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For Goodness Sake
September 11, 2011
09-11-2011 SermonSo many events and emotions are swirling around and within us as we worship today. For one thing, today is our Rally Sunday, kicking off the fall programs. Rally Sunday brings with it an air of excitement that accompanies new beginnings. Of course, today is also the tenth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, so we, along with the whole nation, are mindful of that tragic event and its continuing impact on our lives and nation. Closer to home, the wildfires that ringed the Austin area last week, destroying some 1400 homes and causing two deaths, weigh on us this morning. So we come to church today amid a maelstrom of emotions including joy, wrenching loss, anxiety, and hope.
Well, let’s hoist a theological banner over all these events and emotions. I’m thinking of Joseph’s statement to his brothers in our Genesis reading: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” Is that a banner that we can still wave, even over the ashes of all the evil acts, tragedies and disasters that afflict us today?
Let’s begin exploring that question by refreshing our memory of the Genesis story of Joseph and his brothers. This lengthy saga gives us a kind of lens through which we can look at, and evaluate, our attitudes and responses to the events of our day. The story begins with a treacherous act by Joseph’s jealous brothers. His siblings resent the fact that Joseph is their father Jacob’s favorite son. Joseph doesn’t help matters when he relates a dream to them, in which the brothers bow down in subservience to Joseph. Consumed with envy, when the brothers see a caravan headed for Egypt, they immediately hatch an evil plan sell Joseph into slavery. By doing so, they think, they will be able to rid themselves of daddy’s favorite son and make a little money for themselves on the side.
Once in Egypt, Joseph’s experience there is full of ups and downs. He first wins great favor with the top brass of Egypt, but then he is thrown into prison when he is falsely accused of rape. Eventually, he accurately interprets one of the Pharaoh’s dreams as predicting seven years of plenty, which will be followed by seven years of famine. Because of this interpretation, he is freed from prison and he rises to a position of prominence in Egypt, becoming something like the agricultural minister for the Pharaoh. Then, as predicted, famine does come over the land, but Egypt has ample food because Joseph saw the crisis coming and planned accordingly.
This same famine prompted Joseph’s brothers to come to Egypt in hopes of buying grain. That’s when the brothers are reunited with Joseph. The story of their reunion involves various twists and turns and concludes with the verses we read this morning. We see in this concluding scene how the brothers are fearful that Joseph will seek revenge for the wrong done to him. So they beg forgiveness, invoke their father’s name, and even offer themselves as slaves to Joseph. But to their surprise and great relief, Joseph is not interested in returning evil for evil. Instead he weeps, tells them they have nothing to fear from him, offers to provide for his brothers and their families, and speaks to them with words of kindness. Joseph explains his benevolent actions by appealing to the character and purpose of God: “What you intended for evil,” Joseph says, “God intended for good.”
Is Joseph’s faith in God’s ability to bring good out of evil still tenable for us today? Can we affirm with Joseph that God is lovingly at work even in the worst of events? Is it true, as Joseph assumed, that God can and does take intentional evil and transform it to God’s good purposes?
More to the point, we able to discern any good coming out of the attacks of 9/11? In truth, it’s easier to name the bad things that have ensued from this tragedy. After an initial period of shock, mourning, and soul searching, our nation quickly resorted to retaliation and revenge. Today, after a decade, the war on terror drags on, with no end in sight. In the last ten years, we’ve been engaged in two wars that, to date, have killed twice as many Americans as the number who died in the 9/11 attacks. Torture became widely acceptable. Our suspicion of immigrants and foreigners has intensified. Islamophobia has led to Koran burnings, harassment, protests over the building of Mosques and Islamic centers in American cities. Politically, the last decade has ushered in an era of partisanship and polarization. We can understand those who say, “If God is working some good out of this evil, where is that good?
Well, signs of peace, of healing and understanding are taking place, though perhaps not in the media spotlight. One story that did get at least some press involved a pastor and the congregation of Heartsong Church in Memphis, Tennessee. When the pastor and congregation learned that an Islamic Center was to be erected on land adjacent to their church, they immediately took action. They raised a six-foot sign reading, “Welcome to the neighborhood.” Beyond that symbolic gesture of hospitality, the church opened its worship hall so that their Muslim neighbors would have a place to worship during Ramadan. Friendships have formed; meals have been shared. Interfaith conversations have taken place. When asked why he and the congregation responded to their Muslim neighbors as they did, pastor Steve Stone said, “It was a no-brainer. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors. They are our neighbors. It’s that simple.”
And the story of Heartsong Church in Memphis is not an isolated example. In cities all across America, similar stories have taken place. Since 9/11 many churches have become more aware and better informed about our Muslim neighbors and their faith. At UPC over the last several years, we’ve held dialogue sessions with Muslims, hosted a group of Pakistani Muslims, and even invited an Imam to share the pulpit with me one Sunday morning. Such efforts of interfaith cooperation, dialogue, working together for peace, for better understanding are widespread but under-reported. Maybe God tends to work outside the spotlight, among people in communities and congregations whose members practice forgiveness and seek reconciliation.
I read an amazing story this week in Christian Century. Through an unlikely series of coincidences, a retired American pilot named Dan Cherry found the F-4 Phantom fighter jet that he had piloted decades ago, when he served two tours of duty in Southeast Asia. It was sitting junked and neglected in a thicket of weeds outside a VFW club somewhere in the Midwest. The sight of the plane took him back to April 1972. In a dogfight with a North Vietnamese Russian-made MiG-21, he had fired a heat-seeking rocket that blew the wing off the enemy plane. Cherry recalled seeing the plane’s pilot with his arms broken, ejecting himself from the plane and parachuting to the ground 30 miles outside of Hanoi.
All these years later, that memory launched Cherry on a search for the North Vietnamese pilot, and in 2008 Cherry found him in Ho Chi Minh City. “Welcome to my country,” Nguyen Hong My said when the two men met, “I am glad to see you are in good health. I hope we can be friends.” Cherry went to the man’s home for dinner, met his family and held his one-year-old grandson. Later Hong My returned the favor, and visited Cherry in the United States. Dying to their old selves, two former enemies were reborn as friends.
What this story reminds us is that the good that God intends is not always immediate. Sometimes many years pass before the good emerges. Joseph was sold into slavery and he spent long years in prison, in disfavor, in solitude, before God’s good emerged. Decades passed before the American pilot was spurred to seek reconciliation with his former enemy. It’s important for us as Christians to take a long view of events, remembering that God’s time is not our time. We live in hope and even confidence that God will bring joy out of sorrow, reconciliation out of enmity, and good out of what was intended for evil. This hope allows us to go on after a tragedy, to begin again.
Friends, gathering ten years after the events of 9/ll, 2001, we still live in a world profoundly broken by violence. But our bedrock faith is in God who is working in and through the hostility and terror of our world to bring healing, forgiveness, restoration. This is God’s plan. Today, then, in our own lives, let u eco the faith that Joseph affirmed: God is good…all the time.