The Adventurous Lectionary – August 9, 2020 – The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33
Today’s passages probe the nature of divine providence in our lives. Is God the sole cause of the events of our lives or does God work within apparently random and possibly malevolent acts to bring about the best possibilities? Even though God does not choose these events, does God work “in all things” for God and even do greater things for those who trust God’s presence in their lives? Is God’s vision sometimes less than perfect for this moment even though God seeks the far horizon of wholeness for all creation?
The biblical story is amazing in its realism. There is no covering up or whitewashing life’s problems. In the Genesis reading we, once again, encounter the interplay of divine providence and family dysfunctionality. Joseph, the baby, is his father’s favorite and everyone knows it and, if they don’t, Joseph makes sure they do! Joseph can do no wrong in his father’s eyes. His father lavishes him with gifts. What’s worse – he’s a dreamer, transparent to deep wisdom he doesn’t yet understand, and his dreams suggest that he will be the greatest in his family and that his brothers will eventually bow down to him! You can imagine the family polarization and undisguised animosity toward this youngest, favored son, destined to supplant them. Outside his father’s circle, Joseph is defenseless and his brothers, weary of his special status and his lording it over them, determine to murder him. But two of his brothers – Reuben and Judah – intercede, first, to save his life and then to sell him to some Midianite traders who pass their way.
There’s nothing laudable in the two brothers’ behavior or intent but their counsel saves Joseph’s life and enables God eventually, through a series of successes and missteps, to providentially raise Joseph to power in Egypt and, at the right time, insure the survival of his family. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead asserts that God’s aim is the best for that [particular] impasse. It may not always be good, given the realities of a concrete situation, but it interjects a higher good than we – or Joseph’s brothers – can imagine at the time. Could divine providence be at work in incremental ways, in contextual ways, to save Joseph’s life? Could God be at work in the fallible and self-interested behaviors of Joseph’s brothers to set in motion a chain of events that leads to Joseph becoming one of Egypt’s political leaders? Is providence, gentle and contextual, rather than coercive and all-determining? Does God work through many events, subtly, rather than dramatically?
God’s presence in the world is always concrete. God works within our current moral and spiritual evolution. Our actions support or deter God’s aim in the world.
In the spirit of Psalm 105, do God’s “wonderful works” occur in the context of very human and fallible behaviors? Does God use our imperfection as a means of bringing about positive outcomes? Certainly, in personal, corporate and congregational life, we deal with limits of time, resource, and personnel. We deal with the limits of our pasts. Our imperfections haunt and often limit us. But, do these ultimately defeat us? Is God working “for good” in all these concrete realities, seeking our wholeness and the well-being of our constitutions? The concreteness of God’s presence and our intentionality is especially obvious in this time of pandemic, when we have been forced to adapt to changed circumstances, often in less than perfect ways? Still, this is the time of our life and God is with us, seeking the best in our challenges and limitations.
Paul’s Letter to the Romans proclaims that God is working in the lives of all people. God is working to bring wholeness to all creation. God will not do this independent of our efforts but through our sharing of God’s word across the boundaries of race and ethnicity. God’s providence nurtures our freedom such that we can call upon God and experience God’s wholeness. Divine providence does not abrogate our freedom but nurtures greater freedom and creativity. Divinity works through humanity in all its limitations to bring forth something holy and beautiful. God’s activity enhances but does not preclude human agency. God seeks to bring out the best of those who recognize their need for grace, and their dependence on God’s saving love.
The Gospel story highlights the importance of prayer and faith in personal transformation. First, Jesus goes to a quiet place for prayer. Prayer is essential to action. Apart from a commitment to prayer, our actions are unfocused and ungrounded. Jesus needs to take time away for prayerful centering. The nature of Jesus’ prayers is unknown. Yet, Jesus prays. Jesus’ relationship with God is nurtured in times of solitary openness to God’s providence. Even though we are sheltering in place, we are often stressed out by the rigors of ministry in time of pandemic. Zoom and live streamed services are often more stressful than meeting with our congregations for public worship. We often feel as if we need to keep on the job, despite our inability to do new many of the basic tasks of ministry.
From prayer comes dramatic action. Jesus walks on stormy waters! We don’t need to understand the mechanics of Jesus’ actions – or even if they occurred as described. At the very least, Matthew focuses on Jesus’ power and presence amid the storms of life. God is with us when we our sinking. The waves cannot divert or defeat God’s providential care for his disciples or ourselves. In response to Jesus’ walking on the waters, Peter wants that same power. He jumps out of the boat and heads toward Jesus. As long as he looks toward Jesus, he does amazing things. But, when he turns away, mired in his fears, he falters and sinks. When he calls upon Jesus, Peter is “saved.” Our faith meets divine providence and awakens us to God’s providential movements in our lives.
If we keep our eyes on Jesus in these stormy seas, we will find our way through this time of pandemic. The waves are real. But God’s grace is greater and can center and empower us.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over fifty books including HOPE BEYOND PANDEMIC, FAITH IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC, GOD ONLINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET, and PROCESS THEOLOGY: EMBRACING ADVENTURE WITH GOD.