... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

Pentecost 9 Year A
Message August 10, 2014

Divine Providence: Human Obedience

Text: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105:1-6,16-22, 45c; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

The title of today’s sermon is Divine Providence – Human Obedience, and links all four readings. This action – response theme is not just isolated to our readings today but can be found in almost every book of the Bible and among the various books themselves. Throughout we witness the continual mercy of God in the lives and history of people, and at the same time either the call to obey or an outpouring of thanks praise and faith.

While the snippet from the Joseph story in our Old Testament lesson almost everyone conjures up the entire story – even those who are not fully versed in the Book of Genesis. Thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber – the musical, the play and the film – “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat” has perhaps put the story into the hearts of most. Thus, despite the fact that there is no mention of God in today’s part of the tale, despite the lack of any moral or theological commentary per se, or despite the absence of any consequences, we all know what will unfold.

Joseph the arrogant petulant son of Jacob and Rachel has become the thorn in the lives of his elder brothers – the sons of Jacob and Leah or Jacob and his concubines, and they would rather be rid of him. The opportunity comes far from home when Joseph travels to Dothan at the request of his father to see how things are with the pasturing of the family’s sheep. The brothers seize the opportunity and scheme on killing Joseph and would have carried through on it had not Ruben talked them out of an immediate murder, and Judah suggested they sell him into slavery. The rest, as we say, is history! Joseph ends up in Egypt, goes from slave to chief administrator under Pharaoh and ultimately is the mastermind behind the salvation of his family.

Even though the small part of the story we heard this morning doesn’t include the conclusion and has no deep moral or theological lessons, the psalmist of Psalm 105 provides both. In a very concise retelling of the saving events in Israel’s life, the author stresses the integral presence and mercy of God. It was God who had prepared Joseph, who had tested him refined him, and who had given him the gift of dreams and dream interpretation. It was God who had been faithful to the covenant to Abraham Isaac Jacob and the entire nation of Israel through what was accomplished in Joseph. God’s providence had prevailed and the psalmist is calling the people to remember, to understand and to respond with thankfulness, praise and obedience.

This providential care and obedience is again seen in the Gospel story of Jesus’ walking on the water, calming the waves and rescuing of Peter as he sinks beneath the waves. To help us understand this we need to unfold the story in its context. Jesus has just finished feeding the five thousand and goes up the mountain by himself to pray. To ensure his quiet time he has dispatched the disciples in a boat to go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. And here the author juxtaposes the quiet time of Jesus’ prayer life with the turmoil of the lives of his disciples as they battle the elements of wind and waves. After a night of struggles and exhaustion the disciples see Jesus calmly walking toward them on the water, and he speaks to them to calm their fears. The Divine Providence comes near and like all people, Peter who is arguably chief of believers questions the consoling providence- “Lord if it is you command me to come to you on the water.” In response to Jesus’ reply, “Come”, Peter gets out of the boat and starts toward Jesus, only to begin to sink. Matthew tells us it was because of his fear that this happened and we are to interpret this both concretely and abstractly. Concretely as humanity not able to overcome the laws of nature by themselves and abstractly as the human condition being an obstacle to true faith. This abstraction concerning faith can be connected as Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt.” It is not about skepticism or natural turmoils. The story of Jesus walking on the water for Matthew is about the faith which believers must hold despite the chaos of the circumstances of life. Jesus was there to save Peter, to buoy him up and give him strength in times of difficulty. “Footprints in the Sand” not which I’m sure you or all families could be seen as an example to what Matthew wishes his audience to take away. Divine Providence is present in both good and bad times – we are but to open ourselves to it and respond in obedience and faith.

And it is this opening up that Paul argues is the difference between the righteousness of the law and the righteousness of faith. Many scholars over the centuries have had difficulty with Paul’s letter to the Romans. It is indeed a complex letter with great depth of theological import. It is written in a convoluted Greco-Roman logical format which to modern ears is cumbersome and weighty. Yet it is filled with remarkable insight, understanding and faith. Brueggemann states that of all the lectionary readings from Romans, Chapter 10 may be the most challenging. However, if we recall that Paul had come out of a Pharisaic sect of Judaism we will glean a comprehension as to his argument. Remember that the Pharisees were not originally an obtuse sect of the Jewish faith. Rather they were a devout group who saw faith as an obedience to God’s laws. Those laws had been given to Moses by God as a means for a righteous lifestyle and Paul had been immersed in this upbringing. In fact Paul had come to be so indoctrinated that he had followed blindly every iota and jot of it even to the point of being led into sin by it. And this is his jumping off point. [And as an aside the jumping off point for Martin Luther and many other reformers of the middle ages.] The law had been so commented upon, so expanded to accommodate human foibles, made so corrupted and so obtuse as to have lost its original intent. Paul, by his Damascus Road experience had been opened by God to see beyond the law, to see and understand how in Christ Jesus the law had been brought to its ultimate meaning. Thus Paul regards faith as the end of the law and Jesus the harbinger or that end. This is not to say the end means that the law is no more. Rather Paul’s use of the word “telos romou” should be more properly understood as the culmination or fulfillment of the law.

For Paul the Law of Moses was holy and by keeping it, in its original intent was to be righteous. However in Christ Jesus a newer deeper understanding of God’s covenant was opened for human guidance.

As I was reading Romans with this appreciation I kept thinking of the difference we all experience in learning. When we were young our learning was purely concrete in nature. We had to mature in order to begin to think abstractly. It is this maturing process that Paul speaks of when he compares the righteousness of the law and righteousness of faith.

A classic example of this is telling time. And this is often used as a test for Alzheimers or dementia in general. When we were young and asked to draw a clock and place the hands at 10 after 11 – the concrete way and the way dementia sufferers do it is to place the hands literally at 10 and 11 positions. The mature and abstract way is to place the little hand at the 11 and the big hand at the 2 positions. This, by an abstract thought process understanding the 360 degree divisions of a circle is interpreted appropriately.

The Law of Moses according to Paul is the concrete way God has provided for us to be obedient. Faith is the abstract way. When humanity has come to see and understand the abstract we will be able to do away with the concrete. And the teacher of the abstract way was Jesus. The Divine Providence resides in Jesus and our obedience is by faith.

May we all come to such faith that we might be able to overcome all the turmoils of the world, arise above the waves of struggle and praise God for the Providence given. Amen