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Well. Anything new? Right! EVERYTHING is new. Schools closed. Universities shuttered in favor of on-line classes. Work from home. No NBA or NHL or Major League baseball. No PGA, No Masters. And as the icing on the cake, no toilet paper. The whole world shut down. And all because of a little, tiny bug. Covid-19. Who could have imagined?
My wife and I were in China last summer and briefly even in the now famous or infamous city of Wuhan where the little bug was first encountered. We were in the air and ready to land in Shanghai when we were forced to divert because of a massive typhoon that was currently raging - 600 miles to the west...Wuhan. Wuhan is a city of 11-million people, very few of whom are tourists. Almost no English-speakers. No knives and forks, which for those of us who have never mastered chopsticks is very problematic. My only option was to make do with a soup spoon. I managed...barely. Fortunately, we were soon able to make our way to Shanghai, a much more diverse and cosmopolitan city where western eating utensils were in good supply.
I mention China because of an ancient Chinese story. It tells of an old farmer who had an old horse for tilling his fields. One day the horse escaped into the hills and when all the farmer's neighbors sympathized with the old man over his bad luck, the farmer replied, "Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?"
A week later the horse returned with a herd of wild horses from the hills and this time the neighbors congratulated the farmer on his good luck. His reply was, "Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?"
Then, when the farmer's son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses, he fell off its back and broke his leg. Everyone thought this very bad luck. Not the farmer, whose only reaction was, "Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?"
Some weeks later the army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied youth they found there. When they saw the farmer's son with his broken leg they let him off. Now was that good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?(1)
Luck. Sometime ago, Christian therapist Wayne Oates wrote a book entitled Luck, A Secular Faith,(2) in which he claimed that modern people no longer believe in a purposeful, intervening, directing God. What we believe in is luck. Luck has become our way of explaining ourselves and what comes our way.
Do you remember Harold Kushner's phenomenally popular, When Bad Things Happen to Good People?(3) Rabbi Kushner says that in life, God does not WILL bad things to happen to people. When bad happens, it is the result of lousy luck. The world is a great spinning roulette wheel. When your number is up, it is up, for good or ill. Nothing is meant by either one. It is mostly a matter of chance.
Most folks (at least people of faith) are not willing to go quite that far, but they will go along for a bit of the ride. No doubt that accounts for the success of the gambling industry around the world. Regularly we hear about lottery prizes that reach astonishing figures, hundreds of millions, for one winner. And the lotteries continue to grow. Despite the ridiculous odds against winning (something on the order of getting struck by lightning...5,000 times), millions play them, all hoping for the chance to get something for nothing. States support lotteries as a way to finance schools and other public entities, though only a portion of the money goes for any good. Week after week intelligent citizens play numbers based on their wedding anniversary, their children's birthdays, or the ages of their dogs when they died. All very "scientific," don't you think?
Speaking of science, Paschal noted that while science shows that there is "probability," there is nothing in nature that could be called chance. Chance - luck - is only what appears when we observe circumstances at close range. But with observation over time, we discern probability. Flip a coin a hundred times, it will not be by luck that half the time it will come up heads and half it will come up tails. No doubt this is part of what was behind Einstein's statement, "I don't believe that God plays dice with the universe."
God and luck. Did you know that the word "luck" never appears anywhere in the scriptures? Odd, in a way, since it was a popular concept in the ancient world. Pagans were always ascribing things to the Fates, those women who sat at their spinning wheel in the heavens and, when their thread broke, so did the lives of some poor mortals here on earth. Our lives, said Homer, are mere playthings of the gods. It is all a matter of luck, fate, chance. And what can anybody do? Sounds like Rabbi Kushner.
Sometime back, the National Safety Council urged news organizations to stop speaking of "accidents" on our highways. Rather, they thought it more accurate to speak of "crashes." If you are doing ninety on Highway 278 and have a wreck, is this really an "accident?"
Perhaps that is one of the reasons why luck has become so popular - if "It was just bad luck," we are absolved of responsibility for our lives. If it is all up to good or bad luck, the Fates, well, why bother? Roll the dice and take your chances.
There are several stories in scripture that sound like they fit right in with that mindset. In Joshua 18, land distribution is determined by casting lots; in Nehemiah 11, they cast lots to see who would be the first settlers in Jerusalem after the exile; then there is the story in Acts 1 about the apostles casting lots - rolling the dice, drawing straws - to choose a successor to Judas. They all sound very much like a reliance on luck. But, in each case, in fact, it was just the opposite - the "gamblers" were counting on God making the divine will known through the way the lot would fall. These were not gambles at all, instead they were a demonstration of supreme faith, faith that God would intervene.
Of course, these are not the only stories in scripture that lead us to understand God's intimate involvement with our lives. From the story of creation in Genesis to the consummation in Revelation the message is clear. In fact, story after story says that, not only is God involved, God makes mid-course adjustments to bring things to a proper outcome.
The brief passage we heard earlier from the book of Genesis is the climax of one of those stories. It was called to my attention many years ago by that great old Methodist preacher, Clovis Chappell. He said that someday he was going to preach a sermon entitled "But God..." It would be based on the text in Genesis, chapter 50, as Joseph says to his brothers in venerable King James English, "But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good." Dr. Chappell said he wanted to count all the places in scripture where the phrase "but God" appeared and use them to teach divine providence, even in the face of monstrous malevolence. As far as I know, Dr. Chappell never did that research or preached that sermon, but, the idea was a good one, so I have followed up. In Dr. Chappell's King James Bible, the phrase "but God" appears 43 times. Over and over it comes as God responds to some failure or folly and instead works a blessed outcome.
