Warning: God at Work!: Sermon for August 20, 2023

In the last couple of weeks’ sermons on Joseph, we had a beginning and a dramatic middle, but we made no attempt to resolve the story. After being thrown into a cistern in the middle of the desert and then saved only by selling him off into slavery, you may have wondered, “What happened then?” We didn’t say it out loud, but clearly we finished last week’s sermon, “To be continued …”

Last week I used the phrase, “as fate would have it,” to describe our amazement at what happens to us. It’s a phrase all of us use to describe those odd or unusual things that happen, things that have the power to shift the direction of our lives. In this case, it was a caravan of traders that came along just as Joseph’s brothers were arguing how to kill him and then what to do with his body.

I described this kind of life-altering thing as “the slender threads,”[1] a metaphor that implies that the smallest incidents have the power to propel us in altogether new directions. More often than not, it may be the slender threads that make the most powerful differences in our lives. In using those phrases, I considered them appropriate ways to talk about Joseph’s good fortune that instead of being murdered by his brothers, slave traders happened to be passing by and they sold him into slavery. Admittedly not many would consider being sold on the slave market to be particularly good news, but it happened in just the slenderest slice of time when it was most needed.

Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

By exploring these phrases, I want to talk about providence, a word we don’t use much anymore, but still a word loaded with meaning for us who believe life’s journey has great purpose. No matter whether you’re a person of faith or not, as humans, we’re meaning-making people and it’s in our nature to need to make sense out of all those inexplicable and capricious events that happen. When those events occur, we’re as curious as kittens as to why they happened to us, or, why they happened just when they did.

One of Viktor Frankl’s first impressions upon arriving at Auschwitz was of the manner in which the trainload of prisoners were divided into two lines, one for the men and one for women, in order to file past a high-ranking SS officer. The officer had assumed an air of careless ease, relaxed as he stood, supporting his right elbow with the palm of his left hand. His right hand was lifted and with the forefinger of that hand he pointed very leisurely to the right or to the left. None of the prisoners had the foggiest idea of the sinister meaning behind the seemingly slight movement of the man’s finger, pointing to the right or to the left, but far more frequently to the left. Soon it was Frankl’s turn. Someone whispered that to be sent to the right side would mean work, the way to the left being for the sick and those incapable of work who were directed to “a special camp.” The SS officer looked him over closely, appeared to hesitate, then put both his hands on Frankl’s shoulders. The officer turned his shoulders very slowly until Frankl looked to the right, and he moved over to that side, set apart for the work detail.

It was the first selection, the first verdict made on their existence or nonexistence. For about 90% of the transport it meant immediate death. Their sentence was carried out within the first few hours of their arrival in the death camp known as Auschwitz.[2] How do we make sense of the apparent nonsensical way in which our lives are lived?

When our lives appear to be lived at the mercy of others who hold our futures in their hands, how can we believe God is still able to work God’s divine will in our lives?

The last time the brothers saw him, he was a young boy shackled by a caravan of traders on their way to Egypt. Betrayed by his brothers, he eventually came face-to-face with the troubled Pharaoh because he was known to interpret dreams. Slender threads once again altered the arc of his life and he became a trusted and influential servant of the Pharaoh.

So, years later, “as fate would have it,” the same famine that ravaged Egypt also desolated Palestine, and Joseph’s brothers came face-to-face with the brother they had sold into slavery. But revenge was not Joseph’s way, because he had not let the injustice of his brothers turn him into a bitter man. The emotional energy displayed by Joseph was countered by the awestruck silence of the eleven. Were they unable to speak simply because they found this revelation hard to believe? Or, was it out of the terror of their guilt over what might happen to them at the hands of their long-lost but now powerful brother? Probably both, but as an act of kindness, Joseph attempted to calm them. His brothers were to be at peace because as he told them, “God sent me before you to preserve life.”[3]

“God sent me…” That was Joseph’s theological interpretation of the chain of events that led him to where he was. It was what Joseph did with the questions of the harm that had been done to him in his earlier life. “Where was God?” he surely asked. God was mysteriously, providentially using this experience so his family could be saved from starvation. In other words, it was God’s providence that was at work taking the broken pieces, the fragments of his life and making something out of those circumstances to keep the promise alive.

In 2005, Thomas Doswell of Pittsburgh walked out of prison when a county judge ruled he was innocent of the charges that convicted him of rape in 1986 when he was 25 years old. A brief half hour later, Thomas walked out to speak to a group of reporters about this reversal of fortune. After 19 years of incarceration, when the science of DNA testing was further refined, Doswell requested that he be tested against the DNA evidence gathered from the victim at the time of the rape. But he was told he didn’t qualify by the county prosecutors. A judge intervened and ordered his case reviewed and the test proved conclusively that while a woman had indeed been raped, Doswell was not her rapist.

What made this story jump off the page was his response to spending nearly two decades behind the fence. As he hugged his girlfriend in front of reporters, he expressed thanks, not bitterness, for his experience. “I’m thankful to be home,” he said from his mother’s front porch: “I’m thankful justice has been served …  (but) I couldn’t walk around with anger and bitterness … It would have done me more harm than good.”  In the face of unexplainable injustice, he refused to become a bitter person.

Barbara Brown Taylor tells us providence “is not about God’s will overriding our own. It is more like a dance, a mysterious dance that takes place between God’s freedom and our freedom, between God’s will and our own. In this dance, it is not God’s job to keep bad things from happening. They do happen: Brothers turn against brothers. People are bought and sold. Famine devastates the land.”

Are fate and whimsy merely the shallow end of the pool in the absence of seeing how God is involved in our lives? God’s job is not to prevent bad things from happening or to make good things happen. God’s job is to stay present in our lives creating whole worlds out of total chaos, breathing life into piles of dust, taking the unfathomable wreckage of our lives and making something fresh and new out of them.

In the stories of Joseph, I’ve used fate, fortune, luck, whimsy, mysterious dance, slender threads, and finally providence to describe how we are invited to make meaning of events, both tragic and deliriously happy, that happen to every one of us in life. As people of faith, perhaps we can have the courage to pull the curtain back from it all and recognize that “the larger hand” I referred to last week is God working with the stuff of our lives.


© Dr. Keith D. Herron, 2023

[1] “Slender Threads” is the phrase coined by Robert Johnson, “Between Heaven and Earth,” to describe the affect that unexpected events can have on our lives.

[2] Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, A Touchstone Book, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1959, 24-26

[3] James Newsome, Texts for Preaching – Year A, Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995, 444-45