Proper 14A, Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 7, 2011

Reading 1: Reading 2:Reading 3:Reading 4:
Genesis 37:1-4. 12-28Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45bRomans 10:5-15Mark 14:22-33

By Bruce G. Epperly

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead asserts that God’s vision or aim for any moment of our lives is “the best for that impasse.” Even if the best is not always good, considering ideal options, it may be the most positive option given our context and circumstances. This appears to be the case in the story of Joseph and his brothers. Jealous of his father Jacob’s obvious favoritism, they conspire to kill the dreamer. Their knives are sharpened; but they spare him when Reuben intercedes presenting an unpleasant but preferable alternative – throw him in the pit.

Reuben no doubt knew that a plea for mercy would go unheeded, and might even lead to his own death. His option is not good, but it creates the possibility that his brother might survive rather than perish. Another option comes along – slightly better than Rueben’s suggestion but no holiday for Joseph either. When a group of traders comes along, the brothers sell Joseph into slavery, and make a profit out of the deal! Jacob survives, and while involuntary servitude is not good, it opens the door to another set of possibilities, the sale of Joseph to Potiphar, an official in Pharoah’s guard. In the surprising movements of providence, Potiphar notices Joseph’s gifts, eventually leading to Joseph’s rise to governmental leadership.

Process theology proclaims that God is present in every situation, providing a wealth of possibilities joining sustaining order with transformational novelty. God’s vision for us, and the world, is always concrete – for just a time as this – and not for an abstract situation. God’s vision moves us forward and seeks beauty everywhere, but the divine quest emerges from the real world of imperfect and ambivalent human beings. Accordingly, Joseph’s proclamation to his brothers: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as God is doing today.” (Genesis 50:20) In the meanderings of divine call and human response, Joseph’s brothers’ actions become the stepping stone to deliverance of Joseph’s people.

Providence gently and persistently moves through our lives, seeking the best for us giving our situation and our particular local and global context. Providence does not eliminate freedom, but works within the choices we make, helping us to make more creative choices in the future. Working within an imperfect world, God’s aim is toward maximal freedom, creativity, and beauty. This is good news for many of us – individuals and congregations – who see ourselves at “dead ends.” Within the limitations of life, God is providing visions of a future and hope – these will not emerge without our efforts, but as we attend to God’s vision, we will move ahead one step at a time toward a better future for us and the world.

Providence is always contextual. When we are open to divine guidance, God is able to be more active in our lives. Turning away from God limits God’s guidance and effectiveness in our lives. Still, God continues to offer us both possibility and the energy to achieve divine possibility regardless of our life situation and previous choices. God never gives up!

Psalm 105 reveals the centrality of praise in the life of faith. The Psalmist gratefully proclaims God’s fidelity and deliverance throughout the history of Israel. Just as God protected Joseph, turning evil into good, God continues to advance the cause of God’s chosen ones. Of course, few of us today see ourselves as “chosen” and see our faith as protecting us from life’s ills. Still, we need to reflect on the importance of praise and gratitude in the life of faith. Praise awakens us to the wonders of life and the grandeur of the universe. “How great thou art!” is an appropriate response to the photographs taken by the Hubble telescope, on the macro level, and images of our immune system, on the micro level. Gratitude connects us with realities and persons that sustain us personally, corporately, and as a planet.

Romans 10:5-10 speaks of God’s blessing as “near” to all of us. God’s grace calls for a whole person response, embracing heart as well as mind. Some are oriented toward heart faith, others toward mind faith; both receive God’s blessing. The Romans passage invites us to reflect on the many ways people respond to God’s grace. In light of Romans’ holistic approach to faith, we Christians might take seriously the yoga tradition of Hinduism – people can experience God primarily through mind, heart, hands, and embodiment. In the same way, there are many Christian yogas or pathways to God – some focus on doctrine, others on action and justice-seeking; some are incarnational, others emotional. Varieties of spiritual experience and practice enrich congregational and denominational life.

Paul’s Epistle to the Romans sees salvation as encompassing all people. Everyone is in God’s care, but we need to be awakened to grace, and this is our calling in the church – to share good news that transforms human beings, personally and corporately. God’s generosity calls us to generously share God’s grace with one another. In the spirit of the Genesis reading, our assent to God’s call opens new possibilities for God’s action in our lives and communities.

The passage from Matthew follows on the Matthew’s narrative of the feeding of the five thousand. After a long day of preaching – feeding people in body, mind, and spirit – Jesus goes to a deserted place to pray. Spiritual leadership involves the integration of action and contemplation, and extroversion and introversion. Jesus’ public ministry is balanced by time away for prayer and rest. This rhythm cannot be underestimated in achieving faithful excellence in ministry, whether we are laypersons or clergy. [For more on the interplay of prayer and action in ministry see Bruce Epperly, Starting with Spirit: Nurturing Your Pastoral Leadership (Alban); Bruce and Katherine Epperly, Tending to the Holy: The Practice of Presence of God in Ministry (Alban), The Four Seasons of Ministry: Gathering a Harvest of Righteousness (Alban), and Feeding the Fire: Avoiding Clergy Burnout (Pilgrim)]

Following his time of contemplation, Jesus reunites with his disciples. Confusing him with a ghost, the disciples are terrified. In response, Jesus reassures them with words familiar to them, “Do not be afraid.” Jesus’ comforting words inspire Peter to jump out of the boat, attempting to emulate his teacher. As long as he keeps his eyes on Jesus, Peter is able to do the miraculous – walking on the water. But, when Peter loses focus, concentrating on the waves rather than the source of hope, he sinks.

Peter’s experience is a model for us. It is easy for us to lose focus amid our current economic situation. Many persons and congregations anxiously face the future. Assuming their best days are behind them, and that we will never recover spiritually or economically, they are governed by feelings of fear and depression and acting as if God is not providentially present in our world. The gospel suggests that focusing on Jesus amid the storms of life transforms our ways of looking at the world and opens us to bursts of divine energy and insight.

The astute preacher might invite her or his congregants to consider practices that help us focus on God’s presence amid the storms of life. Inviting his congregants to “lived theology,” the preacher can cite times and places where faith in God has led to personal and communal transformation. This is not “Pollyanna” thinking or denial but opening to a deeper realism that includes both the bottom line and the realities of scarcity and God’s abundant and ever-flowing energy and inspiration.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, healing companion, retreat leader and lecturer, and author of nineteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living; God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus; and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry. He has taught at Georgetown University, Wesley Theological Seminary, Claremont School of Theology, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is currently theologian in residence at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His most recent book is Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed. He can be reached for lectures, seminars, and retreats at