Sermon by Burton Cooper
Gen 37; Rom 10:5-15; Matt 14:22-33
When the brothers saw that their father, Jacob, loved Joseph
more than all his brothers, they hated Joseph …
Jacob said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem?
Come, I will send you to them.” …
So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them …
The (brothers) saw Joseph from a distance and said to one another,
“Come, let us kill him.”
“Come, let us kill him.” Not exactly what we expect of brothers. Not exactly, perhaps, what we might expect of the Bible, a holy book. Shouldn’t a holy book be filled with exemplary lives? But this holy book is full of stories of the way people, even brothers, are consumed by hate and impelled to harm each other. Cain kills his brother Abel; Jacob deprives Esau of his legacy; Amnon, King David’s son, rapes his sister, Tamar; Israel’s history, from its tribal start through its long national existence, is filled with pitiless wars against her neighbors. Hate and Harm. They seem to go together as human impulses. You’d think by now that nothing could be clearer than that our mutual hating and harming of each other ends up in self defeating consequences. Not so. We just don’t seem to be able to stop ourselves, giving ourselves over to such bad old instincts as envy, vengeance, violence, rage --- or threatening others, as our president does, with “fire and fury.” The Bible, for all its holiness, for all that it affirms all human beings as created in the image of God, as a little lower than the angels; for all that the Bible is aware of our capacities for greatness, for creating art, architecture, literature; for our capacity for justice and wisdom, for love of God; yet the Bible has no blinders in seeing our inclinations to evil, to darkness. If anything, it is we who have the blinders. It’s amazing that we have allowed the term sin to drop out of our ordinary vocabulary. What is more obvious, more evident, than human sin: in our own time, Isis terrorism exemplifies the extreme end of sinfulness, but the kind of politics and the extent of inequality in our country is no less a piece of evidence. Sin: meaning not some particular act but the way we are driven to pursue our self-interest even in the face of undoing the welfare of others; sin: meaning the way we confuse the narrowness of our perspective, whether it be that of class, race, gender, ethnic group, (confusing our narrow perspective) with universal truth; sin: meaning self-deception, the way we deceive ourselves regarding the extent of our goodness, the extent of our understanding, forgetting our limits, let alone our proneness to error. No, what makes the Bible a holy book is not that it turns a blind eye to our destructiveness, but that it sees beyond that destructiveness, beyond the hate and the harm that we inflict upon each other, beyond the hate and the harm that distracts us, worse, corrupts us, from who we are in the depths of our being, for the Bible lives by a transcendental vision, and its power, its holiness, lies in drawing us into living by that vision, or at least towards that vision, a vision that grace lies beyond sin, God’s grace, a vision of forgiveness, of healing, of new being, a vision that the last word will not be darkness but light and life.
Paul knows this, articulates this vision in a series of letters for which we can never be grateful enough. For Paul’s faith lies in having seen something truly, experienced something truly, something so life giving that he is impelled to tell it to others, as many others as he possibly can, traveling throughout his world, the Mediterranean world, proclaiming, as he does in this morning’s lection reading, that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, meaning God’s grace is for all; meaning that those identities which seem to separate us, identities rooted in nation or ethnicity or race or religion or gender or class are preliminary identities, that our deepest identity is that all of us are children of God, brothers and sisters to each other, called to love each other, act justly towards each other, build each other up, not hate and harm each other, tearing ourselves down. Many believed Paul; many, in fact most, did not. Jesus cries out in today’s gospel, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” That cry is widely applicable, more so today than ever, when we, modern people that we are, informed by our psychological and sociological truths, are so skeptical, so suspicious, of seeing anything truly; so suspicious of any kind of metaphysical, spiritual talk of a reality beyond that of the natural, physical world, the world that the physical sciences uncover for us. “Why do you doubt,” Jesus asked the disciples back then, and asks us now, today. As if we don’t know why we doubt. Perhaps the more helpful question for us whose faith may be filled with doubts is how can we overcome those doubts, or, if not that, how can we live in faith even as we have those doubts. Not an easy question to answer. Paul sometimes seems to think that because he has seen something truly, and because others have seen something truly, that we can believe on the basis of his witness and the witness of others. Paul is thinking that religious faith has to do with being nurtured and upheld by the faith of others --- which is true enough. But, in thinking that, Paul is forgetting something that is also true, something that the philosopher Whitehead put his finger on when he said that “religion is what we do in our solitude,” meaning the decision to be a person of faith, the decision to place oneself in a community of faith, is made in solitude. No one can decide for me; no one can accept God’s grace, God’s forgiveness for me, no one can accept God’s call for me. I am all alone in deciding what it is to see truly as Paul saw truly. Even so, there is something another can say to me, can say to me even in my solitude, even in my doubts, something that Thoreau, that distinctive American thinker, used to say, over and over again (as I learned in reading multiple reviews of a new biography on Thoreau); that in order to see truly we need to anticipate, we need to expect. “We must learn to reawaken,” Thoreau writes, “and keep ourselves awake by an infinite expectation of the dawn,” to which I would amend, “we must learn to keep ourselves awake to an infinite expectation of God’s grace.” Thoreau is alerting us to the power of expectation, the power of anticipation, to help us see truly. He is, of course, referring to the beauty and wonder of nature, but the power of anticipation, the power of expectation, is also the case when it comes to experiencing God’s grace, God‘s forgiveness, God’s healing, God’s empowerment. In anticipation, we discover, or, more cautiously, in anticipation we open ourselves to discovery, to discovering God’s presence in our lives, Christ’s spirit in our lives, giving us a sense of meaning and purpose, setting us on a path towards love, goodness, justice, so that beyond whatever darkness, whatever hate, we find ourselves surrounded by, we know truly, we see truly, that darkness and hate will not be the last word, but light and love is our end.
Thanks be to God for this great mercy. Thanks be to Christ. Amen.