A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on August 14, 2011.
Last week I used the phrase, “as fate would have it,” to describe our amazement at what happened just as Joseph’s life was in danger from the jealous anger of his brothers. It’s a phrase we all use to describe those occurrences when something odd or unusual happens, as something that changes things. In this case, it was a caravan of traders that came along just as Joseph’s brothers were arguing how to kill him and what to do with his body. I also saw this kind of thing as what Robert Johnson calls, “the slender threads” as the smallest of incidents that propel our stories in altogether new directions. More often than not, it’s the slender threads that make the most powerful differences in our narratives.
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 instead of dying, he was sold into slavery. Admittedly not many would consider being sold on the slave market to be particularly good news, it happened in just the slenderest slice of time when it was most needed. But today, I want to unpack that notion in light of the providence of God. We use such phrases because we’re not sure just what to say about how quirky and surreal life can be.
In our unspoken contract with life, how has fate dealt the cards for you? Blind fate (whether you call it good luck or bad luck) seems like such a wimpy way to explain why it is that important events, whether they are good or bad, can become what theologian James Loder would call “transformational moments,” meaning any experience or event with the power to alter the direction of the arc of our lives or change the way we view life in light of the power of the incidence or event.1
By using the phrase: “As fate would have it” last week, I wanted to set up a conversation about providence, a word we don’t use much anymore, but still a word loaded with meaning for us who believe life is a purposeful journey. 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 curious as kittens as to why they happened to us, or, why they happened just when they did.This morning, I want to draw upon this story of Joseph and his brothers as a way to understand the notion of fate as a term of making meaning of what happens in life and to consider how those slender threads are in actuality a form of God’s providence.
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 that 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. The significance of the “finger game” was explained to them that evening.
It was the first selection, the first verdict made on their existence or nonexistence. For the great majority of the transport (about 90%), it meant immediate death. Their sentence was carried out within the first few hours of their arrival in the death camp known as Auschwitz. Those who were sent to the left were marched from the station straight to the crematorium where they passed through a doorway marked “Bath” and it was there they were gassed to death.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 his will in our lives? It’s one thing to deal with the mistakes we make of our own lives. But it’s quite another to deal with the external forces that make us feel we have no control over our destiny.
The same famine that ravaged Egypt also desolated Palestine, so that Joseph’s brothers, in their efforts to find food, came face-to-face with the brother they had sold into slavery. Yet, in an ironic twist, while Joseph recognized them, they were ignorant of the identity of this powerful official with whom they had been negotiating and before whom they now stood condemned of theft.
In purely literary terms, what could be a juicier turn of events: Joseph, with one wave of his hand, could now avenge the terrible wrong done to him so long ago by snuffing out the life or the liberty of these trembling sons of Jacob who had come seeking food.
But that was not Joseph’s way, because Joseph had not let the injustice of his brothers turn into hateful revenge. 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 bless his family and keep the promise alive.
Joseph dealt with the remaining issue of the brothers by making a bold theological assertion: Despite their hateful intentions, God was in their actions performing something good. That is the point of the Joseph story as a whole, summarized succinctly in Genesis 50:20: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”
In the everyday events of our lives, we are not left defenseless. And in the “everydayness,” the two themes of the passage, “human conflict” and “divine care,” converge. And in that truth, a person of faith like Joseph saw beyond the moment and its pain and sensed the presence of God who took the elements of pain and sorrow and made them sing again.4
Six years ago in 2005, Thomas Doswell of Pittsburgh walked out of prison when a county judge ruled he was innocent of the charges that convicted him in 1986. He had been convicted of rape when he was 25 years old. When the charges were reversed his family and friends broke into applause. A brief half hour later, Thomas, now 44, walked out to speak to a group of reporters about this reversal of fortune.
One might wonder why it took so long to bring justice to bear on this faulty accusation. After 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, Thomas Doswell was not her rapist.
What made this story jump off the page was his response to spending 19 years 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. The court system is not perfect, but it works.”
Although Doswell spent nearly two decades in prison, neither he nor his family expressed their anger. “I couldn’t walk around with anger and bitterness,” he said while speaking on a cell phone (something that did not exist when he first went to jail). “It would have done me more harm than good,” he said simply.5
Doswell’s words are one man’s testimony of the power of forgiveness and perhaps a sign of God’s providence in his life. In the face of unexplainable injustice, he refused to become a bitter person. Instead of anger and retribution, he chose a different path. He chose to see the events through the lens of God’s mercy.
Barbara Brown Taylor tells us, “Contrary to what most of us have been taught, it 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.”6
So in this bizarre story of justice reversed, what’s the role of fate and what’s the role of providence? Was it simply Thomas Doswell’s bad luck to have been thumbed as the rapist? Was he just the wrong guy at the wrong place? Is luck or fate merely the shallow end of the pool in the absence of seeing how God is involved in our lives? In the face of such daunting life experiences, can we see providence as the proof that God is at work in us and through us?
God’s job is not to prevent these things from happening. God’s job is to stay present in them and to keep on being God, 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 spite of us.7
Call it fate or fortune, whether it’s good or bad, but as people of faith, perhaps we can pull the curtain back from it all and can see that “the larger hand” I referred to last week is God working with the stuff of our lives to use in the kingdom God is building. It’s providence that helps us understand the mystery of what God is doing if we’ll believe.
1 James Loder, The Transforming Moment, Colorado Springs CO: Helmers and Howard Publishing Co., 1989
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
4 Gene Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year A, Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992, 402-3
5 Associated Press, “Justice Served After 19 Years, DNA Tests Prove Man, 46, Innocent in 1986 Rape Case,” The Kansas City Star, 8/2/05
6 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Listening to Your Life,” from Gospel Medicine, Cambridge: Cowley, 1995, 115-120