Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
1 Kings 19:9-18
August 13th, 2017
Broad Street United Methodist Church
Will you pray with me?
Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore. Let the search for our salvation be thy glory evermore. May I speak in the name of the living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
My little brother Scott and I were listening to the Wicked soundtrack on the way back from Chapel Hill last night after Marcus and Taylor’s wedding, and we listened to the hit song from that hit Broadway musical, “For Good” and in that song, it has words such as these (I’m not going to sing them because unlike my brother I was not given the gift of song), “I’ve heard it said, that people come into our lives for a reason bringing something we must learn, and we are led to those who help us most to grow if we let them and we help them in return, well I don’t know if I believe that’s true, but I know I’m who I am today because I knew you. Like a comet pulled from orbit as it passes the sun, like a stream that meets a boulder, halfway through the wood. Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better, but because I knew you, I have been changed for good… So much of me is made of what I learned from you, you’ll be with me like a handprint on my heart. And now whatever way our stories end, I know you have re-written mine by being my friend. Like a ship blown from its mooring by a wind off the sea, who can say if I’ve been changed for the better, but because I knew you, I have been changed for good. ” Hold onto that song as we journey through the text today.
What do you do with a silent God? Theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and countless others have probed that question from every tragedy like the World Wars or the Holocaust or September 11th or the Great Recession of 2008. What do you do when God is silent? What do you do when God is absent? These are very real questions in need of very real answers. Sure we could turn to Scripture and say that God shows up just in time but that’s harder to say to families of murder victims or the of the opioid epidemic. We could point to God’s plan in it all and how God works in mysterious ways, how many times have you heard that? These answers all fall strangely short in our 21st century lives. And unless you’re willing to be a fundamentalist and have blind faith they just don’t strike at the heart of the matter for people today. Relevant Christians and theologians in today’s world do not have all the answers, and that is perhaps the greatest thing we could take from today’s Scripture readings.
We have two very different places and contexts for today’s seemingly unrelated scripture lessons. God is absent in our reading of Joseph’s selling into slavery and his brother’s treachery. And Elijah is on the run from vicious people who want his head on the platter. We see that God is strangely absent in the ways that we think God should be present in this story. Shouldn’t God have intervened and saved Joseph and Elijah, two of the greatest characters in the Hebrew Bible? Shouldn’t God have saved them from affliction and the sword and slavery because God is good? These are all questions I’ve heard time and time again. And I didn’t have an answer until the other day when I was reading Rob Bell’s new book, What is the Bible? Bell points out that we read scripture incorrectly, we read it in bits and pieces and if you waltzed into worship today without knowing the greater context of the story you would think that God is silent, absent and mean.
But friends let me propose to you that reading scripture and our very lives as incidences in a story book is like trying to look at a whale with a microscope, sure you may see things that you may have never seen, but you also have to zoom out to see the larger picture. And the larger picture is this: God always redeems and restores. As theologian and preacher Sam Wells puts it, “We will never escape the fire, just like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, but God is with us in the fire.”
We can never answer why the Holocaust happened or why Jim Crow was even in the vocabulary of our language during the early 20th century. But what we can do is respond to these situational realities of hate with an overwhelming force of love. Because that’s precisely what Christ did on the cross. Christ was willing to experience the depth of the human condition so that we might live and receive an abundance of life. We threw death and God and God laughed it off on Easter morning. If anything, we should be careful that we don’t think God’s silence is God’s absence, but instead perhaps maybe we should view it as we’re not listening hard enough.
God was there when you received the cancer diagnosis or didn’t receive the promotion. God was there as you buried your spouse or your daughter far too early. God was there when your friend was killed in a car accident. God was there when your husband left, or your wife was barren. God was there. I promise you with every fiber of my being that God was there working and redeeming your story, just as God redeemed the whole of Creation two millennia ago.
I must confess that I have all too often tried to push God into a box like many of us have. I’ve cried out to God, “Where are you?” “Why here?” “Why now?” and I’ve oftentimes felt the deafening silence of God. But I’m reminded as John Wesley would be quick to remind all of us that God is a God of providential and prevenient grace, that grace present in our lives before we knew it could take root. God has been working since before time began to bring to completion your life for the sake of the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. And to borrow again from the Apostle Paul, “Now we see through a mirror darkly, then we shall see face to face.” You know that old hymn “We’ll understand it better by and by” has some credence here in this sermon. Because we cannot possibly understand the marvelous workings of God in this life, maybe we’ll understand it better on the other side of the Jordan. One can only hope. This is where I would have normally ended our sermon for the day and sent us on our way to Cozumel Mexican Restaurant or Sorrento’s Restaurant. But the events of yesterday require a different form of preaching and proclamation.
Today we’ve been talking about the silence of God, and the timing of God. But yesterday, there was a silence of a different kind, not the silence of God, but the silence of the church and her people. Yesterday, in Charlottesville, Virginia, the KKK, white nationalists, and Neo-Nazis marched on the town and attacked clergy, and counter-protesters in violent acts of oppressive racism. It was not safe to be black or a person of color in Charlottesville yesterday. So I have to ask you, what were you doing yesterday? God, who calls us not to silence but to redemption was watching, and if you didn’t see the oppression, if it somehow missed you on social media or the nightly news you only have yourself to blame. Because God is never blind to the suffering of people, and we can’t be either. Just two weeks ago from this very pulpit I proclaimed that God has no hands or feet or mouth but ours. And if you are silent at a moment like this, if you do not condemn the racism you see through whatever channels and avenues you have, you can leave church now because you’re doing church wrong.
When we’re baptized into the United Methodist faith or make a profession of faith, we are asked if we reject evil and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves, and if for some reason you are sympathetic to the white nationalists, if this is making you squirm in your pew then you need to reconsider your place in the kingdom of God. Because in the kingdom of God there is no racism allowed, and the last will be exalted. So that’s bad news for Broad Street. For too long, we have sat on the throne of exaltedness as the downtown, rich, white church, trust me, I’ve been complicit in it as well. Until we get off our thrones and into the streets to proclaim and re-claim what racism has taken away, we’ve missed the point of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Now before you all leave, I want to offer a word of hope. It’s easy to be the white Christian moderate and say this isn’t all about me, but God has commanded us to speak up to small and big acts of oppression. So that may mean condemning the racist joke or standing up for the woman who needs a raise because they make 70 cents on the dollar compared to men. Perhaps it’s hiring Jaquan instead of Jim, or saying enough is enough and that black lives matter to God. When you ignore the fact that white matters more than black you are being silent to a population of God’s children. But today, you can change for the better, because God knew you and knows you, because of the handprint on your heart like in the musical Wicked, you have been changed for good. And you can speak up and speak out in God’s name. That is the greatest and most hope-filled news of all. Because we knew God, we have been changed, for good.
Thanks be to God. Amen.