Church Write-Up: Loving Enemies and God Picking Up the Pieces

Here is my Church Write-Up about this morning’s LCMS service.

Two of our texts were Genesis 45:3-8, 15 and Luke 6:27-38. Genesis 45:3-8, 15 is about Joseph revealing his identity to his brothers, who had sold him into slavery. Joseph reassures his brothers that this was part of God’s plan, to preserve the Israelites in the midst of famine. In Luke 6:27-38, Jesus exhorts people to love their enemies, to be merciful, and to give, not expecting anything in return.

A. The youth pastor talked with the kids about how Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt. If someone did something like that to you, he asked, would you want to do anything good for them down the road? One kid said “Yes,” and the youth pastor said, “Really? That’s good!” The other was hesitant, and the youth pastor replied, “Yeah, I understand.”

B. The pastor’s sermon revolved around the Genesis 45 text. He told four anecdotes. One was from when he was in high school, with some friends in the library. They were talking about a party that they had attended that weekend, and they were feeling guilty about some of the things that they did. They wondered if they were displeasing to God. One of the friends then asked why God would care so much about what they did. God is so big and has so many huge responsibilities running the universe, so why would God care about what they did at a party? This conversation has stayed with the pastor for forty-five years. I heard the pastor mention this comment in a previous sermon months ago, but this morning’s sermon set the context for that comment. In that previous sermon, the pastor cited that comment as an example of youthful immaturity: that teen questioned that God was concerned about our behavior, but the purpose of Lent is to remember that God indeed is concerned about what we do and how we are. In this morning’s sermon, the pastor cited that comment in another context: God is not just concerned about the big picture—-the galaxies, the nations, and the empires—-but about the small details of our everyday lives.

The second anecdote was about a young man who was struggling with things in life. He essentially expressed to the pastor Mackie’s conception of the problem of evil, only in his own words, and informed by his experience rather than a philosophy book: either God is not powerful enough to help him with his problems, or God is sufficiently powerful yet does not care enough to help.

The third anecdote was about a woman with brain cancer. She passed on, but she inspired people at that church with her faith.

The fourth anecdote was about airports. The pastor has just been on a trip to see his mother and grandchildren, and he had to go through airport security, taking off his belt and his watch, putting his computer and change through the procession, etc. He likened that to the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz: “they took this piece of me and threw it over there, and that piece of me and threw it over there!” A sign at the airport was entitled “recombobulation cenrer,” where people could put everything back together.

The pastor mentioned a song that kids learn: “My God is so great, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing that God cannot do.” It focuses on God being great and in charge of the big picture (“the mountains are his, the rivers are his, the sun in the sky is his too, ooh, ooh”). But the song ends with “and you, and you, and you, and you.” God is concerned about each individual.

The pastor mentioned details about the Joseph story. Joseph was cast into prison for something he did not do. In those days, prisons were essentially dark holes where prisoners stayed; sometimes they were fed, sometimes not. Not much, if any, hope was there.

The pastor also said that God did not cause Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery, or Potiphar’s wife to falsely accuse him, but God was involved in the intricate details of Joseph’s dysfunctional family and experiences, picking up the pieces. The pastor made a similar point at Wednesday’s Bible study: God did not cause the famine in Egypt, but God worked good in the midst of it. I asked the pastor about verses that seem to suggest that God did cause the famine (Genesis 41:25, 28, 32). Looking now at the Genesis 45 reading, I also question the view that God in the story did not cause Joseph’s brothers to sell him. In Genesis 45:5, 7-8, Joseph essentially says that God was the one who sent Joseph into Egypt. And how did Joseph get to Egypt? His brothers sold him.

The pastor’s interpretation is understandable from a pastoral perspective. Regarding that young man in the second anecdote, he had enough of a struggle accepting God’s apparent inactivity in the midst of his suffering. What would he think if he heard that God actually caused his sufferings? I would have a difficult time telling anyone that. I remember reading Randy Alcorn’s mammoth tome on suffering a while back, and Alcorn cited Exodus 4:11, in which God said to Moses: “Who hath made man’s mouth? or who maketh the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? have not I the LORD?” (KJV). Alcorn interpreted that to mean that God actually makes people with these disabilities, but God does so for God’s righteous purposes.

C. The Sunday School class engaged the two texts. Here were items that stood out to me:

—-After Joseph revealed his identity to their brothers, he asked them if his father was still alive. They then talked. They caught up. A lot of times, our differences make us into enemies, but we have more in common than we have differences. Joseph and his brothers had family in common.

—-We are to give, even if what goes around does not necessarily come around in this life. God wants us to be different from other people, who just love those who love them, but the reason for this is that God himself is different: God is merciful. God cannot help himself. It is who God is. The Greek word for mercy in the Luke 6 text refers to a visceral pity that comes from the core of one’s being, and that is what God has and what we should have. We do not do that to earn God’s favor, but due to what God already has done through the resurrection of Christ; another of our texts was I Corinthians 15, a chapter about Jesus’s resurrection. In light of that, we hear what Jesus says about how we should be.

—-The teacher shared three reasons for showing mercy that he found in a commentary. First, we extend the mercy of God to those who may not receive it otherwise. I could identity with that: this world can be an unforgiving place! Second, we deepen our own understanding, appreciation, and experience of God’s mercy: when we show mercy to those who do not deserve it, we remember God, who loves us even when we do not deserve it. Third, showing mercy serves as a model to the Christian community as to how it should be. Although we should show mercy, we should also make clear when something is wrong.

—-Back then, communities tended to take on the characteristics of their leader. God wants God’s community to take on God’s merciful and gracious characteristics.

—-The class was getting into definitions. Mercy is not giving people whatever bad that they deserve. Grace is giving people good that they do not deserve. Then we got into whether one can have pity or empathy without love, or mercy without love. People seemed to say “yes” to that. When I am empathetic, though, I see that as love; at least it is preferable to hating someone.

—-The teacher commented on Luke 6:38. The image there is of a merchant pressing down the grain in a customer’s container so he can fill it with more grain for the customer, up to the brim, and whatever spills over can be put into the customer’s apron so he or she can take that home. The picture here is one of abundance. The teacher may have been suggesting that this is how God is. In a sense, the text has that kind of message: God is merciful, and we should be like God by lavishing love and mercy onto others, even if they do not deserve it, repay it, or reciprocate. At the same time, v. 38 does seem to present a qualification: the measure that we give is the measure that we get back. Does that conflict with the abundance that v. 38 depicts, since we often give so sparingly, even at our peak?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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