In the Hebrew Bible, the story of Joseph is as good as any. By the time we encounter "but God," Joseph is nearing the end of a most fascinating life. As you recall from your Sunday School lessons, young Joey was his father's favorite son, a bitter enough pill for his brothers to swallow, but the boy did everything he could to rub their faces in it, and the result was that his fed-up siblings took matters into their own hands and sold him into slavery (and you thought YOU had a dysfunctional family).
The Midianites who bought the boy were on their way to Egypt where they would soon sell Joseph once more, this time to a man named Potiphar, the head of Pharaoh's security force. Joseph did well, under the circumstances, eventually being placed in charge of Potiphar's entire household, an incredible honor for a slave. But Potiphar's wife had her own ideas about honor - she tried to seduce the young man, and when he refused her advances, she yelled RAPE!!!
Now Joseph is in jail, once again the victim. But here again he prospers, gaining the respect of fellow prisoners and guards. Eventually two of the Pharaoh's servants find themselves behind the same bars where they all become friends, a scenario that (after a few dream interpretations) would eventually lead to Joseph's release.
To make a long story short, the Pharaoh had an eye for talent and made our Hebrew hero the Prime Minister of Egypt - from the jail house to the penthouse. Not bad for a bratty kid who had been sold into slavery by his brothers!
Now a famine settles on the Near East. Jacob tells his sons to go to Egypt to buy some grain. They do and in the process meet Joseph -- only they do not know it is Joseph. It happens twice. Finally, Joseph reveals his true identity. The brothers are shocked and rightly scared - PAYBACK time! But Joseph does not do that. In fact, he stuns them with these words:
And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, BUT GOD.(4)
The story goes on. The brothers go back to Canaan and tell their aged father that Joseph is still alive. He cannot believe it, but eventually they convince him to come to Egypt with them. He makes the trip and is reunited with the son he had given up for dead so many years ago. Then he meets the Pharaoh who offers to let Joseph's family settle in for as long as they like. The family moves to Egypt and lives in peace there for many years. Finally Jacob dies at the ripe old age of 147.
Now it is just Joseph and his brothers. Again they fear retribution - with Jacob gone, brother Joe will be free to take his revenge. So they tell Joseph, "Oh, by the way, before Dad died he told us to tell you to treat us kindly." Uh huh.
Listen again to Joseph's gracious response. These are the words of a man who understands the providence of God: "Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, BUT GOD intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives."
All the while his brothers thought they were doing Joseph in. But theirs' was not the only doing. God was working behind the scenes weaving even their evil into good purposes.
Can you think of other stories from scripture that demonstrate the same thing? Of course, you can. The most famous of all is the one we celebrate in Christian churches over and over and over again. We gather on the first day of the week for worship because we recall another first day of the week, another "BUT GOD" event. Listen to the way Peter describes it in his sermon in Jerusalem on Pentecost:
"[People] of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. BUT GOD raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.(5)
One more "BUT GOD" story. That trip we took to China. During our trip, we visited the capital city, Beijing. One day, a Sunday, our hosts took us to a beautiful local park where we met hundreds of Chinese locals playing board games, kicking soccer balls, doing Tai Chi exercises, folks playing music on whatever instruments they had brought. There was even a several hundred voice ad hoc choir and orchestra in the midst of a community sing. They noticed a small group of non-Asian faces so they struck up a number that they figured we could join in as well. It was "Jingle Bells." August. Ninety degrees. And we joined in with gusto:
Dashing through the snow,
In a one-horse open sleigh.
O'er the fields we go,
Laughing all the way.
Jingle Bells in China where Christmas is not a big holiday. In August. Ninety degrees.
Normally, my wife and I would have tried to find a church on a Sunday wherever we might be, but this being China, and no one in our group being at all fluent in Chinese, we knew that our options were limited, to say the least. So God spoke to us there in that park. China and the West have been at political odds for a long time, but you would never have known that by the reception we received that day. Smiling faces, outstretched hands, folks wanting to have their photographs taken with us. All of us, in our own languages, belting out "Jingle Bells" in the summer sun.
What came to mind was that quote frequently (but inaccurately) credited to St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary use words." Good thing that words were not necessary that day since we could never have understood each other's words anyway. The Gospel that DID come through that morning was the same one we had learned so many, many years ago.
Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white,
They are precious in his sight,
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
We had wanted to find a church for worship that Sunday morning. But God... One more "BUT GOD" story.
As you leave here from week to week, you know we do not wish you "Good luck." Rather, we try to remind you of God's providence and presence in your life. We say "Goodbye" - simple shorthand for "God be with you," or adieu in French or adios in Spanish, which as you language scholars well know are both "God be with you." Remember this if you remember nothing else about this day: as you go out into the world, even a world that appears to be in total disarray because of the Coronavirus, you do not go alone; you go with each other, even at an appropriate "social distance," and your God goes with you. Vaya con Dios.
1. Anthony de Mello, Sadhana: A Way to God: Christian Exercises in Eastern Form, (St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1979), 134 in Homiletics, J/S, 94, p. 5
2. Louisville, Ky. : Westminster John Knox Press, 1995
3. Boston, Mass. : G. K. Hall, 1981
4. Genesis 45:5-8a
5. Acts 2:22-24