Thursday, February 21, 2019

Claiming God's Plan

Why must some people look at a tragedy and explain it by appealing to God's will? I suppose I understand the human instinct. When we encounter something that doesn't fit within our worldview, we must either change our worldview or ignore the dissonance. If we believe that God is good and that God has control over everything, when a terrible disaster hits we must either change how we understand that God works in the world or ignore the inherent conflict by either rejecting any theological reflection on the matter or redefining what has happened. I remember when a parishioner explained to me that God had intended Hurricane Katrina to punish all of the evil sinners of New Orleans. When confronted by such an abhorrent claim, there wasn't much I could do but say how wrong I thought he was and move on. But Gene got me thinking: when are we able to say that something is God's will?

A happily married couple looks back on their life together and acknowledges that the "chance" encounter that brought them together sixty years earlier must have been God's plan for them. But what about the woman who filled in for a friend on a blind date and ended up marrying an abusive spouse? The man who overslept and missed his flight, which ended up crashing, is sure that God protected him, but what about the families of the victims of the crash? Was the same God denying them protection?

How do we make sense of it? We could claim that God isn't active in this world at all. It's a tidier position. That leads to no messy divine will problems...except in the absence that it produces. How do we understand prayer? Incarnation? Crucifixion and resurrection? What is our ultimate hope if God is merely watching what happens down here? On the other hand, we could claim that God is responsible for everything. If it happens, then it must be God's will--whether God caused it or allowed it to happen. Of course, that leads to terrible consequences that defy understanding. Maybe it's the lack of understand on our part that really matters, but I feel a need to find a middle ground.

On Sunday, the reading from Genesis begs us to consider those unanswerable questions. Joseph, reunited with his brothers, who had sold him into slavery, reveals his true identity to them and proclaims, "And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life...God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God." Joseph (or those who retell his story for us) makes a clear, linear connection between his brother's treachery and God's will. They intended it for evil, Joseph says later on after his father has died, but God intended it for good (Gen 50:20). All of that seems neat enough--a great story of providential intervention--but I think the authors of the biblical text want us to consider some other questions.

Joseph's time in Egypt led to the subjugation of the Egyptian people to Pharaoh. His "wisdom" in preparing for the famine resulted in exorbitant taxes for all the people. Yes, his plans have preserved the lives of many, but at what cost? Pharaoh ends up owning everything. Similarly, in Sunday's reading, we see Joseph's intention to move his family into Egypt: "You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children's children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there." A few generations later, however, the Israelites become slaves, mistreated and persecuted even unto death. Joseph isn't really able to provide for them and their children and their children's children--at least not forever. That's God's job. Yet we know that the central moment of salvation for the Hebrew people will come as a result when God's people are set free. It feels like the Genesis text wants us to ask whether all of that really was God's will--as simply as Joseph seems to think it is--or whether there's more to it than that.

I don't think Sunday's sermon will focus on this (or even mention it), but it's a topic worth considering. The biblical text we are given begs us to ask unanswerable questions. It legitimizes our  messy, conflicted pursuit of the truth. It gives us permission to not understand and to keep asking anyway.

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