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Tuesday, August 02, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-18 AND Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22 OR I Kings 19:9-18 AND Psalm 85:8-13, Romans 10:5-115, Matthew 14:27-33

We never know how things are going to work out in history. We are surprised at who is used in what ways to change the course of entire nations and peoples. There are even sometimes those working quietly that we fail to notice or appreciate. If we speak in terms of the flow of God’s purposes in human history, there’s always someone who is an instrument of those purposes. Are we among those instruments?

Joseph, in this week’s reading from Genesis, is one of those surprises. He goes to Egypt, although not by choice, where he becomes second in command to Pharaoh, interpreting dreams and overseeing economic planning. His advice helps Egypt avoid famine and Joseph is able to see that his family gets a share of the abundance, finally bringing them to live in Egypt. It should not escape our notice that later others rose to power “who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8) Not all is well for God’s people in Egypt. They become slaves, setting the stage for the central story of the Jews, God’s deliverance from bondage as they escape Egypt (after a bit of wandering in the wilderness). I thought about using the title, “God’s Mysterious Ways,” for truly, nothing turns out quite as bad as it begins nor as good as it may first seem.

This week’s reading focuses on another story of the humanity of family relationships. I love these stories which are often overlooked in preaching these days. Perhaps it has to do with questions about their historicity or their patriarchal nature or the flawed humanity of the characters, or their problematic place in the politics of the times. Maybe, for me, that makes them all the more intriguing. They are so human. This week we have a father with a favorite son, jealousy among brothers, an effort by the brothers to put the favored one in his place. You can almost hear the lyrics of the theme song for The Beverly Hillbillies, when the writer says, “This is the story of the family of Jacob.” (Genesis 37:2) Joseph, his 17-year-old son, is introduced with the observation that his father loved him “more than any other of the children.” (vss. 2-4) He even made him a special robe. I loved the story of that robe, called a coat of many colors (following the King James Version), when I was a kid in Sunday School. It seemed like it would be really cool to have a coat like that. Now, in the New Revised Standard Version it is just “a long robe with sleeves.” (vs. 3)

The brothers understandably “hated” Joseph. (vs. 4) They plot to kill “this dreamer.” (vss. 18-20) Reuben, the oldest, tries to save Joseph’s life, having him thrown into a pit instead. (vss. 21-24) By chance (or providence?) a caravan of Ishmaelites comes along and the brothers sell Joseph to them for twenty pieces of silver. (vss. 25-28) That’s how Joseph gets to Egypt and that’s as far as the story takes us this week. I’ve already outlined the larger story and we have more readings ahead of us in the coming weeks.

Suffice it to say that in this seeming tragic moment Joseph is embarking on a mission. There’s always someone setting out on a mission, however unwillingly, however unlikely the beginning seems. And later, in Genesis 50:20, Joseph tells his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good . . .”

Psalm 105 is likely included this week because it poetically tells the same story. When God, it says, “summoned famine against the land, and broke every staff of bread, he had sent a man ahead of them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave.” (vss. 16-17)

In the reading from I Kings, the fact that there is always someone is given as encouragement to Elijah. Elijah, having fled under threats of death from Ahab and Jezebel, is cowering in a cave. (I Kings 19:9) I’ve been faithful to you, God, he says, and now “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” (vs. 10) God tells Elijah to pay attention to the forces around him, the wind, the breaking rocks, an earthquake, fire. This experience is often the focus for sermons on this passage. We look for dramatic signs that God is at work, not Joseph in a pit or Elijah in cave on the side of a mountain. But, in this case, God is not in all those “signs.” (vss. 11-12) Elijah finally hears God in the silence. (vss. 12-17) Taking time to be quiet and listen is often seen as the lesson to be drawn from these verses. It is a great lesson. We need to find quiet places in the midst of the turbulence around us, so that the voice of God is not overcome by the noise. I find the point today, though, in God’s final words to Elijah, even though the intervening instructions are troubling. Elijah is reminded that he is not alone. God promises that there are 7000 who are faithful to God’s purposes. There’s always someone, even when we are not yet aware of them. When we are down and wondering how any good can come, it is encouraging, heartening, to know that we are not alone.

The tie-in of the remaining two readings with the theme is a little more tenuous—perhaps just a stretch of my quirky mind. From Romans we have a continuation of Paul’s struggle with how his Jewish identity fits in with his encounter on the Damascus road and his current mission to the Gentiles. His overall point in chapters 9-11 is that when there are those who stray there will be others who come along to pick up the torch. There will always be somebody, some who remain faithful. It need not be made into a statement about Gentiles replacing Jews. It is a truth about religious faithfulness in general, on the part of all people. Ritual and tradition are not the measure of faithfulness. It is not the group to which we belong. It is a matter of faith and belief. (Romans 10:8-11) “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.” (vs. 12)

Primarily this portion from chapter ten emphasizes the need for someone to carry the message. (vs.14) Who’s going to tell people about the experience of God’s love? Are you and I to be counted among the somebodies that there will always be? It doesn’t mean hitting people over the head with rigid doctrinal statements. It simply means sharing, as occasion rises, how “encountering the divine” (last week’s theme) sustains us in our everyday living. I have always liked the description of such people in verse 15. “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” I’m not suggesting that we develop a foot fetish, but reminding us all that when we let people know that they are loved, it is an act of beauty. Sharing love is about beautifying life, and there’s always somebody ready to do that.

Finally, the reading from Matthew tells us a story about Peter. Peter was a brash sort of person, quick to plunge ahead without much counting of the cost, quick to declare his faithfulness but less reliable when put to the test. This week’s story is about his attempt to walk on water. From their wind-battered fishing boat the disciples see Jesus walking across the water toward them. (Matthew 24:22-27) Peter asks permission to step out of the boat and walk toward him. (vs. 28) He does quite well until he notices the storm raging round him. Doubt sets in; Peter begins to sink; Jesus rescues him and accuses him of having little faith. (vss. 29-31)

We could ask what really happened? Was the water simply shallow or were they near the shore so that Jesus was walking along the edge of the beach? In my opinion, that’s not what the story is about. It’s still about keeping the faith. When we declare there’s always someone, we may wonder at times whether Peter is the one. He’s there and then he’s not and then he’s there again. His similarity to our fickle faith makes us a bit uncomfortable. We’re not always sure we’re ready to be the someone who steps up—or in this case out—and when we do our faith may be a bit shaky. Nevertheless, it is people like us, and Peter, and all those others in this week’s readings, that are called to be instruments of God’s purposes.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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