A sermon preached on
The Tenth Sunday After Trinity (The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost)
at The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete,
August 16, 2020 11:00 am.
“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.”
An Old Story from China
There was a farmer whose horse ran away. That evening the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck. He said, “Maybe.”
The next day the horse returned, but brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came exclaiming at his good fortune. He said, “Maybe.”
And then, the following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy for the misfortune. He said, “Maybe.”
The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to seize young men for the army, but because of the broken leg the farmer’s son was rejected. When the neighbors came in to say how fortunately everything had turned out, he said, “May be.”
The point of the story is that we do not always immediately understand the meaning of events. What we think of as bad luck or good fortune at the time may, in retrospect be seen quite differently. It takes time – often a long time – for the true significance to become clear. This does not necessarily diminish the initial significance of the event – a moment of joy is still wonderful, and a tragedy is still remembered as full of suffering, but it does mean that there are layers of meaning, which are frequently in tension with each other. Events may have more than one meaning.
With the story from Genesis this morning we hear of one of those multi-layered events.
- Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers. This seems to be an event of misfortune. Well, no.
- We then we hear that Joseph was sent to Egypt by God to save the children of Israel from a devastating famine. So, it all is for the good, right? Well, no.
- Because then we hear in Exodus that the descendants of Joseph and his brothers are enslaved by Pharaoh. So, it really wasn’t a good thing, right? Well, no.
- In Exodus we hear how God liberates Israel through Moses, who leads them to Sinai to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. So that’s a good thing, right? Well, maybe.
- The people in the desert rebel against Moses and God. They are condemned to spend forty years in Sinai. That’s not so good, right? Well, maybe.
- The generation raised in the desert are primed to enter into the Promised Land under Joshua, and to establish the worship of God as ordained at Sinai. This is finally a good thing, right? Well, sort of.
- The people arrive in Canaan, but start worshiping idols and forgetting the Torah. So, back to an unfortunate situation, yes?
- Except God raises up judges – both male and female – to lead the people in time of crisis. So it all it good, right? Well, no.
- The people of Israel are restless and they demand a king, so that they are like other nations. God says that he is their king, and they have no need of a human ruler like other nations. So, the people and God are at an impasse, yes? Well, no.
- God gives way and allows them to have Saul as a king.
Our Own Lives
We do not always see what is going on. People sometimes talk about the fog of war. If we are honest, there is a certain fogginess to history, too, and there is a fogginess to our lives. Sometimes there appears to be scripts and paths, especially when we are young, but as we live our lives we realise that we are not in a movie or a situation comedy. There is no script, and real people are invariable more complex than the characters in a television program. Our lives have meaning, but not necessarily the meaning we think they have, and especially not that imposed from outside. We are always making decisions on the basis of limited information, we cannot foresee the future with certainty, and we do not necessarily understand the consequences of our actions.
So perhaps we get our A level scores, and they do not let us get into the university or college we want. Nevertheless, when we go to the one that takes us, and we may find ourselves still doing brilliantly, or meeting people that will be with us through the course of our lives.
Harry S Truman could not afford to go to university after graduating from high school in 1901, and he was rejected by West Point because of poor eyesight. From 1906 to 1917 he worked on the family farm, hard work for a meagre income. He did join the Missouri National Guard and served in its artillery from 1905 until 1911. When the United States entered the Great War Truman rejoined, and because of his experience he was commissioned an officer and rapidly advanced to captain; the leadership experience he gained from his time in France in 1918 laid the foundation for his political career, one which eventually led to the US Senate and the White House.
The Death of Jesus
The death of Jesus, which we commemorate every Sunday, is one of those multi-level events whose meaning took time to emerge. Jesus was arrested, tortured, and crucified. On the face of it, this is an undeniable bad thing. No one should be falsely arrested, cruelly tortured, or horribly executed. But, in the light of the resurrection, his disciples interpreted his death as more than a tragedy.
- It was a sign of solidarity, that God was on the side of the poor and the oppressed, and shared in their sufferings.
- It was a expression of God’s love, that he would not withhold anything from us, not even divine life itself.
- It was an act of obedience by Jesus, for in being true to the sacrificial love of God, Jesus poured himself out even to death, even death on a cross.
- It was a sacrifice, a death on behalf of all of us, in which we are united with Jesus in his death and resurrection.
- It is an overcoming of evil and death, for those powers cannot contain the divine, which overflows them, and leads to God raising Jesus.
- It is a transformation, the beginning of a new heaven and a new earth, in which we die to the sinfulness of the world and rise to the glory of God.
- His followers were likewise put to death for witnessing to his death, in speaking truth to power. Their deaths were terrible. But the blood of the martyrs becomes the seed of the church – a ultimate witness that is a good thing.
Thus, at the centre of our Sunday worship is the tension between calamity and blessing, horror and redemption, death and resurrection.
Lives of Calamity and Fortune
In the gospel today Jesus is confronted by the Canaanite woman – a Syrian, not a Jew. She demands that Jesus helps her, and the disciples find her pleading annoying. Jesus, very conservatively and conventionally, says, ““I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel . . . It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The descendants of Jacob here are the children, and the Syrians are outside human norms, to be thought of as dogs. She comes back at him though, and says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Did she shame Jesus? Whatever the case, Jesus stepped outside of the norms of his time – speaking to a foreigner and a woman – and states, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”The woman’s daughter is then healed. What appears to be an unfortunate encounter – Jesus and an annoying foreign woman – becomes a moment of grace, prefiguring the grace extended to all of us who are not of Jewish descent. Parabolically, we are the Canaanite woman, embarrassing the disciples. But, by God’s grace we are treated as worthy to gather up the crumbs under the table, and so much more.
So as we reflect on Joseph – by whose misfortunes the people of Israel were saved, may we keep in mind Jesus, through whose suffering the whole world is redeemed. As we look back on our lives and our journeys in faith, may we pause and say, “Maybe”, and wait to see the divine exposed in the tumults of time.
Source of the Old Chinese Story
I first heard this story in oral form on a ferry between Swartz Bay and Pender Island, in British Columbia; I cannot remember who told it to me. More recently, my friend John Thatamanil, posted this story on Facebook, asking his learned colleagues for the source; John is an Associate Professor of Theology & World Religions at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Hogyi Wang, a student at Union, identified it as a story from the Daoist tradition, from the text known as Huainanzi. The story became known in the English speaking world after Alan Watts repeated it in his book Tao: The Watercourse Way (1975). The original goes like this:
As for the revolutions and the mutual generation of calamity and good fortune, their alterations are difficult to perceive. At the near frontier there was a [family of] skilled diviners, whose horse suddenly became lost among the Hu [people]. Everyone consoled them. The father said, “This will quickly turn to good fortune!” After several months the horse returned with a fine Hu steed. Everyone congratulated them. The father said, “This will quickly turn to calamity!” The house was [now] replete with good horses; the son loved to ride, [but] he fell and broke his leg. Everyone consoled them. The father said, “This will quickly turn to good fortune!”After one year, the Hu people entered the frontier in force; the able and strong all stretched their bowstrings and fought. Among the people of the near frontier, nine out of ten died. It was only because of lameness that father and son protected each other. Thus,
good fortune becoming calamity,
calamity becoming good fortune,
their transformations are limitless,
so profound they cannot be fathomed.
From The Huainanzi: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Government in Early Han China, by Liu An, King of Huainan, translated and edited by John S. Major, Sarah A. Queen, Andrew Seth Meyer, and Harold D. Roth, with additional contributions by Michael Puett and Judson Murray (New York NY: Columbia University Press, 2010), pp. 728-729 [“Among Others” 18.7].