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July 7, 2015, 12:13 PM

God's Providence?


Genesis 50:15-21             
15 When Joseph’s brothers realized that their father was now dead, they said, “What if Joseph bears a grudge against us, and wants to pay us back seriously for all of the terrible things we did to him?” 16 So they approached[a] Joseph and said, “Your father gave orders before he died, telling us, 17 ‘This is what you should say to Joseph. “Please, forgive your brothers’ sins and misdeeds, for they did terrible things to you. Now, please forgive the sins of the servants of your father’s God.”’” Joseph wept when they spoke to him.
18 His brothers wept[b] too, fell down in front of him, and said, “We’re here as your slaves.”
19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I God? 20 You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it, in order to save the lives of many people, just as he’s doing today. 21 Now, don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your children.” So he put them at ease and spoke reassuringly to them.
 
“God’s Providence”
 
When I was a child, probably early elementary age, a small circus came through my hometown. It featured human acts, not animal ones—jugglers, acrobats, trapeze artists, contortionists, and my favorite, tightrope walkers. I was mesmerized by the balance of this little girl, not much older than myself, who could walk effortlessly across that thin cable, back and forth, doing somersaults, carrying objects, sitting in a chair, standing on the shoulders of others. How I wanted to do what she did! The day after visiting the circus I searched the barn and garage for strong rope, and began stringing it up between objects. However, the same thing happened every time—the rope would sag under my weight. Nothing I did could keep the rope taunt enough for someone to walk on it.
 
And then one day I found it! I was walking across the barnyard to fetch one of the horses when my eyes fell upon the hay escalator, or more importantly, the steel cables that held the escalator firmly in place. Pulled tightly between earth and escalator, these cables could hold up a cow without effort! Eureka! I spent the entire summer perfecting my balance upon those cables. I never reached the expertise of the circus walkers I admired, but I was pretty good. I had found the firmness I needed to practice my walk because the cable was held firm in the tension of the two poles.
 
I frequently use this image of tightrope walking, of the tension between two points holding me up, when I enter into theological conversations.  It is tricky to speak of God in ‘either/or’ terms.  God seems to be more ‘both/and…and…and…and.’ We, as the people of God, need to embrace good theological conversation regularly. After all, theology literally means to speak of God, and when we speak of God with one another, most times, our understanding grows and deepens and expands. This week, as I prepared for Messy Church and this Sunday’s services, I kept coming across a theological term that is often spoken of in terms of ‘either/or,’ and might be less difficult if we could speak of it differently—and live in the tension between the points. Let’s talk about ‘providence.’
 
Providence is the idea of divine guidance. It is the theological concept that God is in control and guiding human destiny and all creation. It is reflected in such favorite hymns as “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” or “God Will Take Care of You.”
Be not dismayed whate’er betide, God will take care of you;
beneath his wings of love abide, God will take care of you.
 
It is the comforting power of Psalm 23—“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters…” It is the word used to describe God’s presence in the story of Joseph as events unfold to place Joseph in power in Egypt for the survival of Israel. Providence is the understanding that God has a plan for God’s creation, and is working toward the fulfillment of that plan throughout the course of history. This idea of God’s providence often creates those poles, those two points, that divide God’s people.
 
We have all heard the clichés from one side of the providence discussion:
            God must have had a reason…
            It was all part of God’s plan…
            It is God’s will…
            I want to know God’s will for my life…
            God will take care of you…
            It will all work out in the end…
Some people hears these phrases and finds great comfort. They feel it expresses God’s almighty presence in all things, and assures them that God is in control. These phrases, however, can lead to the desperate need to assign blame for catastrophic events, and to the horrible words from televangelists that blame tornados and hurricanes on groups they don’t like, and people they deem sinful. What happens when it doesn’t work out? What happens when it all seems senseless? How could 97 people slaughtered during worship in Nigeria be part of the plan of a loving God?
 
Others hear these phrases and run frantically to the other extreme, the belief that God does not cause events to happen at all—the popular two word phrase, ‘stuff happens (to paraphrase in a worship-friendly way).’ Many who find themselves in this camp do believe, however, that God is still present in the ‘stuff.’ Many even testify that God can work within the ‘stuff’ to redeem, restore, and reconcile. They believe that God can bring goodness to light even in the darkest moments. The words of forgiveness from the lips of the families of the Charleston victims to the shooter has been lifted up recently as an example of God working in the senseless violence of terrorism at Mother Emanuel. But are we willing to say that God is not in control? That God has no plan for God’s creation? What do we do with the beautiful words of scripture that attest to divine providence? Do we reject Psalm 23 and other comforting scriptures like it? Are we willing to say it is all coincidence and not see a divine hand at work?
 
Is there a way to walk firmly on the tension created by the two poles, the two points? Perhaps the story of Joseph shows us a way…
 
God is certainly active in the story of Joseph but not in the way God is with Abraham and Sarah, or in the Exodus that we will spend time with next week. God is moving behind the events that lead Joseph to Pharaoh’s right hand in Egypt. Last week we explored God’s desire for a beloved community, birthed by a barren couple, to serve as an example to all the nations. Abraham and Sarah answer God’s call and begin the work of God’s kingdom coming to fruition within God’s creation. Now God’s dream is in jeopardy—as famine looms on the horizon, threatening not only Sarah and Abraham’s grandchildren, but many people from many nations. According to Genesis, God does have a desire for God’s creation. God has a plan—for humankind to live as partner people, in intimate relationship with God, caretaking all of creation—the kingdom of God. But God is not a puppet master pulling the strings to force that commonwealth upon us. God issues invitations, opens opportunities, seeks to work within situations, if God finds willing partners.
 
God opens a door by gifting to Joseph dreams that have the potential to unsettle the status quo. These dreams given to Joseph have the potential to lead Joseph, his family, and the surrounding nations closer to God’s dream.  If Joseph believes these wild images of leadership, doesn’t just blame it on bad falafel, and acts upon them, the journey toward abundance, and not scarcity, begins. These smaller dreams, given to Joseph, to the baker and cupbearer, to Pharaoh himself, work to preserve God’s plan, God’s will, for God’s people and all creation—life in full relationship with God.
 
Joseph’s story is an artful narrative that depicts God as opening opportunities in which Joseph can act to help God realize God’s dream. It invites God’s people to recognize that God is indeed at work in the world, and not only as a booming voice, or in signs and wonders (as we will see next week in Moses’ story). God nudges, opens doors, invites and calls, points to opportunities within our own lives where we can partner with God in living the commonwealth here and now. Joseph’s story invites us to live in the tension of God’s Providence and God’s gift of free will, letting them form a firm foundation for our walk of faith. God does have a plan, a beautiful dream of the beloved community. And we have the freedom to be part of that dream, or not. God will not force us into God’s vision, nor punish us if we don’t follow where God wishes to lead us.
 
This in only the beginning of our conversation about providence, our ongoing dialogue about God and our relationship with God. There are so many more points creating a network of cables on which our faith is lifted up and held. God is not a micromanager, creating suffering and hardship for some and not for others. But neither is God hands off with the beautiful and diverse people God spoke into being and designed in God’s image. Theology takes lots of practice, to walk the tense cables of understanding, faith, and belief. Evangelism is to speak the good news of God, to share that good news with others. If we don’t practice how we speak of God, what we say may be the opposite of the good news we are called to share. May God bless our conversations—that we may speak and listen with grace.  Amen.

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