fear, he sinks. When he cries out, seeking salvation, Jesus rescues him, without judgment or recrimination. “Help” or “Save me” are sometimes all we need to say to receive the guidance we need.
Today’s readings invite us to look to God for our salvation, deliverance, and wholeness. When we keep our eyes on Jesus, we gain perspective on life and see the storms and trials of life in terms of God’s movements in our lives and not our own fallible and individualistic efforts. We are never alone. Our prayers touch the heart of God, and receive God’s response in the midst of life’s often challenging and difficult moments. Opening to God gives us faith that a way will be made and that even in situations we cannot change, God is with us and will deliver us from the evils that beset us.